Drift

The strap of my bag, heavy and final, chafes my shoulders, and a trickle of sweat runs down between my shoulder-blades. My arm, still held awkwardly, has stiffened, and the blood-stained fabric of my shirt rasps against my skin. The late summer’s sultry harvest dust and smell of cut grass are remote and unreal, deadened by the curtain of exhaustion. Somewhere in my bubble of pain I’m grateful for the shade of the trees.

My vision is already clouding, my gut clenched around the days without food. I drift in and out of focus: somehow the drone of the distant combine harvester is also his voice, a hateful snarl of rejection. I tune it out fiercely, and hear instead the cry of seabirds.

I blink. There are small birds twitting sleepily in the trees, and a gentle shushing of the wind in the branches, like waves on a beach. I can smell the sea, the sharp, cinnamon tang of wrack and driftwood and something stranger, like musk. My feet sink into the sand and an unseen hand steadies me gently. The road catches my feet: unsupported, I overbalance, sink to the sticky tar, jarring hands and arms still bruised and grazed by the gravel when he knocked me down. I stand painfully, and carry on.

The air is hazy with sunset, the slopes of stubbled fields complacent in the evening calm. The city rises out of the haze, spired rose and umber in the dawn light. The breeze from the golden ocean is crisp and cool and tinged with vanilla and musk.

I drop my bag onto the ground, kick off my shoes. Lightened, I walk down the beach towards the glass spires. In the empty road my bag and shoes sit on the tarmac, dusted with lemon-scented sand.

To be Free

Kate’s face darkened at the sight of the mist.  Her eyes narrowed in hate and her fists clenched at her sides.  It was always mocking her.  Lingering on the road, coming and going as it pleased – it wasn’t bound to anything.  And worst of all, it concealed the fork in the road and hid the destination of the few travellers that passed by.  Those that were free to come and go.

Kate stood glaring at the mist, feeling the injustice of her situation gnaw at her heart causing weeping wounds that hadn’t time to heal before the chafing started again.  Just like the chain around her ankle.

The clinking of the chain as she unconsciously shifted her stance brought her back to the task at hand.  Picking up the bucket she headed off to the hen house to collect eggs.  As she drew close to the hen house she paused and glanced back at the mist and its taunting presence.  One day she would free and move as she pleased.  To come and go like the mist.

The Ancient Path

The basket was well packed, with sausage and fine mead. But Nan still looked concerned.

“Where does she live, your cousin?” asked Kirsjan, taking charge. That was his way.

“Oh, you are good children, helpful and well raised. Follow the road that starts by the west gate.”

Lily was rapt: “The misty road, the road that calls your name?”

“Hush, Lily, now. Your nonsense is amiss.” Kirsjan was stern.

“Your sister’s right, that road is full of wiles. Mind you don’t stray, don’t dally or detour, and you’ll be safe.” But Nan looked unconvinced.

Kirsjan sensed this: “That misty road, winding between the ancient sycamores, smells of good mushrooms and of partridge nests. Were we to stray, we would be quite safe.”

“Kirsjan, my boy, you have your city ways. But mind my words: that forest is not mild. The vapours hide mysterious things and stuff from fairies’ tales. Creatures that weave their mounts from morning dew; that harness foxes and sing to fallen stars. An ancient path it is, agreed and safe: but step outside and you are fairies’ prey. They’ll turn you into starlings and teach you how to fly.”

Kirsjan and Lily were thoughtful then. The words rang true. The path was of our world; the woods were not. They looked upon each other, and a choice was made.

And to this day, upon the ancient path, you may still hear a starling’s crystal laugh.

Migration

Tel A’Har called a halt when they came to the edge of the meadow. They had moved cautiously but swiftly through the long grass, as the meadow was large, open and exposed compared to the woodland that preceded it. The crossing had been a terrifying experience, despite the shrouding provided by early morning mist and the long grass. The summer migration was at least better than the winter one, when the grass was much shorter and the monsters hungrier.

Before Tel A’Har stretched the worst part of the journey. It was a smaller crossing than the meadow, but it was so much more exposed. There was nothing to hide behind, under or inside on its unnaturally regular stone-like surface. This was the trail left by the speed-monsters. No-one had ever actually seen one and lived to tell because they moved so fast and were so fearsome. On the occasion a young, brave buck managed to see one and survive, their thunderous roar and hot stench left nightmarish and fragmented memories.

Still, they had to reach the other side, and scouts had never found a way around the trail. Tel A’Har sat up on his haunches and scented the air thoroughly. It smelled safe, so he gave the signal and the small group cautiously stepped onto the hard, black surface.

Too Cold

It began with seeds, floating on the wind, landing between the grasses. The weather changed, grew warmer, grew wetter — the seeds caught in the earth and sprang up, first a few, then many, until the ground was dappled in the summer and in the winter the steel grey of a cloudy sky could only peek between the clutter of bare branches.

Animals visited and lived, moved in moved on, their lives momentary, ephemeral. They flourished, they died, they brought seeds and life and sound and disaster and decay; they were the daily routine, the things that quickly passed, that stood out amongst the trees, the landscape. Termites burrowed into the oldest tree in the heart of the wood; a fire killed off all the underbrush and saplings. Deer came for a season, wolves for two.

Trees were cut, for space, for land, for wood, for warmth. First slow, then not so slow. Grassland and pasture and herds encroached. A road marched between and through, and then few trees remained.

The weather changed, grew warmer, grew colder. The last planes flew overhead. The herds died; the road cracked, broke apart. A shoot appeared. The saplings returned.

And when the road was gone the weather grew colder, grew drier.

Between

It’s comfortable on this bench in between. I know I can’t stay here for long, but I can stay as long as I need.

To my right it’s all bright light and noise. I hear sounds of machinery: Urgent bleeps, intrusive whines and a voice desperately repeating my name. I feel expert hands move me. I smell the sharp tang of disinfectant. It all seems far away somehow, irrelevant, it will always be raucous and busy in that place – it will never stop.

To my left the road is quiet and misty, stretching between autumn trees: ever less distinct as it leads the eye to endlessness. All is perfectly calm. A single burnt orange maple leaf drops, floats and then settles lightly on the ground in total silence. Down this road is sublime stillness forever – it will never change.

It’s comfortable on this bench in between but I don’t stay here for long. I stand and walk without a backward glance.

Dust Cloud

He’s sitting at the table nibbling on a juicy snack when he spots it: the big cloud of dust.

“Shit.” He stands up, the wooden chair screeching on the tiled floor. “Shit.” He grabs the binoculars from the hook on the wall. He focuses as far down the road as he can, straining his eyes to try and see through the cloud. “Shitting… shit.” A dust cloud normally means they’re coming, and in large numbers.

There! He spots a shadowy outline of a shape moving through the dust, a few hundred metres down. He throws the binoculars back on the hook and takes off down the hall, knocking his plate and cup flying.

A head pops out from a doorway, groggy, annoyed at the noise.

“Jesus, keep it down, will you…” she says, yawning. “Some of us were on night watch, you know.”

“Dust cloud,” he shouts, clipping her elbow on his way past.

“Shit.” She grabs her shotgun and her boots from behind the door and runs down the hall after him.

She catches up to him in the turret, prepping the guns.

“Why can’t they just leave us alone?” he says, shaking his head.

She jumps into a gunner seat.

“Hey.” She grabs his arm. “Focus. We take them down. We survive. It’s us or them.” She loads the first magazine. “We’re just… infected. We’re still human.” She peers down the sights at the oncoming wave and squeezes off a round.