Coldheart and Iron: Part 13

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I spent most of the first full day of the blizzard napping after one last shift making my signature fruit-and-secret-sugar oatmeal. I had originally planned to sit with a group of the newer Wayfinders and trainees, but I fell asleep as they were telling stories. I woke up in time for lunch and managed to stay awake for another hour but, just like my father would do at every family party we’d ever attended, I fell asleep shortly after sitting down.

Camille woke me in time to help prepare dinner and we had another excellent meal, filled with laughter, good food, and warmth as we all sat in a large circle. After dinner and clean up, Natalie and I managed to find the time to perform a quick review of the storerooms, to double-check that all of our lists were accurate. It wound up taking a little longer than planned, but we wanted to be thorough. Once we’d wrapped up and Natalie had gone away to file the stock reports, I checked on the Laborers and Nomads. They seemed to be getting along well and were hunkered down for the night by the time I walked by.

The second day was a little more quiet and somber. The wind had picked up overnight, which meant the worse of the storm was approaching. There were no restrictions on noise, thankfully, but it was hard to be anything other than quiet. Knowing that the only thing keeping you alive was preparations you had finished a few days ago was frustrating because there was nothing you could do today to fix or improve things. I tried to keep spirits up, but only the Laborers seemed unaffected by the general mood, though I quickly figured it out that their cheer was because they had finished off the last of their smuggled alcohol when the tension started getting to them. Thankfully, no one got too belligerent.

Day three was almost silent as the screaming winds and the occasional thump of debris bouncing off the building cut through any attempts at conversation. Most of the Wayfinders tried to sleep through the day. The others played cards, cleaned their gear, or talked in groups of two or three. The nomads stayed in their rooms and the laborers stayed huddled on their cookfire for the entire day, slowly eating all of the extra food they had saved up from the rations we doled out every day. I got a couple naps in, but mostly I played solitaire while Camille, Natalie, and Lucas played poker for guard shifts.

By the end of the fourth day, restlessness had started to settle in, pushing some of the fear and silence out. People moved around more. Most of the Wayfinders were doing various workout routines to burn some energy and stay in shape while one of the more knowledgeable martial artists gave lessons to anyone who wanted to learn. A surprising number of Laborers showed up, as did all of the Nomads. I watched as the two groups mixed with the Wayfinders in the large, empty storage room Terry had set up as her classroom and was relieved to see that the Laborers practiced with everyone, not just each other. The Nomads stayed a little more insular, but a few of them had started to pick different partners by dinner time.

On the fifth day, the wind and noise started to die down. Everyone’s mood picked up, thought they still spent the day exercising or learning martial arts. A few people, the less athletically inclined, spent a lot of time between their practice sessions complaining about how sore they were, but they refused every offer to sit by the sidelines and play cards. A few of the older Wayfinders, including Natalie and myself, weren’t as stir-crazy, so we spent our day taking care of guard shifts and playing card games while watching the Laborers and Nomads knock each other on their asses. It was a good way to spend the day and, since we were crowded in a corner, it made sense for Natalie and I to sit close to each other.

The sixth day was punctuated by gusts of wind that carried a bit of debris around, slapping it into the building with a surprisingly loud noise. The tension was back, and most people stayed quiet in their own spaces. A few of the nomads and most of the Laborers were sore from the past two days of rigorous exercise, but it was mostly anxiety that kept the Wayfinders quiet. It is one thing to ignore constant wind and the almost ceaseless sound of bits of whatever peppering the sides of the building we were in, but the random gusts lulled people into a false sense of peace unless they kept their guard up the entire time. By the time we were going to bed, though, the wind had stopped and silenced reigned around us.

Day seven started out quietly, carrying over yesterday’s tension, amplified by everyone straining their ears for any sound that didn’t belong to the people around them. It was quiet enough for me to hear the creak of my joints as I went through my daily tasks. By dinner, everyone had started to relax again. The worst of the blizzard should have been over that morning and the lack of any major disturbance meant that the blizzard would end on schedule, in just three more days. All we had to do at this point was wait out the last of the snowfall and wind, and we would finally be able to start digging ourselves out.

The eighth day slowly, people now bored out of their minds and left feeling out of sorts as the tension they’d been holding onto for a week started to drain away. Camille and I broke into some of the stores that Natalie had set aside for turning this place into a base, expanding our meal supplies so we had enough to make dinner for the Laborers and Nomads as well. We had to recruit a few extra hands, the old Nomad woman, Mary, who turned out to be their matriarch and Trevor, to be able to make such a large meal, but bringing everyone together to celebrate making it through the worst of the blizzard did an excellent job of raising spirits.

