Winter – Chapter 18 – 04

            It took another three hours to get the first tower up, but by the time they were done, it seemed sturdy and stable enough—at least for the time being.  The clouds above had thickened to a dark gray, though no fresh flakes had begun to fall and no snow-thunder threatened.  Just the dark gray of a threatening sky, with the clouds moving fast in the heavens under a strong wind that was much less noticeable on the ground.
            Despite the tower’s apparent stability, it was over Marin’s objections that Thom was the first to scale the makeshift ladder up to the platform.  The wind up above the rooftops was a little stronger, but not enough to make the tower sway as ominously as he feared—not as badly as it would under the gale-force winds of a West Michigan winter.
            “Be careful up there,” Marin warned from below him.  He grinned, though she couldn’t see it.
            “I will be.  Pretty stable, though.  Want to come up?”
            “Hell no,” she said.  “Just be careful.  Do you see anything up there?”
            His gaze swept over the rooftops, toward the ravine, then on toward the river and the ruins of M-45.  What’s…?  He squinted, trying to get a better look at what he thought he saw.
            A curse dropped from his lips like rocks off a precipice.  “Send Angie and Tala below,” he snapped.  “We have incoming.”
            “Fuck me,” J.T. said from below, even as Marin asked, “How many?”
            “Can’t tell,” Thom said, leaning forward slightly.  “They’re still too far away.”
            “Dammit, Thom!  Stop leaning over that rail and get down here before you give me a heart attack.  Rory, trade places.”
            “His eyes are better,” Rory said, his grumble just barely carrying enough so Thom could hear him.
            “I don’t think she cares.”  Thom hurried down from his perch and stepped aside so Rory could climb up.  He gave Marin a quick squeeze.  “I’d say at least two dozen.  Hard to tell how they’re traveling, but they’re moving too slow for some not to be on foot—unless they’re hauling something damned heavy.”  I hope they’re not hauling anything heavy like some kind of cannon or heavy weapon.  Of course that would come to mind instead of, say, wagons full of wounded.
            J.T.’s expression was grim as he shook his head slowly and then turned away.  “I’ll talk to Carolyn and see if her little friends can give us a better idea of—“
            “Iron,” Carolyn interrupted, her expression matching J.T.’s.  “They’re saying a lot of iron.  That probably means guns, or something worse.”  Her lips thinned and she glanced at J.T., then at Thom and Marin. “I was coming to tell you.”
            Matt shook his head.  “I’ll grab the shotguns.  Someone going to go round up Paul and the sheep?”
            “I’ll go,” Carolyn said.  “I think I know where they are.  I’ll tell Tala that something’s coming on the way.”
            “Thanks,” Marin said.  “Be careful, okay?”
            Carolyn shot her a wry smile.  “Always.  I’ve run into the camazotzi enough times for one lifetime.”
            Shivers shot up and down Thom’s spine.  The days were ticking away and every new threat that reared its head only made him feel less prepared for the resumption of hostilities with the Shadow Man—no, Cariocecus—that would come on the shortest day of the year.
            “We still don’t know why,” he murmured as Carolyn jogged away.
            Marin gave him a quizzical look after giving a few last instructions to her brother, who’d jogged in another direction to start rounding up their guns and swords—hopefully, they wouldn’t need any of them, but the swords most of all.
            “Don’t know why what?”
            “Why he’s coming after us,” Thom said.
            Marin just blinked.  J.T. shook his head.
            “One bloody problem at a goddamned time, Thom.”  He shook his head.  “I have to tell Jac to get the kits ready.”  His nose wrinkled and he glanced upwards.  “How close, Rory?”
            “Still about a mile out.  They haven’t crossed the river yet.  They’ll have a hell of a time coming across the broken bridge.”
            Thank god for small blessings, right?  Maybe they’ll turn back.
            He didn’t think it was likely, but they could hope.
            “What’s coming?”  Kellin asked, jogging up with Drew on her heels.  “I saw Matt grabbing the guns.”
            “At least two dozen people,” Thom said.
            “Hauling a wagon of something.  Loot, I think,” Rory called from above.  “They’re not looking very nice.”
            “Are we sure they’re hostile?”  Kellin asked
            Marin grimaced and shook her head.  “No, but can we take the risk that they’re not?  We have to make sure we can defend ourselves.  If they fly a white flag or send someone forward for parley, that’s one thing.  What if they’re showing up to take what we’ve got?”
            Kellin frowned.  Drew touched her shoulder.
            “They’re right, Kel,” he said.  “We have to assume that they’re hostile until they’re proven not to be.”  He glanced up at the watchtower.  “Rory!  You see any kids with them?”
            “No dice.  Can’t tell if they’ve got any women, either—they’re too far away.”
            Drew made a gesture as if to say, see? and shook his head.  “You be ready to be diplomatic, Kel.  The rest of us will be ready in case they’re not here to chat.”
            Kellin muttered a few curses under her breath, then scrambled up the ladder to join Rory.
            Thom’s hand found Marin’s and squeezed.
            “I don’t like this,” she murmured.
            “None of us do,” he murmured back.  “But we’re going to have to deal with it whether we like it or not.  We’re not getting a vote.”
            “Are the walls strong enough?”
            I hope so.  “They’re thick enough, anyway.  Hopefully they’re high enough.  If they’re not, we’ll find out.  We’ll just have to face them in the gap.”  Someday we’ll have some kind of gate—someday after I figure out how to engineer it.
            I hope I get the chance.
            “They’re at the bridge now,” Rory said.  “Slowing down, but they’re still coming.  Looks like they’re sending a few across to figure out the best way to come across.”
            “Time’s running out,” Thom said, then kissed Marin gently.  “I need to help Matt.”
            She nodded.  “I’ll stay here with them.  In case I don’t get to say it before things maybe get bad…I love you.”
            “I know.”  He kissed her again and jogged away, trying to swallow his heart.  This is bad.  This is really, really bad.
            I hope all of us come out of this alive.
            The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach told him that even if they all came out of it alive, they wouldn’t escape unscathed.

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