The lighthouse keeper met them at the bank.
“I have one for you,” he said, handing the soldier over to Wilom. Nearly literally; he was holding the soldier with one arm wrapped around his back and under his arm to support him.
As Wilom tried to take hold of him, the soldier buckled, almost forcing Wilom to his knees. The older man was head and shoulders taller than Wilom, and he was heavy with muscle. But Wilom managed to keep his feet. By the time he was steady on his feet again, the lighthouse keeper was gone, and he couldn’t ask what was going on.
He turned his attention to the soldier. The man’s face was angled downwards, and he was making no response to any of Wilom’s movements, not even to help keep his own balance.
“Come with me,” Wilom said gently. He kept talking as he struggled to turn the soldier around and face them both towards the boat. When he took the first step, the soldier found it in himself to move one of his feet accordingly, just enough so that he didn’t overbalance the both of them. So, still talking, Wilom half-carried, half-coaxed the man down the beach and managed, with help from the ferryman, to get him onto the boat.
By then, the soldier was able to sit up on his own, so Wilom just sat opposite him, ready to steady him if need be.
The soldier mumbled something, and Wilom leaned a little closer. The soldier mumbled again.
“Where are we going?”
“Just over to the other side of the River.”
The soldier nodded. He shifted on the seat, straightening his shoulders … and then slumped again, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. He clasped his hands in front of him and watched his callused thumb absently rubbing his index finger.
“Are you alright?” Wilom asked.
The soldier looked up at him for the first time. His eyes still looked distracted, but he managed a small smile, and didn’t answer. “What’s on the other side of the River?” he asked instead.
Wilom shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never been, and I’m not allowed to know.”
The soldier shuddered, and Wilom hastened to add, “But we’re on a safe part of the River here. All you need to do is walk directly away from the bank, and everything will be fine.”
The soldier nodded, but Wilom could tell that he wasn’t entirely convinced.
“Where exactly are we?”
“I … don’t know how to answer that. We’re on the River. You came from that side,” Wilom pointed, “when you were alive. And the other side …”
“Is death,” the soldier said. “Or the afterlife.”
“Yes,” Wilom said.
The soldier frowned. “I don’t remember how I got here,” he said.
“Many people don’t.”
“I was … er. Permission to speak freely?”
“Granted,” Wilom said. “No need to ask. I’m no soldier.”
“Old habits die harder than people, it seems. I remember …” he hesitated. “I remember being ambushed, and then I couldn’t see anything. I was chased.” His voice was clipped and precise. “Then, I was in the boat.” He frowned. “I’m trying to remember more than that. But it’s like a nightmare.”
Wilom nodded. “That’s alright,” he said. “You got lost on the way here, and someone came to find you.”
“There’s a lighthouse on the living side of the bank,” Wilom said. “The keeper finds people who get lost to make sure they get across safely.”
The soldier nodded slowly. “I see,” he said. His face relaxed. “So that’s how it works.”
Wilom wanted to ask him what he meant by that, but they were at the other side of the bank.
The soldier stepped out of the boat. “Maybe it’s because we were one of the first,” he said. “Nobody knows what they’re doing in the first encounter.”
“First encounter?” Wilom asked.
The soldier gave a tight-lipped smile. “The party line is that we aren’t at war. We’re just patrolling. They’re just patrolling. Soldiers are just tense, accidents happen.”
Wilom couldn’t quite process what the soldier was saying. “But there is a war?”
The soldier shook his head. “There’s no war,” he said. “This isn’t a war, it’s a parade.” A drift of mist passed him, and he looked at it warily.
He turned and walked off into the mist at a perfect right angle to the beach, his shoulders straightening as he went.
Wilom shuddered. “Ferryman?” he asked.
The ferryman pushed the boat away from the bank. “Yes?”
“Why don’t the ferrymen overlap more? Why the gaps between you, where the monster-soul-things are?”
“Where would they go, if we did not give them those gaps?”
“Oh. That really should have been obvious, I suppose. One more thing.”
“What is it?”
Wilom opened his mouth, and then closed it again, unable to ask his question.
“Never mind,” he said.