by Robert Currer
Part 1: Chapter 7
2,800 Words: 11 Minute Read
Somewhere in the gloaming, an arid breeze caressed Eric’s cheek. Wake up. It whispered in his ear like a Sunday morning lover. Fabric snapped and fluttered as the breeze grew. A deep breath filled him, chasing out the staleness in his lungs. His eyes fluttered open. He was on a cot beneath an open-air pavilion made of wooden poles and ODF khaki colored canvas.
“Welcome back,” said a voice. It was low and smoky, and it trickled down his spine in a way that sent tingles to the tips of his fingers. Eric turned his head to follow the voice, his muscles responding languidly as if he had been woken straight from a dream. Eyes like a turquoise sea were watching him and he found himself wondering what it would be like to be adrift in those eyes. They crinkled at the corners as a smile of blushing rose spread across her lips. “I had a bet with myself that your eyes would be blue. Looks like I win.”
Eric blushed and looked away. “Where am I?” He began trying to prop himself up on his elbows.
“No, don’t get up,” she said. Her hands went to his shoulders sending a ripple of pleasure through his neck. Delicately, she guided him back down to the thin mattress. “You’re at the aid station. You were wounded in the field. Your friends saved your life.”
“My friends?” The words fell from him thick and clumsy. Only then did he notice that she was dressed in ODF fatigues and wore the crimson armband that marked her as a member of the healers’ corps. Suddenly, he realized that his leg ached magnificently. The leg was bare, save for yellowing bandages wrapped around both calf and thigh where the claws had torn his flesh. The memory of the attack burst in him, and his chest felt suddenly tight. He bolted upright, trying to catch his breath. The swift movement made his head throb and his vision blur. Touching his forehead, he found it too had been wrapped.
“Just relax. Everything is going to be alright,” said the healer. Her smoky voice rumbled like a purr, massaging the tightness from him. “There’s nothing to worry about. I’ve got you. Shhh.” His pounding heart slowed, and his eyelids slid shut.
A sharp pain in his leg pulled his eyes open with a hiss. Pushing aside the damp hair that clung to the fevered sweat of his brow, Eric saw the healer bent over his leg. She had pulled back his bandage, a look of concentration settling onto her cherubic features.
“Sorry. I know that must sting,” she said. She scooped a dollop of mineral smelling ointment onto her fingers and gently but firmly worked it into the swollen, reddened edges of his cuts. Breath caught in his chest as he balled the sheets in his fists. He wanted to scream but not in front of her. Instead, he forced several long shaky breaths.
“All done.” Her voice sparkled like a chime as she tied off the last of the fresh wrapping. She wiped her hands clean on a rag. “You’ve developed a little bit of an infection. Not uncommon with your kind of wound. Shouldn’t be a problem to treat but we’ll want to keep an eye on it.”
“Thank you, Ms.—I’m sorry. I don’t know your name,” said Eric.
“I’m Zofia. Zofia Kotan.” She smiled wide and radiantly.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Eric.”
“I thought it was Ebrik.”
“But Strange is your surname, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you know?”
“I’m not sure I know anything anymore,” he said, easing himself back down with a groan.
“I should let you rest,” she said tying the cloth cover back onto the ointment jar.
“Only if you have to. I feel like I’ve slept for days.”
She hesitated, looking around. The organized human misery of the Aid Station tent looked almost peaceful in the delicate dawn light. “Alright. I suppose I can waste a few more minutes on you,” she said with a wink before settling herself onto a stool by his cot, crossing her ankles. “Tell me about yourself, Strange, if indeed that is your real name.”
He struggled to hold back a grin. “It’s more of a nom de guerre.”
“Nom de guerre. It’s French for—never mind. It doesn’t matter. I guess it’s who I am now.” The grin faded.
Her head cocked. ‘Who do you want to be?”
“You said my friends brought me in,” he asked.
“Does that surprise you?”
“I wasn’t aware that I had any is all.”
“I would say you do.” Her eyes softened to sea foam. He might have been an injured bird the way they caressed him. She looked down and then away before rising to straighten some instruments on a nearby preparation table. Back turned, she said, “The burly girl with the pretty, dark eyes seemed particularly distraught.”
“Corbin?” That didn’t sound like her at all. He tried imagining her looking anything close to distraught and failed. “How could you tell?”
Zofia snorted, covering her pink lips with her fingers as a blush spread into her cheeks. “Yes, with a face like hers, it was a challenge,” she said.
