Coldheart and Iron: Part 8

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I pushed open the door and took in the scene unfolding in the clear space between empty animal stalls. Standing in two groups, the nomads and laborers were yelling at each other. In between them was Camille and a few Wayfinders with guns trained on the floor. I could see Camille shouting to make herself heard over the hubbub as the rest of the Wayfinders caught between angry mobs uneasily thumbed their safeties. All the other Wayfinders were sitting near their guns and the nomad children were huddled in a corner away from all the commotion with the older woman sitting in front of them.

The scent of hamburgers and my extreme hunger set aside, I tossed my gear to the ground and hurried over to the two groups, waving my arms. As I jogged up, I locked eyes with Camille who grimaced and then fired her gun into the far barn door. As the sharp crack of her rifle faded, silence fell and the two groups became aware that I was shouting at them.

“What is going on here? I want you and you” I pointed to one person from each group, a woman from the nomads and the laborer who stood furthest forward, “to explain to me why you aren’t behaving like adults. While they’re doing that, I want everyone else at opposite sides of the barn. Hands kept clearly visible or I’ll send Wayfinders to find out why they aren’t.” I crossed my arms  and glared from one group to the other. “You couldn’t just sit and eat your dinner in peace?”

The two groups, shepherded by armed Wayfinders, retreated to opposite sides of the barn. A few people from each group shot bashful looks in my direction, but no one split off from their group. After a quick whispered conference, the laborers sent the man I’d pointed at over. He was the friend of the man who had been getting aggressive with Laura a few days ago.  He started to speak, but I held up my finger to silence him while I waited for a nomad to join us. When they finally sent the woman over a couple of minutes later, I pointed at the laborer. “Speak.”

“These idiots led the bandits to us. It is their fault our friends died.” He clenched his fists and his jaw for a moment, but relaxed them a moment later. “We just want them to accept responsibility for these needless deaths.” After a moment of silence, I pointed to the nomad woman who was positively bristling.

“My wife wouldn’t have died if it weren’t for these assholes! If they had any ability to defend themselves, none of the bandits would have gotten close enough to kick down the door and kill my family.” The woman’s voice broke and she clenched her fists. “If only they had been better, Elaine would still be…” She broke into tears and I braced myself to stop her from lunging at the laborer, but the tension drained out of her body and she covered her face.

The laborer turned to step toward the nomad, clearly uncomfortable but unwilling to back down. “If they had come to where we were instead of trying new windows, no one-”

“That’s quite enough.” I grabbed the laborer’s shoulder and pushed him back a couple of steps. “I know both of you lost people today, on top of what must have been an exhausting night and day. I’m not going to ask that you calm down or control yourselves, because grief is important and should not be denied. You should mourn however you see fit, just do it without blaming other people.”

I turned to the laborer. “You all signed waivers. You knew this could happen at any time and that some of you would probably die.” I waved my hand as he started to speak and then put it on his shoulder in an attempt to be somewhat comforting. “Yes, this was awful, but we’re not safe yet. Surviving until after the blizzard should be our focus for right now. We can rest and mourn once we have taken shelter for a few days.” I patted his shoulder and then turned to the nomad.

“Your group has lived outside of an enclave for years. You all knew the risks you took. I’m sorry about your wife and your friends, but the laborers are not to blame for their death. These things happen and we need to stay strong and work together if we’re going to prevent any more loss of life.”

While the laborer stared at the ground and the nomad wiper her tears away, I sighed. “I know how hard it can be to lose people. I’m a Wayfinder because I’ve got no one left to me but this family I’ve created. I’ve buried my own share of people. They were there and then they were gone. There’s no sense to it.” I paused to clear my throat and master the emotion roiling through me before quietly continuing. “I had to do it again today.”

I paused to clear my throat again, letting my feelings of loss and failure to protect my people and those we had taken under our protection wash over me for a moment before pushing them away again. “None of us is alone in our grief. If we want to get through this, we need to support each other. The blame for today’s death lies with the bandits and they’re all dead.”

The laborer shuffled his feet and, after a deep breath, looked up at me. “Thank you for your help, Wayfinder Marshall. I think we all would have died without your aid.” I nodded, and was about to express my condolences, but he cut me off as he stiffened his back and his eyes hardened into a glare. “The thing is, though, we all paid good money to be guided and protected. Sure, we signed a waiver. But we also had a contract!” He crossed his arms and clenched his jaw, but his glistening eyes betrayed the hurt and frustration he felt. “Bringing these people to our group violated that contract!” His voice lost a little bit of its steam and I could hear the hitch in his voice, even if he did his best to hide it. “And it brought the bandits down on us.”

