Their eyes were on the mountains, but their feet were in the fields. Tall, thick fields. Fields that poke, scratch, pull. Every mud-laden step was a drag. Poke, scratch, pull, drag. scratch, pull, drag.
Grey storm clouds hovered low and draped them misery. They were muddy, soggy and sore. Everything was dreary, except those mountains.
Those mountains were hope. Take a step and look at the mountains. Look at the mountains and take a step.
They pushed themselves in a small clearing. The reeds had been trampled flat. Scattered around were small beds of grass. Maybe animals? Maybe men? It was hard to tell. It wasn’t fresh, so it was doubtful it was coming back tonight.
Baker stood in the middle. He was the tallest. Long, dark hair draped over his shoulders. He was dirty. He unhooked the worn leather strap of his bag and dropped it to the ground. The others followed.
Darkness descended quickly. They dared not start a fire, so they nibbled on what was left of the bits of bread, cheese and meat they had brought. The moon pierced through the cloud cover and the mountains glowed in the distance. They were close and it warmed them.
“195,” Baker mumbled. “My friends. Tomorrow will be day 196. I thank you for your sacrifice. I’m thankful that these fields are almost over and that the shadow of the mountain is upon us.”
The group nodded in agreement and made hushed guttural noises.
The night ticked on. Some rested. Some slept. The darkness didn’t scare them anymore. Not like when they first started the journey. When they left the city, the night was fear. Real fear. None of them had experienced the darkness before. None of them had spent the night in the open. In the beginning it made them tremble.
Eventually the night turned into a friend. Now, night meant rest. The night would heal them so they could hurt through the fields again for another day. Poke, scratch, pull, drag.
The mornings came slower as they got closer to the mountains. The red and yellow light slowly draped upon them. They were weary and slow to rise.
The sound of a reed braking in the distance startled them to their feet.
Baker waved his hands and pushed them into a defensive position. In the 195 days of their journey they had few encounters. They were disciplined, serious, quiet. You get that way when just about everyone in the wild wants to kill you. Most of the time it was an errant wild animal. Just a random harmless encounter.
More cracks and pops. Something was moving through the reeds. Then they heard talking in the distance. This was not an animal.
There wasn’t much they could do. The sound of moving through the reeds would give them away. So they crouched in the shadows of the clearing.
The quietly waited for it to pass, but it didn’t. The voices came closer and closer. Baker drew his knife. The others followed.
Ramsey was the first to poke through the reeds into the clearing. She was tall, as tall as Baker. Splotches of blood covered her blue uniform. Her eyes were sunken and her face tired. Baker grabbed her arm and pulled her into his corner of the clearing. Her scream was cut short as he put his rough, dirty hand over her mouth.
The others rushed into the clearing. All were dressed in the same blue uniforms, each had a knife drawn. They were thin and frail.
They all stood in the clearing. Four versus four, it was a standoff. They postured a bit, but mostly they just glanced around, trying to size up each other. This went on for a bit. Baker removed his hand from Ramsey’s mouth.
“We just want to be on our way,” he said.
“As do we,” said Ramsey.
Baker released Ramsey and pushed her toward her friends. It was a risk, but he was reasonably sure they were not a threat. Baker was intuitive like that. It’s probably why he was the leader. It was probably why they had gotten this far.
“We’re heading to the city,” said Ramsey.
“And us the mountain,” replied Baker.
It got quiet. There was much to ask, but neither group did. The warmth of the sun broke through the clouds.
Baker pushed through the reeds and headed toward the mountains. The others in his group followed.
Ramsey stood in the clearing for a minute and then pushed on to the city. The others in her group followed.