From pages 29-33, Part I, Chapter II
“It's no' li'e we were gonna find anythin' righ' off the bat in the first place, Brégan,” Jack said through teeth clenched to ward off shivers. When he had fallen through the ice covering a deep-running creek, his spirits (and clothing) had become quite damp; he was ready to turn back empty-handed. Others in the group, to the contrary, were not. “Can't we jus' go back to Wasteland an' restock on rations, git some rest an' come back fresh in the mornin'...?” Jack's voice trailed off as his the Brégan gave him a stony glance. Jack adjusted the blanket draped around his shoulders huffily. “Say no more, say no more. We'll keep goin'.”
The light of the moon had long since been snuffed by an ominous thick cloud cover that lowered visibility on the ground to nil, but the keen eyes of the four rebel rogues had soon become accustomed to the darkness over their weary trek through the woodland. A forest road that was disappointingly quite empty became the squad's avenue of travel, but going had become quite difficult since they found it. Reaching the road alone had been a task, but the road itself was covered in an even deeper blanket of snow, making the going far more difficult than it had been under the cover of the trees. Over the course of the night, Jack had expected seeing more signs of life, but as the minutes turned into hours, he realized that Brégan's 'findings' of the past night had been pure luck. Brégan disagreed. Only after giving his fellow captain several choice words, the bold highlander claimed to have seen lights further down the road. Jack retorted several hours later that they had long since passed where the lights could have been had Brégan traveled as short a distance from camp as he had previously stated, but that did not dissuade the mountain-man's iron will. Jack had learned from experience over the years he had known the hardfisted highlander that picking fights with a blood-member of the Hũndersen clan was unarguably an idea ill thought through.
Brégan checked his compass. “We'll keep goin' doon this road 'ere, 'tul we come across something,” he said. “Anything. We're gillfitch'd if we don't.” Brégan commanded in his strong brogue.
Pulcher was unimpressed as he constantly was, but puzzled all the same. He turned to Jack, adjusting the rifle slung to his shoulder.
“An' wot the hell is 'gillfitch'd' supposed to mean,” he demanded in a quietly humorous tone. “Eh Cap'n?”
“Highlander slang,” Jack whispered through clattering teeth. “Means jilted or somethin' like that.”
Pulcher's brow plunged in thought. “I didn't know he were from the 'ighlands,” he murmured, eyeing Brégan's back warily. Jack nodded.
“Neither did I. He don't talk about it much... well, he don't talk much at all, come to think of it... but a couple of times he's been drunk enough to tell me about what he remembers of it.”
“And wot?” Jack demanded loudly. The subject of the twosome's conversation whipped around and pressed a finger to his lips. Jack scoffed in disregard.
“Come on Brégan, nobody's out 'ere. I'm just taggin' along 'til you get tired...” Jack's voice trailed off yet again as he looked down the road. It soon became apparent why Brégan had tried to hush him.
The sun had already begun to creep from its rest, giving an eerie twilit glow through the clouds. Though the forest was still quite dark, the silhouetted figures further on up the road were fully visible. Jack could tell by their cloaks and berets that they were enemy troops: members of the Governmental Enforcement Military—widely referred to throughout the rebel ranks as simply “maggots.” Jack counted six.
“Ho! Who goes,” the officer said.
“Lieutenant,” Pulcher mouthed. Seven. Jack nodded and lit up a cigarette as both sides approached.
“Well, well, well,” the Lieutenant sneered, not waiting for an answer to his challenge. He spat and doffed his beret as he sized them up. “Couple o' li'l factory rats, eh?”
Jack tapped the ash from his cigarette and smiled. “Aye,” he said through the cigarette, flicking the hair out of his eyes.
“The same li'l factory rats wot blew up the west wing o' the palace.”
Brégan stepped in. “Same li'l factory rats wo' kelled yer grovellin' mouse of a vice-president.”
Pulcher had nothing forceful to add, and so settled for a malevolent grunt. The Lieutenant gave a harsh laugh and shoved a full clip into his automatic rifle.
“Ha! Well let's see 'ere...” he turned to his squad momentarily. “Can you count, boys?” he asked them in a raspy chuckle. Several heads bobbed automatically. “How many factory rats are there, boys? Eh?” None were willing to answer. The Lieutenant wrinkled his nose in offense. There was a calm before the storm—one second at the most.
“There's three!” he exploded, whirling on his squad with no regard for his soon-to-be adversaries. “There's three, condemn it! Three! Private Sicko, how many factory rats are there?!”
Private Sicko, a slight man with earrings and an oversized beret quaked in fear. “Three, Lieutenant sir! Three sir!” he sounded off, his face ashen.
“Thank you, condemn it!” The Lieutenant roared. He turned back to Jack and Co., struggling for composure. The veins in his neck pulsed visibly and his face had an alarmingly purplish tint. “Three. Three factory rats against seven of us. Ain't that pitiful.”
