I blinked rapidly, trying to clear my eyes, but otherwise lay perfectly still, barely even breathing. After a moment, my eyes started to clear and the dull grey sheen of lamplight reflected off the barrel of a revolver stole my attention.
“Stay still like this, and nobody gets shot.”
I looked past the gun to find a man, perhaps a few years older than me, crouched over me. He wasn’t the one holding the gun, but he was clearly in charge of the much younger man who was. The younger man kept his eyes trained on me, barely even blinking, as he firmly held the business end of his gun to my forehead. I glanced between the three things I could see for a moment, from gun to young man to old man and then back again.
“Good.” The older man smiled, a grim line across his weathered face. “I know you’re Wayfinders and I hope you know I wouldn’t be doing this without enough people to make sure your skills don’t count for anything. You can speak, but only to me. If you shout stuff to other people, you get shot along with anyone who does something because of you.” He looked around the room. “Everyone got that? Just sit tight while I talk to your leader and no one gets hurt.”
“What do you want?” I tried to keep my voice calm, but there was more heat left in my voice than even the older man expected.
“Well, I want your supplies and weapons, of course.” The older man chuckled. “Those are my main interests and all I really need out of this raid.” The laughter disappeared from his eyes and his face returned to its thin smile. “That being said, I wouldn’t mind your laborer.. Building a long-term, permanent base isn’t easy when you haven’t got the skills or manpower to get it done. But you Wayfinders make excellent slaves. Knowledgeable and hard-working.”
“If all we have to look forward to is slavery, what’s to stop us from fighting until all of us or all of you are dead?” I took a deep breath and focused on the older man’s light green eyes, letting all of my anger show for just a moment. “Doesn’t seem like a good idea, letting your captives know they’ve got nothing left to lose.”
The old man leaned back for a moment, and then laughed. “Damn, you’ve got a mean glare. No wonder you’re the leader.” He leaned down for a moment and swiftly threw a punch at the side of my head. I heard a sound a like a stapler being used on a piece of cardboard followed by a ringing in my right ear as my head started to throb.
“You, shitbrains, can call me Al. I’m in charge, now, and the reason you’ll go along with my demands is that I’m going to put all the kids in a chamber full of sharp objects and unscrupulous men and make sure you know exactly what is happening to all them as a result of your behavior.” Al leaned over and slapped me on the cheek, his grim smile once more stretched across his face.
I closed my eyes against the throbbing pain of my temple and tried to pull my thoughts back together. It took me a couple of moments, but Al hadn’t moved when I was able to talk again. “Fine. Congratulations, asshole. You’ve captured the largest group of Wayfinders to pass through the area. I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
Al grinned. “You’re damn right, I am. It was easy, too. A couple offers of safety and membership in my clan was all it took to get some of your people to betray you.”
“Yep. You really ought to treat your paying customers better.” The grin changed to a smirk. “Seems like he was tired of being told what to do, so he opened the back door for us. Probably wants a little personal revenge, which he’s allowed so long as he doesn’t break you.” Al shrugged and looked toward the doorway. “Seems a little excited at the idea of some time alone with you. That man carries a grudge like no one I’ve met. It’s almost beautiful.”
He turned his face back to me and smiled a genuine smile. “That’s how I knew he’d fit in just fine. Can’t survive out in the wild without some kind of fire in your gut to keep you going when it feels like hell itself has frozen over.”.”
I almost picked my head up to look toward the door, to see if Trevor was watching this, but the young man with the gun must have noticed me tense because he grunted and pressed the gun into my head a little more forcefully than before. Unable to move and suddenly much less curious, I took a few deep breaths and forced myself to make eye contact with Al. “Did you hurt anyone?”
“Only the sentries, but they’ll be fine.” Al sneered. “They put up a small fight, but we beat them into submission. Nothing some rest and a bit of doctoring won’t fix.”
“Can I see my people?”
Al gestured off to the side, at something outside of my field of view. “Sure. But only if you lie still while my two guys here unzip this sleeping bag and zip-tie your hands.” After I nodded, two more men, both even younger than the man with the gun, walked up and flipped me over, so I was face down and the gun was pressed against the back of my head. They unzipped the sleeping bag and, before I had time to do more than simply consider whether or not I should attempt an escape, they had my arms pulled back and bound. After they’d finished pulling the ties tight enough to start cutting into my wrists, they turned me over again and propped me up against their legs.
All around our area were fifty or more of these bandits. They were all men, and all but Al were about half my age or younger. Behind them, standing in the opening to the hallway, was Trevor and a few of his people. I shot them the meanest sneer I could muster with my head still throbbing and then turned my attention to the other Wayfinders around me. The two sentries, a scout and one of the trainees, were slumped against the wall near the entryway, bloody and unconscious, but I could see their chests move as they breathed. The rest of the Wayfinders were in a position similar to my own, either stuck to the ground by the barrel of a gun or in the process of being bound where they lay.
I watched Camille get propped up like I was and I did what I could to catch her eye while still looking around the room. She noticed and, under the guise of shifting her shoulders, shook her head. After that, I turned my attention to Natalie who, from her position on the ground, did the same. Her head was turned toward me as one of the young men finished restraining her, so I got to see the rage that flashed in her eyes when he yanked the zip-tie tight enough to immediately draw blood.. As I watched the blood drip from her wrists to the back of her shirt, I focused on breathing calmly and scanning the room, to see how everyone else was being treated. It took everything I had to stay sitting when I saw everyone get treated with the same brutal disregard as Natalie was. Only two people weren’t bleeding when they finished tying us up and I wasn’t the only one to get punched in the head.
