"Beck, you know I embrace nature," Crystal said. "But could you tell me why I’m knee deep in kudzu?"
"Because I’m a big puffy wuss," I answered, as I pulled my foot out of a kudzu snare. I squeal at the sight of big bugs. I'm afraid of the dark, afraid of snakes. And I am hugely afraid of cute guys."
Crystal tripped over a rock and said a word I didn’t think her mom would like hearing, then she grabbed my arm. “Okay, now tell me where the kudzu fits in.”
"Did you read my yearbook last year?" I asked as I stared up into the tallest oak on the planet. Jesse's favorite tree. Of course, for my little brother, favorite tree means tree mostly likely to result in multiple broken bones when fallen out of.
"Hel-lo, we have the same yearbook."
"No, did you read what people wrote in mine?"
"Yeah, I guess; nice stuff -- right?"
I walked around the tree looking for the side that offered the best first climbing spot. "Very nice," I said. "In fact, 'nice' was the word used most often, though 'quiet' was a close second. One guy even called me ‘bookworm,’ though I think it’s because he was a little shaky on my actual name." I wondered if Jesse usually brought a bucket or something to start his climb.
"There is nothing wrong with being nice and quiet." Crys grabbed my arm so I would look at her. "Besides, what does that have to do with Goliath tree here?"
"Xena is not nice," I said. "Lara Croft is not nice. Nice is one step away from invisible. I want to be daring. Maybe wild, or dangerous – and I want it to happen this year."
"And the tree?"
"I'm going to climb it. Why did you think I wore all these clothes in bazillion degree weather? It’s protection."
Crys looked up into the tree and frowned. “You should have worn more clothes and maybe a parachute."
"Right," I said. "Tree climbing is risky, dangerous -- daring.”
“But, Beck, tree climbing is so third grade,” Crystal said. “If you want to be gutsy and wild, I think you should start by doing something mature. Like telling Scott that you think he’s a hottie.”
“You’re the one who thinks he’s a hottie,” I said. “I think he’s a pig. Besides, I’m not quite ready for interpersonal courage.” Crystal opened her mouth, probably to offer some other horrifying suggestion but I put up my hand. “I have to start somewhere. I choose here. Give me a boost."
Crys boosted and I scrambled. At no point did I look like an Olympic gymnast but I managed to get to the first branch and I was pretty proud -- until I looked down. I totally know why they tell you not to look down from heights. I almost hurled on Crystal's head.
"Is that high enough?" Crystal asked. "Do you feel wild yet?"
"No, I feel queasy," I said. "Now, don't talk to me because I can't look down. I'm going up." Once you're in a tree, it's not all that hard to get higher up. By the time the branches started to get too thin to make me feel good about putting my bulky body on them, I was feeling pretty daring and a little shaky. Still, trees are cooler than I thought. I spotted a squirrel's nest and bird's nest. Since neither one resulted in any adorable wildlife trying to poke my eyes out, I assumed they were empty.
"This is great," I yelled down to Crys. I noticed my voice sounded a little trembly and high.
"Are you ready to come down now?" she yelled back.
Was I? I wasn't sure. Looking through the thick foliage made me feel like some kind of magical wood nymph. But I was starting to get branch butt from sitting so I was probably done. "Yeah, I'm coming down."
In order to get down, I really needed to look down. That was still not good. I didn't spot the branch I needed to slip down onto. Instead, I'm pretty sure I saw sudden death leering up at me. "I changed my mind," I yelled to Crystal. "I'm going to live up here."
"What are you talking about?"
"I can't get down," I wailed. "I can't even look down without getting the golly wobbles."
"Do you want me to go get help?"
"No!" Something like this would spread like wildfire. I would not only still be Miss Wuss, I'd be Miss Doofus T. Wuss.
"So you’re going to live in a tree? I bet I can guess what people are going to write in your yearbook this year."
Sometimes I hated Crystal. "Go get Jesse," I yelled. "He's climbed this stupid tree a million times; he can talk me down."
