Nightmares were not unfamiliar to me. They were very familiar, in fact. But that was because the vast majority of the time they were the same nightmares, the same scenes playing out inside my head again and again and again. They were nightmares of fire and death and screaming, blood on the ground and bodies in the streets. There was nothing ambiguous about them, nothing unexpected. The fact that I never seemed to be able to deal with them, that I couldn’t move past the things that had happened, didn’t make them any less predictable. There was nothing unclear in my nightmares.
This was a very different sort of nightmare. This was darkness and fog, limbs that wouldn’t move and eyes that couldn’t see. I wasn’t even sure what was going on, wasn’t sure why I was scared. I had a vague feeling, more an instinct than a thought, of being trapped and helpless. There was something bad out there, lurking in the darkness just out of sight, and it was closing in on me, and it was far too late to run.
When I woke, that feeling lingered. I was quietly desperate, unable to shake the cloud of dread that hung around me like a cloud. My fingers fumbled as I pulled on clothing. I was mostly dressed before I realized that I was putting on the same filthy, blood-soaked clothes from earlier, and I pulled them off almost frantically.
Not that it mattered. I was filthy; my fur was caked in dried blood and filth. I could smell myself, a foul, almost rancid odor that permeated the room. Usually I was very cleanly, but I hadn’t bathed in days, and they’d been rather intense days at that. But even if I wasn’t any cleaner than they were, I didn’t want to wear those clothes today. There was something about it that was just…morbid.
My steps were short and quick as I left, locking the door behind myself, and hurried downstairs. The feeling of dread from my dream was still lingering, pressing down on my like a cold weight between my shoulders. I felt like I should be running, and I wasn’t sure why.
The kitchen was the same as always. I could smell bread baking, and there was a pot of soup cooking. But it felt…hollow, somehow. The sunlight coming in the window was wan and pale, and the air felt too thin. I continued out into the taproom without pausing, and found Corbin standing at the bar and polishing it. There was no one else there.
“You slept almost a full day,” he said, not turning around as I came in. “I was concerned.”
“Sorry,” I said. “We were supposed to win.” I grimaced, feeling the tightness in my throat already.
“I don’t blame you,” he said. “You weren’t in a position to know better.” He sounded about as convincing as a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
I frowned, but dropped it. “What happens now?”
“They’re still deciding that,” Corbin said. “Ketill and a few of the other villagers want to take the fight to the ghouls. Bring everyone, push out with wards and exterminate them. The mayor is pushing to wait for legion support. And that surveyor wants to wait and see what they do next before we commit to anything.”
He shrugged. “They’re still talking about it now. Most of the village is there, I think. But my money is on the mayor. It’s hard to argue against putting the responsibility on someone else.”
My frown deepened slightly. Something about that seemed…wrong, to me. It was like an odd taste in a soup; I couldn’t place what was off, but something wasn’t quite right with this picture.
Not that it mattered. Even if I’d been able to put words to my feeling, I couldn’t have convinced anyone. There was a reason Corbin wasn’t at this meeting, after all. We were both relative newcomers, and in a place like Branson’s Ford that meant everything. In a village like this, you were an outsider unless you had family going back at least two generations.
“Why were you so upset?” I asked quietly. “Why do you care what happens to me?”
“Because you deserve better than you’ve gotten,” Corbin said, staring at the surface of the bar. I suddenly realized that he was drunk, something I’d never seen before. “Because I thought I could save one person. Just one person. But it seems even that’s beyond me.”
I stood there in silence for a minute, then turned and walked out the door. He didn’t ask where I was going.
On some level I knew it was foolish to leave the safety of the wards at a time like this. But the looming sense of dread from my nightmare was still following me, and I needed a refuge like seldom before.
I was on edge as I made my way out into the trees, ready for an ambush at any moment. I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen if a ghoul-thing did jump out at me. Running seemed like a poor choice; with what they’d done already, it seemed rather likely that I’d run into another ambush, or a trap. But I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to fight even one of them, either.
I didn’t see or hear any sign of them, though. There were no traps, no sudden ambush leaping out of the shadows. As far as I could tell there weren’t even any unusual signs of passage in the area.
