There is a echo trailing her, creeping up behind her, and she can do nothing but run.
Down the Arches of the Years
by Brat Farrar
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind. . . .
The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson
She ran. The sound of feet against stone fell quietly among the buildings, leaving quieter echoes floating down the street like snowflakes or ashes. The night was cold and clear and black. Around her the city lay silent and motionless, holding its breath in anticipation of the explosion bound to come, her racing heart the clock ticking away the seconds to detonation.
She ran. She might have been running on ice or hot coals. All her feet knew was pain, and only her eyes told her that she still ran on stone. Her mind knew only two things: biting pain, and the burning need to run.
She ran. Air hissed in her nostrils as she fought for each breath, and in her mind a third thing gradually forced its way forward between the other two: she was being followed. Now between each soft-edged footfall and the next came a sharp echo. She seemed to hear another’s breath beside her own, and feel another heartbeat. Perhaps she only imagined these things, but she could not summon the courage to look behind her and see for certain. She knew, and that knowledge burned away any thoughts of stopping to rest. She would run until she wore the skin off her feet, until she ran on bone, until each stride threatened to shatter her. She would run until she could run no more and at long last lay down to die.
And so she ran, driven by her fear like a bolting horse maddened by a whip. She ran until she ran out of street. Abruptly she stopped, stunned and terrified by the sight of a building in front of her in addition to those on either side. She had run down a cul-de-sac, and now she was trapped. Like some small, desperate animal, she glanced around her, looking for somewhere to go other than back from where she had come. The street, her prison, was dark and silent as a tomb, but if she listened and strained her hearing to its limits, she could almost hear the relentless footsteps behind her. Hands at her mouth, eyes wide and frantic, pain lost in terror, she spun around and around and searched for some way to escape.
The houses seemed to creep together around her, until they became a cage–a cage with only one door: that door through which her doom was coming with soft unworried stride. It had no need to hurry. She had no way to escape, and it would come soon enough–too soon for her.
One hand was now in her mouth, as she bit it to keep from screaming. The effort to keep still shook her body as she crouched, motionless as a wind-tossed tree. However much she trembled against the need to be still, her feet–her poor, abused, swollen, aching feet–were firmly planted and kept her from flight. The doorway she huddled in provided little protection, but the street provided less. And she could run no longer. She could feel her bones turning to lead and her flesh to brittle ice. No, her flight was over.
With the certainty of capture came the bitter and useless flood of should-haves. Each turn made had been the wrong one, it seemed to her, and her speed–for all that it had worn the skin from her feet and the breath from her lungs until both nearly bled–seemed as slow as an old beggar’s. Yet what more could she have done? Little or nothing. And with that truth the flood subsided, leaving behind it some of the bitterness, but also a moment of serenity. If this was to be the last of her freedom, she would not waste it in self-reproach.
Serenely, though with resignation, she looked about her, at the aging houses, the drifts of silvery snow, the time-worn paving stones, the dark wood of the doorpost which now supported her. Against her frozen, brittle skin the wood felt soft and warm, and for one heart-wenching moment she believed that she was only dreaming, that warmth and safety lay on the other side of her eyelids, and all she needed to do was open them. All she needed to do was find the waking world again and the nightmare she was trapped in would end.
But perhaps the waking world would be not better than the one she was in now. And as the thought occurred to her she knew it was true. Perhaps the waking world was warm and soft, but it would be no safer then wherever she was now. If there was a waking world. If she were truly dreaming.
Again she seemed to hear the footsteps, but this time she heard them as one having gained and lost hope, and with the remnants of serenity clinging to her like snow.
She couldn’t face her doom huddled in a doorway, like a broken beggar. To do so would be too final a defeat, costing her something irreplaceable. She must meet her doom as best she could, with as little fear as she could muster. For what did she have to fear? A shadow, a footfall, a heart that beat in time with her own.
