MISSING IN ACTION
"Jack! Jack! JACK!" The screams rent the silence of the night and brought several pairs of feet padding hurriedly down the leaf-strewn path to the tent from which the heart-wrenching cry had come.
Arisha met them at the entrance and motioned them inside, her eyes wide with fright.
"Hurry. Hurry! There is something wrong," she pleaded in a loud whisper, stepping aside so they could slip through the narrow opening.
It was only slightly lighter inside than out; the meager lamp that sputtered on the nearby upturned box cast an anemic circle of light that left much of the tent in shadow. But they could make out the woman on the bed regardless. She was sitting bolt upright, her long blond hair, dirty and matted as when they had found her, half-concealing her face. There was a feral look about her, almost like that of a wonkat when it was cornered, and her eyes were darting back and forth from Arisha to the two who had just entered. She looked as if any moment she might bolt from the tent, in spite of the fact that there was just enough of a look of pain in her eyes to acknowledge her broken arm and damaged skull.
"She seemed to be dreaming…then she started to call out. It frightened me…but before I could come for you she woke up and…." Arisha gestured to the rigid form on the bed, as if they could see for themselves what had happened next. Which of course, they did.
"It is all right, Arisha. You have done nothing wrong. We will take care of her now. You may go to your dwelling, if you like," the one named Malana said. Arisha looked at the stranger for a moment and then back at Malana, hesitating.
"I would prefer to stay…if I may. Perhaps I can be of further help."
Malana looked at Zetra who nodded. An extra hand would not hurt with this one and perhaps Arisha would learn as well.
"Very well, then," agreed Malana. "But do not interfere unless we ask you to," she added.
"Thank you," whispered Arisha and then pulled back into the shadows, where she could stay out of the way yet still observe, Zetra noticed, with a slight smile. She had always been a curious one, that Arisha.
Malana had already moved on to the task at hand and was sizing up the stranger. Typical Malana, looking at her like she was problem to be solved rather than a person to be cared for. Zetra took a step closer, and when the stranger did not flinch, took another. Even in the dim light she could see the place on her skull where the scab had formed and the bruise was darkening. There was little wonder she had slept so long. Her brain had probably been injured.
"Do not be afraid," murmured Zetra, trying to calm the woman with her voice before Malana jumped in with her armload of questions. "We will not harm you. We have been trying to help you. Your arm," she pointed at the woman's arm, carefully splinted and wrapped. "It has been broken and your head," she pointed at the woman's skull. "It seems to have been injured as well."
"Where am I?" the woman asked, her eyes searching the tent, taking in everything, Zetra could tell. She seemed to have a keen power of observation. Zetra was sure not an item in the small area escaped her notice, not even Arisha standing back in the shadows.
"This is our encampment. At least for the time-being. You will be safe with us while you heal, and it will be many weeks before it is time for us to move."
The woman winced as she tried to move her splinted arm.
"I would not upset that just yet," Zetra warned her. "The bandage needs to harden if it is to set properly. How does your head feel?"
The stranger's free hand found the bruise on the side of her head and touched it gingerly.
"It feels…tender," she replied. Zetra nodded.
"I am not surprised. We believe you were struck there with some force. Can you tell us how you came to be in such condition?"
She saw the woman struggle to think. Even in her current state she was, Zetra could tell, highly intelligent. There was a brightness in her eyes that bespoke a keen intellect and quick mind. Zetra rarely failed to recognize others who shared her own traits; she had an extra sense when it came to discovering a like-minded person. Whoever this woman was, she was someone Zetra knew she could talk with as an equal, once, of course, she had healed.
Something akin to panic was now on the woman's face. Her memory seemed to be failing her.
"No…I…no. I don't remember what happened." She looked pleadingly at Zetra, as if she might have the answers. Zetra wished she did.
"Then perhaps you can at least tell us your name. If we know that, we might be able to locate where it is you came from."
The woman concentrated again and now there was indeed panic in her eyes. She looked up at Zetra then over a Malana and back to Zetra again, lost.
"I can't remember…I…I have no idea."
"You were shouting something a while ago—it sounded like a name. 'Jack'," interrupted Malana in a tone Zetra would have preferred to have been a little more gentle. "Would that be you?" Malana was not into softening anything. She always hit the questions head-on. Fortunately, her abruptness did not seem to bother the stranger. Instead, she chewed her lip a moment and then shook her head.
"I don't think so." The woman put her hand up to her head again and squeezed her eyes shut. Zetra knew they must leave her to rest more, but she had one more question.
"Then perhaps this may be of some help. You were wearing these when we found you. There is writing of some nature on them. Can you read it?"
She stepped forward and handed the woman the plain necklace they had taken from around her neck on which hung two metal rectangles framed by a softer substance. The woman cupped them in her hands and Zetra thought she saw a momentary flicker of recognition on her face. Perhaps now they would get somewhere.
Leaning so the light was better, the woman squinted at the framed metal tags.
"I…yes. I can read this. It says: 'Carter, Samantha. Col. USAF'. The rest are numbers."
Zetra took the necklace back and studied it herself for a moment.
"Is that you?" she asked, looking up into the still uncertain face of their guest. The strange woman shrugged.
"It might be…I don't know."
Zetra gave the matter futher thought. They needed to call her something. And if she was wearing this it was possible it might have been some kind of identification. Until the woman's memory returned or they learned otherwise, it was as good a name as any.
"For now, then, we will call you Carter, if you have no objection." The woman did not appear to have any, so Zetra nodded. "Fine. Now, I believe you require further rest. This is Arisha." She motioned toward the shadows and the girl stepped forward. "She is here to care for your needs. We will return in the morning and check on your progress. When you are a little better rested we will be able to take you outside, For now, though, I suggest you go back to sleep. I believe you will feel better in the morning and perhaps by then your memory will have returned."
The woman nodded and lay back down compliantly. Zetra tugged at Malana's sleeve and the two women left the tent.
Only after they were well out of earshot did Malana speak.
"You didn't tell her."
Malana would persist.
"And why not?"
Zetra shook her head, more at Malana's lack of empathy than her question.
"I do not think learning that now would have helped her. Besides. It is possible she did not even know—or would have remembered. It was too small to even quicken."
Malana barely hesitated.
"She should be told."
Zetra nodded. Yes, she must.
"In time. When she is stronger."
Three strides later the question she had been expecting emerged from her companion in the dark.
"Did you see her eyes, Zetra?"
"They are blue."
Malana seemed to wait for her to say more, but Zetra chose to keep silent. She knew Malana would not.
"How has she lived to this age? Why did the Brothers not take her when she was a child?"
"I do not know. Perhaps her family has kept her hidden all these years."
"Then they are fools." Malana's retort was swift and left little room for argument. And Zetra was too tired.
"What are we going to do with her? If anyone should find her here…."
"For now we will simply care for her until she is well. It is our duty, even to a stranger."
Malana humphed as they walked side by side.
"And then what?"
"I do not know. We will have to wait and see."