“We been focusing on the rebuilding efforts,” Samuel said as he stood at attention before the diminutive knight. The warehouse they’d turned into barracks had been spared during the fighting, and the squad had done a good job of turning it into a proper headquarters — such as the little corner they’d sectioned off, acting as an office for Samuel. “There’s been no trouble at all, so I thought we’d loosen up our watch and instead help out with the constructing.”
Sarah looked up at the man’s face in an attempt to scrutinize him. She still found it hard to believe how completely the former thugs had turned their lives around, how quickly they’d gone from preying on the weak to helping people out of their own volition.
Were they just afraid of her and trying to earn her goodwill? Or had their outlook changed that much once they were given a second chance?
Sarah hadn’t really expected much of them when she conscripted Samuel and his gang. It had been an impulse decision, a way to avoid getting more blood on her hands. The diplomatic option, so to speak.
She thought they’d begrudgingly accept the stay of execution, doing the bare minimum required of them to avoid being punished — but the Ravenrock Guard, as they styled themselves, had proved her assumptions wrong, seeking to better their community through their own initiative.
“Good job,” Sarah said eventually, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Samuel released a sigh of relief, and Sarah realized he had been holding his breath the entire time. “You likely won’t have any more trouble coming from outside. Every’s been dealt with.”
Samuel’s eyes burned bright with righteous fury. “Did the bastard suffer?” he asked, his words laced with malice and barely-repressed hate.
Sarah was taken aback by his reaction. In truth, Every’s death had been quick — she and Shiro had severely underestimated the frailty of a normal human and killed him by accident. But she didn’t want to let Samuel down, either. “He got what was coming to him. It wasn’t pretty,” she said. Technically true — Every’s head had disappeared in a spray of mist, after all.
“Good,” Samuel said, his voice going soft. “At least Vinny is avenged now…”
“He is. Now, though, we need to decide what we’re doing with your squad. I’m going to be leaving soon, so you’ll need to handle yourselves without my help.”
“We haven’t had much trouble so far,” he began, but Sarah interrupted him.
“You haven’t, but Boss was here to act as a deterrent. With him gone from Ravenrock, there’s nothing to scare potential bad guys away. Plus, there’s just four of you for a population of, what, eight thousand? Sure, you’ll have wights as backup, but they’re no replacement for human vigilance,” Sarah said, earning herself an uneasy glance from Samuel. “So you’ll need to remain alert, and I have just the fellow to help you with that.”
Without waiting for the older man’s reaction, Sarah uncrossed her arms and raised her right hand, gesturing at the rafters and pointing downwards. Confusion spread over Samuel’s face, and he opened his mouth to say something, but Sarah silenced him with a gesture from her other hand.
A figure scurried from the shadows, hopping from one beam to another and finally sliding smoothly down a pole next to Sarah and Samuel.
Sarah smiled at the newcomer, responding with a nod to his awkward salute. “This here is Puck,” she said, putting her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You don’t know him yet, but he should know you all pretty well by now.” She threw Puck a questioning glance, and he nodded animatedly. “I picked him up back in Selwyn and he’s been skulking through the shadows ever since he got here. He’s just a kid, so don’t expect him to take part in any of the action, but he should be able to cover your blind spots quite nicely.”
Samuel’s gaze switched back and forth between the knight and the boy, eyes wide with surprise. “How long have ye been spying on us?” he asked, tilting his head.
Puck squirmed under his gaze, but Sarah, her hand still on his shoulder, gave him a comforting squeeze. She almost expected him to squirm harder, but he relaxed after that. “A week or thereabouts. I’ve been coming and going, though, so I didn’t catch everything if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“No, no, it’s just ye surprised me, boy. Either ye didn’t make a peep, or we’ve been slacking off too much.” His eyes narrowed. “The latter, prob’ly. I’ll have to give my men a scolding.”
Puck’s lips curled into a smirk. “Don’t be too hard on them, mister. I’m really good at sneaking, it’s not their fault. Even stole a sandwich right off a guy’s plate.”
Samuel broke into a guffaw. “So that’s where Floyd’s sandwich went!” he said, trying to catch his breath. “He was muttering about ghosts for a while now, but we all thought he just didn’t wanna admit he lost it. So, you’re his little ghost, then.”
“Yup,” Puck said, wearing a proud grin. “I’ll tell him I’m sorry when I see him next. That was a really good sandwich.”
Sarah clapped her hands to get their attention. “Well, now that you two are properly acquainted, it’s time to begin planning for after I leave,” she said. “First, we’ll need to talk about recruitment, then, we should see about how we’re going to spread patrols between all of you…”
They spent hours going over every detail, the sun having long set by the time Sarah was ready to head back to the tower — but with her came the satisfaction of a job well done. She’d done all she could to prepare the Guard, and now the ball was in their court.
Her lips curled into a smile. Somehow, she knew everything would work out in the end.
Shiro aimlessly wandered the streets, his eyes darting left and right to the people of Ravenrock as they shuffled and milled about. His thoughts, though, were elsewhere — he’d had a talk with Sarah earlier, one that had been overdue for a while, and her words still lingered in his mind.