While I waited, I tried to recapture the magical wood nymph feeling but I just felt like a big weenie. "It's okay," I advised myself calmly. "I'm making a slow start but that is no reason to give up on the plan. I did climb up the tree!" I looked around my perch again -- up was daring. That's when I heard the first rumble of thunder.
Tall trees on top of hills are not good places to wait out a thunderstorm. I didn't need anyone to remind me of that. I leaned forward on the branch I was until I was resting on the branch on my belly instead of my butt. Then I twisted around so that my legs dangled from the same side of the branch and slowly eased downward, feeling for another branch with my feet. I wasn't finding any.
"I got up here," I grunted as I eased down a little more. "So I know there's a branch down there."
I felt around a little more. No branch. I scooted down a little more and slipped. I grabbed at the branch but my weight was too unbalanced and the bark only sandpapered my fingers as I fell. I grabbed for two different passing limbs as sticks scratched at my face and arms but I couldn’t hold onto anything. Finally I snatched at one wrist-thick branch and snagged it, jerking myself to a stop.
My momentum was a little too strong for the skinny branch and I heard a ringing snap as it cracked along the base. I watched the branch tear slowly loose from the tree, leaving a long ugly wound. I felt around desperately with my feet as the branch ripped lower and lower -- then I was falling again. I was nearly halfway through the tree's canopy before I slammed into a thick branch. It hurt but I was stopped.
I pulled myself up onto the branch and sat. I was a lot closer to the ground now, though still too far to jump without picking up a broken leg. I realized it was raining. Not a lot of rain was making it through the leaves to hit me, but the rain reminded me that I was still sitting in the tallest tree on the highest hill in a thunderstorm. A crackling boom encouraged me to try another climb down.
I eased over onto my stomach again, though this time my aching body complained a lot more about it. I was going to have some nifty bruises from this adventure. Once again, I slipped downward slowly, feeling for a branch. My toes struck something hard and wide and I almost whimpered in relief. I let myself slip more until both feet were flat on the branch.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise and the skin on my arms tingled. Lightning makes you feel like that. The storm had found my tree. I let go of the branch and jumped as an explosion blasted in my ears. The lightning must have hit the tree but I was already airborne.
The air felt thick and alive as I plummeted toward the ground. The tingling covered my whole body. More branches slapped at me but I barely noticed them.
The ground slammed into my feet and I bent my knees and rolled to absorb the shock. My gym teacher would be so proud, I thought. Then my rolling picked up speed and I tumbled dizzily down the hill.
When I hit the bottom of the hill, I was gasping and dirty -- but almost giddy over being alive. Nothing even felt broken! I sat up, wiped the muddy dirt off my face and looked around grinning. Now, that’s what a wild woman does for fun!
I was facing a thick stand of trees. The grin slipped off my face. Jesse's oak is the only big tree for miles, so I couldn't be facing a forest -- but I was. I had rolled down the hill into total impossibility. So I did what any girlie girl would do in my position. I fainted.
I didn’t faint long. I’m not that wimpy. Still, the rain was over and the sun was past the midpoint and moving slowly behind the hill. It had to be two o'clock, at least. I wondered why Crystal and Jesse hadn't found me. Then I remembered the woods. They were still there -- thick and gloomy dark in the early afternoon light.
I stood slowly and looked around. The hill looked normal enough, mostly covered with scrub grass and weeds, though I could clearly make out the muddy track where I'd torn my way down. I saw Jesse's oak at the top of the hill. It didn't look damaged so I guessed the lightning hadn't hit it after all. But everywhere else I saw thick forest.
Just inside the woods, I spotted a wide path so I edged slowly toward it. Nothing scary happened when I entered the woods; it just got a little cooler and the air picked up that dusty leaf smell. I was hesitant to walk out of sight of the familiar hill and tree. I sat down on a fallen tree that lay crumbling to bits on the forest floor.
Maybe I knocked myself unconscious when I jumped out of the tree and everything after that was a dream. Except that I'm not sure unconscious people have dreams.
