The cave tasted sweet and bitter. Sweet, because some of his people had survived. Bitter because he hadn’t died with the rest. Tom didn’t know how to accept that so many of the people who had trusted him, who had followed him, who had believed in him, had died because of him.
The first thing he did was say to the group, “Who can run things for a little bit? We need to get set up here, and I need to think about what to do next. I need someone to take over for me for a tiny bit, while I completely break down and then figure out what the fuck we are going to do.”
One man in the back raised his hand. It was Bill Adamson, from Tom’s old squad, “I’ll do it.”
“Bill? What the hell are you doing here? I thought you didn’t want shit to do with this. Apparently you were right by the way.”
“Me, no, I was fucked. You were right. I saw them take Ernie just before you guys started your attack, kill him in the street with no trial. That was it for me. Ernie was fucking harmless. Maybe if I’d been able to get word to you all this shit could have been avoided. Anyway, doesn’t matter. I know how to set up a camp, I can do at least that much to make up for…”
“Yeah, do it. I have to work this out, can’t wrap my brain around it right now. I’ll be back.”
Tom made himself a torch and headed deep into the cave.
‘Once he was too far for anyone to hear or see he started screaming, a wordless wail of anguish and rage. After a while he started to feel empty, like he had released enough bile from his soul to be able to function again, at least a little.
It was in Tom’s head that Bill might be who had sold them out, but something made him trust the man. Maybe it was the pain in his voice, maybe it was the look in his eyes when he talked about the fate that befallen Ernie. Whatever it was, Tom knew that he couldn’t handle command right now, and if Bill was willing to step up, who was Tom to stand in his way?
After a few hours Tom heard someone coming. He straightened up, realized he had beat the rocks until his hands bled, so he put his hands behind his back and looked towards the steps. Toms torch had burned out at some point, so he saw the flickering flames lighting the cavern wall, their yellow glow welcome and cursed at the same time. Finally a figure came into sight. A tall figure, shaggy hair and green round glasses. It was Charlie. Tom ran over to him, so overcome with relief to discover his friend was alive that for a moment he forgot to hate himself. He threw his arms around Charlie, weeping, unashamed. “You’re alive. How?”
“Same as you I imagine, I ran like a little bitch when the firing started. Got lucky, found a hole and hid in it.”
Charlie was hugging him back. The self loathing in the tall mans voice mirroring the current flowing through Tom.
“Don’t know. Didn’t see him. Who knows, I figured he was dead, but I thought the same about you.”
“Yeah, same here. Okay, how the hell did you find us?”
“Wasn’t hard. Might be we have to move, and soon. If I can find this group this easily, so can the loyalists. I followed the smoke. Only smoke for miles.”
“Shit, I left Bill in charge. He must have…”
“No, he didn’t. It wasn’t him, he’s out there screaming at some guy for lighting green wood. Not his fault, I got the impression the guy he’s screaming at… well it might have been on purpose.”
“Right, okay, well I guess I have to come out of the cave. I’m not ready. Not even close.”
“Yeah, me neither. Don’t matter, they need us to be. We started this shit, well, us and Adrian. We owe it to them to not fall the fuck apart yet.”
“Fuck. Yeah. Let’s do this shit.”
The two walked out together. The men were in a circle around two figures. A soldier named Chester, Tom had met him a couple of times at most, and Bill. The two were battered and bloody. Chester was swinging at Bill, a solid blow. Bill dodged it and came back with a low right hook, digging deep into Chester’s side. Chester dropped, only to get a knee to the face as he fell. Charlie and Tom rushed in, Charlie grabbed Bill and Tom grabbed Chester. “What the fuck happened?”
“This is him, this is the fucking traitor.” Bill said, “He admitted it, then he tried to take my fucking head off.”
“Alright, let’s figure out how to deal with this shit.”
Chester tried to pull away, trying to make a run for it. Charlie casually tripped him, sending him face first into the ground. “Son, you can’t run from what you done. No way you get out of this one.”
“Fuck you. Fucking traitors. I wish they’d killed every single one of you maggots. You think you’ve done something good here? You betrayed your country, your king. All of you are worse than scum. Kill me, I don’t give a shit. I know I did the right thing.”
“Yeah, really? You know they’ve been using the mages to fuck with your mind? Making you stupid, making you compliant.”
“That’s a lie, and if so, what of it? With people like you running around maybe they need to. Maybe we can’t be trusted.”
The crowd was looking ugly, like they were on the edge of doing something permanent to Chester. Tom said, “We have to deal with him, but that’s not the priority right now. We need to move. Sorry, but we do. Charlie found us easily, and if he did the loyalists can to. I don’t want to be here when they show up. I saw how the treated our friends, even before things went this far. I don’t want to hang.”
Everyone picked up their meager possessions and started walking. There was no discussion, no joking around. They had almost nothing, only what they had been carrying for the assault, and even then they had dropped most of it when things went to hell.
The landscape was blasted, empty. It was inhospitable before the exodus, and now it was empty of life. Everyone was weary, down to their bones, but they knew they had to walk, at least for a little while, at least until they could find a better spot to rest their heads. They bundled Chester with them, hauling him along by bound wrists. Some time after they started walking he fell down and refused to get up. “Fuck you, I ain’t moving. Kill me if you want, I’m going to lie here until you do.”
Tom cut his hands free and said, “Okay, so lie there,” and kept walking. After a while Chester stood up and started following. Tom ignored him.
By nightfall they were done, unable to walk any further, so they sat down in the empty dirt and waited for morning. When the light came up Chester was still among them.
They started walking again, no destination ahead of them, but no way to stay where they were. The heat was beating down on them, baking them. Tom felt thirst he hadn’t felt before. He had no saliva to swallow. He regretted his tears of the day before, because tears were made of water and he was angry to have let even that small amount go. He tried to talk to Charlie, but his tongue felt too swollen, what came out was a croaking sound.
When the sun was directly overhead one of the men fell over and couldn’t be woken. There was nothing they could do for him, so they kept going, telling themselves that as soon as they found water they would come back for him. Tom knew in his heart that it would be far, far too late.
By nightfall they had lost three more. They didn’t stop moving despite the dark of the night. Tom couldn’t see the ground at his feet. The sky was full of clouds, hiding the stars, and any sign of light. He stumbled over and over again.
Tom resolved to sit down, stay there and wait for death. It was the only option he could see, his legs couldn’t carry him anymore. When he first heard the singing he thought he was going mad. It was a man’s voice, singing badly off key. A bawdy song about a noble and a prostitute.
Tom stayed on his feet and said, “Does anyone else hear that?” his voice cracking under the strain.
They walked on, the singing getting louder as they got nearer. Then they started to see light, a golden glow flooding the hard packed earth. Finally, a river came into view. It was sunk into the ground, a rock bed hiding it from view. There was a fire burning next to the river, and a small group of men sitting around it. One of them was singing at the top of his lungs. As Tom got near the man stood and said, “Took you long enough. I spotted you a mile or so back. Had to start singing to get you attention. Damn, it’s good to see you gents. For awhile I thought we were the only escapees.”
It was Gilbert.