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Excerpt

Excerpt

Vanguard

Chapter 1

Ash and Bone

Ten months after the War of the River

Morning crept across the floor in buttery streaks, sunlight warming the wood of the cottage Tegan shared with Dr. Wilson. Normally he would’ve shouted her awake by now, loud with speculation about the latest round of tests. The silence scratched at her, so she clambered down from the loft, curious but not alarmed. When she found him pale and breathless, clammy in his bed, she touched his forehead.

Cold, too cold.

His lips were tinged blue. Cyanosis. So what’s the diagnosis, girl? Wilson asked with his eyes, not his voice. She considered the possibilities quickly: pulmonary embolism or coronary failure. Either way, she had no medicine for him, and she lacked the skills to operate, as he’d said they once did, correcting broken hearts with a facility so advanced that it sounded like magic. He reached out, and she curled her warm fingers around his, noting the brittleness of his bones and the age spots on the back of his hand.

“I won’t last,” he wheezed.

“You promised to stay the winter.”

“Can’t. I’m . . . sorry, dear.” Such rare affection. It thickened her throat as she clutched his hand tighter.

“What can I do?”

“Find . . . find the . . .”

“Who?"

“Catalina. Go to Rosemere. Ask . . .” But Dr. Wilson failed to finish his final request, as the last breath shivered out of him.

A rap on the door jolted her upright. She hurried to answer and found the mayor, Agnes Meriwether, pacing with an agitated air. “Get Dr. Wilson. I have to—”

“He’s gone,” Tegan cut in.

The older woman stilled, her face falling into desperate lines.

“Then I’m too late.”

This woman had made the doctor’s existence a living hell, tormented with guilt over what he’d done trying to save the town. Instead his research nearly destroyed it. Tegan scowled. Even now it was about what Mrs. Meriwether needed, not that someone clever and wise had passed.

“Indeed,” she snapped.

Whatever crisis she’d come upon this time, Mrs. Meriwether put it aside. “I’ll organize the services. Quickly, wash him and get him ready.”

The mayor left, and within moments the bell sang out, tolling Dr. Wilson’s departure. Tegan counted. Sixty- four. That was a good age in these times, but she wished he had stayed longer. Grief came at her like a determined enemy. With grim fortitude, she filled a pail from the pump outside and hauled it in. Normally the family performed these rites, but Tegan considered this service the last she could offer. His flesh felt cool and waxy as she cleansed the world’s cares from him. Next came the anointment with scented oil. There might be some significance to this, but she reckoned it really just helped with the burning.

Once she finished, she closed his eyes and knelt beside him, waiting for the bearers. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Is Catalina a person or a place?”

The question burrowed at her until the men arrived, shuffling outside with awkward uncertainty. She let them in before they knocked, and they were efficient about getting Dr. Wilson onto the board that would take him to eternity. Tegan finally put on her good dress and tied her hair back. By the time she got to the center of town, everyone had already assembled.

News travels fast.

The holy man read from his little black book. Then the bearers delivered the scientist’s body to the flames.

Tegan wept alone.

The rest of Winterville sighed over seeing Dr. Wilson reduced to ash and bone, but his service passed with no other exclamations of grief, for he’d left no relatives behind. Only one apprentice, who hid later in a stand of balsam fir trees, needles sere as straw beneath her feet. A crisp breeze carried the distant scent of dried herbs sparking in his pyre, as the town had stopped burying their dead after the days when they rose and ate. Now bodies went with more haste than seemed human. Just in case.

Tears streamed down Tegan’s cheeks and she swiped at them with an impatient hand. It was time to pack up the laboratory, as this marked the end of her studies. The knowledge that had died with Dr. Wilson left her hollowed out with a regret so ferocious, it felt like sickness. I didn’t learn enough. Not nearly enough. When people greeted her as Dr. Tegan, the title scraped her raw; she felt more like a quack, her mentor’s word for a bad physician. She cried a little longer and then squared her shoulders.

