(1 of 1. Originally posted August 20, 2022 for the prompt “Vast Landscape.”)
Charles fumbled with the strap on the saddlebag, his fingers numb with cold even through his fur-lined gloves. He stamped his feet, trying to warm up. Guinevere barely flinched at the sound of heavy boots thumping against snow-crusted rock.
“Steady, Gwen.” Charles patted her shoulder, knocking bits of ice out of her mane. “I’ll find something to keep up our strength.”
A few more tugs pulled the strap loose. Charles swept his hands across the bottom of the bag, coming out with one strip of jerky and a slice of dried apple. He offered the apple slice to Guinevere. “This should get us over that next rise, and then maybe we’ll make camp. We’ll head back to the wagons tomorrow with the news, good or bad.”
He eyed the slope ahead as he chewed. A few rocks, but nothing they couldn’t get the wagons over with some effort. Everyone would have to get out and walk for a while, to spare the horses. But they could do it. At least one more time. Supplies would run out in the next three days, and it would take the wagons that long to get here.
Please let this be the end. Charles prayed. I don’t have the strength left to dig any more graves.
He slogged forward. Gwen resisted at first, blowing out a puff of frosty air in protest. But at last she followed, head hanging down to her knees. The edge of the sun vanished behind the rocks ahead, dropping them into shadow. Charles kept his gaze on the ground just in front of him. Left foot. Right. Left foot. Right. The angle of the slope changed. He raised his eyes.
Another rise lay ahead of them. Charles felt it, like a kick in the gut. He shook his head. No. I can’t. He looked back toward the foothills. Back where the others would be setting up camp for the night. How many of them would be looking up toward him right now, eyes full of hope and longing? I can’t go back to them again like this, not without good news.
He fixed his eyes on the slope ahead. I can go a little farther. Left foot. Right. Left foot. Slip. Falling to one knee. A flash of pain jolted up his leg, stabbing through the numbness like lightning through a cloud. If I don’t get up now, I may never get up again. The muscles of his legs burned, refusing to rise.
A puff of warm air kissed his ear. Soft velvet brushed the side of his head. Guinevere. His hand found the saddle girth, and followed it up to the stirrup. He couldn’t make his fingers close around it, but he managed to pass his hand through it far enough to hang his weight from it and drag himself back to his feet. Using Gwen as a crutch, Charles limped forward a few more steps. The slope changed. He raised his head.
The last rays of the setting sun blinded him for a moment. And then, green. An ocean of rolling green hills, fields and forests, fruit and grain and warm-blooded creatures. Life. Abundant life, from here to the horizon, vibrant and beautiful. Home.