He takes another step forward. And stops again.
Shoulders slung low. A shuddering slow intake of breath. And deepest sigh release. Grimy rattle cough deep in his chest. The scent of the plants so blissfully vile, pungent. Angry reminder of this second. And the days stretching back. Uncounted. Landscape blurred memories. Highlight sparks of his aching joints, feet rubbed raw and bloody thorn-stripped shins.
The original path long since lost. The hillside slopes away sharply. Eyes trace a rough track, small indents, brush worn thinner but barely perceptible route into unknowable distance.
Gathering himself he begins to move his right leg forward. And down. Not wanting to fall again. Again. Measured movements through this depth of weariness. With nothing to do but press on as quickly as he can, for fear of the catch. Uncertain now if anything is even on his tail anymore. Or if there ever was such urgency. Crying yearn to just stop stop. Stop. Sit. Rest a while.
Distracted by the wheeling black shine birds. Scrawing dives and screech overhead. Nameless creatures in this daily more familiar, confusion-painted landscape.
Step on and down. One two. Movements ragged. Rhythm lost in the flatlight of the noonday blanket cloud. Low and sickly bright gloom. Eyes wavering aim just two footfalls ahead.
Hands snap up and out each weary stumble to catch his wayward balance.
Minutes roll to quarters halves and the hours pass smoothly marked not at all. Pointless counting dropped for soft attention on nothing but the breath. His final companion. In out. Raw-throated passage of life. One two. Step. Breathe. On.
There’s a shape up ahead. Blurred edges. Small construction. Building once useful now broken down. Ramshackle shelter or storage shed maybe? First sign of some long gone life. A hundred paces more. Nervous inspection. Nothing will be inside. But adrenaline coursing. Unfamiliar feelings. What memory? Hazy sense of locked doors. Shut firm against all complaining.
He shakes his head to free the thought and walks towards the lowest corner of what remains. Rubble strewn perimeter. Plant life long since covering the two feet from ground up, as if the earth seeks to suck the stones back into its core.
Half remaining roof creates a shadowy sheltered corner. Steps over a loose pile of stone freshly fallen under weight of weather hands. Across the threshold to look closer.
Something out of place. A tiny glint of light as he moves his head back and forth like a serpent sizing prey. One step forward. Wait a moment. Eyes focussing. Opening their way to the darker recess. Pupils dilating. Kneeling. Hard-edged pain in right thigh grimace. Tight breath in through hard shut teeth.
Half seeing through one good misty eye – half reaching patting palm down to feel where his gaze directs. Small hard object pressing into his right palm. Bringing it up to inspect. Close.
A jewel. Finely cleaved stone. Deep green hue, about the size of the last joint of his thumb. Fat and heavy. Set in a curved metal fastener. Bronze maybe? Tiny symbols and lettering raised up. Not clear. He deftly pockets it and automatically glances nervous behind. Expectant of challenge. Got to move on.