Wilom was starting to grow uncomfortably familiar with the dark marks of hangings.
Most of them were young. Wilom didn’t think he saw more than three who were over forty. And they just kept coming, one after the other after the other.
“Our whole platoon,” the first man said. “All of us. Not killed. Just captured. By our own … our own …”
Wilom nodded and led him to the boat. Soldiers followed, one after the other. Slowly, Wilom gleaned the story from them. A Marclorn scouting party, some documents placed where they shouldn’t have been. A lot of disbelief. Most of them didn’t want to talk, so there were a lot of holes in the story.
The last woman was a little taller than average, dressed in a formal dress uniform. Wilom had seen the kind – little use in the field, except that the medals on it might have doubled as a breastplate. But the collar, usually done up high and stiff, lay open down her chest, displaying the mark where the rope had pulled taut.
She glared at him as he approached.
“Are you ready to go?” he asked.
She snorted. “Yes. I am ready. Let’s go quickly.”
She walked off past him down the beach, towards the boat. Wilom followed after her, at a close but respectful distance. She got into the boat without his help and sat, back straight, face darkening the further they got away from the beach.
“I am no longer a soldier, is that correct?”
Wilom had to think. Was there a right answer to that? No – what did she need to hear from him? “I suppose, if you want to think about it like that.”
“I’ve no patience for philosophy,” she said. “I am not a soldier anymore, because there is nobody but me here, is that right?”
“There is nobody but us three on this part of the River,” Wilom confirmed.
“Well, then, without anybody to give me orders or enforce my oaths, I am not part of the army, and therefore I am no longer a soldier.”
Wilom nodded. “That is … logical.”
“Then, I shall say this: I sincerely hope that you see my General soon.”
The words were clipped, but the calm hatred in her voice made it sound like the worst of curses.
Wilom nodded gravely. “I understand why you insisted you are no longer a soldier, then,” he said.
“Do you? No, it’s not just because I am here that I am no longer a soldier. My General could have put things right. I was with him when I was supposed to be elsewhere. But for the good of the Country, he said. They needed a scapegoat, he said. He gave me his blessing, as he sent me off to the noose. And not only me, but my platoon. My people were good people, and they were loyal, but because they were my people, they are all dead.”
“I am sorry,” Wilom said, because there was nothing else he could say.
Her face softened. “I think you understand the feeling a little, yes? If only that was all! They weren’t even decent enough to hang me first, leading my platoon as I should have. Instead, they left me till last, the capstone. I wasn’t a political dissenter, I was a public spectacle.”
Wilom winced, as much at the bitterness in her tone as the event itself.
The boat nudged the bank, and the officer stood stiffly. “Thank you,” she said. “I felt I should say it, before I might lose the chance entirely.”
“If it helps, I promise to remember it,” Wilom said.
She nodded, and saluted him.
He saluted back. It was sloppy by her standards, but the smile she gave him was warm.
After that, the hangings seemed to stop, though Wilom couldn’t help but append a silent ‘for now’ to that prediction. He lay back in the boat, and sighed.
The ferryman’s hood tilted down. “Do you want to talk?” he asked.
Wilom considered the question. “Not really,” he said. “I’m just thinking about something the lighthouse keeper said to me.”
The ferryman fell silent.
Wilom put his hands behind his head. “Capital-D Duty, huh?” he said, slowly.
The ferryman did not respond.
“I have a question,” Wilom said.
“Is it lonely out here?”
Wilom frowned. “That was a very simple answer.”
“Most things are.”
“That bothers you?”
“Yes, I suppose it does.”
The ferryman’s hood tilted up, looking over the River. “I have had a long time to think about it,” he said.
Wilom frowned at him. “You’re backing down,” he said. “Why? What could you have said that you don’t think I’m ready to hear?”
The ferryman said nothing.
Wilom sighed. “I’ll keep my temper,” he said. “I’m just curious.”
The ferryman looked at him and said, “Answers are simple. Answers are always simple, no matter how complicated the question. It is the nature of answers. They are only complicated when we don’t know the answer and try to create a satisfactory one. Are you lonely, Wilom?”
Wilom considered this. “No,” he said, finally.
“There. You know the answer, and therefore it is simple.”
“You didn’t even have to think.”
“I have been asked that question more often than you, I think.”
There was silence for a little longer, and then Wilom said, “The lighthouse keeper likes to tease you.”
“He enjoys teasing in general.”
“Yeah, but in particular, he likes to tease you about duty.”
“That is an accurate observation.”
“Right. But you don’t talk about duty a lot.”
“Do I need to?”
Wilom frowned. “What do you mean, ‘need’? I don’t understand.”
“Would it make it any clearer or less clear to you what we do if I were to talk about this job in terms of duty?”
Wilom shook his head. “No.”
“Would you be more, or less inclined to do what I asked?”
“N …” Wilom hesitated. “Not … not now. But when I first started? I was a contrary little brat, and I didn’t like taking orders. I might not have taken it well.”
“So, on balance, talking about duty would have been a poor decision for me, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Wilom said. “But you could talk more about it now. I’m … well, I like to think I’m not a brat anymore.”
“I will note that for the future.”
Wilom looked over at the ferryman, and waved his hands vaguely. “No, I mean I want to know. Tell me about it. What is Capital-D Duty?”
The ferryman was silent for a long time, and Wilom started to fear that he wouldn’t answer the question. But after a long moment, he began to speak.
“Duty is everything,” he said simply. “When I left my apprenticeship, it was for the purpose of taking up this task here on the River, and I will continue to do this until I am no longer able, whatever circumstances that may be under.”
Wilom felt a chill at that. Suddenly the River seemed to stretch out to the sides a lot further than usual, and the stillness seemed more permanent. Even the ferryman’s voice didn’t seem to really break the silence, so much as briefly exist within it.
“Duty is doing what needs to be done,” the ferryman continued. There was a brief pause, and then he said, “And it is doing it the right way.”
Wilom didn’t know what to say to that. “So, duty is doing this forever, no matter what.”
“And never making a mistake or doing it wrong?”
“How long has it been since last you made a mistake doing this job?” the ferryman asked gently.
Wilom tried to think back. Was it that man who … no, a little after that, someone had …
The faces spun by, one after the other, and Wilom realised that it had been a long, long time and many, many people since last he had truly upset someone.
“I’ve said the wrong thing a few times,” Wilom said defensively.
“It has been a long time since you said something you could not fix,” the ferryman said. “All it takes is experience.”
Wilom realised that the ferryman had slowed his rowing to let them finish their conversation before they got to the bank and had to begin work again. He wished they’d get there already. He didn’t want to talk about this anymore. He wanted to sit on the bank while the ferryman left, to have time to think. Failing that, he wanted to curl up in the prow of the boat and pretend that he wasn’t there for a while.
But he stayed on the seat, and didn’t respond. The ferryman, of course, stayed silent and let him think.
Maybe there was a simple answer to this question, but Wilom couldn’t find it. He honestly loved doing this work – finding people and ferrying them over. Even when people were upset and angry, even when they lashed out at him, he couldn’t imagine just giving it up. But attach the word ‘forever’ to it, and it started to sound like a prison sentence.
They touched onto the bank and Wilom got out of the boat. He shoved those thoughts to the back of his mind and went to do his job.
Duty. He went to do his Duty.