“…I think he means that,” Brandon said lamely.
“Y’think?” Kellin snapped, mind racing as Stasia tried to calm their panicking horses. Hellions on pogo sticks, this was the last fragging thing I expected! She looked at Tala, who shook her head quickly.
No help there. Damn. Kellin sucked in a breath. “We’re not here to hurt you,” she called toward the voice.
The shotgun clicked as the source of the voice—male, probably a younger one at that—got ready to fire again. “Who are you?”
“Call me Kel,” Kellin said, risking half a step forward, away from the others and the horses. “I’m from the university. Y’know, the one north of here?”
“I’m familiar,” the voice said warily. “What do you want?”
She glanced back over her shoulder at the others. Brandon was clearly trying to figure out where the voice was coming from, probably so he could launch some kind of strategic strike. Tala shook her head a little, holding two of the horses’ reins while Stasia gentled the other two. Kellin took another deep breath.
“Look, you can see we’ve got the horses…I used to come here with my girlfriend, about every month or so until a couple months ago. I remembered the place and remembered the sheep. That’s what we came for, if they were still alive.”
“Well, there’s someone else here alive that would very much like to keep the sheep he’s been working with for the past five years.”
“We didn’t come here to hurt you.”
“Right,” the voice said, oozing sarcasm. “You already said you’re here for the sheep. What were you planning on doing if you found anyone alive here, huh? Slit our throats or something?”
Our. More than just him here, then. “Of course not. We’d be asking you if you wanted to come home with us.”
“Home. Right. We are home.” A figure—male, probably early twenties—stepped out from the shadows of the ruined barn, shotgun leveled at the four and their horses. “Now I suggest you mount up, ride off, and don’t come back.”
Something moved behind him, a small figure making its way nimbly amidst the wreckage. Kellin pretended not to notice, slowly stepping back. “All right. Suit yourself.”
Brandonlooked at her, blinking. “We’re just going to go?”
“Yeah. If he doesn’t want to come, he doesn’t want to come. I’m not going to force him.” She turned toward her horse, reaching to take the reins from Tala.
Behind her, a young voice hissed, “Paul! Paul, don’t let them go! They’re not like the Shadow Man, they’re nice!”
Shadow man? Kellin froze for a moment, heart thudding against her breast, but didn’t turn. She waited, trying to school her expression back into indifference, if only to hide the concern that started to pile up. Shadow man. Whoever’s with him can see things. Maybe both of them can.
Tala put her hand on her arm, leaning in. “Are you okay?”
Kellin hesitated a moment before nodding. “Fine,” she murmured. “What’s he doing?”
“Looks like he’s in shock, actually.”
Kellin turned around again slowly, studying the young man with the shotgun. “She’s right, you know. We’re not bad people.” She looked past him discreetly, trying to see the source of the small voice from before. She could sense a spark somewhere back behind him, but she couldn’t see anything in the dim. “There’s about thirty of us back on campus, and we’re going to try to survive this without becoming some kind of uncivilized rabble. You—and whoever’s here with you—are more than welcome to join us. More hands means more safety, right?”
“Listen to her, Paul! She’s a nice lady.”
Behind Kellin, Stasia and Tala exchanged a look. Tala shifted uncomfortably and Brandonput a hand on her shoulder, giving it a reassured squeeze. All three were probably hoping Kellin knew what she was doing.
Truth be known, she was hoping the same thing.
She spread her hands. “It’s up to you, really. You can stay, or you can come with us.”
He stared hard at the four of them for a few moments, then slowly lowered the shotgun. “Can’t go anywhere there’s not a safe place for the flock,” he grumbled, then half turned back to the shadows and debris. “Come on out, Angie.”
“We’ve got a dry space set up for the stock right now,” Stasia offered, stroking one of the horse’s noses. “We could take you back and show you, if you’d like.”
A small figure emerged from the shadowed rubble behind the man; a girl of ten or eleven, dark hair cut into an almost boyish bob. Her big brown eyes took in each of them, almost looking through them.
She has old eyes, Kellin thought, meeting the girl’s gaze. The girl smiled, taking the man’s hand in both of hers.
“I like her, Paul. She’s a nice lady.”
Paul’s lips thinned as he momentarily looked worried. Stasia shot him a smile and passed the reins to Tala.
“Want to show me the kind of space you think they’ll need? I’m Stasia, by the way.”
He shook himself and managed to force a smile. “Paul. This is my baby sister, Angie.”
Kellin wiggled her fingers at Angie and the girl laughed. Stasia grinned. “That’s Kel, the one you were talkin’ to. Brandon’s there, and that’s Tala with the horses.”
Paul nodded a little. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you.” He looked at Stasia. “Come on…I’ll show you what’s left of what we’ve got here.”
Stasia gave him a reassuring smile and a nod. “Lead on.”
They got three steps before Paul turned around and looked at Angie. “Don’t you go anywhere, kiddo, y’dig?”
Angie beamed and nodded. “I dig, B-bro.”
He gave her a firm nod, then disappeared into the barn with Stasia, Brandon ducking after them both after a momentary hesitation, apparently deciding that Stasia needed an escort. Tala led the horses over to the fence, tying them there as Kellin made her way over to a patch of grassy ground and sat down, watching Angie. The girl studied each of them with no small measure of curiosity before she came and sat with Kellin.
“You know about the Shadow Man,” Angie said as she settled cross-legged on the ground. “Did he come and talk to you, too? He tried to make Paul help him with something, but I wouldn’t let him. The Shadow Man got mad and left. He scares me. Does he scare you, too?”
Wise beyond years for sure. Old soul, like one or two other people I know, and knows things she shouldn’t. Heavy burden for a little kid. Kellin nodded slowly. “Yes. He scares me, too.”
Day 10 – Chapter 9 – 07
“…I think he means that,” Brandon said lamely.