Ch. 31 - Battle

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Lacey’s ears picked up the sounds of battle first. Before Arley or Blayd could ask what was the matter, Lacey dashed ahead and ran headlong for the Wished camp. 

Chaos reigned in the camp. For the second time, Lacey saw humans and Wished fighting. It wasn’t just the human hunters. Every able-bodied adult in Pine Ridge fought. Old Joe and his boys, Bardan the tailor, woodcutters--armed with weapons ranging from axes and knives, to shovels and rakes. Wished dodged and ducked between their makeshift homes. Humans chased and cornered them.

“Stop!” she cried, but nobody heard her over the roars and shouts.

Arley and Blayd caught up with her and stared in shock at the invasion of their home. 

The cats, the only warriors among the wished, bristled with claws and knives in the face of the invaders. Human hunters, with sharp weapons of their own and eyes demanding revenge, surrounded them. Golden-eyes went down under a pummeling of fists, and Arley ran to him, teeth flashing, like a she-cat defending her kittens. A cluster of hunters also surrounded Berellan tossing ropes between them to tangle the great bear.

The rest scrambled to defend or hide. Cooper brandished a spoon with her eyes closed, as Miss Nerry came at her with a large stick. Tissy grabbed a cutting board from the butcher shed and held it up like a shield. 

The Wished were losing. Those who defended were being beaten down; those who hid were being routed out.

A yelp snared Lacey’s attention. Star kicked, as a man snatched her up by the waist. For a heartbeat, Lacey was torn between her friend’s peril, and a flood of relief as she realized the man holding her was Riley—alive and well. 

Star freed herself, and then turned to attack Riley, armed with nothing but her teeth. Riley was slow, obviously still injured from the first battle, but not so slow that Star could avoid the arc of his blade.

“Riley, stop!” Lacey screamed, running toward them.

He hesitated and pulled his knife up short. Star leapt on him, wrapping her arms and legs around him. Blayd helped Lacey peel the wild-eyed weasel-girl off Riley’s back and hold her until she came to her senses. “Niva…” Star whimpered, as the grief fueling her attack subsided. She bowed her tear-streaked face and surrendered to Blayd’s arms.

Lacey spun to face Riley, not sure what to expect. She was one of the Wished, his enemy in this battle. She had led the cats to ambush the hunters on the road—and stabbed Devan in the leg. 

Riley threw his knife to the ground and swept her up into his arms. His hand stroked her hair. “Your alive!” he murmured over and over. Finally, he set her down, and cupped her cheek. “We thought we lost you—and Devan—until yesterday…”

Lacey swallowed the lump in her throat. “That’s not important right now. This has to stop, before more innocent people die.”

Blayd nodded, holding Star close. Riley turned his head back and forth, as if seeing the meager camp for the first time. His mouth hung open as he saw the scene with new eyes. 

Lacey took a deep breath and shouted again, “STOP!” Her voice boomed with more command and force than she expected.

Everyone halted, instantly. For a moment Lacey thought somehow time had frozen. But then heads turned to her, people blinked as if waking from a dream. Claws and weapons lowered, uncertainly. The frenzy of war lifted, and people came to their senses. 

“Lacey?” Someone pushed through the crowd.

“Mama,” Lacey said, her voice choking. 

Mama didn’t hesitate; she threw her arms around Lacey, hugging her so tight Lacey couldn’t breath. No blame on her face, only relief. 

Lacey wanted to cry—would have been crying, if she could. All this time she thought everyone hated her. She had been sure they would reject her. 

“What are you doing? Kill these beasts!” The Envoy Yasmina elbowed her way forward. “Don’t let that abomination trick you!”

Weapons rose up again slightly, the villagers looked from the Envoy to the whimpering creatures at their feet.

“Don’t listen to her. Whatever Path she is preaching is leading you away from the ideals Eridan was founded on, not toward them. Eridan was created for peace—by people sick of the politics and war on Old Earth.” 

Weapons lowered again, and heads start to nod. She saw Mistress Tona smiling in approval, as if Lacey had just given a worthy report in class.

“She is not one of us. She is a monster.” The Envoy looked around frantically for support.

“She is my daughter!” Mama said, hugging Lacey fiercely.

“The Founders created the first generation in their image!” the Envoy shrieked, her voice tinged with hysteria. 

“These people are different from what the Founders had in mind. But does that matter? They are people—sharing this world with us.” Lacey pushed her mother’s arms away, and strode toward the Envoy. “We are not the monsters. You are the monster.”

The Envoy stumbled backward. Lacey took hold of the Envoy’s ear and pinched. It wasn’t the most mature thing to do, but it felt really good.

The Envoy gasped, red blotches appearing on her cheeks. Lacey turned her back on the Envoy. The villagers sheathed their weapons, some even reaching hands down to help the Wished off the ground. Mama held her arms out again; Lacey was obviously going to have to put up with a lot of hugging. It was not something she would object too though, at least for today. Suddenly, Mama’s expression changed, and she looked past Lacey in horror. A murmur went through the crowd. Someone shouted her name in warning.

Lacey turned in time to see a knife, glinting in the Envoy’s hand. Before she could react, Ezerelle leapt in the path of the blade.

Ezerelle collapsed to the ground, the hilt protruding from her breast, and Lacey fell next to her, trying to stop the blood. The Envoy ran back into the Wood screaming that they would all see what happens to those who stray from the Path.

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