Phelan shrugged slightly, going back to his carving. “In any case, there’s just…things…that’s all.”
“Things,” Thom muttered, then scrubbed both hands over his face. Do I want to know what these things are? Do I want to have any inkling of what they might be? “Well, I think I’d rather have some of that be a surprise.” He glanced at Matt, who nodded.
As he began to shovel again, Matt asked, “So this Vammatar chick that worked you over and gave J.T. that black eye. What kind of nasty would she usually bring in as backup?”
“Eh?” Phelan said.
“Well, you said the camazotzi aren’t exactly her style, right?” Matt heaved another shovelful of mixed dirt and clay to the side. “What would be?”
Thom stared at Phelan, brows knitting. “She usually works alone?”
“Either alone or with her sister. Loviatar, mistress of the nine plagues.”
Matt frowned. “Why is that name familiar?”
“What does D&D have to do with this?” Thom asked.
Phelan laughed and shook his head. “Nothing except names. A few came from Finnish mythology. Most folks don’t think about the people of Finland having their own myths, but they did.”
“And their mythology is in part reality?”
Phelan nodded and tapped his nose with a fingertip. “You are correct, sir.”
“Huh.” Matt frowned. “So this mistress of the nine plagues chick. Do we have to worry about her?”
Thom watched Phelan carefully as the other man considered the question and finally shook his head.
“I hope not,” Phelan said quietly. “Vammatar’s a force to be reckoned with, but her sister? I don’t know if we’d pull through that.”
“Why’s that?” Matt asked.
Phelan smiled wryly. “I thought ‘mistress of the nine plagues’ would explain that.” He stretched and leaned back a little, wincing slightly. “Her purview is sickness. Think about it.”
Matt grimaced. “Physical arms we have a shot against—or we will—but sickness is sickness.”
“Bingo,” Phelan said quietly. “I’ve gone toe-to-toe with her once and that was enough.” He glanced at Thom and held up a hand. “Don’t ask. I’m not in any state of mind right now to tell you what happened.”
Thom closed his mouth and nodded. Either he’s already got me figured out, or the curiosity was all over my face. He wondered what had happened that last time Phelan had gone up against this purported mistress of plagues. “Does it have something to do with what Vammatar said before Jay rushed her?”
Phelan winced. “Not quite,” he said softly.
“Wait, what?” Matt looked at both of them. “What did she say?”
“She asked if Phelan was gathering another tribe to fight and die for him, one that could be easily discarded.” Jacqueline gave Matt a weak little smile as she set a big basket down next to Phelan.
Matt gave Phelan a sharp look and the older man sighed quietly and shook his head. “It’s not like that, Matt.”
“No,” Matt said slowly, gazing warily at him. “I suppose not. What did you say to her?”
“I didn’t,” Phelan said, staring at his hands. “Jameson was on her before I could. She was mocking him for caring, for stepping up. It’s her way.” He sighed quietly. “She’s a force of suffering, after all.” He glanced at Jacqueline. “I didn’t realize you and Greg heard her say that.”
Jacqueline shrugged as she sat down on the other side of the basket and pulled out a notebook and a pen. “I don’t know why not. We were there, weren’t we?”
Phelan nodded. “Aye, you were.” He poked at the cloth over the basket’s contents. “What’s in there?”
“Herbs and bandages. I figured I’d come up here and sit with you three and bundle them so I stop catching dirty looks from Leah.”
Thom winced. “She’s upset?”
“A little. She seems mostly okay about it, but I think she’s seething underneath. She might realize we’re starting to be suspicious about her behavior.” Jacqueline shook her head a little. “I can’t tell whether it’s understandable resentment or malice, though.”
Thom frowned and straightened up slightly, looking beyond Phelan and Jacqueline toward where the work continued on their defensive walls. He could see Leah at one end, working with Davon laying broken concrete and stones, Rory a few yards away with a yardstick measuring the height of their accomplishments.
“As long as she keeps doing what’s asked,” Thom said quietly, his voice trailing away at the end. Then what? What if she really is a threat? What do we do then?
“What do we do if she doesn’t, Thom?” Matt asked quietly, abandoning his shovel and following Thom’s gaze. “What do we do then?”
“I don’t know,” Thom said. “I really don’t know.”
“We can’t send her away,” Jacqueline said. “It’d be tantamount to murder. She wouldn’t have any resources, nowhere to go.”
Phelan frowned. “That’s not necessarily true. I saw some signs of other communities while I was on my way up here. Granted, I never got to investigate any of them, but there are other survivors. Maybe not that close, but not that far, either.”
But would we be endangering those communities by pointing her in their direction, or just letting her loose on the world? Thom shook his head slowly. “There’s no good options.” Except to hope we’re wrong, that it’s all just coincidence.
A sick feeling in the pit of his stomach warned him that he very well could be wrong.
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