5 Months Ago
The end of fall was approaching and the Mannah were thick on the ground. Jake’s group had built little, covered fortresses against tall rocks at some of their camps, so Mannah couldn’t fall in those areas. Fire pits were put in, and thus, they were able to enjoy hot food at night. The process of securing these locations was painstakingly tedious since if even one of the tiny flakes were to enter, it could mean death for someone even outside the camp.
Once, someone had tracked in a small a cluster after dark. The aliens flew at the fire and were quickly consumed by it. Outside, however, Mannah swirled fiercly and threatened to bring down the fortifications. Three people outside on sentry had died. Since then, entering the camps anytime besides during the day – when the Mannah were high off the ground – was generally prohibited.
There (of course) was a “shake off” area for those approaching camp after dark in an emergency. Those who performed the tasks of checking for the tiny flakes took to their task with the utmost seriousness. Tey even performed these checks during the day just to be sure. Jake was near the fire waiting for David, who was just finishing being checked for Mannah.
Approaching the fire and sitting next to Jake, David began, “It’s the usual stuff. The caravan split into two and is making its way around either side of the Hamilton Hills. Their plan is to head south and avoid the Great Forest…”
“The Osceola?” Jake interrupted.
“Right. We’re planning to catch them after they meet up – between the great ponds – before they make their way into McClenny.”
“Hmm, that’s risky.” Jake mused, “It would take a while to get the group into position, and there’s no guarantee that they would choose the path between the ponds. Better to wait until they make their way to McClenny, then my group will be able to help you.”
“Sure, I’ll let the boys know the plan.” David stood to make his way to his troupe. Other troupe leaders were beginning to line up to report to their red-vested commander. David would have time to talk with Jake casually later, but now it was time for business. He was one of Jake’s personal friends, but that didn’t grant him any special privileges. He was required to do regular duties whether he was good at them or not.
Although he had a hard time with many of the daily duties around the camps, David took to combat and battle strategy naturally. Before long, he was in charge of his own small troupe. Because of his strength, he was usually required to do things that required heavy lifting. That was just fine for David – better for him than quilting or braiding.
It just so happened that his personal troupe was composed entirely of boys. This was so unusual, that everyone just called them “The Boys”. Caleb had stuck with him throughout the recovery of his leg and personally requested to join the Boys. He became David’s second in command by default. Caleb was the first to get up as David approached the group, “What’s the plan?” he inquired.
David motioned to indicate he was addressing the entire group which included Caleb’s brother: Chris, “We’ll track them for a few days and wait until Jake’s group can reinforce us. We’ll probably catch them close to McClenny.”
Chris was smiling, “I knew he’d say that.”
David grinned back, “It’s better than being neck-deep in the ponds…” They all laughed.
Typically, Jake’s renegades preferred to perform their raids far enough away from the cities to be too inconvenient for the constables to want to pursue. The group’s previous leader had been killed after a raid that had been too close to Koster: a city frequented by merchant caravans. He died holding off the constables so the rest of the group could escape, but not before handing his red vest down to Jake. The raid they were planning was unusually ambitious, so they hoped to catch as much of the caravan as possible to acquire the best booty. Tonight the boys would rest, tomorrow they would hunt.
. . . . . . .
After four days of tracking the caravan, they were all nearing the valley’s opening onto the McClenny plains. A messenger had arrived from Jake’s group to help coordinate the attack. Jake, himself, had gathered several troupes to aid in the ambush. It was a medium-sized caravan they were after, so Jake thought David’s plan was a bit overkill. After another night, the Boys, Jake’s troupes, and the caravan were all in position. Jake sent the signal and the Boys rushed in.
. . .
Frank hurried back to his canopied truck and barged in on his wife. “Look!” failing entirely to hold back his excitement, “I’ve got it!”
Francine glared at him, and the object he carried, nonplussed, “It’s a rock.”
“It’s not just any rock, Francine, it’s a powered stone!” The Stone he held was about the size of a palm and almost seemed transparent except for the pale blue light that glowed from its center. “They use these to power quattours. This could probably get us two property coins alone.”
“Frank,” she was cocking her head and making a most annoyed expression, “does anyone in this whole camp have a quattour? No. Are we heading to a city where many people have quattours? Yes. Is there any reason to think someone would pay us even one prop coin for something they could get at the market? No, Frank. No.” She stood and removed the stone from his hands. Holding it up to his face, “This. is. a. rock.”
Frank’s countenance had fallen significantly, “You’re like a hired hope killer, you know that?”
“Raiders!” The alarm had come from outside their truck.
