A camp of vagrants is home to a child who holds a secret. The camp, always on the move, is being searched for by an as-of-yet unknown foe. When it becomes apparent their foe is almost upon them, the camp's proprietor deems an unlikely man to be the protector of the child. They set off, alone but for the two of them, into a long journey of uncertain destination that will bring them to places unknown.
Off the shore to the north in the cold of the autumn the flock of geese drew near in the usual formation. The sky behind them thickened with the final hues of sunset before the dark came in force to take over the land. He drew the sight into his mind to remember always then breathed deeply of the cool and salty air and turned from the shore with a sensation of refreshment. The same path taken here must be taken back and he stepped only in his own sharp footsteps across an otherwise immaculate beach.
The migration alluded to the coming of snow in the weeks following and the camp should know of it. The birds were swift and would pass over the camp before his arrival there but this duty of watch had been asked of him and thus he would perform it regardless of redundancy.
The geese behind him drew nearer still and his terrain had gone from wet sands to weeds and brambles; no longer could the hush of the surf drown out their sounds. Their usual jolly honking carried at present a meaningful tone, and it was sadder than the end. His heart went out to them even though they cared not of his own quandary or that of his people. The geese bore their own afflictions. Everything did.
A chill moment comes to every man at some point in his life when he comes to the realization that the world is perfectly indifferent of the suffering of its inhabitants. The fact is as true for a bird as it is for a man and as true for a man as it is for his family. It is as true for his family as it is for all his cherished souls. That is what he thought coming upon the camp and seeing the four formless shapes in a neat row on the outskirts of it. Every man comes to the moment at some time or another and now was only his time. He mustn't dwell on who lay under the stained coverlets. Here he had no family save his fellow vagrants. Here there was only one that mattered and it was one which mattered to every soul a part of the camp; the child would never be discarded such as those under the coverlets.
His outlook from the South was of a camp in frenzy as an ant's hive after an indiscriminate boot treads over it. For the ants the frenzy continues long after the boot has traveled from the hive a distance inconceivable to them. As it is for ants it was at the camp; what caused this frenzy must have gone for nothing menacing could be seen.
He stepped over the shapes under the coverlets and then the circle of stones marking the extremity of the camp's boundary and made for the Proprietor's tent. The vagrant souls which made up a lion's share of the camp swarmed around him erratically. Dark had taken over the sky and some of them carried torches. It was something that bothered him greatly amidst this frenzy.
"Fools! You will cause an accident!" No one heard him or no one bore his words to mind. After a shake of his head in disapproval he continued on. A moment later an old woman with haunted eyes and sagging skin bounced off of him and then scampered away. He checked his pocket; his timepiece was where he expected. All are family here, in a way, but in a time such as this that would not stop one from gaining through the loss of another.
On approach to the Proprietor's tent he saw the veil moved gently aside and the Proprietor, accompanied by the child, emerge from within.
"What happened?" he asked, looking at the Proprietor.
"A scouting party. Those we could find are dead but I fear it was not all of them."
"They came from the South?"
"East." The Proprietor offered a moment for him to consider that.
"They are flanking us."
The Proprietor nodded. The child stared at her feet.
"But how did they know--"
"We have not time to ponder that. Abbott, you must take the child."
Abbott looked at the child; so pitifully frail did she look in her in drab and worn clothing. So vastly important. "And do what?"
"Where am I to go?"
"Away from here."
"Sir, I am but a vagrant as everyone else in this camp. I am not fit for such responsibility. The child is--"
"Abbott, you are the only one that can. Who else here would be trusted with the child?"
"How would I?"
"You admit to deceiving me?"
"Then you can be trusted."
"Why not you, Proprietor? She has been in your trust this long not by chance. I have seen your abilities in combat. You can keep the child safe. How can I?"
"One who is proficient in the causing of pain and death is not the child's need. This you already know. The child needs a protector, not a mangler."
"Sir--" he started, but could not think of how to finish.
The Proprietor ignored this last. He turned to the child. "You have packed everything you need and nothing you do not?"
The child nodded.
"You have a difficult path ahead of you, child, but Abbott here will be your guardian all the way. He would breathe from him his last breath for you. He has to offer you something I do not."
Tears welled in the eyes of the child. "You kept me safe through everything, Bardolf. You. Must I leave?"
The Proprietor lowered onto one knee and spoke softly to the child: "You have been my light, child. I can only hope I have given you a mere morsel of the hope you have given me. I will always be thankful for that. But it is time for us to part. Abbott here will take good care of you. He once had a girl like you. She was your age when the horsemen took her. If there is one thing about Abbott of which I am certain it is that he will never have another taken from him. I give you my word."
The child resigned to what, to her, must be a certainty, for it was spoken by the Proprietor. She hugged the Proprietor fiercely, and they spoke together their familiar maxim, "And our word is our word."
"Now go," said the Proprietor. "Abbott, take her along the North shore West and then South once there is no more West. I will do what I can to slow their progress."
And what choice was there for him? The Proprietor spoke with finality. Things had been decided previously and the Proprietor had always been right up to now. Why would things be different this time?
"I will need time to prepare."
The Proprietor walked to his tent and returned with a canvas sack. "Everything you should need will be in there. Now go. I fear the horsemen are almost upon us."
Abbott and the child, their feet frozen in place, looked to each other and then to the Proprietor. Right now? It must really happen right now?
"Both of you, go! Go or you will die!" The Proprietor's head darted to and from one and the other, his face flush with a mix of emotions without description. In the moment of silence after that the distant pounding of hooves made itself known like distant thunderheads. Abbott picked up the canvas sack and slung it over his shoulder.
For a vagrant it is never much to leave a place, but to leave the camp's affinity of which he had become so accustomed was an unfamiliar endeavor. Even so, he took hold of the child's wrist and led her, him at a jog and her at a sprint, toward the brambles on the hill between the camp and the sea where their footsteps would be toilsome to follow.
After arriving at the base of the hill Abbott looked back to the camp. The Proprietor was anointing his blade in linseed oil.
They climbed the hill and ran parallel to the shore at a tiring pace until the camp could no longer be seen behind them. Even then they rushed, slowing only momentarily upon hearing the Proprietor's roaring battle cry.