AN: Many, many thanks to my one reviewer, Lilypaddies!! Thanks so much for taking the time to read and review this. Well, if you've read this far, then you might be happy to know that this chapter is quite a bit longer, and there's more action and dialoug (finally!). Please, let me know what you think and if I should just stop posting and work on something else. Thanks!
Chapter Three: Waking
I came awake with a jerk, a dream filled with bright light and Vivienne's voice calling me lingering on the edges of my waking mind. I was confused, disorientated, and I lay still attempting to remember where I was. My brain was lethargic; I couldn't put together the pieces of the puzzle I was in. The world was dark except for the wavering light from a small fire to my right. The pain in my head had subsided to a dull ache, and my injured leg felt numb. I felt incredibly weak and drained, but I could move slowly again. I moved my head, peering curiously around me in the half-light and dancing shadows, but couldn't make out much of my surroundings.
I heard quiet movement, and turned my head towards the sound. My nose brushed against the cool, wet nose of one of my unknown helpers. I pulled back in alarm, and pushed myself up onto my elbows. The first impression I had was that the thing crouched next to me was a giant wolf spider. It stared back at me through large, unblinking, dark eyes as I eyed it fearfully. It was about two feet in length and covered in short, spiky brown hair. It's body was close to the ground, but it's six legs were bent and jointed like a spider, with sharp claws at the tips of the legs. The face, however, was oddly feline, with a sharp snout and whiskers. Large pointed ears dominated the top of the strange face, which gave it a strong resemblance to a bat. It was definitely the strangest looking creature I'd ever seen.
The man who had come to my aid must have heard my sudden movement and came swiftly to kneel by my side. He gently pushed me back down onto my back.
"Don't be afraid," his deep voice said quietly. "It's only Mbele; he won't hurt you. You shouldn't try to move yet."
I gazed up at my rescuer, seeing his face for the first time. It was hard to see clearly in the flickering firelight, but I could see that the left side of his face was horribly scarred. He only had one eye; his left eye was scarred shut.
"Are you One-Eye?" I asked, glad to hear that my voice, though weak, was stronger than a breathy whisper. "What happened?..."
He looked confused. "One-Eye?"
"That's what they called you," I said, indicating the creature to my left. The man's brow furrowed deeper. He looked at Mbele, then back at me.
"My name is Kale Maska," he stated simply. He leaned down to examine my injured leg. "Are you in much pain?"
"It's bearable. Better than before, anyway. Thank you…" I paused and winced as his fingers probed a tender spot, "…for helping me. My name's Ava."
The man stopped examining my wound and sat back to give me a strange, intense stare from his one good eye.
"Before, I heard you say 'Vivienne'. Do you know her?" he asked.
I closed my eyes thinking hard for a moment. Full memory flooded on me in one big flash, and I jerked myself up to a sitting position.
"Vivienne!" I cried. "I've got to find her! She could be hurt-"
"Calm down," commanded Kale, pushing me back down yet again. "Lady Vivienne is far from here; I saw the light land near Kirabo. It will have been seen. She had a greater chance of being found than you. She will be well taken care of."
"We have to look for her," I persisted. "Nobody knows where she is, I have to-"
Kale sighed. "Believe me, Vivienne has been found. We've been watching for the light for nearly six years. She's been found."
He sounded so certain that I wanted to believe him, but I couldn't. I had to find her. Even if she was okay, she'd be frantic about me.
"Wait a minute!" I cried, pushing myself back up on my elbows. "Are we outside?! It's the middle of winter—where the heck am I?"
"We're in the western portion of the Ju Ruen, about half a day's ride from Kirabo," Kale stated calmly. He made no attempt to push me back down this time, and instead leaned his arms on his crossed legs and studied me. I racked my brains for any memory of a place called Ju Ruen or Kirabo. Nothing came to mind, but then, I had never been good with geography.
"You should lie back down before you get lightheaded," he added. "You've lost a lot of blood."
I ignored his advice and struggled to sit up higher. "But it's winter. We can't be outside," I protested.
"There is no winter here," Kale answered, still calm.
"You're not making any sense," I told him, frowning heavily. "How did I get out here? I remember being trapped in the bus…we were sinking…"
"The light brought you."
"That's not possible!" I snapped. I shook my head, musing to myself. "I must be dreaming."