The ninth day passed in a blur of activity as we started getting everyone ready to start the process of digging through the inevitable snow drifts piled against our door. Natalie handed out a few copies of her supply map that she had produced between cards and exercise routines and I walked Trevor and Mary through Natalie’s plans for gathering supplies and clearing a way out of town. We all went to bed early, everyone worn out from the busy day and the excitement they’d been feeling at the prospect of getting out into the fresh air again. It had gotten rather stuffy and a little smelly over the past couple days, and even cold, snow-filled air would be preferable to the scent of people who’d been working out.

The tenth day began quickly. Everyone was awake and ready to go by six, so we began the process of unblocking the front door, carefully peeling away the sealant so we could get a peek outside without letting out too much heat. When we finally glimpsed the outside world again, we were met with the usual light-grey cloud cover and gently falling snow that was adding to at least two feet of snow. The drifts we could see towered above us. Thankfully, the one near the door was off to the side, so we’d be able to dig our way out without needing to go through the deepest part of a drift.

I gave the order to finish unblocking the door and found Trevor and Mary watching nearby. I waved them over and took a few steps away from the door. “We’re going to focus on digging today. Supply gathering will start tomorrow, but I’d like to get paths dug before we get any sun that could turn the top layer of the snow to ice.”

“Could we really get sunlight that soon?” Trevor looked out at the grey sky doubtfully. “We just had a blizzard and you said it’s going to keep snowing for a few more days.”

“Yes, but there’s still a chance we’ll see a few breaks in the clouds.” I gestured toward the giant piles of snow. “Most of the moisture making the clouds is down here now and it will be a while before enough new moisture is gathered to return the clouds to their usual iron-grey color. We’ll get more sun in the next few days than we will in the three months between the return of the clouds and the start of the next blizzard.”

Mary nodded, her face grim. “We always like to do as many outside chores as we can during these days. The sunlight feels good after being trapped inside for over a week.”

Trevor shrugged. “Alright. I trust you. Paths it is. I’ll get my people ready.”

“Thanks.” I smiled and gestured to the map sticking out of Trevor’s breast pocket. “There’s a path going south toward a supply cache, an old Menards, and I’d like for your group to focus on that.”

“South?” Mary pulled out her own map. “Isn’t that going to take them toward the group of people you told us to avoid?”

“Yes, but they’ll be fine. The store is only a mile away and my scouts found no traces of any of them coming that far north.” I pointed at a point three miles further south, past the store. “This is as far north as we’ve found tracks of signs of their passage.” I looked up at Trevor. “As long as you guys stay fairly quietly, the snow will muffle you enough that your group can just shovel right up to the doors and walk away.”

“Excellent.” Trevor smiled and pulled out his map. “I’ll get us ready to go within the hour.”

“Just go straight south. This is the longest path we’ll be digging, so try to go as straight as you can. If you can go around a big drift, do it, but only if it doesn’t take you off the marked streets.”

Trevor bobbed his head in acknowledgment and turned away. He paused and turned back. “How big should the path be?”

I held my arms out to the sides, as far as I could. “About two and a half times the size of the widest person in your group. We want people to be able to pass each other without bumping into each other so we can quickly move supplies.” Trevor gave me a thumbs-up and turned away again.

As Trevor walked away, I gestured toward Mary’s map. “I’d like to get all of your people working on some of the local paths. Feel free to deviate as much as you need to, to get around the big drifts.”

Mary started tracing a few lines on her map with a finger. “Sounds good. I’ll make sure my people know what to do. We used to do similar things around our home, that I will say we relied more on snowshoes than completely clearing a path.” She folded up her map and looked over at me. “We’ll get it done.”

“As soon as the Wayfinders have dug our way out of town, we’ll swing back to help your people finish the local paths.”

Mary pursed her lips. “You think you’re going to be able to make it the mile and a half out of town and then back again before I’m finished?”

I gave Mary a giant grin, imitating Lucas’ signature smile. “Well, we’ve had a lot of practice.”

Mary chuckled and walked away. “Fair enough.”

I watched the Wayfinders finish their job of clearing the door and then, once it was finished, went back into our area to put on my insulated gear. One day of digging, four days of gathering supplies, one day of sorting, and then we’d finally be on our way again. As much as I enjoyed the security and warmth of our shelter, my feet had started to itch as soon as we started opening the door. Safety is always nice, of course, but I was ready to be moving again.

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