The man in black trailed through the burnt, black trees, and the girl with the fire followed.
The wind whipped the man’s cloak, stirring the fur sewn about its shoulders and hurling it back so that its end tickled the girl’s nose.
She quickened her pace, scampering to his side. The air smelled of acrid smoke that made the girl prone to coughing.
They would not survive long if the girl remained weak. There were fouler things than smells in these burnt, black lands.
They came to a clearing amidst the forest. The man dropped his bedroll and then the girl’s. Had taken to carrying both their packs. The girl carried the fire. That was enough. Last he dropped his sword. The girl stared into the red eyes of the wolf on his pommel. This, too, was a habit she had formed during her travels with him. A question formed on her lips, but before she could noise it, the man spoke.
“We’ll bed here for the night.” The wind unclung the ash that hugged the trees and sent it sailing toward them.
“Why in a clearing? Wouldn’t we be spotted? Isn’t there anywhere safer to sleep?”
“Nothing is safe,” the man said. “Not here.”
* * *
When he awoke that night it was dark and cold. He flexed his hand to bring back feeling, then he reached to touch the child sleeping beside him. He didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath until he felt her beside him and let it out with his relief.
The sky was a color of a bruise and seemed to grow blacker toward their destination in the west. The dark tower rose in the sky, its windows glowing red as the light of forge-fires.
The man pushed his blankets away blankets and rose, wrapping his cloak about himself. He buckled his swordbelt about his waist and went off in search of game he was not like to find.
He couldn’t sleep anyway.
One dream had come to him that night, but since then nothing. He had dreamed the child had led him to a cave full of crystals. It was nonsense. The stuff of bedtime stories of adventurers who quested and came back with riches untold. She had yet to learn that her dreams were not real. Only her nightmares. Crystal caves were filled with beasts like giant spiders, the man knew. But the child would know, too. She’d know soon enough.
* * *
The man returned to the girl and found her still asleep, wrapped up in her bedroll. The man crouched over her and 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. When he’d started testing her, she was slow to hone her defenses, waking only to fumble to retrieve the blade from the sheath.
It had been different, of late. The blade was pointed at the man before he’d a chance to sit back on his heels. The test had almost cost the man his head. He saw the child’s eyes glow. The fire was burning in her veins; held at bay by her will alone.
Recognition came, then. The glow faded and the fire sank below the surface of the child’s skin. She lowered her short sword.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be,” said the man. “You’re learning.”
* * *
An hour later they were on the trail. He carried their bedrolls and supplies and the child carried the fire that the Old Gods had put inside her. If they had to run, the man could easily abandon their supplies. But the fire was a different matter entirely. It could not be abandoned.
But the girl had not yet mastered the art of pulling her fire into the world. Not in a way that permitted control, at least.
The man resented that the Old Gods hadn’t bothered to teach her. The Enemy worked to make a ruin of Their world, but the Old Gods in their pride had declared it was beneath Them to teach her.
He decided that he did not much care for higher powers.
The two crested a hill and the trees died with the path, so they followed the suggestion of one. The man shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over what had once been a far green country. The Enemy had taken it upon themselves to undo that. “The horse lords once lived here,” he told the girl. “Before the war began. Before the Enemy invaded.”
“What happened to them?”
“They died.” Dry, withering grass crunched underfoot.
Now the land was empty. Below them was a valley cut through by a serpentine river. “Don’t go close to the water,” he cautioned. “And don’t drink from it.” Flanking its sides were gray dead weeds, wrinkled and writhing. They set out down the valley, the grass weighted with wind and bowing to their progression.
The girl’s cloak snapped behind her. A war banner.
* * *
They crossed the river by way of an old stone bridge. The river chuckled below them. “Don’t look down,” the man said.
“I wasn’t going to,” said the girl as she looked down.
They approached the apex of the bridge when the man reached out to hold the girl back.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Obsidian,” he said, pointing to the shards scattered about the bridge. “There shouldn’t be any obsidian there.”
The girl stood on her toes to get a look at them. “It looks sharp,” she said.
“That is so. Stay here, girl.” He started forward.
“What’s wrong?” the girl asked. She started forward, and the man whirled around. Seeing the threat in his eyes, she withdrew.
“When I tell you to stay, you stay. Understand?”
The girl nodded. “But why?”
“There could be trolls.”
“Trolls don’t live under bridges.”
“You’d be surprised.” He reached the apex of the bridge and withdrew his longsword. He made for what may come. His heartbeat throbbed in his ears, and he took his next step, descending.
He readied himself for any sign of danger ahead. He imagined a hand rising up from the stone and dragging him through the bridge. He would tell the girl the run and she would. She would run away from that bridge and make it to the Enemy’s tower, where it would all end.
And he would drown in some unnamed river in the middle of a scorched land. It would be over.
His boots crunched over the obsidian and nothing came. They obsidian was the memory of some battle long ago, he realized. There was nothing left to hurt them, so he sheathed his blade. “Follow me,” he said.
She crossed the bridge after him.
* * *
The valley sped downwards, and then turned suddenly up. The slope was steep and the man felt he was climbing more than hiking.
He stole the occasional glance over his shoulder to make sure the girl was still following. She had made a game out of her climb, though the man could not have said what this game was. She made strange noises and imitated voices as she climbed.
At length, he realized that her noises were a child’s imitation of war. The “Fwsh, fwsh” she would mutter before lying flat against the slope was an imitation of arrow flights. The hisses of whispers were her pretending to shout orders to soldiers that were not there.
She was playing at war in the midst of one.
The man climbed over the precipice and was greeted by a cobblestoned road.
The girl came up after him, muttering in pretend voices and rejoicing in pretend victories. “Let’s go,” she said, and scampered ahead of him.
“Slow down!” The man called after her.
“You can’t catch me!”
“Slow down!” He barked again. His hand had gone to his hilt, though he hadn’t realized until he saw the look on the girl’s face. Deliberately, he made his grip go slack, his hand drop to his side. “You can’t go too far ahead. I can’t lose you.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl said.
“Don’t apologize. There is no sorrow in your first mistake. Make it again, and we’ll discuss apologies.”
The girl nodded and went back to her pretend war. The man decided he’d let her have her fantasies. For now, at least. Soon, he knew, the war would come to her. And she was not like to play pretend when that day came.