Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Two choices. Life always seemed to come down to two choices and somehow Zenna always picked the wrong one. The one that got her trying to fit in with a crowd where she didn't belong. The one that threw her heart for a loop and her sword too deep in the wrong mans chest. The one that had her running from strangers and fleeing for her life. And, finally, the one that landed her waist deep in muddy water, in the middle of nowhere, unable to move.
So here she was, faced with another choice. Live or die.
She had one arm wrapped around a tree limb keeping her balanced and her head above water level, the other was reaching as far under water as possible trying to get to the whatever-it-was that was caught on her leg, tying her down. Her tongue was stuck out just so to help with the balance, of course, and her eyes were squinted against the sun so she didn't see the stranger until he was close enough to spit at, which she was tempted to do, to be quite honest.
He shouted something, but she couldn't hear him over the rush of the water around her. He was dressed like any other Rustler in the area: zarc hide chaps and vest and gloves and probably boots, too. Those she couldn't see because they were submerged in murky water. What she could see looked expertly sewn together, which meant he did his own work. Which meant Zenna definitely shouldn't trust him. But there he stood, hand out, reaching towards her to pull her out of the predicament of her own making.
What choice did she have?
She took his hand with the arm that wasn't wrapped around a tree limb and only let go of the tree when the stranger had a nice, firm grip on her. And boy was his grip firm. His hands were tough like they knew what they were doing and Zenna liked a man who was good with his hands. He held her steady while she pulled on the leg that was stuck until it came free. Then he waited until she got a good balance and walked her slowly to the shore, one strong hand on the small of her back, the other holding onto her arm as they slogged against the current.
The water line receded slowly and Zenna felt more and more exposed. Her shirt was the typical rustler wear made from zarc hide and toughened through use. It was long enough to cover up to where the top of her pants normally started. Her pants, however, were missing. She had on just the regular, old, girlie underwear and she wasn't quite ready to show that side of her to this stranger, no matter how helpful he'd been. So she stopped as soon as the water got to the point of becoming indecent.
The stranger took a step forward and when Zenna didn't move with him, he looked back at her with such concern in his eyes, it made her heart ache. It had been a long time since anyone had looked at her like that.
"I can't go any further."
"Are you alright?"
Where to start? How could such a simple question have such a loaded answer? "Physically, I'm fine. This is so embarrassing. I don't have any garments on past the water line."
"Ah. I see. Let me grab a blanket from my mount."
For the first time, Zenna looked beyond the shore, into the trees and saw a horse tethered and grazing lazily at the foliage. The stranger moved too fast for her to protest that he'd been kind enough already, she didn't want to get his, most likely, only blanket muddy and wet. She wished she were alone. It would be so much easier. If she were alone she would have merely found a patch of sunshine and stayed there until she was dry.
Assuming she could have gotten herself untangled and out of the river on her own in the first place. And then what? Walk to town in her underwear? Catch enough zarcs to make new pants? With what? All her gear was left behind. She sighed deeply. She needed his help and it pained her to admit it. So when he held out the blanket and then his hand, Zenna gratefully took them. She wrapped the blanket around her waist and he lifted her out of the water. He kept his eyes adverted the whole time. She watched to make sure he really was as much of a gentleman as he acted. So far she could find no fault in his actions.
"Let's see if I have anything that'll fit you for the time being." He headed back to his horse, which wasn't very far from where she stood, and he searched through his packs.
"I can't thank you enough." She said as soon as his back was turned to her. "I don't know if I could have gotten out of that on my own." Why did she admit that out loud? And was that a catch in her voice at the end? Suck it up, Zenna. Get what you need and get out. Rustler law.
"I'm sure you would have, tough woman like you. I'm just glad to give a helping hand."
"Why? Why help someone? You really are tough, aren't you?"
"Well, what's in it for you? Getting me out of there, I'm obviously a rustler like you. I'm only competition. You could have let me drown and had more stock for yourself."
"I wouldn't be a very good rustler if I had to kill off the competition, now would I?"
"Hmm. Never thought of it like that."
"Here, try these." He tossed a pair of pants and a belt at her. "They'll be baggy, I'm sure, but they'll do until we can get you something better."
Zenna caught the pants clumsily and the blanket slipped slightly when she lunged forward so her leg was exposed through the slit in the blanket.
The stranger gasped and Zenna rolled her eyes. Here it was. The part where he admired her legs and flattered her in an attempt to see more. She knew that good guy act couldn't last. She wasn't falling for those tricks this time.
"Save it, buster. I know it's a great looking leg but you're not getting a show for free just because you saved my life. No." She cut him off when he opened his mouth to say more. "I'm just glad I found out what you're really like before I got suckered into all that 'helping people makes me happy' crap. What now?" He looked like he wanted to say something but didn't dare.
"May I say one thing?"
"Your leg. It's cut."
