She spoke again, this time with more urgency.
The lyrical sound floated into Will’s consciousness from far away. Cold earth cradled his cheek. Cautionary bird cries lilted around him. He opened his eyes. Parts of him hurt very much, but that too seemed far away.
Will forced his eyes open a bit wider and turned his head toward her voice. The sound of it rang like the strange murmurings of a desperate wind chime. He couldn’t focus on anything nearby. The urgent smell of soil and thawing horse manure swirled around him. His vision resolved slightly in the distance – there was his car, upside down in the barrow pit.
Swerving, the light . . .
So far away. In the fog of his senses, everything was so far away.
A sharp pain in his ribs pulled him back to focus. He felt himself being rolled onto his back. Dense brown hair reflected sunlight around her face. The light reflected was disorienting, but enthralling. Will’s listing eyes followed the waves of her hair back and forth and back.
She shook his shoulders now, yelling at him, then spun a quick look behind her.
Her hair! It seemed to swirl in slow-motion around her face. He followed it with his eyes, not really seeing her at all. It whipped back as she turned toward him again. Her tone was urgent, but whatever she was anxious about seemed far away. As he fell back into a half-conscious fog, Will’s only thought was that he wanted desperately to reach out and let that hair run through his fingers, like dipping his hands in a stream of dark caramel, but he couldn’t move his arms more than a few inches without falling back in pain.
She was shouting now as she shook him. Being moved hurt and sent spiked alarm bells through his ribs and shoulders, but the pain of it helped him return to the moment. Even half-conscious, Will found her arresting. Her face was slim and her nose was sharp; ears elfin and graceful. Her eyes curved and curled around, glowing crystalline green, matched in parallel with exquisite brows to a sharp point as they met at the bridge of her nose. Will observed her visage as though knowing sunlight in a dream.
He lifted his head a little, but found the effort too taxing, and let it slip back to earth. As he did, he felt something impact his left shoulder. She let out a little cry and uttered some unknowable epithet as she wrenched the something out of his shoulder. Waves of nausea coursed through Will as new pain began to radiate from this new violation. Then, with surprising strength, she lifted his head and torso against her body into a sitting position.
With great effort, he could hold his own head up. She was behind him, propping him up. He could feel the cool softness of the pale white shift she wore against his neck and arms. Her face was over his shoulder an inch or two from his. Her breath had the sharp sweetness of spices sold in faraway, sunwashed markets. She held him under his arms around his chest. He could tell she was going to try to lift him to stand.
“Can’t –” he managed. Will could feel the world slipping into darkness again. Into this fading consciousness, she spoke words that tumbled one over the other, slanting and slippery. It was beautiful, but utterly unintelligible.
She ducked out of the way of something that sliced through the air above, dropping him painfully back to the ground. Will’s shoulder was beginning to feel cold and numb. She uttered something sharply, closed her eyes and took a deep breath then moved around and knelt beside him. Her hair, like rivulettes of silken umber dropped around her face as she bent over him.
With one hand against her chest, and one against his heart, Will found himself lost in the sunlit glow at the edges of her. Time slowed. The light at the edges of her seemed to consolidate around her and grow brighter. It rippled and then flowed along her shoulder, past her elbow, through her hand and into his chest.
Only the two of them were there together – a tiny universe. Time came to a stop. Every sense seemed to awaken. The smell of wet earth and blood, and the unfamiliar exotic smell of her. The texture and moisture of soil beneath his fingers and palms. The sound of the creek nearby and leaves rustling in a shallow, almost invisible breeze. A memory of a sunflower shimmery in the sun flowed into his mind. He could see individual particles of sunlight floating gently past. The feeling was serene and timeless and perfect.
As suddenly as it had come, it passed, and he blinked hard. He opened his eyes and saw her with startling clarity. Though still radiant, her graceful form seemed diminished somehow. She was urgently pulling him up, and he found he could coax his body to move. His shoulder and a spot in his calf were very cold now, but otherwise, he was able to rise. She grabbed his hand and pulled him away from the spot where just a moment ago he lay motionless. A very small, handmade arrow thunked into the dirt where his head had been.
