I’m numb. Following blindly, not thinking anything. I hardly notice when Gormund has stopped to set up camp. My thoughts are a blur. Just aching feet and passing trees and shuffling through leaves. It feels like I’m on a treadmill.
A what? I know what the feeling those words convey, but that actually means eludes me. At some point Gormund wraps me up in a cloak. Crickets were chirping and stars were blazing in the sky, never still, always streaking. The Ever-Changing Land, I think. I forgot about that. Or is that new?
My remembrances fill the silence. Gormund doesn’t seem to mind. He hums to himself as he stokes broken twigs and branches. He strikes flint and tinder. “Fire keeps the bugs away,” he explains to me. His cloak smells like timber. He smells like timber. “Keeps away the Swarm, too.”
“Are there Swarm here?” I ask. I don’t recall anything called Swarm from the last time I came to 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.”
I ask what Swarm are. I can only remember humans in the Realm. Witches and Warlocks, to be certain. But I can recall nothing of monsters.
The fire stokes in me memories of magic, besides. I feel aglow with the fire in my veins. Yes, they’ve sewn me up. Good as new, I know now. Good as new. Now all I need is my 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 me, 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,” I say. But I’m not sure I’ve kept the quaver from my 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.”
I’m silent for a long time. And since I can’t think of anything else to say, I 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 me 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?”
I nod. “Not sure I was supposed to come back,” I murmur.
Gormund regards me seriously from across the fireplace. When he speaks, his voice is grating. Like he’s taken a drag of a cigarette.
(I know what those words convey. The action itself is foreign to me.)
“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,” I tell Gormund.
“You should do as I say, boy.” There’s a goading edge to his voice, barely sheathed. But I don’t want to argue with him. My head is still spinning. I’m still tired. I still have so many questions that swirl through my mind as darkness plays across my vision and sleep takes me as I curl up into Gormund’s timber-smelling cloak.
* * *
I 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 me two from across the path, and signals for Gormund and I to stop.
Gormund tells me to stay where I am. “Watch,” he says, “But don’t come any closer.”
I do, eyes wide at the sight of the dying man. Shatter shards of memory stab into my brain. A million deaths. A million-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. I’m familiar with this red-weeping. Vaguely familiar. I push the thoughts from my mind.
I 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, I realize.
“I’ll send the others out to look for it. You did well, soldier.”
I want to tell Gormund to use this man’s name. Every fiber in me burns with that desire. But I tamp down on it. The soldier needs to die. No use delaying it.
Things will be different this time, I’d said.
“I don’t suppose you know how to use that axe, Gormund?” 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, I want to tell this man. I have fire in my veins. Fire burns. But this man is too far gone. All my 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.”
I’ve already seen my share, I 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?” I 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?” I ask. “What’s wrong with you?”
Gormund says nothing. And then: “We should keep moving.”