Coldheart and Iron: Part 1

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I never liked guiding young men. The worst were always the laborers, young guys who traveled from city to city, shoring up what infrastructure they could and scrapping everything they couldn’t. They’re always drinking smuggled whiskey, forgetting to fill their canteens with snowmelt, and there’s always a few who make passes at some of my Wayfinders. A little over half my team is women and these young men are used to what we once called “Rockstar treatment” since they’re given pretty much whatever they want while working on an enclave in the hopes of getting a skilled metalworker or net tech to settle down.

Normally, I’d refuse and save everyone the hassle, but we’d dropped off the families we’d picked up in the wreckage of Chicago and the only group ready to go and capable of paying had been two dozen men in their twenties. The city’s net connection had been saved by two of the men in this group, and the rest had managed to fix up the shelters so they’d be properly insulated again. I had a soft spot in my heart for the Madison, Wisconsin enclave, having lived there before the collapse, and agreed to take this group as a whole at their request.

Between cities, the Order of Wayfinders is the law. If the people we’re escorting try to report us for anything, the enclaves simply tell them they’re welcome to request a refund and then never be escorted anywhere ever again. We are judge, jury, and executioner outside of the enclaves. There’s no room for arguing or anything but iron-clad authority in the otherwise lawless tundras. We police ourselves, so most Wayfinders who abuse their power wind up as bandits or dead.

We were ten days out of the city, heading southwest toward the great plains of Iowa the first time I had to assert my authority. Generally speaking, my Wayfinders aren’t shy about turning people down if they don’t want someone’s attention. Unfortunately, the amount of self-assurance it takes to brush off a drunk young man who desires you is a skill that often takes time to learn and one of my trainees was struggling. Once she asked for my help, I gave it. I reminded the man bothering her that he was to respect her wishes and, if he ignored her again, I was going to beat him until I was certain he’d learned his lesson.

He was drunk enough to take me seriously at that point, but a couple of nights later, as the full moon peeked between the heavy, grey clouds, he decided I was full of it. He was, after all, six and a half feet of trim muscle while I was only a middle-aged man, beard already showing the first signs of grey around my mouth, of modest stature and height. Once I’d dropped his unconscious ass back into his insulated sleeping bag, I left their shelter and found Laura in the shelter she shared with four of the other trainees.

“He’s out. If he troubles you again tomorrow, punch him squarely in the ribs. I cracked a couple of them, so he should go down easily enough.”

“Thanks, Marshall.” Laura rolled onto her back in her sleeping bag and laced her hands behind her head. “And, after that, I can just shoot him?”

I nodded. “Stabbing would be better. You’re decent at quick kills, so you should be able to do that easily enough. It’d be a lot quieter and you’d save yourself a bullet.”

“Silence Is Paramount.” Laura saluted me from her sleeping bag. “As you wish it, so shall it be.”

I smiled down at her, my beard hiding everything but the crinkle at the corners of my eyes. “Sleep.”

Laura saluted again and I walked out of her shelter, waving my hand dismissively. A few steps away, I found the night-sentry already buried in the snow. “Hicks, keep an eye on the tents tonight, too. If you see any shadows trying to get into a Wayfinder shelter and it doesn’t belong to a Wayfinder, make it dead.”

A thumb poked itself out of the snow and then quickly disappeared again. Satisfied, I walked around the rest of the perimeter, that everyone was either in their shelters or preparing for the morning. After that was done, I retreated to my shelter. Lucas was already asleep, but Camille and Natalie were still awake, huddled around the campfire.

“How’s Laura?” Camille handed me a bowl of thick soup.

“She’s fine.” I started eating.

“And the other guy?”

“Alive and capable of keeping up the pace, but unlikely to do more than that for a few weeks.”

“Pay up, Nat.” Camille held out her hand and took the twenty from Natalie with a look of triumph on her face.

“Sorry for having faith in the newbies, Millie.”

