The Shepherd touched the shoulder of one of the soldiers nearest him, then leaned close to whisper something. He didn’t take his eyes off me. Nothing in his posture or body language gave anything away. He didn’t seem affected by the warm rain that ran down his face.
He might not have given anything away, as I smiled at him, trying to bait something out of him, but the soldier quickly made the Shepherd’s intent clear. He strode forward, saying something I couldn’t make out over the chaos of the crowd to my right.
He pointed at Mary as he was talking. I was suspicious he was saying names. Ordering the men around him.
They started forward too, a pair.
“Six in total, we already have two,” the Shepherd said, his voice carrying where the soldier’s was drowned out.
Capture the children.
Shepherd, no! You were supposed to be looking at me as an equal! You butt!
Mary seemed to come to the same conclusion I did. I saw her look toward the crowd, with the soldiers doing what they could to keep people from falling back and retreating to the church.
She looked at me. I held out a hand.
“Stop!” a man with a gun shouted, aiming.
Mary didn’t flinch, nor did I. She hopped up to the wall, I grabbed her hand to help her balance, and we went down over the other side together, me a half-step behind, so I could put myself between her and the guy with the gun.
I landed in a puddle, one hand, both knees, and the toes of both feet getting thoroughly wet in the process. My other hand held Mary’s. She’d landed in a crouch, so the short wall would provide some protection, but she’d managed to keep her skirt clean. Her expression was… I liked it. Not perfectly cold. I thought she might be enjoying herself on some level.
More guns went off, not behind us, but from the larger part of the crowd. The stitched who were too close to reload used fists and butt-ends of guns to strike people down. It was painful to look at. The stitched didn’t hold back nearly enough, and they were strong.
I sprinted from my crouching position, running along the wall, toward the crowd. Mary followed.
An orange light lit up the surroundings as a fire burst to life at one corner of the crowd. Something explosive or very flammable.
Even among regular civilians, the knowledge of the rules around the stitched was common. In a city like Radham, there were a great many farmers who relied on stitched animals and stitched farmhands. Inexhaustible, strong, requiring no food or pay. Fire tended to rile a stitched up and set them ablaze if they hadn’t been well tended, water tended to cause partial or total paralysis, if not deeper problems, and any given stitched had psychological tics. The brain was cut down to the barest minimum needed to follow orders and retain information, stand up, and exchange words, and in what remained, there were often trace memories, fears, words, names, or faces that all provoked responses out of the norm. When some stitched were hurt, poorly maintained, or when they got sick despite their high body temperatures, they would fall back on key phrases or habits. Children were told to limit interactions until the owner of the stitched could tell them what to do or what not to do.
With a stitched soldier, the cutting was often more ruthless, the ability to converse left more limited, the range of abilities vastly reduced. They followed orders, they learned how to use weapons, they hurt people they were told to hurt.
In Hayle’s carriage, the night after we’d taken on the snake charmer, I’d seen how the stitched bodyguard had reacted to fire. A new development in the production, treatment and teaching of the stitched, I was pretty sure.
The soldiers didn’t react to the flame, though they avoided it. They pressed forward, almost harder, less cautious, more violent. They’d been trained against fire, made to stay on course, even if that meant doing whatever they’d been doing until there was no more fire around them.
I couldn’t be sure, but I suspected this was a surprise to the Shepherd’s comrades in arms. What they’d learned about the stitched fighting alongside them in the war was no longer true.
Mary and I made our way into the crowd. The soldiers who’d been sent after us were only a few steps behind.
It was a very different dance for them and for us. Mary and I were moving as fast as we could, nimble, dodging between people who were alternately pressing forward and trying to run. I turned sideways at points, jabbed two fingers into one man’s ass crack to get him lurching forward and out of my way, ducked between one set of legs, and very nearly got knocked in the head by the end of a hoe someone was holding as a weapon. Mary was right behind me.
The people following us, by contrast, were pushing through. They had presence, people naturally moved out of their way, and they had the physical prowess to work past the ones who didn’t, or who moved the wrong way and ended up as obstacles anyway.
We weren’t the only ones navigating this strange battlefield of terrified and outraged civilians. Several stitched had made their way into the crowd.
