Coldheart and Iron: Part 3

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


The next morning brought a late dawn, grey skies, light snow, and allegations of infidelity. I’d had a nice night sharing the tent with only Natalie, since Camille was on guard duty and Lucas was still out on his rearguard mission. We’d had a quiet night in while I made dinner and we just chatted about the lives we used to live and some of the better times from the more recent years. Normally, I enjoy waking up on mornings after the nights Natalie and I are in the tent alone, but my pleasant warmth was interrupted by a muffled voice calling my name from outside.

After a quick ten-count to keep my temper, I hollered that I would be out in a few minutes and dressed quickly. Natalie watched me, still hidden in her warm cocoon, and I told her to enjoy the warmth while it lasted before I stepped into the cold. Outside, Camille stood with her rifle in her hands and her face set in the professional stony frown she wore when on duty. Once I was outside the tent and finished zipping the layered fabric up, she saluted.

“I have to report a small scuffle between the nomads and the laborers, sir.”

I saluted back and gestured for her to lead. “What about?”

“One of the married couples.” Camille strode off toward the middle of the camp, eyes darting around as we walked past people. I followed behind her, already seeing the tension sitting in the shoulders of everyone gathered around the supply tent. “One of nomadic men alleges his wife was seduced by one of the laborers and he looks mean enough to cause some damage. The woman doesn’t deny it happened, but insists her husband was fine with it the night before. The laborer doesn’t remember anything and is too hungover from last night’s festivities to follow what is going on.”

“Ah. I assume, then, that the laborers are now out of their smuggled alcohol?”

Camille nodded, her eyes now fixed on the angry-looking men gathered on the edge of the crowd. “And the nomads are through most of their stores of moonshine.”

“Oh.” I cracked my knuckles through my gloves and rolled my neck, trying to keep my muscles from tightening up in the cold. “Well, shit.”

“You said it, sir. Best of luck.” Camille stepped to the side, a dozen paces away from the group of nomads and laborers, and stood at attention with her rifle ready to jump to her shoulder at a moment’s notice. I walked past her and joined the group huddled in the lee of the supply tent, taking shelter from the wind and falling snow.

I set my shoulders and clasped my hands behind my back, going for the same dramatic look I’d established with the nomads the day before. “I want everyone who wasn’t directly involved in what happened last night to return to their tents. Once I have spoken with the involved parties, I will let you all know what is going to happen and we can proceed from there.” I glared at anyone who would meet my eyes and most of them walked away.

At the end, four people remained. Two laborers and two nomads I assumed were the married couple. “I hear from my lieutenant that there is a matter of marital infidelity and that it has almost come to violence. Is that accurate?”

The male nomad lurched forward. “That’s right! This man here slept with my-”

I stepped forward and pushed him back to stand next to his wife. “Shut up.”

The man spluttered, but the firm push and my renewed glare kept him still. After making sure he wasn’t going to say anything, I stepped back and looked at the whole group. “I don’t give a shit about this. You’re adults. Solve the problem between the three or four of you without using violence or I’ll leave you all to wander the tundra on your own. I’m sure the bandits now trailing us wouldn’t mind picking off a few stragglers who were sent their own way. If you make this a problem again, by getting the camp riled up or actually fighting, I’ll just leave you all behind. Now go tell everyone that the problem is resolved and that the group of you is going to discuss things quietly.”

The nomad stepped forward again, his face now redder than the cold could account for. “But she’s my wife and I-”

“Will resolve this problem quietly and efficiently between the two of you.” I stepped up to him and placed a hand on his chest, forcing him to take a half step back. “Split up or don’t. I don’t care. Just don’t make this my problem again or you will regret having opened your mouth.” I looked each of them in the eyes and got a nod from each of them, except the nomad husband. When I turned my attention back to him, he grimaced and then tried to grab my wrist.

I slapped his hand away and swept one of his legs out and to the side. He managed to stay up, but I pushed his shoulder and tipped him over. As he wiped snow from his face, I stepped over to him and looked down, face neutral. “Am I clear?”

He nodded and slowly pulled himself to his feet. As he wiped himself off, the sober laborer led the clearly still drunk laborer toward a tent a hundred feet away and the female nomad stalked off back to the nomad’s side of the camp. The other man followed shortly after her, shooting a couple looks over his shoulder at the drunk laborer. I took a deep breath and let the tension drain out of me.

“Well done, as always, Captain.”

“You know, you could do this yourself, Camille.” I rubbed my face with a glove and turned to look at my lieutenant and friend. “You have the same authority that I do.”