He jerked away with shock, though he found himself unable to speak. She pulled and he followed, led by the wrist, tugging. Once he was up and moving, he gently wrested free. Whatever was happening, he seemed to instinctively trust her.
They reached the edge of the horse pasture and the cover of shrubs and cottonwoods. She stepped nimbly over the barbed wire fence at the boundary and turned to help him across. His jacket caught and tore on the fence, but he made it to the other side. At the creek she stopped for a moment and looked right, then left down along the bank.
Choosing, she grabbed his hand and pulled him upstream, along the edge of the creek. He followed. Another arrow, no larger than a brand new number two pencil, slammed into a tree a few feet away.
“It’s not far now,” she said. He was startled by her voice, clear and arresting. She was forced to pull him along. Then a moment later, she stopped and looked up. “It’s still here,” she said. “Here. Climb.”
They were facing a large oak. There weren’t many lower branches, but he managed to get up into the first few. She pulled herself into the tree with a nimbleness that was graceful and surprising. “Come on,” she said. “Keep climbing.” She passed him adeptly and climbed much farther up into the tree above.
He clambered as best he could, but it was slow going. His leg throbbed. His shoulder hurt. Far up in the canopy of the tree, he could see her lithe form, climbing out onto a branch. Then she stopped, waiting for him to catch up.
“I know you’re hurt, but you must hurry. Please. I must go back for . . . I cannot leave you here to be torn to pieces by that … thing.” Her voice was soft, but very strong.
Will had so many questions. What are we doing in this tree? Who are you? What happened back there? Who . . . who the hell was shooting little arrows at us? He heaved himself onto the branch beside her. It was thick and strong, but Will was a large man, and the branch swayed beneath them.
“Please, you must trust me. I’ll explain later, but now, please trust me.” She locked her eyes on his and said quietly as though part of the wind, “Please. Do as I do.” Another little arrow lodged into the trunk of the tree, spraying little bits of bark at them. He jerked instinctively, but she didn’t let his eyes go. “Please,” she said one last time. Then she turned and jumped from the branch, out into space. He watched her arc through the dappled sunlight and he remembered a frame of memory from the vision he’d had just before the wreck – sun filtering through golden leaves. Then she was gone. Not fallen, just gone.
He heard something scuffling through the branches below. Ugly, chalky grunting called up to him. An arrow grazed his chest and disappeared up into the tree above. He didn’t wait any longer. He stepped out to where he thought she’d been, and then leapt, with all his strength up and away, trying to take just the path she had.
His heart and his mind instantly revolted, screaming that this was a very bad idea. He arced out into that dappled space, and he felt himself falling. A moment later the sunlight grabbed his body, wrapping him in a tight warmth, achingly bright to look at, and he too disappeared.
A manger of green stalks rose above his face tall and verdant. For a confused moment, he lay on his back serenely watching small white clouds amble through a deep blue sky. Then, with great stiffness, he pushed himself up with his uninjured arm and looked around.
He was lying on a gently sloping hillside surrounded by tall willowy grass, bowing and rising in a warm, steady, gentle breeze. Below, he could see the hill tilt more steeply and then end abruptly at the edge of a rocky cliff. Beyond this cliff he could make out the foam-capped waves of a dark blue sea.
Sun-washed white sea birds rose and fell along the updraft next to the cliff. Despite their distance and the wind, he could hear them calling to each other, and he could see the patterning of their feathers. The waves of the sea were in sharp relief as well, though they were far away. All around him, blades of grass, like pixies, bent and shimmered, now catching the light, now giving it up. For a moment, he forgot who he was and how he’d gotten there.
Then she was there, beside him and his mind cleared. “What,” he began hoarsely, stumbling. She crouched and looked at his shoulder, pulling at his jacket. Will’s orange shirt underneath was soaked with fresh blood. His reflex was to pull away from her.
