Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben attempts to keep an eye on Cassandra, their suspicious guest, but she vanishes. Anda tells Ben she’s been having bad dreams and fears something terrible will happen, but Mica interrupts them, and Anda clams up and leaves. Mica tells Ben the Prophet is back. The Prophet was the reason their mother died, and they thought he had been caught. Apparently not. Not only that, but he’s called the Unseen Prophet. Later that evening, Cassandra tells Ben he could leave West Six if he really wanted to, and that she has seen the White Mountains—the mythic place of the Unseen and Prophets. But Ben is wary. He’s awoken late at night by someone in the house and goes to investigate. Two figures sprint across the field, and Ben follows, determined to find out what Cassandra is doing here once and for all…
Moonlight reflected off the mist hanging in the air, brightening the darkness. Ben reached the road and paused, hidden in the tree line, and collapsed to the dirt to tie his boots. To his left, the barren fields stretched into emptiness, and the road ran like a dark ribbon beside it. To his right, off in the distance, the two figures slipped away into the shadow of the forest. He knew it was probably useless, they’d outrun him for sure, but Ben got to his feet and took off after them anyway, keeping close to the side of the road and the shelter of the trees.
He reached the spot where they had disappeared, panting and sweating. His bad leg ached from so much use—he didn’t usually have to move that fast. He limped into the forest for cover, slowed, and stopped, listening. In the quiet, he hoped to hear the dark figures crunching leaves and brushing past branches, but it was no use. He had been too slow, and they had vanished. Nighttime rhythms pounded in his ears as he strained for the sound of movement, but he heard nothing. Ben was at the point of guessing which way they had gone when a twig snapped behind him, and Peter and Cassandra materialized from a clump of fir trees. Startled, Ben jumped. They had dressed for stealth in dark clothes. Peter wore a wool hat pulled down low, and Cassandra’s hood hung over her face.
“Peter, what are you doing here?” he asked, trying to sound casual and slow his racing heart.
“Going to the Wildflower,” Peter said.
Soldiers will be there after their shift change. Ben knew that, and Peter knew that. Peter wasn’t going there. “Why did you run off into woods?” Ben asked. “Something scare you?”
“Someone was following us,” Peter said, tugging his hat lower over his bushy hair.
Ben put his free hand on his hip and frowned. He was done with being left in the dark. “Let’s cut the crap, Peter. What’s going on?”
“I told you, we’re just heading out for a drink. Is that so hard to believe?”
“Yeah, it is. Look, what’s she really doing here?” Ben pointed at Cassandra, who rolled her eyes and swatted his hand away from her face. He continued, “You two disappeared all day yesterday and all this afternoon. Where were you?”
“Fishing,” Peter said.
Ben frowned. He had to know what was really going on if he wanted to keep Mica and Anda safe. “Bullshit. This is getting way too dangerous—and you shouldn’t be out here, you know they’re looking for you,” Ben said to Cassandra.
Peter puffed his cheeks out. “We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much.”
“Look,” Ben said. “I need to know what’s going on, so I don’t do something stupid and get us all in trouble. I need to know how to help keep us safe,” Ben said, glaring from Peter to Cassandra and back again. “And maybe I could help too.”
Peter looked to Cassandra, but she just shrugged at him and kicked at a root. “Why not? He’s already out here,” she said. “We could use him.”
Peter sighed and shot her a long-suffering glare. Ben knew Peter was thinking about his leg, his limp, and the thunk his crutch made when he stumbled on tree roots, but he didn’t care. For a moment, he hated Peter for thinking he was an inconvenience, he hated his mother for not taking him to the Health Center, and he hated his father for leaving them. And he even hated himself.
But Peter nodded at him. “All right,” he said. “We could use a lookout. You know someone’s been sabotaging the soldiers’ food and supplies. Well, we’re going to catch them.”
This was the last thing Ben had expected. “You’re kidding.”
“What did you think we were up to?” Peter asked. Ben wasn’t sure.
Cassandra spoke up. “Even way out here, Windrose will notice when all the supplies they send a teeny tiny village disappear. Eventually, they’ll get suspicious, and they’ll send more soldiers, or worse. You know what that means.”
The thought and threat of Watchers hung over them all like a fog, clouding thoughts of the future. If things in West Six got out of hand now, keeping Mica and Anda safe would be impossible. Reluctantly, Ben decided Cassandra’s sticking around to catch this village idiot was acceptable, for now.
“Happy?” Peter asked.
