On the fourth day of walking — Wilom had no illusions that what they were doing was anywhere close to marching — the convoy finally arrived at the camp where they were running supplies.
The camp was far larger than Wilom was expecting. With so many of the experienced squads only at the training barracks for a day or two at a time, it was easy to forget that the ‘real’ soldiers moved in much larger groups than the new recruits and conscripts. Plus, it seemed like several of them had gathered to resupply. People were moving around between the tents or sitting in groups, but there was a quiet, restless tension that prevented the atmosphere from really being ‘bustling’. Wilom got the distinct sense that the camp had been waiting on their arrival for several days. What he couldn’t tell was whether that was because resources were low and the supply run was badly timed, or whether it was due to their squad being new recruits, and thus travelling too slowly.
As the convoy of trucks approached, all the attention in the camp turned to them, even if most of the soldiers kept playing at cards or continued their conversations, until the commanding officers started to bark orders and the camp immediately sprang into action. Wilom quickly started to feel like his squad were only holding the others back, and indeed he could feel the soldiers’ niggling annoyance that things weren’t quite running just so. Wilom had thought their squad was really starting to come together, but the soldiers they were supplying moved like part of one big machine, even though there were multiple squads and some of the soldiers had likely never worked together before.
Once everything was distributed, Harie took the last package and walked over to the soldiers’ CO. The CO took it, and Wilom could tell that the action meant far more to Harie than it did to the CO. He could feel Harie itching for some response, and that he was watching the other soldiers. He could feel Harie looking for someone he recognised.
The other soldiers were scanning the squad. Wilom saw them write most of them off as new recruits, though Harie gave some of them pause. Wilom sensed that they knew Harie by reputation, if not in person. Some of them turned away and pretended they hadn’t recognised him, or hadn’t seen him. Harie, in turn, pretended he hadn’t noticed that.
Wilom bit his lip and tried to turn his thoughts away, to butt out of Harie’s business, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to manage it. He left Yolin fanning the fire on the pretence of “getting some more smaller sticks”.
Harie had immediately moved on from the soldiers leaving to prepare their own cookfire and read their letters in private before they lost the light. Wilom supposed it was good he was concentrating on Harie — it was easier not to eavesdrop by accident and learn something he’d prefer not to have known.
Harie was also collecting a little wood for the fire, but with none of his usual alacrity.
“Can I have some of that?” Wilom asked, trying not to hover near Harie’s elbow too much. “I don’t want to keep Yolin waiting with the fire too long.”
“Here,” Harie said, and pushed his double handful of kindling twigs onto Wilom.
“Thanks,” Wilom said, then paused. He spent a brief moment looking between the career soldiers and Harie, as if he was deciding on something, then finally said, “You know, a squad works better if it works together, I hear.” He said it with a companionable but slightly uneasy grin, to take the sting out of the words.
Harie’s face tensed for a moment, then he sighed. “I deserved that,” he said. “Give someone one pep talk and they’ll start trying to repay the favour.”
“Sure will,” Wilom said. “You don’t have to tell me anything. Just thought I’d say something.”
Wilom nodded and left with the wood. He hadn’t lied — Harie didn’t need to tell him a thing. He already knew a good portion of it, just from the short exchange. Harie hadn’t been demoted or put on their squad as a way to teach the new recruits, as Wilom initially assumed. He’d chosen to be taken off the front lines, and only got the job with the conscripts because the Army wasn’t allowing people to quit these days. Wilom didn’t know if Harie knew he was seeking some sign of approval from the soldiers he still considered kin more than he new squad, and Wilom didn’t want to bring it up. That seemed like the sort of thing best unpacked after the war, not right in the middle of it.
Or perhaps it was best seen to now? So Harie had the chance to lance the boil before it festered, so to speak?
Wilom was surprised to learn that the Ferryman’s Knowledge didn’t give him the answer to that.
The two cookfires were fairly close together, but nevertheless the newcomers and the soldiers they were here to supply didn’t interact. Wilom felt sorry for Harie — it was clear that he’d wished they could be eating together so that he could slip into the conversation with the career soldiers. Wilom could probably have found a way with the Ferryman’s Knowledge to slip him into the conversation, but every time he thought of getting up to do it, he realised he’d be drawing too much attention to himself. The other squads aside, Colonel Briar and his own squad would want to know why, and how, and he stayed seated, silently apologising to Harie for not doing anything. Yolin and Javrinnen tried to draw him into the conversation a few times, but he couldn’t quite put his heart into it. At least they seemed to think that him making an effort was an improvement.
He was seventeen again and Aunt J was trying to make him answer questions around the dinner table. And he was too caught up in his own problems to make a simple effort.
Thankfully, the meal was over quickly.
In the morning, the squads packed up all at the same time, orders and the little requests for help that come with unmaking a days-old camp criss-crossed through the air. Wilom had half expected the other soldiers not to need words as they repacked, though he realised it should probably have been less of a surprise.
As they all left the camp, Wilom taking his place with Yolin next to the truck again, he wondered what it might have looked like from a bird’s view. Little groups trailing off in all directions … he imagined it might look a little like ants trailing away from a depleted insect carcass.
When they got back to the barracks, they were told that the war was over.