Coldheart and Iron: Part 20

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


When I woke up again, I was back in the bunk room again. Thankfully, I wasn’t strapped to the bed this time and Natalie was waiting beside my bed rather than Lucas. I turned my head over to her and smiled. “Hey, gorgeous.”

Natalie looked up from the papers she had in her lap and smiled back at me. “Ah, sleeping beauty awakes!”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” I put my head back down, yawned, and mimed falling back asleep. “I haven’t been woken by true love’s kiss, so I think I might go back to sleep to wait for that.” I closed my eyes and gave a few loud, fake snores.

“Then allow me to be your gallant prince, my sweet.” I heard Natalie’s chair clatter as she stood up and then, as I puckered up for the kiss, I felt a slimy finger stick into my ear.

“Ugh!” I opened my eyes and tried to leap to my feet. As I sat up to do so, Natalie placed her hands on my shoulders and pushed me back down to the bunk, laughing all the while.

“Sorry, Marshall.” Natalie leaned over and kissed me on the lips. “I couldn’t resist!”

“I bet you couldn’t.” I glared at her as I wiped at dampness clinging to my ear. After Natalie returned to her seat, I pulled myself into a sitting position and checked out my leg. Camille must have done a good job because the swath of bandages wasn’t showing the slightest hints of red. A few lances of pain seared through my leg as I twisted it around, but that was it.

“You have been out for almost ten hours. You woke up a little when the painkillers Camille wore off, but only enough to drink a little water.” Natalie picked up her papers again. “Camille is currently out with the prisoners and I’m working on trying to figure out possible routes so we decide what to do once you’re awake.”

I poked at my leg a little, check that it still had feeling. As I turned to Natalie, I poked one of the spots that must have held a larger chunk of shrapnel at one point and the sudden wave of pain almost laid me out again. “How-” I gritted my teeth and forced myself to stay up while silently berating my own idiocy. “How much longer until Camille gets back?”

“She left two hours ago, so it’ll probably be another six to ten hours.”

“Alright.” I propped my leg up on the bunk and shifted around so I could lean back comfortably. “What are our options?”

Natalie unfolded what turned out to be a map and pointed to a single green dot in a sea of black lines and little notes. “This is where we are.” She pointed to a few red dots she had marked. “Here are all of the supply cache locations I know of. I suspect there’s one over here and another to the south.” She pointed to two yellow dots. “But I’m not certain. Without Jonathan around, I’m not willing to risk it on my memory alone.”

I nodded. “Why do we need to hit a supply cache? Even if the bandits ate all our food first, we should have had enough stockpiled in our base to entirely resupply.”

Natalie looked down and shook her head. “They’d brought in everything we’d stockpiled and trashed the base.”

I could feel my stomach descending through my body, weighed down by dread. “Then why are we sending people out for supplies? There should be plenty here?”

“The last of the bandit resistance burned the food stores. Almost everything we brought, everything we’d stockpiled, and most of the food the bandits had was destroyed.” Natalie stared down at the map in her hands. “Camille didn’t want to mention that last night, not while you were still so tired.”

“Right.” I sighed and rubbed my face in my hands, ignoring the flashes of pain I felt as I touched bruises from a few days ago. “Which is why we’ve only got three weeks.”

Natalie nodded. “Yes, and that’s only if we go for the closet supply cache, which would mean going due south on a long path toward St. Louis. Any of the others would change how long we can rest.”

“Damn.” I took a few deep breaths while I processed this. “Well, since we’re not taking the laborers to their destination anymore, I suppose our old plans don’t really matter.”

“Yes. The Nomads will follow us wherever we go, since they wouldn’t stand a chance out here on their own, now, even with all the guns we could give them from the arsenals here. Given the extent of our injuries, though, I think we should probably head back north or east, even though that’s one of the furthest caches. We’re too too injured and we’ve lost too many people to maintain our normal operations.”

“How many people do we have, total?” I scratched at my beard and tried to remember the last reports I’d read on the areas outside of our intended path.

“Twelve Wayfinders in good health, two who might still make it, and one who probably won’t. Eleven Nomad adults and all seven Nomad children, all of whom are in excellent condition.”

“Way too many untrained people for stealth, then.” I almost had to physically bite back the desire to which Wayfinder wasn’t likely to survive. There’d be time for that once a decision was made. I took a moment to clear my mind and then nodded to Natalie. “Tell me what we know about all the other routes.”

I listened as she spoke, talking about routes, the last reports she could find, the distance and terrain separating us from the caches along her proposed routes, and the kind of resources we would have available to us at each of our potential end destinations. Eventually, as the silence following the last route outline grew, I sighed. “I guess we’re going to Chicago. We’re going to need a lot of supplies and that is the hub of the midwestern Wayfinders.”

Natalie nodded. “I agree. This is our best long-term option. I’ll start figuring out how we’ll need to ration our supplies in order to get to the cache once Camille returns.”

“Good.” I lay back down on the bunk as Natalie stood and wearily closed my eyes. “Wake me up when she gets back. I need to handle the bandits and Laborers.”

“Of course, Love.” Natalie bent over to give me another kiss and I smiled up at her. “I’ll do my best Prince Charming impression, my sleeping beauty.”

A few hours later, when Natalie woke me with a kiss, I actually managed to get to my feet. The twinges in my leg were still bad, but not so bad that I couldn’t ignore them when I walked. I did a few turns around the room while Natalie watched to make sure I could maintain it before following her out of the room and down the hall to the large storage room we were keeping the prisoners.

