We headed for the inn, out of habit and to inform Corbin of what just happened. It might be some time before anyone thought to tell him otherwise.
Before we even got close, though, I heard voices talking, loud and agitated. As we got close, I realized there was a bit of a crowd gathered outside the inn.
All of the imperials were standing out front, moving towards town. Aelia looked dazed from the drugs, and Sumi was almost unconscious, being carried by Andrew and Marcus. They were all there, though, and moving.
Behind them came a small crowd of villagers, led by Corbin. They were clearly nervous, or even afraid; they were shifting and fidgeting, murmuring in hushed, anxious voices. At first I wondered how they’d already heard about what happened when a group tried to leave. Then I realized that they probably hadn’t; there were, after all, plenty of other things to be nervous about.
If they were already this on edge, things would only get worse when they heard our news. Much worse.
“You’re insane,” Corbin said to Hideo as we got close enough to hear clearly. “He’s in no shape to travel.”
“You made it abundantly clear that you’d rather we not stay in your inn,” Hideo said cheerfully. He was marching along at the head of the whole procession with such a casually arrogant stride that I could almost think it was a deliberate parade and he was the leader. “Well, I do try to be polite, you know, so it’s only reasonable that we move on, don’t you think?”
“You can’t seriously mean to take them out on the road.” Corbin’s voice was openly hostile, now. “That’s a death sentence.”
“Oh, not at all,” Hideo said. He passed us, not even glancing in our direction, and we fell in with the group following along behind him. “No, I assure you, we aren’t leaving town at all.”
“Then what on earth are you playing at with this?” Corbin said.
“Well, it’s quite simple, really,” the surveyor said brightly. “This situation is clearly out of control. As such, by the power vested in me as a commissioned officer of the imperial legions, I’m declaring martial law, effective immediately. I’m also appropriating a building to serve as our temporary headquarters.” He pointed at one of the houses, seemingly at random. “Let’s go with that one.”
“That’s my house,” someone in the crowd said. After a moment I recognized the voice as belonging to Ilse, the closest thing Branson’s Ford had to a merchant.
“Not anymore,” Hideo said brightly, opening the door. It wasn’t locked. “I’ll be setting up our headquarters and reviewing resources. The first dictates will be posted this evening.”
He walked into the house, followed by the legionnaires. A moment later the door closed, and locked.
Ilse started to walk towards her house, looking like she was seriously considering lighting it on fire. After a moment Gunnar and her husband Otto caught her arms, holding her back. Their expressions were bleak, unsurprised, and hopeless. It was like looking at a kicked dog.
Nobody said a word, or made a move towards the building. They looked angry, but it was a blank, impotent sort of anger.
It was funny, in a way. They outnumbered the legionnaires, by far, even counting Aelia and Sumi. The legionnaires were better equipped, and probably better trained on the whole, but it was easy to see that any conflict between them would not go well for the imperials. But I was guessing that if Hideo were to walk back out, sentence someone to death for crimes against the state, and execute them on the spot, no one would lift a finger to stop him. They’d been shown that fighting back against the legions ended in death so many times that they couldn’t see any possibility for change.
“Typical imperial,” Ketill said under his breath. “Couldn’t even be bothered to take an empty house.”
Black and I both laughed quietly at that. I thought that there were plenty of empty houses in Branson’s Ford now, and then immediately felt guilty for thinking it. It could just as easily have been me that died, and I knew it.
“We need to talk,” the mayor–former mayor–said into the silence after a few moments. “Everyone, come along.”
I fell in with the crowd as we left. Ilse stared at her house for a long while before she followed us.
I wasn’t entirely sure where I’d thought the mayor was planning to go, but I hadn’t expected it to be the inn. It made sense, though. It was one of the few buildings in the village that could fit everyone, and given that it was starting to rain, they didn’t want to do this outdoors. It probably helped that the legionnaires, based on Hideo’s comments, almost certainly weren’t going to be dropping in there.
Corbin started handing out soup and bread as people found seats, and then started finding places to stand when all the chairs were taken.
Otto took one look at the food, and shook his head. “Don’t have money,” he said. “We were tight already, and then getting locked out….”
Corbin hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Don’t worry about money. It’s all on the house, tonight.”
I’d never seen Corbin waive payment before. He might stand a round on the house on special occasions, or take payment in kind when someone was in a rough patch, but nothing like this.
Oddly enough, that was what drove home just how bad things were. Why worry about payment? He might lose it all tomorrow anyway, to imperial requisition or ghoul attack.
