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Authors: Sherwood Smith

Stranger (30 page)

BOOK: Stranger
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But when Trainer Koslova began, “Yuki, go fetch Kogatana,” Mr. Preston said, “Not Yuki. I need him.” His blurry profile peered out at Voske's lines, then Yuki felt his gaze. “Yuki, do you have to go to the infirmary?”

“I'm fine.” Well, he would be, soon.

“Good.” Yuki could hear Mr. Preston's relief. “Take your bow team and follow Julio.”

Yuki's head ached, his ears rang, and his mouth was desperately dry. He could barely see anything but bright afterimages.

“Yuki.” It was his mom's voice.

She pressed a canteen into his hand. He took a deep drink, then held it out, though he could have drained the whole thing. Someone else took it, and he heard the water slosh as they gulped.

“Brisa?” Yuki asked.

Brisa chirped, “Present!”

Yuki hadn't seen him yet, but if Brisa was here . . . “Paco?”

A steadying hand came down on Yuki's shoulder. “I'm here.”

“Paco, is the rest of our team here? My vision's coming back fast, but I can't see faces.”

“Half your bow team is in the infirmary,” said Mr. Preston. “And so is Meredith's, so combine. Meredith, you and your team are under Yuki. Go as soon as he's got his sight back.”

“We're ready,” Yuki replied.

38

Jennie

JENNIE FOLDED MEREDITH'S DRESS, NOTING THE
seams she'd have to repair before she gave it back. It was a relief to be back in her Ranger night-training clothes. She'd enjoyed seeing her cleavage nearly make Ross walk into a wall, but she enjoyed breathing more.

She opened the schoolhouse weapons chest. The bounty hunter was a big man, and carried a sectional staff as well as a rifle. She'd avoid the worst danger from the rifle by staying away from the windows. He'd only have one shot before he had to reload, and if that shot hit the book, it would be worthless confetti.

Ms. Lowenstein had drilled them in gun versus knife. No one believed it until they saw someone with a dye-soaked sponge race twenty feet and tag the person armed with a dye-loaded water-shooter without getting shot.

She shrugged into her sword harness, making sure the straps fit snugly over her shoulders, and belted it across her ribs. Then she reached over her shoulder to check that the sword was loose in its sheath.

The bells began to ring Battle Stations.

She took a step, then stopped. The back wall was her battle station, but the bounty hunter was already inside. The bells meant that he was at large and fighting people—he might even have backup. She needed to be right where she was.

Jennie added a pair of fighting knives. Why give him even twenty feet? She'd take her position right inside the door.

Standing in the shadow of the doorway, dagger ready, Jennie waited. What a great story this would make for the
Heraldo
! Maybe Ross would let her write about the book.

The porch steps creaked. Jennie flattened herself against the wall. The door flew open. She leaped behind the silhouetted figure and pressed her knife up against his throat.

A very female scream ripped the air.

“Felicité?” Jennie exclaimed, yanking her knife away.

“Jennie!” Felicité gasped.

Jennie glanced past her to a cluster of little kids, every face bug-eyed and scared. She had forgotten that Felicité's Battle Stations job was to escort the under-tens to the schoolhouse.

She forced her voice to be calm. “Good job, kids! You were quiet as mice, exactly the way you're supposed to be. I didn't even hear you! Now, come sit in your places.” As the children trooped inside, she whispered, “Did they really think that guy would attack little kids?”

Felicité's veiled hat tilted upward. “Voske might attack anyone.”

“Voske?”

Crash!
They spun around. The smallest children had started wandering. Some were rummaging through the weapons chest. Even worse, others peered out the windows, presenting perfect targets.

“Get away from the windows!” Jennie shouted.

“Stop messing with the weapons and get back to your seats!” Felicité cried.

The kids running away from the windows collided with the kids leaving the weapons chest. Some laughed, while others shrieked. A few started crying.

Felicité began grabbing kids and pushing them toward the benches. Their yelling rapidly changed to cries of “That hurts! Let me go!” and the inevitable “I want my mommy!”

Jennie strode to the front of the classroom. A slate flew across the room and smacked into her hand. She slammed it down onto her desk.

Into the instant quiet she said, “Sit. Down. Now.”

The kids sat down.

“All right. Felicité is in charge,”

“Right. Yes.” Felicité came up beside her, her dress ghost-pale. “You have to do your jobs, and that means being quiet. If Voske's army gets past the walls, do you want them to hear you yelling?”

Voske's army?
Jennie thought.

“No,” several said, and heads shook.

