By the time I was finished in the basement, most of the injured Naturalists and Laborers had been moved down there. The uninjured Naturalists attended to digging with the Wayfinders after moving the injured people while the Laborers started working on some temporary repairs to the farmhouse so it would go back to being a decent shelter for the night. I was on the injured list and forcibly prevented from assisting with the digging by Natalie, so I helped with the farmhouse repairs since I mostly needed to avoid walking too much due to my stitches. Once I was out of jobs I could help with there, I returned to the barn for food and a bit of rest before we held the burial services.
Throughout it all, I helped Jonathan, Kelsey, and August–the other Wayfinder medic and backup surgeon–monitor the injured people. Despite our best efforts, three more of them passed before sunset. One was a Wayfinder, Alice, who had been a part of the same group as Jay. She’d gotten hit almost as quickly as he did and there’s only so much that can be done in the field for injuries that severe. The same was true of the two Naturalists who passed away. Jack and Hettie had been shot but not immediately killed as the Cultists pushed through the front door and had just lost too much blood by the time Kelsey and I got to them. We’d hoped they would come around since their injuries weren’t too bad, but they never did.
Around noon, as we were laying out the bodies to be buried individually–the cultists had all been dumped in a single grave–the scouts returned. The full report, including map markings Lucas had been making to illustrate the movements he discovered, indicated that everyone who’d been chasing us was dead. It also indicated that the group who’d snuck around the forest to attack the barn from its blindspot had done that before they were even within scope range of our position. It was clear they’d known about this place, though it was also clear this knowledge ultimately didn’t help them since every single one of them was dead. None had escaped.
By midafternoon, every body had been laid to rest and the much easier work of covering the graves only took another hour since we had everyone there to lend a hand. By sunset, the graves had been covered in snow again, there was a light coating of fresh snow falling, and everyone had retreated to their shelters for the night. The Laborers had one of the smaller sets of rooms on the second floor of the farmhouse, the Naturalists had the rest, including the basement, and we Wayfinders were set up in the barn.
Most of the Wayfinders were asleep, finally taking advantage of a chance to return to a more normal schedule. A couple were doing maintenance on their gear, and a handful were keeping watch, but most of the Wayfinders had gone to sleep the instant dinner was finished. We’d all been awake for over a full day, the scouts even longer, and little other than tension and instant coffee had kept us going through it all.
Cam was one of the few still awake, working their way through after-action reports while the information was fresh and the stress of the past few days prevented them from getting to sleep anyway. Natalie was keeping them company, updating supply logs after we’d spent a bunch of our munitions and chemical explosives in this fight. Jonathan was helping, but I could tell he wouldn’t be awake for much long. Natalie kept trying to send him away, but he refused to go until she did.
Lucas and I were cleaning up the remains of dinner, both of us watching our friends work as the uneasy silence between us stretched larger and larger with every passing minute. Even the clunk of pots and pans in our tub of water couldn’t do anything against it. Eventually, as I used a fingernail to pick at a bit of something encrusted on the side of the big cookpot that refused to soften in the water, I mustered up the strength to break it.
“You should have checked in with us first.”
My words hung in the air, unanswered, as Lucas’s eyes dropped from his sibling’s drawn face to the pile of bowls he was scrubbing his way through. I let the silence linger for a while longer, waiting to see what he’d say, but he never responded.
Once the dishes were done, the soft glimmer of LED lanterns reflecting off the now-still water of the wash tub, I spoke again as Lucas started to walk away. “Eight people died, Lucas. Two of our own and six who paid us to get them somewhere safely. You broke the biggest, oldest rule of the Wayfinders. Again.”
Lucas stopped moving as I spoke, but didn’t turn to look at me. Just as I was about to move over to him, to turn him around to face me, he spoke. “Forty-one, Marshall.”
I squinted at him, doing a bit of math in my head to confirm before I said “only eight of those were our responsibility.”
