Ellie picked her way along the ridge, placing each foot carefully. The rocks were treacherous up here, the mud that normally anchored them in place having been dried by the warm breezes that blew across the tops of the rolling hills. One misstep could send her tumbling down.
Behind her, she heard the gentle clopping sounds of Old Branch, following sedately after her. Branch, named for the big antlers that he shed each season, didn’t seem to show any worry about where he put his big feet. Maybe they were better at gripping, Ellie considered. Or maybe he just didn’t worry because he had more feet than she did.
Dancing back and forth, she kept her eyes mostly on the ground. The shadow of the City stretched long in front of her, but she did her best to avoid stepping in it. The sun felt warm on her cheeks, a pleasant contrast to the chill that still hung in the air despite the sun having been up for hours. Fall was reaching its conclusion, she felt. Soon, winter would come, and heavy flakes of snow would swirl down from the skies.
Ellie wondered if people in the City ever got snow. The great structures seemed so high up, raised on the City’s massive support legs, that they floated almost above the clouds. Maybe the snow didn’t fall up there.
She’d only been up a few times, and never during the winter. Her father took her in the spring, when they needed to buy new seeds and talk with the Seers about which crops would grow best in the coming summer. She also went along in the fall, when they sold the crops, when they carried the antlers that fell from Branch and the other horn-deer up so that the tradesmen could buy them.
Branch snorted behind her, momentarily tugging at his lead as he bent to nibble at a shoot of grass. Ellie paused, turning around and huffing impatiently at him.
“You’re always eating,” she complained, the words falling on Branch’s deaf ears without any reaction from him. “Why do you eat so much? Dad says that you need the food to grow your horns, but I think you’re just greedy.”
Branch, of course, didn’t answer. He nibbled at the grass until he’d sufficiently reduced the green shoots down to little more than nubs, and then lifted his head again. Ellie began moving forward once again, now starting to descend the ridge.
Legs, they called the great pillars that held up the City. But that was a weird name, wasn’t it? Legs walked, moved, carried someone around. The City didn’t move. It just stood there, high up in the clouds.
Gampa, Ellie’s great-grandfather, told stories about how, long ago, the City had walked across the land, how there had been a great war of magic and the Seers stood out on the ramparts and threw fire and light from their hands at each other. But Gampa also told stories about the earth itself heaving like the back of a horn-deer, about men changing their shapes into monstrous beasts, claimed that the dark scars on the earth where Ellie’s family didn’t let the horn-deer wander had been made by men and dark magic.
Ellie half-believed these stories; she knew that they couldn’t really be true, but she liked to gaze up at the City, some afternoons, and imagine how it might move. Would it dance and skip, or would it plod along slowly, like how Branch walked, never in a hurry?
Suddenly, she became aware of a voice, distant but strained, calling to her. “Ellie! Ellie, where are you?” it came.
She spun around, looking for its source. Her father! He stood down at the foot of the ridge, waving his hands around. “Dad!” she shouted back, waving back at him in greeting. “I’m up here!”
“Ellie, get down here right now!”
Obediently, Ellie started forward, but something felt wrong. Her dad sounded different than usual. Was he scared? What was he scared about? It wasn’t like she was about to fall off the ridge, and even if she did, all that might happen is that she got her clothes dirty and earned a thrashing from Ma-
And then, intruding in on her world, she heard the great creaking.
It was so loud! It sounded like a giant, stretching out long-unused limbs. She paused in her descent from the hill, looking around in confusion for the source of that sound. Branch, too, jerked his head in agitation and tugged at his reins.
“Ellie!” her dad shouted again, and now she heard the real fear in his voice.
Ellie turned back around, back to her dad, her mouth opening in a question. But the words died on her tongue, and she just stared, up at the great City standing behind her dad.
No, not just standing. Moving.
The legs were moving, slowly shifting and rising. The entire City rocked back and forth atop them. Ellie stared. The stories of her Gampa were true.
“Ellie, come on!” Her father’s voice finally jolted her out of her paralysis. “We need to get inside, and quick!”
She abandoned safety, abandoned her slow descent. She ran down to her father, dropping Branch’s reins as he charged along close behind. “What’s happening?” she asked softly, as she threw herself into his arms.
He hugged her tightly, but then pulled her along, moving away from the ridge. “I don’t know,” he confessed, his voice tight. “But we need to get to the City. We need to go now.”
“What about Branch? What about Mom, Gampa-”
“They’re already on their way. Come along, little love.” And her dad tugged her towards the city, as it moved and stepped like a living thing, the stories of her great-grandfather come to life.