The man was moving constantly, always leading the girl along. And the girl followed, as if she were being dragged by the mere coercion of his will.
The man’s eyes were sightless with fatigue by midday. But he could not let the girl know that. He had lost all sense of time and movement. Everything except the hurt in his feet and the ache in his muscles.
That night, he found himself lying in twilight on the floor of the file of a path in the woods. The girl had woken him to offer him a bowl of cold broth. The last of such supplies. He gulped it down feeling as though he had dreamed the whole thing.
The man had them back on that trail at the first sign of light. He led the girl on.
Before the day was done, the man suspected that the girl had become an expert on his back. He made sure never to slouch. The girl might see that as a doubt of his authority. He did not offer her any commiseration. Though his muscles were fatigues and inarticulate in their movements. He was weary and rhythmic. But he could not let the girl know that.
He had a suspicion she already did.
His back compelled the girl like an ultimatum: keep moving or let the fire consuming; I permit no other alternatives.
And she could not deny him. He stalked ahead of her like a silhouette in a nightmare figure, and she followed as if catching up with him would bring her the secret to the fire she carried.
Throughout that whole day, the man stood erect as he continued on. He remained relentless and did not relax in his compulsion. The girl could not see the he was weary. He led her on. Up slopes and down hillsides, across glens, around thickets-along the western margin of the hills—he drew the girl onward against all odds. She never complained. It was not her way. She was too perplexed—or afraid—by all that was around her to see the use in complaining.
But early in the afternoon the stopped suddenly, looked about himself as if he had heard a distant cry. He was sure he had heard familiar clicks. An insect-like sound. The Enemy used them…no. The girl was beginning to see his anxiety. He shouldered their backs and started forward once again.
Late in the morning, they left the end of the file, and found themselves on a heathered hillside almost directly north of a high, grim finger of slab of stone. They could see the south plains off to the west; burnt black and as soon as the file ended, a stream of brown water turned that way, flowing to some distant union with all the other brown waters twisting serpentine about the land.
“Don’t drink,” the man said.
“I know,” the girl responded.
But at the last the man led the girl northward, toward the slab of stone, weaving his way along fragmentary tracks and across unpathed leas which bordered the hills on her right.
To the west, the grasslands of the plains were brittle with blackened bracken, though some of it seemed purplish in the sunlight. And to the east, the hills rose calmly, cresting a few hundred feet higher than the path which the man chose along their sides. In this middle ground, the heather alternated with broad swaths of bluegrass. The hillsides wore flowers and butterflies around thick copses of wattle and clusters of taller trees-oaks and sycamores, a few elms, and some gold-leaved trees which looked like almost but not quite like maples. All the colors—the trees, the heather, and bracken, the flowers, and the infinite azure sky-were vibrant with the blackness of the dark land. It was a scar upon the world. Nothing of beauty was allowed to grow.
The man crested the stony slab, and saw the walls to some great city off in the distance. The golden gates were charred with the remnants of a fire. He could smell what remained of ash and smoke even from the distance.
“Will there be people there?” The girl asked.
“No,” the man said. “Only us.”
They reached abandoned city by midday. He closed his hand around the hilt of his sword as they passed the gates. “Whatever happens,” he said, “Stay close.”
The girl followed him, holding onto his cloak.
The city was mostly burned like the trees before it. The last vestiges of wooden huts and thatch roofs had been fire-curled as if they shrank away from the man and the child. There was a golden hall atop a hill that was once the home of a great king and his riders. The only edifice built of stone and it rose as high as the city’s walls. On it was carved the likeness of a great stallion flanked by riders, and its roof was a dome of gleaming gold.
The same riders’ corpses now scabbed the street, dried to leather. The man wondered if they could come back here if they ran out of food. Strips of dried meat were easy to ration.
He did not let himself think any further down that road.
When he looked down an alleyway he saw patches of cloth with clusters of dead spiders inside. He knew what that meant. He knew who had ruined the horse lords’ city. Swarm. He scanned the roads and alleyways. Cloth and spiders laced the ground like patchwork. They were dead. He kept reminding himself they were dead.
But Swarm rarely traveled in small numbers. And there were more leathered corpses than there were patches of dead spiders. There was a reason this city fell.
He pulled the girl close to him.