Cain gripped his holstered gun. The unease Raw's vision had inspired grew worse as the day wore on. Something felt off about this part of the forest. DG and Glitch hadn't noticed, busy talking about the Fields of the Papay. Raw had, and he scanned the woods on either side of the trail. The birds were too silent. The boy's expression was impassive, but he was probably too much of a city kid to notice something amiss in the woods.
Then Zack surprised him again. "Do you smell smoke?"
Cain inhaled deeply. "Yeah, a big fire. We're downwind of it and can still smell it." The underbrush cleared, revealing the dirt road that led to Lord Gillikin's fortress. Cain frowned as he knelt to examine the tracks.
"What is it?" DG asked.
"Lots of traffic, horses and people on foot, and only a few days old."
"People taking shelter from Longcoats? Or the dragon?" Glitch suggested.
"Marks heading away," Cain gestured down the road, "almost obliterate the marks going in." He gestured toward the fortress. His lips twitched. "I don't like this."
DG's hand slid along his arm as he stood up. "We have to go."
"Everyone stay sharp." His left hand held hers as they led the way up the road. All his instincts said to get her out of here, but where in the O.Z. was safer than by his side? The scorched smell grew stronger, but the vegetation was still green. The road emerged into the clearing and moat of the fortress.
Gillikin Fortress abutted the side of the mountain as if it grew out of the rock. The sheer cliff that towered above the fortress was gouged and streaked with black. The main tower was broken in half. Two gaping holes torn out of the wall surrounding the other three sides made it useless. The gate was wide open and the drawbridge was extended over the moat. Smoke billowed out of the ruins.
DG covered her mouth, her blue eyes opened wide. Cain growled in the back of his throat. A broken Longcoat dangled partially off the drawbridge.
"Lord Gillikin innocent," Raw said.
Glitch turned around examining the clearing as the suns dropped lower in the sky. "There are no signs of siege engines. How did they do all this?"
"Why bother with catapults and trebuchets when you have a dragon?" Zack rested his hands on his strange daggers.
DG marched to the drawbridge. "DG!" Cain caught up and jerked her to a stop.
She glared at him. "We can't waste daylight. We have to look for survivors!"
"Not by yourself!" He grimaced. "Glitch, Raw, take the north side and stick together." They nodded and started across the drawbridge. "Zack," he turned but the boy was gone. "Where did he go?" he growled.
DG shrugged. "I didn't see him. We search the south side?" He nodded and they crossed the drawbridge.
Inside the fortress walls, the smell of scorched wood mixed with burnt flesh. This battle was a couple of days old. Rubble from the tower and the walls littered the courtyard. None of the bodies crushed under the rocks moved. Cain hoped it was a quick end for them.
Tears gleamed in DG's eyes, but she didn't stop. He gritted his teeth, recognizing that her magic directed her, and he stayed on her heels. She headed to the back corner where the built wall met the mountain. An undamaged set of stairs led up to the battlements. But a small retaining wall had been created with rubble shoved against the stairs. Cain felt the hairs stand on the back of his neck. Someone survived to build a pen.
DG leaned over the makeshift wall. "Hey."
Cain peered in. A boy about two-annuals-old stared at them with eyes as green as DG's wedding dress. He clutched a small wooden hammer. The workbench with brightly painted wooden pegs to hammer into the holes sat beside him. "Hi. Walls fell down."
"Yeah, I guess they did. Are you okay?"
Cain heard the cocking of a shotgun above their heads. "Get away from him!" Hysteria barely under control tinged the girl's voice. "Keep your hands where I can see them!" DG pulled her hands up as she looked. A girl just recently in her teens trained a shotgun on them. "You too, in the hat!" He clenched his teeth and raised his hands.
"It's okay," DG said. "We can help."
"More likely here to finish the job!" Her shooting stance was perfect on the landing of the stairs.
"We came from Central City to see Lord Gillikin," DG continued.
"His lordship cannot keep any appointments now!" Her strained laughter leaked hysteria. "I won't let you hurt him!"
"We don't want to hurt anyone." DG spread her hands.
"Everyone's dead! And you expect me to believe that!"
Cain clenched his fists. There wasn't any way to reach her before she fired. Unless you leaped down behind her from the battlements like Zack did. She spun, taking the shotgun off them. Cain pushed DG to the ground beside the makeshift wall and pulled out his gun. Zack had the shotgun in one hand and his other arm around the girl's waist as she slumped against him. "Can I get some help here? She's heavier than she looks."
The toddler started crying. DG pushed herself up. "I'm fine, go." She reached into the pen cooing at the boy.
He took the steps two at a time. "What did you do to her?"
"Acupressure. She should be out for an hour, give or take." Zack helped her into Cain's arms. "She was freaked out over a kid; I figured she's on the good guy side."
Cain shifted her until her head slumped against his shoulder. "Where did you go?"
"Please. I've played enough Dungeons and Dragons to know you go loot the kitchen and the armory first unless you know where the magic artifact is." Zack went down the stairs first. "I think the Longcoats hit the armory, but I found some bullets that might fit your gun."
"I never thought I'd hear someone that make even less sense than DG. What if there were Longcoats still here?"
"They wouldn't see me. I know you don't trust me, but will you at least give me that I know what I'm doing?"
Cain sighed. DG had retreated to a bit of canvas stretched to make an awning behind the stairs. The toddler's chatter stopped when he stooped under it. "Is he alright?"
"He's not hurt," DG answered. "And I think he's too young to understand what's going on." Cain grunted as he laid the girl down. "Is she okay?"
"Zack says she'll wake up in an hour."
