Time slewed back to normal. It was Marcus, the captain of the column’s final third. There are only two others of that rank – his brother Julius in the center, and Jerem Cozak himself, who leads the van. How he had reached me in that time I do not know. He had been marching six squads forward.
He grabbed my left arm, shifted it back and forth. My screams did not discourage him. “Two or three ribs,” he said. “Shield-arm broken. You still have the other.” He frowned as the wind picked up, nodded. He took off his cloak and tore from it a bandage for a sling. He rose when he had tied it off. “Keep the pace,” he said. “Or you’ll kill us all.”
Meno stayed where he lay. The crunch I heard had been his head hitting rock, with all the force of the smilodon’s leap behind it. He sprawled at my feet, guts pouring from his stomach. On its turn, the cat’s rear legs had also disemboweled him. Beside me, Marcus bawled an order. As one, the Never-born turned and started up their distance-eating trot. No one picked up Craytus either. I turned with them, and sped.
The rest of our march, I mostly do not remember. We could not have gone far. The Historians of my city used to say that there are both machines and chemicals inside our blood that dull the pain of illness and injury, but that the effect is temporary. I never thought it would actually matter.
The smilodon did not return, though I often glanced above or to the rear. Thrice I tripped and fell – which meant that the Never-born had to pause and help me up. Their hands held with grips of steel. We kept to the boulders the whole way, crossed glacial rivulets from further up. Down, and down, and down, into what seemed a bowl. We must have passed scrubs and smaller trees as we neared the timberline, but I did not know it. The afternoon sank swiftly into dusk.
When the boulders stopped we came abruptly into a copse, a small forest never cut by men. Any of these evergreens I could have wrapped my arms around three times. Their boughs hung strangely low and thick, nearly touching the ground, heavy in the swiftly falling snow. Soon we came to three or four glades, meadows large enough to host all the Never-born, but still sheltered by that living wall of pine.