During the war, when she’d served as field medic for Company D, she’d seen her share of loss, and she’d mourned for each fallen comrade, each soldier she couldn’t save. Nobody had thought they could succeed, starting with only twelve volunteers, but they proved themselves to every one in the free territories by rallying a proper army and defeating the horde— with unexpected aid from the Uroch and Gulgur. If such an unlikely alliance could thrive, well . . .

I’ll get through this, too.

When she headed back toward town, she met Millie in the road. Millie’s family had left Otterburn some time ago, finding the honors the villagers bestowed burdensome. The girl’s skin was burnished brown, and her hair fell in waves, black like a raven’s wing, past her shoulders. In truth, Millie was pretty enough to have town boys falling over their feet, but she showed little interest in them.

Most days, Tegan had to chase Millie away from the lab to get any work accomplished. Millie craved stories about what Tegan had seen and done, the places she’d gone. Sometimes Tegan felt as if she had a filigree tattooed on her forehead, with letters that read DOES NOT BELONG in ornate script.

“Are you all right?” Millie asked.

Tegan tipped her head back to study the sky. Rain, just past nightfall. Both the pattern of the clouds and the dull ache in her thigh promised as much.

With a sigh, she shook her head. “ There’s a lot to do yet.”

“Will you stay and do the doctoring in his place?”

It was the first time anyone had asked that directly. Maybe it was what Dr. Wilson had wanted, but he’d died without saying so. Now she had only a word: Catalina. And an oblique request.

That’s my answer,she realized.

“Once I finish at the lab, I’m going to Rosemere.”

“Take me with you,” Millie said.

She hesitated. “Can you fight?” And then she remembered her friend Deuce, known as The Huntress to the rest of the territories, handing her a weapon— without asking. So she waved the question away. “Never mind. Have you talked to your folks about this?”

“No. But they won’t stop me if I choose to go. They already think I’m too good to stay in Winterville forever.” A hint of pride brightened her tone.

As well it might, since Millie was famous throughout the territories as being the girl whose kindness had saved the world. Tegan beckoned her on. The wind was kicking up, whirling leaves at their feet as in a game of chase. Millie fell into step with a merry skip that made it seem like she was dancing. Tegan hurried toward the laboratory, half- afraid she’d find the townsfolk burning Dr. Wilson’s things, too.

If they try, we’ll fight.

Tegan’s mouth flattened into an angry line. Dr. Wilson had so many important documents, reams of data and information it would take her a lifetime to unravel. Inside the lab, it was dark and still, cold as Dr. Wilson’s hands had been. Millie followed close behind, nearly bumping into Tegan when she stopped, riveted by the sight of Agnes Meriwether pawing through a stack of papers.

“Those don’t belong to you.”

The mayor jerked like a criminal caught in the act. “I loaned Dr. Wilson a couple of novels last week. I only wanted them back.”

“He never read anything but research material.” Tegan’s voice rang flat and cool. “Get out. And don’t let me catch you here before I’ve finished packing.”

She’d hide all the important resources at the cottage. It wouldn’t be long before Winterville purged this building and dedicated it to some other purpose. When she left, she’d take the most valuable book, the one that had curled pages and meticulous drawings of the human body. The cover was black with embossed letters, and though the thing weighed almost as much as her staff, she’d carry it with her always. Maybe with sufficient time and effort, she’d grow into her title like a sea creature that scuttled from shell to shell.

“You don’t like her,” Millie said.

Tegan nodded. “She wants easy answers, quick fixes. And that ends badly.”

To the terminus of his life, Dr. Wilson had been troubled by what he’d done to save Winterville. He’d performed experiments on a live mutant and created a pheromone solution that repelled the monsters, but it also drove people mad, resulting in carnage that haunted the living. Winterville still bore the scars, and the scientist had died with all that guilt still weighing on him.

“I’ve heard about what happened,” Millie murmured gravely. “Where should I start?”

“Those crates, if you don’t mind. They should stay out of the cottage while I’m away.”