One stitched nearby had both hands on its gun, and was swinging left and right, hitting people with elbows, the butt of the gun and the bayonet on the end. It had been stabbed twice, one weapon still stuck through its chest cavity, its face had been sliced open to reveal a thick wire that had been placed beneath the skin. The wire was insulated by a tight coiling of something or other, and where the insulation had been cut by the same weapon, the wire periodically sparked, the surrounding flesh twitching reflexively in reaction.
It had leveled ten or so people just getting this far, leaving them crumpled, bleeding and broken. Surrounded, it was strong enough to keep the crowd back, and scary enough that people were fleeing from it, pushing and jostling others.
Had the Shepherd expected things to go this way? Had he expected to win? Because the crowd wasn’t winning, and I suspected things would be much the same if Jamie had left things alone. His side would be doing better, but things would be moving toward the same end result.
An incoherent shout from the Shepherd’s camp went out. It was picked up by others, traveling forward through the crowd.
“Burn the handlers!”
Oh, well, that was one way to do it.
Stitched didn’t tend to scream unless they were broken by fire or delirium. Still, as the fires erupted, the eyes were treated to a sudden flare of light, illuminating everything, and the ears were treated to screams of panic and pain.
Not quite as tidy as I’d hoped.
I’d entered the crowd for a reason. I chanced a look back, and saw that the crowd had bogged down our pursuers. The press of bodies shifted, blocking my view of them.
Blocking their view of us.
I found Mary’s hand and tugged, changing direction. We weren’t the only ones who were trying to move back toward the church, away from the fire, the stitched, the bullets, and everything else, but we were the only ones who were less than five feet tall. That counted for something. It gave us a fraction more mobility.
Okay. This was usually the part where I fucked things up. Gordon was better at it than I was. I tended to overthink it.
Not just fighting. Strategy. I could plot like nobody I knew, but strategy was an entirely different game.
I tried to recall the number of soldiers that had been stationed at the back of the crowd and along the wall, compelling people forward, standing on or partially on the wall to shoot over the crowd. From that number and the general positions of them, there were any number of things I could do. The soldiers were all committed. Those that could be spared had been sent after us. That gave us options.
I cut my thoughts short at that. No use in complicating things, getting too far ahead of myself, and then having my plan fall to pieces when something unexpected happened.
Decide two things I want.
The first was finding Lillian and even freeing Gordon.
The second was maximizing disruption.
Okay, no, wait, I had three things I wanted.
Getting the Shepherd to see me as an equal was the third one.
That was the plan.
I checked Mary was with me, double checked we weren’t followed, then pushed my way through.
Lillian wasn’t far from where we’d left her. The soldier who’d taken custody of her had, probably at the Shepherd’s instruction, backed away, keeping her closer to where the Shepherd, the captain of the soldiers, and the guy holding Gordon all were.
The guy that had been watching her had been relieved by someone else.
The man was holding his rifle out sideways, a barrier to discourage people from retreating. He was shouting, driving them forward, saying something about the Academy, something about how to deal with a stitched.
Being short was an advantage. I ducked under the rifle and through the gap. He hadn’t expected anyone to be moving quite as fast or with quite so much focus as I was, and even the ones that were had been liable to bump into his weapon.
The Shepherd’s captain saw me. He shouted, “Grab him!”
I gave the man an arm, practically slapping my wrist into his reaching hand. My other arm I held back, in Mary’s direction, hand up.
Another explosion of flame erupted at the far end of the battlefield. The soldier that had me looked up and over the crowd.
More importantly, most of the crowd looked away.
I dropped the arm.
Mary moved. Her skirt clung to her mud-streaked legs as she lunged forward. The soldier saw the incoming attack, but his weapon was still held up to hold people back, and my hands went around his wrist, holding his hand so he couldn’t move it.
Mary stepped up onto the soldier’s thigh, grabbed his shirt to help her upward momentum, and drove the top of her head into the man’s chin. She held onto him as he dropped, adding her weight to his. He tumbled, stunned, and his hand released my wrist.
The soldier nearest us turned to look, eyes going wide.
I was already bending, grabbing the rifle from the fallen man, spinning-
One or two people who’d seen the gap and were panicked by the latest explosion rushed past me, bumping me. My aim was off.
I still managed to scrape the back of the second soldier’s calf. He dropped. A second person pushing past me knocked the rifle out of my grip. I didn’t bother to rescue it.