Then a really sick thought hit me. Maybe I'm not unconscious from the fall. Maybe, just maybe, that lightning bolt hit me and I was in the hospital, comatose, with tubes crammed up my nose. With my nose, if I had tubes crammed in there, I hoped no one was visiting me. I must look like Porky Pig.
My stomach clenched with a new thought: I could be dead. Dead would be bad. I don't want to be a dead 16-year-old virgin. I know some religions believe you can have sex after you're dead but I'm pretty sure mine doesn't. So I really wasn't ready to be dead. I was also babbling inside. And maybe hyperventilating. Do dead people hyperventilate?
I put my head between my knees and breathed slowly for a few minutes. I needed to concentrate on being lost. I was just lost. No reason to think about how I got lost. I would get unlost. I'd find Crystal and Jesse looking for me. And we'd go home and listen to Mom and Dad yell at me awhile for climbing trees in thunderstorms.
I know if you get lost in the woods, you're supposed to sit still and wait for someone to find you. But I didn't think anyone was going to be launching a search party here in Neverland so I figured I was on my own.
"Step one, survey the surroundings." I thought my voice would be good company. Wrong. Too shrill, too panicky. I sat still and listened. The first thing I noticed was… nothing. There was a whole lot of nothing here. No bird noises. No squirrel noises. Just -- water running somewhere. That made me realize I really had to pee. Dead people do not pee. I am so not dead.
Following water downstream is a good tactic when you're lost. "Step two," I whispered. "Make a plan and take action." I stood up, knocked a clod or two of dried mud from my jeans and headed for the sound of water.
I found a wide, fairly slow creek. I hustled behind a bush and took care of the peeing problem, my muddy clothes cracking with my movements. Then I walked upstream a little and knelt down. The water was sparkling clear until I washed my filthy hands. Isn't creek water supposed to be icy? This was almost warm. "Maybe a hot spring," I whispered. "Or something really, really big peed in it." I laughed at that a little longer than it deserved. Dead people don't get hysterical. I'm sure of it.
I splashed some water on my face and watched it drip back into the stream, brown with mud. That's what decided it for me. Wherever I was, I had a long walk ahead of me and these clothes were disgusting. Suddenly all of my hysterical energy focused on getting clean.
I looked around and saw nothing but empty, silent forest. So I stepped closer to an alder bent over the water and slipped off my sneakers and banged them together to shake off the mud. In honor of "practically the end of summer," I wasn't wearing socks. The damp leaves felt cold against my feet.
I looked around again, then skinned off my muddy jeans. I knelt at the water and used a wet rock to scrape off most of the mud. I pulled off my white cotton sweater, actually Mom's sweater, and soaked it in the creek. When the mud washed away, I saw long rips down one sleeve. If it turned out that I wasn't dead, Mom would kill me. My tank shirt looked pretty good so I left it on, along with my bra and panties.
I waded into the slightly deeper water in the middle of the creek. It was only thigh deep. I sat on a flat-topped rock jutting from the water, leaned back, and rinsed out my hair. With my hair clean and warm water running over my legs, I felt almost human again. In fact, I felt a little wild sitting in the middle of a stream almost naked. “That’s right,” I said. “I’m wild. I’m a wild woods woman.”
Finally, I sighed and slogged back to shore. My sweater and jeans were going to take a while to dry so I decided to try "lost in the woods 101" and just sit around. Who knows, maybe someone would come along and rescue me?
I wondered if I should try to formulate a plan of some sort for night. Even if I followed the creek downstream, I probably wasn't going to run into any people before dark. It was just too quiet here to make me believe that there was a thriving community nearby. I had no food, but plenty of water – well, assuming I wanted to drink it. What if I wasn’t the only thing peeing in that water?
I also didn't know jack about what kind of things you can eat in the forest. Unless I ran into a McNuggets tree, I was going to get very hungry.
