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Authors: Sherwood Smith

Stranger (33 page)

BOOK: Stranger
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There was the Hill on the right. Here were her feet, dragging across the ground. There was Brisa beside her. There were people carrying Sera. She had to report, she had to . . .

A hand reached past Jennie, and someone slid a hand under Sera's shoulder. “Here,” someone else murmured. “Let me help.”

Jennie's vision swam, her ears roaring. No—a cheering crowd had gathered around them, more running along the path. Lanterns swung, highlighting faces with moving shadows as people yelled, hoarse and shrill, angry and triumphant.

“You did it! You did it!”

“Hurray for the Rangers!”

“Rangers! Rangers!”

They're cheering us,
Jennie thought.
They're cheering us.
Euphoria expanded inside her chest, making her feel so buoyant her tiredness was forgotten, and she walked a little easier as two, then four people pressed in to help carry Sera, then more. Someone said, “Everybody lift!” Now they bore her high on a forest of hands.

Jennie's eyes blurred. The torchlight glimmered over the horrible looseness of Sera's hands, her upturned profile. Behind them came another group carrying the wounded. As the growing crowd approached the town hall, the sentries on the roof lifted their weapons and shouted.

Sera, whom Jennie had known all her life. Sera the strong, the capable. Sera, the fastest runner in town before the sheriff Changed. Sera the quiet, with her penchant for deadpan humor.

Her graying hair had made her look old, but Sera had been younger than Jennie when she'd first come to Las Anclas. Sera had visited Paco and the Rileys every time she was on liberty from the Rangers, patiently teaching him weaponry and riding in the hope that he'd be a Ranger too. Though he had the skills, he loved music, not fighting . . . and once Sera realized that, she had talked to the Old Town Band and arranged drum lessons for Paco.

Paco, whose face Jennie had seen on the man who was trying to destroy their town.

As they entered the town hall, people shouted in triumph. But Jennie blinked back tears as she watched Sera laid with respectful, tender care on a party table still covered with an embroidered tablecloth.

Ms. Salazar glowed like a bonfire, her mouth crooked with joy and sorrow, as she crushed an exasperated Rico against her. Jennie's euphoria broke like a soap bubble, leaving behind a residue of exhaustion, grief, and guilt. She couldn't bear to hear Ms. Salazar's words of gratitude and relief—because Jennie hadn't protected Rico. She'd left him in the care of the other kids she was supposed to be protecting. They could so easily have been cut down along the way. And her choice had been wrong, because she hadn't killed Voske.

She hadn't saved Sera.

People were calling them heroes, but nobody had ever taught her the real cost of being a hero: if you survived, how did you deal with the guilt?

45

Felicité

FELICITÉ WATCHED IN HORROR AS DR. LEE'S
helpers carried Indra to the far side of the town hall, which they'd screened off to make a field hospital. Indra couldn't be dead. He couldn't.

She had to find out.

She left her mother's side and pushed past the women guarding the entrance. Inside, people rushed back and forth, carrying basins and cloths. One of them collided with her.

“Sorry,” she said, biting back an impatient retort. “I have to see—”

The man didn't wait to find out what she wanted. She skirted the table where she had uncrated bottles of antiseptic alcohol, and spotted the wounded laid out on folded blankets. No Indra.

He was on a table. Grandpa Horst cut his shirt open, while Becky held a strand of ropethorn. Dr. Lee ran up, covered in blood. He braced himself against the table with one hand, hair hanging around his haggard face, then pushed himself upright and laid his other hand on Indra's chest.

Felicité squeezed past someone with an armload of bandages, peering to see if Indra was still breathing.

“Where are those towels?” Dr. Lee asked impatiently.

“Is he alive?” she asked. “Will he be all right?”

He shouted—actually shouted at her—“Get out!”

Grandpa Horst took her gently but firmly by the shoulder and steered her away. “Felicité, please give us room to work. Anna-Lucia, bring those towels!”

She ran out of the field hospital. She almost tripped over Jennie, who was crouched on the floor. As Felicité stared at her, too stunned to think, Jennie held out her hand. A pebble rolled from the corner of the town hall, then jumped up and flew across the room.

Jennie caught it with a sigh of obvious relief. Felicité couldn't believe she was sitting there playing with her Change power. Was she wounded too? There was blood on her clothes and in her hair. Maybe a blow to the head?

Daddy came in, leading a stream of people all talking at once. Felicité headed toward them—he would find out how Indra was doing. But he didn't even seem to see her. He went straight to Jennie. “Give me your report.”

Jennie got slowly to her feet. “We blew up the ammunition. All but a few barrels. But Voske and his bodyguards were nearby. Sera tried to take him out. She's . . .” Jennie's chest heaved, and she shut her eyes. “We failed.”

