FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,
FernWithy
fernwithy

The Big Empty: Chapter Seven

The raiders are on the move, Effrim and his friends with them.

Chapter Seven
Life with the raiders has a kind of routine to it. It's not pleasant, but I get used to it. I work with Cooky in the mornings while Misty and Duronda, along with the other girls, help Corabel. Reilly and Tongue-Tie work the paddock, which is set up shoddily in every new campsite as we move west. A few raiders are usually gone during the day. They seem to be keeping Spicer close to them as we move (Juliana says that Spicer has tried to run a few times). After lunch, there's something resembling free time. I work with the jabberjays. The other kids often join me at it. Juliana teaches them the national anthem, just to annoy the rest of us. Duronda insists on "The Hanging Tree" in retaliation. Misty is working out her plans, I think, but there's no way for her to share them. At night, we gather around the campfire, captives on the inside. Duronda's temper gets her in trouble, and, while Trajan doesn't do what he threatened her with, he does black her eye after she slaps him for pinching her.

Trajan's unpredictable temper keeps the whole camp on edge, and any inkling I might have that Verus might be different disappears when he whips Juliana for cutting ahead of a raider in the dinner line. It's not a particularly harsh whipping -- just once across the thighs -- but there's something in the way his eyes light up when the whip flies that tells me Spicer is right: Verus is even crazier than Trajan.

That's two days after we set out from the ruined city. The caravan continues to move slowly through the mountains. They're being very careful about the fire, and on the third day, Trajan announces that I won't be singing for a few nights. I'm not sure exactly when it becomes clear to me, but I understand that we're traveling on a rough parallel with one military group or another. Trajan isn't ordering raids. He's keeping a low profile, waiting for something.

"A battle," Misty says on the fifth morning, while we're carefully condensing the camp's inventory into smaller crates. "He's following one side until it hits the other. And we're making room for the spoils."

The next day at sunrise, I'm woken up roughly by a man named Nole Grace. He puts his finger to his lips before I can so much as complain, and glances meaningfully at the girls.

I take the hint and follow him. There's a chill in the early morning, and the mist is cold and unwelcoming. We go to the paddock. Spicer is already there, standing by a horse.

"Didn't want your nasty friend's commentary," Nole says. "You sure you want this one, Trajan?"

Trajan appears from the crowd and looks me over. "Yeah. It's about time he did something to earn his keep."

"He sings," Spicer says.

"So do I, in the shower." Trajan nods to himself. "Besides, Spicer, we have to see if he's one of us, just like we did with you. If not, there are people in the Capitol who wouldn't mind making his acquaintance for the right price. I'll throw in that backwoods guitar for free."

Spicer looks down.

Trajan climbs up onto a stump. "Our rebel friends ran into the Caps about half an hour ago," he says. "They're fighting in a meadow up over the hill. They're not exactly worried about their supplies, and our scouts confirmed it -- the soldiers look like District One, boys." He grins, and the other raiders cheer. "Nole and Tick, you keep an eye on our little apprentices here."

"Aw, come on," a young-ish man I haven't talked to much says. "I want a piece of the action."

"Oh, they'll be in the action. But if they use the action to make a break for it, I'll shoot you." Trajan looks at us. "And if you do run, you better do it together, because if only one of you does, I'll shoot the one that's left."

Spicer and I look at each other guardedly. I haven't forgotten Duronda's distrust of him, but I can't help it: I do trust him. Maybe not with my life -- and certainly not if it would cost his own life -- but I don't believe he'd betray us if he knew we were planning an escape.

Nole grabs me and pulls me over to a pale colored horse. I haven't ridden one before. So far, I've been stowed in a wagon like cargo. I look at him.

"You ain't driving," he says. "Just get up there. I'll be right behind you."

I look at the saddle, which doesn’t look big enough for two, but I guess there's not much choice. I see the way the others are using the stirrups to get up, and I heave myself up onto the horse's back. It shifts a little bit and makes a snorting sound. I've gotten used to the smell of them from a distance, but up close, it's a whole different thing. It's not unpleasant, but it's very strong.

With a grunt, Nole climbs up behind me, shoving me uncomfortably forward in the saddle, up against a part of it that kind of sticks up. His arms come around from the back to pick up the reins, and his smell is almost as strong as the horse's. I'm completely trapped up here. I hold on to the top of the saddle.

I don't know whether or not we're moving particularly fast. None of the men seems especially rushed. All I know is that, for what seems an eternity, I'm jostled and bumped along, the saddle thumping against me in some very uncomfortable places. Nole bounces along behind me. There's nothing lecherous in it. I can see that the other riders, even the ones without passengers, are kind of bouncing the same way. It feels strange, though.