Across the creek, the bushes parted and a large animal lumbered over to the water. The fact that I didn't wet my drawers is testimony only to my having unloaded in that very water earlier. This thing had a long toothy snout like an alligator, but its body was huge and thick like a bear with lots of crazy long fur in a patchwork of gray and brown. I sat frozen, staring at it and praying it would just get a drink of water and go quietly back to the nightmare it had slipped out of.
That's when it looked up at me. For an instant we stared into each other's eyes. Then it snarled and leaped into the water toward me. That broke the spell. I was on my feet and running before the first splash had settled.
I could hear the monster splashing and snarling behind me, and not far behind me either. I fought the urge to look back like some 50's horror-movie star. People who look back, die. Rocks and sticks bit into my bare feet but it didn't slow me down. I could hear the thing gaining. I could almost feel its jaws clamping down on me.
I darted around a thick tree and almost slammed into a huge deadfall. It was taller than me and densely grown over. I could never climb that. I was dead. I was so dead.
I spotted one small perfect break in the wall of brush, close to the ground. I dove for the hole. The sharp sticks and rough bark scraped my bare skin bloody but I was through. The deadfall shook and shuddered as the monster slammed into it from the other side. I scrambled to my feet and kept running.
The ground was growing steeper and rocky, chewing the soles of my bare feet. I wondered if the monster was good at tracking blood. I heard it howl and I knew it was gaining again -- it had gotten through the deadfall. I scrambled faster but I wasn't going to be fast enough. I'd never won a race in my life; it didn't look like I was going to make the first today.
I scrambled past a boulder, hearing the monster's claws on the rocks below me. Suddenly a strong arm slipped around my waist and jerked me behind the rock. I yelped and struggled, kicking my bare feet into what I hoped were my attacker's most delicate resources. He gasped but his grip didn't slack off. "Be still." Warm breath tickled my ear. "I will not hurt you." A second arm wrapped around me and I spotted a sword in his hand.
A sword was good. I totally approved of a sword. I would have approved even more of an AK-47 but a sword was a nice, too. I stopped struggling just as the monster rocketed by. I had a split second of hope that it would just keep running but it spun and faced us.
The thing squinted at us, then past us, then all around the whole freaking rock. It sniffed the air and wrinkled its snout in a snarl. It took one more step toward us and I felt the arms around me tighten. Then the monster shook its head and turned to race up the hill and over. My legs went so weak, I was very glad for the arms holding me up.
The arm holding the sword dropped away and I was a little sorry to feel it go. The arm around my waist stayed but shifted so I could finally see my rescuer. He was older than me, more man than kid, but still young judging by the sparse five o'clock fuzz he was sporting. His hair was dark like his eyes and the rest of him matched his strong arms very nicely. "Are you hurt?" he asked gently.
I wasn't sure how to answer that since there didn't seem to be any part of me that didn't hurt badly. I just stared at him like a big idiot for a minute. He eased away a bit and began to look me over. I was suddenly very aware that I was standing there in a skimpy tank shirt and granny panties in front of a fully-grown hottie. My mother would so not approve. I looked down at myself. My clean skin was filthy again and hashed with scrapes and scratches.
"Where are your shoes?" he asked, horrified. I'm just a fuzz above stark naked and he obsesses about my shoes? Actually my feet were starting to have a word with me about the trip from the creek. I sank down to the ground and looked at them. They were bleeding hard from several puncture wounds. I wondered if you could get a tetanus shot here in Bizarro World.
The hottie knelt down beside me and touched my cheek very gently. "Do you speak?"
I looked up into his beautiful eyes and burst into tears.
I may be a wimp but I’m not usually a crier. Of course, I don't usually get chased by monsters so I decided that my hero could just wait a minute. Besides, I couldn't stop.
I felt his hand patting my back like I was a baby in need of a burp. "You do not have to speak," he said and I'm sure I detected a desperate edge to his voice. Apparently girl crying is kryptonite to guys in this world too. "Many people talk far too much, anyway." He rambled on about the value of silence for a bit longer, marking time with his pats on my back.
Finally I sniffed a bit. I really needed a tissue. Even a sleeve would help. I sniffed again and managed to croak out, "I can talk."