“Run away!” I howled, my voice raw.
It didn’t take much to tip the scales and give life to the idea that was already in people’s heads. What was an initial one to three people quickly turned into a stampede.
What had been a mass of people outside the short walls of the church was now draining out, feeding into the yard just past the church doors.
Mary was smiling as she joined me, mingling in with the rush of bodies.
Disruption managed. Now for the rescue of Lillian.
The Shepherd gave a command. The men that had been holding back the crowd and the captain all converged on us, pushing past the bodies.
Had to do this right.
Like a professional. Tidy, like Hayle wanted.
Well, insofar as any of this was tidy. I could make the argument that some of this was inevitable. The trick was leading this to as tidy a conclusion as possible. Given a sequence of things to focus on, people liked to focus on the beginning and the end.
Our beginning had been good. We’d identified the threat.
Our end… well, we had to neutralize it.
My eye fixed on the man who held Lillian. He had his gun, and he had her collar in a deathgrip that pulled it up and tight to her neck. Her bag was on the ground to one side.
Tidy, I thought. Properly.
I rushed the man. Mary had done the headbutt to one vulnerable area. I aimed for one that was closer to the ground. Between the man’s legs.
For my trouble, I got a knee in the chest. He struck me in the head with the butt end of his gun. I fell.
Mary was a step behind me. She grabbed the wrist of his gun hand with both hands, and with this happening so quickly after he’d clubbed me with the thing, he took a second before reasserting his strength, holding the weapon firm.
Mary drove her shoulder into the side of the weapon. The bayonet blade slammed into the man’s forehead.
She did it again. A second gash in the brow. He let go of Lillian to grab the weapon with another hand.
Mary stepped past the defense to slice him with a knife. Quick slashes, inner thighs. She ducked as he slammed the side of the rifle toward her face, then stabbed him twice in the belly.
He staggered, almost tripping over me, but Mary grabbed him by the sleeve and belt, hauling on him with all of her weight.
I rolled in the opposite direction, rising to my feet so quickly that I nearly fell over again with the sideways momentum. Mary let him fall, reaching out to block the bayonet he swung at her on his way down.
“Lillian!” I said, loud enough to be heard over the crowd.
I swept up the bag, pushing her as we started moving again. Mary was already in step, not needing further cues.
As a trio, we continued toward the church. The men coming after us were closing in, only a few steps away.
“Just the girl I was looking for,” I said, as we ran. “I need you.”
She smiled wider than I’d seen in some time.
“Scalpels,” I told her, shoving the bag at her.
“Um,” she said, she reached in. She handed me a scalpel with a cover over the end.
“Gunk!” I said, louder.
She gave me a squat container with a screw-off lid.
“Great!” I said. “Now go, get lost!”
The smile dropped off her face.
“Hide, I mean!” I shouted. I wasn’t thinking straight, trying to think along multiple tracks at once. “Mary, go with her!”
They carried forward, heading toward the church.
I stopped, twisting, and turned around.
There were about five civilians rushing my way. Between them were three soldiers, one of whom was the Shepherd’s captain buddy, about as different from the Shepherd as a man could be. Tan skinned, short dark hair, a weather-worn face, all browns and darkness and leatheriness.
A clean, tidy finish. My disposal of the last guy hadn’t been very successful, but this had to succeed.
The soldiers were blocking the gaps between civilians. The civilians were running with a mindlessness that suggested they’d run straight over me if I got in their way. It was a wall of people twice or thrice my size charging at me.
I picked up speed. My legs were sore from a more-than-usual amount of running, but I gave my all, gave my last to charge forward, straight for the nearest civilian.
Toward the Shepherd, toward Lacey.
Just when it looked like the guy was going to run into me, I ducked. I slid on wet grass. The man half-jumped, half stumbled over me.
I found my feet, but just as I’d slid on grass, the soles of my shoes did too. I’d meant to dart forward. Instead, I stumbled a little.
If I’d been an inch further ahead, I might have avoided the reaching hands. Instead, one caught me. I twisted to avoid the other. Twisted again to make the wet cloth of my cloak twist until the man’s grip on it broke.
I made it another couple of steps. But just as I’d reoriented myself, so had my pursuers. The captain seized me. Firmly this time.