She recoiled, wordlessly opening her hands as though to say that he should trust her. He was too sore, too tired, and too confused to protest further, so he relaxed and she quickly pulled his jacket the rest of the way off. She pulled his sleeve up past where a small back hole in his shoulder was seeping dark red blood. The skin around the wound was red and swollen. A thick red line extended out a few inches from the wound up along the inside of his shoulder.
After she’d taken a long look at it, prodding only gently at the outsides of the hole, she moved to his leg. Again, she rolled his pant leg up past a spot in his calf where another black hole was also seeping dark black blood. Another thick red line followed the inside of his calf toward the underside of his knee.
“This isn’t good,” she said.
“What,” he stumbled again, but then managed, “the hell is going on?”
“You’ve been shot by an Angkra rat,” she said standing up. “They’re blind, but their sense of smell is very intense and their hearing is incredible.” She stood. “Fortunately, they’re not great climbers.” She walked away, up the hill.
“No, stop. Wait. The car.” His words stumbled through the confused memory of what had just happened. “The car, it . . . there was an accident. How . . . God, the car . . .” Memory of the wreck, the sunlight, the taste of blood and earth came quickly back. With some difficulty, he stood, putting almost no weight on his injured leg. Looking around, he shouted up to her, “Where are we?! How did we get here?!”
She was scanning the ground up above, using her foot to push aside the tall grass. Without interrupting her search, she said, “That is very hard to explain, and would take longer than we have time for. We are in a great deal of danger now.”
He limped up toward her. “Danger? What danger? Please tell me! What is going on?!”
She had apparently found what she was looking for and was now crouched low, parting the grass and plucking something from underneath. “This will hurt,” she said simply, but with empathy.
She crushed the small plant with her palms and scrunched it between her fingers. Before he could react, she grabbed his arm just under his injury and thrust the ball of mushed green plant material into his wound and clamped her hand over top.
Will struggled against a numbing pain, but she was strong, and she held. When his howling died down, and the pain subsided somewhat, he collapsed to the soft earth. “Please,” Will was gasping now. “Please tell me what’s going on. Where are we? What’s happened to me? Who shot me? What was that thing in the tree? How did we get here? What the hell is going on?!”
She was on the ground again, picking a few delicate green leaves and rolling them up into another wet mass. “You need this. We aren’t safe here and there isn’t much time. The Angkra will come for us,” She looked at the wound in his leg sadly, and whispered, “they’ll come for you.” She turned her head to look out over the sea of grass below them. “We have to keep moving, and you’ll die if we don’t stop the poison from those darts. This will help.”
His mind was reeling, but when he looked into her face, his confusions didn’t seem quite so pressing. Her startling eyes held a powerful worry, but he knew without a doubt that she would help him. He couldn’t say why, but in that moment, he let his questions fall unanswered and he trusted her. He pulled up his pant leg and this time, bore down on the pain, and allowed her to hold the ball of mashed-up plant in the wound.
When the searing finally passed, he was exhausted. He laid his head back into the grass.
“No.” She grabbed his good arm and pulled him back up. “We must get down to the shore. Come.”
There was no trail, but the grass parted for them gracefully. She wound a path toward the cliff’s edge. When they arrived at the brink, she stopped. “Here. Rest here for a minute. I’m going to look for a way down.”
She walked away quickly along the cliff’s edge and he sat himself down in the soft grass. He could see a white beach ringing the bottom of the cliff at the water’s edge. It was magnificent. He rubbed his shoulder around where his wound ached. The cold numb feeling was dissipating, but it was replaced by a pulsing pain. His calf was also throbbing now, and it felt good to get off his feet.
A short time later she returned to him. “Up ahead.” She pointed up to where the cliff rose above them. “There’s a small animal trail.” She helped him to his feet. “It won’t be easy, but if we’re careful, we’ll make it.”
They waded through the grass to a spot along the cliff’s edge that was worn away. Looking out over the edge at the little path, he stopped. “Whoa. That’s not much of a trail. Whatever uses this, they’re not very big, are they?” A slight shake of her head was all the answer she gave.
