Read an Excerpt
By John Ringo
Baen BooksISBN: 0-7434-8833-4
Chapter OneThe horseman reined in at a side road and looked at the fields stretching to the east.
The rider was massively built, but he sat the war-horse lightly despite his armor. He was wearing a gray cloak fastened with a bronze brooch worked in the figure of an eagle, loricated plate-segmented armor that was overlapped like the plates on a centipede's back-steel greaves and bracers and a kilt made of straps of leather with iron plates riveted on the outside. Tied to the right side of his saddle was a large helmet with a narrow T slit in the front while on the left was a large wooden shield with iron rim and a boss worked in the figure of a stooping eagle. The armor, the bracers, the helmet and the shield were nicked and battered but well polished and maintained.
His right hand rested loosely on his leg while the hook and clamp that substituted for a left hand held his reins. The device was decidedly out of character considering the tech base of the rest of his equipment; it was a complex curved prosthetic clamp with a sharpened inner blade. It looked as if it were made for cutting small limbs and would probably make opening bottles a treat. There was a small scar under his right eye and more scars could be seen scoring the skin of his right arm wherever the bracers didn't cover.
Also tied to the saddle were a short sword in a scabbard and a large bow case. On the rear of the saddle there was a large pack, a blanket roll, a quiver of arrows and a bag of feed for the horse. Despite the size of the rider and the weight of the equipment, the horse bore the load with no sense of worry. It stamped after a moment, but that seemed more impatience than fatigue. The rider shushed at it and the horse settled down without another shiver.
The rider, his panoply and the horse were all covered in a thick layer of dust.
Despite the battered armor and weather-beaten look, the rider was a young man, good looking in a hard-faced way with short black hair and green eyes. It was hard to tell from his expression but he had just passed his nineteenth year. And a good bit of the fields he was looking at were his.
They were being harvested in a late autumn Indian summer with the skies blue and warm above. On the far side of the large field two men were managing the take from a combination harvester. One drove the harvester while the other drove a wagon that was capturing the grain. The grain was short and as the ox-drawn harvester passed it left behind stubble and straw that was laid out in rows for baling.
The rider paused, indecisively, then turned his horse into the field. The near end of the field hadn't been harvested yet and the horse whickered at him until he paused to let it strip a mouthful of the grain.
"Go ahead, Diablo," the young man said, humorously. "Mike shouldn't begrudge it."
The harvester looked up at a shout from the man driving the wagon and pulled the oxen to a stop. They nuzzled at the grain but since their mouths were covered by feed bags they couldn't emulate the horse. He said something to the man on the wagon then climbed down off the harvester and walked across the fields towards the rider. At that the rider pulled the horse's head up with a word and tapped him into an easy trot. When he approached the other man he reined in and smiled.
"'I will feast my horse on the standing grain,' " he said, then dismounted, hooking his reins onto the saddle to tell the horse to stay.
"Herzer," the harvester said with a smile, holding out his hand. "It's good to see you, man."
"Good to see you, Mike," the young man replied, clasping his friend's forearm and gesturing with his hook at the fields. "Damn, you've been working hard."
"Yeah, but it's paying off," Mike said, looking at his friend and shaking his head. "You look tired."
"I am," Herzer admitted. "And I'm glad to be home. But I'm due for a tour at the Academy, so maybe I can chill there for a while."
"What do you have to learn?" Mike asked.
"What do you have to learn about farming?" Herzer replied.
"Yeah, same here. But Edmund's talking about an instructor position. I figure I'll be doing some research at the same time. Time to brush up on my ancient Greek."
"Makes sense," Mike said, wiping at his brow. "What are we doing talking about this out here? Let's go up to the house."
"What about the field?" Herzer asked.
"It'll keep," Mike said. "The rain's supposed to hold off for another couple of days and this is the last one I have to cut. I saved mine for last."
"Yours?" Herzer asked, waving at the horse to follow as they walked back towards the reaper.
"I could scratch up enough capital to float a loan for the reaper," Mike said. "I've been harvesting half the fields in the valley the last month. And, yes, this is actually your field."
"That wasn't what I meant and you know it," Herzer said with a grin. "I wouldn't know the first damned thing about farming this place."