Lucas spun to look at me, but I still couldn’t make out his expression as the LED lantern light framing him left his face in shadow. “No, Marshall. We had the ability to help. We had the resources. We had the knowledge. We killed almost two hundred cultists since the last time I slept and you’re telling me that we don’t have any responsibility to people who are lost, hunted, and just trying to live their lives?”
“We have rules, Lucas.” I could see Lucas clench his jaw and didn’t need to be able to see his face to tell he was struggling to control his temper. “We have rules about who we can help because if we help everyone, then we’re all going to wind up dead and unable to help anyone. You could have made this case to the entire group and we probably would have agreed that we should do something, but we didn’t get to decide because you decided for us.”
“You made a call and took the choice away from everyone else. Every single one of these rules is written in blood. Every single one of them exists because of the people we lost, the people we couldn’t help, the choices we made that got people killed. Did you think any of us wouldn’t want to help them? Did you really think that you would mention this to the group and we’d all turn our backs on them?”
Lucas’ jaw flexed as he opened and closed his mouth silently for a moment before, hissing out of him like gas out of a tank, came “I don’t know anymore, Marshall. I used to believe you’d always help people, but lately I’m not so sure.”
I rocked back on my heels, flinching like I’d been slapped. My ears started ringing as my vision stretched and distorted in front of me, my mind racing as it struggled to process what he’d just said. I bit back the first ten responses that came to mind, barely grabbing each one as the rage fueling them tried to fling the words out of my mouth. As I reeled, Lucas stepped forward, unrelenting.
“You used to say nothing was more important than helping people. I haven’t heard you say that in almost a decade now. You smile and charm people, manage every aspect of every meeting so that everything comes out perfectly. No one can argue with you because you’ve thought of everything, so why bother?” Lucas took another pair of steps forward, moving into the light reflecting off the tub of water. The light turned his face into a ghastly mask, making the dark circles under his eyes ever larger and adding a crazed light to the anger already burning in his eyes as he reached up with a finger to jab me in the chest.
“I helped people. I saw people in need and offered them the only help I could. Every single scout agreed. Every single scout also knew that we couldn’t leave them alone because it would only bring the Cultists closer if we delayed. Sure, I didn’t give everyone a choice, but you just said everyone would have chosen to help. So go ask. Ask everyone here, include the people who just lost their lover or sibling, if they regret saving the lives of over seventy people.” Lucas stepped closer, jabbing me with his finger and forcing me to take a step back.
As he did, I tried to put an argument together, to find words that weren’t filled with anger and indignation. “You can’t just ignore our rules, Lucas. Everyone should have been given the chance to say no. Especially the people paying us for their safety. You can’t just unilat-”
“They made the same choice, dammit! They knew the risks and they chose this too. Everyone did.” Lucas dropped his arm and took another step forward to tower over me, his voice dropping until I could barely hear him. “Are you so caught up in playing ‘King Cowboy of the New Frontier’ that you don’t remember why we’re all still doing this?”
My vision snapped back into focus and my ears stopped ringing as everything in front of me turned red. My voice rose to fill the space that Lucas’ had left. “Don’t you dare ask me that.” I stepped forward, tucking in my head and leading with a shoulder so Lucas had to stagger backward. My training took over as I stuck a foot behind his ankle and swept out his leg, sending him crashing to the ground. I managed to catch myself before I followed it up with a punch to the side of his head, the final step in the takedown Cam had taught me, but only after my fist was raised and I’d taken another step forward.
Silence rang in the barn as my voice echoed off the walls and suddenly I realized I’d been hearing ringing because the barn had fallen silent while we shouted at each other. Every Wayfinder in the building was staring at Lucas and I as I stood over him, fist raised and rage twisting my features. I lowered my fist and closed my eyes, taking a deep breath as I tried to smooth out my face and failed.
When my eyes snapped open again, Lucas was still on the ground, propped up on his elbows this time with a face full of rage to match my own. I looked at all the Wayfinders watching us, most of them with looks of concern or fear on their faces. The only neutral face I saw in the barn was Cam’s and they had a better poker face that I did. I couldn’t tell what they were thinking as I stood over their younger brother. Natalie looked like she was about to rush over and scold both of us though.