The back patting stopped. "Why were you crying?"
I stared at him. I had tumbled into wonderland with no white rabbits in sight. I'd been chased by Franken-Cujo. My feet felt like I'd been buffing calluses with a belt sander. Dampness from the ground was soaking through my granny panties, which was decidedly gross. And I suddenly realized that I was really, really hungry. "I've had a bad day”.
He blinked at me a bit. "We cannot stay here," he said. "The beast will be back eventually. There is much blood here."
"I'm going to leave a lot of blood anywhere I walk," I said, making this the longest conversation I'd had with a cute guy in my entire life.
That's when he picked me up and we started back down the rocky slope. I know I've seen guys carry girls around a million times in the movies. But those are movie girls. They must weigh, what? Maybe a hundred pounds counting hair gel. Plus, when the guy starts to wheeze and stagger, the director just yells, "Cut!" Guys on television do not carry girls like me. I may be short but I'm sturdy -- like a hundred and forty pounds of sturdy. This guy carried me like I carry my cat.
I wasn't sure if this was the coolest thing I'd ever experienced or if I was scared out of my mind.
"Um," I said, dazzling him with my wit, no doubt -- and folks wonder why I'm quiet. "I left my clothes and shoes near a creek. That way."
"The earth's blood waters," he said. He wasn't even puffing.
"Can we get them?"
For a guy who was babbling minutes ago, he could sure turn into the strong silent type fast. Of course, if I were hauling me around, I wouldn't waste oxygen with a little chat either.
I settled against his chest -- it was a very nice chest -- and decided to go with the moment. One of the nicest things about his chest is that is wasn't overly clothed. He was wearing some kind of leather muscle shirt with a slit down the middle and leather laces to close up the gap…only he hadn't bothered to close it. I was grateful for that oversight because when I laid my head against his skin, I could feel his heartbeat. Which was nice and kind of drowsy.
"What's your name?" I asked, my voice a little mumbly.
I didn't wake up until we reached the creek. He knelt and put me down very gently next to my clothes. "How did you know where I left my stuff?"
"Your trail was clear," he said. "We must work quickly. We do not want to be near the earth's blood when night falls."
"Yeah," I agreed. "It was a little exciting here during broad daylight.'
"Beasts are dangerous," Garin said as he rummaged through a leather pack he was carrying. "But they are not very bright. There are many creatures that would not have been fooled by a simple spell -- not when your blood scent was so strong."
"A spell? A spell?" The only time anyone talks to me about spelling is when Mom nags me about my homework. Sure, spells fit right in with everything here in wonderland but somehow that just pushed me over the edge. "We do not have spells where I come from. Monsters do not chase us. This is not happening. It's not. Totally not. Ow!" The disgusting green stuff Garin was slathering on my feet stung!
"The pain will pass," Garin said as he rinsed the green glop back off my feet with warm water from the creek. That didn't seem like good germ management but I decided to let it go. I could always soak them in hydrogen peroxide when I got home.
"Where are we?" I asked very softly.
He frowned slightly. "Next to the earth's blood waters."
"No, I mean globally." I waved my arms around. "Where is all of this? What is this forest? What is this place? How did I get here? How do I get home?"
Garin stared at me a moment, then began to bandage my feet with questionable looking rags from his knapsack. "This is the Forest of Eire. I do not know how you got here, nor where you are from. I am not a seer." He smeared green goo over the scratches on my legs and my breath whistled from the pain. "I am sorry."
I wasn't sure if he was sorry for the pain or for not being a seer. "Isn't there a spell for sending someone home? Maybe some ruby slippers? A yellow brick road?"
He smiled at me slightly and moved on to hurting the heck out of my arm scratches. "You talk a great deal for a girl I thought was mute." Then he ran his fingers lightly along my jawline, which sounds really cool but stung like blue blazes. Was there anywhere I wasn't scratched?
I blinked away tears at the sting of the green goop. "That's something I don't hear very often," I whispered.
"What is that?"
"That I talk a lot," I said. "I tend to have trouble talking to, um, male people."