With Millie’s help, it took only a couple of hours to ferry over the things she meant to keep. Exhausted, she prepared a simple meal of toasted bread covered in soft yellow cheese. She ate with Millie in silence, grateful that she didn’t have to stay here alone. With Dr. Wilson gone, this didn’t feel like home anymore.

Afterward, the girl touched her shoulder. “If you’ll be all right, I’m going. Are we leaving in the morning?”

Tegan nodded. “I’ll gather the supplies we’ll need to reach Rosemere.”

“Can we make the journey alone?”

Once, she might’ve hesitated. But she was stronger now, confident in the skills she’d learned from Morrow and in the peace Company D had forged.

“If we’re together,” she said, “then how can we be alone?”

Millie flashed a bright smile. “Thank you. For taking me seriously. It’s not that I don’t like it here, but . . .” She paused, likely gathering her thoughts. “I want to be more . . . see more. In Winterville, they still know me as the girl who was so, so good in Otterburn. But that can’t be the only thing I’m known for, my whole life.”

Tegan understood. Just as she hadn’t wanted to be labeled a former captive, Millie didn’t want to stay on the pedestal people had built for her. “You’ll love Rosemere. When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe there was anywhere so pretty in the world.”

“I can’t wait.” With a wave, Millie bolted.

Tegan got to work immediately. Though she’d been in Winterville for a while, she hadn’t forgotten how it felt to wander. Dry provisions, cook pot, walking stick, waterskin, the most accurate territory map in the doctor’s collection, two changes of clothes, including socks, and finally, that precious book. Ready. As dusk ripened into full darkness, she climbed into the loft. Soon the rain she’d predicted earlier fell, tapping against the metal roof. Apart from Millie, she hadn’t made friends here, devoting all her time to supporting Dr. Wilson.

It doesn’t matter. In the morning, I’ll be gone.

Millie met Tegan at the appointed hour, and they set off with minimal fanfare, though a few townsfolk waved and others called out greetings. Travel wasn’t as hazardous as it had been, and they’d likely see traders along the way. Tegan set a pace she could maintain, amused to see that the other girl had a staff as well, raw cut and in need of smoothing. But she didn’t tease. In fact, pleasure swirled through her like milk spreading in a cup of tea—that Millie admired her enough to emulate.

Me, not Deuce.

All over Winterville, girls sparred with twin wooden blades, reenacting the battle at the river. They always made the boys play the horde, much to their dismay. The clacking faded as the two friends put the town behind them. For a while they proceeded in silence. For some reason, Millie was collecting small stones in a pouch, but Tegan didn’t ask about that.

“Have you ever traveled before?”

Millie shook her head. “Not really. Unless you count the trip from Otterburn.”

That was only a few days, not like the odyssey to Rosemere. “Where you infamously cared for the sick Mutie.” One act of kindness— that was why the Uroch had betrayed their forbearers and fought with humanity at the river. When she thought about it, the free territories owed Millie Faraday more than they could repay. But it was also fitting. She recalled Ma Tuttle, her foster mother in Salvation, quoting, “A little child shall lead them,” from her holy book.

“Please don’t mention that,” Millie said, sighing. “It was so long ago. Did you know people bring things to our house sometimes? An old couple came all the way from Otterburn with a basket of vegetables.”

Tegan bit her lip against a smile. The pure vexation in the other girl’s tone made for bright amusement, but she managed not to laugh somehow. “It must be awful.”

“You’re mocking me. At least you know things.”

“Thanks to Dr. Wilson.”

“Even before, you studied under another doctor, right? In Salvation.”

Yes. That’s two healers I’ve outlived. It’s hard not to think it would be unkind to accept a third teacher. “Doc Tuttle, my foster father. He saved my life and took me in when we first came out of the ruins.”

“It was terrible there, I hear.” The statement rang like a question, but Tegan had no plans talk about what her life had been like before.

Even when her mother had been alive, there had been too much fear and uncertainty. Afterward, it was all shame and violence. While she’d told Deuce a more sympathetic version of the truth, she’d fought to make damn sure she wouldn’t add any cubs to the Wolves’ number while clinging to such a miserable life. Blood and pain and—

No.

