Miter had to take a few minutes to calm his own herd down after the peccaries had been driven away, back towards his new neighbour’s plot. She didn’t seem like an experienced herder; but then he hadn’t been either, at first.
He cleaned himself up at the little well by the road, and put on a fresh sleeveless tunic. There was an unseasonable fog drifting at about knee height, rippling in what little breeze was coming up from the river. Despite it, the heat was building, and the oxen would need water.
He had two buckets with a woven strap between them, and he was hauling them over his right shoulder, leaning a little heavier than he liked on his walking staff, when he realized his neighbour had come back. She sat on her heels beside the broken gate he’d set aside to repair.
“You don’t have to do that —” he grunted, as he sat the bucket down, “— I’ve got it.”
She turned and leapt up. “I can’t not! I can’t afford to replace what my hogs ate, so…” She wiped her hands on her shorts and extended her right hand to him — and as usual, he waved her off.
“Not much of a grip in this hand.” He flexed his right palm and partial thumb, showing her the scarring where all four fingers ended before the first joint.
“Well, I’m Gove.”
“Sorry we had to meet this way. I just got settled, I’m in the next house over.”
“Welcome to the swamp, Gove.” Miter settled himself onto his working bench, tucked his walking staff underneath it. “You’re not from around here?”
Gove sat back down on the ground and picked up the post she’d be shaping.
“No, just, you know, needed a new start.”
Miter thought she might be young enough to be his daughter.
“Anyone else come with you?”
“No, that’s, you know. That’s probably why the pigs got out, honestly — I wasn’t much of a herder before!” She shook her head. “Could have been worse, I guess. I’ve got all but one back now.”
“I had to learn fast with this herd too.”
Gove looked at the herd, eyes widening at the thought of wrangling animals that large.
“Good job not getting trampled to death.”
As they talked, and Gove shaped replacement posts for the gate, the sun was slowly obscured by clouds.
The mist was rolling in thicker as the sky turned grey, and finally Gove looked up and frowned.
“I thought you at least got hot summers up north.”
Miter hummed. “We do. This is strange weather to have just after solstice.”
“Maybe that’s what spooked my peccaries?”
“You think they were spooked?” Gove brushed the wood chips off her lap and wiped her ax off on her wrap belt. “Definitely. I was inside when I heard them go off — I swear they scream almost like people — and before I could get out there the fence was down.”
Miter frowned. “You know, my herd was off this morning too.” He gestured to the smallest muskox. “They had the little guy against the house and the rest of them grunting and stomping in a circle around him when I came out with the corn.”
“Was it misty over here?”
Miter waved his scarred hand through the thickening mist. “Not quite like this, but yeah. Rolling in from the north.”
Gove looked behind her, into the woods. “In from the swamp. I swear I see all sorts of shapes in there out of the corner of my eye.”
“That’s the way of it.” Miter laughed to himself. “I could swear this morning I saw a guard walking between the trees —”
“A guard!” Gove was on her feet immediately. “There’s guards here?”
Miter leaned back. “Not full time. I’m sure I was imagining it. Wrong season for the north circuit to be here.”
But Gove wasn’t listening. Her eyes were wide and she gripped her ax with intent.
“I’ve been robbed by the guard before. They just do whatever they want.” Her gaze was clearly focused on something in the past. “I’m not standing around while this happens again!”
She leaned her posts against the gate, half turned to leave, then turned back quickly. “I’ll finish this, I swear. I — I need to go get my pig back.”
Miter wasn’t sure what to think. As she marched into the woods, he called after her.
“You’re going straight into the swamp?”
“That’s where I’d hide if I stole something!” She paused as Miter pushed himself back up to his feet.
“Don’t go in there alone. Let me track this thief for you.” Gove’s head tilted, confused.
“If you want?”
Miter sighed; he couldn’t let her drown in a bog over one peccary. “Let’s start at the beginning.” Miter gestured back to the road with his staff. “Where they got out in the first place.”
Gove watched Miter move carefully ahead of her through the forest, just as confident a tracker on dry land as he was through mud. The mist wove through the trees between them, and the grey sky peeked through willow branches that rattled in a breeze.