Kale reached out and pressed lightly on the gash on my leg. I winced and pulled away quickly, glaring at him.
"Do you feel pain in your dreams?" he asked me matter of factly. I bit my lip.
"But this isn't possible!" I cried. I pointed a shaking finger at Mbele. "THAT isn't possible."
My head started to spin, and I put both hands back on the ground to support myself again. I closed my eyes tightly and took a few deep breaths.
"I warned you that you'd get lightheaded," sighed Kale. He got up and moved away. I stayed perfectly still and kept my eyes shut. I felt something pressed against my lips.
"Here, drink this. It will help," Kale said. I obediently drank a few swallows of the bitter liquid, then lay back down.
"I'm telling you, this doesn't make any sense," I muttered as my heavy lids closed again.
When I opened them next, it was light, and the air was filled with the sounds of bird calls, leaves rustling, and humming. The humming was coming from Mbele and Mokol, who were both resting next to me with their spider legs tucked underneath them. They were humming a hauntingly familiar melody, but what it was or where I'd heard it before slipped away into the corners of my mind before I could grasp it.
Sunlight filtered in through the leaves of the trees that towered immensely above me. I'd never seen such enormous trees before in my life. I estimated that they were at least twice as tall as the redwood trees in California. The ground below them, where I was lying, was wide open between the mammoth trunks, and was covered with a deep, springy green moss.
Cautiously, I sat up to examine myself. Mokol and Mbele abruptly stopped humming to watch me. The right leg of my jeans had been cut off several inches above the gash in my leg. The cut itself had been expertly sewn shut, but most of my thigh was bruised a brilliant clash of purple and green. My sweater had disappeared, as had my boots and socks, leaving me wearing just my grey tanktop and my mangled jeans. Luckily for me, the air was hot and humid, so I didn't mind the loss of my extra clothes.
I tried to run my fingers through my tangled red-gold curls and grimaced as my fingers found the huge knot at the back of my head. The hair around it was also matted, with what I guessed was dried blood. All in all, I could easily imagine how absolutely terrible I looked.
Kale came walking around the trunk of the tree to my right. He was leading a massive reptilian creature that walked on its powerful hind legs while stooping forward, dangling it's scrawny front arms down towards the ground. It's skin looked like the same texture of an iguana's skin, but it was mottled green and brown. A leathery fringe stuck out around the base of its skull, and its eyes jutted forward and swiveled in all directions. Kale spoke soft, quiet words to the beast as they moved forward, but he had no rope or leash to guide it. It followed him of its own choice. They stopped a few feet away from me, and Kale placed a hand on the creature's snout, still talking to it quietly.
Now was my first chance to get a real look at my rescuer. I guessed that he stood about six and a half feet tall, and broad. His long, straight black hair was tied back at the neck, which revealed that the scars on his face extended down his neck and onto his broad shoulder and upper arm. His skin was a rich bronze color, which contrasted with the bright green of his clothing. He wore no shirt, but had a sash of cloth that was wrapped cross-ways from his waist over his right shoulder. His pants, the same material and green color of the sash, were loose and ended in a gathered cuff that rested just below his knee. When he had his back turned to me, draping something over the beast's back, I thought privately that he a very nice backside.
He turned back and caught me scrutinizing him. In the daylight, the scars on his face looked even more jagged; it pulled the left side of his mouth into a perpetual frown. I thought that he might have been good looking before he got the scars, but now he looked a bit gruesome. Mokol and Mbele scurried over to weave around his feet. I shuddered a little in spite of myself at how much their movement reminded me of giant spiders. I'd always hated spiders.
"Are you feeling stronger?" Kale asked as he crouched down next to me, a pack slung over his shoulder.
"I think so. I haven't tried standing yet, though," I replied. I looked at Kale beseechingly. "I really have to find my friend. I'm just…I have to find her. I think…I think she brought us here, so I need to find her."
Kale sighed and sat down next to me. He opened the pack and handed me what I guessed was dried fruit.
"Eat that, it will help bring back some of your strength," he told me. It looked to me like a dried banana that was the color of dried apricots. Tentatively, I took a tiny nibble off the corner. It tasted like a cross between a potato and a pear. I decided it wasn't so bad, considering I was actually feeling pretty starved by now.
