By the time they were halfway to their first destination, Wilom was almost starting to find the routine of walking relaxing. Wake up, eat, walk, eat, walk, eat, sleep. Almost. He might have been able to put the destination out of his head if it were just him, but he was surrounded by the others, and through the Ferryman’s Knowledge, their thoughts were encroaching on his own. He didn’t even need to catastrophise about what was going to happen once they got to the town — everyone else around him was doing that for him. The longer he listened, the more outlandish the ideas got, particularly from Javrinnen, but also the harder it was to dismiss them as outlandish. He could feel his shoulders tense up more and more the longer they walked and the closer they got to their destination. If only he could have slowed down and talked to the others … but they were being marched too fast and the few stilted attempts at conversation had been met with a brusque “Save it for your legs” from Colonel Briar. The armour, too, while lighter than expected at first, was beginning to wear on everyone as the day went on, and it was getting harder for the squads to find the motivation to begin the conversation.
Wilom looked for ways to block out the insistent chatter instead. First, he tried running over the drills in his mind, but that soon convinced him he was more likely to be getting himself muddled than helping himself remember.
So his thoughts turned to the Ferryman’s Knowledge. It seemed to be unavoidable recently.
He needed to stop making assumptions about it. And he had to stop taking the Ferryman’s word about these things. It was harder than he thought to put the Ferryman’s advice out of his head — and not just his advice, all of the things the ferryman had said about Wilom’s future. Somewhere along the line he’d gotten the Ferryman’s Knowledge all tangled up in what the ferryman had been training him to be, and he’d just avoided thinking about it, and never stopped to consider the things he’d just assumed.
For instance, he should have realised long ago that the Ferryman’s Knowledge didn’t make predictions far in the future. It couldn’t tell him which of two options would help Harie after the war. Only which option would be well received in the moment.
That put the ferryman’s choice not to tell Wilom to see his friends in a whole new light, really.
He probably should have realised, too, that the Ferryman’s Knowledge was so deeply dependent on what he wanted out of the conversation. When he wanted to help people come to terms with a situation, it made him easy to talk to, personable. When he just wanted to be left alone with his thoughts, it only made him civil but distant. He’d known none of this because before now, he’d only ever used it one way. He’d never used it as a sort of mental receptionist giving an out to lunch message from the desk.
The ferryman had been completely right about one thing, at least. Wilom should never have been trying to figure out how to get rid of the Ferryman’s Knowledge. Right from the start, he should have been figuring out how to control it. He should have known that everything to do with the ferryman was inevitable. Eighty years and he apparently hadn’t learned that lesson.
Although Wilom didn’t quite believe it would happen — and he wasn’t the only one — at the town and the first orders from the Colonel, their bodies sprang into action at the barked orders. Wilom chalked it up halfway to Colonel Briar’s drilling them since arrival, and the tone of voice that had an almost ferryman-like ability to inspire action, and halfway to the squad taking their cues from Harie, who had seemed to be moving before the Colonel had finished the order.
They had plans and drills made for every emergency, every state of preparedness, but they didn’t need any of them. This was a larger town — small enough that two squads of five and seven could cover most of the ground in the town in a day, in teams of two, without going far enough from each other that backup wasn’t within shouting distance, but certainly larger than the coast towns that Wilom had passed through to see the ferryman and the lighthouse keeper, or visited with Vanda. But there was no need to split up. The whole town was already clustered in one of the big factory courtyards that all the trucks had been cleared out of, some sitting and some standing, murmuring to each other as they waited.
Colonels Briar and Torcel left their squads in a neat two-by-two row at the edge of the factory as they went and talked to the town’s Mayor. The conversation was brief and hushed, and Wilom and the others did their best to look like professional soldiers. This was more on the pain of the punishment that the Colonels had threatened if they so much as hinted to the evacuees that they might be anything but professional, trained career soldiers. This was not the time, Torcel had said, for green soldiers who might lose their heads if pushed. Wilom supposed that made sense, but the reasoning still made him uneasy.
The crowd was not entirely easy — unsurprising given the circumstances, but Wilom sensed more than just the general unease of people suddenly asked to leave their homes permanently. The Ferryman’s Knowledge tipped him off, but now he was looking, he could see the tightening of hands on a family member’s arm, the glances given to the Mayor and the Colonels, all the little silent signs of people warning each other to do nothing, not yet, just wait a moment, let them make the first strike…
The Colonels finished with the Mayor, and without explaining the content of the conversation, stationed the two squads around the factory, sending Harie and one of the members of Colonel Torcel’s squad around the town to round up the last stragglers, anyone who was refusing to part with a last item or to leave their family home.
Wilom soon couldn’t hear the other two above the terse hubbub of the crowd, and he could only sense their movements with the Ferryman’s Knowledge. He wished he had a little more information.
Though he knew there were precisely five still hiding in houses throughout the town, and realised that perhaps he was glad that he didn’t have any more information than he already did.
Minutes passed, Wilom and his counterpart staring in at their corner of the courtyard, trying not to look too long or too hard at any one person or group, just in case. There was no sound of alarm or call from inside the city, and Wilom wished he could be somewhere else where the pressure of the collective anxiety and outrage of a town full of people wasn’t pressing on him. He started to wish he’d been given the job of going around to those houses — at least there he could have used the Ferryman’s Knowledge to do something other than eavesdrop.
