War has a price. Leaders have to pay it.
I scrubbed my hands over my face and pushed my hair off my forehead before I heaved myself up off the rotting log I’d been sitting on and stomped to where my second was briefing the next group of scouts. The previous group hadn’t returned yet, and they were late. Our watchmen, posted high in the trees stretching two miles in all directions around the camp, had never whistled to acknowledge that those men were even in our territory. That always meant one of three things: the scouts were dead, they were injured and dying, or they were captured, being tortured, and then killed.
Rhys saw me approaching and gave a quick nod before giving final orders to the two young men and one woman in front of him and sending them off. Together, we watched them march through our camp’s battered gate. As it closed behind them, Rhys grabbed my bicep and met my hard eyes with his own.
“We don’t know they’re dead,” he said in a low voice that only I could hear. There was no point in scaring the teens that moved around the camp. “Maybe they found something and are just lying low.”
“They would have sent a message. That’s the whole reason we set up that damn whistle system.” At the loudest, those whistles could be heard a mile away, even through the trees in the forest. I looked back to the closed gate. “They aren’t coming back.”
It sounded like a death sentence. And I felt every ounce of it as Rhys just stared at me. I could see in his face that he wanted to go find them, but on some level he had to know I was right. Yeah, maybe they could be found or rescued, but I was not going to risk more lives to just bring back corpses or create more.
Maybe in the beginning I would have done it. Back when we thought there was hope or that help was coming. Back before thirty-seven of our people had died. Back when I thought anyone cared about the kids left behind when the Center was destroyed. But war changes people, I guess, and after more than seventy years of it, no one cares anymore.
“Then, you know what that means, don’t you?” Rhys asked. “They were checking to the south, Blake. It’s not a coincidence.”
“I know,” I replied, rubbing my hand along my jaw. “What orders did you give Darcy, Chris, and Scott?”
“The usual: do a four mile sweep east, stay within a mile to hear the whistles.” He hesitated before adding, “I told Darcy to hang to the south-east. If they’re coming, she might be close enough to hear something.”
I nodded once, before clapping his shoulder and moving to check on the guards posted around the wall. Rhys was a good second, probably the best I could find in this ragtag bunch. Of course they were smart, kids from the Centers always were, but few of them were soldiers. That’s why they put me in charge, or rather, didn’t fight it when I took control. Most of them didn’t have the guts to make the hard decisions. Rhys did. I did. Our guards and scouts, the few kids who had been training to be soldiers, did. Darcy had to have known she was marching straight into the line of fire, but she did it anyway.
“Dylan,” I called up to the eighteen-year-old boy stationed above the gate, “Come ‘ere.” With a jerky nod, the lean boy jumped down from his platform to stand in front of me. He was one of our better guards. At the Center, he had specialized in battle tactics, and was almost as good at putting his strategies into action as he was at creating them. The past year-and-a-half had changed him from teenager to guerilla fighter.
“ Sir?” he asked.
“I need you to have your men on point tonight. Every eye needs to be watching those woods. Our southern scouts never came back.”
His face hardened, a combination of fear and determination I’d expect, and he nodded once more before returning to his post and spreading the orders. It was going to be a long night.
As I walked back to the cave that was serving as our main hall in the camp, I heard whistles spreading around the camp perimeter. To anyone else, it would sound like songbirds, which made this system perfect. What care did Outsiders have for small, pretty birds?
I found Rhys bent over a hand-drawn map on a small table in the cave, The light from the central fire caused shadows to flick over the page, making some of the notes difficult to see.
He didn’t look up from his work when he asked, “So you already spread the word?”
“People have to be ready.”
He only nodded and turned to the young woman sitting beside him. Renée, or Ren, had been top of her class when it came to cartography, reading the terrain, and writing topography maps. At newly twenty-two, she was one of the oldest, besides Rhys and I, and
her extra years of education were invaluable.
“So if they really are coming from the rubble, wouldn’t they just take the straight shot through the valley?”
She shook her head. “No. This part of the valley was blocked last month in that landslide.” She made a few marks on the page with her stub of a pencil. “The area is still too unstable. They’ll come this way.” She gestured along a stream. “There’s dense underbrush, and walking in the stream will hide their tracks.”
“But that path takes them north of here,” I interjected, pointing to some lines drawn very close together. “And the mountain is our northern border.”
You could say we were lucky. Our Center was hidden in the Appalachian Mountains, and the region we were in had a number of small caves, as we called them, though really they were little more than large crevices in the rocks. But they had saved our lives. They could be well hidden and offered shelter. Our camp was perfect; a small, half-mile wide cutout in the mountain, flanked on the north and east by rock and a small network of crevices, trees and our wall to the south, and a sharp ravine and a small guard-wall, which was build more to keep people from falling down the slope, to the west.