“Right then, let’s go,” Peter said and slipped off into the darkness.
Ben followed, twisting past trees and ducking under branches as best he could with his crutch, but it wasn’t easy. They weren’t on the main road, and the ground was rough under the trees. He knew they were slowing down for him, and his neck went hot at the thought. He hated it when people did that, but at the moment, they didn’t have a choice. If they went any faster, Ben would stumble and make too much noise. He tried not to be angry at Peter. This wasn’t Peter’s fault, and at least he hadn’t sent Ben home. There was that.
Cassandra’s shadow glided through the starlight in front of him. While Ben and his crutch thumped along through the underbrush, she moved through the forest soundlessly. Ben doubted she had learned that in Windrose City.
They were still a little ways off from the barracks when Ben asked, “what’s your plan?” He discretely rubbed his leg as he limped along, hoping the ache would go away, but knowing it wouldn’t.
“A shipment of supplies is coming in tonight,” Peter said.
“How do you know that?”
Shipments typically came in the last Saturday of every month, ten days from now. Locals knew this because the soldiers were often grumpier right before a shipment. By then, all the good rations were gone, and they were down to canned stuff.
“I’m hoping our firebug will show tonight. And if he does, we need to catch him before the soldiers do,” Peter said, dodging the question.
“Any idea who it is?” Ben asked. He suspected the baker, Titus.
“Cassandra thought it was you,” Peter said.
“It still might be. Maybe we just caught him too early,” Cassandra whispered loud enough for Ben to hear. Peter snickered, but Cassandra smiled at Ben. Even in the darkness, her face was brighter when she smiled. Ben did his best to ignore her and her smile.
Peter waved her off. “The shipment should be here—get down!”
He pushed Ben to the ground just as lights flashed over their heads. Ben flattened himself to the ground and bit his lip to keep from crying out. He had landed on his bad leg, and the ache went from dull to screaming. Three long and low transports rumbled around a bend in the forest towards the barracks. Their canvas stretched tight like skin on the ribs of a starving animal. Their lights faded as the carcass-like transports lumbered out of view.
“Shit, we’re late,” Peter said. He hauled Ben to his feet so fast he almost pulled him up off the ground. “We’ve got to run. Ben, when you get to barracks, watch the front gate. If you see something, give a bird call. Don’t go after our firebug if you see him,” Peter said. “I’m sorry, but we’ve got to run,” he said with a pained look on his face. Then he and Cassandra sprinted off through the trees for the barracks, leaving Ben alone in the dark woods.
He hurried as fast as he could, but it wasn’t very fast through the underbrush. He understood why they had left him, but he still felt embarrassment and anger burbling inside him. Branches snatched at his face. Vines and roots caught his feet and crutch, but he moved as quickly as he could. Finally, the barracks came into view.
The barracks stood north of the village, and Ben had only been there once or twice. Locals avoided the area, although kids often snuck past it to reach the best fishing spot for miles. A fence, more for show than for keeping people out, or in, surrounded the low wooden buildings. With only a few buildings for bunks, a mess hall, and a communications outpost, it was a small barracks able to house only a few units of soldiers. Right now, it was filled to capacity.
Ben collapsed down under a dark clump of trees near the corner of the fence where he could watch the entrance. He knew the chances of someone slipping in through the front door were unlikely, and he almost resented Peter for sticking him with a useless job, but he was glad he didn’t have to move again. His leg ached, and his lungs burned. His sweater, wet and cold with sweat, clung to his back. Ben waited.
Soldiers patrolled the fence, the only movement in the sleepy barracks. Their cigarettes, like lonely fireflies, glowed and pulsed and danced as the soldiers walked. A smattering of stars stretched high above Ben in the night sky. He didn’t notice.
Hours went by. Ben’s leg began to stiffen and ache again, this time from being still instead of moving too quickly. He wondered how long they would wait for the arsonist— they could be here all night for nothing.
A branch snapped.
Ben froze and looked for the sound. Out of the trees to his right, a figure ran low to the ground towards the fence.
Ben watched as the shadow dropped to the ground and vanished into the tall grass on the edge of the road. Elated, he scrambled out of the dense brush, struggling to maneuver his crutch, and started to limp for the dark figure, intent on catching him. If he could catch this firebug, maybe his coming along wasn’t such a bad thing. A soldier appeared on the other side of the fence by the gate, cigarette bobbing orange and sharp in the darkness.