We ride single file along mountain paths, slowing up a little bit as we near a ridge. The mountains are lower here. I think we're starting to get to the place where the land flattens out. Trajan, at the front of the line, pulls his horse to a halt and holds up his hands for the rest of the raiders to follow suit. When the horse stops moving, I have a strange kind of vertigo.

I can hear gunfire.

Nole gets down from the horse, and I slide down after him. My legs are shaking, and I stumble when I hit the ground. No one notices. From up here, I can see down into a shallow valley. Beyond it is a smallish river. I don't think it could be the Mississippi. There's another river further up, a little bigger, but I don't remember any river close to the Mississippi on a map. It must be something else.

Smoke is rising up, and men and women are screaming.

"Leave the horses up here," Trajan says. "The rebel camp's to the north. Capitol's across the way on the west. I'll lead that one." He sneers at Spicer and me. "You two and your minders are with me. I don't think you'll have a mind to call out to Capitol soldiers. Verus, take the rebs. No shooting. Blades only." He loosens his flamboyant jacket, and I see a deadly looking knife on his belt. "Get whatever guns and ammo you can. We can sell it back to whoever wants it more."

"There's still hot shooting down there!" a young raider complains.

"Which is why we're hitting the camps first. Not much in the way of guarding when they're out fighting, is there?" He shakes his head. "We'll get out of the camps and wait for the corpses after. Meet me back here with whatever you get. Sunset."

There's no further discussion. All of us are loaded up with satchels. I don't know how he thinks we're getting back up here with this many bags, all full.

Tick and Nole grab Spicer and me, and we follow Trajan into the green shadows that ring the meadow where the fighting is.

I never really imagined a battle.

I mean, I played war with everyone else, and talked about how the rebels walloped the Capitol at the Battle of the Bridge. I read the war news. Like everyone, I know lots of people who've lost parents and aunts and uncles and siblings. I think about the war a lot, or at least I did before I set off on this trip.

But I never thought about the mechanics of it. I never thought about the smell of gunpowder any time other than hunting. I never imagined that the grass could turn red with blood in places, or that soldiers could slip and fall in puddles of the stuff. I never thought about the screaming, coming up from both sides, or the wild running from one place to another. I knew about the big guns, and I knew they could kill people really quickly, but I never thought of them cutting people in half.

Twenty minutes into the walk around the battle -- about halfway to the Capitol camp -- the world is glassy and horrible. I can't imagine anything other than the carnage around me. Even the raiders' camp seems like some old song about paradise.

There are soldiers running into the woods now and then. I see one climb a tree and start aiming at the field. They don't see us. Trajan is careful. The first person we encounter directly is a woman in a Capitol uniform. She bursts into the shadows where we're keeping cover, probably with some idea of doing the same thing. There's no time to fade back.

She stops cold and stares at Trajan.

He smiles at her pleasantly, then brings up his knife and pulls it neatly across her throat.

She falls at my feet.

I stare at her.

She has light brown hair and her skin is very pale, though maybe that's because all of her blood is running out of her body, spurting from her neck and over my shoes. I can't tell what color her eyes are. She's small, even smaller than Duronda, and Duronda hasn't her full growth yet. I can't tell how old she is. She was wearing a locket, which tore off when Trajan killed her. He casts it back to the ground in disgust. It must be cheap, though it still looks too dear for anyone in Twelve.

I pick it up and stick it in my pocket. I don't know why.

Trajan turns her over with his foot and pulls a bag from her belt. Ammunition.

He tosses it to me, then takes her handgun and gives it to Tick.

I stare at the bag.

Trajan shoves it into my satchel, then grimaces and shoves me along.

I try to look back over my shoulder at the woman, but Nole cuffs me.

I move forward.

When we get to the Capitol camp, Tick stays with Spicer and me. I see Trajan and Nole attack the lone sentry at the post (who was looking anxiously toward the battle). He falls quickly, his camouflage uniform turning dark with blood. Beside him is a motorcycle. After that, I lose them in the smoke until a whistle comes back to us.

"All clear," Tick says. "You boys start loading up that cycle with whatever you can get your hands on."

For the next hour… or day, or week… I can't focus. I'm standing only yards from the sentry's corpse, stepping over it now and then as we empty out a Capitol supply tent, first into our satchels then onto hover-sleds that they use around camp. We also take the motorcycle, laden down with goods. There's tobacco and liquor and some kind of electronic equipment that makes Trajan laugh giddily, though I don't know what he thinks we're going to power it with. He's also grabbed a woman in a blue wig. He cuts her leg so that she can't run away and stashes her on a sled with other cargo. She looks at me hatefully while I load up food and bandages.

Up at the meadow, the shooting is getting less frequent, and Trajan decides that we've gotten as much as we can before the survivors start coming back. He knocks the woman out so that she can't scream, then loads Spicer and me onto the sled beside her.

