“One,” I said through my teeth. “Damn you, whoa! One hip—”
I wasn’t conscious of the fall at all; nor even the landing. One moment I was sawing at the reins, a thousand pounds of panicked horse going to pieces under me, shying in all directions. The next, I was lying on my back, blinking up at a spinning black sky, trying to will my diaphragm to work.
Echoes of the shock of impact wavered through my flesh, and I tried frantically to fit myself back into my body. Then I drew breath, a painful gasp, and found myself shaking, the shock turning to the first intimations of damage.
I lay still, eyes closed, concentrating on breathing, conducting an inventory. The rain was still pounding down onto my face, puddling in my eye sockets and running down into my ears. My face and hands were numb. My arms moved. I could breathe a little easier now.
My legs. The left one hurt, but not in any threatening way; only a bruised knee. I rolled heavily onto my side, impeded by my wet, bulky garments. Still, it was the heavy clothing that had saved me from serious damage.
Above me came an uncertain whinny, audible amid the booming thunder. I looked up, dizzy, and saw the horse’s head, protruding from a thicket of buckbrush some thirty feet overhead. Below the thicket, a steep, rocky slope fell away; a long scrape mark toward the bottom showed where I had struck and rolled before ending up in my present position.
We had been standing virtually on the edge of this small precipice without my seeing it, screened as it was by the heavy growth of shrubs. The horse’s panic had sent it to the edge, but evidently it had sensed the danger and caught itself before going over—not before letting me slide off into space, though.
“You bloody bugger!” I said. And wondered whether the unknown German name meant something similar. “I could have broken my neck!” I wiped the mud from my face with a hand that still shook, and looked about me for a way back up.
There wasn’t one. Behind me, the rocky cliff face continued, merging into one of the granite horns. Before me, it ended abruptly, in a plunge straight downward into a small hollow. The slope I stood on declined into this hollow as well, rolling down through clumps of yellow-wood and sumac to the banks of a small creek some sixty feet below.
I stood quite still, trying to think. No one knew where I was. I didn’t know exactly where I was, come to that. Worse, no one would be looking for me for some time. Jamie would think I was still at Muellers’ because of the rain. The Muellers would of course have no reason to think I hadn’t made it safely home; even if they had doubts, they couldn’t follow me, because of the flooded creek. And by the time anyone found the washed-out trail, any traces of my passage would long since have been obliterated by the rain.
I was uninjured, that was something. I was also afoot, alone, without food, moderately lost, and thoroughly wet. About the only certainty was that I wasn’t going to die of thirst.
The lightning was still glancing to and fro like dueling pitchforks in the sky above, though the thunder had faded to a dull rumble in the distance. I had no particular fear of being struck by lightning now—not with so many better candidates standing about, in the form of gigantic trees—but finding shelter seemed a very good idea nonetheless.
It was still raining; drops rolled off the end of my nose with monotonous regularity. Limping on my bruised knee and swearing quite a bit, I made my way down the slippery slope to the edge of the stream.
This creek, too, was swollen by the rain; I could see the tops of drowned bushes sticking out of the water, leaves trailing limply in the rushing current. There was no bank to speak of; I fought my way through the grasping claws of holly and red-cedar toward the rocky cliff-face to the south; perhaps there would be a cave or hollow there that would offer shelter of a sort.
I found nothing but tumbled rocks, black with wet and hard to navigate. Some distance beyond, though, I saw something else that offered a small possibility of shelter.
A huge red cedar tree had fallen across the stream, its roots undermined as the water ate away the soil in which it stood. It had fallen away from me and struck the cliff, so that the thick crown sprawled into the water and over the rocks, the trunk canted across the stream at a shallow angle; on my side, I could see the huge mat of its exposed roots, a bulwark of cracked earth and small bushes heaved up about them. The cavity under them might not be complete shelter, but it looked better than standing in the open or crouching in the bushes.
I hadn’t even paused to think that the shelter might have attracted bears, catamounts, or other unfriendly fauna. Fortunately, it hadn’t.
It was a space about five feet long and five wide, dank, dark, and clammy. The ceiling was composed of the tree’s great gnarled roots, packed with sandy earth, like the roof of a badger’s sett. But it was a solid ceiling, for all that; the floor of churned earth was damp but not muddy, and for the first time in hours rain was not drumming on my skull.
Exhausted, I crawled into the farthest corner, set my wet shoes beside me, and went to sleep. The cold of my wet clothes made me dream vividly, in jumbled visions of blood and childbirth, trees and rocks and rain, and I woke frequently, in that half-conscious way of utter tiredness, falling asleep again in seconds.
I dreamt that I was giving birth. I felt no pain, but saw the emerging head as though I stood between my own thighs, midwife and mother both together. I took the nak*d child in my arms, still smeared with the blood that came from both of us, and gave her to her father. I gave her to Frank, but it was Jamie who took the caul from her face and said, “She’s beautiful.”
Then I woke and slept, finding my way among boulders and waterfalls, urgently seeking something I had lost. Woke and slept, pursued through woods by something fearsome and unknown. Woke and slept, a knife in my hand, red with blood—but whose, I did not know.