She went forward, edging carefully out onto the slight ledge worn into the brittle rock of the cliff-side. He watched as she held herself tight to the wall, and edged her way down, one little footstep at a time.
“This is crazy,” he muttered. “This whole thing is crazy. What am I even doing here?”
She stopped and looked back up at him. “Please. Please trust me, you are not safe up here. We must get down to the water’s edge.”
He shook his head, but found himself there, against the cliff-face, hobbling on one leg, taking small sideways shuffling steps down a trail that wasn’t much more than a few inches of rock relief.
The rock face was made of a very dark stone that seemed to break away easily. This meant there were plenty of hand-holds, but they didn’t seem very strong or reliable. More than once Will’s hand gave under crumbling rock or a foot caught a piece of the ledge that wasn’t solid and he slipped. Each time, off balance with his heart in his throat, he steadied himself, took deep breaths, and kept moving.
After what seemed an eternity, he could see the beach below, and he could see her on it, looking around cautiously, and up at him expectantly. Finally he knew even if he fell, he’d make it, and the last few steps brought powerful relief.
After a few moments catching his breath, she came over to him and smiled. “Good work. That was hard. You did that very well.”
“Well, um, thanks.” He wanted to say more, to ask more, but she turned away and walked up the beach. “You know,” he called after her, knowing his words would be swept away on the wind, “you’re kinda hard to talk to.” She kept walking. Finally, with no other choice, he followed.
He found her at the entrance to a shallow cave. When he got closer he could see it was more of a rock overhang. “We’ll rest here. I need to rest too.” Leaning back against the cliff wall beneath the overhang, she closed her eyes. He sat down next to her.
“Please,” he said, “please tell me what’s happening. What’s going on? Where are we?”
Sitting back up, she cut off his litany of questions. “There will be time for all your questions when we get to safety. Right now, I need you to trust me again. The single thing you can do to help us get out of here is to keep watch, and let me rest undisturbed. Wake me at sunset.” With that, she closed her eyes again. He started to protest, but then thought better of it. A moment later, she was clearly sound asleep.
It was a hard afternoon of sitting next to the one person who could give him answers to the million questions in his head. And she had the nerve to simply fall asleep, like nothing was wrong, like he hadn’t just been in a major car accident, like a laundry list of unexplainable things hadn’t just happened. Like there wasn’t some thing out there trying to shoot him with small poison arrows. What the hell? It was infuriating. But there she was, asleep.
He could get mad if he looked away. If he looked away he could imagine shaking her shoulders, forcing her awake, demanding answers. But when he looked down at her, she was there, some kind of crazy mixture of delicate and strong, somehow fiercely loyal to him, keeping him alive. He couldn’t shake the feeling like he’d walked into a story read to him as a child and long forgotten.
After a few hours of staring out at the waves, tracing the line of the horizon, the sun started dipping toward the sea. He made a kind of peace with her as she slept. He would let all his questions wait.
As the sun met the horizon, he found himself watching a group of sea birds rise and fall above the cliff face they’d scaled. The birds were starting to disappear to wherever they spent the night as the onshore breeze died. At the shoreline, he could sense the wave’s ebbing intensity.
Will stretched his wounded leg in the sand. At the cliff top a light drew his attention. It flashed only for a heartbeat, but he was sure he’d seen it. A few moments later he heard the deep sound of a horn calling out. Then he could make out a dark shape shuffling down the same ledge they’d come down together. Despite the distance, he could see the details of its ugly body surprisingly well.
It was small and sort of compact, with a large round carapace for a back with wicked spikes at the tops where the shell met its shoulders. It had a small black head with small black limbs. Slung across its back was a darkly stained wooden crossbow. Alarmed, he gently shook his sleeping companion. When she was fully awake, he pointed up to the cliff side.
“Is that the Angk thing you talked about? The one who shot me up with tiny arrows?”
She followed where he was pointing and nodded. “Bolts, crossbow bolts. Not arrows. Did you see a light before he arrived?”
“Did you hear a horn?”
