Days passed without leaving footprints. Each dawn broke slate gray and chill, the ash of the last night’s fire cold, already damp. The barrens seemed endless, a landscape taken from a dream, each direction the same, each leading nowhere.
The Knight rode, and the Princess followed. She learned to snare the reclusive creatures of the wastelands, and to cook them. The Knight ate what she cooked.
And they rode.
Sometimes she woke at night with tears on her cheeks from unremembered dreams and she knew that he was awake, in the darkness. She pretended to sleep, and after a time the pretense became real. Once she cried out in her sleep, a long keening wail that rent the dead air of the barrens and sank without an echo.
Neither of them spoke of it. The crying in the night seemed to belong to another life, a life dead but not quite still. The Princess’ new life was a horizon bounded by gray clouds and dark stony soil and blood on her hands from the small limp bodies she skinned at dawn.
The gray at the northern horizon grew darker, the line thickening into a wedge, and resolved itself in the mountains. One direction became different than the others, the land to the north became sparser, more stony. There was little grass, even of the wire-tough weeds, and game became harder to find. One morning the snares were empty, and they rode hungry. Then another.
And they rode north.
One night she remembered her dream. She was a court, in the great hall that had been her father’s, and he asked her a question. When she turned to answer him she was on the cold ground by a dying fire, and all that night she stifled sobs, because she could not remember the question her father had asked, and because she would never hear it. She knew the Knight heard her crying, but he was silent beside her, not as silent as one sleeping, but as silent as one dead.
They reached the mountains.
“Lord Chimaculean’s Stair” the Knight announced. It was a ragged scar through the peaks, a shattered landscape, as if some careless god had dropped the land from heaven.
The Knight dismounted, took the saddle from his horse, let it drop to the ground. He stroked the horse’s neck gently, breathing in the animal’s heavy scent, then looked up to where the Princess sat, still mounted.
“From here we walk.” he said. “The horses can fend for themselves.”
The Princess slid from her mount. “And so do we, then.”
The Knight nodded. “Indeed. So do we.”