She was on her last legs, my beautiful Ava. The steady clop clop of her hooves had been a constant companion in the silence of the dead world around us. It was the rhythm of my heart, clop, clop, thump, thump, and it slowed more and more as we travelled.
“Just a little longer, girl,” I said. I hadn’t heard my own voice in so long it sounded odd in my ears, weak. I leaned forward and patted her neck. She whinnied and jerked her head away from my hand. “I understand, Ava.”
And I did.
Other than the ghouls, we hadn’t come across anything living in weeks, maybe months. I didn’t know. Time ceased to exist a while back. Though my hand should have been a comfort to her, all it did was make her uneasy. I thank the ghouls for that—Ava knew to be touched by one of them would bring the end to animal and man alike.
Still, we road on, me on her back for the most part, but sometimes walking beside her, holding the reigns and guiding her along the trickier trails where thorns hid in mud puddles … and sometimes the ghouls would be there, too. This is where my blade came in handy. It wasn’t much, just an axe blade bolted to an old shovel handle.
We only had one setback and it came as we crossed one of those muddy rivers. The thorns, thistles and weeds were like hands that groped at us and tried to pull us under. Ava trudged on, me beside her in the waist high muck. We had reached the upslope toward dry land when Ava’s front legs rose up. She let out a shrill shriek and brought her hooves down on the emaciated ghoul. It had come up out of the mud, its hands grabbing for her leg, long nails on each finger that were like rusty needles.
I slapped Ava on her hind quarters and she bolted for dry ground. Then I drove my blade into the creature with white skin and pale blue eyes and a body void of any hair. It opened its mouth in a howl that echoed in the valley. From the sludge I stood in, rose a dozen more of the dead creatures.
They surrounded me. I swung my blade, striking as many as I could. At some point a pain formed in my shoulder, sharp and dull all at the same time. I struck another ghoul, one that had tried to sneak up on me, and drove my blade through its throat. Then I trudged through the mud, feeling like I was getting nowhere until my feet found solid ground. I ran. Ava hadn’t waited for me. I didn’t blame her. I looked back. The ghouls crawled to the edge of the mud pit. There were more than just the handful I thought I had seen. I ran through the trees until I came upon Ava. She stood in an open area, her head down, sniffing at her front leg.
“Hey girl,” I said, put my hand out to her. Cautiously, I inched my way up closer. She snorted a couple of times and backed away from me. Eventually, she stilled and let me run my hand along her neck. I whispered lies to her, even as I stood beside her, trying to get her to relax. “It’s okay, Ava. It’s okay. They’re gone. You’re okay.”
It’s the last part that was a lie. She was not okay. The wound on her left leg was big and already scabbing over. It would close within half an hour and all the infection of the wound would start coursing through her body.
My shoulders slumped. I think she knew how sad I was—she nudged me with her nose, as if she was saying, ‘It will be okay, Jules.’
I think she knew her end was near.
Still, we continued on, me not riding her for a while. And somewhere behind us, came the shuffle of a thousand ghouls.
Three days ago, I saw the huge castle that loomed way off in the distance. With my eyes on that structure, we rode on, rider and horse, horse and rider. She stumbled a few times yesterday and I finally dismounted her for the last time. This morning I noticed the pale blue appear in her normally brown eyes.
The clopping of her hooves had slowed considerably, but the structure—it was never a castle after all—loomed not more than a hundred yards from us. The shamble of ghouls had disappeared at some point during the last three days. I wanted to believe they were gone, had maybe found someone else to stalk and trail, hoping for a kill and a meal.
“Come on, girl. We can make it, then we can get you some help.” I patted her neck, then ran my hand along her once flowing mane. Long strands came off in my hands in a large clump. I stared at the hair in dismay. Time wasn’t on her side. My heart crumbled and its steady beat slowed right along with Ava’s barely trundling gait.
My shoulder hurt to move it. It had grown stiff since the sludge ghouls attacked us. I let it dangle by my side and tried to move it as little as possible.
What I had thought was a castle three days ago, then just a building earlier in the day turned out to be the remnants of an old train station, one Mother Nature had taken over since the fall of man. The tracks had rusted out and weeds and grass grew up along the wooden cross ties. Intermingled with the foliage were bones, mostly bleached gray by the beating sun. The entrance to the station had been closed off with a giant gate. In front of the gate stood two men, both holding axes, both staring me down.
“Whoa, Ava,” I said and we stopped about thirty or so yards away.
“Who are you?” one of the guards called.
“What do you want?” the other one asked.
“I need a place to stay. My horse is hurt and I don’t think she will make it much longer without medical attention.”
“How did your horse get hurt?” the first guard asked. He had a long black beard, speckled with gray.
This was not a question I wanted to hear. Answering it could mean I don’t get in. Worse, it could mean they try to kill Ava and I don’t get in. Lying was out of the question. From that distance, they could probably see the wound tracing up her leg, the hardened scab, the splotches of skin where hair had fallen out.
“Back in a mud pit a few days ago.”
“Were there ghouls?”
My heart crumbled a little more. “Yes.”
“What about you? Have you received any wounds from a ghoul?”
Black Beard approached, taking long, purposeful strides, his axe in both hands. “Move away from the horse.”
I pulled my blade free and prepared for a fight. “No.”
“The horse is as good as dead.”
“She’s not, at least not yet.”
“The horse dies or you move along.”
I let out a long breath, one that rattled in my chest and sent slivers of pain into my shoulder. “Then I’ll move along. You keep your sanctuary.”
I pulled Ava’s reigns. Her head didn’t move. It had grown stiff, just as her legs had. She shed what little was left of her mane.
“It’s okay, girl,” I whispered, even as tears filled my eyes.
Ava’s legs buckled beneath her and she collapsed to the ground. The pop of bones breaking made my skin crawl and my stomach turn. I knelt beside her and stroked her face. Her once brown eyes, now the pale blue of a ghoul, looked at me.
“It’s okay,” I repeated. “You can let go now.”
Ava closed her eyes. The rise and fall of her ribs slowed, then ceased all together. I shook my head. My heart no longer crumbled. It had shattered completely. Somewhere in the distance I heard the sound of shuffling feet. The ghouls were coming. They had followed us, brought by the scent of a dying animal … and a wounded man. I rubbed the spot on my shoulder, felt the claw marks I knew had been there all along. I looked back at the guards. They held their axes in front of them, trying to look fierce and intimidating. I smiled. And the shuffling grew louder in my ears.