The mouth of the valley opened into the hills and exposed a rather weary-looking path that lead upwards.
It disappeared with the beginning of a forest line, that itself disappeared into a high mountain mist. I had never seen such beauty in a landscape before, but perhaps that was because it had been awhile since I truly looked.
I felt a peace I had not for some time as I gazed up at those northern peaks. I think it came from knowing what the next few hours were to bring.
That it would all finally be over.
The raw green of the trees that covered the countryside gave the land an almost armoured look. I could find no break in the leafy shield. It was the very image I had long ago seen in some of the old texts, stashed away in a building once called a library. Until today, I had always thought those pictures were to be the closest I’d ever come.
My father walked ahead of me on the trodden path that had yet to turn uphill. We’d left early in the morning from where we’d spent the night, waking before the world had. I hadn't really been given the good night’s rest he’d promised, but I didn't mind much. I was eager beyond words to finally see the end of our road, and the walls that held back the world.
We walked on as a sliver of dawn slowly grew into something more, bringing with it the light of day. After some time the flat path did end, and the walking became hiking. My father maintained a gradual pace I was happy to keep, able to enjoy the view of nature on both sides of the path we followed.
We soon left behind the sun too though, as the trail led underneath a green canopy that stretched above. It wasn't dark under the cover of those great trees, but neither was it light. The awning of foliage did well to block out the sun.
More than once I caught a glimpse of animals as they leapt around in their wooded domain around us. In this world they were a rarity I found fascinating, though I knew my father would insist on going after them if I voiced my curiosity out loud, so I did not. Rightfully so, animals had learned well that the few humans left were no longer their friends.
A little less than two hours after leaving, our path left the natural rooftop behind and opened into a deceivingly massive clearing. Were it not for the great stone walls some distance ahead, I wouldn't have believed we’d finally found our haven. But there it was.
We had reached the walls.
It felt surreal, suddenly seeing the fabled thing with my own eyes. I stood still, frozen like a deer eyeing the barrel of my father’s gun.
Surrounded on all sides by forest and grassy plains, the famous ashen walls surrounded something of their own. I could just see over them from where I stood to the towering stone buildings that comprised the world’s last functioning society.
I was transfixed with the timeless legend come to life before me. The old books couldn't have been more right in their descriptions. It held a simple vision of strength, and intelligence. Potential. I was so engrossed with the sight I almost didn't feel the trembling of my hands. The place radiated hope.
Though there was an aspect of it that frightened me too. Underneath the somber skies, the town inside looked as though it held some dark truth. I couldn't quite describe what it was, but my awareness of it left me rather stricken. I tried to laugh, sure I was just simply in awe, weary from months on the road, but the instinct remained.
“They said it would have this effect on us the first time.”
Reluctantly I pulled my gaze from the walls across the clearing to look up at my father.
“It makes me feel… small,” I said, my voice little more than a whisper. “And yet important.”
I looked into the eyes of the man who had first told me the Haven was real, who’d lead me across country in hope of leaving a broken world behind.
I nodded once.
He smiled, but there was nothing behind it. Just a pain in the emptiness of his eyes that never failed to hurt.
“Some say that the wall itself is alive,” he said quietly. “That the only reason this place survived the bombs was because it could push them out of the sky as they fell.”
I looked back to the uncanny walls, wondering if perhaps it was. Nothing in my life had ever been more inexplicable. I felt both safe and in danger simultaneously.
A pain appeared in the back of my skull, a headache that had followed me all the way from the east coast. I clenched my jaw and ignored it though, knowing it wouldn’t be long until it would leave me forever. Beyond the wall they had medicine.
“Time to go,” my father said.
We walked side by side to the only gate in and out of the Haven. Its large reinforced frame was far from a welcoming entrance, but it called to me all the same. There was a smaller door inside of the larger one that became clear as we neared.
When we fell underneath its shadow, I imagined us taken underneath the wing of an enormous raven. I laughed softly to myself. No matter how otherwise dreary, my inner storyteller just refused to sit quiet.
My father turned then and pulled my hood over my head, hesitating a moment to make sure I understood the seriousness in his expression. I nodded, unsure at that point if I could trust my voice.
He hammered his fist against the wood of the smaller door and stepped back, motioning for me to do the same.
A moment passed, though no response came.
I shuttered against a growing wind that whipped around the clearing, pulling my jacket close against my chest. The clouds above had turned an angry grey and looked as though they were only moments away from drenching the two of us.
When it became clear no one had heard his first knock, my father tried again, slamming both fists against the door this time. The boom that rang out was unmistakable.
But still, no one answered.
With an angst he hid poorly, my father stepped to the door once more and his fists rang out against the wood with a pleading urgency. Slow at first, but then desperately and without pause.
When he looked back at me, the concern on his face couldn't have been clearer.
My heart leapt to my throat.
When the last of his knocking died to an echo a fraction as formidable, he sank to his knees in the shadow of that great wall.
I stumbled backwards until my foot caught on a root protruding just enough from the grassy plains that lay before the walls. I fell gently into its softness.
The first drops of a rain fell then, pattering lightly against the tall blades of grass that hid me from my father.
I stared up in disbelief at what was the world’s last Haven.
There was no one home.
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