Grandfather took ill in the morning, slumping over as they dug for roots in a copse.
The boy dragged him across the soft wet ground into their warren and laid him on fresh dry grass; then, as day faded, he watched the old man’s narrow chest rising with the timidity of a hare, the smooth brown skin growing a shine of sweat in the chill of the creeping night.
The boy wondered if it was the same sleeping sickness that took mother. He wondered if she still thought of him now that she was of soil and stream. What if it was her sweet voice he heard sometimes in warm winds through gaunt reeds?
At sunrise, the grandfather came back from sleep, and the boy boiled roots. He chewed them for him. His voice was deep down in his throat and torn so the boy had to rest his ear to his grandfather’s hairy lips to hear.
He needed something that could not be dug out, or cut free, or shorn from the ground, neither plant nor beast.
The Grandfather asked for a gull feather. He took the red ochre and made two finger marks on its left tip and middle. Taking yellow woad, he made three stripes on the right and pressed it into the boy’s palm with fading strength.
The boy would need to leave the valley, to walk six days at a fox’s pace, keeping the birch moss to his back. On the third day, he’d find the wall, and he would have to cross it.
He would walk until he found himself on smooth plain cut into earth like flint into flesh. The place that Grandfather would talk of over the fire as a shadowed place of death and monsters — the city of the men of metal.
The boy was to follow the river through the town where there would be more people than he’d ever seen or could dream of; nonetheless, he was to speak to no one. The river would come to a market, someone there would know the feather. They would know the old ways, the old words...
At first light the boy went to the head of the first furrow of their crops and dug with his blade a forearm deep. He pulled free a rough wool bag of jingling coins with a cold, strange face staring from each.
The boy took half and buried the rest. Taking his whetstone, he tied fresh twine around his ankles and middle.
He left the Grandfather with roots and tanned strips of rabbit flesh. Piling branch and leaf over the entrance, he crept through the thick brush out to the valley. Doing this would ensure that no fresh tracks were left. He piled branch and leaf over the entrance, then crept through thick brush out of the valley.
Taking no time to look back, he forged ahead into the marsh, staying close to the dangerously soft mud rather than the trail. You must never stay near to the trail. He caked himself in dark woad, always low and silent, even to the animals.
The boy knew of others — he had seen them walking the trails. He saw them hunting, and he had seen their fires glinting on distant hills. He always kept low when they passed, listening to their odd words.
Grandfather said they were the conquered, the cowed. The men of metal had drawn their spirits from them. They were now strangers to the land. It had always been the boy and his Grandfather, and, when the boy had run naked, mother too. Before that, the boy could see others in his dream sight. They were always vague and grey — Grandfather never spoke of them. And he also spoke less of mother now.
He looked out over the broad marsh and tried to look deep into his dream sight, to the ones who stood with mother. Their faces would not grow from the murk. He wondered what happened to someone once words were no longer said.
As the day died, the boy ate strips of rabbit flesh and crept on. The brackish marsh turned into brackish woods and what the boy knew grew less and less.
He followed a dry creek bed until he saw chalky outcroppings to his left, and he trailed them as they took him to a shadowed clearing that he had a dim remembrance of.
In the middle was a fallen standing stone, broken — rubbed smooth by rain. Lines and curves ran its length.
The boy remembered that many summers ago, his grandfather had held the boy’s hand and traced his finger over it. Grandfather spoke the words in a warm whisper, making the boy speak them.
The boy had been desperate for the sounds to come to his tongue, but they were as dry as leaves to the rain.
The boy set up camp by the stone, hoping his ancestors would lend him strength. He stared into the crackling flames and willed his grandfather to be there, for his warm words to fill the boy’s ears.
Grandfather would sing or tell of how the land was born. He would speak of the days he had seen before the white hairs had sprouted across his cheeks.
The boy tried to hear his favourite tale, among the low clatter of the branches and briar. Listening for when the men of metal first came and of when Grandfather met them with warriors by the great water.
Sleep took the boy, and the fire slipped to embers.
The boy stood atop a cliff edge, for below him was a mass of faces and bared chests with arms like hard clay.
The boy knew Grandfather was among them, that his voice was the strongest amidst the singing, taunts, and drumming.