“There’s no way they can get to us from the north,” I said.
Ren shook her head. “The deer path.”
I instantly stiffened. Of course. The deer path was a small, barely noticeable path that deer and other game used to get around the sharp cliff above us. It was a twisting route that wound around the steep slopes that guarded us and brought the game down the west side of our camp.
“That’s suicide,” I said, pointing to the map. We never bothered guarding our western flank too heavily because it was so close to the ravine. They would have to climb the steep slope of lose dirt and roots just to get to us unless-
“Unless they attack from above,” I added, staring right at Ren. She only nodded.
“Those rock slides did more than just plug up the southern valley. We lost some of the mountain too. Some trees went down here,” she said, gesturing to the map, “and the path is not only easier to see, but easier to navigate. We just didn’t worry about it since we thought no one would be stupid enough to attack so close to the edge.”
“And now we are going to pay for it,” I growled. “They’ll jump in right on top of us. We need to bolster defenses, find a way to-“
“Guys,” Rhys interrupted. I stopped to glare at him, and Ren stared murderously at her map. I hadn’t noticed how quiet he had been. “If they are following that stream south from the east, we just served Darcy, Scott and Chris up to them on a platter.”
“Shit,” I swore, and I raced across the camp back to the wall. “Dylan!” I shouted. “Dylan!” He dropped in front of me not thirty seconds later.
“Sir?” he asked, taking a step back.
“Send two of your Birds south/south-east. Have them tail Darcy’s group. Send them in hot. Permission granted to shoot Outsiders on sight, but otherwise, do not have them engage the scouts. Have them stay just in hearing range so they can hear if the scouts whistle a warning. Your Birds can only help bring them back if all Outsiders are killed at the scene. I won’t risk our their lives too.”
“You don’t want them to just bring Darcy, Scott and Chris back?”
“No, we still need information. Approach only if necessary. If your Birds return empty handed and the scouts never make it back, we have our answer just as sure as if they brought word.”
I saw him swallow hard before nodding. “Yes, Sir.”
He turned and climbed back up the wall before picking out two of our slightest guards, Kristin and Kyle, a superb fighting team. The twins had trained with Dylan and were our best Birds. Their small statures allowed them to fly almost silently between trees. They were the only two in our group who had been guaranteed positions with stealth squads before the bombs fell; a rare find in our group of engineers, mechanics, and chemists.
“Don’t you think that’s a little harsh? Sending them out like that, telling them to tail their friends, and maybe watch them be attacked.”
I turned and saw Ren walk up to stand beside me.
“It’s necessary,” I replied. She stayed silent, her arms crossed over her tattered shirt. I looked at the gate one more time before marching off to gather Dylan and some engineers at the west border.
* * * * *
“They’re back! Open the gate!”
“Someone get Liz; Chris and Darcy are hurt.”
“Where’s Blake? I need to talk to him.”
The gate was mayhem. Darcy, her team, and the Birds staggered through the gate almost a half an hour before they were due back. When the first whistles signaled their return, Rhys and I had continued to work on the traps the engineers had devised to try and cover our weakened west flank. According to the message, they were still a half-mile out.
Then the emergency whistles started rolling in. Birds and guards were under strict orders as to when they could use those patterns: the enemy was right at our gate, or we had dying people being brought in. At that, Rhys and I ran back to the entrance, arriving only two minutes later.
A crowd had gathered and I saw Dylan and his men trying to push them back. Damn nosy teenagers!
“Get back!” I shouted, shoving my way through. “Don’t you all have jobs to do?” Rhys echoed my orders and slowly, the rest of our people cleared a path for us. I vaguely remembered hearing someone shout that someone was hurt. I grabbed the arm nearest me, a girl who had studied botany, and growled at her to find the one medical student in our camp.
As she ran off, I saw Rhys take Darcy from an exhausted Scott, and watched as Dylan and one of his men relieved the twins of Chris. Both were bloody.
“Rider,” I turned to Dylan’s right hand man, who was helping to secure the gate. “Get your asses back up on that wall. Get as many Birds out there as you can spare. I want to know the Outsiders’ movements. I want to know that this camp is guarded.”
“Yes, Sir.” He quickly got the other guards back under control and started handing out my orders.
“What happened,” I asked Scott, who was leaning over and holding his side. Bruised ribs; I could recognize the stance anywhere.
