Wilom adjusted the straps on his bag, and pretended to stifle a yawn. He honestly didn’t mind the early mornings — in fact, he didn’t seem to need much sleep at all anymore — but even Harie seemed to be suffering for the pre-dawn wake up call, and the Ferryman’s Knowledge was telling him to play along. It wasn’t particularly heavy, but he hadn’t worn the backpack since he’d arrived, and he didn’t like the way the straps sat.
Two trucks rounded the corner. Colonel Briar turned to them.
“Places!” he barked.
He moved to the front of the cars. Javrinnen and Firin moved around to the other side of the trucks, Harie to the rear, and Wilom and Yolin took places on the closer side. The trucks rumbled into gear and they started walking.
“Ready?” Yolin asked.
“Ready,” Wilom confirmed and they set off walking. The trucks drove at slightly above comfortable walking speed. Wilom found it fairly easy to fall into step next to Yolin — Yolin had a good sense of timing, and his steps were measured. Plus, Yolin was nearly as short as Wilom, so neither of them had to adjust too much to keep step with the other.
Wilom started to listen in on the Colonel like usual, until he realised that it would be pointless. There was no way the Colonel could get news now, and Wilom already knew everything he was going to learn about their mission from listening in over the last few days. He was surprised how lost he felt, realising that he couldn’t learn anything new. He let his thoughts roam around for a while, letting the Ferryman’s Knowledge wander around everyone else … until he realised that Yolin wanted to talk to him.
Wilom looked over. “Something wrong?” he asked.
Yolin started, and looked at him. “No! Nothing wrong!” he said. He looked up at the Colonel, checking if he could hear them. But the trucks’ wheels and engines were far too loud. They had to speak up just to hear each other.
They walked a little longer before Yolin said, “I know we’ll be too tired to talk in a few hours. But I wanted to say something before we stopped for lunch and I’d be saying it in front of everyone.”
Wilom opened his mouth to say something comforting, but then he realised that that was what Yolin was trying to do to him. He frowned. “What’s that?” he asked.
Yolin glanced sideways long enough to give him a smile, then turned his eyes to the front again, so as not to attract the Colonel’s ire if he happened to look back. “It must be weird, coming into the group late like you did. I feel like we haven’t really gotten to know you.”
Wilom shrugged uncomfortably.
“Don’t get me wrong, you seem like a great guy,” Yolin said quickly, holding up his hands. “You always seem to know just when to make a joke or change a subject, all that sort of thing. But you don’t have to have conversations just for the sake of other people, you know? We’re a squad.”
Wilom didn’t know what to say to that.
“I don’t want to pressure you,” Yolin said. “I mean … we were all conscripted, right? We all know what it’s like to have touchy subjects. I just wanted to make sure it’s not because, you know … you feel like you can’t be comfortable with us.”
Wilom gave a smile in return. “Sorry. It’s not that.”
Yolin gave him an encouraging smile. “It’s fine. Just wanted to make sure you knew, you know?”
Wilom nodded. “Thanks.”
Yolin gave him a thumbs up. “Talk later, though.”’
“Save our breath for walking,” Wilom agreed.
He was glad not to continue that conversation. Yolin’s words had been well-meant, but they made Wilom feel sick. The Ferryman’s Knowledge had worked perfectly. He’d been personable, he’d said all the right things, he’d been easy to get along with and it seemed like he’d made people feel better … but he couldn’t remember a single part of it, and he’d done it without ever connecting to anyone. It was everything he hadn’t wanted to become when he was fighting against the Ferryman’s Knowledge for so long. He’d walked right into everything he’d told the ferryman he didn’t want to use his powers for. And he’d done it, what, for a bit of information? For his own comfort?
He tried to put it out of his head before it showed on his face that he was worried — he didn’t want to invite more conversation just now.
The convey stopped near sunset, leaving only just enough time for the squad and the two drivers to set up tents and get their rations out before it was too dark. They were well away from anything even resembling a front line, so the Colonel allowed them a small fire. They sat around it as the last of the sunlight disappeared and started to eat their meals cold. Except Harie, who placed a couple of the foil packets near the fire to heat. Wilom looked down at his own dinner and decided it was too late and he was too hungry to bother experimenting. Automatically, the Ferryman’s Knowledge listed off the others — the Colonel preferred his cold anyway. Yolin was trying to see which packets Harie was heating up so that he could try for himself the next day, when he hadn’t already opened everything. Firin’s thoughts ran roughly along the same lines as Wilom’s. Javrinnen was kicking herself for not thinking of it first, and was trying to figure out which parts of her dinner would do best with some heating.