To Eric’s puzzlement, the dig at Corbin struck a sour chord. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
She looked at him over her shoulder, her ocean eyes full of siren songs. “Are you two…”
He stared at her dumbly for a moment before her meaning finally sunk in. “No! No,” he said shaking his head. He immediately regretted the motion. A vice-like pain pressed against the squishy walls of his brain, momentarily blurring the world around him.
“Careful,” said Zofia. She plucked a small pot from the table and eased him back down to the pillow, his features clenched in agony. “This will help.” She dipped her fingertips into the pot, and they came back coated in a translucent gray salve. The fingertips of each hand rubbed together to spread the salve between them. Then she leaned over him, massaging it into his temples. The balm was cool on his skin, and it smelled pleasantly methylated. She worked his temples until his face calmed and then her fingers slipped into his hair running over his scalp. She whispered to him as she worked, words of comfort, of ease. Words he hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath for weeks waiting to hear. “You’re safe now,” she said, her lips so close that he could feel them tickle his ear.
“Will you be here when I wake up,” he asked, the words barely more than a brush of wind as he slid over the edge of sleep.
“I promise,” she said, and he thought he could hear her smile.
A few days later, it was Corbin waiting on the stool by his bed. Midday had passed but the heat lingered in the air alongside the discordant percussion of hammers. In a vacant patch of rusted earth that stretched between the Aid Station and the work tents where the scholars cataloged the dig’s findings, a group of soldiers were nailing together a rude scaffolding.
“What are they building?” Eric asked rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“A gallows,” said Corbin. She had a knife in hand and was shaving curls of wood from a chunk of tree branch. Her midnight blue eyes never strayed from her work.
Eric studied her, searching for some clue of misplaced humor. Her tea-colored features were as impassive as ever. “Why?”
“To hang someone,” she said, her tone was matter of fact, flippant even. Eric grimaced. She paused and looked up. “How’s the leg,” she asked, pointing at the bandages with her blade.
“Infected.” In fact, it itched horribly.
“Anything to shirk real work, huh?”
His jaw clenched, eyes flaring but, as he turned to tell her exactly where she could shove her commentary, he caught the thin curl of a smile nipping at the corner of her lips. There was a twinkle in her eye, and, with some surprise, he realized that she was making a joke. When did the ODF issue her a sense of humor? “All part of my master plan,” he said.
“Smart. Play up the injured leg thing, maybe walk with a limp. They’re sure to give you some cushy job.”
“I’m gunning for cook. Girls love a guy who can cook.”
“Doesn’t look like you are having any trouble there,” she said. Her look was knowing.
“What do you mean?”
“That cute little healer that’s always fluttering around you. Looks a little like a chipmunk but you always were a bit of a rodent. Come to think of it, she could probably do better.”
“Asshole,” said Eric with a laugh and Corbin smiled so big that her eyes became little crescent moons. Was Corbin developing a personality? A knot tied itself into his gut. He had been a dick to her every day since the moment he got here, and she had still saved his life. She had been trying to help him—albeit in her own perversely brutal way—ever since Salmin teamed them up. And he had been nothing but dead weight. His behavior had been disgusting. He should say something. Apologize. But how? Frankly, he’d be damn lucky if she would forgive him at all. Without thinking, he wrapped his knuckles against the cot frame three times.
“I’m not surprised,” she said.
“What?” he said startled. For a moment, he wondered if he had said all that out loud.
“That she likes you,” said Corbin and then, when it became obvious her meaning was lost on him, she continued, “Since she’s a Mist Walker like you.”
Eric’s jaw flopped open. It had never occurred to him that there might be others, that his situation wasn’t unique.
“You’re gonna let flies in,” said Corbin.
He snapped his mouth shut and went red at the cheeks. He had thought he was alone. But that was his whole problem, wasn’t it? He was convinced that he was somehow special in his suffering, that no one could hope to understand what he was going through. His head hung. He really was an asshole.
“Damn, Strange. I didn’t realize you were so bashful.” Corbin chuckled and went back to her whittling. It was beginning to take a rough, animalistic shape.
“Thanks for saving me back there.” The words came out low and rough. He didn’t dare look at her for fear that he wouldn’t be able to hold back the tears prickling at the corners of his eyes.
The rasp of her blade against wood ceased and silence flooded them like a watery grave. Just as he was beginning to fear he would drown, she said, “Don’t mention it.” The blade resumed its slow, purposeful strokes across the raw wood.
