Fred’s Dilemma takes us forward in the Princelings saga, into the times of book 9. It’s a 1300-word capsule of life at Castle Marsh. I hope you enjoy it. It reminds me that I need to do some more pictures of Castle Marsh, now that so many more people are living there.
Fred was leaning on his hands, gazing from the window. Although he could see the washed-out yellow of the reeds stretching off into the distance, his mind saw green grass, felled trees, and busy people harvesting. It seemed to be the only way he could make sure there was enough food to go round. Even so, it was hard to keep the new folk from eating their fill all the time, since that would leave less hay to see them through the winter. He wondered how the stored roots were faring.
He sighed again. It seemed to be something he did a great deal these days.
The question had been raised the night before. Should they turn people away? Was enough enough? How many was too many?
It was one more problem that a king had to address, even a king who ruled democratically, which was how Fred termed it. His people discussed and debated, and even, on some occasions, voted on an issue everybody felt important. That time, the vote had gone to continuing to take in new people. The arrangement his forum had decided on was to send people off to one of the new communities at the edge of the forest only once they’d been in the castle for a few months, so they had time to adjust to Castle Marsh ways. “And after Haggis has had time to check them out,” muttered people.
Just thinking about that discussion made Fred sigh. Yes, people had to be checked out. He was sure most of them were genuine travellers, anxious to find a new home. The rumour that Castle Marsh accepted everyone, and treated them well, enabling them to settle in and be part of a community, was exactly what he hoped he could provide. The problem was, that brought too many people for their small resources. And there were one or two who expected to get something for nothing. Haggis, once a sergeant in the army, now Fred’s relied-on security advisor, had a good eye for the ne’er-do-wells.
The surprising thing had been the solution to that problem. The former pirates, now known as the Rocs, came and took them to their castle far to the south. They spun a great yarn about what the drop-outs would get from a different life with them. Adventure, riches, and a good life. The Rocs still sailed, but their pirating days were behind them. They needed able-bodied youngsters to man the rigging and do the all tasks about a ship. Fred smiled to himself when he heard a few of his youngsters complain about how hard it was at Castle Marsh. Offering to send them to Roc always brought cries of how much they enjoyed their reed-cutting work-parties.
Most of the new working groups were involved in food in some way. It was his constant pre-occupation. Fortunately he had a good number of farmers who had been driven off their lands in the north. They now ran farms in various parts of what used to be marsh. After draining them a little, and building them up with composted waste material, they proved to be good fertile grounds, capable of producing more than two crops a year, if carefully co-ordinated with the others so that one just grew hay. ‘Crop rotation’ was the term he’d coined. Farmer Toby had presented a paper on it at the last Castle Marsh Symposium.
And now George wanted to cut a huge channel through one of the best bits of land, in order to accommodate his latest model of flying boat.
George had given plenty of reasons. It was just… was the flying boat project more important than food?
Fred realised he simply had to ask the question. It had to be debated. Could they debate it without revealing to everyone else why he and George (and Prince Lupin of Buckmore) felt it was so important?
He stood up, shook himself to loosen up his muscles, something he seemed to be doing more often lately, and went down to the aircraft workshop to find George.
He didn’t get far.
“Have you heard?” George scurried in through the door from the courtyard, catching Fred as he stepped from the main staircase.
“An accident at Buckmore!” George waved a yellow piece of paper, his face crumpled up in pain. “Message just in. ‘Mark 4 engine failed on final approach. Moxy and Allison killed.’”
“Moxy and Allison?”
“Pippin’s deputies. Allison was just set to get her test pilot’s wings. Desperately sad. Such talented young people. Awful!”
“Sir! Oh, sirs!” A young person ran in, waving another yellow slip, which he handed to George.
“Ah,” he said, scanning the paper as he unrolled it. “Hm. Mmm. Oh dear. Oh, no.” He looked at his brother. “Report from Pippin. Apart from technical stuff, he was supposed to pilot this today but he had toothache, so Moxy went. Feels awful.”
“The tooth, or..”
“Oh, both I expect. Can’t fly with toothache, you see, the pressure changes make it hell. Now he’s in hell because of the guilt. Must send him a message, ‘one of those things,’ etc.”
“Yes.” Fred paused, watching his brother read the rest of his message. “George… this mark 4 engine thing, how important is it?”
“Well, everything’s important, whether it works or not. We’re learning so much so fast. Sometimes we have to learn from things that don’t work.”
“I know. All knowledge is valuable. But… we’ve had a lot of accidents lately. People are saying we shouldn’t be flying at all.”
“I can’t see any other way—“
“—I know, but…” he paused as a group of people came past, nodding at him respectfully. He nodded back, and smiled at them. Calm. Always calm.
“I’ve been thinking about this new channel. We can’t put it through the farms. We need all the food we can get. We’re overburdened with newcomers, we can’t have people starving, and I reckon people are going to keep coming to us because we’re really the only castle that’s planning ahead enough.”
“Fortune and Dimerie are too.”
“Yes, but they’re a long way away. Everyone from the east side of the Realms is fleeing to us, it seems.”
George frowned. “Why are they still leaving?”
“I don’t know. But until they stop, I don’t think you can build that channel. Not there, at any rate.”
“But, I’ve given you all the arguments for it!”
“Yes, and they are all sound. But unless I act like an old-fashioned king and just ride roughshod over everyone, we have to debate it. And unless people know and accept the reason we’re pushing ahead on long-distance air transport, we won’t persuade them.”
“And you don’t think we can tell them why.”
George looked at the messages in his hands. “Don’t tell me Moxy and Allison and the others have died for nothing.” His lips quavered as he spoke.
Fred patted his shoulder. “Of course not. They died for a cause, and the advancement of science, and a commitment we made to someone in return for our quality of life. They just didn’t know about the last bit.”
“So, no channel.”
“Not unless you can put it somewhere else. It’s bad enough having to choose between food and trees.”
“You’d really like all the marsh drained and put to food use.”
“That’s what Hunston’s doing over at Wash.” Fred had devised the system with the king at Castle Wash two years ago.
“If only more people would stay with him rather than come to us.”
“Yes, if only. I think your exploits are responsible for that.” Fred smiled, which made George smile too.
“So if I stop flying, fewer people come and eat our food?”
“No, I don’t suppose it’ll stop people coming. We just have to provide for them when they do. We need to be prepared for anything, George.”
Never was a truer word spoken.
© J M Pett 2017
I’ve been thinking for a long time that some accidents are going to happen in which pilots die. Just can’t bring myself to let it be the old-timers.