A dark shape erred to and fro before the gate. She kicked apart the dirt, loaded her pockets with fresh stones. She unclove her tongue from the roof of her mouth, cleared the rheum of her throat.
Climbing the slope, she followed a trace no more than a susurrus upon the stone. The rocks flattened down to soft lumps. The stone grew hot, heat seeping through her soles.
She attained the top of the plateau. Beyond rose the gate, a tower and running wall to either side. The figure became crone: hair grayed, skin blistered, boneworn body draped with tatters.
The younger woman removed her rucksack. She observed the crone at pace. When she approached, the crone paced on, unaware. The woman reached out, brushed the crone’s arm. The latter’s stride did not alter.
The woman approached the gates, saw rust-streaked rivets, creased iron. She held her ear near the metal, felt the heat radiate off it.
She turned, watched the crone pace her circuit. Wandering along the perimeter of the plateau, she walked its limit. Here, at no little distance, the sea. There, a road coiling into the desert. There, a flat plain, rising, buckling into hills.
She returned. Removing a stone from her pocket, she struck it against the gates.
The toll of the metal diffused over the shelf, slipped down into the waste. She held her ear near the metal, listened. She lifted her head. She shielded her eyes with her hand, regarded each tower in turn.
When she turned, she saw the crone arrested in mid-stride, gaze directed toward the gates or perhaps toward the woman herself. She left the gates to touch the withered cheek. The crone blinked, shifted away, pursuing her course.
The woman followed. Her fingers troubled the tatters of the other’s dress, decayed clumps of fabric tearing free in her hands. She took the arm thuswise made bare. The crone shook it loose. The woman blocked her path, watched the crone strike off at angle, brush past, return to the path.
She leapt athwart the crone’s back. The crone staggered, swayed beneath her, continued her course. She rode the crone, fingernails dug into her shoulders, knees hooked above the hipbones. Staggering, the crone allowed the woman to ride her into the ground.
She lay flat, still. The woman brought her hands against the withered face, held the other’s breath in her palm. She arose. The crone struggle to her knees. The woman straddled the crone’s back again, slowly flattened her into the dirt.
She levered the crone’s body over. Straddling the abdomen, she rapped upon the skull. She took the face in her hands, upturned it to meet her gaze.
The crone keened, her fingers wandering tentatively up the woman’s shoulders and arms. She struggled to rise. She cried out, contorted her fingers, scratched the younger’s face and neck.
The woman rolled off. The crone arose, spewed a mouth full of mutter. Arranging her rags about on her body, she paced anew.
A splayed and godless pillar of smoke arose, dispersed into the dark. Beyond flames wandered the crone. The woman ran her fingers into the rucksack, lay forth the broken stringings of birdflesh. She took up a thew, fretted it apart.
When she turned back to the fire, flames had licked black the dollish foot. She moved the child back. She peered into the holes pecked through the face, perceived them possessed of hidden life, but not the child’s. She removed a burning stick from the fire, seared the holes. She picked up the child by its feet, shook it, dislodged a mangle of smouldered insects.
She stepped clear of the fleshy air. The crone had broken her path to leap sprung-jawed through darkness, snapping insects. The woman turned away, drew close to the fire.
She awoke cold, found the crone crouched over her, dark but for the rheum-slicked eyes. She pushed the crone away. The crone hobbled back. She waited, shuffled forward slowly. She leaned forward, stroked the rucksack.
“This are your’n?” said the crone.
“Yes,” said the woman.
“The child in it your’n?” said the crone.
“It was,” said the woman.
The woman turned, crouched over the coals. She brought her face close, blew fire out of the ash. She heaped the fire with brame, watched the flames copulate.
“Whose are it now?” asked the crone.
“Nobody,” the woman said.
The crone grunted. She set the rucksack upright, opened it, forced it to disgorge the bundle. Twisting the child toward the firelight, she probed the holes of the head with a finger.
She lay the child down, licked her palms clean. Taking the child up tentatively, she drew it close against her body. She rent the fabric covering her breast, extruded a gray nipple, raising the child’s lips to ride against the snub of the flesh.
The younger woman pulled off the gnarled hands. The child fell into the dust. The women sat open-handed and silent, the flames flickering their shadows over the stiff head between them.
“I’ve a mind to hold it a mite longer,” the crone said.
The woman did not answer.
The crone moved forward, squatted upon her haunches. She cooed, stroked the dead child.
The woman stood, left the fire, walked to the gates. She brought her eye to the midcrack, perceived nothing. She crouched, looked beneath, was confronted of darkness.
She returned to the fire. The crone had shrugged the clothing off her shoulder to bring the child again to her breast. She covered herself upon the woman’s approach. The woman sat down. The crone brought the child close to the fire, scrutined the face. She held the child close, swayed it in her arms.
The crone stood, continued to rock the arm-cradled child. She shaffled slow around the flames, stood behind the woman, suddenly kicked the woman in the side of the head.
The woman collapsed away, covered her face with her palms, felt her head aburst with the stroke of further blows. She shook her head, rolled, dragged up to see the crone at run toward the gates, blithering, child held high in the air.
The woman cursed, reached within her pockets.
Two searchlights spun forth from the towers, illumined crone and child. A stone struck the crone above the ear. She staggered, shook a spray of blood off her face, stumbled gateward. A stone softened her temple. She fell to her knees. A stone cracked the back of her skull, collapsed her atop the child.
The lights flickered, blanked.
The woman rolled the crone over, disentangled the child from her rags. She held the child skyward, shrieked until the spotlights burnt upon her. The gates grated, split apart.
Behind, she heard a weak and aimless cry, the blank echo of it sliding off the plateau to be lost in the waste. She slid between the gates.