Authors: Sherwood Smith
YUKI SAT SHOULDER TO SHOULDER WITH PACO,
watching the mud fight Henry had started. Laughing kids competed to see who could slide the farthest, while his friends slow-danced in the rain.
“I thought I'd hate watching everyone dance when I can't,” Paco said. “But it's okay. I'll be able to dance next time. Maybe I'll teach Ross folklÃ³rico, since he's got my old outfit.”
“Yeah, you should.” Yuki leaned his head against Paco's shoulder. He couldn't remember ever feeling this relaxed.
The tower bell rang.
Yuki snapped upright.
The bell kept ringing, tolling out a pattern so unexpected he almost couldn't place it. The bell was ringing for Battle Stationsâwithout even going to Lockdown first. It had to be a prank. But Henry, the only person who might even consider it, looked as poleaxed as everyone else, a forgotten mud ball dripping in his hands.
“It's real,” Paco said. He started to get up, then fell back. “Owâdamn! Where's Dr. Lee?”
“Dr. Lee! Dr. Lee!” Brisa's high voice came from behind them, accompanied by the thump of crutches. “You've got to heal us!”
The doctor came splashing through the puddles. “I just left Tom Preston. There's an army at the gates.”
Paco grabbed his arm. “You have to fix my knee. I don't care how much it shortens my life. I'm not sitting here while my town is attacked.”
“Me either.” Brisa raised clenched fists. “They'll need us!”
Yuki held his breath as Dr. Lee glanced from one to the other. “Brisa, your ankle would have healed in a few weeks anyway. It'll be fine as long as you don't kick anyone. But Paco, even if I did heal youâand you're right, that would take months off your lifeâyou'll still have a limp, and it'll still hurt. You need to do rehabâ”
Paco waved it all away. “I don't care. As long as I can walk.”
“Do it, Dr. Lee. They're both on my bow team.” Even as Yuki spoke, he found it hard to believe this was actually happening.
“All I'll take is one month,” Dr. Lee warned, motioning Brisa to sit beside Paco. “And you, a week. Go on, Yuki. They'll catch up with you. Go.”
He ran through the pelting rain. A crowd had converged at the armory, party clothes dripping. Judge Lopez supervised the children and old people in the supply lines, passing along weapons and ammunition.
“Your weapons are on the wall,” Josiah Rodriguez called to Yuki. “They're sending the kids to collect everyone's armor from the schoolhouse. Stay low!”
Yuki vaulted over the corral fence and ran to the wall, where he found Meredith checking her arrows. As the leaders of the best two student bow teams, they were positioned on either side of the front gate, with the best adult shooters on the gate itself.
He took up his position behind a shield, glad to see a bow and a full box of arrows waiting. His mother was already on the wall, incongruous in her brocade party dress, issuing orders as calmly as if this were another boring drill.
What finally convinced Yuki that it was real was how chaotic it was. Unlike the way things happened in the smoothly organized drills, half the people who should be there weren't, others were in the wrong places, and no one wore armor. His own team members were hastily removing bracelets and embroidered vests, elegant hats and high-heeled shoes, and tossing them into the basket held up by Grandma Callahan.
Julio Wolfe splashed up. “Can you see them?”
“Not in this rain.” Yuki's mom peered into the darkness.
His heartbeat raced. He'd rather know it was bad than not know at all.
A fork of purple lightning lit the entire sky. In its glare he saw the army lined up in rows, some mounted.
Henry gasped, serious for once. “There's thousands of them.”
Yuki's mother's voice cracked out. “There are not. He's spread them out so it looks like there's more than there are.”
“Get ready!” Fast, splashing footsteps on the sentry walk brought everyone's attention to Mr. Preston, his embroidered tunic dripping. “They'll try to blow up the gate.”
Yuki gripped his bow, wishing he could see better. He wiped his eyes; it didn't help. The rain was too thick, the clouds heavy overhead.
Then the rain stopped instantly. Clouds parted with unnatural speed. The light of the moon was so bright that it seemed like another lightning flash. He saw enemy soldiers grouped around bulky objects wrapped in shiny oilcloth. Those must be their explosives.
“Mr. Preston!” Yuki's mom called out. “Do you think this is Voske's army?”