She took that in grimly, and said very matter-of-fact, “Then it won’t be alone. Which is very bad.”
“So how do we stop it or them? Where do we go?” The beach they were on didn’t extend very far before it ended at another cliff-face.
“Stay here.” With that, she walked over to the water’s edge. The breeze from the afternoon had died, and the water was almost still now.
He ignored her admonition and walked stiffly beside her, his gaze fixed on the dark figure making its way slowly down the side of the cliff. “I’m a good swimmer and all, but I’m not really in very good condition just now, and frankly that ocean doesn’t look too inviting.”
“Be quiet, please.” This came not as a request, but as a command. Then she knelt and placed one hand into the water. She closed her eyes, then opened them. “We’re still early,” she said. “We must wait until it is a little bit darker.”
“Why darker?” he asked.
“We are waiting for a hundred million friends to come to the surface.”
“I know. You’ll see them in just a moment.” She turned back to look at the cliff. “Angkra cannot climb very fast. Certainly not as fast as we were able to. But once it hits the sand, we won’t have but a few moments.”
They stood at the water’s edge. Every few seconds she’d kneel down and feel with her hand in the water. It seemed to him like an OK time to ask.
“Um, I need to ask you about what happened back there.” He was suddenly shy in the quiet space between them. “At the car. I need, um, I need to know what happened.”
She turned to him and looked hard into his face, searching his eyes. He thought he could see a kind of sadness at the edges of those unfathomable eyes. She nodded. “I know. I know you deserve answers. I know.” She didn’t seem to know what to say next. She turned and put a hand on his chest. It was warm and strong. “You need answers, but we’re in a great deal of danger, and there are more questions coming.”
“Listen to me,” She cut him off. “Listen, I’m about to send a message, but it will take an enormous amount of me, of my . . .” She stopped. “I’m not sure how to say what’s about to happen. I will send the message, then I may, um, collapse. You might have to carry me.”
He inhaled sharply. “OK, I’m trying to be patient and all, but what the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m going to send a message. If it’s received, Tedrin might come with his boat to pluck us from this island. But sending the message will drain me – I’ve never been so tired. And I may collapse. I will probably collapse, unconscious. You will have to carry me, get us to the boat. He will come in close to shore, and you should wait for him. Do not wade very far into the water. There are things out there that . . . don’t like to be stepped on. Can you do it?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She bent down to feel the water again, and said, “It’s time. Will you do it?”
Again, he took a deep breath. Then he looked over at the cliff face. Another dark shape had crept onto the small path, and the one in the lead was about a quarter of the way down. “Yes,” he said. “I will.”
She turned her attention down to the water and a brightness began to outline her hand. Softly, without looking at him she said, “It’s luminescence. Our hundred million friends.” The glow around her hand began to pulse and grow brighter. She closed her eyes and the luminescence intensified. The light began to modulate into long beats separated by the time it took a wave to crash and recede. The pulse of it reached out into the ocean, each column of light reaching farther and brighter than the one before.
Soon it was as if the whole sea were pulsing with fire. She was now clearly exerting herself, more and more fiercely. He stood and watched, mesmerized. Finally, with a last furious pulse of light cutting angrily through the waters of the dark sea, her body gave a little shudder and she crumpled into the few inches of ocean at their feet. He moved close and pulled her limp body out of shallows and into his arms. His shoulder screamed, but he held her tightly and gently. He turned to look at the cliff face. The small black figures were paused in their descent, watching her send her message, but now they quickly turned their attention back to their cause.
He looked out at the sea. He wanted to run, or to fight, but he could do neither. This is it, he thought. I’m stranded at the edge of some unknown sea in some unknown place with an ugly unknown enemy wanting to stick me with arrows while holding some crazy beautiful unconscious unknown woman in my arms waiting for the possibility of rescue by someone or something I do not know. He sighed and looked down at her dark, completely quiet form. He said aloud, but in a whisper, “I hope you’re right about this. I hope whoever it is gets your message. We could really use a rescue.”