When I got there, I found Camille and the two uninjured Wayfinders standing guard at the door. Just inside, there was a large crate with a smaller crate next to it and, beyond that, were all of the prisoners sitting with their arms behind their backs and the legs folded beneath them. I stepped up onto the taller box, flanked by the two Wayfinders who just so happened to be carrying the automatic rifles that Laborers on the balcony had been wielding, and Camille stepped up onto the smaller box beside me.

“You’re all probably going to die.” I glared out at them, resisting the urge to just have them all gunned down where they sat. “Some of you are traitors and the scum of the earth. The rest are lawless bandits preying on innocent travellers.” One of the laborers leaned for, opening his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “I don’t care how you feel or what you think. The only reason you’re not all dead right now is because we had something for you to do. That’s done. The only reason you’re not getting gunned down for your crimes right now is because it would be a waste of bullets.”

A different laborer rushed to his feet and was shot in the chest, three times in rapid succession, by Camille. A couple bandits and a few of the laborers, in the process of following their companion, froze. I chuckled. “There’s always one. For those of you listening, I said you’re only probably going to die. Those of you who aren’t morons know this means you have a chance. That chance disappears if you do anything but silently sit here and listen.”

All of the people frozen in place settled back to the ground and one of the laborers off to the side started weeping. I carried on. “You’re going to be stripped of everything but your clothing and sent out into the city. If you come back here, you’ll be shot dead. If you try to follow us when we leave, you’ll be shot dead. If you can survive until we’ve left here, you can have what’s left of this place once we blow up anything resembling a fortress or a cell.

“There are plenty of supplies and warm nooks in this city, but you’ll have to find them on your own and then stay there. If we see so much as a glimpse of any of you, we’ll assume you’re trying to follow us and kill you. Stay away until we’re gone and you should be able to survive. That is, assuming you’ve got any survival skills and weren’t planning to rely on stealing from people passing by in order to survive. If we get any reports of bandits out this way, I will personally come back here and hunt down every last one of you.”

I looked each one of them in the eye, though most of them wouldn’t meet my gaze. The only laborer who would was the crying laborer who started talking as soon as my eyes landed on him. “Please, Captain Marshall. I had no choice! All of them decided to betray you to the bandits and there was nothing I could do!”

I stepped off the box. “You could have done literally anything to warn us. Leave a message, take one of us aside, help us escape, or just argue against their plans. But you didn’t. You threw your lot in with them and now you will face the same consequences.” I walked over to him and looked down at his red, tear-stained face. “I lost more of my friends and family guaranteeing your safety and the safety of people like you than I want to remember. Thinking about it makes me angry and, the longer I think about how many burials I’ll be attending tonight, the more I want to just shoot you all now.”

I turned around and walked back toward the door. “You will be released one at a time, starting with you.” I pointed to the bandit nearest the door. “Stand up and come with me.”

I guided the shackled man through the hallways of what used to be his base and dropped him off at the processing room where Lucas and one more of his scouts were waiting with thirty sets of winter gear, taken from the storage rooms near were I’d been imprisoned. Once he was uncuffed and suited up, I guided him to the door. “Leave.”

The bandit looked at me out of the corner of his eyes and then took off running. I watched him go for a minute before returning to the detention room for the next bandit. I repeated that for all twenty-eight of our other prisoners and only one person, our third prisoner, tried to escape in the equipment room. Lucas stabbed him through the winter coat he was wearing and then dragged the body out into the snow beside the door. The red stain on the concrete floor seemed to convince everyone else that doing as they were told was their best bet.

By the time the last Laborer was pushed out the door, night was falling. I watched them go and turned around to find Camille behind me. “Thanks, Camille.”

“I’ve always got your back, Marshall.” She punched me in the shoulder and then pulled my arm over her shoulders. “Now let’s get you to the mess hall for dinner and get you a crunch so don’t make your leg any worse.”

“That sounds fine to me.” I sighed and let Camille half-carry me through the hallways. “We’ve got to leave in a week if we’re going to make it to the cache. We’re heading towards Chicago.”

Camille grunted. “Natalie had said as much. I’m going to have to find some snowshoes and build you a snow crutch or something.”

I laughed, imagining how awkward it’d be to hobble around with three snowshoes. Two was hard enough as it was. “I should be better by then.”

Camille was silent for a moment and, when she finally spoke, it was so soft I could barely hear her. “Lucas won’t.”

I nodded. “We’ll figure something out for him and any of the others who are too hurt to walk. We aren’t leaving anyone else behind.”

“Even if they volunteer so they aren’t holding us up?”

“I will personally tie anyone who even suggests that to a sled.”

Camille chuckled a little. “I’d like to see you try that. Almost all of the surviving Wayfinders could kick your ass without breaking a sweat, even as injured as they are.”

I shrugged. “Sure, but they can’t kick yours and you already said you’ve got my back, so you’re stuck fighting all my battles for me while I’m injured.”

I could feel Camille roll her eyes and I smiled as she shifted my arm into a more comfortable position. “Sure thing, Captain.”

“Now that we’ve gotten that straightened out, let’s go get some dinner so we can bury our friends on a full stomach.” My stomach twisted in a knot as I said that, but I had already ordered every Wayfinder to show up at dinner so I couldn’t exactly skip out either. Even if we were eating reduced rations, the icy tundra that was our home wouldn’t forgive us for skipping a meal. It was going to be a rough month without facing starvation in the frozen wilderness and there was no guarantee we’d even be able to avoid that.

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