As Wilom walked over to the woman on the bank, he listed facts about her as quickly as possible, trying to notice as much as possible, to practice. Nervous, he could tell. Hanged, judging by the dark mark on her neck. He’d seen enough of them. But there was something different about her. She seemed restless, and she definitely hadn’t been waiting in a jail cell for days before her execution.
That meant that whatever she’d done, they’d wanted her punished as soon as possible.
As she finally spotted him, her expression changed to one he couldn’t quite place.
“Oh,” she said. “Please – have you seen anyone else on the bank?”
Wilom considered for a moment how to answer that. He said, “Many people. But at present, you are the only one, besides me and the ferryman.”
Her brow furrowed.
“I am the ferryman’s apprentice,” Wilom explained. “Are you ready to go?”
“In that case, you might know!” the woman said, ignoring his question. “Did a young woman come this way? Her name was Emry. Blonde hair, tall? Looked like she could pick me up easily?”
Wilom tried to think back as best he could. No face came to mind, no snippets of conversation. “I don’t know,” he said. “She didn’t cross with us. But my ferryman isn’t the only one on the River, so she has probably crossed with someone else.”
The woman’s face fell. “But … what if she got lost?”
“It’s alright,” Wilom said, giving her a reassuring smile. “We have safeguards to stop that happening.”
She frowned. “But all the stories …”
“Just stories,” he said. “People love to add a bit of drama to things.”
“So, I’ll meet her on the other side, then?”
“I don’t know that, either,” Wilom said, “Because I’ve never been there and I don’t know what is on the other side. But I always liked to think that people would meet their old friends and family there.”
She nodded. Wilom couldn’t tell if he was helping or not.
The woman let out a long breath and looked over the river. “She didn’t go easily,” she said quietly, after a moment.
Wilom nodded. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“No, I meant …” she hesitated. “She was executed three days before me. I begged them to execute us together, but I think they wanted to make an example. I heard … I heard they announced our captures a few days apart. I don’t know why.”
Wilom said nothing, but nodded, trying to indicate that she should go on if she wanted to.
When she didn’t continue, he took a breath and asked, “Are you ready to go?”
She nodded, and he led her down the bank.
“Wait,” she said, as they approached the boat. “No. No, I’m not ready. I’m not ready!”
Wilom stopped walking, and turned to put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s alright,” he said. “Take as long as you need.”
She crumpled onto her knees in the sand, and Wilom knelt down with her, keeping his hand in place, but being sure not to loom over her or crowd too close.
She sat there for a long time, trembling.
“What should I do to help?” Wilom asked.
She wrapped her arms around herself and leaned forward so far that Wilom was afraid she might tip over, face-first, into the beach.
There was no noise from the ferryman, and the hood never pointed towards them, though Wilom knew he was paying close attention to both of them.
The woman took a deep, gasping breath, and said, “I’m sorry, I’ll … I’ll …”
“No need to apologise. We’re in no hurry.” He shuffled to the side of her and rested a hand on her shoulder, watching closely in case this was the wrong thing to do.
She stopped talking and sat, still leaning forward, in silence. Her trembling slowed to a series of irregular shudders. Wilom kept his hand on her shoulder, but did not make any other move.
“What can I do to help?” he asked.
“Just … don’t say anything,” she said. “Please don’t touch me.”
He sat back, so as to give her a little more space.
“No, wait,” she said. “Do talk. I can’t … I can’t think. Please talk to me. Say anything, as long as it doesn’t involve death, or information trade, or smuggling.”
“Alright,” Wilom said. He racked his brain for something to talk about – perhaps he should tell her a story. But what stories did he have to tell? Alph had been the storyteller, but his specialty was ghost stories and gruesome tales. All Wilom’s stories were worse – mostly crime and bad decisions.
“My sister used to want to be a merchant,” he said, without any clear idea of where he was going.
The woman didn’t say anything, she just kept breathing, heavy and ragged.
“I mean, when I say used to, I mean she did become a merchant in the end. We were farmers, you see. The town was tiny and just a bit inland from the coast. It used to be a full two day’s trip to market and back.”
He was surprised it was so easy to talk about his home town with a steady voice, despite the clench of homesickness and nostalgia in his chest.
“I hated going – I never liked anything that made me fetch and carry. But she begged to go with Father every week, so I stayed at home and helped around the house while they went and sold our goods. I remember she used to come home bright eyed and grinning. When she got older, Father, I think, only went as a helping hand with the horses. He left the bargaining up to her.”
The woman nodded vaguely.
“She was the best I’ve ever known.” He couldn’t quite keep the catch out of his voice, but the woman seemed not to notice. Wilom ploughed on, before he could stop and think too much. “I still remember the day she bought her first book. Father gave her a little money from their profits, because he said she deserved it. There was a scribe there in the market – always used to be. You’d pay him to write letters to distant family members, or if you got caught in something you needed lawyers and judges to sort out. She took the whole amount our father gave her, and she paid the scribe to teach her how to read and write. She bought two books from him. I don’t remember what they were about now. She went back to him every week for a few months on that money she gave him. She even tried to teach me, a little. I hadn’t any talent for it, but for a while I was enthusiastic.”
The woman was looking up to watch him now, and he’d long forgotten the point of what he was trying to say.
“She moved away to the city after that,” Wilom said. “When she left, she made me promise that I’d keep practicing my reading, so that she could send letters home and I’d be able to read them to Mother and Father. Next thing I knew, she was asking for our measurements and sending us home new clothes once a year, and Father was borrowing money from her to fix the house. I say borrowing – I don’t think either of them ever really thought he was going to pay her back. Or maybe they figured this was her paying them back. I didn’t really understand it all back then. I was too young, I suppose.”