Ben threw himself to the ground and froze just shy of the road, hoping the soldier wasn’t paying attention. He held his breath, and for a moment, everything was still as the soldier glanced out beyond the fence to the road. After a long drag on his cigarette, the guard strolled away, and Ben sighed with relief. As the soldier meandered away along the fence, Ben strained to identify the crouching figure in front of him. However, the figure’s hood was pulled low over his face.
As soon as the soldier had disappeared, the figure popped up, slipped through a gap in the gate, and darted away. Ben slammed his fist into the dirt. He had missed his chance, and the arsonist had gotten through the front gate. The front gate, of all places! As he sat wondering what to do, he heard a soft whistle behind him. He crawled back to the shelter of the trees, dragging his crutch through dirt and weeds, and hunkered down behind an elm. Cassandra appeared from behind a pine tree.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Someone got through the gate.”
“Someone got through.”
She smacked him over the head.
“What was that for?”
“You were supposed to signal, not go off and try and catch him yourself. Do you know who it was?” she asked after a brief pause.
“No. Had a hood.”
Cassandra sat chewing her lower lip. Her hair was pulled back from her face. Ben liked it better wild and swinging with bits of hay in it. He shook his head to free the image from his mind. He had no time for pleasant thoughts. There was too much to worry about.
“I’ll go tell Peter. You wait here,” Cassandra whispered. “And don’t move this time,” she said and disappeared into the woods.
He watched the fence for the figure, and the night made strange and wild and rising sounds around him. A few minutes later, he heard the yelling and smelled the smoke. A siren in the barracks went up in a shrill wail. He grit his teeth. The supplies hadn’t even been here one night. He had missed his chance, and now the idiot would get caught.
Despite his desire for this whole thing to end, and to keep Malcolm happy, Ben didn’t want Malcolm turning a fellow villager into an example. Malcolm would Burn the firebug, whoever he was, for the whole village to see. If Ben could save him, he had to. The gate opened, and a transport rolled out. Fast. Behind that, a squad of soldiers with flashlights and dogs straining at their leashes headed for the woods. For Ben.
Swearing under his breath, Ben scrambled to his feet and started limping as fast as he could. There was no way he’d be able to outrun soldiers and dogs, not with his leg. His mind raced, screaming at him for being an idiot, for being so close to the gate and the road, for coming out here at all. He crashed through the forest, snapping branches and crunching leaves as he stumbled, desperate to just get away. If it was just soldiers, he might have been able to hide, but the dogs would find him for sure.
Water. He had to get to water.
He had to cross water to get away from the dogs. There were a lot of soldiers searching the woods, but they didn’t know this forest like Ben did, and he knew where the closest stream was. He put his free hand up to block branches from his face as he crashed through the brush and turned for the stream.
The stream appeared like a flash in the dark, moonlight rippling off the water’s surface. Ben stopped, wheezing and sweating, hesitant to cross out into the open of the shallow water and make more noise by splashing. He looked around. He listened. The sound of running water usually calmed him, but now it made footsteps and out-of-place sounds harder to hear. He lumbered down the bank towards the water and waited. He’d been making a lot of noise before, but all the splashing he was about to make would probably attract attention.
Ben paused at the water’s edge, and knelt, waiting for something, anything. A sound, a rustle, the snap of a twig. Nothing. He just needed to make it to the other side, through the water, then he would be safe. He was still listening for footsteps when the figure appeared. Ben crouched, hidden in the shadow of the steep bank, and stared at the figure on the bank silhouetted against the night sky: a slim figure with a hood.
The hooded arsonist slid down the bank and splashed through the stream. They waded at an angle, aiming for the bank a little to the right. They would pass right in front of Ben. When the figure was close enough to hear a low whisper, Ben stood and reached out.
“Hey,” he said.
The figure jumped with a scream, startled, and shoved Ben backward. His crutch swung out and caught the figure in the gut. Ben caught himself but overcompensated and fell into the stream with a splash. The figure crumpled next to him into the freezing water, gasping for breath. If the soldiers hadn’t known where they were before, they did now.
Ben pushed himself up and shook the icy water from his eyes. The sudden cold had taken his breath away, and he forced himself to breathe. Both he and the figure sat still for a moment, shocked by the freezing water. Then the figure jumped up to run, but Ben reached out, grabbed the figure’s ankle, and pulled. The figure crashed to the stream again. Ben scuttled over and ripped off their dark hood. A shower of silver drops caught the moonlight.
He gasped when he saw the figure’s face.