I slipped into the pocket in the rocks, and found that I wasn’t alone.
“I thought I might find you here,” Black said. She was looking slightly off to the side of me, not meeting my eye. “I owe you an apology, I think.”
“Corbin was upset,” I said. “He spoke in haste.”
“Which doesn’t make what he said any less true,” she said dryly. “I’ve lived a violent life, Silf. Even when I was young, killing was all I was good for. And Corbin was right. That life hasn’t exactly worked out so well for me. It was never good. I wouldn’t wish that life on anyone. I shouldn’t have pushed you to start down the same road I did.”
I was silent for a moment, walking over to sit on my favorite rock. Black moved aside to leave room for me. “Not sure either of us has a choice,” I said softly.
Black laughed, a harsh, bitter sound. “True enough,” she said. “It never seems to matter what I wish.” She glanced at me. “Life has carved out a particularly hard niche for you. You’ve been through so much already, and now this.”
I shrugged. “Life is hard.”
“You said you stayed here because you got sick,” she said. “What were you planning on doing until that happened?”
I was quiet for a moment. “Didn’t…plan, exactly,” I said. “But thought I’d go south to Aseoto. They say the Changed can get by there.”
“We can,” Black said, in a vaguely warning tone. “But it’s not easy. They put up with us, but one false step can end with you bleeding in a gutter. The guards tend to look the other way when someone causes trouble for us. And it’s hard to find work where you don’t get robbed.”
I looked away from her. “Thought I’d work in the water trade.”
Black was quiet for a few seconds. “Selling your body?” she said at last, sounding like she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.
I shrugged. “Or dancing. Or fighting.”
“I never worked in the water trade while I was down there,” Black said. “But…yes, the Changed can almost always find work there. We’re exotic down there, and while people might say they’re ashamed of the exotic, that never seems to stop them from paying to see it on display.” She paused again. “Not sure I should encourage you to see yourself as a commodity, though.”
“At least I’d be able to decide what happened to me,” I said. “More than some get.”
She sighed heavily. “Too true.” She was quiet again, and I got the distinct impression that she was struggling to frame what she said next. “I understand if you’d rather not answer,” she said, hesitantly. “But…were you attacked in the camps?”
I shook my head. “Some tried,” I said. “In the city, and then before I met up with the other refugees, I tagged along with a legion camp for a while. But I’m faster than they were. And…”
“And?” she prodded gently.
I stared at the ground, trying not to remember. “Nobody expects you to fight back,” I said, barely above a whisper. My throat felt raw and tight, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was the usual problems and how much was just that it was hard to talk about this. “I don’t…look like much, you know? But I’m fast, and stronger than I look. I have claws. And…there’s usually some metal around. A coin, a pin, something.”
“You killed people when they tried to attack you,” Black said. “Didn’t you?”
I nodded. “Three or four.”
Black sighed again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That isn’t enough, but I don’t know what else to say.”
I shrugged. I didn’t say anything.
“Yeah,” she said. “Never helped me, either.”
I laughed a little. “What about you?” I said. “How did it start?”
Black was silent for a few moments. “My parents were hunters,” she said at last. “Killing was a fact of life. It was something we did every day. The first time I killed a person was an accident, an argument in a bar. I just meant to push him, but I was angry, and you saw how strong I am. He hit his head, and that was that.”
That was that. I pushed him, and he hit his head, and that was that. I stuck a spike in behind his ear, and that was that. Such a simple story, for something as profound as ending a life. It seemed like it should be harder.
“It’s hard,” I said. “Remembering what I did.”
“It gets easier,” Black said. “We told each other that it didn’t, in the war. Guess we told ourselves, too. We didn’t want killing to be easy. But the truth is that it does get easier.”
I wasn’t quite sure whether I should be glad to hear that, or a bit disappointed. I thought probably a little of both.
“We should be getting back to the wards,” Black said, breaking a silence that felt as vast and deep and cold as the ocean. “This place isn’t safe anymore.”
I nodded, but it was a few moments before I could make myself move.
