I groaned, yanked out of the soothing darkness of sleep by someone calling my name from outside my tent. Still groggy from sleep but aware that I needed to be doing something, I lifted my head from my pillow and looked around. I was in my tent and the soft grey light of an early, overcast morning leaking through the heavy layers of polyester gave me just enough light to see that Cam and Lucas’ gear was still piled in the corner. And that I was still cuddled up with Natalie beneath layers and layers of blankets.
I blinked and my mind snapped back into focus. “Five minutes!” I called out as I felt Natalie stir beneath the blankets. Doing my best to keep her covered, I pulled myself out of the comfort and warmth we shared to start getting dressed in the piercing cold of our tent. As I did, I noticed Natalie watching me, peeking out through the small gap in the blankets so all I could see were her eyes and nose.
“Enjoy it while it lasts” I said as I stuffed my feet into my boots and started lacing them up. Natalie didn’t respond except to close the gap and burrow deeper into the blankets. I sighed in a mixture of frustration and regret, thinking of the pleasant evening we’d had, since Cam was on guard duty and Lucas was still out on his rearguard mission. Quiet conversation, a reflection on some of the better times from the past, and our first night together in what felt like months. Normally, waking up after one of the few nights we had with just the two of us was much more pleasant than this one was proving to be.
As I quickly zipped the tent closed again behind me and settled my gloves and scarf into place, I found Cam waiting, rifle carefully cradled in their arms in a way that immediately put me on edge as they stood with their back to the tent, eyes locked on the area where the Naturalist and Laborer camps met. “What happened?”
Cam moved their rifle from ready position to a more neutral carrying position and gestured for me to follow without turning to look at me. “Got a small scuffle to report, sir.”
I groaned and did my best to force my mind into a more alert state without the help of coffee. “Got any details to go with it?”
Cam kept a measured pace, slower than usual, as they gave their report, eyes fixed on what I could now see was a crowd of Naturalists and Laborers gathering around what remained of their cooking fire from the night before, their voice carefully neutral. “One of the Naturalists alleges that a Laborer seduced his wife. The wife alleges the husband gave permission the night before. The Laborer claims to not remember anything, but has been talking a lot of shit regardless. The Naturalist husband tried to start a fight, but all three of them are a bit too hungover or still drunk to make any headway.”
“I suppose the Laborers are out of their smuggled booze, then?” I scanned the crowd as we got closer and could read the tension behind every glance in our direction and every shifting movement as the two sides warily regarded each other.
Cam nodded. “And the Naturalists are out of everything but the medical stuff.”
I swore under my breath, took a steadying breath, and then exhaled slowly through my nose. “It’s too early for this shit.”
Cam shrugged. As we neared the group, another Wayfinder, Matthews, jogged up and handed me a cup of still steaming coffee. I gave Matthews a nod of appreciation and then focused on not flinching as I sipped the scalding beverage. While I was busy with that, Cam took a couple steps away from the group and waved at me. “Good luck with all that.”
I watched them stand next to a few other Wayfinders who’d gathered outside the collection of Laborers and Naturalists, settling into a pose of wary relaxation that matched the stance of every other Wayfinder I could see. As I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled it, pausing on the edge of pushing my way into the center of this group, I noticed a few flakes of snow start to fall from the iron grey clouds overhead.
Banishing thoughts of the weather from my mind, I set my shoulders, straightened my back, and pushed my way through the gap between the encircling Laborers and Naturalists. As I did, I called out in a low, heavy bark “Step back!” As my voice cut through the quiet hubbub, the area fell silent and the path I was walking down doubled in size as everyone finally made space for me.
Once I got to the center of the circle and found four people in a tight cluster loosely surrounded by a handful of Wayfinders who were keeping the rest of the group back, I turned to the crowd around me and addressed them again. “I want everyone who isn’t directly involved in this dispute or a witness to it to return to their tents. Once I’ve spoken with the involved parties, I will notify you all and you can then reemerge from your tents to go about your mornings.”
I turned slowly as I spoke, making aggressive eye contact with anyone who looked like they wanted to argue and, by the time I’d completed a full circle, the crowd was breaking up. It would take another minute or two for them to get back into their tents, but three of the four Wayfinders who’d been keeping the Laborers and Naturalists back from the dispute went along with the crowd to encourage any stragglers. The last one, one of the younger Wayfinders named Tiffany, kept her eyes on the crowd as I turned my attention to the quiet but heated argument that sounded like it had been going on for an hour.
Two laborers, one supporting the other, stood on one side. On the other side was one of the Naturalists whose name I hadn’t caught. Between them was another Naturalist named Kelsey, and she seemed to be trying to stop the other Naturalist, a man whose apoplectic rage was written plainly on his face even though his volume was so low I could barely hear him over the slurred speech of the green-faced and slumped Laborer.
