Since the first evacuation had gone relatively smoothly, when they woke up and got on the road the next morning, the atmosphere was quite different. The squads were more comfortable — more hopeful. Still rattled, of course. They’d all seen Harie come back with the townspeople who had nearly been left behind. But there was a distinct undercurrent of “maybe that hadn’t gone so badly”, and that was a difficult sentiment to squash entirely. But Wilom was having trouble trusting that things would continue to go smoothly. He didn’t know whether he was affected by Harie’s persistent bad mood and the Colonels’ persistent, tired resignation — that feeling of being very near the end of a draining project, knowing that soon they would be able to rest, but also knowing that there was nothing they could do about it yet — or whether he was just starting to get cynical, but he couldn’t help suspecting that something was going to go wrong before the end of this assignment.
As they got closer to the next town they were assigned, Wilom added ‘the sense of unrest coming from the town’ to the reasons he was starting to feel less and less comfortable about the whole situation.
This town was far smaller — they were closer to the Front now. Wilom had to remind himself that they were inland from the Capital, not near the coast, and that his old home town hadn’t looked like this since he’d gotten back from his apprenticeship. But even for a small town, there were very few people around. Wilom wondered if Vanda had already been through here.
Some of the town had started to gather at the edge of the town, but it wasn’t like the last town, where they stood in orderly, if nervous groups. This was clearly not their assigned gathering point. Instead, about half the remaining townspeople were standing in a knot around the Mayor and some of his clerks. The Mayor and the clerks were holding their ground, but they were clearly on the verge of panic, and losing against the crowd.
“Fan out,” Colonel Briar barked, loud enough to be heard by the outliers of the town. The two squads obeyed immediately, pairing off and spreading out.
“Halt! Stand guard! No weapons!”
He left them standing there in formation, while he and Colonel Torcel approached the crowd.
Wilom saw the outliers turning and felt them start to panic. He saw the looks they were casting towards the soldiers. Colonels Briar and Torcel were backing off a little — they had clipped up the weapons in their holsters to make it clear they couldn’t be drawn in a hurry, and they were speaking to the crowd, trying to get them to let them through to the Mayor, and getting nowhere. Tension started to rise.
Wilom weighed his options. He’d be in trouble if he broke formation. But he, like Vanda, had always been bad at leaving well enough alone, and if he let it escalate, it might be too late.
Quickly, before Javrinnen could grab his arm, he ducked to the side and away from the formation, willing the others not to notice him moving behind them, and the crowd not to notice that one of the ‘soldiers’ had broken away.
Harie was the last in the row, and he could feel the jolt of startled recognition as he passed by. But by the time Harie had decided it was worth breaking formation himself to pull Wilom back, Wilom was already standing on a nearby fence post, and was starting to speak.
He didn’t think he was speaking that loudly, but suddenly, everyone was looking at him. He must have used the Ferryman’s Knowledge more than he had wanted.
But they were confused and they were paying attention, and there was no use just stopping there and getting down off the post.
“First,” he said, almost as interested as the crowd to hear exactly how the Ferryman’s Knowledge was going to talk him out of this one. “I would like to assure you that we are not here to hurt anyone. We will not be removing anyone by force. We will not be using our weapons. I would like to make that very clear.” He took a breath. “I don’t know how much you’ve heard. I expect you’ve been told that you’re being brought back to the inner towns and the Capital, because this area now belongs to Marclorn.”
He could feel the angry intake of breath from Colonel Briar, and he looked the Colonel directly in the eyes. So the towns hadn’t been told that as part of their briefing. Interesting.
“Maybe not by us,” he continued, talking to the Colonel. “But news spreads fast, and I guess you’ve heard some other way by now.”
The Colonel still looked outraged, but the murmur of agreement from the crowd seemed to deflate him a little.
“So you know that this town is going to be Marclorn territory. I know it is hard to leave your homes. But I urge you to consider: What happens if you stay? Are you going to try for Marclorn citizenship? What if Marclorn people tried the same with us — do you think there would be no suspicion against them? In the years after this agreement is signed, do you think you will be able to easily travel to see your families again, the ones who have chosen to stay in Bramary?”
