READ FROM THE BEGINNING
Dawn broke just after six. I’d made two more quick patrols of the grounds, silently moving from post to post, to make sure everyone was alert and ready. Aside from the scouts that Lucas had taken with him to find the bandits forty-eight hours ago, everyone was still alert. The scouts were split up amongst the groups and, aside from a quick scrub of their eyes every so often, were handling their sleep deprivation fairly well. Even us older Wayfinders could handle a couple of days without sleep before our ability to function, and all of the scouts except Lucas were still only in their late twenties.
Right as I was about to start my third patrol, one of our snipers gave the signal. A quick, two-beat bird imitation that let us all know the main force had been spotted coming out of the hills. A five-beat version of the bird call let us know we were facing a force of around fifty people. Compared to the scouts, of which there had only been twenty over-confident morons who fell into our trap, they were going to be a significant problem. We’d wiped out the bandit scouts, so our preparations would still be a mystery, but they’d be more cautious and the morning light that was slowly suffusing through the clouds was only going to help them.
After a quick breath to steady my pulse that had jumped up when the warning signal came, I got up from my post by one of the windows and made a silent circuit of the farmhouse, telling everyone to keep their eyes peeled, stick to their assigned window or crevice, and shoot as soon as they see someone walking toward the house or the barn. While reissuing Camille’s orders, I check over the barricades everyone had made. Most were just pieces of scrap wood we had collected, layered around their firing positions so the bandits wouldn’t simply be able to fire through the walls. A sufficiently powerful sniper rifle still could pierce the multiple layers we had set up, but the laborers and nomads would be protected from most stray bullets when they were taking cover or reloading.
My post was a bit better defended, since I was facing the direction the bandits were most-likely coming from. I had my barricade set up underneath my second-story window and I was the only person here so I’d be able to hide entirely behind it. The wall around the windows was layered with more wood, of course, but my barricade would stop anything but the largest caliber rifles. One of Natalie’s most ingenious ideas, the portable barricades had saved countless lives. Lightweight and incredibly durable, they were a lot like body armor you could take cover behind. Most sniper rifles would leave a huge dent in them, but they’d leave you alive as well, and the repairs were fairly easy to do in the field.
I settled in behind my barricade, head down, and eyes waiting on the signal. The seconds thudded by, each measured by the silent passing of seconds on my watch while my heart supplied the sound effects. Five whole minutes of silence and the repeated mantra Camille had taught us when we first realized marksmanship was the only thing we’d be able to depend on as the world fell into chaos around us. Sight, exhale, squeeze. There was a lot more to it than that, but breaking it down into single words that represented the whole made it easier to focus during moments like right now.
Then, so dimly I almost couldn’t see it, was the change in light I was looking for, shining in through the window. I popped up, legs bracing me against my barrier and eyes darting past the flares that were just coming to life on the treeline. I picked my first target and fired. The rifle pushed into my shoulder, the thunderclap boomed through my earplugs, and I saw my target fall. I switched focus to another one and fired off a trio of shots, hoping to get something vital through the bush she was standing behind. She went down. I swapped to another target, but then bullets started flying out of the trees and I ducked back down.
I heard a few cries of pain from the floor below me and more from the woods. A few bullets zipped through my window and out the wall opposite and one blew a hail of splinters out of the reinforced wall as it exploded on impact. I pounded the floor three times, signalling to fire at will and then scooted away from the window on my stomach. I crawled out of the bedroom, down the hallway, and stopped at the top of the stairs. There was a window facing the opposite side of the farm clearing and I carefully poked my head over the sill.
Creeping up the slight incline, through a scattering of grass clumps and bushes, was another group of bandits, almost as large as the group attacking us from the east. I hadn’t taken a close count, but I could definitely tell it was way more than fifty between the two groups. I thumped the floor twice, and fired a few shots out of the window. They group of bandits scattered, but didn’t manage to avoid the rain of bullets coming out of the farmhouse. Most of the laborers weren’t skilled with a gun, but we’d given them all the guns and ammo we’d taken from the bandits, so they were given free-reign to fire as they liked.
