Another Iron Kingdoms Story
By Todd C. Edwards
Francois Villioncourt is not a particularly good shot, but he's the best shot in his cell. That's why they gave him the rifle.
His resistance cell operates in a burnt out neighborhood in Merywyn. Supplies are always in great demand and ammunition is scarce. He and his mates spend much of their time raiding for food and whatever gear they can scavenge. Sometimes they get to kill Khadorans.
But not often enough for Francois.
Maybe today will be different, thinks the young man. Maybe today will be the day he gets to unload his last dozen bullets into the chests of the enemy.
Or maybe today will be the day he gets trapped high up in the dusty guts of the once-proud library or school or whatever the building was before the mortar shells exploded.
He prays to Morrow that today will be the day his skill is just enough to kill a dozen Khads and that there won't be thirteen of them.
Francois takes a last look back at Celine, his cell leader. Her red hair is gray with dust, and her face is serious. Her eyes dead. Before the invasion, he would have swept her off her feet and made her laugh with joy. Now he only nods. She nods back without saying a word. He knows what to do.
Francois slings his rifle and scurries to the back of the building. When he reaches the base of the tower, he spares a moment to glance back at his mates. They are already gone. Faded into a forest of shattered buildings that poke through the pre-dawn mist.
With a sigh, he mounts the stairs and begins the journey to the bell tower. The stairs are gone, but he has scouted this location before, and he knows which walls won't crumble under his weight. He knows which pieces of furniture can support him. In a few minutes, he pulls himself up through the floor of the bell tower. The bell itself has long since been reforged into weapons, but the tower still provides an excellent vantage point.
Francois scans the dawn twilight and looks for patrols. From his third floor perch, he can see the poorly defended supply depot. Cache really. The Khads stored a load of rations in a burnt out restaurant and piled up sandbags and barbed wire out front. This morning, a trio of winterguard huddles around a small fire that smolders in a steel can.
With the guards at ease, no better time would come. Francois waves the signal down to his mates. He can't see them, but he trusts they are there. He keeps an eye on the guards and imagines what his mates are doing.
They would be sneaking down to the basement of one of the nearby buildings. After a few minutes, he imagines Celine gently opening the trapdoor to the underground tunnels and dropping in. She would use no light except for perhaps a small candle. She and the others would inch their way through the cold to the restaurant's basement. This time of year, the ground in the tunnel would be paste-like mud, and they would not be able silence the sucking noises that their boots would make. But if they are lucky, it won't matter.
If they are unlucky…well, that's why he is crouched in the tower. If they are discovered, he will create a distraction and cover their escape. He will likely die in the process, but the group needs to eat more than they need him to survive. If he can buy a week's worth of food with his life, then it will be a good trade. Especially if he can take some of them with him.
Francois finds a crumbled section of the tower wall and sets up his rifle. The gun isn't anything special. It has no scope or ammunition cylinder. All Francois has is a bag full of shells, a well lubricated, bolt-action slide, and a perfect line into the enemy camp. He won't shoot quickly, but with luck, they won't spot him before he can take out a few of the dirty Khads.
The morning mist is still. Good. He won't have to adjust for wind.
One of the guards turns and begins to rise. Francois's finger twitches and he swings the barrel over to the guard. The guard reaches back, but then he sits back down and drops a fresh log into the fire.
Francois lets his breath go with a hiss and then tells himself to breathe again.
The minutes seem to stretch into hours.
Footsteps crunch out in the mists. Too loud to be his mates. He swings his gaze up and down the streets, trying to pierce the mist through sheer force of will, but still he sees nothing.
The guards appear unconcerned. Probably more Khads.
Sure enough, three more winterguard soldiers march into the camp. The changing of the guard. Francois prays to Morrow that Celine and the others won't make a mistake right now. He could maybe take out three or four, but not six. And as soon as the shooting starts, more soldiers will come running.
The night shift marches out into the dawn. Crisis averted.
But the new guards won't huddle together like good targets. One stays by the fire while the others walk the perimeter. Too spread out. Francois gauges his chances at killing all three. Very low. It will take too long to readjust his aim that much between shots. He'd be lucky to get two.
Don't make any noise, Celine. I don't want to die today.
His heartbeat races. The guards won't settle down. Are they onto his mates? Did they hear some noise? Why are they still outside? Should he shoot? Why aren't they going inside to investigate?
Now his trigger finger is twitching again. He has to take his hand off the gun. He alternately stretches and clenches his fingers. It was just a cramp, he tells himself. It was just from too much white knuckling. Deep breath. Don't lose sight of the guards.
A noise behind and below him. A birdcall. The signal. He sighs and slumps down behind the wall. His mates are out and it is time to go. Just in time. The sun rises over the distant hills and beams of light spear through the mist. Soon the concealing fog will burn off and the streets will be too dangerous to travel on.
Silently he climbs down from the tower to the ruins of the second floor.
Sunlight streams through the opening that used to be a wall and bathes him in a warm glow.
He stumbles, and his foothold crumbles in a noisy shower of gravel and plaster.
The guards shout.
Bullets whiz past his head and strike the ruins around him.
He drops from his perch, but before he lands, a bullet finds its mark.
He doesn't feel anything when his body hits the ground.
Warm sunlight on his face.
The distant wail of a siren.