The couple glanced at each other briefly before Francine rushed to the deep end of the wagon. Throwing back a blanket, she uncovered a full quiver and tossed it to her husband. Frank had already grabbed his bow. Catching one strap of his quiver with one hand, he slung it around his back and slid his other arm into the other with the kind of expertise that only comes with experience. The powered stone glowed silently next to his wife and he pointed at it, “Don’t lose that.” Frank leapt from the wagon.
. . .
David’s troupe charged the front left side of the caravan, while another charged the front right. Once most of the caravan’s guards and fighters were rushing to the front, Jake led 4 troupes at the caravan’s rear, while a final troupe came over steep hills and charging from the caravan’s right. The troupes in the front executed well-timed flurries and retreats while the rest completely overran the rest of the caravan. Within minutes, most of the caravan’s able fighters were neutralized and Jake began leading the actual looting. The bands in front began binding whatever opposing forces were left.
. . .
Frank rounded his truck to see a group of about 8 young men giving the front guard a run for their money. As he watched, several men from the side and rear guards dashed past him to aid in the melee. Seeing more brutes coming over the hills, Frank went back around to the other side of his wagon to make his way up front that way.
He’d hoped to put a little distance between himself and the conflict to give himself time to get off a few good shots. Before he could clear his own truck, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a much greater force quickly overtaking the rear. What was left of the rear guard was being overrun like fools trying to net a swarm of locusts. A much closer group of 5 boys was charging the middle of the caravan: towards his wagon, his wife, and his newly acquired stone.
. . .
Jake had the looting organized into two, spread-out groups. The first were those actually pulling goods from the wagons and carts. They would hand off their booty to boys from the second group who would run off with the goods. As the second group dwindled, more from the first group would replace their function. This meant that Jake’s forces were steadily dwindling. As the loot-leader, Jake jogged along the caravan lines to scout trucks he thought looked interesting. Running between them, he paused and backtracked a few steps, distracted by an odd blue light.
. . .
Frank chose not to join the main conflict, but to move in circles around the caravan’s middle. He wanted to protect his wagon and his wife at all costs. Going a small distance unnoticed, he spied three boys making their way from the front to the middle. Dropping to one knee he pulled back, and in a single smooth motion, aimed and let loose. He missed. The arrow had struck close enough for the thugs to take notice, and the three of them rushed his position.
Frank had no hope of running away, he pulled and loosed again, hitting one of them in the knee. Again. He hit another in the shoulder. The third was already upon him, so he flicked the bottom of his longbow upward in a sharp motion, striking the boy on the cheek and making him stumble. Frank rammed the arrow in his hand into the boy’s side and rolled away from him. Glancing back toward the caravan, he saw a stocky, black-haired boy in a red vest peering into his wagon.
. . .
Francine was shaking in her socks as the eerie-eyed boy grinned at her. His expression was surprisingly harmless, but Francine found that all the more terrifying. She eyed her surroundings for something to swing at him. She picked up an empty kettle and waved it up over her head, “Don’t you dare come in here.”
The teen at the wagon’s entrance seemed to not think he was in any danger. “What’s that?” he asked as he pointed to something beside her. Francine glanced down to notice the seemingly blue stone at her side.
“‘That’s… none of your business!” she yelled, “Get out of here!”
The red-vested boy at the wagon’s edge sighed heavily. His face was the epitome of comical annoyance. Each motion and expression was so exaggerated, that Francine knew the boy was mocking her. “Will you toss it to me or do I have to come in there?” he said, “It’s all I want, I promise.”
“You want it?” Francine ground her teeth, “Then take it!” She picked up the stone intending to throw it at his face, but her sleeve caught on a utility hook hanging from the side of the canopy. Her arm fell short, and the stone tumbled across the floor until it was right in front of the bandit.
“Thanks!” he said as he plucked it from the floor, “You don’t need to see the rest of this.” Then he zippered up the canopy’s flaps halfway and was gone.
. . .
As soon as Jake turned away from the caravan, he heard the sound of something sharp hitting the wood bracings behind him with incredible force. He jumped and turned to see an arrow in the place where his back just was. Jake ducked, looking around frantically until he saw his sniper only a small distance away from the caravan. One of his boys was writhing in agony near the archer. Jake dashed to the other side of the caravan, using the trucks as cover. Before he could round the next truck, an arrow grazed the back of his left thigh. Drops of blood sprayed onto the ground and he stumbled, but quickly pulled himself together and sprinted toward the front of the caravan.
. . .
Frank could see that the red-vested raider was making off with his stone. The sun was on the other side of the caravan, casting the boy’s shadow under the wagons as he ran away. Frank ran to his truck, unzipped the flaps, and peered in at his wife. “Are you alright?” Francine was curled up at the back of the wagon and clutching a blanket. She hurriedly nodded her head, staring at her husband.
