Coldheart and Iron: Part 9

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


The next morning, we woke up and tried to return to our routines. One of the hardest parts of the morning was reassigning the duties of the two Wayfinders we buried the night before. Harder still was splitting up their gear amongst the rest of us. We couldn’t afford to leave anything behind but the clothes we buried them in. The tundra wasn’t that forgiving. After that and a breakfast of plain oatmeal that tasted especially bland after the hamburgers of the night before, I moved through the barn. The laborers and nomads had slept on opposite sides of the barn and stuck to their groups as they continued to mourn and slowly prepare to set out.

When both groups were finally ready to go, two hours later than planned, the first of the scouts was just reporting back. The coast was clear and they’d found enough landmarks to put our location on a map. Despite our deviation from our intended course, we would be able to make our target town the day after tomorrow. That would mean we’d still have at least three days before the blizzard arrived to prepare and hunker down. I shared the news with everyone, but only the Wayfinders seemed cheered by it. The nomads and the laborers merely nodded, picked up their things, and followed us out of the barn, carefully avoiding each other.

It was a long day of walking. Since we’d left late, I pushed the group until it was almost dark. We had to set up camp quickly, but we still had fifteen minutes before the sun was completely down when I set the last sentry in place. After doing a few patrols of the camp and making note of how far apart the nomads and the laborers had grouped themselves, I headed back to my tent and my friends.

Inside, Natalie and Camille were talking over their dinners while Lucas lay to the side, arms behind his head, and occasionally adding something to the conversation. Without really tuning in to what they were saying, I finished taking off my gear and then helped myself to some of the reconstituted soup. As I took my first bite, their conversation finally filtered through to my brain.

“Hold on, what?” I turned to Natalie. “I thought this was one of the towns we’d scouted on our last trip through. Didn’t someone say it was perfect for us?”

“Yes.” Natalie nodded scraped the last of her soup into her mouth. “The problem is, that was a few years ago. While it is still probably just fine, it won’t be exactly how we found it back then. We’ll probably need to do a little extra work to make sure we find enough new food and safe water.”

Camille grabbed Natalie’s bowl and, placed it insider her own, preparing to wash them out. “That, or we need to dip into our supplies a little more and spend time fortifying our camp. If we haven’t gotten any kind of update on the area since the last time we were through, it is possible there will be more bandits nearby.”

“Though any group small enough to survive in a town this size probably wouldn’t pose much of a threat.” Lucas had propped himself up on his elbows. “If we can make it until the blizzard starts, we’ll be fine for a few days and then we can always sneak out under cover of the end of the blizzard. Most bandits won’t go out in it, but we’d be fine.”

Natalie sighed. “All of these things are true. I’m just frustrated we don’t have any good intel and, aside from basic scouting, we’ll all be too busy preparing for the tri-monthly blizzard to do anything but frantically prep.”

“I can push us harder tomorrow.” I stirred my soup as I thought. “If we can just pick up the pace a little bit, we should be able to get there early tomorrow evening, which will give us three full days to prepare.”

“Or spring a bandit trap.” Camille grabbed a handful of snow from the bucket inside the tent and used it to scour the bowls.

“Yes. Or that.” I had a few more mouthfuls of soup.

“I have a few places on the maps that might work, but only one if we want to let the nomads and laborers keep away from each other. It won’t be great and would require more work, but we should be able to get it ready in time anyway.” Natalie yawned. “Either way, I’m going to bed soon because I’m going to be super busy for the next four days.”

“Me too. Scouting leaves at sunrise.”

“Okay you two, get some sleep.” I pointed to Lucas in mock severity. “That’s an official order from your Captain!”

Lucas nodded and saluted, letting himself fall over backward as he did so. “At once, sir!”

After I finished my dinner and washed my bowl, Camille packed them away while I took care of cleaning the soup pot and turning off the camp stove. Fifteen minutes later, we were all asleep.

The next morning, I woke as the sun started making its existence known. Lucas was already gone and Natalie was in the process of leaving. Her opening the door was what woke me up, but the feeling of the air is what got me out of my sleeping bag an hour before I needed to. Sleep was precious, especially given that I hadn’t had much lately, but something in the air made me anxious.

I quickly dressed and scooped half of the leftover oatmeal out of the pot, shoveling it down as I zipped up my jacket and pants. Once I’d finished and dropped some of the snowmelt from the bucket into the bowl to prevent the oatmeal from sticking, I hurried out the door. Once I was outside, I snuck around the camp. Creeping between buildings and staring out past the perimeter as I went, I kept myself hidden as I looked for whatever had me on edge. Fifteen minutes and two circuits of the camp later, I was forced to look elsewhere.

I went around the camp again, still sneaking, but this time I focused my attention inward. As I made my first round, I realized there was far too much silence coming from the nomad and laborer tents. Even if we had to wake them most mornings, there should have been someone who was up or moving around at that point. All the Wayfinders were waking up at this point, even if I was the only one outside who wasn’t on duty.

I finished my circuit and went to the guard I’d stationed near enough to the laborers and nomads to keep an eye on them. When I got over to him, I nudged him with my boot. “Nichols. What happened?”