Dusk turned to deep twilight. His eyes adjusted. He divided his time between scanning the dark horizon, anxiously watching the dark creatures descend the side of the cliff, and searching for signs she might wake up. Even though his pursuers, there were three of them now, were dark black on a dark gray cliff-side, he could still make out their shapes. He wondered if she would wake up, if he should try and revive her somehow, but she seemed to have lapsed into a kind of coma. He could feel the warmth of her, but her breathing had become so shallow, this was the only way he knew she was still alive. The horizon was empty. The Angkra closed in on the beach.
Each moment that passed brought just a little more panic. Should I try and fight them? With what? Should I swim with her out into the ocean? What’s out there anyway? There weren’t any options really. Will I just stay and die? Can I do that bravely? What does that even mean?
Then, where before was only a thin grim line, a tiny speck appeared on the horizon. It started as just a small dot of light, like a star, but he could see it. Time seemed to slow. As in a trance, Will sensed the beacon becoming brighter. Minutes passed like hours or days. The first Angkra was nearly at the beach. Moments, she had said, we’ll only have moments once it reaches the beach. He had to get ready. Whatever that light was, out there, it wasn’t getting close enough, fast enough.
But it was something to swim toward.
He picked her up, cradling her head against his good shoulder and waded out a few feet into the slowly crashing waves and stopped. The things that don’t like to be stepped on, where were they? How far out? The Angkra was at the beach now and running toward him, its crossbow out and ready. Will turned back into the soft surf. Walking until it was deep enough to swim, he pulled his feet up from the bottom. Whatever monsters lay in the deep, he didn’t know, but he really did not want to meet any more tiny arrows. Turning so his back was toward the horizon, he strapped his hurt arm around her chest, hooking under her arms. It hurt but he could hold her. He used his good arm to take wide strokes.
His injured leg dragged, but in normal times, he was a strong swimmer. Despite what felt like water that was more buoyant and salty than he remembered the ocean being, he was just able to get a breath or two now and again as he paddled. He hoped he was keeping her head above water.
The Angkra reached the edge of the surf and began to pepper the water with its darts. A moment later, it was joined by its comrades. The bolts made small, almost playful splashes here and there in the water around his head. His body gave a shudder, and he gasped when one grazed his shoulder as he pushed against the surf, working his way out to sea.
His good arm began to tire. His injured arm was numb, barely able to hold her limp body. He turned to look out desperately at the horizon for signs of help. To his surprise and relief, he could see a lantern illuminating a boat just ahead. More bolts fell, two and three at a time, around him. He stopped to tread water, holding her head steady above the water. The boat drew near. In the dim lamplight, he could see the outline of a large figure along the side of the vessel throwing an anchor into the water. Two more bolts fell around him, and one struck the side of the boat.
Through the fog of his exhaustion and the spray of the sea he heard the large figure shout, “Hang on to her!”
The boat was wooden with a hull rising several feet above the water. It was drawing up alongside him now, and a muscular arm was reaching down. Though large and thick, the arm stretching down didn’t reach quite far enough, and he realized he’d have to lift her some for whoever was on the boat to have any chance of pulling into the boat. He took a deep breath and used the last of his strength to push her up, one hand cradling her head, the other braced in her armpit. He was able to raise her head and shoulders up above the water, but this pushed him down.
As the weight of her rose away above him, he felt a brief moment of relief before his foot grazed the ocean floor. Something clamped tightly and painfully around his ankle, holding him to the bottom. Will struggled for a moment, fighting the thing clamped to his ankle and his own sudden fear. He reached down into the dark water below frantically to pull apart whatever heinous jaws were holding him tight, but it was as though his foot were somehow set in stone. He thrashed at it desperately, pounding at it with his fists. It was no use. He was already exhausted, and his air left him quickly. He slackened. His mind screamed, then became foggy. Just before giving in to the darkness he looked up. Even in the darkening night, the clear waters let him see the dim distorted outlines of the boat just a few feet above. She made it. The darkness pressed in tightly. Then there was a crash of something large hitting the water, then there was nothing.