I keep saying how I’m into the home stretch on this novel. The thing about home stretches: they stretch. A lot. The last book I did, the one I co-wrote? I think I was “almost done” with that thing for like three goddamn months. I don’t think that’s going to happen here, but man does this thing seem to be taking its time with ending.
But here’s another piece of it.
(if you want setup, I refer you back to this post, wherein I explain what the hell the whole thing is about)
– – –
The darkness and the light swept in over each other and receded again, moving like clouds. At the center of her was a storm, and it also undulated with time, shifting in rhythms of heat and cold. And there was pain there as well, though Durja was only conscious of it some of the time. Or rather, it was always there–she knew that. But for only some of the time was it at all real. For the rest, it slipped back into a dreamlike abstraction that had no power to hurt her.
Which was time itself. How long since she had fallen into the water? A day? Two? Years? She murmured something that she herself couldn’t make out, whether truly her own voice or the ghosts pushing briefly through, and she felt hands on her fur, smoothing it, soothing, and a quiet voice close to her ear.
She was aware of a feeling of enclosure. It was not the sky over her head, and the wind wasn’t buffeting her or pulling at her cloak–her cloak? Was she even wearing it any longer? And there was a touch of disquiet, because there was something very important in her cloak, only she couldn’t now recall what it was or why it mattered.
But the enclosure–walls and a ceiling? Her eyes didn’t seem to work. She shifted again under the gentle pressure of the hands, trying to sense her way around the space that surrounded her. A shelter? Not an oxygenated one. She could feel the sit–strange sit, not her own–of the breathmask over her nose. And it was cold. Cold even for a shelter, though there was no wind.
But there was. It was screaming outside. Screaming like a pup in pain, like a dam giving birth. That sound… it was hardly ever heard any longer. All the dams, Durja thought, gone into the wind to carry their pups and left the wombs here empty.
“Be easy,” said a voice, low and soft, and Durja started at the understandable words. “You’re feverish. Drink this.” Her head was lifted, something cool pressed to her lips, and she realized how thirsty she was at the same instant that the water spilled gloriously into her mouth. There was a flash of pain–not distant, not abstract, but real and present and digging like hooks into the back of her throat–and then cool liquid ecstasy, coating her abused flesh, seeming to sink beneath the surface of her skin and into her veins. She gasped, coughed, moaned at the pain that the coughing produced, even as she fumbled for the container and tried to suck more through the neck.
“Easy!” the voice repeated. “You’ll–ah, you’ll make yourself choke. Stop that now.” The container was pulled away from her and she groped after it, moaning weakly, just aware enough of herself to feel ashamed but not enough to stop, because it was water, and oh, she wanted it. She might have wanted something else more, back in the increasingly hazy time before now, but she couldn’t recall it. There was just now, and just water, and she cried for it like her heart might break.
“If you don’t want to drown yourself or vomit everything back up again,” said the voice, and now it sounded faintly impatient, “you must drink slowly. Here.” Durja’s head was held, the mouth of the container against her lips, and this time some form of sense took over and she drank more slowly, trying to ignore the crying of her body and the cramping in her belly as the water settled into it, followed by smaller sips that shivered their way down her throat, wrenching her this way and that in a whirlwind of pain and pleasure.
She was beginning to be able to see, at least a little, in blurry flashes and waves of shapes. A dark form hovering over her–the owners of the hands? Yes, she thought so. The light was low–blessedly so–and it took her a few moments more to realize that it was not merely her own vision but an actual lack of light; the only real source seemed to come from some distance away, the thin light of Atsan coming through a low, curved opening, and from there the pieces fell into place, one by gradual one, coherent by the time the water was taken away from her again.
She was in a cave. One of the ones scattered throughout the old floodplains, divots and deeper holes carved by long-dried water. Some had collapsed, some had been blocked by the shifting sand, but some remained. And every now and then–less and less frequently these days–new ones were made.
But this one had a feel of age to it.
There was another low, sickening pulse of fever in her gut, and the cave tilted and spun, the clarity leeching out of it. Durja coughed and let her head drop back onto the stone. There were questions… too many questions.
She did not understand why she was alive at all.
“Who are you?” It was actually not the most pressing question, but her brain was thickly jumbled, full of muttering, and it was the one that came out. She heard a soft hiss of laughter, dry amusement.
“They called me Veyna, long ago,” came the reply, and though it was still amused, there was something else in it now. Distance. Dreaming. The moan of the wind across a wide plain and through crumbling red pinnacles. “I suppose there’s no need to change that.”
“Why haven’t you killed me?” Like the first question, it came without Durja’s thinking, and it was the more important of the two. The one that had more bearing on both the immediate past and the immediate future. What had not happened yet might still.
There was a long silence. Durja felt dark fingers groping at her, threating to pull her back down into the darkness; she tried to shake them off. She couldn’t resist them forever, maybe not even for more than a few moments, but she needed to hear this answer. If an answer would be given at all.
Finally Veyna said, “I’m not sure, yet. I moved before I thought. Perhaps, in your time, you’ve done the same.” Durja felt hands on her, not the dark fingers of feverish unconsciousness but Veyna’s warm, strong hands, rougher than before, closing around her limbs and squeezing in an evaluating kind of way. “In any case, you’ve barely enough meat on you to make it worth my while.”
Again, that edge of humor, dry as the floor of the cave, and as Durja felt herself being pulled back down–down into the water again, only deeper and darker than any Hadevan flood–she wondered if Veyna was joking. But even if she wasn’t… how had saving her been worth Veyna’s while?
People sometimes did very strange things.
Durja went down into the blackness. As she went she imagined the ghosts reaching for her, closing their arms around her, holding her fast against the dark.