Gavin looked startled. "Were you cloistered?"
"I don't know what that means," I said. "Does it hurt?'
He laughed hard for a moment. Then wiped tears from his eyes and said. "I often wondered that. Don't worry…" He leaned in close to my face. "I won't let anything hurt you."
Up close, his eyelashes were incredibly long. I almost reached out to touch one. But that was a little too intense. "Look," I said, scooting back and clearing my throat. "You've got this great hero vibe going with the sword and all. And carrying a super chunk like me is no small thing. And you've got really, really nice muscles." I cleared my throat again. "But this has been a weird ride so far and I'm not ready for…well, for much of anything else today."
Garin wiped a damp rag across the scratch on my face. "You need to get dressed now. We have to go."
I winced in advance as I stood up to grab my stuff but putting my weight on my feet only felt a bit like the ache my feet get after a long walk. "That green gunk is amazing," I said as I wiggled into my damp jeans. Even when I tugged my damp shoes onto my bandaged feet, it didn't hurt at all.
"Gunk, goo, slobbery stuff," I explained. "The crap you put on my feet."
He stared at me for a moment. "Oh. My mother is very good with herbs for healing. She showed me how to make the gunk." He pulled Mom's sweater off the branch and handed it to me. "We must go now." I followed him, pulling the sweater over my head. I managed about one step with the sweater wrapped around my eyes before I stumbled. Garin caught me and switched to leading me by the hand. He had nice hands. Warm. Big. Just the right amount of callus.
My stomach growled. "You wouldn't have a granola bar in your bag would you?" I asked.
"I do not know what that is."
"It's a hunk of cereal.. And probably some really scary preservatives. Sometimes some fruit and nuts. Chocolate if you're lucky," I explained. "It's good for preventing starvation. I know I don't look like I'm in danger of starving. But I might be."
He glanced back at me. "You're hungry?"
"Right, I missed breakfast to go tree climbing so the last time I ate it was yesterday," I said. "Before I went crazy."
He let go of my hand to root around in his pack while he walked. I missed the handholding so much I almost told him to forget the snack. Then my stomach growled in protest at the very thought. He handed me a piece of hard bread. Like a big honking crouton. It almost took more effort to eat it than my stomach was willing to go for, but I finally crunched down the last bit.
The shadows had darkened considerably and I stumbled. I had to do it twice before Garin took my hand again. He seemed to have no problem slipping between the trees in the deepening gloom. Although my stomach was asking for something a little more friendly than stale bread, I was really more tired than hungry. I tried to avoid looking too clumsy as I followed him through the trees but it was getting harder.
Finally I spotted a warm glow cutting through the dark trees. Could we be near Garin's house? I hoped he had a friendly mom with soup. We stepped into a clearing next to a cottage. Actually, it was more like a hut. Really, shed wouldn't be a totally insulting description of it. It was getting harder to picture soup as I stared at it.
A fire was burning in front of the shed but that definitely was not a mom tending it. It was a scruffy looking guy with a mean scowl.
"By all that's bright, what do you think you're doing?" The guy demanded. He had a long nose that he poked toward us like a crow with an attitude problem.
"I think I am coming home," Garin said. The way he said "home" sounded like sarcasm to my expert ears. "To eat and sleep."
"Don’t be daft," the thug said. "What are you doing bringing a witch here?"
"Witch?" I yelped.
"She is no witch."
"This is the Forest of Eire, Garin. Of course she’s a witch,” He shouted. “You know the easiest spell in the world is to make a witch look vulnerable and beautiful." Beautiful?
"She is not a witch."
"Are you sure? Are you willing to bet your life on it? Are you willing to bet mine?"
"I am as sure of her as I am of you, Lore" Garin said. "And I know she is tired and hungry, as am I. Is there food?"
The grouch crossed scarecrow arms and did the glaring thing for a moment. Then he grunted and shrugged toward the shed. Garin led me inside. It didn't look any less shed-like on the inside except that it had a fireplace of sorts. That gave it a more permanent look than it deserved. A kettle sat close to the fire.
