The man trailed through the black burn of a forest,
The girl with fire in her veins scampered behind him.
As the black tower rose in the west with windows glowing red as forge fires.
“We’ll rest here for the night,” said the man.
“Is there nowhere safer?”
“Nothing is safe,” said the man. “Not here.”
The man woke at the first light, expecting birdsong
In the moments of waking, he forgot where he was.
But the birds did not come when they sky was all ash.
He crouched over the girl
The first signs of light dawning on the horizon,
The man tugged at her blanket.
A quick, sharp pull to test her reflexes.
The girl had taken to sleeping with her short sword by her side.
In the beginning, she was slow to hone her defenses
She would fumble to retrieve the blade from its sheath.
But this was not the beginning.
The point of the blade at the man throat
Before he’d a chance to sit back on his heels.
The girl’s eyes glowed with the fire in her veins
Held at bay by her will
But she swallowed the fire out of the waking world
And the glow sank below the surface.
Recognition came and she lowered her sword. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be,” said the man. “You’re learning.”
That night, the man found a rock that speared the apex of a hill,
Filling its descent in shadow. He urged the girl under the stone’s shelter
Then followed after
When the rain cleared they opened their bedrolls
He made a paste of nuts and acorns for the girl, crushed between two rocks.
When she’d finished her supper, the girl climbed into her bedroll
Sleeping, teeth chattering.
But the man couldn’t sleep, so he gave her his cloak
She didn’t shake as much, then.
The man thought he saw the girl hugging her sword to her chest.
But the dark was a shroud about them.
He wondered how it could be that there were some in the Enemy’s lands who liked the dark.
But those who like the dark weren’t fond of them.
The next day they came upon a hill with a steep climb
A hill that was half a mountain
The girl followed, making breathless
A child’s imitation of war.
“Fwsh, fwsh” she would mutter before lying flat against the slope:
An imitation of arrow flights.
She hissed her words, shouting pretend orders to pretend soldiers.
The two climbed over the hill to find a cobblestone road.
He’d let her have her fantasies
Soon war would come to her
And she was not like to play pretend then
They traveled down the cobbled road
The man had smelled it before he saw it. It was a stink he knew all-too well.
They halted when they spied a tavern where the road crossed two ways.
The girl sniffed the air, wrinkled her nose. “What is that this foul smell?
“You’re not going to like it.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“You don’t want to know.”
Scorch marks had clawed their way up the side of the tavern.
The roof had caved in, and the black burn was strong.
But the tavern did not hold his attention for long.
They littered the ground—the burned and black figures, sprawled on the ground
Limp as discarded tunics.
They stood there and studied it.
“What are those gray men?” the girl asked.
She did not look away.
“They’re statues,” the man lied. “I’ll look inside.”
“I don’t want you to,” said the girl.
“There might supplies. We could—”
“No!” The girl said. The fire flared beneath her eyes.
“Okay,” the man said. “Let’s move on.”
Those bodies were only the first of many.
Some were bloated and burned in crow-cages
Where their namesake were pecking at their flesh and their eyes.
Others hung by a length of hempen rope,
Their bodies gray and their mouths slack.
The flies would settle on their face, only to lift into a black cloud
When the two approached.
The corpses of men scabbed the road; dried to leather.
The man wondered if they should return if they ran out of food.
Strips of dried meat were easy to ration.
But he did not let the thought linger for long.
But as they progressed down the road he found patches of cloth
Clusters of dead spiders within.
He knew what that meant. The clicks, the insects.
They were coming
The Swarm was coming
“You are not to wander off, understand?”
The girl nodded.
The road ended, abruptly,
Leading to a valley below, and in its center:
A mockery of a holdfast
With stones that poked out at odd angles,
Hastily built by the Enemy
The man checked the crenellations along the battlements for anyone inside.
There was a flash of movement, browning cloth fluttering behind.
He dragged the girl roughly out of sight
Her protests died on her lips
As something emerged from the shoddy stone structure.
It was a bandaged form almost resembling a man,
Save for the lumps crawling across whatever lay inside
The linen that covered its form like a burial shroud
“What was that?” the girl asked. “A corpse?”
“Swarm,” the man told her.
“What are Swarm?”
“Creatures enchanted by dark magic. Watch.”
There was movement again in the holdfast.
The man watched one of the Swarm exiting the holdfast.
In a small hole where its eyes should be, the spider poked through the bandages
And scuttled across the bandaged skull,
Only to squirm back inside another linen opening.
More poked out all over its body, only to duck back in.
The girl squeezed the man’s fingers until they went white. “How does it stay together?”
“I don’t know,” the man said. “Those bandages give it concrete form, I’d venture.
“I’ll not pretend to know the workings of the Enemy.”
“How do we stop them?”
“It might be time to use that fire,” the man said.
“If there’s one in that holdfast, there’ll be many.
“Swarm don’t travel alone.”
“They’re not hurting anyone,” the girl protested.
“It’s going to hurt us if you don’t do something about it.”
“If I use the fire it’ll die.”
“That’s the idea.”
“I don’t want to kill things.”
The man set his jaw. “Okay.”
The man had told her to stay where she was atop the hill.
Stay and watch.
He hoped she listened.
He couldn’t chance to look over his shoulder to be sure.
He was already quickly approaching the holdfast.
Two Swarm were outside the hastily-built watchtower
Talking in clicks and screeches.
With bandaged hands clutched at spears.
The man drew his longsword at cut one at the neck
And it crumpled into rags and spiders.
Then there were screeches.
Or as near as the Swarm could manage:
A loud, long, clickickickickick.
Two more came out of the holdfast
And the windows on the spires
There were dozens descended the steps.
He cut the next upon the belly
And it spewed a spray of unraveling and spiders.
By that time one had fallen,
There was another who had circled the watchtower,
A spear at the ready
And a spider crawling across the back of its hand
Only to disappear in the strip of cloth around its wrist.
The man pivoted away as the spearhead flew past the bridge of his nose,
And then opened its belly as he pivoted back.
But he’d not time for respite.
More were coming from all sides with axes and swords at the ready.
He gave ground until found his back to the wall as the Swarm were converging on him.
Some running, others scuttling on all fours,
And more were crawling down the wall, all browning rags and scurrying spiders.
But then both spider and linen burst into flames and they hit the ground like sacks of flour.
The man did not stay to watch the rest of them die.
Instead he stepped over the pile of burning rags and spiders
Then trudged back into up the hill to fetch the girl.
The girl glowed as the fire within her came pouring to the surface.
Rivulets of tears raced down her cheeks,
Where they dried and steamed.
“I didn’t want to kill them. I don’t want to be a murderer.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
The glow faded
He hugged her.
She was hot to the touch, but he didn’t let go.