He repeated, “But you blew up the ammunition?”

“Yes.”

That set some of the eavesdroppers cheering. Jennie winced, her lower lip trembling.

Sera is dead. Indra might be too. They couldn't kill Voske. It's not a successful mission to her.

Felicité's father rubbed his jaw. “Now we might have a chance. We need to—”

“Coming through.” Yuki pushed through the crowds, princely even with his hair covered in soot and blood. More archers followed, plus Ross, with Mia trailing behind, flamethrower strapped to her back.

“We routed that army from the back,” Yuki told her father. “But the leader got away. Ross says he's Voske's lieutenant, a big redheaded guy.”

Her father grimaced. “I know who you mean. He's probably reporting our north side numbers right now. We can expect another attempt—”

A huge explosion shook the building, then another. Some bottles fell off the makeshift shelves they'd made from stacked benches.

People started gabbling questions.

“Quiet!” Daddy shouted. “That's got to be the gates.”

Mother was at Felicité's side, still smelling of verbena and sun-dried sheets, though her forehead was taut with strain. She had been overseeing everything, but now everyone milled around in confusion.

“Tom,” she said. Felicité looked from one parent to the other as her mother asked, “Is it time?”

Felicité knew what she meant:
Is it time to use the tunnel?

“Not until they're breaking down the door,” he said. “Wait.”

People parted like blades of grass as a black-and-white rat raced in. Trainer Koslova worked the crumpled paper out of its harness. There were no words, just a smeared scrawl: a line, with a big X in the middle, and then a smaller X through the line an inch or so away.

“They've blown the gates,” Felicité's father said. “And part of the south wall, from the looks of it near the south forge.”

“Felicité, let us take the children into the storeroom, where it's quieter.” Her mother's glance was full of meaning.

She was about to agree when Daddy shook his head. “Wait, Felicité. Valeria, you go ahead.” He pulled Mother up against him and kissed her fiercely. Then he turned away. “Yuki. Take your team. Find the sheriff. Tell her to protect the south generator and the armory. You've got to collect everyone you can and hold the gate. Voske must be sending everything he has against us now, since he's lower on ammo than we are. If they get inside the town, we've lost.”

“Got it,” Yuki said. He drank from the canteen someone had started passing around before he ran off.

Felicité's father beckoned to Jennie and the few Rangers with her. “Put together a team. I'll pull everyone from the east wall. Half will reinforce those on the roof here.” The crowd looked upward, as if they could see the sentries. “The rest will join us in a flanking move from the east. Hit them from behind. Our target will be the breach by the south forge. I need the best fighters up front.”

“Can we have Ross?” Jennie asked.

“Whoever you want. Just do it fast.” He took Felicité's arm. “Darling, I want you to stay with me. I might need you to run an errand, and I need someone I know I can trust.”

Her stomach clenched with fear. She knew perfectly well that he would only take her with him if he believed that the town hall wasn't safe. “Of course. Let me get my things.” She reached for her hat.

“Your bow? Good thinking. Do we have any extra arrows?”

“Yes, my bow,” Felicité said belatedly. She picked it up from where she'd left it after handing the children off to Judge Vardam. The quiver was empty, but there was no point adding to her father's worries. She picked up her veiled hat and tied it on firmly, and made sure her scarf was wrapped tight around her throat.

“No! No, she can't—” someone yelled, and then cut himself short.

Dr. Lee put his hand on Paco's shoulder. Paco jerked away and ran into the hospital. Dr. Lee went after him.

Felicité followed, as if pulled by a magnet. She had to see, to know.

Paco stood rigid at the table where they had laid his mother. No one had covered her face, or the faces of any of the dead; all the blankets were needed for the living.

Daddy walked across the room to Paco, who looked older, his chiseled features gone blank and numb. Yuki lingered in the background, looking uncertain.

Felicité's eyes stung as her father pressed his own rifle into Paco's hands. “We need you, Paco. We need everybody, so no more of our people die. Take my weapon. Help me defend the town.”

Paco's jaw tightened. “Okay, Mr. Preston.” He stuffed the powder and ammunition into his shirt.

Felicité tried to spot Indra, but she couldn't see him, and though she wanted to ask about him, the words stuck in her throat. She walked out and found Jennie leaning against a wall, with Mia and Ross hovering around her, as concerned as if she were one of the wounded.

All of Felicité's feelings surged up. She meant to keep control, but she couldn't bear it. Sera dead, Indra maybe dying, after a mission led by Jennie. But Daddy still thought that mutant could do no wrong—he was making her a team captain.
The
team captain. When all she'd done was get back alive.

