We reached the fire as most of the others were gathering there. Matt frowned at me, looking away from instructing Tala in the finer points of aiming and shooting a shotgun even as he belted on the bigger woman’s festival rapier around his waist. “Where’s Phelan?”
“He went to get holly,” Carolyn said. “Jac, he said you two would need a mortar and pestle and a bucket of water.”
Jacqueline blinked, but nodded. “Right.” She moved quickly, rising and darting toward the well.
Thom took me by the elbow, drawing me slightly aside. “What are we looking at?”
He was leaning on one crutch but most of his weight was on his good leg. His broken ankle had improved markedly over the last few weeks, but J.T. had been keeping a close eye on him to make sure he didn’t push his limits too much. I was afraid he was about to do it, too, since his festival sword was riding on his hip. I frowned, staring at the blade.
He sighed softly and touched my cheek. “You didn’t really think that I was telling Matt to get it to use himself, did you? All he knows is that the pointed end goes in the bad guy. He’d hurt himself trying to fight with it at this point.”
“So will you,” I murmured, tearing my eyes away from the weapon to meet his gaze.
“I hope not. I’m tired of it.” He rested his forehead against mine. “I’ll be careful. Now come on. Tell me what we’re up against.”
I swallowed hard. “We don’t know yet. All we know is that whatever’s out there in the ravine stopped fighting amongst themselves and maybe could be coming for us. We’re waiting.”
He nodded slightly, putting his arms gently around my waist. I leaned into him, sighing quietly. I hate the waiting. I hate not knowing.
“We’ll get through it,” he murmured. “All of us, in one piece. I promise.”
Carolyn cleared her throat behind me and I jerked, straightening and pulling away from Thom.
“What is it?” I asked. “Are they moving?”
“Not yet. Paul and Stasia are driving the flocks across the lines. What are we going to do?”
“Three rings of defense,” Thom said quietly. “Most able at the exterior line, with the firearms and most of the swords. Angie and Tala and Jac here at the center, which is the last line and our fallback point. Anyone that gets hurt needs to shift back here.”
Carolyn shook her head. “Thom, we don’t have the manpower for that. There aren’t that many of us.”
“We’ll make it work,” he said firmly, glancing at me for support. I sighed quietly and shook my head a little.
“It might work. We don’t have to ring the whole camp, just the ravine sides. That’s where they’ll come from.” At least I think that’s where they’ll come from. I hope they don’t try to surround us. There were probably enough of them to pull that off, though.
“What might work?” Kellin asked as she joined us, red-faced and breathless.
“Thom’s plan,” Carolyn said. “Three lines, one nearest to the ravines and the wards, one further in, then a knot back here by the fire.”
Kellin looked between Carolyn and I. “How many are we talking about?”
“We don’t know.” Could be dozens, or hundreds, or thousands. Shivers worked their way up my spine. I hope dozens, or less than dozens. I hope none at all.
Thom squeezed my arm, his palm covering the mark, warming it slightly.
“No movement yet,” Phelan called from behind us. “But they’re stirring. Something’s coming.”
His was torso bare except for the gauze taped over his stitches. He’d taken off his shirt so he could carry a tangled mass of holly leaves and berries, the bundle cradled in his arms like something precious. Rory came on his heels, carrying four staves—one of them Phelan’s—in hand.
“Set them there, Rory,” Phelan said as he knelt down near the fire and spread his shirt over the bare earth. Quick fingers made small ornaments of leaves and berries, which he lashed to the balance point of each stave.
“What are those for?” I asked.
He grinned over his shoulder at me. “Protection. Staves for you, me, Rory, and Jac. Where is she, anyway?”
“I’m here,” she said, huffing as she hauled a bucket of water over, a basket bumping against her hip, trapped between it and her elbow. She set the bucket down heavily next to Phelan, then started to unload the requested mortar and pestle. “What are we going to do with these?”
Phelan’s eyes glittered. “We’re going to bless the blades and the staves and the ammunition and hope that I haven’t lost my touch—and that yours is as strong as I think it is.”
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