“So we'll sit here in the dark, quiet as mice.” Between the dark room and her veil, Felicité's face was completely invisible. Jennie could hear a tremor in her voice, but her tone stayed firm. “Everyone who does exactly what I say may come to the mayor's house for a party when this is over. Would you like that? Put up your hand if you would.”

Hands shot skyward.

Jennie slipped up next to Felicité. “Voske's army?”

“It's at the gates.”

Jennie's hand went to her sword hilt.

The bells rang again, in a pattern Jennie had only ever heard in drills: Inner Perimeter. The walls were in danger of being breached, and everyone but these children and their caretakers had to go defend them.

Jennie turned to the kids. “Follow Felicité to the town hall. Whoever she says is the quietest and the quickest will get a special prize at the mayor's party.”

As they swiftly formed a line, Jennie whispered to Felicité, “If you hear the last bell, you know what to do.”

The veiled hat nodded violently. Then Felicité took her place at the front of the line, her voice more like spun sugar than ever. “Remember. Quiet and fast!”

The kids streamed out the door behind her.

Jennie surveyed the empty schoolroom, moonlit in silvery blue squares. The book would have to remain where it was. Her place was on the wall at the back gate.

39

Mia

MIA COULDN'T DECIDE WHICH HURT MORE, HER FEET
or her lungs.

Sheriff Crow and the bounty hunter ran easily along the sentry walk, sending water splashing. A few steps ahead of her, Ross was breathing hard; he'd only been out of the infirmary for one day, after spending the last four flat on his back.

The sheriff called over her shoulder, “Come on!”

Now Mia wished she hadn't found so many excuses when Jennie wanted to practice. The crossbow seemed to get heavier with every step. If she had a chance to redesign it, she'd figure out some way to use less metal.

Ross slowed down until she could catch up. “Want me to carry that thing for you?”

“I'm thinking . . . toss it in the bushes,” Mia panted.

She hadn't even had a chance to explain that she couldn't use it herself. Once the bells had rung, they'd headed for the front wall. Sheriff Crow had told Ross, who had no Battle Station position, to come as her aide, and had waved Mia along.

At the time, Mia had been delighted. But now, with the crossbow banging into her back and a stitch stabbing her side, she wished she were anywhere else.

The moment they'd reached the wall, the bounty hunter had said, “I've seen Voske take towns this size before. Half his army is missing.”

“Then we'd better find them,” the sheriff had said.

Since he had Changed vision, Mr. Riley was making a circuit of the sentry walk to the west. The four of them were doing the same thing, heading east.

The rain stopped. A hand came down on her shoulder, and Ross said, “I can carry the crossbow.”

She handed it over, and hastily polished her glasses on a wet ruffle. The result was smeary, but at least she wasn't squinting through raindrops. They'd reached the back-gate command post.

The sheriff peered into the darkness. The sentries clutched their weapons, scanning the barely visible fields. All the adults looked worried and grim.

Mia said, “The rain's lifted, and my cottage is close. Should I get my flamethrower?”

Sheriff Crow gave a decisive nod. “I'll wait here for Mr. Riley's report. Bring it here to the back gate.”

“Can I go with her?” Ross asked. “I can protect her in case anyone got over the wall.”

The sheriff smiled briefly, an eerie sight in the moonlight that shone through the rapidly vanishing clouds.

They trudged through the mud to her cottage. When she turned on the lights, they cast a golden glow on Ross standing in the doorway, his hair hanging in wet black threads, his dancing clothes clinging to his body and displaying every curve and angle of muscle and bone.

She'd never really studied the shape of his shoulders, though she'd had her arms around them. Or his hips. What was that little hollow called, right above the hipbones? Whatever it was, the wet cloth clung to it without a wrinkle. If Mia put her hand there, it would feel like skin on skin. Ross was clear on the other side of the cottage, but she imagined touching him so vividly that she was half surprised that he hadn't already run away.

So this was what people meant by fiery, swoony passions. Mia really did feel as if she was about to burst into flames and pass out.

When a familiar blush began to darken Ross's face, she wondered in panic if she had spoken her thoughts out loud. He carefully set down the crossbow in midair. It clattered to the floor. He recoiled. Mia realized that he'd meant to put it on a nearby box.

“I'll wait outside,” he said.

“What for?”

Ross informed the floorboards, “In case you don't want to fight in it. The dress, I mean.” He bolted, the door slamming behind him.

Oh.

Rummaging wildly, she found a sheet of aluminum and tilted it to get a reflection. While the ruffles hid most of her breasts, every other contour of her body was outlined in wet pink silk.