Lowering my shoulders, which was as close as I could get to letting go of the tension I held, I let my hand drop for a moment and then offered it to Lucas. “I’m sorry, Lucas.”
Lucas looked like he was about to slap my hand away, but then he seemed to remember that we had an audience. He looked around at everyone and then back at me. His face was still trapped in a snarl, but he accepted my offer and I pulled him to his feet. He took a deep breath, brushed himself off, and then said “I’m sorry, too. This got too heated.”
“Let’s go cool off, then.”
Lucas nodded and we bundled up as we walked towards the door, pulling gloves and hats back into place, wrapping scarves around ourselves, and dropping off whatever else we were carrying in a pile by the door.
Before I pulled the door closed behind us, I saw most of the Wayfinders returning to what they were doing, some laying back down again, some forgoing sleep to talk, and Cam still staring at me with a neutral expression. Natalie’s had softened, but she shook her head disapprovingly when my eyes caught hers. I paused for a moment, my anger quickly slipping away in the face of her disappointment. As it did, the thought that Lucas hadn’t slept in almost three days wandered through my mind and suddenly the rest of my anger evaporated.
When I’d closed the door and turned around, I found Lucas shuffling around in a circle about twenty feet away, clearing a patch of ground for our traditional conflict resolution method of wrestling as we quietly argued with each other until one of us pinned the other one, we ran out of steam, or we started yelling again. As I watched him scrape snow away, I sighed.
“You can’t say stuff like that, Lucas.”
“Sure I can.” Lucas glared at me as he vehemently kicked some snow out of his way. “If it’s the truth and you’ve stopped caring about helping people, then you need me to remind you as I kick your ass.”
I felt a flash of my anger return, but it disappeared just as quickly. “Yes, you can. But you can’t accuse me of forgetting why we’re doing this. You can’t ask me that.”
Lucas froze, the anger bleeding from his face as he replayed the argument we just had in his head. “Shit” he said, finally. “Marshall, I’m-”
“Don’t.” I help up a hand. “I shouldn’t have done this today. I shouldn’t have brought this up now. This is on me.”
Lucas looked like he was going to argue for a moment but then nodded. “Yeah, that was kind of a shit move there.”
“We can’t keep doing this, though. Arguing about following the rules or what rules are worth following, why procedure matters, if it’s okay to assume big things like this. No one but you breaks these rules, Lucas.”
“No one but me can argue with you, Marshall.” A little bit of heat crept back into his voice as he seemed to lose all trace of his earlier contrition. “Sure, I crossed a line, but when did your rules become more important than helping people?”
I took a deep breath and relaxed my shoulders, trying to push down the tension that kept creeping back into them. “Because, Lucas. They give people the ability to say no. Sure, everyone wants to help people, but I bet the Laborers regret saying yes now that almost a quarter of them are dead. If you’d just strolled up to camp with all the Naturalists, then they’d be able to rightfully blame us for their deaths!”
“Which is why I came to you ahead of them.” Lucas threw his hands into the air in exasperation. “We got exactly what you needed. Why is this a problem?”
I gritted my teeth and lowered my voice, staying outside of the circle that Lucas had cleared. “Because we’d be lying to them. If they ask around, they’ll figure out that someone promised to help the Naturalists before the Laborers agreed. The Wayfinders only work because people trust us, Lucas. If we break our word and our rules willy-nilly, that trust is gone and so is our way of life. There will be no Wayfinders anymore.”
“If the Wayfinders fall apart because we chose to help people who were being hunted so some snowbrained morons could sacrifice them to a low pressure front, then maybe we deserve to!”
I put my face in my hands and resist the urge to yell in frustration. When I took them out, Lucas had left the circle and stepped forward until he was right in front of me again. “I’m sorry I knocked you down, Lucas.” I stared up at him and strained to keep my voice even. “I’m sorry I brought this up today and I’m even sorry I didn’t just shut up about this earlier, but I can’t just ignore that you’ve broken this rule again.”