Zenna looked down. That did it. It wasn't just bleeding. There was a thick gash that ran up her whole calf. Blood normally didn't bother her. She'd been injured before and sewn her own cuts before, but this went past flesh. This went into the realm of muscle and bone.
Both legs buckled underneath her. The stranger caught her before her head hit the ground.
"Can I take a look at your wound if I promise not to enjoy it?"
"You're laughing at me?"
"Only a little." He moved down to her leg and slowly prodded the area. Zenna sat up to get a closer look, too, but little black spots dotted her vision and she felt the stranger's hand cradling the back of her head and laying her back on the ground. "You've lost a lot of blood. Relax. The ice cold water probably kept you from feeling most of the pain, but that's going to wear off now. If it's too much for you, tell me. You know, I've only known a few women rustlers in my short career and all of them had one thing in common." He paused, eyebrows furrowed in concentration, head tilted slightly. "Hold that thought." And he got up and walked back to his mount. Probably to get string and needle to patch her up.
Zenna should have been feeling so many things right at that moment, worry about what that look meant, pain at the giant gash in her leg, why he was walking so fast and she felt those to a degree, but the one that kept overriding everything else was attraction. She kept looking at his handsome, rugged features under the five o'clock shadow and wanting to touch them. She watched the way his body moved when he walked. It wasn't a cocky, look-at-me walk most rustlers had. It was purposeful and steady and made her think about the way his body would look doing other activities. Which was so embarrassing. Her face had to be as red as the blood pouring out of her. She'd met handsome rustlers before and never turned to mush around them. Suddenly a guy is nice to her and she's picturing their life together? Suck it up, Zenna.
The stranger came back holding a case. He set it down by her feet and from the angle she was laying she couldn't see exactly what was in it or exactly what he was doing. Strangely, she wasn't as worried as she should be.
He was right about the pain, though. It came flooding over her in waves and sharp pangs in the areas he touched. But she'd be damned if she told him to stop. She needed some distraction. "Well?" She asked. "Are you going to leave me hanging? What do all women rustlers have in common?"
"Ah, yes. The ones I met before you all acted exactly as the men did. Rough and belligerent. It's nice to see a woman who can play with the boys and still keep her finer edges, like smiling. And blushing." He looked over at her with that smile that made her insides melt. And her cheeks burn.
"And you're the first male rustler I've met that would appreciate those things. Most of them see smiling and blushing as weaknesses and take advantage of that. But most of them wouldn't have stopped to help in the first place, either."
"So I guess we're both outsiders. How fortuitous that we should meet."
"Or plain dumb luck. There is one thing I have to ask you." She felt his muscles tense slightly. "What's your name?" His muscles relaxed.
"My name is Quoran. What's yours?"
"Zenna. That's beautiful. Very fitting. Zenna, you're going to feel a slight pinch." And with that, Quoran sat up on his haunches and braced himself. This was unusual for stitching a wound, so Zenna sat up on her elbows to see what he was doing. Her eyes widened. That was not a medic pouch he laid at her feet, it was full of tools and in his hands were not needle and thread, but a pair of pliers embedded deep in the flesh of her calf.
She did not have time to object. She no sooner had she sat up than Quoran yanked on the pliers. The scream was involuntary. Her head went back and her eyes squeezed shut. Every muscle in her body tensed to fight off the waves of stinging pain that rushed through her. It was most intense at the calf but she dared not look. Not yet. She waited until her body stopped shaking from shock.
Quoran was by her side when she finally opened her eyes. "What did you do to me?" She asked. He didn't say a word, he only held up the pliers. Dangling at the end of them was a foot long, skinny snake, about the size of a bone with pale skin and dotted red designs. The bone snake. Lives in water, waiting for prey so it can bury itself into your flesh, attach itself to your bone and suck out your marrow, killing you slowly and painfully in the process. Quoran just saved her life.
It also explained the unusual feelings. The bone snake releases a venom that alters your emotions, so that you can know that you're dying but it doesn't bother you.
Zenna sat up on her elbows and looked at her leg. It was all bandaged up. She didn't feel anything because of the shock. He could have amputated the leg and she wouldn't have flinched.
"Thank you seems so inadequate."
He laughed. "It was my pleasure. Now, the sun's going down so we'll camp here tonight and get you to a doctor in the morning. I patched up the leg so you won't bleed out, but it's nothing as good as it should be."
Quoran took the pants he handed her earlier and cut the left leg off from the knee down to make it easier for her to get into and so it wouldn't rub against the wound. Zenna begged him not to, seeing such a finely tailored garment ruined like that hurt almost as much as her leg. He wouldn't hear her protests about the pants, but she insisted that she was able to get dressed by herself. Then he helped get her get settled against a tree with the blanket around her and his pack as a pillow.
"I'll be right back. I think I saw some good firewood a little ways off. Shouldn't take me too long."
"Quoran. Do you have a spare knife I could borrow while you're gone? Just in case."
