Each frantic step the two men took carried the fate of their people. If only they could make it back in time.
As they ran through the streets, nervous eyes peeked through window corners, drawn by the sounds but afraid to be seen. Were they fugitives? Simple curfew-breakers? Or just fools, driven mad by…everything? But the fury of the search, the manpower, made it clear they were something more.
Bundled in tattered, hooded coats, they stumbled through snow blown knee-deep. The wind rushed between buildings and pushed at their backs like a giant hand, its cruel howl whistling in their ears, a fog of swirling ice stinging their faces like blowing sand.
The larger of the two held out one hand as a shield, while with the other he held the arm of his struggling companion and pulled him along. Feeling a rumble in the ground they quickened their pace, each step hopping from one hole and sinking into another. Tiring.
The rumble drew closer.
“We have to get out of the open,” the larger man shouted over the wind. He spotted a dark alley across the street. “This way!”
They jumped free of their last steps and landed on dirty snow crushed flat and smooth. Running became skating, their numb legs sliding around beneath them. Reaching the other side they jumped back into a deep drift, hopped past two building fronts, then turned left into the alley and scurried behind a pile of garbage crates. They fell to the ground and squeezed against a wall. The larger man draped himself over the other, reached back to pull snow over their boots and legs, and prayed the wind would cover their steps.
“How much…further?” asked the smaller man, his lips shivering beneath a frozen gray beard. He was much older, his breathing rapid and sorely insufficient.
“Five blocks, give or take.”
“Shhh! Don’t move.”
The rumble was joined by a deep mechanical groan that shook snow from the garbage above them. The larger man turned his head toward the street, peaked through a space between the crates and wall, and then pulled back. The alley became like day. A searchlight swept in from the street as a military vehicle rolled past the alley, pulverizing snow beneath its treads. The light swept through again, high and low and across the crates, then moved to the other side of the street as the vehicle continued on.
The men waited a bit and then slowly sat up.
The old man coughed and gagged as if to spit something from his lungs. “Gell…” He took in a wobbly breath. “Go on without me.”
“Nonsense.” Gell’s eyes stayed focused on the street.
The old man grabbed Gell by the hood with a trembling hand and pulled him closer. “That’s an order, Major.”
Gell looked into the man’s face for the first time in hours. His wrinkled skin was red and chapped, his eyes barely open. “I’m following my orders,” he said. “I’m to get you safely back to your family, and then get all of you out of this city.”
“I’m…” Another cough. “I’m giving you new orders. Leave me here.”
Gell shook his head. “You know I can’t do that.”
“My life is leaving me, Gell. If you try to save me, you’ll never make it back to the others. And I will still die.”
Gell checked the street again and then stood. He pulled the hood from his head and brushed snow from his arms, his tired breath collecting around his perfectly military face. He looked down at his King. “Can you stand?”
“My legs say no.”
“I’ll carry you, then.”
“Then we’ll both die, and all will be lost.” He tried to sit more upright against the wall. More haggard breaths and coughs followed. “I no longer matter in this. I’ve played my part as best I could. Any hope we have now rests solely with Wes. His life is paramount, so I relieve you of your duty to me, Major Gell Seret -- my friend -- and pray you will be as much a blessing to my son as you have been…to me.”
“But you’ve told him nothing, Sire. Does he even know about…”
“No, he doesn’t. I thought I’d have more time, but… You’ll have to tell him for me, at least what you can. Wait until you get to Naji, though. Falshawn will help him with the rest. But if you don’t make it back in time tonight, they’ll find him first.”
“Do you have any idea how hard a thing this is you’re asking of me? I swore an oath to protect you, even if it meant giving my life for yours. And now you want me to just walk away and leave you here, behind a pile of garbage? I can’t do that. That’s not how it’s supposed to end. Not for you.”
“It’s exactly how God intends it to end for me. I can accept that. You must, as well.”
Gell pulled his hood back over his head and drew it snug around his face. In his mind he calculated once more the distance, the old man’s weight, the time, the cold, the snow. He’s right. “There has to be another way.”
“There’s not. Now please, do as I ask.”
In the distance, they could still hear the rumble. Gell’s instinct told him it was heading back. Time was running out. He took another long look at his failing King, twisted the knife in his heart, and slowly – reluctantly – conceded.
The old man was relieved. “Thank you. Now, you mustn’t worry about me. God will take me soon, and the snow will cover me. It could be weeks before I’m found, and considering my appearance, it’s doubtful anyone would recognize me.” He smiled and closed his eyes, and spoke as quickly as his breathing allowed. “Just another dead beggar, they’ll think. But you…you must get my wife and sons to Naji, just as we planned. I think…that’s where Kej went, as well.”
The old man’s eyes shot open. “Damn! How could I forget?” He set his left arm in his lap and pulled the frost-covered glove from his hand. “You must take this.”
He struggled to pull a simple metal band from around his thumb.
“It’s…” The ring would not move past the knuckle.
Gell was confused.
With every tug the old man grew more frustrated by his weakness. “It’s…for…Wes.”
Gell bent down. “Don’t waste your strength.”
“I have to…get it…off!” He was breathing hard and fast.
“Wes doesn’t need…”
In a blur of desperation and with his last ounces of strength, the old man twisted his body, reached under his coat, pulled a knife from around his waist and plunged the blade toward his thumb.
“Zor, no!” Gell grabbed his wrist.
Zor’s hand shook and tears streamed down his cheeks. “Cut it off, Gell! Hurry…cut it off…time…”
“You must! Before it’s too late.”
“It’s just a ring.”
Zor jerked his face toward Gell with absolute panic in his eyes. “No! It means everything. Everything! We have to get it off now…before I die. How could I forget…stupid old fool. Give it to Wes. Tell him he can never take it off. Never! Understand?”
“Do you understand?” Zor snapped.
Gell nodded. “Yes.” He took the knife away and threw it down. “But let’s get it off another way.” He pulled off his own gloves and put Zor’s hand in between his to warm it.
After a few calm moments, Zor continued. “It’s not just a ring. It’s the most important thing…more important than my life.”
“I can’t explain. It’s forbidden. Even Wes can’t know. Not yet. That’s up to Falshawn to explain, just as her predecessor did for me. But you cannot fail in delivering it to him, or in getting him to Naji.”
Gell opened his King’s hand, took the ring with his fingers and spun it free, easily, as if it had let go. He looked at it and closed his fist around it. “I won’t fail you.”
Zor smiled in relief. “No, I don’t suppose you will. You do seem to have a knack for…” His chest heaved. He grimaced and gasped for a small bit of air, but his lungs felt frozen. “Major?”
Gell dropped to his knees. “Sire?”
The King’s eyes closed and his body rocked as he tried in vain to breathe.
Tiny, tiny breaths. “No…goodbyes, it seems. Go…quickly.” One eye opened. Fluttered. Closed. “Tell Wes…I’m…”
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