Nichols shook the snow off of himself and stretched his impressive length. “Caught a couple of the nomads sneaking around last night, Cap’n. Sent them packing. You know I’ve got a good loom. Spooked them a bit and then told them off, but that’s about it. Did the same thing to a couple groups of laborers who were trying to do the same thing.”

I helped pull Nichols to his feet and the skinny giant towered over me. He was about seven feet tall, but you could practically see through him. He was an excellent sniper and enjoyed the Wayfinder life, but outfitting him was the biggest administrative challenge of my life. After brushing him off a bit, I turned to face the tents. “Can you tell me who?”

“I don’t have any names, Cap’n. I just wanted everyone back in their tents before they caused a ruckus.”

“Thank you, Nichols. I’ll see what I can do about preventing that from happening again.”

“Sure thing, Cap’n.” He stretched again, sighing. “If you want to know, the last group of laborers came out of this tent, here.” He pointed at the nearest tent. “I wouldn’t have caught them if I hadn’t been watching for something by then. They were silent as they snuck out and didn’t say a word when I confronted them.” He cleared his throat and leaned closer. “And they were a bit under-dressed, if you catch my meaning.”

I nodded, keeping a tight leash on the sudden anger I felt, and waved him toward where a couple of wayfinders were preparing breakfast. “Go get yourself some breakfast. I’ll take care of it.” Sneaking around at night was one thing, sneaking around at night without the proper thermal gear was something else entirely.

As the lanky behemoth walked away, I walked over to the tent that belonged to the laborer spokesperson and Mitch, the drunken moron who wouldn’t take no for an answer from one of my trainee Wayfinders. When I was standing right outside it, I could hear the faint sounds of muted conversation coming from inside. I stood and listened for a minute, trying to make out what they were saying, but they were being too quiet. I decided a direct confrontation was probably my best bet, so I unzipped the door to their tent and stepped inside.

There were five laborers sitting around their small camp stove, but they weren’t cooking anything on it. They all turned to look at me, shading their eyes against the morning light. Mitch and his friend, the man acting as their spokesperson, were sitting facing the tent door, so I locked eyes with them first. Mitch looked away quickly, but the other man set his face in the same business-like neutral expression he had used while talking about refunds.

“Good morning, Captain.” He stood up and flashed a perfunctory smile. “To what do we owe your company?”

I zipped the tent closed behind me and kept my tone and face as neutral as his. “Someone told me that the people from this tent were sneaking around at night. Was that you and your friends, Trevor?”

He smiled, trying to be disarming. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Cut the crap.” I stepped forward and let some of my frustration and anger from the past few days heat my voice. “One of my guards saw you come out, confronted you, and told me about it this morning.”

“We didn’t do anyth-” Mitch was in the middle of gingerly clambering to his feet when he was interrupted by his friend, who placed a hand on his shoulder and gently pushed him back down.

“Fine. We had arranged a small meeting with the nomads last night and didn’t see that it was any business of yours if we chose to talk to them about it. Since they didn’t show up here, we went to find them.” Trevor glared down at his companions. “When we were told by your guard to return to our tent, we did.”

“And what do you want to discuss that isn’t any of my business?” After a moment of silence, a blank look from Trevor, and uneasy stares from everyone else, I sighed and spoke a little louder. “Do I need to remind you that literally everything that happens while I am guiding you is my business? Especially when it involves breaking the rules I set when we left the Madison enclave?”

“We wanted to continue our discussion from last night, about who owed who what as a result of the bandit attack.”

“That wasn’t a discussion, it was a shouting match that would have erupted in violence if my people hadn’t been separating everyone.”

“Be that as it may, we wished to continue to talk and you clearly do not want that to happen.” Trevor crossed his arms, his neutral tone disappearing. “If there’s nothing else, Captain, I’d like for you to leave.”

I nodded. “One last thing, and then I’ll leave.” I stepped forward, dropping my voice to a low, angry snarl. “If you pull any of this shit again, remember that we’re the justice out here and I can promise you that anything you do that might endanger us, like walking around at night or being careless with your heat signatures like you were last night will not go unpunished.”

I stepped closer to the group, leaning over a little. “Were you just careless? Did you think that almost two decades of experience didn’t count for anything? I know you’re all young, but even you should know what happens to groups that get caught outside the enclaves.” Even Trevor was looking away now, unwilling to meet my eyes. “If we get attacked, we’re just going to leave you behind. That single, moronic move was a worse violation than anything that might have happened because of the nomads.”

I straightened up and walked back toward the tent. “Sneaking around at night is a violation, but mostly a harmless one if you really meant to just talk. Sneaking around at night without full thermal gear is beyond moronic. If I or my Wayfinders catch anyone outside without their thermal gear again, we’re just going to bury them in the snow and leave them behind.”

I unzipped the tent and stepped outside. I zipped the tent back up and took a deep breath of the chill morning air. I was still angry. A firefight that ended barely forty-eight hours ago and now people wandering around at night without their insulating gear. Chances were good that we were going to draw attention from something worse than bandits and blizzards unless we make good time and took extra care setting up for the snowstorm. Something we’d be helpless to fight against.

I shuddered and moved away from the laborer tent. I had another group to tell off, still, and then my usual morning duties to attend to. Today was going to be another long day.

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