CHAPTER ONE – The Darkness
Water. I’m so thirsty.
I tried to pry my left eye open. The scattered light shining through the trees was more than I was ready for, and I blinked hard to focus on my surroundings. Everything was green beyond the blurred outline of my outstretched hand and fingers. When I focused on my hand, I could see blood, my love’s blood mingled with mine, dried and flaking upon my fingers.
I lay there for a long time, numb, caring little if I survived. I could barely feel the fire burning through the right side of my face. The cool, soft mud eased the pain, but I knew my situation was not good. I had to move if I wanted to live.
Why bother? Why care? I asked the trees gathered around my aching, tortured body.
Knowing how monumental the challenge would be, I summoned what little strength I had and forced my body over. I screamed despite the added pain it caused, the burning in my right cheek erupting into a sharp pain that sent bright flashes before my open eye.
I gasped, sucking in air like a struggling babe fresh from the womb.
I lay there, staring up at the tree branches, not daring to move again for what seemed like an eternity.
Why bother? They took her from me. They killed Julia…they killed my parents.
Something more than the fever and ruined face burned within me, and I did not die. I would either have to find a way to kill myself or find water. Both options would take more strength than I thought I had.
I tried to prop myself up on my elbows to take stock of my injuries but it was too much. A sudden pain shot up my left side and my right forearm must have been broken. I fell back, exhausted and passed out.
“Water…water,” I groaned again, but I knew no one would hear my pleas. No one would come.
I rolled over onto my stomach, realizing that the ruin to my face was now infected. How long had I been here, unconscious, uncaring if I lived or died? Days…weeks? I had no idea.
I reached forward with my left hand, shaking as I tried to grab hold of something strong enough to pull me forward. There was nothing to grasp but mud. I dug my cut and bruised hand into the soft dirt and tried to scoot my body forward with my legs. I made it a few inches before collapsing back to the ground, panting from the small triumph.
“Why go on?” I asked.
“Why?” I heard my own muffled voice beg to the trees.
I saw Julia then—her smiling, beautiful face. I loved her so much.
“Cairn,” she replied, her voice filled with sadness and regret.
I forced my eye open, to look for Julia, but she was not there. She was dead, killed by those murderers. Now, her voice was only a dream, a nightmare to remind me of what we could have shared together.
“Cairn,” Julia’s soft voice repeated, encouraging.
I threw my hand out in front of me. I forced my fingers to sink deep into the mud and lock into place. I grunted and pulled myself forward, moving only as far as a snail might in its exhaustingly slow journey across a courtyard.
But I would not quit.
I threw my hand out again and started inching my way toward the stream I knew to be nearby.
How long did it take to reach that sweet sounding, fresh water? Too long.
“Just keep fighting,” Julia called to me. “Think of me, remember me.”
I pushed the nausea, fear, and agony aside.
“Julia,” I said in a firm, resolved voice as I pushed myself through the brush.
With every pull, with every struggle, I called out her name and Julia responded. My betrothed spoke to me, reminding me of our love and our dreams.
I reached the water that I had heard for the past few hours. My body quivered, exhausted but excited by the cool, refreshing water that was only a few inches away from me. With my head hanging over the small ledge of the stream I leaned forward to slurp in my first drink, but then I stopped.
A hand bobbed up and down in the water just inches from my face.
I looked up, my head shaking from exhaustion. One of my neighbors lay there among the rocks and water.
“Herault,” I whispered the name, as though the corpse might answer me back with a welcoming, hello. I stared at his body for a few moments before I inched further upstream from where the murderers had dumped his corpse.
Herault’s wound was gruesome to look upon, his belly had been cut open and his intestines pooled around his waist and legs, floating in the water.
With the last of my strength, I pulled myself beyond him, a little upstream to where the water was not as fouled.
I sank my head into the water and nearly drowned myself with my first drink in days. I gulped it in, choking and sputtering, even as I tried to take in more.
Then, I rolled over and fell asleep.