Coldheart and Iron: Part 5

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


The attack came a little after three in the morning. They were silent, with top-tier pre-collapse gear: Night-vision goggles, motion trackers, and audio sensors. We had flares and synchronized watches.

That’s the thing about Wayfinders we never leave anyone alive to talk about. We don’t fight fair. Our groups are almost always smaller than the bandits roaming the tundra and we don’t have any hulking bruisers among us, so we’re usually individually smaller as well. As a result, Wayfinders avoid fighting at all cost and, instead, simply kill any threats we face. Our preferred tactics are ambush and surprise, but only when stealth killing isn’t an option. Someone who dies before they wake up can’t raise an alarm or escape their bonds in order to help their allies fight.

Camille was one of the first to take the practice of ending fights before they began and turn it into a codified practice taught to others. Before the Wayfinders were an official group, when we were just four people trying to find the rest of our friends and families, Camille protected us from bandits by killing every single one we found while sneaking from city to city. When I decided to turn our side job of guiding people from settlement to settlement into a business, she was ready with training and guidelines. She made us into the militaristically strong organization that we are today, the only strength and justice in the tundra for people who just want to travel safely. There were no better hands to be in than hers and the bandits only realized their mistake when it was already too late to save themselves.

The night was overcast with an ever-falling blanket of light snow to cover any noise as they approached. Our scouts had already spotted them and warned us of their arrival, well before they had even set up their small staging camp outside of the hills that separated this farm from the plains. They wore their night-vision goggles and all we had were eyes trained to make out detail even in the harshest blizzard. We watched the thin light reflecting off their goggles as they approached and, once they snuck up on the dummies we’d placed at all the barricades, we ignited our flares.

In the confusion that followed, the muffled crack of each silenced Wayfinder rifle firing was drowned out by the pained screams of our targets and the sharp roars of their guns as they blindly fired. Their confusion and blindness did more damage to their allies than we had done.  After firing two rounds each, our snipers stood down, waiting for the bandits’ panicked firing to stop and for more targets to appear. Five minutes and a few careful shots later, the remaining bandits started their retreat. As they retreated, Camille signalled to my group.

We slipped out of our hiding spot near the entrance to the barn and started collecting weapons from the dead bandits. By the time we’d grabbed the dozen guns and all their ammunition, the second group was on its way back. Leaving the flares burning and hiding the looted guns in the bushes, we crept around behind them, sneaking through the gap one of our snipers made when she silently killed the pair approaching us from the south. Ten minutes later, as the Wayfinders traded shots with the bandits, we struck their base camp.

There were eight of us. I and one of the trainees went around the far side and started working our way into the tents. We killed the two bandits we found sleeping, finished off the injured ones that had been dragged back to the camp, and drew a line of kerosene through their camp. We poured from tent to tent and then dumped the rest over their ammunition after giving them a quick scan. While we did that, the other three trainees and three Wayfinders, led by Natalie, slipped through the sentries and awake bandits, swiftly killing them all. Once we were all finished, we dumped out their camp stoves and used them to light the trail of kerosene. While they burned, we dashed back to the cover of the hills.

A couple of minutes after we’d lit them, the fires reached the ammunition and the whole camp exploded. Natalie led us through the hills, taking us wide around the farm so we wouldn’t run the risk of encountering anyone racing back from the farm to find out what had happened to their camp. Half an hour after we had left, at about three forty-five, we made it back to the barn. Natalie signaled to Camille that were had finished and we made a dash for the barn.

Once we were all safely inside, I climbed up the spikes we’d stuck into one of the beams and crawled through the hayloft until I found Camille prone, peering through the scope of her rifle. I crawled next to her, raised my scope, and looked in the same direction she was. Just through the trees around the farm, I could see the red glow of the bandit camp burning shining off the tops of the hills. I watched it for a moment before lowering my gun and reporting.

“The camp was dead before we left. No major resistance and only one minor injury on our part. A bit of debris from the explosion nicked Matthews. Clean cut, just needed a quick wrap to stop the bleeding and a patch to his gear.” Camille grunted, pleased that her plan worked. “How about up here?”

“No injuries at all. They couldn’t handle the flares and were counting on their goggles giving them an advantage in marksmanship. Between our two groups, that should account for all of them. There were a few left alive when they left, so I had our ground troops follow the bandits back to their camp to make sure none of them returned again. Find anything useful?”

I shook my head. The bandit stores had been empty aside from their ammunition, which was useless to us, since we used rifles and all of their guns were semi-automatic. “No food or extra gear we could have used aside from the tents and blankets. They must have a much larger force following them if their scouting party was almost three dozen people. There’s no way they could live out of their packs alone for the entire time they’ve been following the nomads.”

Camille nodded. “That confirms the reports we got from one of the bandits we questioned. A survivor whose passing we eased after he answered our questions.”

“How did the laborers and nomads take that?”

“They didn’t see it. Luke took care of it while doing a second sweep right after they fled.” Camille lowered her rifle and looked over at me. “We need to reset quickly if we’re going to be ready for their main group. Have the nomads and laborers been handled?”

“Yes.” I nodded. “The non-combatants are hidden in the farmhouse cellar with our extra supplies and the cellar is barred from both sides. Two nomads were stationed there with their weapons and Natalie is passing them the extra guns and ammo. Just in case. The rest are hidden in the farmhouse with orders to use it as their fort if we give them the signal. They did a good job of staying silent through the fight.”

“Make sure everyone is still in their places. I’d worry they fled if we hadn’t had eyes on the entire clearing.” Camille winked and made a shooing gesture with her hand. “I’ll keep an eye on things from up here.” Her small smile faded and her usual grimace returned. “Hopefully sniping can convince the main force not to push for the barn.”

I crawled backwards and turned around, ready to crawl out of the hayloft. “Hopefully killing their scouts without any major injuries or losses on our sides will accomplish that. I’d prefer to avoid another fight.”

“Sure. That’s exactly how things work out here.” Camille chuckled darkly and raised her scope back to her eye. “They’re just going to leave us alone because we’ve already killed enough of them to make them afraid. They’re definitely not going to decide that we deserve killing for daring to stand against them.”

After a moment of silence, I patted Camille on the calf, pushed her feet aside to make more room for my departure, and made my way back to the ladder. It was just about four o’clock in the morning and I was starting to feel it. I did a quick round of all posts, made sure everyone was good to go, and then settled in the farmhouse with the laborers and nomads to wait for dawn and whatever attack would come. Unfortunately, I didn’t have to wait long.

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