The arrow had hit the inner wall of the covered wagon, just a foot above his head. Had he been sleeping – leaned against the wooden board, where he was supposed to – he would have been killed. As it was, Gwylln had not been sleeping where he was supposed to. He had not been sleeping at all, so he was alive to watch rain veil the forest in grey.
At first, he’d tried to brush it off. “Probably a stray shot,” he’d told his apprentices. “From a hunt.” But Kyron and Akira had already begun receding from him, like shadows, out through the opening. They left him to press one ear against the shuttered opening to hear what came next.
The two of them argued. There was shouting, muffled too little by the wooden planks and the pour against the roof. It made his head pound, made the dull ache surrounding both his stumps shake itself from stupor and sharpen. Through a crack in the door, he’d caught a flash of light blue – Akira, storming off to her tent - while Kyron started towards the sooty campfire. Behind them, they left a small cluster of people.
Under the make-shift shelter of canvas in the middle of the clearing, one smudge of grey stood up from a rock, loudly declaring she didn’t care a rap what they were fighting about – now – and that they could battle it out by themselves. Her name was Jenny, he remembered. One of the camp followers, who often volunteered to fetch water from nearby rivers, as well as faraway ones. If he squinted, he could see her stout form pick up a bucket, balance it on her head, and walk off into the drizzling sheets, leaving just three people to whisper and point at the wagon.
Gwylln let himself sink back down onto the bare wooden floorboards.
Things were easier when they were on the move. The day before, they’d been told of a landslide blocking the path just on the other side of this hill – since then, nothing had let up. Not even the pain in his arm.
More correctly, his not-arm, the shadow of where the arm used to be, radiated a subtle but noticeable throbbing. He sighed. Though it could have been easier without the shadow, it could also have been harder. Better pain than an itch, he figured, the way his father had when he returned from the first war with his sword arm gone. Gwylln preferred the pain.
Above, the arrow had long since been removed. Kyron had yanked it from the wall early on, muttering that it could be poisoned – or could otherwise be useful in their investigations – without Gwylln. Whoever had shot at him must have known their camp well, known the opening of his wagon, covered by curtain as it was, and thought to avoid it entirely by shooting through a leaking gap in the roof – from an extraordinarily close distance. Pity he couldn’t – wasn’t allowed to – check the make of the arrow. He was almost sure no outsiders were involved. The ceiling stared blankly at him, with corners dark and undiscernible.
The light rain went on, but so did the camp. Outside, some fool tried to start a fire under their shelter. The choked puffs of sooty smoke spread even into his wagon.
The floorboards creaked as Kyron pushed his way inside.
Kyron would have to meet eyes with him sooner or later, if they were to continue like this. Hinting that he should look didn’t seem to work; Gwylln figured that could come later. Instead, he asked about Akira.
Almond eyes narrowed, as if wincing, darting over to stare at some dusty corner. The rain weakened. From beyond, Gwylln could hear the thrum of Akira’s parting commands, as she left to the site of the landslide. No hooves thumping against the soil.
“Show off.” Kyron’s sidelong glance through the opening of the wagon was longer than it needed to be. Gwylln knew Akira had just clambered up one of the trees again, and taken off. She should not have been doing that, in this weather. His lips tightened. What if she slipped? The fool.
Kyron lifted a bowl to Gwylln’s lips so he could drink. His good arm shook a little as he took it from his hands instead. They seemed to forget he still had this arm, Gwylln noticed, his brow pinching together.
As Kyron stood up, his full frame came into the pale rain-washed light. He was a little gaunt in the face, but otherwise, his body was a strong, sturdy one, with plenty of years of fighting in it yet. Four years ago, Gwylln would have never expected him to grow this broad. And here he was. He could do well for himself, even after this. He was watching the last drops of the rain. Gwylln’s gaze drifted to the quiver of arrows he kept strapped to his hip.
“Better I keep this away, eh?” Kyron’s grin was crumbling. He pulled the strap over his head, before tucking the quiver under one arm. Akira had warned him not to bring it inside. He’d forgotten.