Garin scooped some kind of stew from the kettle into two bowls. He handed me mine with a hunk of bread. Then he sat on the floor near the fire and started shoving the stew into his mouth with the soppy bread. Apparently they didn't do spoons.
I dabbed at the stew as I sat beside Garin. I couldn’t identify all of the vegetables and I probably didn’t want to know what the meat was considering the only wildlife I’d seen today tried to eat me.
"Who’s that?" I asked.
Garin looked around the room as if I might be seeing visions. "We're alone."
"Outside; who’s the grouchy guy outside?"
"We are traveling companions, of sorts. I met him after I left home."
"Why did he say I was beautiful?" I knew I was obsessing but this was a new event for me.
Garin looked at me oddly. "You are beautiful."
"Oh, god," I whispered. "I'm dead."
"I'm dead. There's no other explanation. Hot guy rescues me. Hot guy carries me around. Hot guy says I'm beautiful. It's heaven. Except for the monster. I am absolutely sure there should not be monsters in heaven. So I must be like halfway between heaven and hell. Purgatory! That's it. This has got to be Purgatory."
Garin took my hand and held it between his. "I have seen many dead people. They do not breathe. They do not move. And they do not talk. You are not dead."
"I guess if I were dead, you'd have to be dead, too," I said. "That would stink."
"The dead do tend to smell," Garin said seriously. "Very bad."
This whole conversation was surreal. "Maybe I'm having some kind of drug trip. I rolled down a muddy hill -- there could have been mushrooms on it. Don't some mushrooms make you see things?" I said.
"Do you have visions?" Garin asked. He wrinkled his forehead a lot when I talked to him. My grandfather does that, but it's because he's kind of deaf.
"No, no visions," I said. "Unless all of this is a hallucination and I'm really still lying under a tree with my head split open."
"You are in my camp," Garin said softly. "At the edge of the Forest of Eire."
“Maybe,” I agreed. “Unless I’m in a coma.” I scooted closer to Garin. “Does my nose look big?”
The door to the shed, um, cottage opened and Lore came in and headed toward the stew pot. He didn't look a lot happier than he had outside. When he glared at me, I felt exactly like I'd been caught doing something and I edged away from Garin a little.
"A pet witch," he muttered. “I thought you were smarter than that.”
"And I would expect you to show more instinct for survival," Garin said mildly. "Do not keep insulting my guest."
"Since when is the truth an insult?" Lore growled as he dumped stew in a bowl.
"The truth," Garin said, no trace of amusement in his voice now. "Suggests you would not want a fight with me, Lore.”
Lore took a step toward us, then hesitated and flopped to the floor instead, slopping a bit of stew onto his already grimy clothes. He began cramming soppy bread into his mouth at a stomach-turning rate. Then he turned and looked me over. "If you're no witch, where did you get those clothes?" he asked, showing me some half-chewed food.
"The mall," I snapped. "Where I wish I was now."
"I know of no Mall," he said. "And I know all the villages within four days travel. Is Mall a witch town?"
If I was a witch, I can't see myself being tripped up by this guy's clever questioning. I just rolled my eyes. "I'm not a witch. I've never been a witch -- not even for Halloween. I was a pink fairy princess once, but I was in Kindergarten at the time."
Lore snorted in a particularly unattractive way and went back to cramming food in his mouth. Garin sighed and said, "We need to sleep. Tomorrow I must find a way to take…" Then he paused. "What is your name?" he asked me.
"You don't know her name?" Lore bellowed, spraying spit our way. "I hope you didn't give the witch your name." I was starting to really hate this guy.
"My name is Rebecca," I said. "But only my grandmother calls me that. Everyone else just says Beck." Well, those people who remember my name for more than five minutes.
Garin smiled and nodded. "Tomorrow I must take Rebecca home."
My hero. I just hoped he could do it. Lore grumbled as he carted his bowl back to the hearth and wiped it with a grimy rag – which, by the way, was the same thing Garin had done with ours. It made me a little queasy to think about having eaten out of one of those germ factories. The Lore rolled out some kind of thin mat near the fire and lay down.