He gritted his teeth. There was so much more he was bursting to say. He wanted to promise her that he would train harder, that he would do better, that she wouldn’t regret it, that he wasn’t a waste. His lips parted to speak. He turned to look her in the eye. And he shut up.
She wasn’t looking at him. Her midnight stare was fixed on the craft in her hands, the branch slowly transforming into a carving. It was the same focused stare that filled her when they trained. He understood. She demanded no pledges from the wood, only that it allow itself to be shaped. That was all she asked. He would allow himself to be shaped. He owed her that.
Eric cleared his throat, but his voice still came out hoarse. “You know I bet she would introduce you to some of her friends, if you wanted.”
“Now you’re talking,” Corbin said, her blue eyes gleaming. “There just might be hope for you yet.”
Twilight spilled down from the horizon across all the world. Eric sat up in his bed, a cool wind tousling his hair, waiting for Zofia. He spotted her, hauling her medicine bag in his direction. The last rays of the sun caught her shoulder length teak hair, making it shine like spun gold. She blossomed with one of her slow, self-conscious smiles when she caught sight of him and Eric found himself transfixed.
Officially, she was there to check on his wound and ensure he was healing as quickly as possible. Yet, she always made sure he was the last of her patients for the night and she always took her time with him.
She set her bag down on the end of the preparation table and withdrew a pot of salve along with a roll of fresh bandages. When she turned to him, her cheeks were pleasantly flush. “Hello again! How are we feeling today?” Her eyes darted to his and then away only to return sparkling.
“Still a little tender,” he said trying to keep his tone relaxed despite how dry his mouth went whenever he spoke to her. “But better every day.”
“Let’s have a look.” Her delicate fingers unwound the bandage. Where they grazed the bare flesh of his thigh, tingles ran through his nerves, leaving him with a craving for more. She examined the lines of new flesh in the lantern light and asked, “How was your day?”
“Corbin came to see me. It was actually pretty nice. Not what I expected.” Eric couldn’t be sure, but he thought Zofia stiffened slightly at the mention of Corbin.
“What did you expect?”
“I don’t know. A black eye?” he said, with a laugh. “So, I never asked. Where were you from before the ODF?”
“Same place as you, I suspect.”
“DC.” A hollowness sounded in her voice like something had been plucked out, leaving a noticeable void.
He hesitated and then asked, “Do you miss it?”
She turned away from him to fumble inside her medicine bag. He waited, listening to jars and bottles quietly clink as she rummaged among them. Finally, her shoulders slumped, and she sighed. “I used to. Now I can’t decide if I wish I was back there or if I just wish I wasn’t here.”
“Ah,” he said feeling stung.
“I don’t know. I don’t love the ODF, but there are some things about this place that aren’t so bad.” He stared out into the growing darkness as he spoke, the bulge of the moon beginning to peak above the mountains.
She turned to look at him over her shoulder. The call of her ocean eyes tugged at him wordlessly until they held his gaze. “One thing is pretty amazing,” she said. They looked away from each other, blushing.
“How long do you have left?” he asked.
“Five years,” she said.
“What will you do then?”
She returned to his wound and began working a ocher ointment into the virgin flesh. “I’d like to travel a bit. There’s magic here, real magic that can do much more than these jars of goo. I want to find it. I want to learn how to use it.” The passion in her voice grew as she spoke, the strength of the dream growing inside her like a building wave. For a moment, she looked as though she might smash the ointment jar. Then she deflated.
“I’m not sorry that I found my way to Karask Rev,” she said bitterness seeping into her tone. “I’m just sorry that I stumbled into a hole like West Watch before I knew any better.” She slumped down onto the edge of the cot so close that he could feel the intoxicating warmth of her.
He reached out and laid his hand on hers. When she turned to look at him, her eyes were huge, round fountains, water spilling over their sides. He held her gaze this time, acutely aware of the soft swell of her lips. He leaned closer to her, not all the way but enough to speak his mind. She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him the rest of the way. Then there was nothing in the world but the heady press of her lips, the feel of her fingers sliding through his hair, the hungry way their tongues found one another. They were panting softly into the cooling night air when at last he pulled his lips from hers. Eric wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumb, marveling at how creamy her skin felt beneath his calluses. He kissed her again. She curled into him, clutching to his chest like a shipwreck survivor to the flotsam.
She looked into his eyes. Her own were wide and pleading. “Run with me,” she whispered. “Let’s be free together.”
Thanks for reading! If you have enjoyed my story, please consider signing up for my mailing list by clicking the button below.