Coldheart and Iron: Part 25

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


We spent a whole day resting in the forest. We were too worn out to move right away and I’m pretty sure Camille and the Wayfinders who had been fighting alongside her for six days would have rebelled if I’d even suggested it. We all slept, made plenty of food, and tried to recover as much as we could before we moved on the following day. After about a week, Natalie told me about an old warehouse we could shelter in for a few days, so I could do a better job of checking everyone’s injuries and maybe clear some of the injured Wayfinders to be able to start walking again.

Thankfully, the warehouse was clear and already sealed by some other group of Wayfinders. We took a week to rest and I was able to clear everyone to start walking again, though we kept the sleds because they’d need to take breaks to rest every so often until they had recovered their strength entirely. Fifteen days after we started moving again, we finally made it to the western suburbs of Chicago. We still had a couple days of walking to get to the enclave, but there were things we needed to do first.

When we made camp that night, hidden in what used to be a forest preserver, I called a general meeting. We huddled in a large circle with the kids in the center, while I addressed the group.

“We’re moving into the Chicagoland area tomorrow, so we need to abandon the sleds. We’re moving with only what we can carry on our backs and we’re traveling silently. Wayfinders, keep your guns in hand and keep an eye out. We’ll be going slow so the scouts have a chance to check each building before we pass it. Any questions?”

All of the Wayfinders shook their head. Before heading to Madison to pick up the group of Laborers that betrayed us, we’d handled a group headed north out of Chicago toward Milwaukee, so everyone was familiar with the dangers of walking through the crowded areas around Chicago. The Nomads, it seemed, where not as evidenced by the older woman, Brianna, who raised her hand and said “Every building?”

I nodded and leaned forward a bit. “We’ve had a lot of run-ins with bandits hiding in buildings and shooting anyone who walks by. Better safe than sorry.”

“Oh.” Brianna lowered her hand but kept talking. “If we head back to where we used to live and take care of the bandits there, we should be able to find a safer route. Our old home is about a day’s walk north of here and the north side is usually safer than the west side.”

“Thanks, that’s a good idea.” I nodded to Brianna and looked to Camille and Lucas. “If we use their old home as a base and then focus on finding a clear route to the enclave, would that shorten our time?”

“Depends.” Lucas glanced over at Camille for confirmation before continuing. “If there’s actually a safe route, then yeah, it saves us tons of time. If the bandits that pushed them out have taken over the entire area rather than staying focused where they used to live, then probably not. Clearing the buildings won’t be much trouble since most bandits around here know not to screw with Wayfinders since this is one of our primary hubs.”

“I wouldn’t mind having a solid base, though.” Camille shrugged, a difficult gesture while wearing a thermal bodysuit, but one she’d perfected. “Couldn’t hurt to check it out, at least, since we won’t be losing any time no matter what comes out of it.”

“Fair enough.” I turned back to Brianna. “Okay, we’ll do it. We’ll clear out your old home and use it as our base to get back to the enclave. Are you going to want to stay there once we’re done or continue to the enclave with us?”

Brianna looked around at her people and then nodded to me. “I don’t think we’re going to want to stay there very long. We lost a family and friends when the bandits pushed us out, and we’ve lost more since then. I think we’re all ready to give up a little bit of our freedom for the safety of the enclave.”

“Very well. Talk to Lieutenant Camille. She’ll want everything you can give her about the bandits, your base, and the area around it.”

“Of course.”

“Then our current plan is to move out, heading north, in the morning. We’ll take the sleds as far as we can, but mentally prepare yourself to carry everything important on foot. That’s all I’ve got. Have a good night, everyone.”

I watched everyone disperse to their tasks and meals, making sure Camille and Brianna were headed in the same direction, until Natalie walked up to me. “Hey, Marshall. Let’s go get something to eat quick. I wanted to show you something before we settled in for the evening.”

“Alright.” I nodded and followed Natalie to the tent. While I made a quick dinner of dried meat and trail bread warmed over our little gas stove, Natalie pulled out a map and started writing on it. When I brought the food over, she flipped it around to face me.

“Here is the latest map of the area with all of the known bandit nests marked out.” She took the plate I handed her and set it aside, still staring at the map. “What worries me is that there is only one group of bandits that would have moved into the area that Nomad woman was talking about.”

“Yeah? What about it?” I started eating, steadily working my way through tough bread and even tougher meat.

“I can only think of one reason a group that large would move, Marshall.” Natalie started chewing on her lip as she reviewed the maps. “All the other groups are barely a dozen and wouldn’t have the numbers to force anyone out of a permanent home.”

“So we’re going to be fighting a lot of bandits? More than the group that captured us?”

“Maybe? I doubt they’ll put up even nearly that much of a fight, though. They mostly use numbers to control their territory since the number of guns around here is pretty low nowadays. We’ll be able to push them out just fine. That’s not the problem. They problem is why they gave up their territory, Marshall.”

“Which would be?” I looked more closely at the map Natalie had spread out and my dinner almost came right back up when I noticed the two areas she’d been talking about. “Wait…”

“Right next to their old territory was a landing area. If they were forced to leave, that probably means something finally came out of it.”