"I'm not going to have to shut you up, am I?" he asks. "Because you've got their flour all over you, and blood on your shoes, so they'll know you were in on it as much as we were. You don't want to get their attention."

I can't answer. I look down at my feet. There's so much blood on my shoes that they've changed color.

We head back to the ridge slowly. Tick kills another running soldier, this one a rebel. He's wearing a badge with a diamond on it. District One. Twelve's badge has a pickaxe in front of a flame. For some reason, he's also wearing a heavily jeweled ring, at least until Trajan peels it off of him.

"District thugs shouldn't be wearing fine jewels," he says quietly. "They know it's not their station."

"Don't they make those in One?" I ask.

"They make them for paying customers. Do you think they dig the jewels themselves? The gold? That's done by Capitol companies. They dig them up in the out-districts near Five. Don't you start thinking that District One has much to do other than following blueprints the Capitol gives them." He holds up the ring. "This," he says, "is stolen property."

I don't point out that I'm riding on a hover-sled piled to the heavens with stolen property. Trajan knows what he is.

But at least I understand why the district soldier was wearing that. I wonder if Dad and Aunt Daisy carry bits of coal in their pockets.

If Dad is still fighting.

I close my eyes. I don't want to think of either of them on a battlefield like the one we're leaving behind us.

I also don't want to think of Dad running away and leaving his friends to die like this.

We reach the ridge at sunset. We can't exactly have a party, with the two armies realizing that their camps have been wiped out, but there's a certain glee among the raiders anyway. The Capitol camp has a lot of luxuries, including fancy clothes.

"Idiots think it helps morale if they have cotillions in their downtime," Verus mutters while the raiders try on ridiculous suits and wigs. The Capitol woman has woken up, but she's been gagged. She glares at all of them.

I go to her. "Do you… maybe they'll let me get you something to eat?"

Her eyes narrow further, and I don't press the subject.

We make a hasty camp, and Spicer and I are stuck in a pup tent at the center of it, guarded on all sides. Trajan tells the raiders that they can "have some fun" with the woman after the "clean-up" tomorrow. Someone suggests that Spicer and I ought to have some fun with her first, while they watch.

I touch the locket I took in the woods, the one that fell from the dead soldier's neck. I open it, half-believing that there will be pictures and names. There's nothing but a lock of hair, rolled up and taped to one side. It could be anyone's. I stare at it for a while, and at the blood on my shoes. Then I put it away. I try to sleep.

Around midnight, the captive woman tries to escape. She's shot dead by one of the younger guards. He doesn't see the morning, either, since Trajan's convinced someone could hear the shot. We pick up and move, leaving the bodies behind.

Verus gets everyone up at sunrise, though he doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry. He has one of the younger raiders put out a spread of the stolen food, and we all feast. I realize halfway through eating that I should have said no, but it's too late. I can't un-eat. I can't pretend I didn't just load a plate up like everyone else.

"Won't they have gotten the bodies by now?" Spicer asks, taking a bite out of a roll.

"If they were going to do anything, they'd have been burned by now," Trajan says. "It's the Capitol way -- they send up a hovercraft and firebomb the corpses. Looks like they didn't have one to spare this time."

"They're busy up at District Nine," Verus tells him. "This bunch was headed up to reinforce."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. I overheard the rebel quartermaster. That's why they were trying to hold the line. They couldn't let the reinforcements get through. I'm guessing what's left of the Capitol contingent is already marching for the big river."

"What a shame," Trajan says, then smiles nastily at Spicer and me. "Guess your folks aren't doing all that well, are they? I hear the Capitol's got them on the run. They control the Mississippi -- patrol boats constantly going up and down around that bridge you all thought you'd won. They're feeling so safe, they even started up the government school in the Green Tower again."

"Human shields," Verus snorts. "That's all that is. Clemm makes noises about internships, but the only reason to put them in the Green Tower is to keep Thirteen from bombing the surveillance offices upstairs."

"Not true," Trajan says. "There was a school there before the war. My father wanted me to go there. I… opted out, shall we say. I never wanted to be anyone's government lackey."

"And it was just a coincidence, I guess, that they re-opened this school three days after Harrison threatened to bomb the Capitol?"

"Well, maybe not a complete coincidence." Trajan grins. "But it's just a last ditch thing, you know. She's probably only got the one bomb. Meanwhile, we've got mines in the Ghost Gulf and mutts in River Bay. I hear they've got bear mutts roaming the woods in District Seven, too, wiping out lumberjacks left and right. Tracker jackers all through Eleven, stinging people to death and leaving them to rot." He grins at me. "They'll probably make it up to Twelve. Those little buggers are tenacious, and they come in both flavors, so there are always more of them to go around."