Jennie got forgiven anything because her Change was invisible. As long as Daddy didn't have to see it—as long as Jennie wasn't a monster—he could pretend she wasn't Changed at all. If Jennie had been the one who grew scales and gills like some hideous fish creature, he would have never let her into his Rangers, never trusted her, never smiled at her. Never treated her like she was his own daughter.

The words came out as though someone else spoke. “This is your fault, Jennie.”

“I know,” Jennie said, closing her eyes. “I know.”

46

Mia

MIA HEARD A VERY FINAL-SOUNDING CLICK AS THE
town hall doors locked behind her.

She could see clearly by the light of the torches and the full moon. Mr. Preston was already halfway down the main path, Felicité by his side, still in his dancing boots and embroidered greatcoat; Felicité wore the blue-trimmed white dress she'd had on the day Ross arrived, with the same matching veiled hat. Mia felt as if she were dreaming.

She ran to catch up with Ross and Jennie. He seemed to have recovered from getting shocked by Voske's lieutenant, but Jennie looked terrible, her braids unraveling and stuck together with blood, and a blank, fixed look in her eyes.

“Are you all right?” Mia asked cautiously. “I know you and Sera were—”

“Mia, I cannot talk about that now. I still have to fight.” Jennie strode faster, her long legs distancing her from Mia and Ross.

“Did you hear what Felicité said to her?” Mia whispered to him. “Why would she say something like that?”

“Jennie's Changed. Don't you remember Felicité calling me a mutant?” Without waiting for a reply, he hurried to catch up with Jennie.

Mia had wanted to make them feel better, but she seemed to have said exactly the wrong things. Ahead of her, they matched strides, their backs straight and their heads held high.

“Anyone need any extra arrows?” Henry pounded up the path, brandishing a full quiver with an air of happy anticipation. It was comforting to see one person acting exactly the same way he did when things were normal.

“I could use some.” Sujata caught up, grubby and blood-streaked, her arm bandaged.

“Well, you can't have any.” Henry held the quiver out of her reach. “One shot, one kill.
My
kill.”

Jennie pointed to where Preston and Felicité had vanished behind the lemon trees. “Let's catch up.”

Mia found herself running once again, the flamethrower banging painfully into her spine. They reached the wall; sentries helped them get over. The moon had vanished behind the mountain, yet it was still easy to see. In fact, it was easier—

“Dawn soon,” someone said as they ran through the trampled corn.

They heard the battle before they saw it. Smoke drifted on the air, obscuring struggling figures. There was the hole blown in the wall, near the south forge. Fires smoldered; Mia hoped the timber grove wouldn't catch, and that the animals in the big barns were safe.

With a roar, Preston led the charge toward Voske's army, which was trying to get past the defenders at the crumbled wall. Mia lagged, her feet dragging. She was low on ammunition, but arrows lay scattered all over the ground. She began collecting them. Not far away Felicité, her veiled hat bobbing, had gotten the same idea.

A shout went up. Running figures broke past the defenders, who scrambled to surround them again. Mia found herself in the middle of knots of fighting people.

The defenders and attackers struggled too close together for her to use her flamethrower. But she could use her crossbow, if she aimed very, very carefully. She crammed the arrows into her quiver and sought a good shot.

Jennie fought against a man and a woman both taller than she was, her sword slashing quicker than Mia's eye could follow. Mia couldn't get a clear shot at either the man trying to club Jennie or the woman jabbing green-glowing fingertips at Jennie's eyes.

Close by, Ross fought hand to hand against a man with two short swords. Ross's knife moved so fast that all Mia could see were blurs and streaks of silver. He struck high, then low, and the man toppled, one of the swords ringing on the rubble. Ross looked around, beads of sweat flying from his hair, then threw his knife.

The woman with green fingers had sneaked up behind Jennie. She fell with Ross's knife in her throat; the light jittered, then abruptly went dark. Two more soldiers leaped over her to attack Jennie. Ross stooped to pull another knife from his boot.

Jennie and Ross fought side by side, blocking the way to the forge. No one could pass them to get into the town. Now Mia knew why everyone had given her such funny looks when she'd said she'd protect Ross. What had she been thinking? But as skilled as he was, he was still a day out of the infirmary.

She kept her crossbow ready until he skidded backward, leaving her a clear line of fire at a girl with sparks flashing between her fingers.

Calculate, aim—shoot.

The bolt hit Ross's attacker in the knee. Her lightning went out, and she toppled.

Ross abruptly spun around, left arm held out for balance, right hand ready with his knife. There was no one in his line of sight.

On the ground behind him, a man rolled over and lurched to his feet. He rushed Ross, sword raised to kill.

BOOK: Stranger
4.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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