“Shit.” I put aside my food picked up the map. “I thought the landing areas were the initial spots all the monsters showed up in. Didn’t the Waukegan one empty out like all the others, in the first wave?”

“Nothing ever came out of it. There were four other landing areas around Chicago and that was more than enough to nearly destroy the city. That’s the only reason the Chicago enclave is in as good shape as it is. They managed to fight off the first attack and build defences before the second one. But if they Waukegan landing area is finally emptying out, then that means there’s a ton of monsters spread out in the north.”

“So we might get up there and find everything swarming with a fresh load of monsters. Enough to destroy a large town.”

Natalie shook her head slowly, and then looked up at me as she shrugged. “I don’t know. They were given specific commands at the start, but we know their targeting words based on signals. If they started operating now, it’s possible they marched straight for Chicago and were destroyed. It’s just as possible that they’re just milling around the landing area because there are no signals to guide them. It’s possible they detected a signal from somewhere else and went in search of it. It’s even possible the bandits just wanted someplace new to live because they’d picked their territory dry.”

Natalie took the map back from me and set it down. “All I know is that we need to be ready for this to be worse than just a bunch of bandits who’ll run as soon as we start killing them.”

I scooted over to her side and gave her a hug. “Of course. I’ll go tell Camille so we can make sure we’re ready for whatever comes out way. In the meantime, you eat your dinner.” Natalie smiled and hugged me back.

After getting back into my thermal suit, I hustled through the snow to the Nomad tents and started knocking on tent poles until I found Brianna and Camille. After pulling Camille aside to tell her about Natalie’s suspicions, I let the two of them get back to work. I found Lucas with his scouts, discussing strategy, and did the same thing. After that, I returned to my tent and joined Natalie for an hour of quietly holding each other as we softly talked through our fears for the next few days.

The next several days, until we finally made it to the Chicago enclave, would be incredibly busy and it was unlikely we’d get any time to ourselves until we were safe behind their walls, so we tried to make the most of what we had left. She talked about her fears of being overrun by monsters and I shared my fears of being unable to get us to safety. Right as we fell asleep, still holding each other, I heard her whisper.

“Marshall?”

“Hmm?”

“What if I want to stay in Chicago, too?”

All traces of sleep vanished from my mind. “What?”

“What if I decide to retire, like Lucas?”

“I- I don’t know.”

“Would you stay?”

“I mean, would I- What?”

“Would you stay with me, or keep Wayfinding until you eventually get killed by some bandits or a monster?” Natalie untangled herself and looked up at me, meeting my eyes with a neutral expression on her face. “I know you’re still looking for your family, even if you won’t admit it to yourself, let alone anyone else. I know you want to find anyone left from before all this happened, but would you really keep looking? It has been almost eighteen years since the first landing and the blizzards started.”

“I don’t know.” I looked down at her chin, unable to keep looking her in the eye.

“That’s a cop-out and you know it. You’ve been doing nothing but thinking about this since Lucas brought it up.”

I looked back up for a moment. “Am I that transparent?”

“No.” Natalie smiled at me and rubbed my arm. “I just know you.”

“You’re right.” I rolled over onto my back and pulled Natalie to me. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I really don’t think anyone else is still alive, hiding somewhere. Or, if they are, that I’ll find them at this point. I want them to be, I want to find out that they’ve been hidden inside some city, somewhere, surviving despite the odds. But I don’t think they are. I don’t think I’ve believed they’re alive for years.”

“Then why are you still doing this?”

“I guess I just wanted something to do. The world fell down around our ears and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Now, though, there’s so much I can do. I feel like I should be doing something to help keep humanity going. This is what I’m good at.”

“There’s plenty you could do in Chicago. Train new Wayfinders, help organize the defenses, scout the area to keep it safe for the people who live outside the enclave. You could do a lot of good.”

“I guess.” I took a deep breath and sighed. “I just feel like stopping will mean that they’re dead and gone. As long as I’m looking, it feels like they might still be alive, somehow.”

“Marshall…”

“I know. Believe me, I know.” I rubbed my eyes with my free hand. “I just… I don’t know what I want to do, yet.”

“Okay.” Natalie snuggled up to me again and closed her eyes. “You can always talk to me about it, you know. Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.”

“I love you. Thank you. Whatever you want to do, I’ll support you, too. Even if it means we wind up being apart from each other.”

“I love you, too, Marshall. I promise I won’t make a decision without letting you know. And I haven’t decided yet, either. Lucas just got me thinking.”

I started stroking Natalie’s hair as I closed my own eyes. “Thank you for reassuring me, Nat.”

“Shhh, go to sleep now. We can talk more in the morning but we won’t hear any end of it if Lucas and Cam find us awake and cuddling.” Natalie covered my mouth with her hand as I opened it to respond. “Mar, I said ‘shhh!’”

I smiled underneath her hand and hugged her tightly for a moment before letting my attention drift until I fell asleep. There’d be plenty of time for me to think over the next few days and whatever happens when we get to Chicago would likely influence my decision. No point in worrying about it now.

As I listened to Camille and Lucas return an hour later, quietly chatting as they ate and went to sleep, I was constantly reminded that such things were always easier said than done.

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