Scene 06: Together Again
The sun was setting by the time that they had passed where Gerry and Camille had met back up; they were just a bit downslope of the plateau where the avalanche had petered out when they saw signs of a campfire in the distance. Gerry estimated the snow had fallen almost two miles past where the snowline naturally stopped, and he'd had to climb at least a mile back to find Mara and the others. Even with Bobbin playing his flute and Mara riding through the horizontal stretches, there was no masking that the day had been brutal to everyone.
So it was that four extremely tired people and a swooning bunny rabbit dragged themselves through the final stretch for the promise of rest, sweaty and exhausted. As they got nearer, pleasant odors started to tickle their noses.
"Something smells delicious." Mara sniffed at the air meaningfully.
"Positively, indubitably, scrumptious..." Knickers' jaw hung open and he had to stop himself from drooling.
"I c-c-could eat it all mmyself."
"Food!" Bobbin sprinted forward with renewed vigor to cover the last few ocks towards the campfire. As he passed a bush, he was greeted with the barrel of Polly's rifle; she casually held it in one hand and waved it in his general direction, the other still rotating a roast gazelle over the flames.
"Watch it, Freckles. This shit ain't ready," she growled. For their part, Polly and Camille had had an easier time of it; they had covered less distance overland to begin with, which meant that they could spend more time setting up the actual campsite. "Took me all afternoon to catch this thing and I'm damned if you're gonna ruin it."
"All afternnoon? Fine c-catch, but just one?" Gerry was next in, likewise renewed by the promise of food. He raised an eyebrow wryly at Polly.
The lithe bandit waved the gun in his direction. "Shut it, stutterfuck. The Sergeant," she put acid on that word, "wasn't much help, and I'm not the survival expert here. Seems to me that was supposed to be your fucking job." With that, she glared at him accusingly.
"What was I sup-posed t-to do?" Gerry looked back to the others for support, as Mara strolled up behind him. The broad brunette shrugged and he rolled his eyes. Some fat lot of help she was.
"Smells like you cook a mean meal, Dorothy. Let us know when it's ready, I can't wait to have a bite." Mara sniffed approvingly, and Polly couldn't help but grin up at her. The conscript put her rifle down.
"Yeah, well, did learn a few useful things out in the prairies. If you want to share a taste, I could cut off a few choice bits...?" She winked up at Mara, but Mara politely waved her off.
"Sorry, love, told you before you aren't my type."
"Just a matter of time," Polly said with a shrug.
Knickers had walked right past all the food discussion; he wasn't going to mess with someone throwing a gun around over meat, not when he half-suspected Polly wanted to eat the rabbit on his shoulder. Instead, he was quite interested in their mission commander for the moment.
"Huh." He leaned over the sleeping strongwoman with curiosity. "She's asleep. Could be fun to play a little pr- urk." An arm with the breadth of a tree trunk and the speed of a lightning bolt shot straight up and grabbed the other sergeant by the neck with enough force to send Paddy tumbling off of his back and drag him down a few inches.
"No pranks on the mission, kid. Ye want t' have fun, cut a deck a' cards." There was no malice in Camille's voice, no anger in her good eye. Just a warning.
That brought a cold smirk to Polly's face. "Yeah, she doesn't 'sleep.' She just-"
"Restin' my eyes." She released her death grip on Knick's coat, then pulled herself up to her feet. Knickers stumbled backwards, while Paddywhack ran back up his leg and under his top. "Situation report, startin' with the stowaway, Sergeant-Engineer."
"Yes, ma'am!" He gave a salute. "Recruit Bobbin, owing to his great personal loyalty to me in a previous assignment, wanted to contribute to what he knew was a dangerous assignment."
Bobbin stared blankly at Camille, his mouth slightly open as if to say, 'Who? Me?' Knickers kept saluting. Camille's good eye darted between the two of them with some amusement.
"That's right precious. Unfortunately," both her voice and her expression took on a hard edge, "That don't make it smart. Yer a fifer, no rank, an' this is a covert mission. No place for little boys. C'n ye even use a gun?"
"Taught him myself. He's a little shy in a group, but he's got no lack of verve in a fight," Knick said, dropping his salute. He'd put himself at ease, thank you very much. "And you know I can shoot the wings off an armorskite from twenty yards, so-"
Camille held a large hand up to Knickers and just slightly turned her head in his direction, without quite taking her eye off of Bobbin. She spoke with the same friendly warning tone from before. "Sergeant-Engineer, neither yer exceptional talents fer combat marksmanship or gab, nor yer frettin' papa impression, are under question 'ere. The question is... what can this fifer do when ye ain't jimmynursin' him? Am I clear?"