The aluminum crashed on top of the crossbow.

She carefully extracted herself from the dress and hauled her shirt and overalls over her damp underwear with unprecedented speed, then searched for a place to stash the dress where it wouldn't rust anything and wouldn't get stained, and where Ross couldn't see it. She finally moved the engine off her bed and hid the dress beneath the quilt.

“You can come in now.”

Ross opened the door a cautious inch as she tied her bootlaces. She grabbed the flamethrower, glad to have something to look at besides Ross's transparent shirt. “Let's go.”

“Wait,” he said. “Do you know what you're getting into?”

For once he wasn't furtive, studying his hands or the ground or the ceiling or his weapons. He gazed straight at her, black eyes reflecting the hanging light.

“I've never been in a battle before,” she said. “But neither has anyone else our age.”

“I haven't, either. I mean, not armies fighting. But I have fought with people. It's not like fighting animals. Not at all.” The rapid flow of words stopped abruptly, and he clenched his right fist; his left half-closed.

“You've killed people before.” Mia had meant to phrase it as a question, but once the words were out, she already knew the answer.

Ross nodded, neither pride nor regret in his level gaze. “I'd rather run. But sometimes you don't have a choice. You do, though, don't you? The sheriff didn't order you to fight.”

“No. I asked her if I could come.”

“Can you fight?” He flushed again. “I've never seen you train. I know you fought the snakes, but that was with a flamethrower.”

“I take my turn at sentry duty and patrol, like everyone else,” she said, trying not to sound defensive. “I'm a good shot.”

“But can you fight?”

“You mean hand-to-hand? I've been trained, but I've never been great at it.” He didn't need to know that she regularly lost to fourteen-year-olds. “But like I said, I'm a good shot, so that's what I'll be doing.”

Ross flicked a glance sideways, then back at her. “Look, Mia. It's a mistake to think you'll only shoot. You don't know what you might have to do.”

Mia wished she'd trained harder, she wished that the work she had put in had gotten better results, and she wished Ross would stop looking at her as if he was certain she'd get herself killed. But she couldn't change any of that now.

He nodded sharply, as if he'd come to an agreement with himself. “Okay. This is the most important thing I know about fighting. Don't think too hard—actually, don't think at all. Just let yourself react. Can you do that?”

She'd heard this before. Every time she'd lost a sparring match, it was because she'd stopped to consider her next move or her opponent's next move, or because her attention had drifted. But she didn't want Ross to be distracted by worrying about her.

“Absolutely.”

She suspected that he didn't believe her. He ran his hand through his hair, clearing it from his face. “Do you own any weapons besides that crossbow and your flamethrower, or do you check them out?”

“I check them out.”

He opened his mouth as if to say something, then shook his head. “Where do you keep those explosives you're always warning me about?”

“Oh, those aren't ready, but I have something better.” She pulled out a box of bottles from under her worktable. “Help me fill these with oil. We'll cork them with rags, so we can light and throw them.”

They quickly prepared the bottles and loaded them onto her cart. At the back wall, they found Sheriff Crow, the bounty hunter, and Mr. Riley with a group of sentries, all peering intently to the northwest.

Then the archers showed up. Normally so neat and organized, they arrived at a staggering run, armor hastily strapped over their party clothes. Meredith had a bloody bandage around her head, Paco limped, and Yuki was covered with dark gunk that Mia hoped was soot rather than dried blood. Trainer Crow came last, with a rat riding on each shoulder and another pair trotting at her heels.

Julio pushed past Mia. “Is Voske's army out there? Do you see them?”

Mr. Riley shaded his eyes. “I spotted soldiers out there once the rain cleared. But we don't know how many there are.”

“What's he doing here?” Julio pointed at the bounty hunter.

“He's with us,” replied Sheriff Crow.

“How did he get here?”

“My question exactly.” Everyone turned. Mr. Preston was at the base of the ladder, Jennie by his side. Though she knew Jennie couldn't fight a whole army, Mia immediately felt safer.

“Evening, Tom,” the bounty hunter said. “A climber doesn't have to worry about eater-roses on your walls anywhere but forty feet along the gates.”

Mia stared at him in alarm. “If he could sneak in, could the rest of the enemy do it too?”

Glancing at her, Mr. Preston said, “It's much easier for one man—one very skilled man—to get over than for an entire team.” He eyed the bounty hunter with a mixture of annoyance and respect. “The Rangers just made a sweep, and no one else got in. What disturbs me most is the timing of this attack.”