Harie and the other soldier returned, grim-faced. The five people between them were in varying states of disarray. They were mostly the old, clutching the last precious memories they could carry to their chests. One woman coughed hoarsely, as though not long ago, she had been screaming so violently that her throat now burned. Harie tensed as they approached the crowd, and for a moment Wilom expected some sort of argument to break out, but some of the crowd just silently came forward to collect their people — mostly the old looking after the old. These, after all, were those with no families to goad them out of their homes, and no friends close enough to come looking for them when they didn’t arrive at the gathering-point.
Harie looked up and caught Wilom watching them, and Wilom looked away quickly. He felt the ripple of emotion that Harie squashed down, reasoning Wilom is only a conscript, it’s the most interesting thing in the crowd. He just doesn’t have the discipline yet to keep his eyes on the crowd or the horizon. It wasn’t untrue, Wilom supposed, and there wasn’t any malice in it for him to take offence at.
But all the same, he was thankful it wasn’t too long after that the trucks came to transport the evacuees away.
The squads stayed that night in the town. They had fresh food for the first time in days; perishables that the townsfolk had left behind them on the grounds that it would spoil or be crushed in the trek. But perhaps the most relief came, just like on the road, from being able to finally take the body armour off.
Torcel’s squad was positioned on one side of the town, keeping an eye on the roads leading into the town just in case of an ambush, perhaps by Marclorn soldiers who hadn’t yet heard that the war was over, or by Marclorn treachery, striking while they were busy scrambling to evacuate their citizens and hoping to strike a town still populated.
Wilom could tell that Harie thought this unlikely. So did Firin, but with much less conviction. Javrinnen didn’t know what to think. But Yolin, though he tried to tell himself it wouldn’t happen, had nevertheless had images of the possible attacks running through his mind since Colonel Torcel had mentioned the possibility to them.
Before bed, once everything was cleaned and cleared away, Yolin found a cupboard of board games and a pack of cards. Colonel Briar just told them they’d better not be too tired for him to kick them out of bed in the morning, in a sort of good-natured grumble, or as close to as he ever managed, and went to bed.
The game stayed very quiet, though. Yolin was doing his best to get people enthused, making faces whenever someone made him draw cards, and joking about his hand.
Wilom took a breath as he got his hand and the first few rounds were played. He pulled on the Ferryman’s Knowledge, cautiously, so as to keep his mind in the present with it, and tried to use the Ferryman’s Knowledge without letting it take him over entirely. It was tiring, but he managed to joke along with Yolin, playing along with the other conscript’s attempts to lift the mood.
Then, to his surprise, Harie slapped a card down on the table with a smirk. “Hah. Take that, Yolin.”
Yolin looked down, and cursed, grinning. Then he frowned at his hand of cards, and with a sigh, drew two more. “Dammit, Harie!”
Wilom chuckled. “You got cocky,” he said.
“Thanks, Yolin,” Firin said with a groan, rolling his eyes and drawing. “Now you give me that card!”
“Good luck for me,” Wilom said, and dropped a pair of cards on the pile.
“Wilom, you ass,” Javrinnen said, and drew.
There was a brief chuckled, while Harie decided on his cards.
“Harie’s getting into it now,” Wilom said. “We’re all doomed.”
“I was losing already,” Firin said. “I’m just taking you down with me, Wilom.”
“Thanks,” Wilom said. “I was losing, too, so now at least I can blame you.”
Another round of chuckles. Harie played a card and then Yolin played. Firin sighed and drew.
Time to ask Harie a question. He’s in a mood to answer and the squad needs to trust and depend on him.
“You seem like you’ve been deployed a few times before, Harie,” Wilom said.
“Three different squads,” Harie said. “Back when that meant something.”
“What do you mean?” Firin asked, rearranging his hand.
“Back when squads used to be part of platoons, you’d be deployed with the same people every time. Nowadays, especially with the cadets, they’re more taskforces than squads. They keep putting you with different people. It’s better for saving resources, but it’s no good for morale. You never feel like you get to know anyone.” He paused. “And … well. When the cadets with mere weeks of training get called a squad just the same as a team of properly trained forces, it starts to lose its meaning.” He winced. “Sorry. But you deserve the truth.”
The mood at the table went suddenly quiet.
Wilom wished very fervently that he’d just chosen to let the Ferryman’s Knowledge have this conversation without him. He was too tired, far too tired, to want to hear this.
“If … if we’re supposed to be just a team of untrained cadets, then why are you here?” Yolin asked. “Not that we don’t appreciate you, just … wondering …”
Harie made a short, almost-dismissive ‘hm’ noise, and picked up a card. “I told them I wouldn’t go back to the front, but they wouldn’t give me an honorary discharge. Said they needed bodies too much to just let people go. So I agreed to help mentor some new recruits in exchange for not being labelled a deserter.”
Yolin played a card without much enthusiasm.
For the first time in a long time, the Ferryman’s Knowledge told Wilom to remain silent.
So he did, till Javrinnen said, “Ten down,” and put down her last card.
Firin hrmphed, and Yolin rolled his eyes. Wilom laid his cards down in front of him.
“Good game,” Wilom said.
“Bed time,” Firin said, stretching. “Anyone keeps me awake and I will personally find the very next animal shit on the road and put it in their uniform.”