I hurled the container. I hurled the scalpel.
They landed in arm’s reach of Gordon, who had also been caught.
He stared down at both.
He met my gaze.
One deep breath.
“Stop fighting!” Gordon howled the words. “Everyone, stop fighting!”
He had a great lung capacity. Then again, he had a great everything. Powerful vocal chords.
Heads turned. He had attention.
The soldier grabbed him, tried to shut him up. Gordon leveraged all the strength he’d held back up until now, bullying his way free.
“Stop fighting! Please!” he screamed.
He had the attention of most of the crowd, now.
“Relax,” the Shepherd called out. “Calm down! There’s nothing to worry about.”
“He,” Gordon pointed at the Shepherd, “He did this to me!”
His hand went to his face, touched the deep cuts the ‘monster’ had supposedly inflicted.
“He cut me so he could scare you! The monsters are made up!” Gordon cried out.
The silence was so real it could have been cut with a knife.
“He’s crazy! He did this!” Gordon cried out. He scrambled forward, away from the soldier who’d been holding him. grabbing the scalpel and jar. “Look at this, taste the slime! It’s soap! My teacher didn’t do anything at all! He blamed her to take attention off him!”
The soldiers who’d been after me headed toward Gordon now.
The captain turned, too, but I grabbed onto him, fought him every step of the way.
He hit me. Not a big blow, but a heavy enough one to knock me free.
“He’s… he’s not right in the head!” Gordon cried out. “Please! Don’t listen to him! He wanted this! All of it! Before it all started he called us into his office and told us what we were supposed to do, and threatened us. The man who read out the names! He was working with Reverend Mauer too!”
“The boy is deluded,” the Shepherd spoke, and his voice carried. “It’s easier to imagine a monster here than to recognize the monsters that the Academy created.”
The stitched that had been plowing through the crowd were on the approach now. The crowd backed away, and wound up moving toward the Shepherd.
A woman reached Gordon, taking his less bloody hand. She bent down and, after a dubious look, touched her mouth to his knuckle.
“Soap,” she said.
“Soap,” Gordon echoed her, pushing the things into her hands. “Soap and a knife. Please don’t let Reverend Mauer hurt me anymore.”
He turned toward the Shepherd, giving the man a wounded, accusatory look.
She embraced him, arms around his shoulders, wrists crossing over his collarbone.
Outraged shouts rose from the crowd.
The Shepherd was still, taking it all in, looking at his crowd.
Do you have any magic words, Shepherd? I thought.
He looked at me.
Goal three completed.
He let the look linger, then broke away, staring over at the row of stitched and the one or two handlers that were still pressing in. Only one or two stitched had properly died in this assault.
The Shepherd gave a hand signal.
The captain blew his horn. Two sharp blows.
With that, the soldiers turned.
The retreat was planned. The direction was already known.
They’d known they would lose this fight, I realized.
They’d planned it, even. The retreat was part of it all.
Did they have a waiting vehicle?
The soldiers, including the captain and the ones who’d been after me and Mary, raised their weapons, warding off the handful of people who looked like they were going to start rioting against the Shepherd. They retreated as fast as they were able. People were caught between avoiding the stitched and the threat of the guns.
They stopped, going still. They dropped to their knees and raised hands. The wall of stitched came to a halt.
The Shepherd started to make his retreat. He turned to look, and in that instant, Helen appeared, emerging from the shrubbery in front of the church. She’d been within a few paces of him for the better part of the skirmish.
Striding forward, right through a collective blind spot. The soldiers and Shepherd were all focused on the crowd behind.
She threw her arms around the Shepherd’s waist.
“Let go,” I could hear him from a distance.
She held firm, face pressed against his side.
“Let go!” he raised his voice.
He tugged at her arm. She didn’t release him.
The stitched were drawing closer. The crowd was staring.
He pushed her, so that she no longer had her feet under her, then tugged again.
She held firm, a six and a half stone weight, tying him down.
The Shepherd reached into his coat and withdrew a pistol. He pressed it to the girl’s head.
I could hear a collective intake of breath from the crowd.
He was done. He would never again have the people of Radham.
She looked up, staring him in the eyes. She didn’t let go.
I felt a chill. A premonition.
