Chapter 16: The River

In the desert, the drink you take may be your last. The rock you pass may be the final shelter. And you may never see the sun again. — Tesominona Bikaróchi, Seven Winds (Act 2, Scene 1)

Kanéko woke with a start, terrified by her nightmares and the strange noises that surrounded her. She sat up quickly and slammed her head into a rocky outcropping. Stars exploded across her vision as she fell back down, hit a muddy slop, and splattered muck in all directions.

In her dazed confusion, she couldn’t remember how she had gotten underneath the rock, but soon the memories came flooding back. She let out a shuddering breath and squeezed her throbbing skull even tighter.

“That bastard,” she whispered in a broken voice, “That sand-cursed bastard.”

She groaned and thought back to the night before. Her idea to dive in a river had seemed like a good idea but the fantasy novels had never said how hard it was to keep her head above water when her strength was flagging. Or how to navigate in the dark. The mercenaries were able to track her by sound and vibrations so she remained in the cold water, cowering in a clump of rocks until her hunters finally went away.

Somehow, she had managed to crawl on shore and found the outcropping for protection. Kanéko vaguely remembered sliding into a shallow pool. Lifting her head, she realized that her shelter only hid her body behind a thin screen of marsh grasses. Beyond, she could see the sparkling waters of the river. She scanned the shores for her abductors but didn’t spot anyone.

Moving with care, she braced herself in the mud and pushed herself into a sitting position. She leaned on the earthen bank. Her hair felt heavy and swollen with the mud she had slept in. The formerly pristine outfit she put on the day before was now covered in a uniform, brown sludge. She morbidly tested her injuries, wincing from the sparks of pain from touching her cuts and scrapes. A large bruise ached between her shoulder blades and shallow cuts along the soles of her bare feet burned with every movement. Her twisted ankle added to her misery but at least it wasn’t broken.

Kanéko didn’t know what to do. For a moment, she considered crawling back into the pool and waiting for Garèo, but he would never find her in the mud.

One of his lessons from the desert came back to her: just keep moving.

Kanéko struggled to get on her knees and crawled up the shore. After a few chains of slow, painful movement, she felt weak and pathetic. She pressed her face into a bed of leaves for a moment, and then groaned as she pushed herself to her feet.

“Damn them.” She hated both Garèo and Pahim, but their imagined taunts kept her moving.

Completely lost, she turned in a circle to scan the forest around her. Two Firs and Garèo should be to the northeast, but she didn’t know how to figure out a direction. The tears burned her eyes as she spun around again with a feeling of helplessness rising to squeeze her chest.

She slumped against the tree and started to cry. Hot tears poured down her cheek, and she slid back to the ground, giving up. She prayed that Garèo would find her. A month of his torments would be worth being rescued.

No one came.

Kanéko’s tears stopped flowing and the dry heaves ended moments later. In the silence that followed, she remembered something. The sun came up in the east and dropped in the west. Guessing it was morning, she headed toward the sun and hoped she would find a road soon. She didn’t have a path to follow and had to force her way through the brush, vines, and branches. Fresh scratches scored her body, leaving tiny brands of blood and pain behind.

“Damn both of them to having sand shoved up their asses until it pours out of their mouths.”