“What happened to her?” The woman’s voice was quiet, but steadier now. She was still breathing fast, and clenching and unclenching her fists.
“I …” Wilom thought frantically. What had happened to her? As he stopped talking, she shook her head a little, as if to banish a thought she didn’t want, so he said the first thing that came to his mind. “I expect she got a position in one of the big companies,” he said. “She might even have gotten enough for a share in a trading ship.”
The woman bit her lip. “This … was a long time ago, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Wilom admitted. “A very long time ago. Um …” he tried to think of a way to change the topic, towards something lighter.
“Are you alright?” Wilom asked.
The woman nodded. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. Would you like a little more time?”
She hesitated. “I’m not … not sure. My legs feel …”
Wilom nodded. “Well, take a few more minutes, then. Maybe sit down. It could be your feet are going to sleep.”
She did as he suggested, dropping sideways off her knees and then crossing her legs in front of her.
“I think that’s better,” she said.
“Good. Would you like me to keep talking?”
She shook her head. “No. No, I need to try to make sense of it all.” She lifted her hands to her head as if she could grasp the information in her hands and pull it out to examine it.
Her hands dropped and she sighed. “Or maybe it doesn’t matter.”
Wilom shrugged. “Does it matter to you?”
“Yes,” she said forcefully. “Yes, it matters to me. Rytel is good at what she does, but she’s not adventurous. Vicdra is adventurous, but he hasn’t got so much as a poppy seed of common sense between his ears, and they don’t get along. There’s …” she paused. “There’s so much we could have done. I don’t think they’ll do it. I don’t think they can. Not without Emry. And … and not without me.”
Wilom nodded. “Perhaps there will be others who will do what they can’t.”
She sighed. “Yes. Maybe. But also no. With the influence Rytel has, they’ll have their work cut out for them getting to a position where they can do it.”
“If it really needs doing, someone will be willing,” Wilom said, “Or so I have often found.”
She nodded. “Yes. Yes, you’re right. Soon, there will be war, and people won’t just sit by and let it continue. There will be someone willing to take action!”
Her sudden fervour took Wilom aback, but he tried not to show it.
She took a deep breath and tried to stand. He held out a hand to help her, and she took it only for a little extra push to her feet. She walked to the boat, her eyes bright, but somehow desperate. Wilom sat opposite her in the boat. The journey was silent, punctuated only with her occasional comments of “Someone will pick up where we left off,” and “everything will be alright.” He nodded and didn’t either reassure or contradict her. He glanced at the ferryman for advice, but the ferryman said nothing, and didn’t even look at them.
“Hey,” Wilom said, once she was well and truly gone, “Can I ask a question?”
“Of course,” the ferryman said.
“How long, do you think, is it going to be until the war starts?”
“It is always very difficult to tell. This could go on for decades. Or there could be some unfortunate event, and true war could begin tomorrow.”
“But, you know, if you had to make a guess.”
The ferryman said nothing. Whoops. That was his ‘wrong question’ silence. Wilom sighed. “You’d think dying had less to do with politics.”
“Well … I … I didn’t say that right.”
The hood turned to Wilom, then back to the River.
Wilom lifted his legs up onto the seat bench. The silence was difficult to bear.
“That brought back memories,” he said.
“No doubt. You do not talk about your family often.”
“Yeah, I guess not.” Wilom wished he hadn’t mentioned it. He sniffed, and dragged a sleeve across his face.
“She was successful at something that made her happy,” the ferryman said. “And she died with fond memories of you.”
That was what finally set Wilom off. He sat in the front of the boat, and for the first time in years and years, he cried. He cried until his chest hurt and his eyes stung. He barely noticed the boat stopping and the ferryman coming to sit beside him and place an arm around his shoulder.
Once he had stopped crying long enough that he could talk, he realised that at some point, he’d been given a handkerchief. He looked up in surprise at the ferryman.
“I like to keep them on hand,” the ferryman told him. “Sometimes my apprentices have need of them.”
Wilom shook his head. “I feel awful,” he said. “I should have gone back to see them. All of them. I should have visited, or written. Anything. Why was I so stupid?”
“The realities of spending time on the River often do not sink in for a long time.”
“You knew I’d feel awful about this,” Wilom said.
“I suspected. I could not know.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you make me go? I’m asking, honestly. You knew I’d feel guilty about it, and you knew I’d regret it. But you let me stay here. Why?”
“If I made you do everything that I think would make you happier in the long run, wouldn’t you begin to resent me?”
Wilom looked away. “I guess I might have. But it’s been a long time. I trust you. I’ll listen to you if you tell me you think something is best.”
The hood lowered and raised. “I will keep that in mind, in the future. But I have made you many promises that I will never make you do anything.”
“I know,” Wilom said. “I guess I just never expected you to keep that promise quite so … literally.”
“I always keep my promises.”
Wilom nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, you do, don’t you? Are all the ferrymen like you?”
“In what way?”
“You know. All so serious. And … I guess, caring?”
“Not all are so serious. But there is no money in this job, no recognition, no fame or glory. What sort of person would you say commits to this job?”
“Most people wouldn’t, I suppose.” Wilom blew his nose again, and took a deep, steadying breath.
“I will take the next job, if you would like a little time to collect yourself,” the ferryman said.
“Does my face look awful?”
The ferryman shook his head. “No. It is much harder to tell, down here.”
“I’ll do it, then.”
The ferryman nodded. “If you wish.”
He stood up again, and Wilom suddenly realised how heavy the ferryman’s arm had been. It was thin and solid, but very heavy, like a wooden branch instead of an arm had been lying across his shoulders. But it was also a little like the feeling of having a warm, heavy blanket suddenly removed. He nearly felt cold.
He got out of the boat, scrubbed his face once more with his sleeves, shoved the handkerchief into his pocket, and walked down the beach.