She stood, and it was like tearing open a poorly-healed wound as she forced herself to step away from the embracing doorstep and onto the now-white street. Snow still fell, softly, soothingly, smothering the night and the streets. The snow seemed to set her numbed feet on fire, but pain didn’t matter to her anymore.
Ahead of her, under the blind moon, lay a large, serene puddle, as yet untouched by ice or feet. For a moment she saw it as a fallen piece of sky, and had she been without fear she would have marveled. But she could hear as well as feel the footsteps now, and could no longer think. All she could do was fix her eyes on that lonesome fragment of sky and will her broken feet to stay fixed to the stones beneath them.
Now other noises began to impose themselves on her–the flutter and whisper of cloth, quick little gasps and wheezes of breath, a silent occasional whistle. And each footstep brought it closer to her–her closer to it. She was transfixed now, caught between sky and snow-covered street, pinned by both despair and determination.
A shadow fell on the puddle, and her splinter of sky disappeared, replaced by darkness. It seemed wrong that the moon should continue to shine after that loss, that the sky should remain without that reflection of itself.
She looked up then, grief momentarily outweighing her terror. A man stood there, dressed in black, as was only fitting. He was staring at her as she had been at the pool which lay at his feet. Had he taken one step further, he would have shattered it as well as blotted it out.
Without the grief to steady her, she would have flinched from his gaze, but instead she returned it with more confidence than she’d known was in her.
“Hail, my lady.” The look she gave him for calling her “lady” would have silenced any peasant. Undeterred, he continued speaking. “I have sought you long and hard, and had nearly despaired of finding you.”
She lifted her chin, bracing herself for whatever might come. “And now that you have found me, what would you of me?”
“Nothing against your will, my lady. But I would that you accompany me back to where you belong.” Afraid to ask the next question, she let the silence hang between them. A breeze caught at her skirts, and hair, and played with the man’s coattails and scarf. Her snow-filled hair drew cold, damp lines on her face. Finally, without willing it, she spoke.
“And where do I belong?” She was questioning herself as much as her pursuer, and she found she had no answer. It seemed her life, until that very moment, had consisted of flight, with no known reason for it. From somewhere she had the memory of comfort, but her more pressing memories were of pain and fear. Why had she fled the man who now stood before her, quiet and unassuming?
“Not here.” It sounded like a positive statement, the way he said it, but she couldn’t help wondering.
“That describes a great many places, sir. Is here the only place I don’t belong?” Inwardly she marveled at her composure, but she had spent her hysteria. The fear was still there, but it was a cold, calm fear now, which seemed to hold her heart and throat in its icy hands.
“No.” When he offered no more information than that, she began to wonder all the more.
“Than I ask again: what would you with me?” Instead of answering her, he walked around the puddle toward her. Uneasy at his approach, although gladdened by the release of her fragment of sky, she turned reluctantly to face him. She almost turned and ran when he took her hands in his, but now fear, determination, and curiosity all combined to keep her motionless.
“I cannot tell you. I can only show you. Will you trust me in this?” Would she? Could she? Was she capable of trusting him? She had fled him for so long . . . years, it seemed. Centuries, her memory whispered to her. Eternity, her fear hissed. But the sky gave her hope, so she ignored her fear and instead trusted. Perhaps she would later regret this, but eternity was too long a time to spend a slave to fear.
“Yes.” His eyes were kind, she realized as she spoke. Kind, and care-worn. Briefly she wondered which was worse–to spend eternity in pursuit, or flight? Then all thoughts were swept aside by his smile, which was as luminous as the sky above and beside them. Her fear slid away from her, to be replaced by something long forgotten: joy.
“Then come with me!” And she did, half laughing, half weeping from relief. The puddle lay abandoned, still faithfully reflecting the sky, the snow around it stained here and there by bloody footsteps. The unfeeling snow continued to fall, slowly obscuring both the pool and the footsteps, until all was a blanket of white under the moon.