I woke all the way to the smell of burning, and sat bolt upright. The rain had stopped; it was the silence that wakened me, I thought. The smell of smoke was still strong in my nostrils, though—it wasn’t part of the dream.
I poked my head out of my burrow like a snail cautiously emerging from its shell. The sky was a pale purple-gray, shot with streaks of orange over the mountains. The woods around me were still, and dripping. It was nearly sundown, and darkness was gathering in the hollows.
I crawled out all the way, and looked around. The creek at my back rushed past in full spate, its gurgling the only sound. The ground rose in front of me to a small ridge. At the top of this stood a large balsam poplar tree, the source of the smoke. The tree had been struck by lightning; half of it still bore green leaves, the canopy bushy against the pale sky. The other half was blackened and charred all down one side of the massive trunk. Wisps of white smoke rose from it like ghosts escaping an enchanter’s bondage, and red lines of fire showed fleetingly, glowing beneath the blackened shell.
I looked about for my shoes, but couldn’t find them in the shadows. Not bothering, I made my way up the ridge toward the blasted tree, panting with effort. All my muscles were stiffened with sleep and cold; I felt like a tree come awkwardly to life myself, stumping uphill on gnarled and clumsy roots.
It was warm near the tree. Blissfully, wonderfully warm. The air smelled of ash and burnt soot, but it was warm. I stood as close as I dared, spreading my cloak out wide, and stood still, steaming.
For some time I didn’t even try to think; just stood there, feeling my chilled flesh thaw and soften again into something resembling humanity. But as my blood began to flow again, my bruises began to ache, and I felt the deeper ache of hunger as well; it had been a long time since breakfast.
Likely to be a lot longer time till supper, I thought grimly. The dark was creeping up from the hollow, and I was still lost. I glanced across to the opposite ridge; not a sign of the bloody horse.
“Traitor,” I muttered. “Probably gone off to join a herd of elk or something.”
I chafed my hands together; my clothes were halfway dry, but the temperature was dropping; it would be a chilly night. Would it be better to spend the night here, in the open, near the blasted tree, or ought I to return to my burrow while I could still see to do so?
A snapping in the brush behind me decided me. The tree had cooled now; though the charred wood was still hot to the touch, the fire had burned out. It would be no deterrent to prowling night hunters. Lacking fire or weapons, my only defense was that of the hunted; lie hidden through the dark hours, like the mice and rabbits. Well, I had to go back to fetch my shoes anyway.
Reluctantly leaving the last vestiges of warmth, I made my way back down to the fallen tree. Crawling in, I saw a pale blur against the darker earth in the corner. I set my hand on it, and found not the softness of my buckskin moccasins, but something hard and smooth.
My instincts had grasped the reality of the object before my brain could retrieve the word, and I snatched my hand away. I sat for a moment, my heart pounding. Then curiosity overcame atavistic fear, and I began to scoop away the sandy loam around it.
It was indeed a skull, complete with lower jaw, though the mandible was attached only by the remnants of dried ligament. A fragment of broken vertebra rattled in the foramen magnum.
“ ‘How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?’ ” I murmured, turning the skull over in my hands. The bone was cold and damp, slightly roughened by exposure to the damp. The light was too dim to see details, but I could feel the heavy ridges over the brows, and the slickness of smooth enamel on the canines. Likely a man, and not an old one; most of the teeth were present, and not unduly worn—at least insofar as I could tell with a groping thumb.
How long? Eight or nine year, the grave-digger said to Hamlet. I had no notion whether Shakespeare knew anything about forensics, but it seemed a reasonable estimate to me. Longer than nine years, then.
How had he come here? By violence, my instincts answered, though my brain was not far behind. An explorer might die of disease, hunger or exposure—I firmly suppressed that line of thought, trying to ignore my growling stomach and damp clothes—but he wouldn’t end up buried under a tree.
The Cherokee and Tuscarora buried their dead, all right, but not like this, alone in a hollow. And not in fragments, either. It was that broken bit of vertebra that had told me the story at once; the edges were compressed, the broken face sheared clean, not shattered.
“Somebody took a real dislike to you, didn’t they?” I said. “Didn’t stop with a scalp; they took your whole head.”
Which made me wonder—was the rest of him here, too? I rubbed a hand across my face, thinking, but after all, I had nothing better to do; I wasn’t going anywhere before daylight, and the likelihood of sleep had grown remote with the discovery of my companion. I set the skull carefully to one side, and began to dig.
It was fully night by now, but even the darkest of nights outdoors is seldom completely without light. The sky was still covered with cloud, which reflected considerable light, even in my shallow burrow.
The sandy earth was soft, and easy to dig in, but after a few minutes of scratching, my knuckles and fingertips were rubbed raw, and I crawled outside, long enough to find a stick to dig with. A little more probing yielded me something hard; not bone, I thought, and not metal, either. Stone, I decided, fingering the dark oval. Just a river stone? I thought not; the surface was very smooth, but with something incised in it; a glyph of some kind, though my touch was not sufficiently sensitive to tell me what it was.