"So, do you think you can give me directions to this Killaboo place?" I asked between bites.
Kale looked incredulously at me. "Give you directions? Do you think you're going to walk there? I doubt you could even stand up. You have serious injuries; you nearly bled to death before I found you. I don't think you can go anywhere until you regain some color. You'd pass out just sitting upright for very long."
"I didn't almost bleed to death- I'm always this pale!" I protested.
"Are your lips normally as white as your skin?" Kale asked dryly.
"Well, no…" I admitted reluctantly. "Okay, so I'm still a little weak. But I need to get to Killaboo or wherever you think Vivienne might be."
"I told you, she's safe!" Kale said, exasperated. "And it's Kirabo, not Killaboo. I'll take you there when you're well enough."
I shook my head but regretted it as my headache started back up. "Even if you're right and she's safe, I still have to find her. If she's not worse off than me, then she's going to be worried sick. If you'd ever met her, you'd understand. She's like a mother hen, you know? She'll be going crazy trying to find me."
"Kind of like you?" Kale asked, then sighed heavily. "It's a good half day ride to Kirabo. I don't think you're up to it."
"I'm up for it! I am! I'm tougher than I look. At least let's try it," I begged. I needed to find Vivienne. I needed to get someplace other than this surreal forest of giant trees and green moss. I needed, more than anything, to figure out what had happened to me.
Kale studied my pleading face for several long moments. Finally, he shook his head and looked away.
"Alright. We'll try it."
I could have kissed him, I was so happy. One look at his sour face quelled that impulse though, and I contented myself with cheering silently instead. Then my eyes fell on the giant reptile creature again, and my cheering stopped.
"Wait, are we going to ride that thing?" I asked, pointing at it. Kale got up, walked over to the beast, and arranged the sack over its back.
"What else?" he questioned, still adjusting the creature's burdens, his back to me. "Lotha is fast and strong. She'll hardly notice your added weight."
"That's not exactly what I was worried about," I muttered. Still, I could see no help for it, so I gathered my strength and attempted to stand up to prove to Kale I was stronger than he thought. My right leg was stiff and uncooperative when I tried to move it, my head throbbed, and I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach. By sheer force of will, I managed to work myself to a standing position with all my weight on my left leg. Sharp, excrutiating pain shot through my right leg if I put any weight on it at all, so I was left wobbling uncertainly on my one good leg. I tried an experimental hop forward and nearly fell over. Suddenly, Kale grabbed my arms, steadying me.
"Are you trying to make yourself worse?" he demanded, irritated.
I clung onto his arms, grimacing. "Ouch…no. How do I get on this thing?"
"It's a Manti," Kale said. "Her name's Lotha. Just hold still and don't do any more damage."
He hoisted me up and onto Lotha's back, settling me into a comfortable position. I grabbed at the skin folds as he climbed up behind me.
"Where do I hold on?" I asked nervously. I didn't like being off the ground on this strange animal's back, even with Kale's reassuring bulk behind me. Kale reached his long, muscled arms around either side of me and placed his hands securely on Lotha's neck.
"There. Just hold on to my arms if you need to hang on to something. Lotha won't let you fall," he answered calmly. I grabbed on to his wrists and didn't look down. Kale spoke a few quiet words to Lotha, and the creature lurched forward at a much faster pace than I expected. A tiny squeak of fright slipped past my lips and I squeezed my eyes shut tightly.
"You are stronger than I assumed you were," Kale said dryly after several minutes.
I opened my eyes a fraction and looked down at my death-grip on his wrists. I realized I was digging my nails into his skin, and immediately relaxed my grip.
"I'm sorry!" I exclaimed.
"There's no need to be frightened. You won't fall," Kale replied gently. He paused for several minutes as Lotha sped past the giant trees. "I never asked what caused Vivienne to bring you both here, or how you were injured. You seem to be dealing better with the "impossible", though."
"What else can I do?" I asked. "I don't understand what's happened, and I don't know where I am, and I don't know where Vivienne is. I think I'm dreaming, but I'm not waking up. And you're right, dreams shouldn't hurt this much," I said, wincing as my head throbbed and my leg shrieked with each bound Lotha took.
"So, if you're not dreaming, as I know you're not, what happened to bring you here?" Kale asked again.