The boy saw the strange vessels form on the horizon of the great water, there were enough of them to shield out the sun. Each had the bulk of a boar but flew at the warriors with the ease of gulls in flight.
Formed of strange shapes and lines and colours, they crashed on to the pebbled shore with their monstrous jaws crashing open and the men of metal pouring out.
They didn’t move like men, they swarmed in tight shapes of harsh corners. They crept, numberless, with one mind, like a flock of starlings.
They met the warriors on the plain with no passion or fire in their hearts.
From up high the boy smelt the sweat, the blood, the fear.
Dusk brought long shadows and the grass of the plains below him ran red and wet.
A final behemoth came across the great water, and from it came their god. It was made of gold and colours beyond the Earth. At its heels came a great beast with skin like river stones and legs stronger and thicker then oaks. Smooth bone sprouted from its face and it bore two mouths, one on a twisting snake that the beast ruled.
Its roar tore apart the air and made the land tremble.
What warriors were left let their axes fall and touch the mud. The boy saw Grandfather; he saw in his eyes that Grandfather knew that the sun had set for the last time.
Then, the boy was alone in the rich dark, the low rumble of insects. He reached out sightlessly and rested his hand on the sanding stone. He drew enough comfort to sleep.
On the third dawn, he saw the wall and for the first time he questioned the courage he’d need to go on.
For it was a mighty and terrifying force, the boy knew their harsh lines, he had seen their form before, cut into forests and twisting rivers against themselves. He had never seen a creation of theirs come from one horizon and reach the other. He’d never seen nature so knotted down by the work of a mere hand.
He waited till dusk, the moon drowning in a white sky, then he scaled a shadowed corner of the wall, the crumbling mass digging red furrows into his flesh.
He clambered atop, to the pathway and lay there, his ears filled with the beat of his heart. He was terrified to hear their echo approaching, an eerie rhythm not set by living being but the sound of feet falling as one and metal jostling against metal.
The boy stayed prostrate for a while, trying to seek out that terrible echo against the quiet rage of the night, the cold stone hard against his back.
The boy slipped over the side and landed hard into a bank of grass. He crept and crawled into the throng of dank weeds, wishing to bury himself into the Earth.
The boy wished to be some dark insect, skittering away and not worth seeing.
He was heard only by his ancestors as there was no noise, no light.
As he crept away, the wall was a thick line against his back, he sensed countless eyes against his neck, but no movement came.
He found the river in the breaking dawn, tracked it. It was hidden from the tree lines and gullies. Running alongside it was the mark of the men of metal and their harsh lines — harsh forms.
He reached the city on the seventh dawn from his warren, and he watched it a while from the shadows.
Grey and colossal, it sat squat and dark against the land.
The boy drew out the feather — the finger-stripes of ochre were dried but still brilliant against the delicate strands.
He took it in hand and approached the city, his back strong and tight, his footfalls loud.
However, fate came first.
All stone there had been smashed, all roofs had fallen. All the things carved with pride were now drowned in grey lichen. The boy stood at a gateway, more rust than strength.
He wandered among the broken masonry, wondered at the fearful soldiers that lived here. He strained to hear their talk, their laughter echoed across the shattered tiles.
The boy shivered at what dark and mighty force could reach out and drown such a mighty a hand to have built such a kingdom.
There would be no market, no rare herb to trade for silver coin.
The boy left that same day and walked their road back, only now seeing the dandelion and burdock sprouting between the red brick. The edges were being gnawed at by the land.
When the boy returned to the wall, he stood before it in the silvered light of day — he saw its crumbling form now, the wind rounding its edges.
Soon, its function would be lost, and men would wonder at its need. Only those giants knew, and they had left these shores.
The boy came to the warren and he knew Grandfather was not there.
There was a stillness.
The stiff, grey figure lain on the dry grass was just an echo, a smouldering log whose heat is just a memory of the fire that consumed it.
The boy put him in the soil, near mother, and laid the feather on his breast.
He knew then that this valley would know the white of his bones too some winters dusk, though there would be no one to pass soil across his face.
Then he thought of his Grandfather’s words and the songs — they would be lost to wind and water, as are all things.