“Sure, but I don’t really get these kinds of squabbles. I’m not terribly interested in sex and I can’t really understand why people get super agitated about it.” Camille snorted and shook her head. “I tried to sort out such squabble out once, remember? At that bar just after the snows started?”

“I remember.” I sighed and trudged back toward my tent. “This is different though. Now, your approach would work just fine. You’ve seen me do it enough times at this point that you can probably quote me, word for word.”

“And when one of these inevitably goes sideways, I’m not going to have an appropriate response. Better for everyone to let you sort it out. You are the people person, after all. You’ve made it clear several times that people stuff is your job and fighting stuff is my job. I wouldn’t want to infringe on your area of expertise, of course.”

I rolled my eyes and sighed again. “I don’t think this was better for me at all” I muttered as I got back to my tent.

As I bent over to grab the zipper, Camille spoke over her shoulder as she continued on back to her post. “Tell Natalie I am sorry for interrupting you two.”

I felt my face heat a little bit, but I was able to make it inside the tent before anyone else came to talk to me. Inside, Natalie was sitting by the little cook fire, still wrapped in her sleeping bag. She looked up at me when I turned around after closing the tent and taking my boots off. “I made breakfast.”

“I think Camille knows.”

“Mar, she’s asexual, not stupid.”

“I know!” I sat down next to Natalie and took the oatmeal and kiss she offered. “I just thought we did a better job hiding it.”

“Millie has known both of us for at least two decades, Mar. I’m sure she and Lucas both know.”

I ate my oatmeal in silence as Natalie scooped herself a bowl. “Do you think anyone else does?”

Natalie shook her head. “No. No one else shares a tent with us. If anything, they probably think I’m sleeping with Lucas because of how flirty he is with Millie and I. He’s sleeping with a trainee, though, so I’m sure no one thinks it seriously.”

“Damn, now I’ve got to write him up twice.” I spooned the rest of my oatmeal into my mouth and licked my bowl clean. “Anything else I should know about, before I go back out there to lead?”

Natalie leaned over and kissed me on the nose. “Nope. I just hope Lucas is out on rear guard for another few days. And not just because I’d like another night to the two of us.” She kissed me on the mouth and then smiled at me. I smiled back at her as she sat upright and started eating her oatmeal. “I wouldn’t mind knowing there’s more space between us and the bandits than the nomads thought.”

“Me too.” I stood up, grabbed my water, and cleaned my bowl out. I put my boats back on and fixed my coat. “Hopefully we’ll have those nights and the safety they imply.” I unzipped the tent flap and dumped my bowl outside. I tossed it back into the tent to dry near the fire and stepped outside, giving Natalie a wink. “Don’t lay in bed too long. I’d hate to have to come back inside to get you.”

Natalie smiled around a mouthful of food as I stepped away to zip the tent up. When I turned around, broad smile replacing my usual glare, I scanned a morning that seemed brighter than it had the first time I left the tent. I started my morning patrol around the camp, watching everyone wake up and begin the process of packing to leave, and my good mood lasted until I went around the back. There, as I looked for the guard post, I noticed a few figures trailing down out of the hills away to the east. As the dread settled in my stomach like a rock thrown in a pond, I pulled my binoculars out of their pouch and examined the figures.

It was Lucas, returning from his post, and moving fast judging by their complete disregard for the trail they were leaving. I lowered the binoculars and whistled the Wayfinders to alert status. For a couple heartbeats, the camp fell silent. Then, intelligible over the sudden noise of people rushing about, was Camille’s voice.

“I want two squads with rifles up front, all snipers to your designated flanks, and someone get all these noncoms to the supply tent. I want only one person on babysitting duty and then everyone else to grab five armed travellers. Move, move, move!”

Camille came dashing up, still trailing a bit of snow from where she’d been hiding. As she ran up, I handed off the binoculars to here. “Looks like Lucas and the rest of the Wayfinders I sent with him.”

“Thank you for your opinion, Captain. Kindly get your ass back to the supply tent and send the babysitter up here. We’re down four Wayfinders thanks to Lucas’ rearguard and I need every combatant I can get in case they’re being following.”

“Yes, sir.” I saluted Camille and dashed back through the camp, waving to Natalie as I passed her. She was leading a group of the laborers as they struggled to move one of our portable barriers into place. She nodded at me as I passed. Once I got to the supply tent, I sent Lauren up to Camille and started calming everyone who was too young or too inexperienced to fight.

The camp went from busy to quiet a few seconds later. In only two minutes, every Wayfinder was in position and ready for trouble. The only question left was just how much trouble that would be.

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