Tomas stood in the doorway of the shop, listening to Thea command the others. He bit back his own orders, defaulting to the old woman. Crossing her was not an option. Not if he wanted to remain in his commanding position within the village.
Patrols were being dispersed in wider circles around the village, each one seeking the blonde woman who'd so mysteriously disappeared from her locked room.
Two more women were brought forward for Thea to question, one of whom was crying openly at being subject to the Matriarch's harsh words.
Sappy useless female.
Tomas crossed his arms over his chest, his fists still clenched tightly. He'd wasted too many hours researching his perfect wife to lose her this easily. He'd passed off the other acquisitions to the men of the village, finding fault with each one in turn. Too skinny. To mousy. To quiet. To stupid. No, unlike the others who'd settled for someone to cook a passable meal and perform services in bed, Tomas' list of needs had been extensive. Beauty. Brains. Personality. But most of all he wanted a woman he could have a conversation with. One who wouldn't burst into tears at the first sign of discontent. A woman who, with the help of Thea's soup, he could mold into the perfect wife for a man in his position.
How could he lead his people as Thea's Primary with a simpering brainless gnat at his side?
And now, now that he'd finally found his prize after nearly exhausting his search from planet to planet, she'd run away.
He dropped his arms and reached for his rifle.
When he caught up to his Calara he was going to teach his future wife just what it meant to disobey him. It would mean he would need to give her more soup to make her forget his transgression, but that was the price that would have to be paid. After all the Village Primary couldn't very well be known to be hitting his wife.
He stepped off the porch and joined Thea.
"Get them out of here," the old woman ordered, flipping her hand dismissively at the two crying wives.
Their husbands dragged the two women away.
Before Tomas could speak his request to go and find his future wife, a group of men who'd been posted to the south river came up to Thea.
"Well?" Thea asked.
"Nothing," they reported. "There's no sign of her. We sent two men to watch the path to the ring."
"Good." Thea answered. "Now go help the others check the trails to the west. This one is smart, but she's no woodsman. She may have run into the trees, but she'll stick to hard packed trails as soon as she finds them."
The two men turned and hurried away.
Thea turned to Tomas, her disapproval evident in her scowl.
"Don't look at me," he countered. "You said the soup would work."
She walked past him and headed into the building. "The fault is not with the soup," she snapped. "Now make yourself useful. Take Maron and go get your wife. Do not return until you have found her, and this time, make sure she isn't able to leave."
Tomas nodded, pleased to have finally been given permission to do something other than stand around.
Cadman and Ellis ducked down behind a huge collection of grain and seed bags beside a small barn. A small patrol of armed village men stepped out of one of the outlying buildings and were soon joined by two more men. They stood in the middle of the road and had a lengthy debate over what to do next.
Laura blinked at Ellis when the description of their quarry was a petite woman with long blonde hair.
"I'd say we're getting our hopes up thinking that just because she's blonde, they're looking for the Doc," Ellis whispered. "But she's the only one I know who can cause this much of a commotion when she isn't even here."
Laura grinned. "That's our girl. One missing person away from a riot."
The villagers' argument circled around just which one of them was going to tell the old woman they hadn't had any luck finding the missing woman.
"That old biddy sure has them running scared," Ellis commented as the villagers headed back towards the center of town. "I'd say that'll be you at eighty, all psycho and crazy, but that's you now. I'm afraid to think of just how much crazy you're going to have tomorrow, much less in fifty years. Pretty sure you'll be laying a whole new meaning to 'hey kids get off my lawn'."
Laura grinned. "C4 goes a long way to stop trespassers."
After the village men were gone, Ellis inched closer to the edge of the grain bails. "They've done a pretty good job of ripping the town apart. There can't be many more places to look."
"Yeah, I was thinking the same." Laura followed him as they shifted position in behind a crooked shed.
"What do you think?" He pointed to building a couple over with a peaked roof and a set of gabled windows. "Get some height and have a look-see?"
Laura frowned at the building. "I don't know. Jen's more of a panic and craw into a hidey-hole than a take the stairs kind of gal. She'd have found a nice small spot to scurry into. Something these fatso's wouldn't be able to fit into."
"Turn around!" The shouted command came from directly behind them.
Ellis rolled his eyes at Laura as they turned to face a half-dozen rifles pointed directly at them. "Gentlemen," he said, flashing them a smile. "Lovely town you have here."
A tall skinny man with a fat, crooked nose took a hesitant step towards them. "Put your weapons on the ground."
Laura glanced at Ellis, who shrugged and set slowly his guns onto an empty farmers cart. "Well, you wanted to have a look around."
"True. Suppose this way we have a tour guide." She placed her P90 and sidearm next to Ellis'. She lifted her hands back into the air, taking a chance that the local yokels weren't going to expect them to have anything other than those 2 items. Most farmers seemed to be stuck on the bright shiny draw of the big weapons, and miss everything else.
She wasn't disappointed.
"Move," the hawk-nosed man ordered, hooking his boney hand around Laura's upper arm.
Laura let him spin her around and march her forward, further into the village. The level of frustration in the search crews they passed made her almost giggly. She had to bite her cheek to keep her taunting comments to herself.
A quick glance at Ellis told her he was facing just as much of a dilemma.