I finally found Lucas, propped up in the corner behind and to my left, just as Al was sauntering around to my front, and I shook my head at him, relaying Camille and Natalie’s message. His eyes looked as angry as I felt and he had a large bruise already forming on one side of his face, but he ducked his head in acknowledgement. When Al squatted down in front of me, I took another deep breath and barely managed to avoid headbutting him in the nose.
“Well, shitbrains? What’ll it be.”
I gritted my teeth and spoke through a clenched jaw. “We’ll cooperate, but only if you promise not to harm anyone further. We’ll build your base, but only if you let us go unharmed and untouched when we’re done.”
Al grinned again, the same grim line again. “I can’t make any promises, shitbrains. My men get a little eager. I can, however, promise they’ll start with your non-paying customers first.”
“The nomads?” It took me a bit longer, focused as I was on trying to remain calm and follow the plan Camille had put together for situations like this one, but what he said earlier about children finally clicked. Getting punched in the head certainly hadn’t helped, either. “Can’t you just let them go? They’re of no use to you. You don’t need to use them to keep us in line.” All of the anger I’d held was quickly drowned in a deluge of rage at the thought of what those children were likely to see before we could pull off our plan.
Al’s grin changed to a toothy smile as he chuckled. “It might be a little late for that, shitbrains. They’ve all been packed up and sent off to our base. Plus, you’re in no position to argue.” He poked me in the temple and the pain flared again. “Plus, I know you’ve got a plan of some kind. Every other group of Wayfinders has. Only a moron would give up free insurance.”
I slumped against the man propping me up, wracking my brain through the fog of pain and nausea to come up with a way to protect the nomads that didn’t involve throwing away the plan Camille had made. I took several slow breaths to calm my racing heart and looked up at Al. “I’m going to kill you.”
Al’s smiled faded a bit, back to looking like a dark slash across his face, as he shook his head. “You wouldn’t be the first who tried, shitbrains. All you Wayfinders say the same thing.” He slapped me across the face a few times before standing up. “Over a dozen groups, now, and not a single one of them has. I wouldn’t count on succeeding where they failed. It’ll just get you and all your people killed.”
He gestured to the two men behind me and then turned around. “Alright. Get them wrapped up and then start piling all their gear on the sleds. Don’t leave anything behind. And if they resist, start breaking the bones of whichever one is closest.”
Trevor took a step forward. “What about your promise? I want my time with him.” He pointed at me and sneered. “He’ll need rest after I’m done with him and a ride on a sled seems like just the thing to drive home my beating.” I watched him as he spoke, staying near the door and well out of arm’s reach from me, smacking his fist into an open hand. “Maybe I’ll make his people watch. That’d be fun. Or maybe I’ll make him watch me rough up his people. So many options,” Only the fact that two much younger and larger men were holding me up kept me from leaping at him.
Al looked back at me, noting the scuffle that ended as one of the punched me in the other temple a couple of times. “Heh, that’s awful petty of you. But we need to get back to our place right away. You can have your time with him when we’ve gotten everyone settled and him properly manacled.”
Trevor stepped up, anger overriding the unease he’d been showing. “You said I could do it whenever I wanted. Well, I want to kick the shit out of him right now! Half my guys here want the same thing.Who gives a shit if they’re already bloody by the time they get there? ?”
Al shrugged. “Fuck if I care about what you want. You’re in my clan now and you do what I say. If you’ve got a problem with that, you can join the workforce.” A bunch of muttering broke out amongst the other laborers and two of them pulled Trevor back into line with them. Al turned around to face me, smirking. “Guess I can see why you’d be bossing him around. He’s a bit of a shit.”
I didn’t reply. It was taking all of my focus to just pay attention to what was going on around me, much less form a sentence. The last couple of punches had really taken it out of me and, now that I wasn’t going to get any more beaten up, I let my focus go.
They dragged us all out to the entryway, wrapped each of us in a large tarp, and then piled us onto a sled in an uncomfortable tangle before tying us in place like a bunch of crates. After laying there for a while, unable to see what was going on, we finally started moving. The only sound aside from the whisk of the runners in the snow was the tick of my watch as it counted away the seconds until we arrived at our captors fortifications. Around me, I could feel each of the Wayfinders tensing their muscles and stretching as much as they could. The cold was leaking through the tarps, so I stretched as well, trying to keep my body warm and my muscles limber for whenever Camille gave us the single to break free.
After well over ten thousand ticks of my watch, I felt the sled begin to slow. I was freezing cold and my arms were so stiff I wondered if I’d be able to move them at all, much less attempt an escape. The only thing that had kept me conscious as the sled ran was trying to keep track of how many seconds had passed. Part of me wanted to just let go, to let unconsciousness take me, but I needed to stay awake and listening for Camille’s signal. Thankfully, the sled eventually came to a stop and my poor, throbbing head was no longer being bounced around.
We had arrived. I tensed myself for Camille’s signal as people started untying the ropes, but the only sound was the crunch of snow and the rustle of rope. Silence reigned around me and, before I could stop myself, I fell unconscious.