"There was an accident…" I answered slowly, searching my fuzzy memories. "We were on the bus, going home, and something happened. I remember being in the river, and I couldn't move my legs. They were pinned, and the water kept rising higher…Viv grabbed me and told me to hang on to her. I remember a bright light, and I couldn't keep my grip on her. My hands were so numb from the cold. Then I woke up in the forest where you found me."
"Vivienne is a close friend?"
"Mm," I nodded, keeping my eyes closed. "We're each other's family."
I sat rigidly, fighting with the pain and my dizziness and nausea. My hands still gripped Kale's wrists, though I was careful not to dig my nails into his skin.
"Lean back into me and relax," Kale instructed me quietly. "You'll only make the pain worse if you fight it like this."
I sat upright for another minute, not wanting to give in. But the pain was bad, and I didn't want to have to stop because I got too dizzy, so I relaxed and leaned into his broad chest. Immediately, the pain eased off slightly, and I felt safe enough to relax my grip on his wrists. We rode in silence for a long while, and I was lulled by the rhythmic movements into a half-sleep, despite the pain. I thought about Vivienne, and hoped she was safe, like Kale had said. My thoughts turned to how she had brought us both here, to this strange place, and suddenly something occurred to me that I hadn't had time to consider before.
"Has Vivienne been here before?" I asked loudly, startling us both.
There was a pause, then Kale said slowly, "She never told you about the war, did she?"
"There was a war? What war?" I asked. Then I sat straight up again, indignant. "Wait, you know her, don't you?! Why didn't you say so? Lord, this just keep getting weirder. When was she here? How do you know her?"
"You're going to faint if you don't calm down. We should discuss this later," Kale answered firmly.
"No. Answer my questions," I demanded. Now, on top of being confused, my infamous red-headed temper was starting to get the better of me. I wasn't about to calm down until I had some explanations.
Kale sighed. "Almost six years ago, our country was on the brink of a devastating war. In desperation, the elders called upon the Bearer of the Adamantine Ring. Mather, our king, didn't believe in the legends, and neither did I. We certainly didn't expect the Bearer to be a girl from another world."
"So, you're saying that Vivienne was this Bearer person? And that ugly old ring of hers was important to you somehow?" I questioned incredulously.
"Yes. That ring holds the Adamantine Stone, and only Lady Vivienne possessed the power to control it. Without her, this country, and many others, would have been destroyed."
I frowned, trying to picture Vivienne as some kind of goddess of war. I couldn't even conjure up a mental image, the thought was so unbelievable to me.
"So, do you know her personally?" I asked, deciding to go with something my brain could wrap itself around. "Were you with her a lot when she was here?"
"I only knew her through King Mather," Kale stated simply. "She was always by his side."
I considered this slowly. Vivienne being at the side of any man was a new and unexpected development to me. "Then, does that mean you know this king guy well?"
Kale shrugged. "I am his cousin."
"Oh, jeez!" I exclaimed, irritated. "You could've told me that before!"
"Why? Does it make a difference?" Kale asked, a note of amusement in his deep, gravelly voice. I scowled ferociously, even though he was behind me and couldn't see my face.
"Yes. No. I don't know. Maybe it doesn't. But you should have told me that you know who Vivienne is last night," I muttered.
"You thought you were dreaming," Kale reminded me. I didn't feel strong enough to argue the point with him, especially since I had a sneaky suspicion that he would win. In fact, I didn't feel strong enough to do much of anything.
"Viv's going to get a royal earful when I find her," I growled darkly. I was so angry I could've spit nails. In all our years of friendship, I'd never dreamed she'd kept something this important secret from me. And being confused and in pain was not helping my temper any, either.
"If you want to find her, then you should relax and rest," Kale said in a quiet, disinterested tone of voice. "We still have much distance to travel."
Resting was the last thing I wanted to do, but Kale was right. As much as I didn't want to admit it, I was weak and lightheaded, and in pain. Reluctantly, I leaned back into Kale's broad chest again and closed my eyes. Kale reached into a pouch hanging at Lotha's side and pulled out several bright orange berries.
"Eat these. They will help ease your pain," he ordered quietly. Meekly, I swallowed the sour-tasting berries.
"I think you drugged me again," I mumbled as my eyelids grew heavy and I floated off into dark, welcoming oblivion.