Ming is certain she should have crossed Petro’s path by now. The fork is at least a day-and-a-half behind her now, and surely Petro isn’t slower than she is.
The ascent into the hills has been tiring, yes. Ming’s calves ache, and her eyes keep threatening to close and never open again. But Petro is heading downhill. Even accounting for sleep, she should have caught him by now.
She drags herself around yet another curve—the path up here has far too many of them—and lets out a strangled cry of frustration. The path just keeps going up and up and up.
Even the dog is tired. It flops down the moment Ming pauses, tilting its head to keep one lazy, exhausted eye on her. Ming isn’t sure why it keeps trailing after her when she’s clearly not helping it much. The whole loneliness thing only made sense for so long.
“I should find you a new pack,” she grumbles. “I’m sure there are others around.”
The anglerdog just woofs laboriously.
She turns to look backward, giving herself and the dog a few more moments to rest, and widens her eyes at the view before her.
The hills shimmer in the afternoon light. Glittering white strokes of stone carve through a canvas of green treetops. Beyond the foothills, the forest stretches into a flat expanse before thinning into the start of the flat plains where Ming had just been a few days ago. The stone wall of the cliffs rises above the flat portions of the forest, keeping out the ocean wind and fog.
It hits her then that she can just about guess where the village is. It’s off to the right, near the wall, hidden behind a hill.
She squints and tries to imagine the view at night. It would probably just be a whole lot of black, but maybe from a slightly different angle, she would be able to see past the hill in front of the village.
Ming backs up slowly, eyes trained on the hill in front of the village. The sea wall emerges like the head of a snail from its shell, and Ming spots a few grey-ish blurs in the place where the village out to be.
Blinking, she tries to calculate how far along Petro would have been the night of the fire. Assuming he’d walked at the same pace she did, he would have needed three days to reach the fish farms. He probably hadn’t dallied there; Petro only dragged his feet when it would keep him out of undesirable situations. He could have immediately started back towards the village, and, yes. That would put him right where Ming was right now.
So he’d seen the fire. Where had he gone after? If he’d taken the path, she should have passed him, or he should have passed her during her short nap yesterday. And she’d been in the middle of the path for that, so Petro would have seen her.
Frowning, Ming glances at the sides of the path. On the uphill side, a the trees loom, their roots exposed by the way the dirt carved away from the path. On the downhill side, the groud slopes away right at the edge of the black stone, gentle in some places and steep in others. A few sparse bushes brave the slope, holding on to whatever patch of dirt they could find. Somewhere below, the trees start up again, and their treetops sway at eye level.
Then she sees it. Hanging out of one of the bushes is a strange, beige thing. Ming drags herself toward it, and as she gets closer, her heartbeat crescendos in her ears. Her steps slow down, heavy with leaden dread.
The thing is the corner of a tarp. Ming reaches out and tugs on it, not really thinking about her limbs, or fingers, or about anything really.
The tarp comes out, snagging on a few branches and also an entire sleeping roll, and Ming’s mind goes blank as she watches the fabrics roll out onto the ground. Because the tarp could be passed off as someone else’s, just random junk dropped in the forest to reduce weight. But the sleeping bag is Petro’s. Ming has seen it enough times to know, instinctively, the size and weight of it. She knows about the tiny patch of deep purple fabric that his father had scavenged and sewn on. She knows about the sloppily repaired hole in the foot end, from when she’d accidentally cut it open during a trip.
If Petro dumped his things here, he must have ventured into the forest to avoid the path’s detours. He’s probably at the village now, even. Where there might still be raiders.
“Ugh!” she shouts, and the sound disappears into the hills. “Petro you idiot!” He should have waited for her. He should have known she’d go to him before going to the village.
Of course, Petro didn’t know there were raiders. He would have only seen the fire, and of course he felt equipped to just help with a fire. Were it not for the trash and carnage on the path from the lighthouse, Ming probably would have gone straight to the village too.
But she would have stayed on the path.
With another shout of frustration, she stuffs Petro’s things back in the bush. Her arms scrape on the branches a little, but she ignores the sting. Maybe she even embraces it, though she’ll never tell Petro that she’d punched his sleeping bag until it tore on a bush. The whole scene is embarrassingly emotional.
With Petro’s things hidden, Ming turns back to the dog. It had stood up sometime during her scene, but remains a few paces away.
“I’m not going to punch you,” she tells it. “Come on, if you’d like.”
The anglerdog barks and trots up to her, though evidently it is wise enough not to look to her for comfort in this moment. It pretends to ignore her, looking out over the hillside with calm interest.
“Ugh,” Ming grumbles. She adjusts her backpack, not bothering to copy Petro and dump her things, and starts back down the path the way she’d come. “Petro is going to get it for leaving me behind.”
As she walks, she imagines the things she’ll say to him when she reaches the village.