When I approached, taking as large and noisy a sip of my coffee as I could, Kelsey tried to push the man a step or two backward, to open up the little cluster somewhat, but he refused to budge. I took another, longer slurp of my coffee, being as obnoxious as I could about it, and finally the argument died down as all four faces turned in my direction.
“My lieutenant says there is a matter of marital infidelity or sexual indiscretion that has almost come to violence. Is that accurate?” I kept my face carefully neutral as I took another sip of my rapidly cooling coffee.
The male Naturalist took a step toward me, holding an arm accusingly toward the green-looking Laborer. “That’s right! This man here slept with my-”
I took a step forward and shoved him a couple pacess backward, away from the rest of the group. “Shut up.”
The man spluttered and tried to step forward again, his facing turning red as he clumsily swung a fist in my direction. I effortlessly brushed it aside, swept out one of his legs, and toppled him backwards into the snow. “Stay down until you’ve cooled off.”
Kelsey hurried forward and pushed back on her husband’s shoulders as he struggled to rise again. Not bothering to watch how it turned out, I turned to the two Laborers. It only took a moment for me to make sure neither one was the Laborer who’d been harassing Laura, but once I was certain none of the people here had caused trouble in the past, I took a couple steps back so I could address the group as a whole.
“I don’t give a shit about what happened.You’re all adults, despite evidence to the contrary. Figure it out yourselves. Talk to each other, pretend nothing happened, or whatever you want. If you can’t figure this out without attacking each other or taking my Wayfinders’ attention away from their duties, I’m going to strip you of your gear and send you into the tundra. I don’t think the cultists following behind us would mind sending some people to pick you off, but I’m just going to let you freeze to death.”
The green looking Laborer’s unfocused gaze had tightened up and the angry man struggling to stand had paused, still sitting in the snow. Taking in their expressions, and the alarm written on Kelsey’s face, I smirked. “You think I won’t? If I have to deal with this again, I’m skipping the trial.”
I wiped the smirk from my face and let the bubbling anger I’d been feeling rise to the surface. “We are being followed. By a death cult. Who wants to sacrifice us to the blizzards.” I looked each one in the eyes as I spoke. “I swear to every god that ever was, if I have to deal with this again, I’m just going to kill you myself. Do I make myself clear?” I looked from face to face, holding their gaze until they nodded in turn.
“Good. Go figure this out yourselves. Without fighting.” I turned and walked away without waiting for further response. I nodded at Tiffany as I went, who smirked and silently flicked the safety on her rifle back on. As I slowly walked back toward my tent, now-cold coffee in hand, I heard the shuffling of heavy jackets and rustle of canvas as the group split up and went their separate ways behind me. Confident they weren’t watching me anymore, I sighed and let the tension drain from my shoulders.
As I slammed the rest of my coffee, I heard Cam’s voice. “Well done, as always, Mar.”
“You know, you could handle this stuff yourself.” I wiped at the bitter taste in my mouth and looked down at the gritty dregs in my cup before tossing those back as well.
“Sure,” Cam raised and lowered one shoulder. “But I don’t really get the intensity of these squabbles. Sex never seemed interesting enough to be worth having to me, much less fighting over.” Cam snorted out a dry chuckle and shook their head. “Last time I tried to sort out one of these squabbles, it went bad. At that bar, remember?”
“Cam, that was almost three decades ago. I wrote you a script and everything.” I rolled my eyes and started trudging back to my tent. “You’re going to need to handle one of these at some point. Hell, you could probably quote me since you’ve seen me do it often enough.”
“Sure, and when one of these inevitably goes sideways, I’m not going to know the right thing to say. Better to let you handle it. You’re the people-person, after all. That’s our division of labor. I fight, you talk. You people, I kill.” Cam winked at me. “I wouldn’t want to infringe on your one area of expertise, after all.”
I rolled my eyes again, this time rolling my head as well to let Cam know exactly what I thought of their argument. “I don’t think this was better for me to handle at all” I muttered as I walked up to our tent and reached for the zipper.
As I opened the outer door, Cam gently bumped my shoulder and said “tell Natalie I’m sorry for disrupting her morning.”
By the time I looked over my shoulder, Cam had turned and gone back to their guardpost. I tried to ignore the rush of heat on my face as I shuffled through the process of opening and closing doors before I could start to remove my heavy clothing. As I finally got back into the tent and started undressing, I found Natalie sitting by our small camp fire, still wrapped in blankets with just her face poking out.
She turned to me, a warm smile on her face. “I made breakfast.”
As I pulled off my boots and scooted over to her side, she held open the blankets for a moment so I could nestle under them at her side. As I soaked in her warmth and presence, I sighed contentedly. “I think Cam knows.”
