At the front of the lodge building, just behind where Waypoint sells its fare and brews, Daddy stops in front of the door. We’ve already loaded up my horse. I’ll be ready to go, as planned, before the sun rises.

“Do you want me to … to be up in the morning, Liddy? See you off?”

“Oh, you’ve done that plenty,” I say. “No need to burden yourself.”

He nods, but I can see this bulge at his lower lip, like he’s got his tongue pressed against the back of it. “Okay, then. I suppose this is it.”

I nod. He just stands there, hesitating for a moment longer. The big, brass lodge key he got handed, he’s playing with that in his hand, spinning it around. “Daddy,” I say, slow and sure. “I’ll be back. I’ll be back in just a few weeks, okay? Won’t be long at all.”

He raises his eyes up at me, eyebrows pushing toward the bridge of his nose, squashing his forehead into rolls and furrows.

“Really, Daddy, I’ll be fine.”

“I know,” he says. There’s a glimmer of a smile when he says it, but it vanishes in half a beat.

“Then what are you so worried on? I’ll be back soon. It’ll be the same as always.”

For a fraction of a second, I see his teeth clench together and his eyes narrow on me, but then the look clears off his face. “Of course you’re right,” he says. “Of course. We’ll keep your wool clean.” He leans in for a hug, awkward-like, like he’s not real sure how it’s done or if he has permission. Of course I just step in, put my arms around him. His free hand that’s gripping the key is still off to the side. For the most of it he’s hugging me with one hand at the top of my back. He pats me a couple times, then steps back brushes himself off some.

“Spine straight,” he says to me. So I stand tall. He smiles, then turns and unlocks the door. As he walks straight in and I walk to the stairs on the right, he says “Good night” over this shoulder.

In a way, I’m glad he got choked on the words—what to say as goodbye, anyway—cause it makes it easier for me. But I suppose I made my peace at the fence-front back home. I prefer not to extend my farewells longer than I have to. They get harder as they trudge on.

Despite the couple drinks and the day of work here, I have trouble getting to sleep on the straw mattress. But then, I have trouble sleeping most anywhere but home. I always have done—the five or six times I’ve gone with my daddy to Marsh, the twice I found myself outside the fence and lost in the land of beasts, begging for the sun to rise so I could get home and stop my family from holding a vigil on behalf of my missing body. Those are nights I won’t soon forget.

See, the thing that people from outside the wilds don’t really get about how we live, it seems to come down to the loft. A “bed” ain’t a feature as such. Up under the roof, cut into two rooms, one on either side of the fireplace shaft, is the loft. At home, that’s where we all sleep. Mum and Daddy, up on the one side, everyone else on the other. It’s a matter of space, sure, that’s an honest truth. But space isn’t a matter of poorness. It’s just, the smaller your home, the less space you have to worry about protecting.

Here, alone, on a bed, I don’t feel quite right. And I feel cold. Up the lofts, close to the warmed stones of the smoke-shaft, curled up close to family (me and Andy always close together), you stay a lot warmer. And it feels safe. Being alone here makes me feel worried. For myself, sure, but for my family too. Back home, everyone bundled up together, and you knew if someone was wandering. Hell, we could hear each other piss in the night, leaving the pots just at the base of the ladder like we do.

It takes more than one turn of the glass for me to get to sleep, and it’s not the deepest rest I’ve ever gotten to. I wake up a few times, a bit dizzied, not quite sure where I am. Then I wake and there’s the pre-morning light starting to creep around, so I go down to the stables. I brush Willow down and re-saddle her, re-tighten the saddle, then up into the stirrups and head out. At the gate a watcher I don’t know pulls the bridge down for me, and as I trot off toward the path southwest, toward the wastes, I can hear the watcher heaving his breaths as he works the rope contraption that pulls the bridge back into place.

The horses get pushed too hard on this leg of the voyage, sure and true, because it’s a twenty hour’s trudge by foot from here to the next village proper. A settlement here and there. Caravans with enough men in them to do a proper guard? They’ll camp between. But the horse has to do the whole lot in one day, with packs, and that means it’s got to spend a day or two recovering on the other side. Depends on the horse. I’ll get to find out how Willow does with endurance once we get to the next village over, but that she’s from the fringe means she’s tested against those measures.

My time in the wastes feels long. And I’d say it’s not exciting, because by all standard accounts it shouldn’t be. In the wastes, you’ve got yourself mostly just rock, or so they told me. Big stretches of it, with a bit of growth here and there, patches and such. A stream of sorts I’ll get to soon enough, giving me the chance to water my horse. This is how they described it. But to me, to my eyes that have never been out and seen further than Marsh, it’s not a run of gray stones.

It’s an open horizon, all gray below and above, the sky fully clouded. So thick in gray you could almost dissolve into it. The crags of these rocks, they topple onto one another, sloping or crashing together, like they’re a telling a story of elements or giants or people that threw together these massive slabs. Or more than slabs, sometimes—full city-sheets of rock, all smooth and washed down.

The path you go across by horse, it’s marked by cairns, these little stacks of smaller rocks. Sometimes you go a ways, over the next horizon, just hoping you’ll be able to see the next cairn. I’m going all on faith, hoping my vision stays sharp. And then the storm comes.

Next section.