“Actually, there's...” Jack caught himself. He gulped. In the stress of the situation, he had almost corrected the explosive Lieutenant that there were not three, but four in their group. He looked behind him hurriedly, searching for Jackal—the one who always brought up the rear. He was nowhere to be found.
Whether that was good or bad, Jack didn't know and didn't care. The air was thick with tension as the Lieutenant gave another raspy laugh.
“So 'ow do yeh wan' tae do this, eh?” Brégan interrupted, folding his arms.
The Lieutenant frowned. “Who's yer top officer,” he demanded. Brégan answered with nothing more than a spit. “Alrigh',” the Lieutenant said, giving him a piercing glare. “If tha's the way it's goin' 'a be. We'll get right down to it. Startin' wiff the fat one.” He stabbed a finger at Pulcher, who spat as well.
Jack held up a hand. “Now wait a minute, wait a minute,” he interjected. “You sure it's a good idea, just havin' a right ol' crossfire right in the middle of the bloody road? Sure, an' that'll be a messy sight for the next patrol wot comes through 'ere. Bunch of dead Maggots in the middle of the road. Not buried. Just shot up real gory like. Why don't we all go into the trees on either side, that way both sides got a decent chance.”
“Yer stallin', factory rat. Ach! I say we do it right here, right now.”
Jack squinted. Was that blood trickling down the Lieutenant's neck? And why the flinch?
“Fine by me!” Brégan roared, and drew his claymore with a loud SHING! In the blink of an eye, all hell broke loose.
The Lieutenant and three of his squad bolted for the trees as a deadly crossfire ensued. Brégan went into a mad rage, swinging the five-foot sword as if it were a play thing; Private Sicko's arm was messily rent from his body as he fell to the ground hemorrhaging. Jack shouted in pain as a round thudded into his shoulder, and blood squirted from Pulcher's leg, his face twisted in agony. Brégan was hit in the hip as he sheathed his sword and joined Jack and Pulcher in a desperate dash for the trees on the other side of the road. Jack felt rounds pelting the snow around his feet as he dove to the ground. Ferns, saplings and undergrowth alike were rent from their places on all sides under the horrible rain of gunfire, but the three rebel rogues had taken shelter behind the trees; Brégan and Pulcher behind an upturned beech tree's wide root system, and Jack behind a dead oak several yards away. For a moment, the firing ceased.
“You done, Lieutenant?” Pulcher yelled, his voice squeezed and his teeth clenched in pain. His hand was covered in blood from his wound. Jack winced. Brégan shuddered. The Lieutenant was silent.
A hail of gunfire from the other side of the road greeted Jack as he poked his head from behind the tree. He reloaded hurriedly, setting his revolvers in the snow beside him as of yet unused. His back to the tree, he clutched his shoulder and groped for the flask in his pocket. It was gone. He couldn't tell if it was his heart or simply adrenaline that pounded through his body, but he was sure of one thing: he was roused. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Brégan take the bow from his back and knock a shaft to the twine. Jack took a deep breath and tried to recount how many of the enemy were down and how many were still alive. He counted on his shaking fingers, the pain in his shoulder nauseating. As far as he knew, Brégan had finished Sicko, and he and Pulcher had taken down two between them. That left four unaccounted for, including the Lieutenant.
Why had they waited to engage? It would've been so much easier if they had kept on the lookout and ambushed the squad. Once again, the arrogance and cockiness so common among the rebel ranks had worsened the situation greatly. That would have to be mended.
Jack's thoughts were interrupted by a muffled yell and sounds of a scuffle from the other side of the road. The intensity grew to a feverish pace, then stopped.
“Bloody hell,” Jack called. “Everything alright over there, chaps?” Deathly silence was all that could be heard. Maybe it was a ploy? Something to make the rebels come out into the open? It had to be. He saw Pulcher poke his head from behind the tree warily. Nothing happened. Jack did the same. Nothing happened. Brégan pelted him with a pebble, drawing his attention. The highlander had a pistol in one hand and his bow in the other. He was beckoning for Jack to come. After hesitantly poking his head from behind the tree once more, Jack holstered his revolvers and made a run for it. No sooner had he breached cover when another spray of fire riddled the treeline around him. He thanked his lucky stars that whoever was firing was a horrible shot—as much as he could tell through the throbbing that pulsed through his shoulder, he made it unscathed. Just as soon as it started, the gunfire stopped when Jack dove behind the root system. Quite accidentally, he smacked his shoulder against the stock of Pulcher's rifle in the plunge, and let out a yell of pain. Pulcher was bowled over in the process, and he snagged his trousers on a protruding root hardened with age; they ripped loudly. Jack swore, Pulcher ground his teeth, and Brégan rolled his eyes.
“Whenever yoo lads are done playin' around, we'll get somethin' done,” he hissed. Both the tumblers gave Brégan a glare unmatched.
Cheers lads and lasses,
JOIN OR DIE!