Chaos. Fire. The stench of burning flesh. Ash fills the sky and darkens the world. It remains dark for many days.
The forest is quiet. The man moves on silent feet over leaves that litter the ground.
In another life, the quiet was welcome.
In this existence, it means there are things he cannot see. Things he has no desire to see.
“In another life,” he thinks wryly, “ I wouldn’t be wearing these shoes.” The tight hem of the glaceon leather shoes squeeze his feet.
But he must keep walking.
He did this hike every summer with Her. He knows, when he glances back, that he should see the lights of the distant villages.
He also knows the lights are gone.
The villages, gone.
The people, dead.
Skulls hang from the low branches of the trees. Hundreds of them, without bundles of bones to accompany their forever slumber. Mice, rats, birds, human. Silent sacrifices to Gods who didn’t listen.
It doesn’t matter. When the end came, nothing mattered.
He walks by a corpse on the ground, head twisted, mouth open, entrails spilling out of an open abdomen. Picking through the pockets for anything he can use--a cigarette and lighter--he leaves the rest for the crows.
There is no room for empathy in survival.
The yew wood of the bow in his hand is terribly cut, rough against his palm.
He clutches it tighter and keeps walking.
The sun is early in the sky, bright red rays casting across the low clouds, throwing shadows across the forest floor.
“Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” he whispers, remembering an old saying from childhood--standing in the kitchen as his father prepared to head out on his fishing boat in the first lights of dawn.
A storm is coming.
He is not prepared. Will it be a rainstorm or a storm of wind and fire?
The man crouches on the ground, slowly covering his large body with loose leaves and earth. There is no reason to stop; yet, he senses he must.
Stop, his bones seem to shout.
So, he stops. And he lays low, bow and arrow ready.
A silver coin glints on the ground and catches his eye. How it survived the fires that burned the world, he’ll never know.
He thinks briefly of his mother and father.
He thinks about Her. Remembers, for a moment.
A moment to remember and then several moments to forget.
His eyes close.
A noise. The snap of a branch.
He awakens with a start, his body still, only his eyes moving around. He squeezes the bow with one hand and counts his breaths.
1 breath-no sound.
2 breaths-no sound.
3 breaths-his hand moves up to his chest.
4 breaths-no sound.
5 breaths-his hand wraps around the gold locket hanging from his neck.
6 breaths-he holds the breath.
He presses his lips together. "Elizabeth," he soundlessly mouths.
The ground shakes. Pushing his head into the cold dirt, he is silent. The pines and sticks push into the back of his head, cutting his scalp, but he dares not move.
He listens for the beat of the wings. The wings that sound like thunder and anger and death.
His breath stops when he hears the first wing beat. When he feels the wind move over his face.
A crow lands next to him and he breathes out.
A flash of dark. Maybe it didn’t see him.
Beating wings. His breath stops again.
A cough of flame. He closes his eyes.
The first crunch of bones. He screams.
She reaches for the locket, sunk into the grainy sand. Holding it tight in her fist, she keeps walking.
She must keep walking.