“It has to be. What I wish I knew is if Ian Voske is out there himself.”
A horn blared a series of notes, and tiny flames arced toward the wall. Yuki ducked as fire arrows flew overhead.
“Here they come,” Mr. Preston said.
Yuki wished he felt as calm as Mr. Preston sounded.
With a ripping sound, Voske's soldiers sliced off the oilcloth, revealing barrels.
The barrels began to move. Some were pushed by heavily armored fighters, but one rolled by itself, obviously propelled by some Change power.
“Teams One through Three,” Yuki's mom called. “Aim for the pushers. The rest of you, on my mark, light your arrows, and hit the barrels before they reach the gate. Everyone, hold for my command.”
“They're too close,” Henry muttered. “We should shoot now.”
Yuki clenched his teeth to stop himself from snapping,
They're still out of range, idiot!
The smell of sulfur eddied on the air as the arrows were lit. Arrows flew overhead, this time lower. Someone at the far end of the wall let out a scream.
Yuki peered around his shield, trying to see how the enemy armor was jointed. He heard his mom's voice in his mind, crisp and clear: “Remember! When your enemy is wearing armor, don't shoot at their bodies. Aim for elbows, knees, armpits, neck. Anywhere the armor has to gap. They'll be doing the same to you.”
The figures and their barrels of explosives moved closer. Behind them, the line of soldiers also approached.
Another wave of arrows flew overhead from the attackers. Down the wall, a bow twanged. An arrow flew outâand clattered harmlessly off the helmet of one of the attackers.
“Henry. Step out of line, and join the supply team.” Yuki's mom's voice was sharp.
“But I hit the guy!”
“You know what âedge of range' means. Even if he hadn't been wearing a helmet, that arrow would barely have had enough velocity left on it to scratch him. Now, get off the wall.”
“You're pulling me off the wall, when I nearly got the first kill?” Henry protested.
Mr. Preston's voice rang out. “Henry Callahan, get off the wall
Yuki's mom called, “Aim!”
Yuki hefted the bow, picking his target: A big soldier, whose armor shifted, exposing his knees as he lifted his foot out of the mud.
The air filled with the hiss and hum of arrows. Curses and some barks of laughter rose from the attackers. The line wavered slightly, then pushed on. None were hit. Yuki felt a spurt of anger and disappointment when his arrow thumped against the soldier's armored leg.
“If you can hit them, they can hit you,” warned Mr. Preston.
Yuki hastily ducked behind his shield. Seconds later, another wave of arrows clattered off the shields and the upper part of the wall with a sound like hail.
“Aim.” The whispers ceased. “Shoot!”
This time, Yuki's man staggered, a hand clapping to the arrow in his knee. He stumbled back, but his team pushed the barrel on. Over the field, four other figures writhed, and two lay still, arrows sticking up.
On the wall, someone screamed, and there was a sob. Yuki's mom ran, bent over, to see what was going on. “Take over, Meredith.”
Meredith's voice was steady. “Aim! Shoot!”
Flaming arrows hit two barrels, but Voske's soldiers yanked them out before the fire spread.
“Rifles at the ready!” Julio Wolfe shouted.
Yuki's mom ran back. “Where are the dried cow patties?”
From below, Mr. Rodriguez said, “They've been rained on, Ms. Lowenstein. Shall we dip them in oil?”
“Do it,” she called. Behind her, Meredith yelled, “Aim! Shoot!”
Yuki leaned out, shotâand the arrow pinned someone's hand against a barrel. The soldier let out a stream of curses.
“Ew, they're sticky!” Sujata cried. “And they stink!”
“Quiet on the wall!” Yuki's mom's voice was calm but carrying.
“Team Ten, in pairs, launch those patties.”
An acrid smell singed Yuki's nostrils as two people from Team Ten bent low and passed behind him, heading toward the gate. Another pair followed.
“Aim!” Meredith called, then screamed.
Yuki spun around. His sister was down on the ground, with bright blood on her face and hair.
Their mom appeared out of nowhere, her yellow eyes huge. “Take the archers.” She thumped his shoulder, then ran toward Meredith, keeping low, a shield angled to cover most of her body.
Yuki tried to speak, but his throat had gone dry. He worked his lips, slapped an arrow to his bow, and yelled, “Aim!” He paused to pick a target, wishing he knew which of them had shot his sister. “Shoot!”