“Who else was in the pool?” I chewed at a tough bit of meat and wiped steam from my beard as I looked at the pile of cash Natalie was rifling through.

“Well, cap, it’s all the vets but you and while I was the only one to bet on the newbie, the safe bet was you beating the young groper so badly he would need a couple of days of rest before he willingly went anywhere. Technically, that still remains to be seen, but I doubt it. We’ve got two other bets on you killing the guy because he fought back well enough to need it.”

I nodded as I swallowed the gristly piece of meat. “Sounds about right. Luke didn’t want to wait up to see how it turned out?”

“He’s got second guard shift tonight, Marshall, as do you. Finish eating and let me take care of cleaning up so you can get some sleep.” Natalie stuffed the money away and started picking up the cookware and food. I finished my bowl of soup and snatched another out of the pot before Camille sealed it up for the night. After finishing my food and cleaning myself up as best as I could with the last bits of my tube of toothpaste, I wrapped myself in my sleeping back and lost track of time until I was shaken away by Lucas.

“C’mon, cap. Second watch starts in a few minutes. Captain’s orders. You wouldn’t want to disobey an order from yourself now, would you, Captain?” I was still too asleep to see properly, but I’d seen the goofy grin plastered across his face often enough that I didn’t need to see it to know it was there.

Grumbling, I slipped my insulated gear back on and clambered out of my sleeping bag. Lucas disappeared out of the door in a flurry of cold that set the embers to snapping on their logs while I cleaned up my gear. A few minutes later, I’d traded spots with one of the sentries and concealed myself in the snowdrift. The only thing peeking out of the snow was my camouflaged night-vision goggles and the end of my gun’s barrel. Even with my night vision goggles, there was nothing to see but the empty hills we’d camped near.

When the sun and the movement in the camp started to make hiding pointless, I gave in to my desire to move around and creakily pushed myself to my feet. I wasn’t old yet, but lying around in the snow for four hours sure made me feel like I was. As I took stock of the area around the camp and the camp itself, I noticed one of the laborers standing a few paces away. He was friends with the one I had educated the day before.

When I pushed my goggles up and locked eyes with him, he smiled uneasily and stepped forward. “Captain Marshall. I’d like to apologize on behalf of our group and especially Mitch. He’s an asshole and deserved everything you gave him. We’ll do a better job of keeping an eye on him.”

“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.” I shouldered my gun and let my face settle into its natural glare.

The man took half a step back and held up his hands. “You’re absolutely right, sir. Mitch and I already apologized to Wayfinder Laura. I just wanted to apologize for the inconvenience of needing to police my group. It will not happen again, Captain Marshall, sir.”

I smoothed the glare from my face and nodded. “See that it doesn’t. Next one gets killed.” I watched him quickly walk away and turned my attention to the rest of the camp. The tension that had started building after I beat the assaulter seemed to have seeped away. While I was looking around, Luke walked up. When he saluted, I nodded.

“Captain, there’s signs of tracks behind one of the hills to the southeast.”

“What was someone doing out there?”

“As the sun rose, I saw it glinting off of something and took a look through my scope. Empty food wrappers, sir. Curious, I walked over after having my post covered by one of the trainees. There’s a whole trail, sir.”

“They got that close and we didn’t see them?”

“No, sir. Basic camouflage would have concealed them at that range, given they were moving at night.”

“Right, the snow.” I shifted my gun and nodded to a small crowd of Wayfinders that had gathered when they saw the captain talking to the lead scout. “Take a small crew and see what you can find. We’ll continue course as we’ve set it, so meet us at our midday stop with whatever you’ve found.”

“Yessir.” Luke saluted again and jogged off to the group of Wayfinders. I watched them gear up and head off before heading to the cookpot for breakfast. It was either nomads or bandits. Neither was good news for us. As the sun shone down through a break in the clouds and I helped myself to a bowl of oatmeal with dried fruit, I wasn’t sure which would be worse.

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