“Even if you agree that we all would have done this. Even if all I did was give us an extra two hours before people started shooting at us and not actually violate the spirit of the rules you wrote.” Lucas’ deadpan tone was at odds with the clenched fists held at his sides and sneer on his face.
“Yes. Even if.” I took a step backward, away from Lucas. “Jonathan’s the head of the scouts now. We’ll talk about the rest of it tomorrow, but I’m busting you back down to Sergeant.”
“No, we’re going to talk about this now.”
“Lucas…” I put my face in my hands and spoke to my best friend through them. “You should have taken them to Rockford. There’s no Enclave, but there’s a huge community of Naturalists. You should have hidden the other scouts and led them to Rockford. It would have taken a lot of pushing, but you’d have gotten there at least by this morning.”
“Taking fire the entire time.”
“And less of them would have probably died, Lucas. The Cultists didn’t hit us once, despite having the chance to fire on our group multiple times. They only had automatic weapons with no accuracy at the distances they were at. You could have made it to Rockford with far fewer injuries and the people there would have had a much easier time thanks to their walls.”
After a moment of not hearing a response, I picked my head up out of my hands and saw Lucas staring down at his feet, shoulders slumped. I felt the tension in my back start to loosen since it seemed like Lucas wasn’t going to argue any further.
Eventually, Lucas looked up, his eyes still angry, but the tension had left his jaw. “There wasn’t enough time, Marshall.”
“Lucas, you know I’m right or else you’d have hit me or tackled me into the snow by now.”
Lucas didn’t say anything in response. Without all the tension to keep me up, the ache in the back of my leg and the sheer exhaustion I felt from the last few days threatened to knock me down. Rather than let that happen, I took a couple steps over to the barn and sat down in the snow with my back to the wall. Lucas watched silently and then moved over to sit beside me when I patted the ground beside me.
We sat there for a few minutes, snow and cold creeping in through the gaps in our thermal clothing and hastily applied gloves and scarves. When Lucas finally spoke, we each had a light dusting of fresh snow covering us. “Demoted?”
“Yeah. That’s the recommended punishment for leading a band of cultists to a group of Wayfinders. Plus your pay for the trip is going into the Wayfinder death fund and insurance payouts for the Laborers who died.”
Lucas nodded silently. “Right. The recommendations you wrote.”
“That we wrote. When we created the charter.”
Lucas sighed and tipped his head back, letting snow fall on his face. “I think I need some sleep.”
“It’s been, like, three days.”
“Yeah. You’re still head of your squad, I’m not giving them to him, but you answer to him now.”
“We’ll handle all the details and everything tomorrow since we’re not going anywhere for at least a day or two.” I looked at Lucas’ upturned face and then down at my hands folded in my lap. “I can’t let this go. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’m not going to be surprised if I wind up having a long, angry conversation with the Laborer’s rep tomorrow. He seemed mad but focused earlier today, so I’m guessing that some of that is coming our way once he’s made sure his people are good.”
Lucas didn’t respond or give any indication that he’d heard me. I sighed and started wiping the snow off me before standing up. “C’mon. Let’s go inside.”
When I turned to offer him a hand, I realized he’d fallen asleep. I watched snowflakes melt on his face for a moment, turning into little rivulets of water that coursed down his face and into his scarf. As I turned to go back into the barn, I caught sight of Cam’s eyes through a crack in the door. Before they could walk away, I gestured for them to come outside.
Between the two of us, we managed to get Lucas back on his feet and half-carried him back into the barn. After undressing him and bundling him into his sleeping back, I left Cam watching over him as I went to go undress and get ready for bed. Later on, as I waited for sleep to take me, I listened to the familiar soft, wheezing snore of Lucas and tried to remember the last time we’d argued like this. Before I could remember, sleep claimed me and the next thing I knew I was startled away by shouting coming from outside the barn.