"Must have been one hell of a party," Ellis quipped, stepping around the trampled contents of an overturned crate of fruit.
Laura grinned as they passed a crying woman, her house being raided by a pair of villagers who were yanking her clean clothes off the drying line. She had no idea how they thought Jen could be hiding in a pair of hanging britches, but if they were this distracted by the stupid stuff, then they weren't spending their time looking for Jen.
"Guess she should have used Tide," she said to Ellis.
"I'm more of a Sunlight man myself," he answered, adding, "cold water wash only, of course," when one of the guards kicked over a nearby wash barrel, sending soapy water bubbling across the sandy dirt, turning it into a wide patch of mud.
Laura snorted. "As if you'd wash your own clothes."
"At least I know what a washing machine actually is," he retorted. "And a closet. And hangers. And drawers."
"Hey! I know exactly what's clean and what's dirty in every pile."
"I can't see how. You room looks like Carl's Dry Cleaning exploded."
"Would you two shut up!" One of the guards jabbed Ellis in the back with the barrel of his rifle.
"I'm just saying you could use some organizational skills."
"What's wrong with my organizational skills?" Laura demanded.
This time the guard jabbed her in the back with his rifle. "I said, shut up!"
"Face it, Cadman. You're a slob."
"Yeah, but I'm a happy slob."
"Enough!" The guard shouted. He turned and yanked Laura through the wide-open doors of a storage barn. The inside smelled of stale air, hay, and horses.
"Tie them up," hawk-nose ordered, as Ellis was shoved inside beside her.
Laura was trussed to a wooden post that ran two stories up into the rafters. The rough rope bit into her wrists. She pulled her arms apart, hoping to give herself some slack to work with later, but the farmers caught her hands and secured them tightly together.
Across the barn, Ellis was shackled with a chain that dangled down the wall from a beam high above.
Hawk nose ordered the men outside. The double doors were closed, but the men did not leave. Instead they stood next to the slatted wood and argued over which of them would search the woods for more outsiders, which would remain behind to guard the door, or which unlucky sap was the one who had to tell 'Thea' they'd captured some strangers.
Judging from the way none of them wanted to be elected to make the announcement, Laura figured Thea had to be the crazy old crone calling the shots.
"Aww, look. We're learning new things already," she commented.
"Right," Ellis nodded. "Be sure to tell the Colonel that when you try and explain the maniacal genius of your plan to get us tied up so we can eavesdrop through barn-board." He gripped the chains that kept his arms pinned high above his head. "For simple folk, they sure make strong iron," he muttered. "How come you get a measly piece of twine and I have chains?"
Laura wriggled against the course rope wrapped around her middle. "Obviously they think I'm harmless," she grinned.
Ellis tisked. "If only they knew the real truth."
"Can you reach your com?" she asked.
He blinked and made a face, waving at her with his hands that dangled from the shackled loops high above his head. "Seriously. You're really asking that?"
"Just a question."
"Why don't you ask Mr. Ed? Maybe he has a telephone?"
Laura glanced into the big brown eyes of the horse that was checking her out from over the back of the stall behind her. "Don't suppose you feel like chewing through these, do ya?" she asked, wriggling her wrists.
The horse nickered in her ear.
"Right. That's what I thought."
The barn doors swung wide.
The weathered, elderly woman from the village walked in, followed immediately by hawk-nose, and two other men. Despite her obvious age, the old woman moved quickly and with purpose, brushing over Ellis with a glance and stopping to stand directly in front of Laura.
"Hold her head," she ordered hawk-man.
Laura sucked in a breath when the man grabbed her face, forcing her head still while the crazy old woman pulled at the twisted braid in the back of Laura's hair. "What the hell!" she hissed, trying to twist her face free of hawk-nose's grasp.
"Hey!" Ellis shouted, straining against his chains. The other two men swung their rifles towards him.
The old woman pulled Laura's hair free and tugged it, yanking her head back roughly. She poked her fingers into Laura's mouth, checking her teeth.
"She'll do," the old woman announced, letting go. Hawk nose let go of his pinching grip on Laura's cheeks and stepped back.
Laura snapped her mouth closed. The old woman's fingers tasted like dirt and death. She licked her teeth and spat on the ground at the crone's feet.
Hawk nose raised his hand, fully prepared to backhand her, but the old woman stopped him. "No."
"But Thea," he whined, clearly disappointed.
Thea addressed the two men who were targeting Ellis. "Lock them in, then go find Codder. Help him get rid of this one. Some place dark and deep." She tipped her chin at Ellis.
"Yes, Thea," they answered, quickly leaving the barn.
"You," she turned on hawk-nose. "Go bring me Tomas and Maron. I'm going to make some more soup. As soon as it's done you'll bring it back and give it to her. Just the soup," she clarified.
Hawk-nose glared at Laura, but left to do the old woman's wishes with out argument.
The old woman sneered at Laura, then turned to follow hawk-nose.
Laura let out a curse. Finding Jen had almost taken a second seat to getting a piece of gum out of her pocket so she could get the taste of the old woman's dirty fingers out of her mouth.
Across the barn Ellis let out a dramatic sigh. "How come I get dead and you get soup?"
"The way she said 'soup' makes me wonder if dead might be the better option."