“The person responsible for breaking the contract has been punished according to our rules.” I shifted my stance a little, trying to look a little more stern but still conciliatory. “We did everything we could to guarantee your safety. What’s done is done and I will not tell you who is responsible for that decision. If you have any problems, you come to me. If you try taking issue with any of my people, they will direct you to me.”

“Thank you, Captain, I will make sure to speak with you if anything else comes up.” The laborer nodded, arms still crossed and back rigid, but this time all traces of sadness were gone from his face “In the meantime, I’d like to discuss our refund.”

I hid my surprise and mounting frustration by going into business mode, all expression gone from my face and all emotion gone from my voice. “Your refund.” I arched an eyebrow at him and let a little disbelief and the tiniest trace of humor I didn’t feel seep into my voice.

“Yes.” The laborer cleared his throat. “Since someone in your organization violated our contract, we’d like our money back.”

“We can discuss this later. This is for the two of us to talk about alone, rather than in front of this woman.” I nodded to the nomad woman who was still sniffling. “Is there anything else I can do to help you, ma’am? Or are you and your group ready to retire for the night?”

She nodded and wiped her eyes one last time. “If you cannot guarantee our safety or give us space away from these poor marksmen, we’d prefer to break off on our own.”

I calmly took a deep breath before answering, trying to keep the anger I felt out of my voice. We spent valuable resources and lost people trying to save both of these groups and they were turning on us. “You can do that, if you like. You will have to leave everything we gave you behind, though. All of the weapons and gear we’ve recovered from the bandits, too. Everything you didn’t bring yourselves.”

“No.” She folded her arms across her chest, matching the laborer, and her face went from watery and sad to commanding in an instant. “We fought and died for those. We’re entitled to a one-third share of everything from the bandits.”

“Like hell you are!”  The laborer stepped forward again, dropping his arms and balling his fists. “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have been attacked. You’d all be dead if it wasn’t for us!”

She sniffed derisively. “And that’s why we get a share. You defended us, but you wouldn’t have gotten anything without us.”

I stepped in between then, pushing the laborer back as his face turned red and he raised a fist. Part of me wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, but the rest of me wanted to curl up and cry after eating as much as I could. I settled for remaining calm and neutral. “Stop it.” I turned to the woman. “Wayfinders have rights to all items looted as a result of action on their part. You’re using them because it’s worth our while to invest in you protecting yourselves. If you leave, you leave everything but what you brought. We’re guiding you for free and you are lucky we don’t just take everything you have of value in payment.

“And you!” I rounded on the laborer. The physical and emotional exhaustion I felt starting to wear away the calm facade I had been propping up. “Go back to your group and cool off. I’ll come find you after dinner and we can discuss the contract.  I can tell you now that it won’t change anything. You’re not getting your money back.The field decisions clause means any decision I make in the field will not violate the contract. The conditions outside of the enclave cannot be predicted beforehand.” I gestured for him to return to his group. “You should still have the paper copy you all signed. Read through while you wait. Let me know if you find any holes.”

I turned my back on the man, but shot a glance at Camille, who was watching from a dozen steps away. She nodded, letting me know he’d walked away. I turned my attention back to the nomad woman. “Is there anything else?”

She shook her head. “No. We’ll stick with your group, for now. I’m sure you can expect a poor net review when we get to an enclave.”

I laughed as she walked away, absurdity winning out. “The world doesn’t work like that anymore. The net may still exist, but Yelp sure as hell doesn’t.” I was still chuckling but getting close to tears when Camille walked up a minute later.

I nodded, surreptitiously wiping my eyes. “Thanks for keeping an eye on us. I didn’t think it would come to the point where you’d need to intervene, but everyone was a lot angrier than I expected.”

Camille shrugged. “It never hurts to be prepared.” Camille stood to attention and saluted. “I’m officially handing command back to you, sir. We’re back to people stuff and I’m ready for my first sleep in almost three days.”

“Thank you.” I saluted Camille. “Rest up. I have a feeling we’ll need to keep an eye on these two groups for a while yet.”

Camille grunted and walked off toward the Wayfinder campfire and her bedroll. “Yeah. Especially if we’re going to all be cooped up together for a week or more during that blizzard.” I sighed and followed her, trying to be more optimistic about the likely results of our next few weeks. All I could see in our future, though, was a bunch of fist-fights and more anger. Even though it would be ideal, there would be no way for us to have two separate shelters prepared and stocked in the few days we had left before the next blizzard.

 

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