"Don't forget the jabberjays," Tick snorts. "They're not exactly dying out. Though I guess the Capitol figured out not to listen to them once the rebs started feeding them fake information."

"Always thought that was a dumb idea," Verus says. "Trusting intelligence to something with a brain the size of my thumb wasn't ever a great idea, even with the little control implants."

"Control implants?" I ask.

"You think they just come back on their own?"

"The ones at camp have chips?"

"Yes. But I wouldn't put those in play, if you're planning an escape. The Capitol trashed the receivers after they noticed the rebels were lying in front of the birds." Trajan shrugs. "I hear they started mating with mockingbirds."

"That's a myth," Verus says. "It can't happen. It'd be like a person having a baby with a jackrabbit, just because everyone involved has hair on their heads."

"Who knows what can happen with the genes they cook up in the Capitol labs?"

"I know, and I never got any further than Peacekeeper training in school. Do you get hot and bothered over squirrels and raccoons?"

I've heard this before. Pappy Angus stared at a little flock of the hybrids one day -- we call them mockingjays -- and told Misty and me why it wasn't possible for them to exist. I don't know much about science, but he reads everything he can get his hands on. "See there," he told us, "you're looking at a thing that doesn’t exist. Figment of your imagination. Not even possible. You want some crumbs to feed them?"

While Misty and I fed them, Pappy Angus and Peet tried to work it out. Neither of them could. I remember Peet wondering why the jabberjays hadn't gone for crows or blue jays or ravens. Pappy Angus said it was because crows and ravens and real jays were too smart to get mixed up with Capitol spies.

I listen to Verus and Trajan having the same conversation, mostly because thinking about jabberjays and mockingbirds seems better than thinking about battles and bodies left up on the ridge.

I seem to be the only one. Tick rolls his eyes impatiently. "If the Capitol's patrolling the river, how are we going to get across?"

Trajan drains a cup of coffee from the Capitol supplies, staring out across the meadow. "We may have to hook south for a while, get away from the bridge. They're concentrated there, probably -- Thirteen's stubborn. They'll just trudge up there. They have to stay between the rivers, same as we do, for a little while, but eventually, they'll get there. They'll throw soldiers away trying to get control there, even though it would be easier to build a new one up around Eight, where it's narrow. Thirteen isn't very creative. Of course, the Capitol would probably bomb it before they could finish building it, anyway. At any rate, if we go south, I know a guy who has a ferry. It's slow, but it should be fine. We'll just have to trade him for it." He looks at me nastily. "He's got a taste for curly haired girls. Your girl's right up his alley."

I tense up, but I don't take the bait.

Trajan laughs. "You're learning. You'll be one of us yet."

Spicer gives me a sympathetic kind of look, but we can't really say anything. I put my hand in my pocket and wrap my fingers around the locket. Some Capitol woman's trinket, some Capitol person's hair.

I press the edges into my fingers, hard enough to hurt.

After we finish breakfast, Trajan gets us into teams with satchels, and marches us back to the battlefield. It's eerie and silent. The morning mist still hangs over it. The Capitol survivors definitely bugged out to the north. No one is quite sure where the rebels went, but their tents are gone.

The bodies, which it's hard to tell apart in death, lie on the field alone, tended by the flies.

I turn off my mind as well as I can for the next few hours, as Trajan sets everyone to scavenging the corpses. They're all District One and Capitol troops, and they've all got little baubles with jewels or gold. At one point, I extract a gold barrette from a Capitol man's bloody wig. Spicer gets a whole bag of wedding bands.

At least we're not on Tick's crew. They're pulling out gold tooth decorations, and sometimes, from the look of it, fillings. I think I'd go crazy if they made me start doing that.

By the end of the day, I've grabbed the locket so many times that I have a cut on the inside of my finger.

We load up the hover-sleds and hook them to the horses by harness, then, much more slowly than we came, we head back to camp.

Duronda takes one look at me, then goes to Trajan and spits on his boots.

He laughs at her. He's in a good kind of mood, I guess.

My banjo is brought out after dinner. I've never felt less like singing, but I do it anyway.

After, Misty catches up with me. She puts her arms around me. "Are you okay?"

I nod. "Sure. Why wouldn't I be okay?"

She takes my hands and shivers. "Your hands are cold."

I shrug.

"Stop that," she says. "Stop doing that shrug. Stop looking like Trajan."

"Leave me alone." I start to walk away. She grabs me by the shoulder, and I am actually starting to raise my hand before I realize what I'm doing. I drop it and look down. "I'm sorry, Misty."

She nods. "We have to get you out of here. It's time. I think I know how to use the jabberjays. But we have to find someplace to get everyone else out, too."

I think about the bridge, and the river, and the two reduced armies both marching for the bridge.

"I think I know where to drop people off," I say. "But it's going to have to be soon, or it won't work at all."
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