"...Yes, ma'am," Knickers answered, after a sober, irritable pause. His eyes darted worryingly towards Bobbin. Polly looked away so she wouldn't be reprimanded for laughing. Gerry winced and turned away. Mara got busy clearing rocks from the campsite. And Paddywhack was nowhere to be seen.
It was just Bobbin and Camille staring at each other now. She was a giant of a woman, muscles spilling out of her sleeveless vest, one eye bandaged from a war injury. He was a little slip of a boy, almost as short as Knickers. Something about those eyes of his and the freckles on his cheeks was hauntingly familiar, but impossible to place.
Those loose pigtails, though. Not common on boys. Hm.
"...Well?" she prompted. Her voice didn't betray any frustration, but neither was it the sort of voice that brooked delay.
Bobbin's shoulders drooped and he looked down at his feet, tapping one boot toe into the dirt. "Um. I play the fife."
"Speak up, son, I can't hear ye at all."
He coughed and cleared his throat. "I p-play the fife."
"Uh-huh." His voice was so small it could drown in a puddle.
Camille sighed and brushed a few strands of violet hair away from her face. "Appreciate the honesty, Recruit. We'll discuss what t'do wi' ye more later, but fer now, we can use a hand around the camp. Far 'nuff out it'll be safe up here. Go see what Trooper Farthingale," she pointed to Polly, "needs help with."
"Yes ma'am," he answered meekly, and shuffled off as told. Polly shook her head and exhaled with exasperation.
One thing off the list. Now she turned her attention to the other three who had just strolled in. "Specialist Bloom."
Mara was bent over, almost hands and knees, busy collecting lots of reddish-brown little rocks from all around the camp site. "Yeah?" she responded.
The sergeant's piercing, one-eyed gaze said what her stony silence did not. 'Yeah'? What kind of a response was that?
Mara rolled her own eyes and stood up straight, her ponytail swaying about behind her. "Yes, ma'am?" she corrected, punctuating the last with a touch of annoyance.
"Fer what, exactly, is my best alchemist collectin' pebbly bits?"
"That'd be because I'm inspecting the high iron content," she lied through her teeth. Well. Was it really a lie if it was half-accurate? "Possible, especially if we find a cave, might get some deposits, cut some corners, get a quick-and-dirty breakdown to replace some of the constituent chemicals we lost in the avalanche."
A smile slowly slipped across the taller woman's face. "Fast thinker, ain't ye? And what is the chemical situation like if we don't?"
Mara cast one eye skyward with a raised brow as she contemplated how to put it into words. "Bad. Pits bad. Between what the Sergeant and I have on ourselves and what the fifer managed to recover from the wreck? Lucky if we get two real charges out of it and we're talking basic, unstable charges that need to be watched and won't like water."
"Don't count on me giving more than fire and fumes. Most that stuff is way harder to make in a bullet than just having bullets go whizz-bang-boom."
"I see." A large hand tugged at her nose as she took all this in. "Sergeant Rose, yer assessment?"
Knickers took a moment to respond; he was busy watching Bobbin scamper off on some chore for Polly, and then took a moment to absent-mindedly pat Paddywhack on the head. "I can dance with 'em if that's what you mean, Sarge. I've done dirtier. But yeah, about two charges I think, no special tricks. Wouldn't take much saltpeter to at least get the number of charges up, but I'unno how the specialist would make that much nitre that fast from any natural source we'd find."
Mara winked at him. "I got my ways, boyo. ...Wasteful hasteful ways, but not like we have a choice right now."
Camille nodded thoughtfully. "Sounds like ye two're at least on the same page. And how are ye on aerosene, Sergeant?"
"About 81% capacity, ma'am. Want Paddywhack and I to give some aerial recon?" The rabbit jumped up on its haunches atop Knickers' shoulder and pantomimed looking far and wide.
She did not dignify the rabbit with a response. Instead, Camille closed her eye and folded her arms over her broad chest, thinking for a moment. "Specialist: you, Trooper Lonz, and... the fifer, make sure ye get a good crack at dinner, then I want ye three heading out, see if ye can find yer caves and start whate'er processes yer after tonight. Sergeant, rest up fer now. Once it's dark, want a sweep o'er the canopy. Long as ye can, but use yer judgment. We'll move well afore dawn."
Camille got one and a half salutes back in return; Mara really didn't concern herself much with that kind of protocol. But good enough for the Sergeant-Major, at least for now. She swept her tree-trunk arms out and back together, clapping once with a peal almost as loud as thunder that drew the attention of everyone in camp.
