Coldheart and Iron: Part 4

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I never really enjoyed babysitting duty. I was a fair shot by military standards and a good sniper by any standards, but all that meant to the Wayfinders was that our average recruit was a better shot than I was. I had a gun because every hand counts in the kind of combat scenarios we usually encountered, but I was always the first one stuck to any essential non-combat task. I was the least useful in terms of killing people. I was better than most Wayfinders at subduing people, due to my history in martial arts prior to the collapse and my skills at dealing with people, but subdual tactics are only ever used against people we’re guiding or within enclave territory. Everyone else gets lethal force because a dead person is someone who isn’t going to go grab their friends and come back for revenge and one less person in any follow-up raiding parties.

Thankfully, there was plenty to do. Children to comfort and hush, an anxious man to calm, an elderly woman to reassure that no, we did not need her to grab a gun and go shoot some bandit assholes. I was tempted to let her, given how angry she looked at the prospect of people attacking her family. Camille’s orders had been clear and this woman wouldn’t be in here without a good reason. She’d have figured out who to send to the reinforced supply tent during potential firefights and I was in no position to contravene her orders. I’d called combat stations and that meant she was in charge.

After the reassuring was done and everyone sat in silence, dreading the moment it would break and wishing for anything to happen if only to end the waiting, I turned my attention to the supply lists and busied myself with checking stock levels. Something to do to in order to appear calm and unconcerned while straining my ears for the sharp report of the rifles or the quiet phfnkt of the silenced sniper rifles.

Minutes passed. I finished a stock check and started filling out paperwork I’d need at the next city to get IDs and housing for the nomads since they’d never been a part of any enclave. I enlisted the two adults to help me get the information from all of the children and we were just started on the adult forms, half an hour later, when Lucas walked into the tent.

His eyes had lost their usual sparkle, though he kept his usual grin on his face, and he squatted down next to where I sat on a short stack of crates carrying oatmeal. I smiled at him raised an eyebrow.

Still smiling, he spoke. “Millie wants to talk. I’m taking over here.”

I nodded, patted him on the back, and gestured to the form. “Alright. You just pick up from where I left off. All that’s left is information about our group and where you found them.”

I hauled myself to my feet, handed off the pencil, and left the tent. While walking back toward the front of camp, I scanned the area for signs of an attack. I’d been in the tent for about forty-five minutes, but there was still no sign of anyone approaching the horizon. The day was completely silent though, aside from the wind in my ears, and you could feel the tension in the air.

I found Camille at the front barricade and crouched down beside her, saluting as I did so. “What can I do, sir?”

Camille absently returned my salute, never taking her eyes off the horizon. “Lucas reported overnight contact with bandit scouts and, while they fell for the ambush our Wayfinders set, they regrouped quickly, using standard pre-collapse military tactics.”

“Sounds like militia.”

“Yes. All of the actual military groups that were still around after the governments fractured picked an enclave to defend. All of the citizen militias that showed up as every hunter and would-be sharpshooter pulled out their guns either dispersed, were killed as everything went to hell, or turned into bandits. These guys must be ex-military. They’re too organized and professional.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Camille took her eyes off the horizon and looked at me. “I need permission to order us to move camp. This isn’t a good position, given what we’re up against. I need more natural defenses since this camp is too large to defend with the barricades alone.”

“Risks?”

“Snipers. We don’t know if we have any following us close enough to hit us today, but it’d be foolish to not assume so. We can leave a rear-guard again, but they’ll still be susceptible to that if the bandits are as good as they seem to be. Staying here isn’t that great either, since we run the same risk anyway, but we have our terrain scouted and all of the best sniper spots taken.”

“Permission granted. If that’s what you think we need to do, I trust your judgment. Set up whatever guards you want however you like and let me know if you want me to get the nomads or laborers to assist.” I saluted again.

“Go relieve Lucas and send him back here. I’ll send a few people to you in half an hour to start packing up. We’ll have to do it in shifts to make sure we’ve got enough lookouts, but we should be able to break camp in an hour.” Camille saluted back and then turned her attention back to the horizon.

Staying low, I hurried to carry out her orders. An hour and a half later, we’d finished breaking camp. Getting the nomads ready was a bigger ordeal than expected as they hadn’t repacked their gear the night before, and the young children did more to hinder than to help since they constantly needed to be reassured. As we started moving out, noisily enough that every Wayfinder was compulsively staring at the horizon, I reported in to Camille.

“Everyone is moving. Scouts are ahead, nomads are on children duty, and I’ve got the laborers reporting to me as they keep an eye out to the north and south.”

“Good.” Camille nodded and slung her gun over her shoulder. “I’ll keep the main force of our Wayfinders back here and our eyes on the east. Where’d Natalie go? I was going to have her lead a squad back here.”

“My apologies, sir. I sent her ahead to look for our defensive position. If we need to hole up there for a prolonged attack, I want to make sure there’s enough local forage to support us.” I nodded to the west. “Map says there are a couple small towns on this route as well, so she’s going to pick through for supplies as she goes.”

“Very well.” Camille saluted and turned away. “Keep everyone tight and going. We’re too large to do the usual single-file, but keep them in a huddled mass no more than four across and the scouts in single-file to the sides. I don’t think they know how many of us there are yet and I’d like to keep it that way.”

I turned away and jogged up to the head of the group, quietly relaying Camille’s orders as I went. Once I got to the head of the group, I gestured for them to continue and let myself fall to the back of the nomads. I stayed there all day, as we hustled through the snow, encouraging people to keep the pack our vanguard was setting and helping anyone who started to struggle. When Camille’s party dropped back, I got everyone down and a couple barricades up, just in time to avoid the few bullets that zinged our way on the tail-end of the thunderous crack of a rifle.

A few quiet phfnkt’s later, Camille had us on the move again. Twice more, as the afternoon dragged on, we repeated the same thing. Each time, we were up and ready by the time the bandit snipers were in place. Thanks to Camille’s decision to have the rearguard focus on calling out positions and our best snipers firing back from our collapsible barricades, we didn’t sustain any injuries. Our first encounter with the bandits was a success. They were good, but Wayfinders were better.

We arrived as the sun was setting and the clouds began to drop a serious snow on us. Natalie and her scouts set up camp in an old barn, a couple of miles away from the second of the two abandoned towns. While not bulletproof in the slightest, it was still sturdy and the bandits would be blind-firing if they chose to shoot into it. And in the fact that the barn was next to a relatively recent farmhouse and both were on a small hill and it made the perfect shelter for us. The pump needed to be unfrozen, but we had our first water in a week that wasn’t snowmelt.

With the little light remaining, I got the nomads and laborers to finish setting up camp, cook, and get themselves settled into guard rotations while Camille and Natalie organized the defense. An hour after sunset, Lucas and his three Wayfinders returned. After making sure they were fed, I settled in to wait for the bandit scouts to appear. Everything was in place, every Wayfinder was ready, and the bandits were soon going to learn just what a mistake they had made in giving us time to prepare.

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