Prey instinct at work? Putting together all the little context clues, the hints in his body language, demeanor, the clues he’d given me all night, adding up to my estimation of who he was?
He was going to shoot.
“Helen!” I called out.
She glanced over her shoulder. The look she gave me was cold. Probably the same look she’d given the man.
“Let him go,” I said.
She did, without a moment’s hesitation.
The man backed away, holding the pistol up and out.
The captain caught up with him, clapping a hand on his shoulder. The two of them turned, marching forward. The soldiers were just behind, weapons pointed at the mob.
I walked up to Lacey. She looked hollowed-out. Haunted. It was almost scary to see.
I’d asked too much of her tonight.
“I’m sorry,” I told her.
The shocked look on her face looked more dramatic than any emotion she’d shown us while being taken hostage or accused.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, to drive the point home. “I’m sorry to ask for more, but… the Academy needs to win over the crowd. Get the permission slip from Gordon. Take it to one of the Academy people on the other side. Tell them to blame things on the Shepherd. Someone says they knew he was bad, he was manipulating people, drugging them, let’s say. Take the blame away from people, just-”
“Sylvester,” she said.
“You can call me Sy,” I offered, as a conciliatory measure.
“Sylvester… shut up, please. I understand.”
“They need to offer medical attention. They have to be kind. The stitched need to go, fast.”
She nodded. She stood.
“Send Gordon into the church, when he’s given you the thing,” I said. “Get Jamie, send him.”
I nodded. “Gotta go after the Shepherd, if we can.”
I didn’t press any further. I looked at Helen and beckoned her. I found Gordon, saw him looking at me, and pointed at Lacey.
Then I ran to the church. Mary and Lillian stepped out of cover by the altar.
It took only two minutes to regroup. Lillian daubed powder on Helen’s injuries, then Gordon’s.
When Jamie arrived, I pointed at the side door. The side door in the Shepherd’s office.
As a group, we headed through the side door, then broke into a run as we headed in the direction the Shepherd had gone.
He wasn’t moving at a fast pace. He couldn’t, given his arm, the balance and the weight of it. He’d made a good distance, but we did too, even with our shorter legs.
He had a gun in one hand, but something glinted in his mouth as he turned his head. His cheeks puffed.
He turned further, and we collectively ducked into cover of shadow.
More soldiers were joining him. The flanking groups, the ones who’d firebombed the stitched. Others, maybe scouting parties.
A small army, and there he was in the center of it, with the captain and a shorter man.
He puffed his cheeks again.
A large shape moved.
It looked like a headless cat, the neck inflated in size, or a lion with a massive mane, the head removed, all drawn out in spines that were too white to seem real. Easily the size of an automobile, a bit larger.
It prowled on a rooftop, hopped down, and paced around the perimeter of the group.
The Shepherd said something, the group parted, and the Shepherd blew again on his tiny, silent whistle.
The thing, Whiskers, approached. It got close enough that the Shepherd could reach out with his meaty, mutated hand, and touch it. He dropped his hand, the fingers bleeding from the tips.
The group moved, and Whiskers retreated as quickly as it had come, darting onto the top of a shed, then a garage.
The Shepherd periodically blew, to keep it close enough, a constant retreat from Whiskers and a compelling call from the Shepherd.
I moved to follow. Gordon reached out to stop me.
“We have to,” I said.
“It’s good enough as is,” Gordon said.
“But he- I want to catch him,” I said, watching the man’s back.
“We won’t. Not with that many people guarding him.”
“I want it as much as I’ve wanted anything,” I admitted.
“Yeah,” Gordon said. “And I’m bleeding, Helen’s bleeding, you’re bruised. Let’s call it a night, report to Hayle so he can send some other projects after them, then go home. There’ll be another try.”
I made a whiny sound, deep in my throat.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s hurry, see if we can’t get Mary settled.”
It was a good thing to say to change my focus. I allowed myself a nod.
We headed toward the Academy.
“Good work,” I said, to nobody in particular.
“Yeah?” Gordon asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Was fun!” Mary said, suddenly lively.
“It really was,” I said, quiet.
“Glad it was fun for you,” Gordon said.
“What?” I asked. “Huh?”
“That was awful. Hated it, the acting, the playing the lame duck, trying to sway the crowd, doing nothing.”
We walked a few more steps.
“I hate you so much,” I told him.