On the way back, I paused just inside the warding posts. Something wasn’t quite right. Black stopped right next to me, though she didn’t seem to know why.
It took a couple seconds for me to place what was wrong. When I did, I stared at the place where one of the trees wasn’t quite right, the shape of it just slightly wrong. I didn’t try to conceal what I was doing.
Ketill dropped from the tree a moment later, landing in a crouch and straightening in a moment. He was light on his feet, precise and confident.
The old farmer looked…not younger, precisely. It was more like the time weighed him down as heavily as ever, but the years had peeled away, and exposed what he’d been a lifetime ago. He looked lean and hard, eyes that were hard as flint and had just as much mercy in them.
I knew what I was looking at. Ketill had lived as a simple farmer in Branson’s Ford for a decade now, give or take. But old habits didn’t die. Scratch the paint, scrape away the life he’d made for himself, and the man he used to be was there, like it never went away at all.
He didn’t have his scythe. But I noticed that he was carrying a different knife on his belt than usual. This one was long, and heavy, and old.
“Good eye,” he said to me, not looking at me. His voice was very, very quiet, and rough. “Been looking to talk to you.” This was clearly directed at Black, not me.
“How’d you know where I went?” she asked.
He snorted. “You’re good,” he said. “But I did my time in the war. I know how to track a body, and I know these woods better’n anyone alive.”
She nodded. “Fair,” she said. “So what do you want to talk about?”
He glanced at me. “Might be better we were alone,” he said.
Black shook her head. “Silf can stay,” she said.
Ketill grunted. “Your call,” he said. “So. You’re the Lady in Black.”
Black didn’t so much as blink. “I’m flattered,” she said. “But the Lady in Black is a myth. A ghost story the legions came up with to put a name to what troubled them during the early years of the occupation.”
“That’s the official story,” Ketill said. “I expect you’re glad for that, and I ain’t going to be the one to tell it otherwise. But I was there at Karlton, on the hill. Didn’t recognize you at first, but when I saw you fight out there I knew it was you.”
Black went very still now, and then sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Yes, that was me. But that was a long, long time ago. It’s just Black now.”
He nodded. “Like I said, I ain’t going to tell nobody. We all got things we don’t want to remember from back then, and I reckon you got more than most. But there’s a thing I got to ask you, seeing as you’re here.”
“Ask.” Her voice was very flat.
“You going to stay this time?” he asked.
Apparently that wasn’t the question she was expecting. She blinked. “What?”
“You saved our asses at Karlton,” he said. “But you didn’t stay. You never stayed, that’s the story, everyone said so. After the fight was won you moved on, and the black gods care what happened to us after.”
“Ah,” she said. “And you’re afraid I’ll leave you high and dry again.”
“I’m staying,” she said. “For now, at least. If those legionnaires figure out who I was, I might have to leave whether I want to or not.”
“Why?” he asked quietly. “What’s worth staying for here when you left us hanging after Karlton?”
“I’m tired of running,” she said, her voice as quiet as his. “I’ve been running for a long time now. And I’m tired.” She was silent for a few seconds.
Ketill was silent for a few seconds. “I ain’t entirely satisfied with that,” he said. “But I guess beggars can’t be choosers, and Branson’s Ford is going to need all the help it can get, I reckon.”
“The mayor got what he wanted?” I asked.
He nodded. “A few folk are going to fetch the legions,” he said. “Or try, anyways. I ain’t so confident they’ll come to help, but I suppose there’s a chance.”
I nodded, and then paused. My eyes went wide as the vague feeling of dread that had been haunting me since I woke up finally coalesced into a clear thought.
“They’re going north?” I asked. It was the quickest way to the city–across the river, and northeast along the old trade road.
“We’ve got to catch them,” I said. “Hurry.”
Ketill clearly didn’t know what I was talking about. But he was a soldier, and if there was one thing you learned in the war–one thing that even I’d figured out, while the Whitewood was burning–it was that if someone said something in that tone, you listened first and asked questions later. He took off to the north, with Black and me right behind him.
I had a sick feeling that we were already too late.