Natalie laughed and said “Mar, they’re asexual, not stupid.”
“I know!” I could feel my face heating all over again as she leaned over to kiss my cheek. “I just thought we were doing a better job of hiding it.”
“Cam has known us for more than three decades, Mar. They and Lucas have probably known for years.”
I extricated an arm from the blankets and stirred the softly bubbling pot of oats and water that Natalie had set on the cooking fire. After a few moments’ thought, I returned Natalie’s kiss and asked “do you think anyone else knows?”
“No.” Natalie shook her head. “No one else shares a tent with us. If anything, they probably think I’m sleeping with Lucas given how flirty he is with me.”
“And every other woman ever.”
“And every other woman, ever. Especially Tiffany.”
Natalie chuckled again as my eyebrows jumped up. “Tiffany? The same Tiffany that’s Cam’s latest protegee and is supposed to be learning how to scout from Lucas?”
“That’s the one.”
“Damn.” I shook my head, a rueful smile on my face. “Now I’ve got to write him up twice.” Natalie chuckled and leaned against me, giving me a playful poke in the ribs. As her laughter faded, I leaned my head against hers. “Anything else I should know about, before I go back to being a clueless leader again?”
“Nope.” Natalie sighed contentedly as we watched the bubbling pot slowly thicken from floating oats to proper oatmeal. “I just hope Lucas is out on rear guard for another few days.” I smirked waggedly my eyebrows suggestively and she gave me another playful poke. “And not just because we’d get another night or two of the tent all to ourselves.”
I had to break up the warm embrace for a moment so I could lean out far enough to remove the pot from the flame and turn the camp stove off. When I returned to the blanket and bundled myself inside it for another few moments of warmth before we left it to eat our breakfast and get dressed for the day ahead, she continued.
“I wouldn’t mind knowing there’s more space between us and the cultists than we thought.”
“Me too.” After a couple minutes of cozy silence, I extricated myself from the bundle and grabbed a pair of spoons so we could share the oatmeal between us. “Hopefully we’ll have those nights and the safety they imply.”
With that thought hanging in the air, we dug into the oatmeal, Natalie wrapped in blankets and me leaning against her. When it was finished, I cleaned the dishes while Natalie got dressed and then the two of us started breaking down our tent. After all our gear was packed up, the tent bundled around everything but our day-packs, and we had doubled-checked our insulated gear for the day’s travel, I left Natalie to take everything to the supply sledge while I turned my attention back to the bustling camp.
As Natalie left, even the glare of the grey morning light reflecting off the freshly falling layer of snow couldn’t break the smile I wore. Still feeling the warmth of Natalie at my side, I started my usual patrol around the camp, making sure everything was running smoothly and that anyone who wanted my attention could get it before we started the laborious process of getting our daily mileage in.
As I rounded the camp, making my way toward the rear and our path from the day before, the smile slipped from my face and a chill ran down my spine that wiped out every trace of warmth I’d felt in days. As a low whistle spread across the camp, warning of people approaching quickly, I pulled my binoculars off my belt and held them up to my eye.
As I dialed in the lenses, the five figures jogging single-file down the path resolved in Lucas and his squad. Dread settled into my stomach like a rock thrown into a pond, icy ripples splashing against my insides as I sent out the alert call at the same time one of the guards did.
For a couple heartbeats, the camp fell silent. Then, as everyone sprang into action at once, Cam’s voice rose about the hubbub. “I want two squads up front, rifles only. All snipers to designated flanks. Someone get the noncoms to the supply tent and I want one person on babysitting duty. Everyone else, get five travelers armed and formed up behind your barriers. Move, move, move!”
Cam came dashing up to my position, snow spraying behind her as she churned towards me. I handed the binoculars to her as she slid to a stop at my side. “Lucas is back, squad intact. In a hurry, by the pace they’re setting.”
“Thank you for your opinion, Captain. Kindly get your ass back to the supply tent and send the babysitter up here. We’re down five Wayfinders thanks to the rearguard and I need every combatant I can get in case they’re being followed.”
“Yes, Captain.” I saluted Cam and desh back toward the center of camp, pausing to catch the binoculars as Cam tossed them back to me, and waved to Natalie as I passed her. She had a group of five Naturalists in tow as they struggled to drag one of our collapsible barriers towards the rear of the camp, so she just nodded in acknowledgement and started walking them through the process of setting it up.
Once I got to the supply tent, I sent Lauren up to Camille and started trying to calm everyone down. A few seconds after I had them calmed down and quiet, the camp went from busy and loud to silent. In less than three minutes from the first whistle, every Wayfinder was in position and the entire camp was ready for trouble. The only thing that remained was to figure out exactly how much trouble it would be.