“Which way?” Amaril asked.
“He’ll come from the tower,” Westing answered, gesturing to the distant mountains.
“Which one?” Amaril scanned the peaks, noting numerous towers.
Westing stopped marching over the gray sand. “I don’t know.” He swallowed. “We just keep heading toward the mountains. We’ll spot him from a long way off.”
Amaril nodded at her husband’s words. The wastes stretched all around them: long rolling dunes of gray sand of a thousand bland hues. Fine grit burned her eyes. Thicker grains ground between her toes in her normally-comfortable sandals. Not a single branch broke the barren land. Nothing green grew as far as she could see. Of course, that wasn’t far. Night descended.
“It’s going to be cold,” she said.
Westing nodded. “We need to keep moving. Come on.” He offered his hand.
Amaril shouldered her pack and accepted the hand, entwining her fingers through his. As they walked, her feet sank a few finger-widths into the gray. It seemed to suck at the soles of her sandals.
Westing said nothing. He scanned the horizon.
“There’s no way he’s down from the mountain yet, even if he noticed when we did.”
“Hm. I hadn’t thought of that,” he answered.
“How wide are the wastes?”
“I don’t know. No one’s crossed them since before the Summers started. We didn’t need to.”
“How do you know there’s even anyone over there watching?”
“I’ve seen the fires in the towers at night. There’s still someone over there.”
“I wonder what it was like,” Amaril wondered, “before the summers. Back when we needed the wall and the towers and all that.”
“I don’t want to find out,” Westing grumbled.
“Of course not. But use your imagination! Remember when we made our vows? They’re as old as the Summers. And some of them… why would you ever need to speak the promises out loud? ‘I will walk with you?’ Of course you would! A husband and a wife always walk together.”
Westing offered a grin and a squeeze of her hand. “You didn’t have to walk with me across the wastes.”
“You did not force me. I chose to follow you.”
They topped a gentle rise to look into a silty valley below. In the darkness, they saw footprints in the sand following down the rise on the other side leading to a great chasm in the valley.
And then they heard the scream.
Amaril ran first.
It was the voice of a child. A child needed help.
Westing shouted as he ran after.
Amaril skidded to a halt well clear of the edge of the great crack in the earth. It stood only three paces across, but she saw neither end in the distance. “Where are you?” she called out.
“Help me!” the answer came.
Hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her back from the edge. Westing’s enraged face met hers. “Don’t!” he hissed. “We don’t know the dangers of the wastes!”
“It’s a child!”
“The enemy has many faces. Remember?”
“And if it’s really a child?”
Westing jumped as the scream came again. “Hello? Help me! I can’t hold on much longer!”
Amaril’s eyes pleaded.
Finally Westing turned from his wife. “Where are you?”
“Here! Get me!”
He scanned and finally spotted the child hanging from the lip of the chasm on the other side. He backed up to take a running leap. He slipped off his belt, and his sword with it. “Take this. I can’t make it across wearing it.”
“Your sword…” Amaril objected.
“I know. Watch it for me.”
He jumped across the great crack. Amaril closed her eyes.
He didn’t land. Why didn’t she hear him land? She should hear his feet on the sand on the other side. Where was the sound?
The sand crunched under his sandals.
Amaril let out her breath. She should be more patient.
“Give me your hand!” his voice rang out.
Scuffling. Westing grunted, like when he went through his morning exercises. A child grunted.
And then they were out.
Amaril opened her eyes. There, in the darkness of the night, she saw two forms: her husband’s and a child.
And then she saw the darker forms approaching from the rise behind them. Forms that stalked on four legs. Forms that held sharp, sharp teeth. Forms that moved with feline grace.
Westing had left his sword with her.
They were defenseless.
This is the eighth chapter of Summers’ End.