“I know it’s bad news on top of worse,” Ketill said, as people settled in. “But I reckon you got to know. The folk were going to the city, they ain’t making it. Weren’t out of sight when the ghouls were on them. Killed them all.” He paused, letting that sink in. “The beasts were using bows. Bows and arrows.”
The taproom had been quiet before. It went dead silent at that.
“How?” someone said, barely above a whisper. Even with my hearing, I doubted I’d have heard it if things weren’t so very quiet.
“Why is the question,” Gunnar said, more loudly. His tone was grim, to say the least. “Nobody was attacked until the other day. Why now?”
I glanced at Black where she was sitting by the fire. She met my eyes across the room and nodded, very slightly. We both knew what was going on. But she couldn’t be the one to say it, not when she was an outsider to the village. And I wasn’t going to be saying enough to explain the situation. Not today. Today was a bad day, and I’d already strained my throat talking to Black. The soup was helping, but not enough.
Eventually Ketill spoke up, probably because he realized that no one else was going to. “It’s the same as what they did out there,” he said. “Control our movements, put us in a position where they can hit us hard. We’re safe behind the wards, but that means they know where we are and where we’d have to go to leave.”
“Are we even sure the wards will stop them?” someone asked. After a few seconds I recognized it as Samara, a rather shrill imperial woman whom I wasn’t particularly fond of.
“If the wards didn’t stop them, they’d have killed us all by now,” Ketill said flatly. “There’s no motive for them to have left us alone if they didn’t have to.”
“That gives us a certain amount of safety,” the mayor said. “But we can’t wait in here indefinitely, and help likely isn’t coming. We need to decide what to do now.”
“Oh, come off it, Egill,” someone called from the back of the room. “You’re not in charge no more, remember? That legion fellow is.”
“Is anyone confident in the legion?” Egill asked. I presumed Egill was his name, at least; I couldn’t remember having heard it before. He was just the mayor. “Half of them have been maimed fighting these things already, and one of the others isn’t more than a boy. Do you want to leave your lives in their hands?”
He paused. No one said anything.
“As I said,” he continued, with a faint smile that suggested he’d expected that response. “We need to decide what to do now.”
“Could take my plan,” Ketill said. “Take the initiative, wipe these things out.”
“How confident are you you’d win?” Corbin asked suddenly. “They’ve killed a lot of folks already.”
I saw the room react as that sank in. People looked around, looking for who was here, and thinking of who was already gone.
It was something I’d already thought of. There were around forty people in the taproom, by my estimate–far more than were usually here, but not exactly an army. I couldn’t think of many people in Branson’s Ford who weren’t here, either. A handful of recluses, people like Jakob’s friend, who’d come back broken from the war. A few herders who, given that they worked alone outside the wards, were more than likely dead already. Other than that I could only think of children.
Though I supposed I should count them too. If things kept going like this, they’d be holding spears with the rest of us before the end.
It was a line of thought I’d already followed. But I could see it hit Ketill as he realized what I already had. His face dropped as he suddenly saw, probably for the first time, that we might lose. That the whole village might be wiped out by these things that were most definitely not ghouls.
You didn’t hear about it often. I’d certainly never heard of one quite like this. But it did happen. Even with the warding posts, sometimes something went wrong and a village was slaughtered by Changed monstrosities. Everyone knew it happened.
You just…always assumed that it would happen to someone else.
“Numbers aside,” Egill said, breaking the silence before it could really make itself at home, “there’s one reason to think we can’t fight them and win. They don’t think we can.”
“Are you people sure you aren’t giving these things too much credit?” Ilse asked. “They’re clearly more intelligent than average ghouls, yes, but the way you talk about them you’d almost think they were people.” Her tone was angry, with a hint of hysteria.
“What I am saying is that they appear to have a considerably better understanding of our capabilities than we have of theirs.” Egill, at least, seemed completely calm. At times like this it was easy to see how he’d ended up as the mayor. “And given that they attacked, they obviously think that they’ll fare well in a confrontation. We’d be fools to ignore that fact.”
“We could wait for the legions,” Gunnar said, sounding like he was sucking a lemon. “We can stay in the wards for a long while.”
“The messengers were killed, remember?” Ketill said. “They don’t know we even need help.”
“They know.” It took me a moment to realize that it was my own voice saying that, and when I did I was as surprised as anyone. Thought I doubted that more than about half a dozen people heard, anyway.