Once the bandits started regrouping behind whatever cover they could, I rolled away from the window. I went back to my original position and started adding a dozen potshots to the chaos that had engulfed the area around the barn. When I came up to shoot the last four bullets in my magazine, I added a whistle signal to the roar of my gun. Two beats, two beats, a short pause while I took cover again, and then four beats. Almost forty bandits coming from the west.
A couple of moments later, as I reloaded, I heard Camille’s distinctive whistle pierce the battlefield. A single, long note cut through the bark of combat rifles and then the small contingent of Wayfinders that had hidden in the snow, waiting for the bandits to pass them, went about their work. We sent a few more volleys into the forest, but had to stop soon so we wouldn’t hit our own people. I banged the floor twice, telling the nomads to stop, and then banged it four times. Following my own signal, I returned to my westward facing window and started shooting at the bandits from there.
The bandits seemed content to focus their fire on the first floor, doing their best to chew through the walls around the windows and being rewarded with several screams. I got a faceful of splinters when I rolled off to the side, thankfully avoiding the bullets that ripped the wall up but unable to get my hands up in time to protect my face from the wooden shrapnel. My eyes were fine thanks to my goggles, but I was going to either die with a face like a porcupine or spend a few hours pulling splinters out of my face.
I tugged out the largest ones on the right side of my face and kept firing. One cluster of bandits made a break for the farmhouse and, as I went to fire at them, the remaining two dozen bandits started blind-firing at the farmhouse. They didn’t hit much, but they succeeded in forcing everyone back behind their cover. I blindly emptied my magazine in what I hoped was their direction. A couple of seconds later, as I was reloading, one of the doors crashed open and I heard the unmistakable shriek of a flashbang grenade. I popped over the sill and started shooting at the rest of the bandits that had started running toward the farmhouse, doing my best to ignore the dizziness and ringing in my ears despite my earplugs.
I got almost a dozen with solid body shots before the ones in front realized what I was doing and started shooting back. Bullets flew through the walls and even the floor around me, filling the air with wooden shrapnel that bounced harmlessly off my thermal jacket and pants. I shifted my position to get a better angle on the bandits approaching the house but, as I shifted into a kneeling position, I took a bullet through the meat of my calf. I shouted in rage and pain, trying to keep my balance, but failed. As I crashed to the floor, I kept firing, blindly shooting through the wooden defenses. If more bandits got into the farmhouse, it would be a slaughter. Right now, there was a chance that some of the people would survive. As I slammed a new magazine into my rifle, there was too much shooting inside the house to be just the five or so bandits that had broken down the door. The amount of screaming certainly sounded like everyone down there was dying.
Bullets whizzed past me as I grunted in anger at rapidly devolving situation, rocked back on my uninjured leg, and then threw myself down the stairs. I rolled so my uninjured leg would hit ground first and gritted my teeth against the pain of banging my injured leg against everything I could find. At the bottom, I used my momentum to throw myself to my feet and spun around the corner to face the room where the grenade had gone off.
I looked past all of the collapsed bodies and focused on the still standing ones. A couple of the laborers where struggling with bandits for the control of guns, so I took a quick shot at each bandit, ending the scuffles, and then sighting on the doorway as the rest of the bandits showed up. There were only eight, and they didn’t enter after a flashbang, but I got lucky. I had a direct line of fire on all of them and they were too focused on the laborers screaming and hip-firing right next to the doorway.
Once they were down, I limped my way back to the east-facing side of the farmhouse and peeked through a window. The Wayfinders were cleaning up there, chasing after a group of bandits that had fled and finishing off any bandits left alive. I clicked the safety on my rifle and slung it over my shoulder.
I collapsed into a chair along the wall, popped out my earplugs, pulled out my first-aid kit, and started inspecting my wound. While I let my hands and all my practice take over, I called out. “Any further sign of bandits?”
There was a few moments of silence before a scattered chorus of “no’s” came back. I grunted and held my breath as I started bandaging the wound. A quick plug, then a cotton wrap around my leg to hold it in and prevent my thermal pants from shifting. After securing everything, I tentatively stood up and discovered I couple manage on my leg as it was. I stumped over to the other room and started assessing the mess.
