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The Long Trek
The snowy tundra gave way to a blue lake that reflected the golden rays of the noon sun. The party of survivors drew near with caution, yet excitement coursed through their veins. Snow had been their home, their prison, their escape. Snow was everything, and everything was too much. An older woman beside Kari began her rattling cough. Seeing this, Kari supported the woman and told the rest to push on; the lake wasn’t far away. The elderly woman steeled herself and limped onward through her fit of coughs.
The ragtag company continued forward through noonday and into the waning hours of evening. Kari knew their goal should be to clear the nearby snow ridge by nightfall. Without looking behind her, she knew even the strongest in the group were beyond their limit and struggled with each step. Her head told her to stop, but her heart said go. Walking against the bone chilling winds, her green eyes pierced the wall of snow and searched beyond it for any sign of progress. It didn’t take her long to spot the snow ridge that lay a hundred yards away. Relief washed over her, and when she turned to the rest of the group it disappeared as quickly as it came. Exhausted eyes met hers with a silent plea that she was powerless to answer. The cold wind stung her face and she spoke before the words were able to leave her.
“It’s not much farther; only a hundred yards away. We can make it and…”
“You said that hours ago!” Elbowing his way through the throng of people was Surren red in the face and his hair disheveled. Throughout his struggle to the front he pierced her gaze with a fiery one of his own. “When will we actually get there? Or will we die out here in this frozen wasteland?”
Kari willed her face to keep the same confident composure as her mind reared. The words suddenly left her, and silence descended on the throng of people with only the wind shouting its protest. The flames of uncertainty she pushed away long before licked at the boundary of her sanity with renewed energy. They threatened to consume her as every flicker grew stronger. She battled this raging fire and searched for the words in the eyes of those gathered around her. What greeted her were blank stares filled with pain and despair. In an instant all her failures crashed down on her and the wall protecting her sanity was crumbling. The flames painted a picture of her dying family as the raiders set fire to her home, having their way with her mother before tossing the body into the inferno with her father and brother. Curled in the snow she was able to do nothing but wait for the raiders to take her as well. She found the courage to rise to her feet and sensed the man behind her before seeing him. She ducked to the side before his sword could hit her head and rolled on the ground. Coming to her feet quickly, she failed to block his kick. It was a pain she had not experienced before, and as she fell to the ground, blood trickled down the front of her face. The last thought she had before slipping into unconsciousness was thinking how cold the snow was.
Kari struggled to refocus as her eyes fell on those of the old woman beside her. Where she expected to find sadness was instead a fiery determination that would have made the fires of hell recoil in fear. Words suddenly filled Kari and she hastily quenched the roaring flames that wreaked havoc on her mind as the elderly woman dropped to the ground. The coughs shook her body as she writhed in the snow, a prisoner to excruciating pain. Blank stares were pointed in her direction, their owners too exhausted to come to her aid. Making her way to the woman, Kari lifted her as if she weighed nothing. She cradled the sick woman in her arms and turned to the people scattered before her.
“You’re all exhausted. And I can see that in your eyes and actions. Surviving isn’t easy; you could have lay down and waited for death to take you, but you didn’t. You chose to fight,” she made sure every tired stare was paying attention to her and said “I did was well.” The gravity of her words hung in the air as she took a few steps away from the numb human beings behind her. A sudden wave of fatigue caught her off guard and she stopped to let it pass. She was always careful to hide signs of weariness from the rest of the group in fear she would let them down. With a rueful chuckle, she realized how much her fears have grown over the past few days. Kari looked once more at the woman resting in her arms and decided showing her exhaustion could do no worse than what has already happened.
She fought against the wind for one last step before turning to face the company following behind her. Surprised by her sudden break, a few stumbled before regaining their balance. Confused faces rose to hers then transformed into ones of horror as the strong woman who was leading them turned into a deflated teenager. Green eyes that were a symbol of confidence people could draw strength and comfort from flooded with an ancient weariness. Kari held nothing back as she let the sleepless nights filled with screaming children, the miles of scouting the land, and hours of planning show their toll on her body. She witnessed one of her worst fears come to life as the small hope that was driving the group onward died. The flames of her past failures were stoked once more, but before they could become more than embers she blew them out. Her heart had no room for despair and her head had no room for faulty fears.
“I didn’t ask go be your leader. I didn’t ask to be responsible for forty three lives. I didn’t ask for sleepless nights. But I did take on this duty.” Her voice became stronger as she became the leader everyone knew and was following. “No one answered the call, but I did. A teenager. My life was ripped to shreds as was all of yours. I’ve led you with my heart.”
The snow fell quicker and became pellets of ice that spun in the swelling storm the survivors were trapped in as they hung on each word Kari said. Her sentences were their solid ground, her strength their own. They listened to the exhausted girl who led them through an icy hell.
“My heart says go on. I trust it for it hasn’t led me wrong yet.”
“What if it does this time?” came the weary cry of a tearful woman. Kari turned in the direction of the voice and let the restless wind carry her response.
“I guess we’ll find out together.” She then shifted the elderly woman in her arms and continued the long trek to the lake. Moments later, she could hear the footfalls of forty one other people trudge through the snow they knew well. Kari turned her face to the sky and let a snowflake land on her tongue where it melted instantly. Ever since she was a child, she thought it would taste of sorrow and blood because the heavens’ tears had frozen over in despair at what the world had become. Despite being trapped in a landscape of ice; despite battling for every step, and despite going to the threshold of death and back, she couldn’t help but let a tired smile play on her cracked lips.