“Going my way?” the old man asks. He has bad knees and worse teeth, which are yellow and chipped. His breath is the worst, though; it smells like things have died in his mouth. Maybe they have. He has a nice smile, though, wide and friendly, though it is badly matched with his teeth and his squinting eyes. He’s learned to live with them. “You can have a ride as far as the city. After that, s’the end for you.”
The boy hugs his small bag to his chest. He’s not sure what the right answer is. His master warned him about things like this, how there were those who would love to welcome children into their embrace and then they’re never seen or heard from again. They like to suck on young bones, his master had said, one eye serious through plumes of cigarette smoke. They crack them open for the marrow and use blood for a sauce, and because children are small, they are always hungry. They are always looking for something else to eat. Be careful.
But the boy’s feet hurt. He’s been walking all day and most of the previous night, nearly nonstop. The shoes he has are tattered, falling apart around his feet; he can feel the texture of the dirt against his toes. The man’s cart is rickety, but it seems at least mostly-solid, and the donkey pulling it is old, but not so old that it looks about to keel over. It’s not a very large cart, but there is enough space for a handsbreadth between a small boy and an old man. He licks his lips and looks mutely at the man’s face.
“If you’re not, say so,” the old man says. He shifts and scratches himself, digging heavy sausagelike fingers into his armpit. He sucks his teeth loudly a few times. “I’ve got errands to run, and I’ve got a home to go back to. Either you’re on, or you’re not, but don’t waste my time for my generosity.”
The boy still says nothing. “Suit yourself,” the man says, and clucks to the donkey, who takes two steps, before the boy yelps wait! and forces his aching feet to propel him forward, stumbling a little as the cart comes to a halt again. He tucks his bag into the crook of one arm and uses the other to hoist himself up, swinging himself into place. As soon as he sits down, huddled against the far end of the cart, he nearly cries out in pain: relieved of his weight, his feet are throbbing and aching. He shifts his heel gingerly and hisses; it feels damp. He suspects he’ll find blood, if he dares to check later tonight.
“Sorry,” he mumbles to the old man. “Thanks. Uh. Just to the city is fine.”
“As you like,” the old man says, and again he makes a clucking noise to his donkey, which grunts and begins its slow plodding place to the city. There is silence between the two human travelers, and the boy is grateful for that. He watches the old man closely in the fading sunlight. Nothing about him appears threatening, though he’s seen enough to know how deceptive appearances can be. He wonders if those broken yellow teeth could grow suddenly long and sharp—he wonders if those solid heavy fingers could crush open his bones, and how easily. He hugs his knees to his chest and tries to rub some of the pain out of his feet.
Ahead of them is the city, the capitol whose name the boy has never learned. Its walls are gleaming and white, rising above a squat heavy wall, and more beautiful than anything else the boy’s ever seen. For a moment he’s distracted from his benefactor, and that’s when the old man speaks.
“She’ll break your heart, boy,” he says. The boy whips his head around to look. There is a soft fond look on the old man’s face, like he’s not seeing the city itself, but something from long ago. “She’ll take you in and break you apart and your heart will be broken. And you’ll never want it any other way.”