He tried not to listen to himself. He knew this wasn’t the whole truth — none of them had any way of knowing if Marclorn would be more sympathetic to Bramary expatriates than Bramary was. But this was the Ferryman’s Knowledge. It wasn’t concerned with truth, only with effect. And the effect here would be that people wouldn’t start a fight against the soldiers and the Mayor.
“Please,” he said, a little more quietly. “We won’t use our weapons. But if we are attacked, we aren’t going to just stand here, either. Isn’t this time better used packing whatever you can? Aren’t you better served making plans for the long term?”
It was working. There was still anger, there was still resentment. But the tide of the crowd had turned, and those who still wanted to fight against the soldiers were getting less and less sure they would have the rest of the town at their backs if they did attack. And even though Wilom had promised no weapons, the reminder that they were there at all was enough.
One of the townswomen in the front row, closest to the Mayor, turned to the Mayor and said, “Another two hours to pack. And the soldiers stay outside the town.”
“The trucks -” Colonel Torcel started to protest but the Mayor cut him off.
“Two hours,” he agreed. “But anyone left behind then stays behind. There will be no roundup.”
The woman nodded, and the crowds started to shuffle away. Wilom thought he heard someone start to cry, or perhaps it was just the Ferryman’s Knowledge telling him it had happened. He certainly didn’t see any of the others reacting.
Colonel Torcel started to bark orders and Wilom hopped down and started to make his way back to Javrinnen, but Colonel Briar strode over to him, not running or even jogging but with a momentum and force that made Wilom think of automobiles driving towards him on an open road.
“You,” Briar snapped. “Stay right there.”
Wilom stayed. In between wondering how bad these consequences were about to get, he had a single, almost hysterical thought that Aunt J’s lectures used to be much more intimidating.
“You had orders,” Briar said, but it didn’t land with nearly the impact it might have — the Ferryman’s Knowledge was whispering to Wilom that underneath, past the indignation at Wilom’s disobedience, and all his training that said he had to punish Wilom for ignoring a direct order if he wanted to stop the rest of the squad from doing it in future, the knowledge that things might have gotten out of hand, and a grain of relief that it had not gone as badly as it might.
Wilom nodded, and saluted with as much snap as he could — nothing like Harie’s salute, but getting to be passable after much practice. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Panicked, sir.” He softened his voice and said, as if admitting something, “Thought things might get out of hand, sir.”
Briar harrumphed. “No excuse, Tris. When I give orders, you follow. That’s what chain of command means.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” Wilom said again.
“You’re lucky we’re understaffed,” Briar said darkly. “There will be consequences when we get back to barracks, and this will be going on the mission report. Anything else like this happens and understaffed or not, I’m stripping you of your uniform and weapon and leaving you in the middle of the country to walk home. Am I clear?”
“Clear, sir,” Wilom confirmed, and snapped another salute. “Won’t happen again.”
Briar shook his head, muttering about inexperience and how damned lucky Wilom was that it had worked, and Wilom gradually allowed his back and his shoulders to relax again.
But as he started to join the others, he felt something grab his arm and he was pulled backwards.
The world faded to grey.
His face split into a huge grin. “Vanda?”
Vanda let go of his arm, looked for half a moment like she wanted to say something, then wrapped Wilom in a hug instead. He hugged her back, tight.
“I thought I wouldn’t see you until the end of the war,” he said.
“Technically, you didn’t,” she replied, voice strained. “Wilom … I’m sorry.”
“I … get it,” Wilom said, and surprised himself by saying it. He had been sure he was going to forgive her, but now it came to actually saying it he realised … he didn’t. Not quite. For a moment, he thought he was being petty — that he wanted to somehow punish her before he’d forgive her, and he was ready to start to backtrack, but he stopped himself. When he stopped to think about it, he realised that he only wanted to know she understood that he was upset about it, and while that still felt like a petty thing to want, he told himself that he wouldn’t hold it against someone else to think like that.
So he squeezed her a little more tightly and said, “But please tell me why you didn’t come sooner.”