A dozen soldiers fell or staggered. Yuki sneaked a quick peek along the wall, but he couldn't see either Meredith or his mother.
“Aim!” he called, when he remembered everyone was waiting. He nocked an arrow. “Shoot!”
Flaming cow patties arced into the air, falling on soldiers and barrels alike. A few stuck and burned. Attackers leaped and lunged, trying to put the fires out. Yuki felt a fierce laugh building at their howling and their clumsy dance. Then he remembered that he was exposed, and yanked his head back. An arrow whistled past his cheek.
An explosion rocked the wall, making Yuki clutch at his shield. “Aim!” He pulled an arrow up. “Shâ”
A flaming arrow hit the barrel below him, which exploded in a fireball.
Everything went white. His ears rang. Someone tugged his arm insistently. “Are you all right? Yuki, are you all right?”
“I'm fine,” he said automatically. He was flat on his back. He sat up and felt around until he found his bow; he couldn't see anything but pulsing light.
“Good. Keep it going.”
“Aim!” Yuki cried. He didn't know if anyone was listening. “Shoot!”
“Duck!” A hand thrust his head down.
Two more barrels exploded. He kept his eyes shut. When he opened them, he could see better, though lights flashed every time he blinked. The fires were so bright, and the attackers were so close he could see the details of their armor. It wasn't bullock armor plates, but something covered with metal links. Why wasn't his armor here yet?
“Are you hurt?” Meredith crouched beside him, her hand still on his head. Her head was bandaged and blood covered her face, but she was alive.
“Aim! Shoot!” The voice on his left belonged to a man.
Yuki rubbed his burning eyes against his shirt. His face was filmed with oily, smelly fertilizer residue. Mr. Preston knelt at the next shield over, peering intently down. He raised his pistol and shot. An attacker threw up his hands and fell into the mud.
“Are the barrels gone?” Yuki's mom called
A shuffling and a rustle behind Yuki, and there was Yolanda Riley, her spiky hair flattened to her skull. “Armor, Yuki.” She dropped it and crawled back along the sentry walk, her own armor creaking.
“Two remaining,” Mr. Preston shouted, his voice strained. “They're almost close enough to blow the gate!”
They couldn't aim directly below without making themselves easy targets. Yuki yanked his armor on. He couldn't figure out why he was having so much trouble until he noticed his hands shaking.
Quick footsteps pattered down the wall. Brisa ran past in a low crouch, her pigtails swinging at each step. She was already armored, and carried a rock in either hand.
At the edge of the wall, next to the gate, she readied herself, then stood up. An arrow bounced off her breastplate, and another scraped her side. But her arm whirled in an expert throw as she hurled first one rock and then the other at the barrels below.
The explosions came almost on top of each other. Flaming bits of wood and chunks of dirt rained down all around them. Yuki tried to blink away the flashing lights and jagged shadows that distorted his vision. From the wild cheering, he knew that Brisa had been in time: the gate still held.
More arrows clattered against the shields as Yuki's mom knelt down. “You okay?”
“They're not mounting another attack,” said Mr. Preston. “That's covering fire.”
Arrows whizzed out, and they all ducked. Several hit the shields, and one clattered off the wall inches from Yuki's foot.
“It's a distraction.” Mr. Preston turned his head. “Julio!”
“I think Voske's out there himself. That means a secondary plan, probably already in motion, and a backup readying.”
“Secondary?” Julio's alarm echoed Yuki's own. He'd thought it was all over. His stomach lurched.
“The target has to be the back gate,” Mr. Preston said. “They're probably moving in a wide circle so we won't see them until they charge. Take four teams to reinforce the back wall. Trainer Crow?”
“Here.” Sheriff Crow's mothers, the town rat trainers, stood below the wall. Kourtney, a black-and-white rat, rode on Trainer Crow's shoulder, and Al, a brown rat, rode on Trainer Koslova's. Four others waited alertly at their feet.
“Please place your best teams on each wall, and at the town hall. But I want you at the back wall, and you, Trainer Koslova, here at the front gate.”
Yuki and Kogatana were one of the best rat-and-human teams. He hoped they wouldn't get stuck at the town hall.