Brecken pokes halfheartedly at the scrub. It’s hard to focus his eyes on penetrating the inky, moonless dark. Torchlights bob like fairy lights out over the fields, and muted shouts pervade the village behind him. His mind turns over many questions.
“Psst!” A sharp hiss. Brecken’s eyes snap up, toward the left. Two tiny points of light peer out through the brown fronds. “Hey, Breck!”
“Lords-a-light, Jozie!” Brecken snarls. “What did you do?”
“Reckon you know,” Jozen whispers. His face begins to resolve in the darkness, mouth set in a hard line.
“Yeah,” Brecken says quietly. “Yeah, I know.” He looks around, makes sure no one else is near; then he kneels to bring his face closer to his friend’s. “Why, Jozie? What was you thinking?”
“I couldn’t take it, Breck. Knowin’ he’d be laughing at me ’till we all dead. And she—” his voice cracks, just a little. “It’s the pity, Breck. I can’t stand the way she looks at me now. Like I’m some dumb kid who should’ve known better.”
“She weren’t worth this, Jozie. You can’t hide long, and they’re gonna hang you for what you done.”
Jozen shakes his head. “Naw, got it figured. I can be in Juniper by sun-up. From there take one of the merchant vans up through the Star.”
Brecken’s eyes narrow. “The Star? Why you wanna go there?”
“I’m enlisting, Breck. I’m going up north to fight.”
“Pentecost’s shriveled old balls, why would you do that? The war will be at our doorstep soon enough, no need to go runnin’ for it.”
“Or stay here and what? Swing from the courthouse? Make reparation?”
“Higgen’s a vile toad of a man, but he’s reasonable. Maybe you could—”
“Even if he were amenable, I’d be a greybeard afore I paid him back for those horses.” For the briefest of moments, a wicked grin flits across Jozen’s features. “They ain’t even good for meat now, after what I done to ’em.”
“Jozen… the war…” Brecken flounders for words. “Think this through!”
“I done thinkin’, Breck. Just paused to say good-bye. You always been good to me. Since we was whelps, you been good to me.”
“You take care, Brecken. I don’t think I’ll see you again.” Jozen rises, turns toward the north.
“What do I tell your ma?”
“Tell her…” He ponders a moment. “Tell her I’m lost. Lost in the wild. Another lonely ghost wailin’ in the wastes.”
And Brecken realizes he’s talking to empty air.