It took two hours to walk around the holdfast. The man had made sure to give a wide berth to the fortress. This proved useful when part of the tower collapsed in on itself. The girl had not stopped crying. She kept sputtering about how she’d killed the spiders. She needed to learn that this wasn’t a storybook.
“I’m not going to be around to protect you forever,” the man said.
“I won’t let you die.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
“Are you dying now?”
“Not yet. But you have to be ready if anything happens to me.”
“But I don’t want to kill things.”
The man turned heel and knelt to look the girl in the eyes. “Then die, and the Old Gods will give the fire to someone else.”
“I don’t want to,” she said.
“Then learn. This is the real world. The Enemy wants to find where They put the fire. If it finds you, it will kill you. The only thing keeping you alive is the fact that the Enemy cannot conceive that the Old Gods would give the fire to an ordinary little girl.”
“What about you?” the girl asked, “Aren’t you keeping me alive?”
The man said nothing. And then: “We need to keep moving.”
The fire blazed behind them. The heat pulsed against the man’s back and he marveled that fire could undo stone.
* * *
As the sun climbed over the black tower far ahead of them, the man and the girl were moving north, downstream along a brown river river toward the open plains that were scorched and dry. At first, they travelled in silence. The girl was still remembering the destruction she had wrought. The man doubted she fully grasped what she had done.
The girl followed the man’s sternly forward track, only now and again scampering off to get berries or small bits of food she might find in the forest, gathering them in her pockets and then she’d trot to catch up with the man.
Something in the set of the girl’s countenance seemed to ask him not to speak. The man resigned himself to a long trek. Every now and again he would catch the girl trying to go scampering off, and call her back. And she would slink back with her head bowed.
He knew that eventually he would have to explain to her the peculiar danger in her actions. She couldn’t possibly understand yet.
The man could still see the holdfast in the distance, so he changed direction and began angling away from the river up into the northeastern foothills. This close to the mountains, the hills were steep and involuted, and he abandoned any path that some from these lands might take. Behind him, the man was vaguely aware of the girl staggering up and down the rocky, twisting slopes. He continued on, almost jerking the girl constantly westward. There were no more berries about but that didn’t stop the girl from trying to find some.
Toward midmorning, the man stopped to rest on the downward curve of a high hill. The girl remained standing, but the man’s muscles were trembling from the exertion and he could not keep his invulnerable façade up any longer.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked.
“I’m fine,” the man said.
“You look tired.”
“I’m fine,” the man repeated.
The girl left it at that, and the man sat to rest a while. But when he spied the girl trying to dart away downhill to get a drink of water from a river of brown water, the man sprang up and caught her arm. “Throw the berries into the dirt,” he said. “All of them.” The girl looked up at him, eyes brimming with tears.
“It’s poison. Everything in this land is poison.”
The girl did as she was told. She’d not stopped crying the whole way through. The man watched to make sure every last berry and morsel of food was thrown away. Then he spared the occasional glance over his shoulder. He could still see the holdfast, burning dimly in the distance.
He decided he could not let her continue on this way.
“You’re only trying to distract yourself,” he told her as they continued onward.
“You know what.”
“No I don’t.”
“Then what do you think I might be speaking about?”
The girl chewed on the thought and then answered, “What happened with the rag men?”
The man nodded.
“I mean—I’m a little guilty. But why would I distract myself?”
“Because you killed them,” the man said. “And because you don’t want to come to terms with that. You haven’t even come to terms with the fact that there’s an Enemy in a black tower you must kill when we get there.”
The little girl spat. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“If you can’t make your peace with what you’ve been ordered to do, you will fail. Do you understand me?”
The girl looked away and nodded.
The man crouched to be at eye level and pushed her chin up so that she could look nowhere but his eyes. “Do you understand me?” he asked again.
Thunder boomed in the distance.
* * *
They tried to sleep that night amidst a heavy rain that came down in great sheets. The ground was half grass, half rock, and they made their camp on a patch of grass atop a hill, between two slabs of rock. The man had raised a lean-to that served to keep the rain off them. The girl slept soundly, but rest eluded the man, who did not even bother to unpack his bedroll. Instead he kept watch, taking a whetstone to his blade. His hood was raised, and he watched for enemies in the dark.
“Have you ever met the Enemy?” the girl asked.
“No,” the man said.
“What do you think he looks like?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Can you guess?” The looked up at him, only just visible through the rain. Her eyes were wet, but from rain or tears he could not tell. “Please?”
The man laughed, shaking his head and spraying droplets of water from the ends of his hair. “I think he’s a spider,” the man said. “I think he’s some great spider, larger than large.”
“How big is that?”
“His body would blot out the sun, and he would birth a great many small spiders, and bandage them up into Swarm.”
“Only she’s can give birth,” the girl pointed out.
“Fine,” the man said. “Then the Enemy is a she.”