Deliberately, she snipped that thread of thought and tied it off in a mental suture. “The world is better now. It might be there, too.”

But I doubt it.

“Do you know lots of people in Rosemere?” At the moment, Millie was all eagerness.

Give her five days on the road, washing up in rivers and eating burned porridge. She’ll lose that bounce soon enough.

Tegan thought for a moment. “Deuce and Fade are there, along with her family. Stone and Thimble and their boy, Robin. Gavin. You might remember him. And James, of course.”

She’d have to be oblivious not to understand how he felt, but like Millie, Tegan wanted a lot of things more than romantic attention. James was handsome, clever, and kind; she supposed she should love him, but so far she could only muster the same pleasant warmth she felt for Deuce and Fade. Yet she’d nearly broken her own heart trying to save James’s life, so maybe she did care a little more.

Never mind that anyway. I’ll be seeing him soon enough.

“It is so incredible that you say their names like that.”

“Hm?”

“As if they’re just . . . people.”

“That’s how others see you, too,” Tegan pointed out.

“I suppose. But that’s just . . . strange.”

Tegan understood why the other girl felt that way. The Huntress and her partner were famous in the free territories, as ferocious fighters and the leaders of Company D. They’d come from down below to change the world, and that was fairly intimidating. Yet she’d traveled with them long enough to understand that they were human.

She fell quiet and kept walking. Around midday, they took a break to eat beneath a stand of trees, basking in the sweetness of the shade. Tegan brushed her hands back and forth, the grass prickly beneath her palms. The summer had been long and dry, so it needed more rain than had fallen the night before. But the growing season was nearly done anyway. Soon the yellow would yield to brown as the leaves brightened like a weaver laying out her liveliest swathes of cloth.

“How long will it take?” Millie asked eventually.

“It depends how fast we walk. When I was with Company D, sometimes we covered twenty miles in a day. But there’s no reason to push so hard.” At the other girl’s disappointed expression, Tegan estimated the number of days, doubling what it would’ve taken on an offensive march.

Assuming we don’t run into trouble.

“I’ve never slept outside before, but I packed a bedroll. I heard Trader Kelley say he sleeps underneath his wagon.”

“Some do,” Tegan allowed. “If you’re done, we should move along. The distance between us and Rosemere won’t shrink from discussing it.”

Millie leapt up and packed the remains of lunch without being asked. Tegan dusted herself off, checked the map to make sure she was on the right track, and then resumed the trek. Now and then they met travelers on the road, but nobody showed signs of wanting to pass the time with gossip or trade, so Tegan just waved and kept moving. It was a little unnerving to spot Uroch in the distance, and once, she thought she spied one of the small folk scurrying into a burrow. But Millie didn’t seem to have noticed, and Tegan didn’t care to spook the girl.

So she said nothing.

As the shadows lengthened, she scanned for a good campsite. Perhaps a mile on down the road, she found a spot someone had used before; it even had a fire pit left from the last tenants, charred ground surrounded by a good ring of stones. The area had been cleared of small rocks and branches, so it would be fine for sleeping.

“This looks perfect,” Tegan said, dropping her pack with a sigh.

Her thigh burned with a low ache that never quite went away. Constant pain was a small price to pay for her life, after all.

With Millie’s help, Tegan built a fire. Squirrels and birds complained overhead, chattering about the girls’ intrusion. Ignoring this, Tegan made a simple stew from fresh vegetables and dried meat. They took turns eating from the pot while she hoped the smell didn’t draw anything dangerous from the woods nearby. The darker it got, the more alone she felt . . . and yet not. Around her, the woodland creatures fell silent. Her skin prickled from the weight of unseen eyes. Scooting closer, Millie seemed to sense it too. Tegan tilted her head and froze at the unmistakable crack of feet breaking a branch nearby. Close. How close? But woodcraft wasn’t her specialty, so she couldn’t be sure. On a bracing breath, she jumped up and readied her staff.

Vanguard
(Razorland #4)
by by Ann Aguirre