One of those people was the mayor–Egill–though, and he turned to face me. “What makes you say that?” he asked, ensuring that everyone’s attention would be focused on me.
I flinched back slightly, then shrugged. “They know,” I said. “They’re here.”
“She’s right,” Corbin said, loudly enough to pull the focus of the crowd onto him instead. “They knew something was going on. Otherwise they wouldn’t have sent anyone at all.”
“That was a coincidence,” Samara said. “They were here surveying for the road. It was just a coincidence they ran into those…things.”
“Don’t be naive,” Ketill snapped at her. “The road was a dream they held in front of us to keep us from asking questions. It was never going to happen. I thought they were here for something else…but no, this must be it. They were asking about monsters, remember?”
I could tell that a few people did. They suddenly looked like they felt sick.
“What do we do, then?” Ilse asked. She sounded like the anger had run its course, and now she was just tired. Exhausted. “We can’t win ourselves, and the legions aren’t coming to help us.”
Nobody seemed to have an answer. People didn’t want to make eye contact, and a lot of them were drinking in earnest now. Corbin was pouring drinks from bottles that he usually didn’t touch at all, and nobody said a word about payment, now.
It was funny, in a not-very-funny sort of way. I’d wished for the taproom to be packed like this more times than I could remember. Now that it was, it didn’t feel good at all. There wasn’t a celebratory atmosphere at all. The people looked desperate, broken, hopeless.
It reminded me of the Whitewood, in the last few weeks. We’d been surrounded by that point, besieged by the legions. People had felt trapped, then, helpless and unsure of what to do. We’d thought things were as bad as they could get, until the fires came and proved us wrong.
It wasn’t a comfortable analogy to make.
I didn’t have any better answers than the rest of them, but I couldn’t stand there and watch it any more. It was too crowded, hot and close, and my grip on the present was starting to come loose. I set the empty bowl of soup on the table, and grabbed that bottle of the imperial rice-drink from behind the bar, and walked through the kitchen and out the back door. Corbin watched me go. I was guessing he knew exactly what was running through my mind.
I got out, and I ran.
I wanted to go to my secret place in the woods. But that was well outside the wards, and I wasn’t so foolhardy that I’d risk that now. Not after what I’d seen earlier. For all that I’d accused the villagers of underestimating these things, I saw now that I’d been guilty of the same thing. I probably only made it through that safely because they were busy getting ready for the group of messengers.
Instead, I wandered around the village. It looked like a ghost town, empty and silent. It was strange seeing the fields empty in the middle of a field day.
Ilse and Otto’s house was closed up, completely, the doors locked and the windows boarded over. I wasn’t sure what the imperials were doing in there. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
I let my feet wander where they liked, not really paying attention. I was lost in thought, another place and another time and another me. When they carried me to a rock looking over the water, I was almost surprised.
I sat, and looked out at the river. It sparkled in the sunlight, a slow pattern made of a thousand other patterns. I could feel the breeze brushing across my skin, through my fur. The rain which had been threatening for some hours was falling, soft and quiet.
It felt peaceful. It was a toxic sort of peace, the calm before the storm, the quiet moment before the fire caught. But still. Peaceful.
I took out an iron penny and rested it on my finger, balanced between fingertip and claw. It caught the light dully. The metal was stained an ugly red-black. I’d never washed the blood off it after it…after I put it into a ghoul, and pulled it out again.
I could barely feel the coin I was holding. The magic was always weak, inside the wards. It left me feeling numb and tired, and it made channeling nearly impossible. A trade everyone in the village made without a second thought. It was worth it to keep people from being Changed. To keep them from being like me.
Sometimes people go there to get clean, Sumi had said.
It felt like it had been a long time since I was clean. I could wash away the blood, I could wash away the soot, but it seemed the stains never really went away.
I’d almost thought of them as people. I’d seen the things that set them apart from the mass–Aelia’s nightmares and the happy face she pasted over them, Sumi’s quiet philosophizing, Andrew’s anxiety. I’d let it fool me into forgetting. But no. Things never changed. They were still legion. Aelia might have bad dreams about putting a bolt into a boy trying to flee the fires, but that didn’t change the fact that she’d pulled the trigger.
It was easier to hate them when they weren’t people. When they could be just…enemies, helmets without faces underneath, the collective group that had destroyed my life. Things were simpler if they weren’t individuals, people with hopes and dreams and fears and regrets and loves and hates just like mine.
It seemed things were seldom simple.
I tossed the coin out into the river. It disappeared beneath the water without a trace.