Frank zipped the flaps back up and dashed back around the truck, determined to catch that red-vested thief. A strange sound went up, like the loud caw of a bird, and the raiders began to retreat as quickly as they had come. Ducking along the shadowed side of the wagons, Frank held his bow low so it wouldn’t be noticed, and hurried toward the front of the caravan.
. . .
As soon as Jake reached David’s group he gave the order for a full retreat. David was expecting this and had one of his boys holding a horn. As soon as the sound went up, Jake’s bandits began retreating in every direction. This was a regular part of a strategy to prevent the whole group from being followed in any direction. Unless they posed a threat to the group’s escape, any of the opposing forces still fighting were to be evaded at this stage of the raid. Jake called three boys and ordered them to run a circle around the caravan to make sure that that archer wasn’t sniping his troops. Then, he began his own retreat with David’s group.
. . .
There he was. The red-vested boy was running with his back turned to Frank. There were other boys with him, but Frank barely noticed them. He dropped to one knee, pulled back, and loosed. The arrow hit the bandit squarely on his left heel. Might have got a tendon, Frank thought as he pulled back again.
In front of him, he saw the boy crash to the earth; from the corner of his eye, he sensed another boy approaching him fast. He glanced to the side to see his approacher raising a club to strike. Frank poured all of his concentration into his shot. With the sun in his eye, he loosed his arrow just before he felt the crack of dense wood against his temple. As his body arched to the side, Frank watched the world around him fall to black.
. . .
Jake crashed to the ground with a yelp of anguish. The other boys skidded to a halt, and David dashed back to his friend. Jake yelled at them to not pull the arrow from his heel as David tried to lift him to his feet. None of them heard the hum of the next arrow until it was too late.
The bolt arrowhead punched through near Jake’s shoulder blade to exit through his chest. Jake was thrown forward so forcefully, that he and David both fell to the ground. David didn’t realize what was happening until he noticed the shaft protruding from Jake’s vest. Jake was struggling to roll onto his side as he grunted in pain. Chris and David helped him, and Jake took hold of David’s collar and pulled him close.
“Take care of them!” blood appeared around Jake’s lips, “Take the vest!”
“No!” David shouted, “Chris will help you… Chris!” David looked up to see Chris helping Jake out of the vest. He lunged forward and pushed Chris away, “No! Come on, Jake. Not now. Let’s go back to camp. Not now, Jake!” Two of the Boys pulled David away by the armpits as Chris helped Jake out of the vest. The blonde-haired boy wiggled violently until the others lost grip on him and he crawled back to Jake, “Jake!”
“Take care of them, David. We’re counting on you.”
Several boys dashed past them all with the last one screaming, “Let’s go!” David looked toward the caravan to see several men running towards them with weapons in hand. He reached for his spear, his anger and grief spurring him into action. Chris jumped in front of him pushing a worn and bloodied red vest against his chest.
“That’s not what he asked for,” Caleb shouted from behind him, “we need you now more than ever.” David stared hard at his second in command before his head began to clear. Glancing back at Jake, he saw that his friend had grown unbelievably still. He’d seen that look before. Memories started to flow into his mind and his anger began rising again. The “woosh” of a spear alerted him to the three men who were closing the distance with them. David held up his spear and cried, “To me!”
All the raiders within earshot of David rushed to his side. David, Chris, and the rest of the Boys worked harmoniously to disarm their attackers and put them on the ground. David gave hurried orders to have Jake’s body carried away as he and the Boys gave cover for their escape.
. . .
It was sunset before they were gathered in one place. They’d lost five members today, including Jake. An extremely high number for them. Chris handed Jake’s vest off to those who would clean and mend it and went to be by his friend’s side. Unlike previous tragedies in his life, David didn’t have the luxury of losing himself to his grief. There was simply too much to do and too many people asking things of him. It was now up to David to lead the group in mourning and make better plans to protect the whole community in the future.
Special Author’s Note
So now we know how David came to be the bearer of the iconic red vest. Originally, I had the caravan comprised of wagons, but thought that didn’t make much sense when society had advanced beyond cars before the Fall. I changed it to be a caravan of canopied trucks thinking that individual quattours would be costly to for the average traveling merchant. Besides, trucks could probably carry more mre efficiently. While it’s safe to assume there were some quattours in the group, it didn’t seem important enough to the story to mention.
I actually like the appearance of Frank in this story. It was fun to write the discourse between him and Francine, however short. I felt like Frank’s additions gave more meaning to the story of the raid. Ultimately, I think it made the story of Jake’s demise more interesting and meaningful.