Clearly these were luxury accommodations, though I was so tired I didn't really care. Garin rolled out a matching mat, and then gestured for me to come and lay down. The only problem was that he was already lying there.
"You want me to sleep with you?" I squeaked.
"The fire will fade," he said. "By morning it will be very cold. I do not have enough bedding to keep either of us warm if I divide it."
Okay, that made sense but sleep with him? It was okay. I was a modern woman, sort of. I'm sure he just wanted to sleep. My heart was pounding by the time I snuggled down beside him. It was very toasty under the covers. When Garin slipped his arm around me, I almost passed out, but other than that it was very comfy.
I lay very, very still for a while. Lore was snoring, loudly. The snoring didn't seem to bother Garin because his breathing was deep and even in my ear. I had been really tired before we went to bed, but if I were any more awake laying there, I would have levitated.
That's when I realized I had to pee. Badly.
I seriously doubted this shed had plumbing. They probably just peed in the bushes or used an outhouse. Unfortunately, outhouses are usually out. I did not want to go out. Not alone. I decided not to think about it. I concentrated on breathing deeply and evenly. Mind over matter. I was totally comfortable. I didn't need to pee.
I was going to wet my pants.
Normally, I might have picked pants wetting over wandering around in a monster-infested forest but normally I'm not sleeping smooshed against a guy. A good-looking guy. A good-looking guy who thought I was beautiful. Not that I'm still obsessing about that.
I wiggled out from under Garin's arm and slipped out of the bedroll. If he had woken accidentally I would have asked where the potty was. But he didn't. I would never again believe all that "warriors sleep with one eye open" stuff. Warriors sleep like big noisy rocks.
Nighttime in the woods is seriously dark. The embers of the fire in front of the shed offered a little light but it didn't stretch very far. I decided against hiking around looking for an outhouse and just peed near a brushy spot by the side of the shed. It's very hard not to pee on your shoes in that kind of situation. When I got home, I was going to clean the toilet every day for a month in gratitude.
I pulled up my jeans and slipped out of the bush, right into someone. I shrieked.
"Don't be afraid," Garin's voice said in the darkness.
"You scared me half to death," I gasped. "Did you watch me pee?"
"Rebecca, it is a very dark night and I am not an owl."
"Oh, right." We stepped around the shed into the dim light of the dying fire. "I guess I did wake you after all."
"I am sorry I did not show you where the bucket was," Garin said.
"Well, that would have been nice," I admitted. "But I'm not sure I could have peed inside with you guys."
"We should go in and sleep."
"Yeah," I said but I wasn't quite calmed down enough to try cuddling again. "So, have you always lived out here in a shed?"
“No,” he said softly. “I am from a small kingdom that borders the forest."
“Oh,” I said. “Do they have monsters there too?’
“No,” he said as he walked closer to the dying embers of Lore’s fire. “The beasts live only in the Forest of Eire.”
“Then why would you want to be here?”
“I knew my father would not look for me here,” he said staring into the fire.
"You’re honked off at your Dad?" I asked.
“Mad – is your dad mean or something?”
Garin shook his head. “Not really. My father wants me to assume the duties of my rank but I’m not ready to be closed up in a castle for the rest of my life arguing with other kings over stray cattle.”
“Other kings?” I said. “Your dad is a king?”
"I'm dead," I said.
"You should not dwell on death," Garin said. "It is bad luck."
"But you don't understand," I said, stepping away and heading toward the dying fire. "A handsome prince rescues me and thinks I'm beautiful? This cannot be real." I was still obsessing the teensiest bit.
"If the men of your village do not think you are beautiful," Garin said softly, stepping very close to me. "They are fools." He put his hand on my face and I could see those beautiful eyes in the firelight. He was going to kiss me. If he kissed me, I didn't care if it was a hallucination. I might not even mind being dead.
I closed my eyes and tilted my face up to his. And someone grabbed me from behind.