A few moments later, the quartermaster arrived to visit, and Kyron hurried out of the wagon to meet Akira, leaving Gwylln alone with his thoughts.
No, not quite. “Thought you were a goner there, sir,” Benn unpacked his satchel, clearly intending to stay a while. Across the floor, he laid out a map, where their route was traced out in a black serpentine shape, with spatters of red ink comemorating battles. Then there were several week’s worth of inventory records and the roster of names for guard duty. Many of them he'd crossed out – for good.
“Seriously, two near deaths in two moons. It's like an omen or something.”
When Gwylln kept silent, the sense of permission to talk settled on Benn’s large nose like a slab of rich butter, and with a smile, he went on to prattle of how worried they all were, how the general staff officer had nearly fallen into the latrine hearing the arrow go off. Then, of how scary Akira had been as she hunted through the handful of camp followers, who had been the closest to Gwylln’s wagon that night, to find Jenny, who had reportedly been walking alone with a vase of water clutched to her chest along the trees that night.
“May I see her?”
“Probably not, now that Akira’s involved,” said Benn, around a mouthful of quill he probably should not have been keeping in his mouth. Gwylln coughed lightly into his fist; the writing implement was dropped.
They talked for a while, about what was left of their company. The musician who seemed to fancy Jenny. How an officer had misplaced his walking stick.
“It’s a real shame, sir.” Benn had a faraway look about him. “I guess I’ve always thought you could keep battling forever.”
Gwylln was flattening himself against the side of the curtain – now guarded by Benn ‘for security’ – when the announcement happened. A few of the troops helping out at the landslide had returned with the news that the path could be cleared by the next day, and that they would start to the village immediately. They had barely begun tucking into some stew, tired and shaking with the cold and exertion, when Akira appeared in the leaves.
She was perched on a thick branch, barefoot, alert and contemplative, but tiredness showing from the hunch in her shoulders. Carefully, she lowered herself down onto the soil, fixed her straying cloak.
Gwylln watched Jenny enter the frame, her hands wringing in her skirt. A single guard accompanied her, and even he seemed uncertain if he should be there at all.
“Don’t matter to me what ya’ think.” All heads spun around to look at Jenny, who was looking at the floor. “Don’t matter. I know I didn’t do it.” Her voice shivered on the last note.
Akira made her start packing her things later that day, declaring the search for the culprit over.
“You don’t need to do this.” Kyron’s hands were disconcertingly warm (or was it Gwylln that was cold) weighing on both his shoulders, as his former apprentice crouched down before him as you would to a child. Gwylln jerked away from the touch. He told Kyron to think. Why would a camp follower, whom he’d rarely spoken to, if at all, want to kill the leader of a mercenary band?
Kyron’s gaze dropped at ‘leader’. Gwylln caught a fleeting glance out at the camp from him, before the look returned to the water stains on the wagon floor.
“Sir,” he began, his hands slowly moving to rest on his knees. “You know, since – it – happened at the last battle, a lot of the men have started – talking! – you know . . . about you. And what happened. What’s going to happen now.”
Left arm folded against his stump. He sent Kyron out to bring the witnesses. Then he lay on his good side and did not move until his friend had returned.
Gwylln had tried to count the sunsets, at first. He shied away from sunrises, which reminded him of marching feet, of drills at dawn. He couldn’t pinpoint noon, or he slept through it. But he could always recognize the sweet flame orange of a sunset on the plains, seeping through the holes punched into the covered wagon by stones, termites, and now, an arrow.
It had been a day after they had removed him from the healer, the first meal he had had that was not moist and smelling oddly of herbs. Yes – that had been a good day. Kyron had cooked them stew with pigeon. Then because it was Akira’s turn, both of them had sat inside the wagon with him, eating together, talking about the recruits, their swordsmanship.
Nowadays Kyron and Akira were constantly at odds. He could hear their shouts from inside, poisonous and biting, building into a sharp crescendo. Then when the silence came, he rolled over on his mat, pulled the blankets over his face and turned away from the opening.
