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|When survival is in question, all other concerns seem to disappear. And then, once survival seems likely, it's amazing how other issues come rushing back.||
"I–I can't–I need your help," Alicia said. "I can't do it with one hand."
I turned back to her, and her face was downcast. She held her broken arm gingerly.
"Okay," I sighed. Kneeling in front of her, my hands suddenly shaking, I reached out to the top button of her shirt. Her eyes flickered up, meeting mine for just a moment, and then looked away again. I unfastened all the buttons and pulled off the shirt, carefully working it off her broken arm. Her skin was frigid and clammy. As soon as it was off, I quickly wrapped the blanket around her.
"Hurry and get yourself dry," I said. She clutched at the blanket, rubbing her arms and body roughly. "Can you get your pants?" I asked.
She shook her head, still looking away. "I need my good arm to prop myself up."
I nodded. She kicked off her boots, and after blowing into my hands to warm them up, I reached beneath the blanket, unfastened the pants, and pulled them off.
"Oh!" she shouted, jerking her body up, away from the ground. "That's really cold."
"I don't really have anything ..." I trailed off. I bunched up her one dry pair of pants from the pack and slid them beneath her.
"That help?" I asked.
"It's fine." She pulled her legs under the blanket and began rubbing them. "What do I wear now?"
I handed her my dry shirt, also from the pack. "It's big enough to keep most of you covered. More than your shirt would, anyway."
"And what about you?"
"I've got a dry pair of pants, there will be one blanket left for us to share, and I'll build a fire. We'll be okay."
She leaned back, pressing her head against the wall of the ravine.
"Things are turning out rather awful, aren't they?"
"They didn't start all that great, either," I said, standing up. I handed her the remaining blanket. "After you've dried yourself off—and make sure you get your hair really good—just put on the shirt and wrap yourself up with this. I'm going to get some wood. There's got to be some dry sticks around somewhere, but I'll probably have to hike around a bit to find them."
"There's got to be some dry sticks?" Alicia laughed, finally looking directly at me again. "Why on earth would there be."
"It didn't snow or rain as much down here—the ravine kept a lot of it out. Besides, we deserve some good luck."
I picked up the hatched, slung an empty pack around my shoulder, and set out, trying to keep moving briskly to keep myself just a little bit warm. Before long I came back, the pack filled with pine needles and a few branches I found beneath a smaller overhang several hundred yards down the ravine. After starting a small fire, I chopped down three small trees nearby, broke them down into smaller pieces, and set them near the fire to dry out.
Finally satisfied that we would make it through the approaching night, I stripped out of my wet clothes and put on the dry pants. I laid the wet clothes out near the fire to dry, and huddled next to Alicia beneath the blanket.
It was quiet.
The fire popped and cackled, but no other sounds made it to our ears. Any birds or squirrels around the area must have been in their dens an nests, desperately trying to keep warm.
The fire smoked, especially after I got up and put on some of the green wood, now fairly dry. My eyes stung. Alicia's watered. The evening sky darkened, and three moons rose high overhead. Greenish, blue, red, and purple lights danced near the peaks of the mountains to the north.
"We must be getting close," Alicia said, her eyes following mine to the lights.
"That's good," I said. "We should be getting close by now."
"I know you don't want to go, but—."
"Let's not get into this again," I said.
Neither of us looked at the other.
"How's your arm?" I asked.
"Bearable if I don't move. But sometimes I need to move."
I got up and grabbed the wet blanket, the one we had used to dry ourselves off. It was mostly dry now. I took a deep breath, not wanting to ruin it, but ripped off a wide strip.
"Take off the blanket," I told Alicia. "So we can get your arm in a sling."
She pulled the blanket down to her waist. My shirt looked ridiculous on her—long and baggy, and the sleeves came out long past her hands. I had never thought about it much before, but she was a small woman. Not just in height, but her entire body was small.
I tied the makeshift sling around the back of her neck, just beneath her dark hair, now caked with dried mud. She wore her hair shorter than most women of Alcon Valley, cut off just above her shoulders. But she had always gone out of her way to be different than most women. She had worn pants for as long as I could remember. I remember hearing gossip at the inn—that the only reason her father didn't worry about her running around with boys all the time was because she acted and dressed like one, too.
