Silas cannot sleep. In the morning, he is to face Steffron’s rival, Gorm, and bring Steffron his rival, Gorm’s, head. The anticipation is excruciating and he cannot bear to dream.
So he thinks. He remembers.
His exile hasn’t been all survival and violence. Sometimes things could get almost quaint.
He can remember the small child, one night in the highlands. He’d meekly asked for food. He’d let Silas get a feel of him. He’d only a shadow of skin, and deep-sunken eyes that couldn’t remember to blink. Silas had given him his share of rations, much to Ev’s annoyance.
(“He’s dead anyway,” she’d said.)
And when he’d scampered off, Uthrik added, “You two hear that?”
He hadn’t. “Hear what?” Silas asked.
“Moves awfully quick for a starving boy.”
Ev had chewed him out herself for that. Reminded him that there are no monsters beyond Morgad. “Just a bunch of suffering fools,” she’d said.
“Does that make us fools?” Silas asked.
“Yeah,” Ev chuckled. “We’re all fools together.”
Silas can remember Uthrik, once, sitting under the burnt remnant of an old poplar, prying some insects off of his flesh with the flat of his dirk. Halfway through, he’d forgotten that dirks tend to be sharp, and by the time he noticed that he’d braced his thumb against its edge, he’d sawed the pad of his thumb down to the bone.
It had bled worse than the Nailed God’s hands, Silas remembers. Ev had bandaged him up, laughing on the while. So much laughter that she was overflowing with it, and it shook her.
Silas can remember how, two days after he’d been accepted by Steffron and his band of Roamers, Ev and Steffron started playing cards together. They made their own, carved out the numbers from little chips of wood. And all the while he talked to him about what life was life in Morgad, and why he should help him return.
(“When you’re old enough, boy,” Steffron had told him, sniffling as if he could scent Ev’s cards. “When you’re old enough.”)
For a while, it became a nightly practice. They would excuse themselves to the two smoothed-over tree stumps in the back of Steffron’s camp, and they would face each other and place bets on each other’s’ cards. Silas hadn’t followed the rules too well. But one night, Ev was so confident in her hand that she’d bet a kiss on the outcome of the match.
(She had been fifteen at the time. To hear it told now, she thought the whole thing quite childish.)
They quit their game early that night, and told Silas he needed to get some sleep. But Silas had feigned sleep when he heard Ev returning later that night, heard her running her hands through her hair, which he couldn’t see was in disarray. But he’d heard he combing it free of twigs and leaves and aught else.
She still denies anything happened that night.
(Silas is pulled from these memories by others happenings, days after that. When Gorm and his Roamers had ambushed them for the first time. His friend, Barric, who he’d been of an age with, falling into a nearby river and never surfacing. He’d sank like a stone and stayed down there. Silas hadn’t heard anyone stab him. He didn’t think he’d been wounded. It was like Barric was waiting there at the bottom of that lake, for the fighting to be over, and he would surface. But he never did. And then Silas thinks of Wulf, the first boy he’d loved—and how a few months later, during Gorm’s second raid, Silas had found him swaying on the end of a rope like a decoration. A warning. He’d never had a chance to tell him.)
He pulls himself from these thoughts, now. This isn’t the time for them, he thinks. Not now.
It wasn’t always like that, anyway.
He can remember the one time he and Gormund got along. Back when Gormund found some spare herbs in the wake of a raid that he thought would soothe the sore throat he’d been having. But all it did was make him prone to stupid observations. He’d talked about how “Time passing is so weird when you think about it.”
So Silas tried some of the herbs himself, and for the rest of the day he’d never had a better friend than Gormund.
And when it wasn’t close to quaint, or horrifying or melancholy it was just. Waiting. Swinging a blade. Leaving runes behind for the next Roamers. Slapping bugs. Foraging and foraging and foraging. From the days the sun burned his flesh away to the days some Roamers lost some digits to the cold. The number of ways they could die became so plentiful it actually started to bore Silas.
Which was dangerous.
(Is dangerous, he thinks, as he lies in his bedroll, not sleeping.)
Because boredom led to thinking. Which sometimes led to too much thinking, which led something coming out one end or the other from the sheer terror that came with waiting for something to happen. Rival Roamers came at any time. Silas would be milling about, listening to Ev and Steffron playing cards while Uthrik did pull-ups on a tree branch. And then the next moment, they could smell torches and steel and stomping boots, and his stomach would drop down to his groin, and he’d be reaching for a blade or running very far away.
Uthrik did that once. And he didn’t come back once the assailants were dead or fled. Silas started to think of Uthrik as another Barric. He just dropped into the water and didn’t come out. Waited too long for the fighting to end and drowned. He was gone for months.
And then he came back. Told them about how he fled into another band of Roamers. He met a woman and fell in love.
“So why come back?” Silas had asked him.
Uthrik had smiled broadly, which Silas did not see, and he ruffled Silas’s hair and told him he missed him. “I wanted for nothing back there,” he’d said. “That woman took care of me. Like you truly do when you love someone.”
“So why did you come back?”
“That’s the trouble with wanting for nothing,” Uthrik had said. “Makes you want anything.”
(This, to Silas, is either very wise or very stupid.)
Silas can remember how Uthrik never talked about that woman again. Wouldn’t even mention her name. Ev said he probably got captured. Silas assume he’d made it up. There hadn’t been a woman. There couldn’t be. That kind of thing didn’t just happen.
And as Silas drifts towards sleep, these memories wheel in his mind, fragmenting to slivers of moment, endless and without beginning:
Listening to crickets with Uthrik, who tells him, “It’s okay if you don’t want to win honor and glory.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s all my Mother used to tell me. I needed to bring glory to my family. The old woman couldn’t wait for me to join the Enforcers, move up in the Crown. Last thing she ever told me was that I would be the Majesty one day.”
“You couldn’t be the Majesty, Uthrik.” Silas had told him.
“Someone forgot to tell her that,” he’d laughed. And then he stopped laughing, abruptly, and said, “She died when I was fourteen. A few weeks before we left the city.”
Silas can remember Ev teaching Uthrik and Steffron to dance while he watched with the rest of the Roamer’s. She’d tapped their legs or arms, or chest to signal the movement. Just the way her Mother had taught her.
“Where’s the music?” Silas had asked.
“What?” He didn’t see how Ev’s eyes widened.
“If you’re dancing, don’t you need music?”
Or the day Uthrik befriended one of Gorm’s hounds who had been left behind after a raid. He’d fed it, bathed it, and took it everywhere with him for months—and for months, Gormund had told him not to trust it. That the dog was a spy. A monster set loose from the city. Or that one day it would turn on us and kill us in our sleep.
Nobody took Gormund seriously—so one day he decided enough was enough, and the Roamers woke up the next day to Gormund serving roast dog for breakfast.
And, in the final unguarded moments before sleep—Silas remembers these things, too:
The rooting, putrid stench of corpses after a raid.
A chill bluff of wind leaking past his cloak in winter.
A wheatfield, bowing under weighted wind only to rise again after his passing.
White-knuckled hands squeaking against blades corded in leather.
The scraping scream of a charging Roamer girl.
His own blade, red and wet and glistening.
Ev saying, “No choice. It couldn’t be helped.”
Ev saying, “Silas?”
Ev saying, “Talk to me.”