Winter – Chapter 18 – 06

            Phelan appeared at Thom’s shoulder just as Rory reported that the incoming rabble had managed to cross the broken span over the Grand River.  Thom looked at him sidelong, jaw setting.
            “Did anyone send them, Phelan?” Thom asked, his voice low enough that only Phelan, on one side, and Marin, on the other, could hear him.
            The flame-haired man bounced an impressive old-style hunting bow between his palms, brows knitting in thought as he considered the question.  His gaze drifted to the north, toward the threat he couldn’t see.
            He shook his head slightly.  “No,” he murmured quietly.  “No, I don’t think so.”
            “You’re sure?”  Marin asked, peering around Thom.
            Phelan frowned.  “There’s no such thing as ‘sure’ in these things, but my instincts say no.  This is random.  Bad luck.  Nothing more.”
            Bad luck.  Right.  Thom’s lips thinned.  “Right.  What’s your range with the bow?”
            “Farther than the shotguns,” Phelan said with a wry smile.
            Thom nodded firmly.  Good.  “I need you on one of the roofs with that thing.  Can you climb?”
            “I’ll manage,” Phelan said, hand drifting unconsciously to his side.  Thom clapped him on the shoulder.
            “Start climbing.  Hold your fire until I give you a signal.”
            “I think I can handle that.”  Phelan gave both of them a tight smile and headed for the nearest shed, beginning to scramble up, using a tote as a step to give himself a boost.
            Marin eased closer, a shotgun in one hand and her staff in the other.  Thom slid his arm around her shoulders and squeezed briefly.
            “Stay out of the direct line of fire,” he murmured in her ear, then kissed it gently through her hair.  “Promise me.”  I’m not going to stand by and watch something happen to you.  The camazotzi, the Greys, that’s one thing.  This is different.  This isn’t something she’s equipped to fight.
            It’s not anything any of us are equipped to fight, but I’ll never forgive myself if something happens to her.
            Pain flickered across her features and she took his hand and squeezed.  “I’ll try.  Where do you want me?”
            Traces of tension eased.  I couldn’t ask for much more than her trying, at least.  “Right here, under the watchtower.  Go up if you have to if you need to get a clear shot.  You’ll know if you do.”
            “Thom!  They’re halfway up the hill.  My count’s twenty-five.  Five look like prisoners.”
            Prisoners?  Thom swallowed bile.  What the hell are we dealing with here?
            It struck him that just scaring them off might not be an option.
            We might have to kill them all just to make sure we’re safe.
            As if he hadn’t already shivered enough today.  He glanced at Marin.
            I have to keep them safe.  He thought of Jac, of Angie.  I have to keep all of them safe.
            He shook his head at himself and started getting everyone in order—ten people up on the walls, ten in the gap.  He took the middle.
            “They’re coming down Campus Drive now,” Rory called down.
            Won’t be long.  “All right.  Hold until my signal.  Kel, are you coming down to negotiate?”
            After a momentary hesitation, she answered.  “You open.  If they’re willing, I’ll come down.”
            Thom nodded, mostly to himself.  “We’ll meet violence with violence only if we have to.  Stand fast but be alert.  If one of them so much as twitches, we need to be ready to respond.  On my signal.”  He took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.  He could almost hear them now.  “Check your loads and wait.”
            He tried to quell the racing of his heart as he strained to hear the sound of their approaching “guests.”  All he could hear was the thundering of his heart and the sound of the others checking to make sure their weapons were loaded around him.
            The one that came into view first was taller than even Thom with shoulders broader than J.T.’s.  He was clean-shaven, chiseled features, like some kind of European model.  The men who came behind him were equally rugged, though they looked less reputable than their leader.
            He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
            The man’s eyes glittered like obsidian in the sun and a slow, cruel smile split his features as he and his wended their way across the field before the walls.  “Well well,” he said, his voice almost a purr.  “Look at all the little children with their toy guns.”
            Thom eased forward from the line.  “Have you come to trade, or to raid?”
            The man considered the question for a moment, his gaze raking over Thom.  “We’ve come for your food, your livestock, and your women.”
            To raid, then.  A muscle in Thom’s jaw twitched.  “In exchange for what?”
            “Your lives,” the man said, then grinned.  Some of the men behind him grinned feral grins—the group was mostly men, except for four women with their wrists duct-taped together in a wagon—while only two of them, plus a teenager boy in one of the wagons, looked uncomfortable with the statement.
            “I’m sorry, that’s raiding, not trading.”  Thom mustered up a smile that he hoped matched the stranger’s in cruelty.  “And New Hope is closed to raiders.  Find yourself easier pickings elsewhere.”
            The man started to laugh.  Thom set his jaw, resting one hand on the hilt of his sword.
            “And you’re going to stop me with your little toy sword and your little toy guns?” the  man said, mirth fading though the cruel smile remained.
            “You bet.”  Thom said.  One way or another.
            The man started to laugh again.
            A pistol appeared from nowhere.
            Thom dove.
            Shots echoed off the walls, the remnants of buildings.
            Pain exploded in his side and he hit the ground gasping, his chest and shoulder on fire.
            Something whistled over Thom’s head, then hit somewhere ahead of him with a dull, meaty thunk.
            “If one of you so much as twitches for a weapon, you’ll be next.”
            It was Phelan’s voice, Thom realized dimly as black and red nibbled on the edges of his vision.  Breathing hurt.
            Someone ahead of him was shouting.  He heard weapons cocking.
            Gunfire erupted above him even as he fought to stay conscious, every breath a battle.
            Please.  Please, gods and monsters and whatever the hell is out there, please take care of them.  Protect them.
            Protect them when I can’t.
            Like right now.

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2 Responses to Winter – Chapter 18 – 06

  1. Kunama says:

    “Some of the men behind him”
    … they what? Seem to be missing the end of the sentence after the aside about the women.

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