"Oh gods," she whispered as I moved the broken arm in the sling. Her eyes closed, and her mouth tightened. Once the arm was secure, I let go and her entire body relaxed. I did, too. I hadn't even realized how tense I had been.
"Thanks," she said. "It's a good thing you know what you're doing. I would have probably just laid down and frozen to death by ..." She couldn't say Shadowbrook's name.
"I lived by myself for a long time," I told her. "I pretty much had to learn how to do a few things myself. But I don't know how to do everything."
"You've done plenty."
I shook my head. "I don't know what to do about your arm. Making a sling so that it doesn't get jarred around every time you move—that's easy enough. But making sure it heals right? I–I'm sorry. I don't know what to do about that. It's pretty bad, and it may be messed up for a long time."
"Kyle gave me the horse," Alicia said.
"Oh," I said hesitantly, not sure what she was trying to steer the conversation to. She pulled the blanket back up, and I moved back to her side, pulling it over me as well.
"After the wedding fell through," she said.
"What wedding?" I asked. "Did Kyle get—"
"Not Kyle," she said. "Me. I guess you didn't know."
"About a years. I guess you had moved out by then."
"I moved out long before that."
She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. The firelight danced like little pixies on her face.
"But it didn't go through," she said. "Actually I didn't go through with it. He started listening to what other people said about me instead of listening to what he thought. And I guess most people around town said that I would make a bad wife—that I wouldn't give him the kind of lifestyle a respectable man ought to have. So he tried to make me change. Just little things at first, like mentioning how much he'd like me to grow my hair out, or telling me that I'd look good in a skirt."
She laughed softly. "I actually did it, too. I had my father buy me a skirt, and I even wore it. But things got worse and worse, and finally I just called it all off. It was almost this big scandal, but my father smoothed it over and soon everyone just forgot about it. Except for the young men—they remembered and didn't want anything to do with me after that. I guess a woman's only interesting if she's proper wifely material."
"Who ... was he?" I asked.
"His name was Landis. Landis Planter. I doubt you would have known him. He was from Canyon Village, and he didn't stay at the Moonshined–he stayed on the other side of town when he came."
"And Kyle gave you Shadowbrook after all this?"
"Yes," she looked away, eyes suddenly wet. "He went all the way down to Upland Falls to buy her. They have good horses there, he said. She was supposed to be a wedding present, but Kyle said he was glad I didn't have to ride her sidesaddle in a dress."
"That was a nice thing to say," I said. "It's been a long time since I last talked to him."
"Since that day you two ran out into the forest and tried to scare me," Alicia said.
"You remember? That was almost twenty years ago."
"It was ... a rather significant day for my family."
"I don't want to talk about it," she said.
We looked away from each other again. For a long time I just stared out into the nighttime shadows.
"You really scared me that day," Alicia finally said. "I was young enough to still believe everything you hear about elves, and I thought you were going to zap me with lightning or something. Pretty silly, eh?"
"Alicia," I hesitated, ignoring the question. "What happened to Kyle?"
"He married a nice girl from Waxonville and had two kids. Boys. And he built water jugs."
"I'm not asking about that," I said. "I'm talking about that day, when I came back to Alcon Valley and found my father's body laying like a black corn husk in the middle of a burnt down inn. I talked to your father that day, and he didn't act like anything was wrong. What happened to your family?"
"I don't want to talk about it," she snapped at me, her eyes dark with a glint of the fire reflecting off them.
Neither of us spoke again that night. Every now and then I got up to put more wood on the fire, but Alicia stayed where she was the whole time. Much later, when the three moons started setting, she slumped on my shoulder, her eyes closed and her breathing deep and even. I felt her bare knee press against me. I stroked her hair, brushing the flakes of dry mud off, and let her sleep while I sat there, awake, the entire night.
|At Least She's Not the Paperclip||The Day the Caravan Passed By|
|Like Starlight, Dancing on Frosted Grass||A Song for the Fallen Angels, Prologue|
|Resurrecting the Scarlet Avenger, Ch. 1.2|