Silence. Those hundreds of prisoners stared up at me, their expressions unreadable. I stood there in silence, at a sudden loss now that the flood of words had stopped. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Scotia climbing up the platform, and she joined me, setting her hand on my uninjured shoulder.
“Anyone who’s willing and able to fight, come up to the platform,” she called. “You’ll be given a weapon and shown how to use it. Consider my people your lieutenants, and listen to everything they say. We have a plan, and with your help, we can do this. Anyone who can’t or won’t fight—head to the dining hall. You’ll receive further instructions there.”
I stood beside her, barely daring to breathe. At first no one moved. Everyone looked around, waiting for someone to take the first step, and no one dared to meet my eyes. But at last, a man in his forties walked forward through the crowd until he reached the railing.
“If I’m going to die today, then I’m going down fighting,” he said, looking straight at me. “I’ve waited twenty years to have my shot at those bastards. I’m not going to waste it.”
I smiled, but a knot formed in my throat, and it was all I could do to stop my eyes from watering. “Thank you,” I said, my voice hitching. He nodded, and a muscle in his jaw twitched.
Others began to step forward. Men, women—even a few who looked no older than me. One by one they joined us, each bringing us that much closer to victory. As they crowded around the platform, several men I recognized from the Blackcoats meeting handed them each a weapon. I leaned over enough to see that inside the railing, where guards usually stood, Scotia and her people had stored a cache of weapons and a dozen large crates of ammunition.
Slowly everyone began to sort themselves out. A thin trickle of men and women—nearly all limping or sporting visible injuries—headed toward the dining hall, but to my relief, the vast majority of the prisoners stayed and waited their turn for a weapon.
“It worked,” I said, stunned. “They’re really going to fight.”
“It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it got the job done,” said Scotia. “Every death today will be worth it if we win. And I’m going to make damn sure we do.”
I glanced at her. “We need to get the kids out of here before the fighting starts.”
Scotia nodded, her mouth set in a grim line. “I have a plan. It’s not pretty, but it’ll get the job done. Right now I need you to go to the dining hall and make sure everyone capable of leaving goes with you. I’ll have one of my men bring the kids to you as soon as possible. By then, we should have Mercer Manor cleared.”
I bit my lip. “I’ll need enough time to lead them there safely.”
“I’ll make sure you have it.”
“Good.” I hesitated. “I don’t know what you have planned, and I don’t want to know, but I fulfilled my side of the bargain. You fulfill yours. Don’t kill Hannah.”
Scotia scowled. “Like you said, none of us can make any promises right now.”
She nodded, and with that, I headed back to the opening in the platform. Benjy helped me down, and together we opened the door and headed out into the square.
Walking away from the crowd and toward the dining hall was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life. Everything inside me begged to stay there, to pick up a weapon and fight beside them. But I couldn’t move my injured arm, and the farther we walked, the dizzier I grew. I wouldn’t be able to help them. I’d be a hindrance at best, and at worst, I’d get several of them killed.
“I hate this,” I said to Benjy. He slipped his arm around my waist, and I leaned against him as we walked. He still favored his right side, where it looked like he had a few bruised, if not broken ribs, but he refused to complain.
“You’re doing the right thing,” he said. “Everything you told them was the truth. They know you would fight alongside them if you could. What you can do is help get the kids to safety. That will mean more to them than a few shots fired.”
Not if those shots saved someone’s life, but I didn’t argue. We trudged through the slush until we reached the dining hall, where several dozen people had gathered. Most were sitting down, and a few were laid out across tables while others tended to them. The smell of blood and death hit me like a sucker punch to the gut, and I steeled my stomach against it.
“Now what?” I said to Benjy.
“We help until the kids get here. Come on.”
Together we headed toward the nearest table, where a woman was trying to stop the flow of blood from a bullet wound in an unconscious man’s leg. I didn’t know much about medicine, but I pulled off the makeshift sling Hannah had given me and handed it to Benjy. Wordlessly he created a tourniquet around the man’s thigh.
“Can you do me a favor?” I said to the woman. Tears ran down her dirty face, and she nodded. “Can you go around and see who’s able to walk? Everyone who’s seriously injured needs to be brought downstairs—there’s a room that will keep them safe during the fighting.” I hoped. “We need everyone’s help to move them there while there’s still time.”
She nodded, and shakily she began to walk around the dining hall, going from group to group and asking for help. Soon several people were using tarps and plastic sheets found in the kitchen to carry the injured and unconscious down to the room where the Blackcoats had had their meeting. It wasn’t much, but at least they wouldn’t be out in the open.