"Well, I'm learning," Mike admitted. "I'm learning every day."
The helper had been watering and feeding the oxen during the break and he nodded at Mike and Herzer as they walked up.
"Harry, this is Herzer Herrick," Mike said. "Herzer this is Harry Wilson. He's got a small farm down the river."
"I've heard of you," Harry replied, wiping his hand and shaking Herzer's.
"I'm taking Herzer up to the house. Go ahead and use the basket on the reaper, then cross-fill. I'll be back in a while."
"Okay," Harry said, getting on the reaper and clucking the oxen into motion.
"Slower that way, but it'll get some of the field done," Mike said.
"You want a ride up to the house?" Herzer asked, gesturing at the horse.
"I can walk," Mike replied gruffly.
They strode up the side road towards a distant hill, passing through a screen of trees that was apparently kept as a windbreak. On both sides of the road, before and after the trees, there were fields. Some of them were ready for harvesting, in grain and corn, others had plants that were not quite ready for harvest and a few were apparently fallow. The latter were covered in an odd golden plant that looked like a weed.
"Cover clover," Mike said at a gesture from Herzer. "Very good for fixing nitrogen and it forms a 'standing hay' that horses and cattle can eat in the winter." He gestured to one of the fields where low bushes were covered in purple-green berries. "Olive bushes. I'm hoping to get a good crop of olives off them."
"I thought olives grew on trees," Herzer said, fingering the eagle emblem at his throat. In the left talon it held a bundle of arrows and in the right an olive branch. The eagle's screaming beak was pointed to the left.
"They do. And the trees take decades, centuries really, to grow to maturity," Mike said with a shrug. "These grow in a season and you can get more olives per acre than with trees."
"Seems like cheating," Herzer grumbled. "You know why the olive is the symbol of peace?"
"Because it takes so long for the trees to grow. If you have olive trees it shows that armies haven't fought over the land in a long time. Take away the long maturity and what does it mean? Nada."
"Great, but I'm getting fifty chits a barrel for mature olives," Mike said, with apparent grumpiness. "And I can get two crops a year off the bushes. Even with the cost of field hands and preparation I'm getting ten- or elevenfold profits per season. So you can take your philosophical objections and stuff them."
Herzer laughed and pointed to a group of trees on the back side of the olive field. They were short and had broad glossy leaves that were a dark, rich green.
"Rubber plants," Mike replied. "I'm trying them out. They're supposed to be freeze resistant and fast growing. They grow fast, that's for sure, but this is the first winter they've been out so we'll see how they do."
There was more. Growing fruit and nut orchards, stands of hay, partially cleared fields with cattle on them. Herzer pointed to the latter in question.
"I got together with some other farmers and we rounded up more ferals last year," Mike said as they passed the last field. "That's where I got the oxen, too. And you've never lived until you've tried to turn a feral bull into a plow-ox."
Herzer laughed again as they came in sight of the house. It was a low, log structure, rough in appearance but sturdy and well made. The barn to the side of it was much larger and made of a combination of logs and sawn wood. There were two or three other outbuildings as well.
"Leave it to you to have a better barn than you do a house," Herzer chuckled.
"That's what Courtney keeps saying," Mike replied. "But we're not made of money."
The woman in question came out the door as Herzer was loosening Diablo's saddle. She was a short, buxom woman with fiery red hair and an open, smiling face. Having watched her negotiate, Herzer was well aware that that heart-shaped face masked a mind like a razor, but he was fairly sure the smile in this case was genuine.
"Herzer," she yelled, pulling her skirts away from the child at her side and running to the hitching post. "Where did you come from?"
"Harzburg," he said, picking her up and kissing her on the cheek. As he did he noticed a decided roundness to her abdomen. "Got another one in the oven?"
"Yes," she said with a tone of asperity. "This will make three."
"Three?" he asked then nodded. "I hadn't realized I'd been gone that long."
"Little Daneh is in the crib," she said, gesturing at the child that was still hiding by the door. "Mikey, come here. This is our friend Herzer."
The boy shook his head and then, as her face clouded up, darted in through the door.
"I doubt he's used to strangers in armor at his door," Herzer said then frowned. "I hope he doesn't get familiar with strangers in armor at his door."
