God Himself must have guided my feet down the stairs because I swear as fast as I took them it is a wonder I didn’t tumble down and break my neck.
The cool night air hit my face like a slap as I ran out of the front doors and in a circle of torchlight I saw a huddled figure trying to stand. I ran over and then pushed bodies out of my way to reach him. He fell into my arms but he wasn’t crying like a boy, but was trying to deliver a message like a man though he was obviously in pain. I was so proud of my chosen little brother at that moment I could have burst.
“Mistress Fel,” he gasped. “They’re comin’!! The bad ‘uns. They attacked the village but got more than they expected and decided to head thisaway to try and chew on something smaller. I … I got away … used what you taught me … and came as fast as I could but they’ve got horses … it won’t be anytime …”
His knees buckled and I could feel the weight he had lost since he’d been captured. In the firelight I saw the lash marks across his back and his arms and I’m sure the backs of his legs would match. How he’d manage to walk, much less run in his condition I couldn’t even begin to wonder at since I had experienced a few lashings myself.
Bodies moved out of the way as the Captain rushed over to see Topher for himself. He took one and I fought him for possession of the now unconscious boy’s body. “Fel, let me have him so he can be taken inside and tended to. God bless the young man he has become, he’s bought us time and we need to use it to advantage.”
I felt Cor’s hands on my shoulders pulling me away and I was finally forced to let go. “Go in the house Fel,” he said in my ear.
I jerked away from him and said, “What?! No … no I’m a fighter. I’m staying here!”
Cor spun me around and said, “Go … in … the … house. If Francine acts out during the battle … I have to be sure there is someone there strong enough to manhandle her if necessary. Mona, Lollie, and Docia are going to be busy with injuries. Mrs. Wiley can only do so much alone. Jonah has said the force coming against us is larger than the other was by three or four times. And they are coming in the dark.”
Still shaking my head I said, “We’ll need a perimeter …”
The Captain returned and patted my arm bracingly. “The boy says all of your toys in the forest have spooked them and they think something called a Giwakwa inhabits the land, laying traps for men like men would lay traps for animals.”
I grinned evilly and a couple of men saw it and gave me a wide berth. “They might find that is closer to the truth than even they think if they cross me again.”
Cor sighed in exasperation as he directed men to set up defensive positions. The Captain shook his head with a wicked smile of his own and said, “You just won’t do, you just won’t do at all.” Then he got serious and said, “Do as Cor asks Fel. If you absolutely need to fight, there are arrow ports in the shutters on the third floor.”
Cor looked irritated but didn’t gainsay the Captain’s words. The Captain understood I would not and could not be kept out of the fight that was coming but he was smart enough to try and channel how I participated.
Reluctantly I turned to go back in the house. Cor stopped me and said, “We need to talk.”
I was outraged at his timing. “Not in the middle of a battle we don’t,” I reminded him, shying away from the confrontation that was bound to come.
“No, not in the middle of a battle. But people are going to want answers. They are going to demand …”
I spit like my Da would when the words in his mouth tasted foul. “They can demand all they want. I’m done dancing to someone else’s tune.” I finally looked him square in the face and added, “Especially hers.”
He sighed and nodded. I looked away but continued and said, “But that’s for another time. Right now keep your mind on what is at hand. I shouldn’t have to remind you, Outlanders are vicious.”
Quietly he responded, “And I shouldn’t have to remind you that you’re not just an Outlander anymore. You belong here as much as … as anyone else does, maybe more at this point. If you insist on fighting you keep that in mind. Understand?” I nodded and then we parted.
I ran back through the house, stopping only briefly to assure myself that Docia had Topher firmly in hand. When he looked like he wanted to fight her I told him, “Docia tended to me when I’d gotten a good sized hurt on. She’s the best and she doesn’t twit you because of how you feel. And she’s got some of the gentlest hands God put on this earth.” Given him a bit of sternness I added, “And she’s got a tender heart as well so you just keep that in mind.”
He looked at me and then growing weary of fighting he sighed and nodded. “I will Mistress Fel. And I’ll keep her sister safe when she’s done patching me up.”
Docia snorted. “You’ve been teachin’ him your bad habits haven’t you Fel.”
Topher gave a small grin and said, “Bain’t such a bad thing. Kept me from croaking more than a few times.”
I looked at Docia and she nodded. “He’ll be all right Fel. He just needs tending so he doesn’t catch a fever.”