“We saw them, the Outsiders,” he wheezed, lowering onto a log. “They’re coming. I sent a message out to the others, telling them to fall back and relay the message. But they were too quick. I guess they saw Darcy first. I heard her scream. They’d stabbed her, but she just kept fucking fighting.” He paused long enough for me to hear Darcy moan. Chris was disturbingly silent.
“It was just a scouting group of their own. Only six men. All heavily armed. Thankfully, Kristin heard my whistle. They used their darts to help up take them down. But not before the Outsiders had done their work on Chris and Darcy.” He paled. “Chris stopped breathing once.”
Then you should have let him die, I thought to myself. Saving him had only slowed them down. Darcy groaned again.
“Where the hell is Liz?” Rhys demanded.
“I’m here,” the tall girl answered as she ran up. She quickly looked over Chris and Darcy and her face tightened. “Get them to the med.
cave,” she ordered the others. She turned to me. “I’ll do what I can. Scott should be fine. Just bruised ribs, maybe one broken, and cuts and bruises. Darcy has a stab wound on her side, and various other lacerations, but nothing too serious. Chris,” she paused, “Chris we may only be able to make comfortable. I could see some major discoloration through the tears in his shirt. I think he’s bleeding internally.”
She looked at me, and I knew she was asking me who she was supposed to save with her limited time and resources. I glanced to where Rhys was carrying Darcy, moving as quickly as he could without injuring her further.
“Darcy. She’s the more likely to survive.”
Liz nodded once, and turned to run back to her med. cave.
I didn’t have to tell her to hurry; she already knew.
I jogged back to our main cave and found Ren reading all her maps, marking them with Xs and arrows. She was planning our next battle.
“Who’d you pick?” she asked, almost carelessly.
“Darcy. Chris wouldn’t make it anyway. Liz suspects internal bleeding.”
Ren sighed and leaned forward on her elbows, still not looking at me. “How do you do it, Blake? How do you decide who lives and who dies?”
I didn’t answer her. I just sat down beside her and started adding my own notes to the map.
“We only have a few hours at most to prepare,” I said. “They’ll be here by nightfall. Have those tactics ready as soon as possible. When you’re ready to go over them with me, I’ll be on the west flank.” With that, I left.
It wasn’t the first time someone asked me how I decided who lived and who died. I’d only answered one person.
I don’t think I decide. Not in Chris’ s case at least. He would die anyway. But giving the orders to kill, killing Outsiders myself, it has never been a difficult decision. If killing an Outsider means my people live, I’ll gladly kill a hundred.
* * * * *
It was about an hour after darkness fell that they attacked. Darcy was now unconscious, hidden away in a disguised crevice and Chris was dead, hastily buried with the others. Just like we had predicted, the Outsiders attacked at our northwest flank.
I heard their screams from where we lay hidden as they tripped our traps, some careening over the edge of the ravine, others being stabbed through by hidden pikes and darts. Then there was quiet.
I whistled out my orders, the sound slicing through the clear air. It sounded like death, the only sound in a vast expanse. Kill on site, it said. No survivors.
On that order, I jumped up and charged the nearest Outsider, my long knives cutting cleanly through his stomach and neck. Some of his blood stuck to my skin, staining it red. Another leaped on me, this one a woman, and I sliced through her too, her blood hitting my cheek. I heard my people fighting around me, the Birds led by Dylan in the trees, and another group of ground troops led by Rhys.
Rhys, who would follow my anywhere, was always fighting by my side. We were brothers, but our blood ties were of the external kind. We had shed too much blood together.
My head is bloody, but unbowed, I’d told him once. He was the first to ask. We had only been out here six months, but already fifteen of our original 121 had died, most from fighting Outsiders, Outsiders I later killed and ordered to be killed.
He’d asked me what I meant.
“My head is bloody, Rhys,” I’d answered, slumping on my sorry excuse for a cot. “I’ve killed so many people, and I’ve ordered the deaths of so many others. But my head is unbowed. It will never fall. I will kill a thousand more Outsiders and Citizens if it means our people are saved. So long as my people live, my head will bow to no one.”
Even now, as I cut my way through Outsider after Outsider, I can see the way he had just stared at me, silently. I’d honestly thought I’d scared him, or that he’d thought I was a monster. I remember thinking that if I had to be a monster to keep my people alive then a monster I would be.
But then he’d grasped my hand, shaking it firmly, before leaving to check the perimeter. I smiled even now, letting my head raise higher. Every Outsider I killed tonight, every Outsider one of my people killed, and even the few of my people that might fall added to the blood on my head and I felt its cold weight. But if that blood was keeping everyone else alive, I could bear it so no one else would have to.
I saw Ren get hit with a hammer and shoved aside. I saw the Outsider who hit her go for the kill. I saw my knife in the Outsiders skull.