There were a dozen dead bandits lying on the floor near the door, and about that many of the nomads. It seems like they had taken the worst of the flashbang attack, though there were a few dead laborers as well. The cries and whimpers of the injured made it hard to listen for the signals from the Wayfinders, so I set all of the uninjured laborers to clearing the dead bodies away, figuring out how many people had been killed, and collecting all of the gear from the bandits. I had the nomads collect all of the wounded and take them upstairs, away from all of the dead. There was only the one room and a large storage closet up there, but it was a bit room and there weren’t many wounded who would be back on their feet quickly.
While the laborers and nomads shuffled off to do what I had said, I went outside and whistled the all-clear signal. I got one back from the barn and carefully made my way to the big double-doors. Camille met me just inside them.
I saluted. “Getting numbers now, but it looks bad. Lots of dead nomads and laborers. There was a breach and they had flashbangs. I’ve got the survivors taking stock and sorting the injured from the dead right now.”
“We’ve got one dead Wayfinder out here. Diego. Got hit by a few lucky shots when he popped up to provide some covering fire for the snipers to reposition. Still waiting on final injury reports.” Camille saluted and then we took a moment to steady each other. I looked her over and, aside from the stress I could see in her eyes, she seemed fine.
“First is clean up and then a bit of scouting to make sure that was all of them. After that, rest. We’ll stay here for a couple of days to bury the dead and pick over the bandits’ supplies.”
Camille nodded. “I’ll get the scouting parties organized. Once the laborers and nomads are finished taking care of their dead, we’ll need their help collecting the bandits.” Camille turned to face the east, looking off into the woods. “Flashbangs?”
“Yeah.” I took a deep breath and shifted my weight so it rested more fully on my uninjured leg. “The way they attacked the farmhouse suggested they have at least a little training. Hopefully they have more grenades they didn’t use.”
Camille shook her head. “That’s not what I’m thinking. I’m just curious about why a group this well-supplied would be attacking nomads or a fortified position like ours. Even by typical bandit standards, this attack was idiotic. They know how to breach and enter a building, have the high-tech gear to do it, and yet used waved tactics to try to get to the barn.”
“And the house.” I sighed and rubbed my eyes, careful to avoid the splinters still stuck in my face. My usual post-battle headache was already forming. “Their approach to the farmhouse was horrible. I was able to just mow them down after the first group breached and they weren’t even using cover as they snuck up to the farmhouse.”
“Sorry about that.” Camille turned back to me, concern on her face as she looked over my pincushioned face and the hasty bandage around my leg. “I was sending the snipers over to your side when Diego went down. The bandits decided to rush then and the barn would have been overwhelmed if we had continued to turn away.”
I shrugged. “I’m alive. We’re going to have to explain what happened to the survivors, so let’s just focus on getting through the next twenty-four hours and then we can start in on all the guilt of losing people we said we’d protect.”
Camille smiled ruefully. “You’d think I’d get used to it after almost fifteen years of this.”
I walked over and put my hand on her shoulder. “Camille, I’d be worried if you didn’t still care.” I looked around and, sure that no one was watching, embraced her. “You did great. Most of us are still alive and that’s more than most would be able to say after a day like that.”
“You bet your ass I did great.” Camille laughed quietly and hugged me back. “Now stop with all this mushy stuff. You don’t need to hug me after every death.”
“No, I don’t.” I stepped back and smiled at my oldest living friend. “But I’m still going to. Makes me feel better.”
Camille punched me in the shoulder and I turned away. “Now, I’m going to check on the non-combatants. I’m going to need to spend some time talking to kids whose parents died.” I closed the barn down behind me and looked up at the overcast sky. The snow was holding off for now, but the skies looked fit to burst. There was light diffusing through the clouds, but the day wasn’t getting any brighter. It would snow soon and we had bodies to bury. I looked back at the ground, ignoring the bloody smears around me and the groans of the injured, and limped off in the direction of the cellar doors. At least the cellar would be a bit warmer.