Look, I’m just a bit worried about you, she’d said in a soft voice, devoid of the bite it usually had when they bantered. Ever since, well, ever since the attack on Ravenrock, it’s like you’ve stopped looking at people like they’re people — it’s more like you’re just seeing walking bags of experience.
He’d protested, saying he hadn’t killed anyone who didn’t already have it out for him, but she hadn’t budged.
You were all too happy to join the melee when we fought Malloc’s troops, even though you didn’t need to, she’d said. But it’s not just that, it’s more like, the whole vibe you’re giving. Like you don’t care about people anymore.
Shiro had found those remarks extremely unfair. The Battle of Windfire had been an act of war. He hadn’t taken part in it for his amusement, he’d done it because it was his job. Although, the Boss and his wights had had it well in hand…
As for the second point, he’d actually scoffed. How could Sarah judge him by his vibe, of all things? It wasn’t that he didn’t care about people, he’d just been so preoccupied with everything that was happening, how his entire life had been uprooted, and how he still didn’t have a girlfriend…
No, he wouldn’t go there. That kind of thinking never led to anything good.
In any case, he’d dismissed Sarah’s worries off-hand, and yet, her words had still chafed and he couldn’t get them out of his mind.
So, he’d gone for a walk to clear his head. Take in the sights, look at people, show everyone he wasn’t some three-headed monster just out to indiscriminately kill people.
Though, the looks he got from the new joiners hadn’t helped at all. It was a mix of wariness, along with an undercurrent of fear — especially from David, who’d been Shiro’s only kill that day. He wondered if they expected him to just turn feral and maul them at the drop of a hat, which wasn’t even fair. Sarah had been the one to end most of them. Though, he supposed, the way they’d focused him down while he just kept going unimpeded must have looked pretty scary at the time.
Oh, well. It didn’t matter now. They’d been the aggressors then, and he was merely defending, though he deeply sympathized with the way they’d been forced to act. He hadn’t been mind controlled for nearly as long, but it still sent a shiver down his spine whenever he thought about it.
They just needed some time to come around. He’d sit there quietly and wait for that moment, and he’d show them he didn’t mean any harm.
Caught up in his own mind, Shiro didn’t notice when he walked straight into a woman carrying a stack of crates entirely too tall for her. She lost her balance, letting out a yelp of surprise, and the crates went tumbling down, one of them cracking open and spilling its contents — skeins of yarn, by the looks of it — onto the busy street.
“Gods damn it,” she said, frowning as she bent down to put the yarn back into the broken crate before it got stepped on. She took one long look at Shiro, who’d been staring there, surprised, and her frown deepened. “You should really watch where you’re going,” she said. “Not all of us have that luxury right now.”
As if waking up from a trance, Shiro shook himself and squatted next to the woman. She was on the older side, he could see — in her forties, at least, if not her fifties. Her hands were callused, and their backs were marred by scars. “I’m very sorry,” he said, looking down as he hurried to help the woman recover her belongings. With the two working in tandem, the broken box was quickly filled up. Shiro picked up the crates, surprised by their lightness, and brought them to the side of the street.
The woman followed him and put a hand on his shoulder. Shiro braced himself, the sensation familiar, and closed his eyes as prepared himself for the slap. He opened his eyes when none came. “Ah, there’s no harm done,” the woman said, beaming a smile as she looked him over. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. In all fairness, it was just as much my fault as it was yours. I should have just done two trips instead hoping I won’t bump into someone.”
Shiro’s eyes went wide. “Oh, no way! That was entirely my fault, ma’am. I’m really sorry,” he said. “I really should have been paying more attention.”
She lifted her hand from his shoulder, bringing it up to ruffle his hair. “You’re a good egg, kid. But don’t call me ma’am, it makes me feel old. My name’s Meredith.”
“Of course, ma— uh, Meredith,” he said, almost cringing at the familiar appellation. “Again, I’m really sorry. Can I help you with the crates? It’s my fault one broke…”
Meredith rolled her eyes. “Quit it with the self-flagellation, it wasn’t your fault. And it didn’t break, the lid just fell off,” she said, her voice tinged with amusement. “Though, I won’t begrudge any help. The quicker I can get this delivered, the better.”
Nodding, Shiro quickly stacked all the crates, picking them all up. “Where to?” he asked, his face fully hidden behind the baggage. Meredith didn’t answer, instead removing half the crates from Shiro’s arms.
“My arms aren’t gonna fall off from a bit of exercise, you know,” she said in a deadpan tone. “And carrying them all is just asking to bump into someone again.”
Shiro smiled sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“And stop apologizing! Kids these days, I swear,” she muttered and set off in the direction Shiro had come from.
“Where are we going?” he asked, though a gnawing feeling in his gut already hinted at the answer.
“The orphanage,” Meredith said softly, her face losing its former humor. “With the attack, we got a whole new batch of kids in need of a home. And winter’s almost here — I’m going to have to knit and sew so many clothes, and quickly.”
Shiro’s heart twinged in sympathy. “Do you need supplies? I can—”
“Supplies we’ve got, thanks to the Dark One,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s manpower we’re missing. Most of the usual volunteers are caught up with the rebuilding, not that I can fault them for it.”
Shiro’s mind was set as soon as she finished speaking. He looked her in the eye, his own eyes sparkling with resolve. “How can I help?”