Granda stumbled and almost fell. Marta reached out and grabbed his arm to steady him. “Thank you, Marta. I’m sorry I’m so slow. Happens when you get old.” He shook his head in frustration. “Could you ask your da if we could stop for a rest? I’m awful tired.”
Marta leaned over and kissed him on his sweaty cheek. “Of course I’ll ask. Here. Let’s get you settled on the grass.” She helped him wobble over to the side of the road where lush green grass had once stood. Now it was dead and dried. Fall was steadily advancing. Granda slowly lowered himself to the ground and gave a loud sigh. Marta swung the water-skin off of her shoulder and gave it to him. “I’ll be right back.”
The column of holders and their families continued to trudge past her on the track that led to Red Dragon’s Keep. They had left the Steading the day after the Demon attack. For five days they had been walking toward what they hoped was safety. She felt like she had been walking forever.
Sheep, goats, cattle and horses the Steading and holders owned raised a cloud of dust from the track. Babies cried, mothers soothed and children, now too tired to play, tramped morosely next to their parents. Wagons creaked and ungreased wheels squealed as they passed by, carrying as much food, fodder and possessions as they would hold.
Marta trotted along the side of the track on the dead grass. She exchanged hellos with those she hurried past. Her mother put her in charge of helping her granda when they left the Steading and she had been caring for him the entire way. The refugees could only move as fast as he and the other elderlies could.
Faolan, Marta’s father, strode along the track, his face set and stern. His long strides covered the ground, seemingly without effort. Marta slowed only a little as she reached his side, matching his pace. “Da, Granda needs to rest. Can we take a break?”
Faolan looked at her with blank eyes for a few strides. His attention snapped to her and his light brown eyes looked at her instead of whatever he’d been thinking about. He looked around as he walked, then checked the sky for the time of day. They’d been traveling for several candlemarks and the afternoon was well spent.
“Yes, it’s time to find a defensible place to set up for the night. Run back along the line and tell everyone it’s time to rest. Send your brothers up here. We’ll scout for a place to camp.”
He walked over to the side of the track, pulling off the floppy straw hat that sheltered his head from the sun. Sweat ran down the side of his face. He unslung his water-skin from his shoulder as he reached the edge and folded himself down to the ground wearily. He untied the top of the skin and took a large swallow of lukewarm water.
The families walking behind him followed his lead and moved to the verge of the road.
“Ok,” Marta croaked on a dry throat. Her father handed her the water-skin without a word. She took a sip, handed it back and turned to run back down the line. “You’re doing a good job, Marta. Thank you.”
“Thanks, Da.” She swung into a slow trot and shouted to those she passed to take a break. A third of the way down the column, she stopped as she reached her brothers. Both of them carried heavy packs on their backs and someone’s toddler on a hip. Voices rose in query and conversation as everyone welcomed the pause in relentless travel.
“Jaiman, Kevin. Da wants you up front to scout for a camp-site for tonight.”
Both young men sighed, and then passed the toddlers to their mothers walking beside them. “Ok. We’re on our way,” Jaiman, her older brother responded. They threw their packs into the wagon that they were trailing behind.
Marta continued on, letting everyone know that they were stopping for the night, until she reached the end of the line of footsore holders. The last oldsters were just passing her granda. The holders gratefully moved off of the track and settled on its verge.
“Come on Granda. Let’s get you up closer to the others. She walked with him as he shuffled after his friends, and finally caught up with them.
§ § §
Jaiman and Kevin jogged along the line that snaked up the track. It was rising steadily as it approached the first pass through the Dragon’s Spine. The little band of refugees had two more to navigate before they reached Red Dragon’s Keep.
“Jaiman, do you think we can get everyone there safely?” panted Kevin as they hurried.
“It won’t be for lack of trying,” answered Jaiman. “All of the men here, and most of the women, have weapons. I have a feeling we’re going to need them before we get there.”
Faolan stood as the young men arrived, retying the neck of his water skin and slinging its strap over his shoulder. His short, graying dark brown hair was plastered to his head with sweat.
“We need to scout out half a mile. Look for a stream and an opening in the forest large enough to handle all of us. I think I recall one right around this spot. Meet back here in a quarter of a candlemark.” He slapped each of them on their shoulder. “Go.”
Each young man took a side of the track and stepped into the forest to look for a clearing.
Faolan looked at the long line of his holders stretching back toward the Steading. He waved at the two closest men. “Let’s get everyone bunched up on the track. There’s a clearing somewhere close and I want everyone ready to move and set up camp.”
The two men nodded at him and set off along the sides of the column, chivying their friends and neighbors to close up ranks and join those near the front of the column.
§ § §
The sun slowly dropped closer to the horizon. Marta looked uneasily at the line of trees that bordered the track. She felt awfully exposed here. A shiver of fear raised the hairs on the back of her neck.
Shouts traveled down the length of the column of holders. A camp-site had been found about a hundred yards into the forest on the west side of the road. The line began to move.
The holders wound their way between the trees into a small meadow, startling a herd of deer from their grazing. A narrow stream bordered the meadow. Children ran toward the water for welcome relief from dry throats.
Everyone gratefully dropped packs to the ground where they intended to rest and others guided their horse-drawn and hand pushed carts into a line that would provide some shelter from an attack from the road. The horses were hobbled and left to graze on the dried grass, younger boys put in charge of watching them.
Fires were started and food was prepared. Marta scooped a bowl of stew from the pot and took it to her granda. She found him leaning against a tree, fast asleep. She shook his shoulder gently. “Wake up, Granda. I’ve brought you supper.”
With a jerk and a snort, her granda woke. He grinned at her, face drawn in tired lines. “Just taking a little nap,” he said.
“I know,” she said kindly. “Best to eat first and then sleep,” she recommended.
“You go get yours, girl. I’ll be fine.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, smiling at him. She hoped desperately that he was strong enough to make it to Red Dragon’s Keep.
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