Sheriff Crow waved a dismissive hand. “We can worry about that later. Mr. Riley spotted a flanking movement coming around the west side.”

“We can't leave the mill unguarded,” Mr. Preston said immediately. “It's too valuable.”

Because that's where the escape tunnel comes out,
Mia thought.

Julio smacked his fist into his palm and gave a laugh that reminded her of when he was their schoolhouse leader. He was the one who'd convinced the council to let thirteen-year-olds go on patrol. “Hey, Uncle, I've got an idea,” he said, his white teeth flashing. He sounded as happy as if the dance was still going on. “Give me the Rangers. We'll go covert and take out Voske himself.”

Mr. Preston sighed. “And he would be where, Julio?”

“Do you know where Voske is?” Julio asked the bounty hunter.

The man spread his hands wide. “He could be anywhere. He likes to shift around for exactly this reason. Wherever he is, he'll be surrounded by an elite team of bodyguards.”

Mr. Preston said, “Julio. You're better off defending the mill. Jennie will pick up the rest of the Rangers.” He spoke directly to the bounty hunter. “My guess is that Voske will keep his ammunition directly behind his lines, ready for a fast move, rather than at a distance.”

“You would be right,” the man said.

Mr. Preston turned back to Julio. “This flank attack will probably hit the wall where the stream enters. Place your best bow teams to guard the mill, and circulate. Keep everyone on task. No enemy must get over the walls. I'm sending the Rangers on a mission. They'll keep the ammunition guards busy, and Jennie's team will blow up their ammo.”

Mr. Riley put his hand on Jennie's shoulder, and she briefly leaned against him. Jennie was scared? Fear made Mia cold and hot at the same time. Nothing scared Jennie.

“Pick a team,” Mr. Preston said.

Jennie stepped away from her father. She was suddenly all business, but Mia wondered how much of that was real. “Yuki, do you mind if I take Brisa?”

Brisa bounced up and down, then uttered a soft “Ow.”

“Go ahead,” said Yuki. “But I'll need a replacement. Mia, will you come with us? You're a good shot.”

Mia swallowed, proud to be picked, but fear made her stomach clench. “Um, I need a crossbow.”

Sheriff Crow raised an eyebrow. “You have a crossbow.”

Mia hastily unstrapped it, too embarrassed to meet the sheriff's eyes. “Someone stronger than me needs to use it. The recoil knocks me down.”

She shoved the six-arrow crossbow at Yuki, who took it and examined it curiously. “Thanks.” He strapped it across his back.

Mia tried not to look at Ross, but she felt him shifting from foot to foot beside her.

“And I want Ross,” said Jennie.

He put his right hand on his dagger. “All right. Mia, stick close to Yuki and Meredith, okay?”

Mia forgot her own fears and stared at him in dismay. The eastern perimeter ran right past that singing tree. If he got close, it might grab control of him again. “No!”

Everyone was staring at her. “Um, I need Ross with me”—thinking fast, she added—“to help with the explosives.” She pointed at the cart of bottles.

Jennie's lips parted, her expression puzzled.

“You and me against the world,” Mia said softly, then flushed with embarrassment. Couldn't she think of anything better than that stupid motto they used when they were eight?

But Jennie turned a serious face to Mia, as if she'd said something very important. “Of course. If you need him, take him. Can I have some of your explosives? Then I won't have to go back to the armory.”

“Take them all.” Mia avoided the perplexed looks everyone gave her. The memory of finding Ross at the base of that tree was too vivid. She said firmly, “I need Ross.”

“Hold it,” said Mr. Preston. “Mia, that's not your decision to make. I'm not sure I want this boy on anyone's team.”

“Voske wants to kill me,” Ross said. “I'd rather fight back than hide inside somewhere.”

Mr. Preston gave him an irritated look. “I don't care what you want. You can't fire a crossbow with one hand. I'm not sure
what
you can do with one hand, other than get in the way.”

To Mia's surprise, Yuki spoke up. “Mr. Preston.” She had no idea how Yuki was doing it, but he seemed to tower over them all. “I want Ross on my team.” Still speaking in that commanding voice, he ordered, “Ross, show him what you can do with a knife.”

Ross immediately drew a knife, glanced up, and threw it. A stormchaser fell out of the sky, its carapace hitting the ground with a crack. Mia's jaw dropped. Those huge flying beetles moved like lightning.

Mr. Preston didn't show his surprise, but he nodded at Ross. “Go get your weapon back. You're on Yuki's team. Jennie, take off. We need Voske's ammunition gone.”

BOOK: Stranger
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