You’re numb. Following blindly, not thinking anything. You hardly notice when Gormund has stopped to set up camp. Your thoughts are a blur. Just aching feet and passing trees and shuffling through leaves. It feels like you’re on a treadmill.
A what? You know what the feeling those words convey, but that actually means eludes you.
At some point Gormund wrapps you up in a cloak. Crickets were chirping and stars were blazing in the sky, never still, always streaking. The Ever-Changing Land, you think. You forgot about that.
Or is that new?
Your remembrances fill the silence. Gormund doesn’t seem to mind. He humms to himself as he stokes broken twigs and branches. He strikes flint and tinder. “Fire keeps the bugs away,” he explains to you. His cloak smells like timber. He smells like timber. “Keeps away the Swarm, too.”
“Are there Swarm hereabouts?” you ask. You don’t recall anything of Swarm from you last time in the Realm.
“Not as yet,” he says. “I thought I saw them, but…” he lapses. “They appear suddenly. But they don’t like the light. We’ll be safe, so long as the fire burns.”
You ask what Swarm are. You can only remember humans in the Realm. Witches and Warlocks, to be certain. But you can recall nothing of monsters.
The fire stokes in you memories of magic, elsewise. You feel aglow with the fire in your veins. Yes, they’ve sewn you up. Good as new, you know now. Good as new. Now all you need is your sword…
Gormund’s mustaches flutter as he exhales. “Best keep a watch tonight,” he explains. “The Swarm aren’t friendly folk. They were once men, to be certain. Before the Imperial Wizards caught them. Some still look like them, from a distance. The recently-turned. In the dark, leastways. But when they open their mouths to speak…”
Another lapse. He hrms and haws a bit. “I think they’re asking for help. But their voices are so crushed. So broken. Anything they say just sounds like clicking and scuttling. They’re wrapped from head-to-toe in rotting linen bandages. And when you cut them open,” he tells you, He leans forward, the bathing in the fire’s orange gloom.
“The only thing that comes out is spiders. Spiders and spiders and spiders…except for the eyes. Those are wet and scared and pleading. The eyes, at least, are human.”
“They’d blacken and burn as soon as touch me,” you say. But you aren’t sure you’ve kept the quiver from your voice.
“You’ve no sword. And don’t you think to burn them. You’ll have to trust me, One-Eye. It won’t work. The spiders just..heh…they swarm you. They’d be on top of you before you can set them to sparking. Fire against Swarm is as useful as nipples on a breastplate.”
You’re silent for a long time. And since you can’t think of anything else to say, you mutter, “This is going to sound strange, but where are we? Where is Strathbury? Whose land is this?”
“Too small for any Imperial records if that’s what you’re asking. We’re a backwater. Were, rather. They’ll notice us now.”
“Do you have a King?”
He stares at you seriously. “We’ve the Imperium. And the district governor they’ve appointed.” He swallows hard. “You have been gone awhile, haven’t you, One-Eye?”
You nod. “Not sure I was supposed to come back,” you mumble.
Gormund regards you seriously from across the fireplace. When he speaks, his voice is grating. Like he’s taken a drag of a cigarette.
(You know what those words convey. The action is foreign to you.)
“Well,” he says, “My daughter saw to it you did. Best get some sleep. I’ll watch for Swarm. Keep the fire going and we’ll be fine. I’ll wake you in the morning.”
“You should let me take a watch,” you tell Gormund.
“You should do as I say, boy.” There’s a goading edge to his voice, barely sheathed. You don’t want to argue with him. Your head’s still spinning. You’re still tired. You still have so many questions that swirl through your mind as darkness plays across your vision and sleep takes you as you curl into Gormund’s timber-smelling cloak.
* * *
You come across the dying man in the middle of the next day.
He’s slumped against the bottom of a hill, his cuirass is bloodied and one arm is swollen and disjointed. The man sees you two from across the path, and signals for you and Gormund to stop.
Gormund tells you to stay where you are. “Watch,” he says, “But don’t come any closer.”
You did, eyes wide at the sight of the dying man. Shatter shards of memory stab into your brain. A million deaths. A million memories to remember. All too familiar.
Gormund tramps off the path, drawing his half-moon axe, and crouches at the foot of the hill where the man lays wounded. He inspects his wounds. The man has cut down to the collarbone, and every breath wept blood. You’re familiar with this red-weeping. Vaguely familiar. You push the thoughts from your mind.
You don’t want to remember.
“That’s not going to get better,” Gormund says. The man nods. “What did you in, soldier?”
“A pack of Swarm caught me without a fire. I was on patrol, Gormund. Just one. A scout, I think. I put a rondel in its back, but it shambled off. It’s probably dead by now.”
They know each other, you realize.
“I’ll send the others out to look for it. You did well, soldier.”
You want to tell Gormund to use this man’s name. Every fiber in you burns with that desire. But you tamp down on it. The soldier needs to die. No use delaying it.
(Things will be different this time, you had said.)
“I don’t suppose you know how to use that axe?” the man asks. He laughs, then winces.
“I do.” Gormunds whiskers stir when he smiles.
“You going to keep Strathbury safe?” The man asks.
“Is that your boy?”
“No,” Gormund says. “Just a boy.”
The King in the Mountain, you want to tell this man. You have fire in your veins. Fire burns. But this man is too far gone. All your revelation would offer him is a funeral pyre.
“But you’re looking after him?”
“How’d you find him?”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not,” the man says. “Don’t suppose you want to bring the boy here? He ought to get used to the sight of corpses.”
“He’ll see his share yet.”
You’ve already seen your share, you want to say. A million shattered shards.
“Are you ready?”
The man nods. “Strike true.”
Gormund raises the axe, and it falls with a wet sound. Like a bucket falling into a well. He cleans the bloody axe on a timber and sea-salt-scented cloak, and then throws it through a loop in his belt.
“Who was that?” you ask.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. And then: “I’m sorry.”
“Because my daughter called you here. And I’m sorry I was the first person you’ve met here.”
“You?” you ask. “What’s wrong with you?”
Gormund says nothing. And then: “We should keep moving.”
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