Chapter nineteen: River Ghosts
After the fall, all Osarius could see was the golden-white water set burning by sunset’s light. After the fall, he had managed to drag up a scream, but the rushing air snatched it away with greedy fingers. Glancing down, he saw that he still had a long way before shattering on the foamy rocks, and in his disoriented state, he began to sob, gasping sobs since he couldn’t breathe. It hadn`t been a second but his rushing death and the glowing droplets of water encircling him put him in the dreamland where a second is ten minutes and two seconds are an hour. He felt something touch his mind with a sense of familiarity, like someone he recognized disappearing around a street corner. His memory dredged up Fredric’s face, and he thought that they really must be best friends if he was the first person to come to mind in his moment of doom. He closed his eyes then, not wanting to see the jagged rocks anymore, and used the gut-jerking feeling to imagine that he was diving from the cliffs at Revetu Beach into the deep sound below, having a grand old time with his friends. Only this dive took forever in the dreamland where a second is ten minutes and two seconds are an hour…
He had been falling for an everlasting three seconds when a shock of icy, stinging water exploded in his face. Help me! implored a disembodied voice in desperation.
Osarius blinked, shocked out of his stupor to find that Fredric was about six feet above him. His poor friend had fallen too.
He was already forming another water-ball in front of him. Bigger and bigger it grew, and within a second it was the length of a person. At first, Osarius thought that Fredric was crying out for help because he was falling. His heart ached that his friend would die the same as him.
Help me! Fredric mentally screamed at him, and as the ball rocketed toward him, Osarius saw.
It took a quarter of a second to push away his surprise and doubt, and another quarter to realize that it was his only chance. It took a second to form a ball of his own and push it up until Fredric was inside. The water stings like pepper juice! Fredric exclaimed from inside, and Osarius felt his pain. No time, it would all be over in five seconds. He drew the bubble toward him as Fredric swam frantically inside, keeping far back so as not to repel the telekinetic power, dragging the other bubble with him. It was a miracle the trick worked at all. When Fredric was abreast in his bubble, he let the bubble he was keeping together engulf Osarius.
He was expecting the fire in his eyes so he rode the pain, tuning it out just enough to focus on pushing Fredric’s bubble and swimming as Fredric pushed his. He saw nothing but survival. Getting back to Belladia, and Daymial. Getting promoted. Getting married. He was determinedly thinking up names for his eight children when they hit the choppy water.
Water, not rocks.
Comparatively mild burning in his back as he grazed something hard, but not death.
The burning, inky black water was deeper and darker than the bubble. It whipped him head-over-heels, trying to invade his nose, but he let his buoyancy take him slowly until he saw light. Thrashing against the gale-force current, he fought his way to the surface. The river jerked him down, again and again. He could barely catch thin breaths.
South Ologo was sometimes known as the River of Death, and he had heard stories from people watching their friends drown. Stories from the onlookers, never from survivors.
Something stabbed his shoulder just as he went down again; he had been about to yell in pain, and water filled his mouth and lungs. It was the end, he thought. Until hands grabbed a handful of his hair and wrenched him upward. Real hands, not the hands of death. His head broke the surface and he hacked over and over, expelling the intrusive water.
He looked up into Fredric’s shaken but crazily grinning face.
With the lanky arm that wasn’t hooked around Osarius, Fredric anchored himself to a broken piece of wood, ten feet long and two and a half feet in diameter. It might have been part of a young tree’s trunk, or an old tree’s branch.
You hit this on your way down, Fredric told Osarius, dislodging it from the rocks. It’s a good thing I grabbed it; you were going to let it get away! The river angrily slammed into them, trying to swallow them whole again; the plunge from the falls hadn’t worked, and neither had the rocks or the current. Now they rushed along with the infuriated river, clinging on to the branch for their lives which had at length become dearer.
After the fall, Osarius couldn’t quite believe that he was alive. He would sooner believe in moon goblins and river ghosts than someone surviving a fall from the Larentac.
