My name is Layla. I am a citizen of the City. I work as a laundress—I clean and repair clothes, and sometimes make them.
Last night was my sentry shift. I was assigned to the North gate. It had been a long day of washing and mending, and I was tired. At thirty-four summers, I am not as young as I once was. The work of scrubbing and wringing the clothes and hanging them, wet and heavy, on the lines is tiring at times.
But I reported for my shift on time. With news of the Ghoul attacks in the North Country, it is more important than ever to guard the City. For if the City is lost, then the whole kingdom is lost.
The three-hour shift was uneventful. Our relief had just come and I was about to go home, grateful to be able to finally sleep, when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Though she moved swiftly, I recognized the shape of a young girl slipping out through the gate into the darkness beyond.
Quickly I whispered to the next guard on duty what I was going to do. Then I followed her out, keeping to the shadows where she wouldn’t see me.
I can’t say why I didn’t just grab her and bring her back into the City. Something told me to wait, to see what she was going to do.
I followed her for about an hour. She kept to the road, and it was not hard to stay near her, though I had to hide quickly a few times when she turned to look behind. But she seemed to not notice me. Then, suddenly, she dove into a clump of heather beside the road. I thought that if she had seen me following then this was a foolish move, as I could have quickly overtaken her in her hiding place. But then I saw that it was not me she was hiding from, but the shapes on the road.
Following her lead, I moved swiftly off the road and into a clump of bracken. As the shapes drew nearer, it was all I could do not to cry out. For they were none other than the king’s army—torn and battered, some wounded beyond recognition, many limping or dragging themselves along.
How could this have happened? How could our king, who had never before suffered defeat, have failed? And why was he not leading the procession? Surely he should have returned with his troops—should have ensured their safe return to the sanctuary of the City?
The girl I had followed stayed hidden during the entire procession. I debated about running back to the City to tell them to prepare to receive the wounded. But the same instinct that had told me not to accost her as she left, now told me to wait, to stay near her.
I waited, crouched in the bracken for nearly an hour as the wounded passed by, my heart aching more and more with each broken soldier that went past. Then I saw the generals. They were standing tall, in spite of being wounded themselves. At first they were too far away for me to see the formation they marched in. But as they drew nearer, I realized that they were arrayed in two rows—three men in each row. Immediately, I felt the breathe knocked out of my lungs. Such a formation could only mean one thing. They were carrying a litter. And if the generals were carrying a litter themselves, rather than honoring the other soldiers with the task, then there could be only one man upon that litter—the king.
As they passed, I felt hot tears begin to stream down my cheeks. The king was not merely wounded, as I had dared to hope. It was clear by his white-grey face that he was dead. It was all I could do to hold back the sobs that were rising inside me then. The king, dead? How? How could it be? The king who had reigned over the Kingdom of El from time immemorial—the one who everyone said was immortal—how could it really be him lying on that litter, returning to the City he built generations ago for his friends and followers? How could the one true king be dead?
As I wrestled with these thoughts and the fear and horror that threatened to engulf me, I heard a rustling nearby. I turned to see the girl emerge from her hiding place. She stared after the generals and their unthinkable burden for awhile, then turned and began to head north again. This time I knew I had to stop her.
I knew that if I cried out or made a sound that she would run and I might never catch her. So, pushing down the flood of emotions inside me, I began following her quietly, gaining on her step by step. She was more cautious now, more skittish, looking around her every few moments as if afraid that more of the wounded would appear. I knew that they would not, that every soldier who had survived the battle was now behind us, drawing near to the City. But the girl’s increased vigilance made it difficult for me to get close to her. I had to keep ducking behind bushes and into gullies beside the road.
Finally I drew close enough that I thought I could make a break for it and catch her. But at that moment she turned her head and caught sight of me. She cried out and began running full tilt down the road. I took off after her, but as exhausted as I was, it was hard for me to keep up. After nearly ten minutes, the girl slipped and lost her footing. In a moment, I was upon her.
I tackled her to the ground, trying not to injure her or myself in the process. She beat at me with her fists and flailed like an animal in a trap. But finally I subdued her, pinning her arms above her head and sitting on her legs to keep her still.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I said at last, out of breath. “I’m trying to help you.”
“Who are you? What do you want?” she snarled. “If you’re trying to help me then let me go!”
“Didn’t you see who was on that litter back there?” I said.
“Yes, it was the king. So what? I’m glad he’s dead! He stole my parents from me and now he’s gotten what he deserved. So let me go. I won’t live in his stupid City. I’m going home, to the North Country, where I belong.”
“No you’re not,” I said. “However you feel about the king, it was his power and strength that kept this kingdom peaceful and safe. Now that he’s dead, there is nothing to keep the dark creatures and evil men in check. You’ll be dead before you reach the next village. And we’ll both be dead if we don’t return to the City right now. In fact, we’ll be lucky to make it, as it is. You led me on quite a chase and there’s a lot of distance between us and the safety of the walls right now.”
“Even if it was the king’s reputation that kept everyone in check,” spat the girl, “no one knows he’s dead yet. Except you and I. So they won’t be out for blood until the word gets out. That will take days, maybe weeks.”
“You fool,” I said, becoming frustrated with the obvious ignorance and the stubbornness of this girl. “It wasn’t the king’s reputation that kept them in check. It was his very life. His life force prevented dark things from being able to take hold in the kingdom. With him dead, every filthy, twisted thing that has been holed up for as long as the kingdom has existed will be slithering out of their holes and shadows. By the time this night is over, the kingdom of El will be a vastly different place than it has been before. The only chance we have—the only chance anyone has—is within the walls of the City.”
“But my parents,” she said, trying to twist out of my grasp again. “They’re out there somewhere. If what you say is true, then they’re in danger and I have to get to them. I have to go to them now!”
“Your parents aren’t out there, girl. If they survived the battle, then they were among the wounded that passed us on the road. There is no one left in the villages. Everyone who couldn’t fight was evacuated to the City. Everyone who could fight is either dead or on their way into the City right now with the remnants of the king’s army. You and I are the only two out here.”
This realization seemed to stun her into submission for a moment. Her hands dropped limply to the dirt. “But my parents,” she said weakly. “I didn’t see them. I don’t think they were among the wounded.”
“You never know,” I said, trying to put some confidence into my voice. “Many of the survivors were wearing blankets over themselves to keep warm. Your parents could have been among them…then you wouldn’t have been able to see their faces well enough in the darkness to recognize them.” I didn’t say that they also could have been among those so disfigured that even if she’d seen them in daylight she might not have known them.
“Come,” I said. “The only way to know if your parents survived is to return to the City. And quickly. We’ll have to run the whole way if we’re to make it alive ourselves.” The thought of such a run made me feel weary to my very bones, but I knew we had no choice. As if to confirm my words, a low howling sound began to echo in the distance. The girl started up. Then there was a rustling in a bush somewhere much closer. I pulled her to her feet and we both began running—running as if our lives depended on it. Because they did.