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97 Chapter Ninety Six - Not The Only Transmigrators

    A 'herb' was defined in this world as a plant whose leaves were used in cooking or in medicine.  But the herbs that the two otherworldly cultivators had come across in this world were quite ordinary and unlike the spiritual plant life of their own; they could not boost their cultivation nor did they provide 'miraculous' healing effects.  However, the plant life in this world had begun to change, mutating, becoming something unlike what it was originally.  Many of these changes were not benevolent, some were even deadly to living animal life, but occasionally, the mutant plants would offer the survivors something new, even amazing.

    The garden of the second property had been left mostly untouched; no flowers had been dug up to make room for crops, weeds were generally ignored or left alone.  The most the bushes and trees experienced was a bit of a trim to prevent overgrowth.  This also meant that wild blackberries were abundant in one particular location that also happened to adjoin the garden of the third property and also stinging nettles grew unrestrained in the very rear of the garden.  Amongst this ordinary latter, grew an unordinary plant.

    It had been Nathan who had noticed this small intruder first, excitedly pointing it out to Ren Zexian as the latter had attempted to take lessons from Dexter and Autumn and treat his beloved to a sort of date.  Their walk around the wild beauty of these gardens had eventually led them here, to discover the camouflaged herb in amongst the nettles as well as other things.  Ren Zexian had become too distracted then to realise what they had discovered and then too many events had occurred for him to dwell upon it later, meaning it was only now that clarity allowed him to see what he had failed to then.  It seemed that the wandering cultivators of which Ren Zexian and Chang Min were a part of, were not the only ones to have crossed over to this world.

    Ren Zexian dug up the large bulbous rooted herb with care; the plant had managed not only to hide successfully amongst the ordinary stinging nettles, but take on some of their characteristics, including the painful nature of their jagged edged leaves.  Chang Min, who had raised common herbs and grain in the dusty fields of the outer sect he'd originally belonged to, recognised it immediately.

    "That's a False Nettle Herb?" He pointed to it as Ren Zexian lay it upon the kitchen table, revealing this treasure to the others.  Quite a crowd had gathered in the kitchen, the large room now feeling small as the only curious bodies not to come and see this thing were patrolling the walls.  Nathan pressed himself against Ren Zexian's side, clearly uncomfortable, but too curious over the 'mutant' plant that his lover had taken from the second property's gardens.  Ren Zexian gently placed an arm about his body, offering him shelter from the crowd.

    "What's a False Nettle Herb?" He whispered into Ren Zexian's ear.  His breath teased the sensitive tissue, but the latter managed not to lose his calm expression despite this.

    Still, he felt the need to clear his throat before he explained.  "This herb is not simple... not like the herbs that Xīngān grows, though it was quite common amongst the herbs still living in the land of my birth.  Like the Crystal Teardrop tree within the grounds, this one too gathers spiritual energy from its surroundings, but stores it in the large root.  Such means it was sought after by man and beast thus developed its own way of protecting itself; by growing in the camouflage of other nettles.  Were it not for Xīngān's eye, it would have continued to hide well in the growth of those Stinging Nettles."

    Chang Min's brows rose at the endearment his Master had recently began to use for Nathan, but understood his meaning.  The language of these people, while not difficult for those such as themselves, was sometimes lacking;  Nathan's name did not role easily off the tongue nor did first names hold importance in the heart.  Yet Master still wished to express his feelings in words so could only rely on such.  Chang Min sighed inwardly.  Such a strong love, others could only look on envious.  Unknowingly, his eyes glanced over his shoulder at the large man shadowing him and suddenly, he felt content.

    Autumn looked over the ugly, white root bulb and her forehead became marred with slight lines.  She was not disdaining the plant for its unattractiveness, there were many things that looked unpleasant when it came to food, but whose taste could not be better, she just had never seen anything like it before.  "What do we do with it?"

    A hint of sheepishness dimmed the sparkle in Ren Zexian's eyes.  "Well, I'd read that in Medicinal Cuisine, the False Nettle Root was used as a flavour substitute for salt, but I'm not certain of the finer details."  Seeing many hopeful expressions, he further dampened their excitement with an honest fact.  "There is also the issue that herbs such as these can't always be consumed in much quantities by mortals - those without spiritual roots.  The body cannot support it and it might become detrimental in the end."