* * *
Like nocturnal whispers in the dark, night birds traipsed the open sky searching for food, and the air breathed its erratic sighs. It was an unreliable breeze, a minor, forgotten thirteenth Cousin of the East Wind, but it was nonetheless welcomed in the Arid Grassland. Breathing it into his scorched nose and lungs, Osarius thought he could smell the forest in it, though it was still more than a day away. Or less, if Fredric had his crazy way with his reckless ideas. Osarius thought that he should have pushed to wait for the others, that he had a worse chance with Fredric than with anything the elements could throw at them. Though he was a little hungry, he felt fine, Fredric was afraid that they wouldn’t survive in the hot sun for very long. Osarius was also scratched and bruised on his shoulder and back where he had collided with the log. They were both bright red, as though from sunburn. Fredric was plagued with windswept hair sticking up like a fan around his head.
Everything, from the moment of the river-cave snake to this moment under the moonlight had a dreamlike quality, a feel as though it was all happening to someone else entirely. If not for his aches and pains, no one could have convinced him that it was real. He had survived. They had made it.
And despite everything, tomorrow’s horrors were unaccounted for.
Fredric laughed at this thought. Of course they would survive. Of course.
Osarius had to smile at his loyal friend, in gratefulness and appreciation despite his dubiousness and conviction that Fredric was crazier than a fool. Fredric, the impossibly quick thinker who had kept a clear head. As they were spirited down the river, Osarius was able to ask how Fredric had figured out how to save them.
Don’t you realize? I only pulled a Nolle. Combined two, actually. The ice bridge? His prank at the ball? That was all him, I merely imitated his example.
Osarius begged to differ, but you don’t argue with a hero.
Fredric was really bringing up the count for saving Osarius’s life. Fredric had pulled him from the clearing after the bear attacked him, and patched up his head. Osarius knew that Fredric had a hard time handling blood—it was why he refused to join the military—and he had done it anyway. Fredric was also queasy about great heights—he had hidden it well but Osarius still knew—and yet he had dived after him when he fell. On such a perilous journey, it was good to have a friend like him.
I know what you’re thinking. Fredric was standing by the river, several feet away. Osarius glanced up in surprise. You ought to know by now—where you go, I go. No matter what.
Osarius, however, was annoyed that he had suddenly become so helpless and needy. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong with his cloudy head.
After the fall and just before night, they had travelled two-thirds of the way to the Volcanic Belt. At last they were able to clamber out of the river – not without countless failed attempts, and only because the current had slowed for a spell at the same time that the sheer banks had sloped slightly in a place. Through wit and dumb luck they managed to escape the clutches of near-death, and they had planned to wait for the rest of the Escort. After stopping at a small pond, Osarius found that his head was beginning to impart a more than foul odor. His sister’s medicine had washed away, leaving the minor wound vulnerable to any number of sicknesses. The poisoned water had soaked through it and seared away any new skin.
They had gone as far as they could, grateful for the cover of night to hide them from the heat the Arid Grassland was known for. A few miles had been put behind them when they were too tired to walk anymore and they had to stop. They came to rest under a stand of three trees, gums of some sort.
Osarius understood why it was imperative that they make haste for the woods, he simply was not looking forward to Fredric’s way of “making haste”.
At the moment, the other boy was examining the thick branch they had floated down the river on, whistling softly to himself and smiling occasionally, teeth flashing in the dim moonlight. You are really loony; do you know that, Fredric?
He turned his smiling face on Osarius. Look, he replied, pointing. Aldarian’s Chariot. They gazed at the eight old, tandem comets streaking the sky, revelling in their beating hearts. Did you know that the Chariot used to have nine stars, but once upon a time one of them fell out of the sky and into the Cremavian Sea. That’s how Despartus was born.
Yes, I’ve heard that story.
Fredric returned to musing over the branch.
Too bad I didn’t think to take the chest with me when I went after you, he said wryly. We are making double-time. Better yet, we should have taken a river boat. Now, why didn’t I think of that before?
Osarius was wary of the direction of Fredric’s thoughts.
We made almost three days’ journey in a few hours, and the Verien Forest is a little over a two days away. But if we travel at that speed, we could be there by morning.
Or, Osarius suggested hopefully, we could sleep till morning before we try any of your…ideas—he couldn’t bring himself to call them stupid, not after the ordeal—and be there by tomorrow afternoon. The Chariot burned, its reflection gleaming in Fredric’s eyes.
A cough shook him. I don’t think you have until morning, he declared after catching his breath. Dramatically. And may I remind you, dear friend, that without my ideas, we wouldn’t be here. We would be dead in the South Ologo, swept away and nothing but river ghosts.