The boy ignored them to poke in the bags stacked against the stone wall. "She's a pretty effective looter. Food, first aid kit, clothes for the baby, a handgun and the shotgun plus ammunition, she even scrounged up firewood." Zack pulled out the bundle of branches. "Is this area secure enough to make camp in?"
"The welcoming committee here," Cain nodded at the girl, "probably had longer to scout it out. Start the fire. I'll get the shelter." Zack nodded and DG went back to keeping the baby out from under foot. Cain moved the canvas higher and tightened the ropes. Then he pulled out the gun from the packs.
The toddler sat beside the girl in the black dress. "Chershe. Chershe."
"She's just sleeping." DG told him. "Let her sleep. Are you hungry?" A hunk of bread brought him back to DG's lap.
He remembered Jeb at that age, moving so fast him and Adora could barely catch the boy. DG wasn't doing too badly. He set the guns down next to Zack who arranged the sticks inside the ring of stones. "Stay here with DG and keep the guns away from the girl. I'm going to find Glitch and Raw." Zack nodded, and Cain turned to DG and the curly-haired boy on her lap. She smiled and gave him her salute. He tipped his hat and strode across the courtyard.
Glitch and Raw picked their way out of the tower. "We found Lord Gillikin." Glitch's face was paler than normal in the waning sunlight.
"Dead," Raw added. "Fought hard."
Cain frowned. "Wanted to make sure no one could attack from behind as they go south?"
"Most likely." Glitch tilted his head as Cain led them toward the lit campfire. "This probably means Lord Quelala is our culprit."
"We found two survivors, a girl and a toddler."
Glitch paused mid-stride. "How does DG do that?"
"I have no idea, Zipperhead." DG and the child had traded places with Zack, who sat next to the girl groaning her way to consciousness. "Now, maybe we'll find out what happened."
The girl bolted upright, swinging a fist. Zack caught it before it hit his face. "Play nice or I'll put you to sleep again. Your choice." She tried to kick him. "Come on, do we look like Longcoats?"
The girl looked at the entire group. The child squirmed free of DG's grasp. "Chershe! Chershe! Pretty lady food." He threw his arms around the girl's neck and stood on her lap. "Want Nursie, Chershe!"
"Nurse is away, Hal." Her voice broke as she hugged the boy. Tears gleamed in her brown eyes. "You didn't hurt him."
"There is no reason for us to, Chershe," DG began.
The girl swallowed. "It's Chelsea. Hal can't say it right." Hal sat down on her lap. Zack leaned back, giving Chelsea space.
Cain sat between Chelsea and DG and the guns. "What happened?" He asked as gently as he could. She was close to losing her grip.
"Why should I tell you anything!" Chelsea wrapped her arms around Hal.
"Why do we keep ending up finding the basket cases?" Glitch asked.
Raw growled low as he sat next to him on the other side of the fire. Zack shook his head. "I helped rescue you to get insulted?" He turned back to Chelsea. "Zack Baker, Slipper, and they're good people."
"You knocked me out," she retorted.
"But I didn't kill you. Would Longcoats be that nice?"
She dropped her head with a shiver. Hal squirmed. "Let go, Chershe. Play bang."
DG picked up his wooden workbench and hammer, and settled on the other side of Cain. She made sure to sit close enough for him to grab her if anything went wrong. "This is bang?" She held up the hammer. Hal crowed, sprang free from Chelsea's grasp, and settled next to DG to hammer.
"Chelsea very brave with duty." The girl's face shot up to focus on Raw. "Lord Gillikin would be pleased. Your mother would be proud."
"You're a Viewer?" Raw nodded and she turned to DG and Cain. "He's your prisoner?"
"No, Raw is our friend," DG said. "We came from Central City to see Lord Gillikin."
"He's dead." A sob broke out of her. "The monster came and everybody died." She buried her face in the folds of her skirt. DG wrapped her arms around the crying girl, soothing the best she could.
"I guess that confirms the dragon then." Glitch propped his chin in his hand and rested his elbow on his thigh. "But was it in-fighting between rebellious guild lords or is it the first attack on the whole Zone?"
"What does he mean rebellious?" Chelsea jerked her head up. "What is that headcase trying to say about Lord Gillikin?"
"Lord Gillikin never declared his loyalty to the Queen after the Eclipse," DG explained.
"He couldn't leave. His lady," Chelsea's eyes brimmed with tears again, "she was ill when the summons came. She died last week. Did none in the Resistance speak for him? He supplied and sheltered them in the Northern Territories. That's why my mother put me in his household. He knew the Queen when they were children and he always said the Sorceress needed a good spanking! He was a good man!" she hurled across the fire at Glitch.
Glitch raised his hands in surrender. "Then his memory will be honored."
"Chelsea, we need to know what happened." Cain leaned forward. "You have to trust us."
"You won't even tell me your names, and I'm supposed to trust you?" Her face hardened despite DG's arm still around her. "You must think I'm on vapors."
"No need to be afraid," Raw said. "They're the ones you planned to seek for."
The girl looked askew at Raw, disconcerted with what he was telling her. He hadn't seen Raw get that look from many people, but he had seen the Mystic Man get it plenty. "My name is Wyatt Cain."
Chelsea's head swiveled to face him again and her brown braid almost hit DG in the face. "One of the Mystic Man's Tin Men?"
"A long time ago."
"You helped my mother get out of Central City." Her eyes widened as her jaw fell open. She twisted out of DG's hold. "Please don't have me killed, Princess! I didn't know it was you!"
"It's okay," DG soothed. "You were just trying to protect your brother."
It was the conclusion Cain would have made with their familiarity and sharing the same brown hair color. But Chelsea shook her head. "He's not my brother. He is Halvard, the twelfth Lord of Gillikin, now that his father is dead. I'm just his chambermaid!"