"So, we've had a rough day everyone, ye? No one 'scaped getting their fingers bloody in the avalanche."
A low, guttural growl trickled out of Polly's throat, her fingers throbbing; Bobbin looked down at his hands to check for bloodstains; Gerry cracked a knuckle.
"I jes' want t'remind ye what we're here fer — er tell ye, I guess, for those jes' joinin' us," Camille added, glancing at Bobbin.
"The war, you unnerstand, is bigger'n the Glorinton Massacre." The sergeant-major raised a finger for emphasis. "It started 'fore all that shit, unnerstand? Duvencht has claimed t'rule this land fer the last ... three hundred years by my recall. An' they did cuz they could; they were bigger and stronger. Been taking the best of our land that whole time, all on a buncha nonsense about the World Before. But we put up with it, cuz they at least helped out here a bit, right?"
Camille took a few long-legged paces from left to right and back again, looking over her squad.
"Young bunch ye are, but that stopped bein' true durin' the Red Death. Started 'fore I was born, ended 'round the time half a' ye were babes. We took just as bad a poundin' as anyone else, but when we were starvin' they took ar food an' paid us jack-all fer it, without so much as a by-yer-leave or the decency ter protect us from bandits and monsters. Glorinton was jes' the last straw fer all of us."
Knickers nodded solemnly before turning his head up towards the twilit sky. Every muscle in Polly's body tensed.
"Problem is, we're losin' this war. No one wants t'say it in earshot a' the officers, but it's true, an' ye all know it, don'cha?"
Mara shifted weight from one foot to another and cracked her neck, before refocusing on the tall woman.
"So in comes us. Operation Sanguine Mischief. Bunch of irregular units sent north t' break the enemy's rail network an' kill their soldiers fore any of 'em get t' the western front. 'Fore 'ey get nuff reinforcements t' hit the southern coast an' jes' walk inta Lanva. We're not th' only ones on this kinda mission. Hope the other squads're doin' alright, seein' as how they need every one of us to succeed."
"In other words," Knickers broke in. "We're going to be hitting a railway depot at the coast north of here. It's two days' forced march through rough territory. Once we're there, we're due to hijack a train, gather some intelligence on board, make sure the commanding officer is dead, then blow it up while it's going over a critical bridge during the bloodmoon."
Gerry twisted his head to the side to pop a joint. It obscured the fact that his fingers were trembling. "Sounds d-deadly."
"Anyway," Camille tugged her hat down and cleared her throat. "That's all 'ere is t' the mission. Once we got the fireworks done, the western front stands a fighting chance a' holdin' out 'til its own reinforcements arrive. Questions?"
The scruffy hermit was the first to talk. "Why the b-bloodmoon?"
"Well," Knick said, tugging his chin. "Being on the train is pretty safe. It's only if you're outside that it's really a problem. So they're probably trying to avoid us doing, well, exactly what we are doing."
"So we're not going to be taking the hint, huh?" Mara asked, her voice dry as a desert.
"Nope!" came Knickers' cheerful response. Camille simply stared quietly at the specialist; it was enough to unnerve her, but not enough to make her quiet.
"Right. I enjoy fireworks as much as the next combat alchemist, Sergeants," Mara said. "But how are we getting back?"
"It's... complicated," Knickers said, fidgeting with his coat. "There is an exfiltration plan, but it'll make more sense to brief you when we're closer to it."
Camille nodded slowly. "We got it all taken care of, jes' 'bout. We saved a good load a' time comin' fast down the mountain rather'n safe. All we need now 's a little luck."
Polly's face was a blank mask, although her interior was a steady stream of monosyllabic sounds considered to be rather rude. But she managed to compose herself externally; with a cool, casual look, she turned to face Camille finally.
"Everyone's luck runs out eventually, and you've had quite the run, I hear."
Bobbin visibly gasped; Mara raised an eyebrow while Knickers furrowed both of his; Gerry let out a dark little chuckle.
If Camille was shaken, she didn't show it; without skipping a beat, she continued, "Then obviously, Sergeant-Engineer Rose is in charge. He's been briefed enough t' know how t' proceed. Make sense?"
"Makes sense," Polly responded with a snake's smile. She was no better than she started, but maybe at least she could wear down the witch's big ego.
"No other questions," she said smugly.
"Good, 'cuz I'm bloody hungry. We've all got our orders an' hopefully got er heads back on straight after the fallin' snow ride knocked 'em all around. Think we can call this little meetin' over. Farthingale, start carvin' the meat."