As a slave I learned the practice of digging milkroot out on the scrub. You might ask what there is to digging milkroot, and I would sympathize with your condescension, but it isn’t in the digging or the handling of the sharp shovel that we are challenged. It is in the avoidance of zeepers and collaxes.
Zeepers are spiculed worms that hide in the stem clusters and between the roots, and a sting from one can puff up half your body, leaving you bedridden for months. For a slave that means death, because the expense of care is not worth it. They didn’t give us gloves, so we checked the stems and shook the dirt off the roots thoroughly before bagging them.
Collaxes are burrowing rodents that can cut a man’s body in half with one bite or rend him to several pieces with their claws. We had to be on constant guard, stepping softly, our bare feet sensitive to the feeling in the ground. It wasn’t exactly a rumble when they came, more like the feel of standing on a rope suspended between two swaying trees.
All of us carried clappers, several sticks wrapped together by elastic cords in such a way that they tumbled along the ground when you released them, thumping as they go. When we felt a collax coming, we released the clappers as decoys and ran for the iron-sided wagons.
If you didn’t get on the wagon in time, the slave keepers would not waste a bullet on a collax. Ammo is too expensive.
I kept my peace with the slave keepers in hopes of finding what they knew of Enta, ingratiating myself so they even called me Mallocrest instead of ‘slave.’
I was not well loved among the slaves because I was as big as their leader, Eret, a man hardened by a lifetime of slavery. However, I had an unlikely ally in a slave named Stebby, a sniveling man who warned me when trouble was in the air. In the scrub, he was always chained to my left. Pag and Jursen, two sturdy men, were chained to my right. We worked digging in a row with four other gangs, twenty of us in all.
I’d been with the slaves for many days, maybe a month, and had experienced a couple collaxes when the worst attack came. We’d been working a respectable patch of milkweed most of the day, and a sudden quiver in the ground made my stomach jump. Too strong. Too soon.
“Collax!” Someone yelled the same time I did.
We all released our clappers and started for the wagon, but the ground exploded in front of the chain of four next to us, a collax with his grotesque head of black, matted fur popping out smelling like a wet dog that rolled in carrion. It tore into the third man in their chain, puncturing his ribcage with its teeth and rending his body with its claws.
The other men in the gang panicked, dropping their shovels and yanking back on the chain going up to the dead man’s leg, which thrashed with the force of the collax’s tearing. The leg came loose and they scrambled to get away, taking them farther from the wagon.
Another collax erupted from the ground off to the side, hopped out of its hole, and went after them. The men bolted away, arcing toward the wagons. The wide arc would give the collax time enough to catch them.
I stopped running, and the other three men in my gang jolted the chain as it stopped them.
“What are you halting for?” said Stebby. “To the wagon.”
“Come with me,” I said.
They protested, but had no choice. None of them had the strength to hold me back. I took them on a bearing that would intercept the beast.
“Ready your shovels,” I said.
“We can’t kill a collax with a shovel,” said Pag.
“I’ve killed worse with a branch of wood.” It was sort of true. I killed a horned gamaran with one once, but it was already immobilized with broken legs. Still, it’s a matter of sizing up the animal and giving your best guess on its weak spot, then delivering the blow.
That’s what I did. A straight on attack would be extremely difficult because I’d have to get past claws and gnashing teeth to strike the jugular. If I struck a direct blow to its neck, cutting into its spine as it ran by after the others, I would bring it down.
“I’ll strike first, then you three help finish him off. Don’t stop until it moves no more.”
“You’re out of your mind,” said Jursen, but he kept pace with me for the intercept.
We were getting close when the collax saw us and changed its course to meet us face on.
“Look what you’ve done,” squawked Stebby. “We’re goners.”
“Hold your ground,” I said and stopped. “Pag and Jursen, get behind me and stretch the length of chain just up to my head.” Too late to explain, I put my arms up and held the shovel like a spear, bringing the creature’s attention onto me, close to pouncing. “Bring the chain forward over my head—Now!”
I ducked and the chain grazed my crown. The collax saw it and snapped at it, giving me the opening. I lunged and jabbed the shovel into its jugular with all my strength.
Blood sprayed, and the collax swiped at Pag, sending him to the ground. I struck again, about half through its neck, but it still thrashed. I had to dodge some lashing out, and I sliced the shovel into one of its arms. Pag and Jursen joined in, hacking away at the beast, and Stebby finally came out from behind me and got a few licks in.
“To the wagon,” said Stebby. “It’s done.”
A couple more collaxes emerged from the dirt, but they’d honed in on clappers, so they were far enough away to escape. We sprinted, arriving just after the gang we’d saved. The slave keepers closed up the iron tailgate and ordered the slaves to get into position to crank the wheels that would move the wagon.
Pag, Jursen, and Stebby exulted in the kill. “We took out a collax,” cheered Jursen.
Some of the others seemed appreciative, but the ones we saved had tentative smiles and wary eyes. I believe I’m skilled enough at reading people to say they harbored a resentful distrust for what we’d done. The slave keepers also gripped their weapons tighter and eyed me with a new intensity on the way back. I’d shown too much too soon, but some hands just have to be played.
The teams fell into a rhythm of cranking that would be maintainable all the way to the slave internment. We’d be back tomorrow, but the scrub wouldn’t be safe for the rest of the day.