The young woman standing on the beach had a dark mark on her throat. A cut, not a hanging. Wilom might have guessed mugging, but her clothes were unusual — made for practicality and nothing else. She wore a thick jacket over a plain shirt, and similarly thick trousers. Her shape was nearly entirely disguised under them. The un-light washed out all the colours, but it didn’t look like there were many to begin with. Those weren’t civilian clothes.
“Hello,” he said. “Are you ready to go?”
She glanced back at the cliff. “I can’t get a message back?” She turned back to him. “If I shouted, do you think they’d hear? I mean, you hear stories of…”
“No. The stories are just fantasy.”
Her shoulders drooped. “I suppose it’s too late now anyway. Bloody, bloody damn.”
“Whatever it was, I’m sure you did your best. Nobody can ask more than that.”
“Alright.” She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Time to go. You’re going to have a busy day.”
Wilom led her back to the boat. “This way.”
“I just wish I could have shouted before they got me.” She touched the dark mark and winced.
“Were they waiting for you?”
“No – they ambushed in the night. They’ll have gotten to the main tents by now, at least.”
“Then, if it makes you feel better, the others will not suffer for long, either.”
She glanced around. “Maybe. Is this the boat?”
“This is it. After you.”
The soldier spent most of her time watching the ferryman as they moved across. She started sitting platoon-straight, shoulders back and hands cupped, where Wilom suspected she was used to holding her gun. By the time they were about halfway across, though, the shoulders had dropped, the hands relaxed, and she’d drawn a leg up to her chest to rest her cheek on.
As they rowed, Wilom could feel her presence in the boat, like the sensation of something lightly resting against his skin. He tried to look relaxed and nonchalant, but he wasn’t actually sure he was pulling it off. There had to be something he could say that was tactful, not patronising, and not utterly inane.
What he actually said was “This is it,” as he offered a hand to help her out of the boat.
“I’m fine,” she said, and stepped out by herself.
“Good luck,” Wilom said.
She smiled an odd smile with only half her mouth, snapped half a salute, then stopped, put her hand down, and left.
Back on the other bank, soldiers were beginning to arrive. The man standing on the beach had a very similar dark mark on his throat. He jumped as Wilom approached.
“Oh! Sorry, you startled me.”
“No, I’m sorry. Are you ready to go?”
“Um. If I stay here, will the rest come?”
“No. You’ll need to go over before them.”
“Well, best not stay here too long then, I suppose.”
“Where is Mara?”
“Was she the soldier standing watch?”
“She just crossed over. You might even catch up to her.”
“Let’s get a move on, then.”
He kept glancing around him as they crossed over to the boat.
“Man, those guys move quietly,” he said, so softly Wilom didn’t know whether to respond or not. Was it addressed to him? Who was ‘man’ referring to?
“I’m not sure we stood a chance, even with a watch.”
The man had looked up at Wilom at that, so Wilom assumed that it was directed to him. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m just … trying to be calm about it.”
“Do you want a hand into the boat?”
“Yeah, that’d help. Thanks.”
Once on the boat, the soldier seemed to calm down, watching the mist around him, exploring the water and the air with his fingers.
At the other side, Wilom stopped him as he stepped out of the boat.
“Could you do me a favour?” he asked.
“Sure thing, kid. What is it?”
“When you find Mara,” Wilom said, ignoring the ‘kid’, “Tell her what you told me about the watch being useless. I think she’d feel a little better for it.”
“I’ll remember,” the man said.
The boat didn’t move for a long moment. Wilom turned around to see the ferryman’s hood pointed towards him.
“What? Was that wrong?”
“It was not. Do not worry.”
As they rowed back to the shore, Wilom became aware that the ferryman was watching him again.
“What is it?”
“I am thinking about your apprenticeship.”
Wilom turned away. “Let’s just get back to work. See how many soldiers there are left.”
“If you wish. May I offer a word of advice?”
“We may be seeing soldiers for some time yet. Soldiers rarely arrive all in one group immediately after a battle.”
“Because of the ones who don’t die quickly?” Wilom asked. “You know … slow wounds, infection….”
“Yes. And soldiers very frequently get lost on their way here.”
“You mean …”
“The lighthouse keeper has found more soldiers than any other profession.”
“Do you know why?”
“No. I can only speculate.”
Wilom nodded. “Alright. I’ll remember that. Why tell me that, though?”
“Becoming lost is a confusing and confronting experience. It is better that you be prepared.”
“I get it. I’ll remember.”