Alright, but please, let’s rest. It has been a long day.
Fine. You sleep. I need to figure out a way to….And that was all that could be said. Bemused but glad, Osarius drifted into sleep. His dreams were choppy and dark like the South Ologo, but he was glad to be only sleeping, and able to dream at all.
* * *
Never had Fredric been forced to use his head so much. Though the disastrous trip was hardly started, Fredric could see that it was starting to bring out the true colours of the travelers. Xarthanias had shown to have quite a short fuse under his cool, detached boredom and amused disdain. Chimley, who had seemed like such a soulless monster when they had first seen him seemed to have a heart after all. Nolle was mostly still the same as always, Belladia had shown to be a lifesaver, Osarius a little more “talkative”. And Fredric, he had turned out to be a genius. A sure-as-life, undeniable genius.
The young man smiled, having never felt such cause for unabashed conceit.
Under his arrogant pride, his thoughts were more somber. He didn’t let his sudden streak of flashpoint success get to his head for too long, because the journey wasn’t over yet. Now that Osarius was snoring and Fredric was left with no thoughts but his own, he let his underlying anxiety make its presence known. The log/branch/trunk lay in the fading light of Aldarian’s Chariot, embodying endless, unreachable possibilities. This year, the year of the Ten Full Moons, the moon was closer and brighter than ever. Tonight, it was more than three quarters full, illuminating the bank that had become Fredric’s workspace. He knew exactly what could be done, but the task loomed so horrifyingly massive that for a moment all he could do was stare at it. Could he even get it all done tonight? He had the plans in his head but no will, no inclination. What he wanted to do was follow Osarius’s example and have a sleep.
Osarius. He had to do this for Osarius.
Sighing, Fredric got to the hard work. First, to cut the monstrous piece of wood in half. He had a fairly long knife in his belt, and he had sharpened it yesterday when he had been gathering for Belladia, but after twenty minutes of sawing away it became evident that this was not going to work. He considered the problem for a moment, and then moved to Osarius, tugging up the sleeper’s shirt to peer at his belt. His heart leapt excitedly. Sheathed there was a long serrated knife, not perfect but a substantial improvement. Fredric’s fingers closed around it and he pulled.
Osarius’s eyes flew open and his hand struck out and captured Fredric’s thin wrist, the nails digging in; his leg swept Fredric off his feet and Osarius jerked the knife away, holding it over the startled boy’s head.
“Hey!” he yelled in fearful surprise.
The sleeper’s glaze went from Osarius’s eyes, and he drew back in surprise. Fredric, what are you doing?
I needed to borrow your knife!
You could have asked.
Whatever! That’s no reason to try to kill me. Hand it over.
Eyebrows drawn, Osarius relinquished it. The effort of attacking Fredric had drained away any strength he had managed to build up in his sleep, but he was far from able to lie down again. What are you working on, anyway?
I don’t want to worry you since I’m not sure it’s even going to work, so go back to sleep.
Osarius gazed at the branch, scratching his head. I think I might feel better if I helped, he decided, turning troubled eyes on Fredric, who smiled after a moment of consideration.
* * *
All through the night and into the early morning the two friends worked, tired but relentless, determined that the job would be finished. More secret talents were unearthed: Fredric’s a steady hand and eye for woodwork, and Osarius an aptitude for tying, weaving and knotting. Fredric was sweating from exertion, Osarius from the burning on his shoulder, and by the time they were done both were drenched.
While Fredric sawed into the branch, Osarius stripped and tied lengths of their capes and shirts, and braided them into strong ropes. The work gave him something to think of besides pain and fatigue. When Fredric was done he tapped the alra gum trees for their exceptionally sticky sap, making a sort of bag for it out of his black shirt and hanging it to set. They tied together the boards Fredric had cut, and then filled in the cracks with the gluey sap and coated the entire surface. While it dried in the late morning sun they finally rested. There was no breakfast to be had, and their stomachs growled in resentment but they smiled, gazing admiringly at their creation. They were too tired to speak, and their hands were sore and raw with new scrapes. An hour later Fredric took the remaining scrap of wood and pared it into a pole with a short knife from his belt, tying his white shirt to the end before fitting it into place. Everything was ready.
After countless failed attempts, Fredric and Osarius at last set sail on their raft.