Immediately, Wilom felt guilty. It was just reflex now — he had to be more careful. He opened a packet and poured the bean paste out onto the tray provided, mixing it into broken chunks of the dry biscuits also provided, and washed the whole mix down with metallic water from his canteen. It was bland, but not exactly unpleasant, and very welcome after a full day’s walking.
The Colonel finished first and dropped his disposable tray into the fire.
“Put the fire out when you’re done,” he told them, and retired to his tent. Although he was trying not to, Wilom recognised the gesture not as an indication that the Colonel was tired but that he wanted to allow the squad a little privacy. He knew they wouldn’t talk freely if he was there. Harie watched, and Wilom knew he understood what the Colonel was doing.
Wilom was so busy for the next moment pushing down the Ferryman’s Knowledge that he was genuinely surprised when Harie said, with a hint of humour in his voice, “One down.”
“How many to go, again?” Javrinnen replied, smiling tiredly over a biscuit half-raised to her mouth.
“Just one,” Wilom said. “And then one after that, and then one after that and …” he trailed off.
“Let’s talk about something else,” Yolin said. “First thing you’re doing when this is all over and we get to go home … or on leave.” He added the last with a quick nod to Harie.
“I want to meet up with an old friend of mine,” Wilom said, remembering his conversation with Yolin and wanting to put in his piece before the Ferryman’s Knowledge had a chance to make its suggestions. “She was … pretty angry when I was conscripted. I promised her I’d take her out to dinner and buy her a proper bottle of whiskey when I saw her again.”
“You owe her, then?” Yolin teased.
“More than one,” Wilom agreed. “I’m surprised she’s letting me get away that easily.”
Javrinnen snorted. “My sister will be the same,” she said. “I should take her out for dinner, too.” She paused. “Or at least look after the baby for her so she can go out on her own.”
“My nephews and nieces will never be rid of me again, with the amount of babysitting favours I’ll owe,” Firin said.
“You have many?” Wilom asked.
Firin shrugged. “I am the youngest of eight. What do you think?”
“I think that’s exhausting just to think about,” Wilom said. “I lived for a while with a woman who had one daughter, and she was enough of a handful by herself.”
“It gets easier when you get used to it.”
“I want to see my house again,” Harie said. “I suppose it’s probably more my friend’s house than mine by now, but it will be nice to see it again.”
Javrinnen nodded. “I’m looking forward to seeing mine again, too.”
“Maybe I’ll finally get a house,” Wilom said. “Or at least somewhere to live permanently. “I travelled a lot as a … when I was younger, and I’d only recently moved to the Capital when I was conscripted.”
“What about that woman you lived with?” Javrinnen asked. “Weren’t you very close?”
“She wouldn’t want me living with her again,” Wilom said firmly.
There was a long, awkward silence, then Firin said, “I’m sorry.”
“No need,” Wilom said quickly. He felt equal parts vindictively proud and ashamed. He’d known that would be the response. He’d known it was going to make theo thers awkward. But he’d done it anyway. And it had made him feel a little better to have said it, too.
Harie reached over and put a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll still have your other friend,” he said. “The one with the whiskey.”
Wilom nodded. “I’ll always have her,” he said with conviction.
Even if he hadn’t seen her since he was conscripted, he realised that he felt better saying that, and realising he believed it.
“My sister had a few choice words for me when I left,” Javrinnen said.
“My husband, too,” Yolin added quietly. “It might take a little while to patch things up when I get home.”
Wilom automatically reached for the Ferryman’s Knowledge again … but this time he decided to let it happen. Just this once. This was important.
“I’m sure it won’t take too long,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you home, and the rest will just be talking it through.” It was what Yolin thought and hoped, but hadn’t quite convinced himself to believe yet. Javrinnen nodded along with Wilom, making encouraging noises of agreement.
Yolin visibly relaxed. Wilom felt his own shoulders release some tension, even as he felt a twist in the base of his chest that it had only taken the barest hint of a difficult conversation before he’d gone immediately back to the Ferryman’s Knowledge.
The conversation meandered to lighter topics for a while, then Firin, Javrinnen and finally Yolin tossed their trays in the fire and went to their tents.
Wilom just had time to think it odd that Harie should nearly be last to finish when he had always eaten faster than the rest of them before Harie tossed his tray into the fire and squeezed Wilom’s shoulder.
“Glad to see you finally join us,” he said. “A squad works better when everyone’s present. Stops the others from worrying, too. Don’t forget the fire.”
Wilom watched Harie go back to his tent and zip it closed, his tray crumbling in the fire. When it was nearly gone, he dumped sand and water on the fire, and when he was sure the ashes were cold, went to his own tent. His head felt full.
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