I had turned Topher’s fate over to God. And God had given me back my rami – my little brother – but not even the old words that Gramp’s father had taught him sufficed for what Topher was for me. He was the start of the family I had tried to rebuild, like my sisters before him. I know he’ll grow up and go his own way as it is meant to be but until then he holds a place in my heart no one else can occupy. I am a person that needs to be needed and for a time Topher needed me, and for a time he still would. But I could not do everything for him and I needed to trust Docia to spend her talents on his healing.
I couldn’t afford to spend any more time on my emotions. I ran to the cabin and grabbed up all I thought I would need. My bow, quiver, and all the arrows there; I also grabbed the bag that held my poisons for dipping harrows and darts into. Into a belt I quickly tied around my waist went my hand-to-hand fighting tools … my green river, a tomahawk, a stone hammer, and a sling with a pouch of river stones. I also grabbed my water skin that I kept filled out of habit. I would not want anyone coming up the stairs behind me when I was in a killing mood even if it was just to try and ease my thirst. Too many accidents happen that way.
I doused the fire and then locked the cabin down so it couldn’t be used as a hide out. I knew that Jonah would be locking all of the other buildings down as well and stationing guards in or near by each one. When I got back to the house I saw that barrels of arrows were being rolled in both the front and back doors. Jonah winked at me and said, “Don’t figure on sending boys running around in the middle of a fight no more. And we’ll be dousing all the lights to save us from turning into targets. No need to make their job any easier eh Gilly?”
I nodded in relief, secure in the knowledge that these men learned from their experiences both good and bad and adjusted their tactics accordingly. I also wasn’t averse to grabbing up a couple of extra bundles of arrows for my own use. I slung them onto my back and then moved on.
I went up the first flight of stairs and stopped, listening to see what sounds came from Francine’s rooms. I heard soft crying and prepared to enter to see what I could do but Hazel came out of the darkened hallway and stopped me. “It’s Glyssen. She’s finally accepted …” The older woman stopped and shook her head. “I think it has been fear that she would go the same way …” She stopped again this time pursing her lips over a subject she wasn’t prepared to discuss. Finally she startled me by saying, “Might I ask you something Fel?”
I grimaced. I wondered how to tell her that now wasn’t the time but she apparently understood. “Not a long discussion as I know time is of the essence but I must know before I got to turn out all of the lamps. Would you truly have been willing to continue as a pretend wife to keep Francine happy?”
I sighed. “That’s been my intent. Cor loves Francine and it has always been his desire to not hurt or harm her. All we wanted was to … to be allowed to retain some self-respect for ourselves.”
She patted my arm surprising me. “You might find it strange to know but I … I was not always enamored of the life I lead. But …” she sighed. “But it was the life my parents led and the life they’d chosen for me, a life I’d been given no choice about. I eventually came to terms with it but it was far from easy and I must say I did not complain when my husband eventually took on younger wives and allowed me to live a life separate from … well … separate from my wifely duties. And I never had daughters to …” She shrugged then tilted her head like a curious bird. “But as much as I struggled I never, not once, thought of taking the road you chose. I wonder what would have happened if I had.” She sighed and shook her head again. “Muriel and I are trying to … to come up with a way to manage this … this …”
“Mess?” I asked helping her find a word.
“Hmmm, I suppose that is the word for it at this point. But tragedy and catastrophe aren’t far from the truth either wouldn’t you say?”
With that she floated down the hall in the direction of Francine’s bedroom and I shook my head to clear the questions that she had raised in my mind. I bounded up the last flight of stairs, putting away all thoughts except of the battle before me, and then began to set up my defenses.
At each window notch I peered out to see what vantage point I had. Not all of the notches were useful as trees had been allowed to grow up and in the way since the notches had been installed. At the rear of the house, regardless of Topher’s assurances I placed a few extra arrows at each window. At the front and sides I placed the majority of the arrows.
I was in the process of dipping some arrows when four men brought two barrels and a couple of buckets and placed them in the center of the large open space at the center of the upstairs. “Jonah sends his compliments Mistress Fel and figgers yers know what ter do with this should yers need it.”
I waved to the men that I did indeed understand but continued to dip arrows and they tramped back down the stairs; but I did stop to admire how they managed to do it with so little sound, even in the dark of the enclosed stairwell. Someone had taught them that silence was golden.
I was in the process of dipping the last arrow when there was a cry in the dark. I heard horses in the dark and knew that the battle was on.