Vanda returned his squeeze. “Because I didn’t trust myself. You were pretty clear that this was your decision and you didn’t want me to keep pestering you about it, and I wanted to respect that. But I knew I would have just … I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to say. I wanted to wait til I had other things to talk about, so I knew I’d respect your decision. But the longer I stayed away, the more I wanted to just turn up, grab you and run. So I decided it was better if I didn’t come at all.”
“You could have let me do the talking,” Wilom said. He tried to make a joke of it. “You’ve no idea how many complaints I’ve had to store up waiting for you.”
Vanda snorted. “Well, with that enticing offer, how could I have stayed away?”
“I guess I’m not really selling it.”
“Well. You know how bad I am at letting other people have their say anyway.” Vanda pulled back, leaving her arms on Wilom’s shoulders. “But I should still have come.”
Wilom almost denied it, but then said, “Yes. Sorry, but …”
“No,” Vanda said. “I’m apologising to you. Don’t try to turn it back on me.”
Wilom stayed silent.
“I should have come,” Vanda repeated.
“I would have liked you to come,” Wilom said. “It’s been pretty hard.”
“I know. Well, I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But I can guess.”
“It’s OK,” Wilom said, and he found he could really mean it. “I’m just glad to see you again now.”
Vanda looked down and away. “I’m going to try and make it up to you,” she said.
“So,” Wilom looked around. He couldn’t tell where everyone was, so he couldn’t tell if he’d been missed yet. “I’ll have to go back before they think I’ve run off or something, but … what brings you here? Is it the evacuation?”
Vanda lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “Yes and no.”
Wilom watched her for a moment as she bit her lip. “You’re going to ask me to leave with you again, aren’t you?”
Vanda looked defeated. “But it’s not for the reason you think.”
“The towns you’re evacuating … I’ve spent most of my time running between them after you were conscripted. Since the Heads collapsed and all that, I haven’t really needed to be at the Capital regularly. The closer you get to the Marclorn border, the less people believe all the lies they spread in the Capital, Wilom. This could … will … probably … get nasty.”
Wilom considered, then said, “What about the rest of the squads?”
Vanda didn’t meet his eyes. “You can convince them to come,” she said. “I’ll take them away, too.” But she had no conviction in her voice. Wilom didn’t argue her down — what was the point?
“Just let me get them through this,” Wilom said. “The other squads, I probably can’t do much for. But at least I think I can keep these ones safe.”
Vanda blinked hard. “You’re … going to make me sound like such an ass if I ask anyway, aren’t you?”
Wilom shrugged. “It’s not a good situation.”
“Alright,” Vanda said, as if she’d just made up her mind to do something. “Wilom, I admit: I don’t just want you to leave because I want you to be safe. That would be nice, too, but I know that its important to protect other people, too. I just …” she rubbed at something Wilom couldn’t see on the side of one of her fingers. “I still don’t know why you came in the first place. I still don’t know what was so important to you about obeying the conscription. And I’m tired.” She finally looked at him properly. “I’m just so tired of worrying, and being on the front, and of everyone doing everything except the right thing and then having to make do all the time …” She scrubbed at her eyes with one sleeve. “So yes, I’m asking you because I’m selfish. Please leave with me. The war is over already! Isn’t that enough?”
“There’s still things left to do,” Wilom said, but this time it was his turn to sound unconvinced. He knew he should see this through to the end, but … Vanda had been doing this much longer than he had, and he had a sinking and uncomfortable feeling that he’d abandoned her and all the while been feeling like she’d abandoned him. The war was over and there was so little difference they could make now … was it, as the ferryman had implied, only because he had met them personally that he felt so loyal to the squad? He’d be ready to abandon all the rest of the soldiers to focus on his squad. What was so different about abandoning them to help Vanda?
Vanda just looked at him.
Wilom sighed. “What if …” he started, trying to think his way through as he went. “What if I warned the others? What if you give me until the next town to try and convince the Colonels to be more cautious?”
Vanda’s shoulders slumped. “And then one more after that, and then …”
Wilom shook his head. “No — no more after that. If it doesn’t work … then I tried. You can pull me out after that. Honest.”
Vanda’s face scrunched up, and she stuck a hand out. “I want your word,” she said.
Wilom nodded and took the hand. “My word,” he agreed.
They shook hands, and Vanda gave Wilom a push out of the Pathways.