He reached into his pocket and handed her a short blade. "One of these days you're going to have to tell me how you ended up half naked, trapped in a river without your weapons." He was off before she could respond. Not that she knew what to say to that.
Two choices. Did she play the helpless female and blame her situation on everyone else even though it was her own stubborn ways that got her there in the first place? It was so tempting to blame everything on the one who started it all, gloss over all the things she did wrong to make herself look good. But what if he found out? What would he think of her? What were the chances of him finding out?
By the time he got back, she'd made up her mind. She was going to show him. Let him make his own decision on what got her there.
Quoran came back with wood and a couple of dead birds that he tossed next to her. He didn't have to say it. She was glad for the busy work, so she could feel useful. It was silent while they did their work, but it was a good silent. Like they'd known each other all their lives and didn't have to say anything more kind of silent.
She got the birds plucked and ready to eat and they were eating next to a warm fire in no time. When they finished, the silence wasn't as good and it grew more and more uncomfortable.
"I noticed you had wolfsbane and Gingerroot in your spice bag when I was getting the birds ready."
Quoran raised an eyebrow. He knew what the combination of those two spices meant. But he didn't say anything. He just rose from his spot leaning against the tree next to hers and got out the bags of spices and handed them to Zenna.
Zenna got to her knees, well, one knee. The hurt leg stuck more out to the side, but it was good enough. She took out a pinch of each spice and rubbed them together in the palm of her hands. She drew out the thoughts she wanted to share and infused the spirits of the air with those thoughts. Then she tossed the spices into the fire. A picture showed up above the fire. It was of her, three months ago.
She was lost and tired and had just caught a zarc and was cleaning the hide. Zarcs were sneaky creatures, about the size of a small domestic pig only with two legs that it hopped about on and it was covered in scales that blended in with their surroundings. They were difficult to catch, but profitable once you did. Their scaly hides were used in many forms and the meat was delicious.
A man found her while she worked to clean her catch but instead of trying to take her bounty from her, he helped her. Then he led her home to his troupe and she was taken in. She was happy there for the first month. She ate regularly and slept around a fire every night with the rest of the men because she was able to catch animals like the other men. She felt like she belonged. For that first month. After that, she noticed small differences. The men would talk differently when she was around and they didn't share as many laughs and funny stories when she was around. So she stopped hanging around.
She spent more time sharpening her weapons by the river or sitting in a tree watching the stars. One man, the man that found her, Alloren, he was nice to her. He talked to her the same as he did with any of the other men and he made her laugh. She liked his company, but he had a wife and children back home so all they did was talk. But the man's brother, Zenoch, did not like this arrangement. He became jealous. He started a fight with his Alloren. Zenna jumped into this fight to pull them apart, to tell Alloren that it was okay for him to leave her alone so that he would not have to fight with Zenoch anymore. But Zenoch would not listen.
He tried to stab Zenna with his spear. Zenna was fast and moved out of the way, grabbed her dagger and dug it deep into his chest. But when she looked up, it was Alloren that she had stabbed. He moved in front of his brother to save his life. Zenoch was rightfully enraged. Zenna grieved. She ran out of fear. Zenoch chased her and caught her and ripped off her pants to do vile things to her, but Zenna landed a well-placed kick in the nether regions just in time to escape. She didn't see the edge of a slope and slid a long ways down. She held still until she was sure Zenoch was gone, then she found a dark corner and fell asleep sobbing from hurt and exhaustion.
The next day she tried to cross a river to get to a town she knew of close by, but got stuck on something and met an interesting stranger.
That is where she left off the images. Quoran had anger and pain in his eyes while he watched the images, but that faded into kindness when he looked at Zenna. He closed his eyes before he kissed her. She closed her eyes when she returned the kiss. That's why she did not see the dagger in his hands until she heard it slicing through the air. She jumped back when the dagger met its mark with a sickening thud. Quoran let out a grunt of suppressed anguish. Zenna gasped out of shock. Quoran stabbed his own thigh.
"What are you doing?" She touched the hilt of the blade that was buried in his leg. "Are you crazy?"
"That man, the brother who chased you in your images. Zenoch. He hired to me find you and bring you to him for justice. If you escaped I had permission to kill you. He did not tell me all of the truths, though. If you run now I can tell him that you stabbed me and knocked me out and stole my horse and supplies."
"He will kill you instead."
"He can try."
"Surely it will hurt your reputation."
"Not as much as leading an innocent woman to her death. Now go. Before I change my mind."
"Thank you, Quoran."
"Thank you, Zenna. For telling me all of the truths."
Zenna threw Quoran's pack over his horse and took off, her tears sliding down her cheeks in the direction of the wind.
Two choices. If Zenna had lied, or tried to smooth over details of her escape, leaving out the part where she killed a man, Quoran would have known she was lying and never trusted her. He would have lead her to her doom.
Now she fled in the darkness of night to an unknown future with an unlikely ally in the man who was sent to kill her.