"Trouble?" Mike asked.
"Not down here that I've heard," Herzer said. He finished loosening Diablo's saddle and lifted all the gear off, then led the horse to the trough and tied him off. "That was why I was up in Harzburg. Tarson had been taken over by a band of brigands, for want of a better term. They had been raiding Harzburg and the city fathers requested federal help. They got me."
"That must have been a pleasure for them," Mike said with a chuckle.
"Yeah, they'd requested a century of Blood Lords, as if we have a century of trained Blood Lords to send. And they had a militia but they'd never founded a local Blood Lord chapter. Or even sent anyone to the Academy. So I got to go whip them into shape." Herzer laid his saddle, tack and blanket on a railing, then grabbed the rest with his hook and slung it over his shoulder. "Lead on, Macduff!"
"How'd it go?" Courtney asked as they went in the house. She brought over a flagon and set it on the table, then laid out cold pork, cheese and bread.
"Thank you," Herzer said, taking a slice of the cheese. It was sharp and tangy and went well with a slice of the cold pork. "I'd thought about eating on the road but I figured I'd stop by and you might be willing to feed me something other than monkey on a stick."
"Not a problem." She smiled, nibbling at the cheese herself. "And I repeat, how'd it go?"
"Well, it was a little sticky to start," Herzer admitted. "They'd expected someone... older."
Mike chuckled and shook his head. "You've got the silver sword and the laurel of valor."
"Which meant just about nothing to most of them," Herzer said around a mouthful of cheese and bread. "So I just worked at it until they realized they could do it my way or die. I made it pretty clear I didn't care which. The Tarsons finally attacked the town, where we wiped out most of their fighters, then more or less walked in and took Tarson over. The leader of them had set up a 'citadel' made of a free- standing stockade and a couple of log blockhouses. They burned quite nicely with the application of a little tallow and brush." He frowned at the memory, then shook his head.
"You make it sound easy," Mike said.
"Easy. Yeah. Only took me a year and a half." Herzer shook his head again and took another bite of the pork. "Nice. So what's been happening around here?"
"It's been quiet, thank God," Courtney replied. "We had a petroleum prospecting party through here."
"I've heard about that," Herzer said. "They sold some processed product to the Academy and we've been experimenting with it."
"Doing what?" Courtney asked.
"Well, it burns a treat," Herzer said, grimly. "Useful if we can figure out a way to get the burning stuff over there where the bad guys are," he continued, pointing in a random direction. "There's a device called a flamethrower that we're working on. If we perfect it we're going to have to figure out a new way to fight because it's going to make tight formations suicidal, especially wearing armor."
"Ouch!" Courtney said. She shook her head and changed the subject. "The town's pretty much stopped growing. Hotrum's Ferry has been drawing off a lot of people. We're starting to sell a lot of produce down the river."
"Getting good prices for it, too," Mike said. "They can ship it up river to the dwarf mines from there more easily than we can truck it from Raven's Mill."
"I hope they've got decent defenses," Herzer said. "Paul's going to make a grab for Norau sooner or later."
"Well, that's their beef," Mike replied. "Were the Tarson brigands working for Paul?"
"We never were sure," Herzer replied. "If I had to guess I'd say yes. Paul and Chansa have got their fingers in a lot of the pies that are causing us trouble."
"But it's settled now?" Courtney asked.
"As far as I can tell." Herzer shrugged. "The people of Tarson are certainly on the side of light. Harzburg... you can burn the place to the ground for all I give a damn."
"So are you staying the night?" she pressed.
"No, unfortunately," the soldier said with a sigh. "My orders were to report 'without delay.' So I'm going to have to head into town pretty soon. But I figured I could take enough time to stop by and have some real food at least." He grinned and carved off another slice of the pork. "You're both looking good. The farm is looking good. I'm glad." He chewed on the pork with a thoughtful and sad expression for a moment, then smiled again. "Life could be a hell of a lot worse."
"Herzer, tell Duke Edmund that he'd better let you get some rest or he'll be talking to me," Courtney said dangerously. "And you had better take it, Herzer Herrick."
"I will," Herzer replied, looking around at the low room.
Excerpted from Emerald Sea by John Ringo Excerpted by permission.
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