He’d come to see the door of the wagon as just that: the opening. The opening from which people would appear and then disappear, ghosts from a life the war had killed, and was now dead.
It had been a moon since he'd last tried to look at his sword.
He made Kyron help him outside. There was some balancing to do, on his remaining leg, but they managed. A damp smell wafted up from the grass, washing into his nostrils. It was almost comforting, given the prominence of dry dust and medicine in his world. The witnesses stood at the edge of the clearing. All around them, the trees were buffeted by a gentle breeze. The evening sun cast shadows like long black bars spilling over their faces. Gwylln lowered himself onto a flat stone, Kyron close beside him.
There was the musician, leaned against a trunk, polishing her harp. There was the general staff officer, fingering one end of the bandage over his eye. Then there was Benn. None of them could attest to seeing someone walk towards the wagon that night.
“I heard the shot, sure,” said the patrol leader. “I tried to listen for footsteps, or grass, but – nothing.”
Gwylln thought about the angle of the shot, how it had pierced that leak in the ceiling. They were going to repair it soon, they’d promised. Kyron and Akira. Akira and Kyron.
He’d used to like baths, back before Kyron had decided he needed to be propped up by another breathing, awkwardly shifting mass the whole time. Now he glared at an unsuspecting mop of black hair. The wounds had just healed, Kyron claimed, he was still weak. The more they said it, the more strength seemed to seep from Gwylln’s spine. It was as if he was to morph into a carpet, draped eternally on the floor of a dank wagon.
The water sloshed around him as Gwylln turned, pulled himself away from Kyron and flopped onto the opposite side of the bath. When he looked up, two onyx pools gleamed with shock at him.
“I can manage.”
Kyron’s nod was slow, but he did, in fact, nod. Then, suddenly –
“We’ll get you a wheelchair. Once we get into town.”
When he’d first woken up after their last battle, it was Akira that had been sleeping, crumpled over on the chair next to him. It made sense – for him, for the rest of them. She was second-in-command; they’d been fighting together for years since they’d met in a grimy tavern somewhere along this very path. Little had changed about the path since then. Still, it was the main one for any traveler between countries. Still, it rolled underneath them, peering, a pale hair through the floor of the wagon. Could it have rolled too long?
Tonight, he watched the moon rise over the forest clearing – and didn’t count.
It was Akira’s turn, today, the first one in a week. She brought him a bowl of soup from dinner. “I’m letting Jenny off in the next town. No point punishing her otherwise,” she shrugged. “The rest of them wouldn’t like it. They’re attached like that.”
The silver light fell on her back, glinting along her sword of a spine. “We’re still safer that way.”
“’Kira.” Gwylln pulled himself into a sitting position. Her shoulders tensed as she took the meal from her hand, and begin to sip it from the rim of the bowl, leaving the proffered spoon dangling mid-air. “I have so many questions.”
“Betrayal’s a bitch,” she frowned. “But it happens.”
Yet some of those questions were hard. How did a camp follower learn how to shoot? Why would she want him dead, when she could leave at any stop on the path, no strings attached, regardless of whether Gwylln lived or died? How could she have carried a crossbow and a vase of water at once? A longbow was out of the question, even with Jenny’s strength. Heaving buckets of water wasn’t the same as years of training, skill . . . The last question came almost as a growl, in his mind. But Akira was setting the spoon down on the floor, turning away from him to squint at the moon, looking incredibly lost.
And Gwylln could not hurt these people. Any of them.
In the morning, the mercenary leader announced that Jenny would be staying. There would be whispers, for a time, about Akira’s integrity, about her suitability in taking over for Gwylln. This blue morning, though, Akira rode in the front of the line, Gwylln rode in the back, but with the wagon cover rolled down, open to the sky.
He was grateful for the path. He was grateful for the days he could see it, soft green and gravel grey, meandering ahead of them like a lazy river of dreams. He wondered what else it would bring them. He wondered when the path would end.