    "So ordinary people can't eat this?" Jonah asked, his small son grabbing at the lengthening beard upon his chin as he held him in his arms.  Successful, the child tugged, causing the older man to wince, but he gently unwrapped the tiny fingers from the hair and tapped lightly his nose.  The baby giggled brightly.

    Smiles lifted the corners of every person's lips and any worries seemed to melt away thanks to the boy's antics.

    "Actually," Chang Min lightly interrupted the improved mood, "poorer folk couldn't always afford salt," couldn't hope to attain salt in his small village, "so we'd boil the leaves of the False Nettle and use the salty water to flavour the food."

    The designated cooks nodded in understanding along with bright eyed Nan Li Liang.  Wasn't it just a case of experimenting?  If it could flavour the food, this was not bad, though it would be even better if this also provided a similar nutrition to salt.  They could only wait and see.

    "Do we have more than just this one plant?" Dexter asked, thinking long term for this new species.

    Ren Zexian shook his head.  "It's unlikely.  This plant is greedy, will not share its bed with others of its ilk.  It's seeds tend to scatter upon the wind, not unlike those of the dandelion.  However, it will only germinate in the soil already containing nettles, attaching itself to their roots in order to mimic a likeness.  It's not difficult to distinguish, just need to seek the fine line of white upon the leaf vein and shoot."  He pointed to the deep green of the leaves and sure enough, when one looked carefully enough, one could see the difference.  As Patrick and Cole left the base the most, they tried to memorise this detail in order to forage more in the future.

    In the meantime, the plant was potted in a large container and given Nathan's water to nourish it.  It was unlikely that it would survive long term this way, especially as it no longer had access to the extensive root network of the common nettles, but it would be enough for them to work with for a time.

    That same day, Autumn wore gloves in order to pluck a couple of leaves to boil and found that after ten minutes, there was a slight hint of saltiness to the water, which increased greatly after half an hour.  Some of the water was set aside as they wished to boil this dry and see if they could obtain salt in a power form, while the rest was used instead of separate salt and warm water for the first bread Autumn planned to make since the harvest.

    Flour ground fresh from wheat grain contained wheat germ and could not be kept for a long period.  The soldiers had discovered this from farmers and gardeners who had survived to seek refuge in their base at the beginning of the end.  These few men and women were as much a part of the backbone of their base as the army in charge of order and protection.  Without them, it was likely they would have not have had a second generation of hens nor knowledge of how to produce a good amount of food in a small space.  The base had very little space at this time to grow much wheat, so they relied heavily upon the grain harvested from the fields the previous year, but they would have to find a solution to this problem soon or find alternatives to grain in their diets.

    The wheat grown in the first and third gardens was not a small amount, but it was not a large amount either.  They also saved more grain than they planted so they could expand their planting areas the following year.  Using Nan Li Liang's clever memory, Chang Min and Shaun fashioned a manual mill that ground the grain quite finely, but it did not have a large capacity.  This was fine though, so long as enough flour could be produced for the expanding families each day, they wouldn't require anything substantial.  Autumn also didn't wish to waste too much in the experiment either and had Dexter grind just enough for a few rolls.  They'd judged that with the number of people now living on their base, their grain would last at most three months.  It was planned to store most for winter as with other foodstuffs that could be kept for the longer time.

    The experiment was not bad, the rolls were a little saltier than normal suggesting that Autumn ought to either boil the leaves less or dilute the water more before using it.  Originally, the woman thought to share the rolls amongst the children, but worried that the salt was too much so saved them for those on the wall instead to share; these were also more filling than plain white rolls they'd eaten before.

    As for boiling the water dry, for whatever reason, there really wasn't enough salt residue to be worthy of collecting.  It seemed that the salt in the leaves was just stronger in flavour than normal salt and couldn't replace the white crystals directly.  Still, the substitute was not disdained and reduced the worries in the kitchen a little.  As for the root that had value to cultivators, that would have to be set aside for now.  Ren Zexian's knowledge in the area of pills and medicinal cuisine was not great, just covering the bases, but even if he had hold of a few recipes, he could not follow them without all of the ingredients to hand.
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