Rashari saw Madame Chimera vanish under the surging waters of the river –a river that had materialised out of nowhere. He lurched forward, wading into the murky water as it spread outward across the ground. The river churned with tree branches, dead leaves, chunks of undergrowth and other unidentifiable detritus. The surface was brown and opaque, whipped into tightly coiled eddies and whirlpools. He could feel the pull of the undertow catching at his knees as he pushed deeper into the flow. He couldn’t see Madame Chimera at all. The waters surged around his legs stretching outward on both sides of the bank, devouring the ground, flooding the forest. Already the water had reached the sapling where he’d left Smith perched precariously in the highest branches. The current pushed forward, cutting a channel westward, roughly following the path of the subsumed streambed.
Rashari looked around him, trying to find something he could use to secure himself to solid ground – or in lieu of solid ground, which was now in short supply, a sturdy tree trunk. He needed a rope or...there! Rashari grabbed hold of a trailing length of dangling vine bobbing on the surface of the churning river. The vine was thick like corded rope, rough to the touch and covered in short, fibrous hairs. It dangled from the branch of a willow that had originally sat on the edge of the stream bank but was now rising out of the middle of the river. It was about eight feet long. Rashari tugged on it as hard as he could. The vine seemed strong and that was all Rashari really cared about. He looped it around his waist twice and knotted the end somewhat awkwardly before wading deeper until the water was up to his waist and pushing hard enough that he knew he wouldn’t keep his balance for long.
Madame Chimera might have been swept further downstream. The current was fast and strong. Or she could be trapped under the waters, caught on something below the surface, and be drowning as he stood waist deep in the river, dithering like a bloody fool. Rashari drew in two quick breaths to settle his nerves and then another, which he held in his lungs, and dove into under the water.
Instantly the current took him. The water picked him up bodily, spun him around, whipped him head over heels until he was tumbling and tumbling around and around like a star spinning through space. He couldn’t see anything. The water was thick as mud and cold enough that the shock almost dragged a gasp out of him, which would have been the end of him. All he could hear was the strange liquid roar of the rushing water and the pounding of his own heartbeat in his ears. He reached out with his hands, palms scraping the bottom of the river bed. He grasped at the loose stone and sludge trying to break free of the undertow. He could feel the sharp constriction of the tether around his waist. The vine was already pulled taut. He must have been dragged by the current far further than he realised. It was impossible to orientate himself; up and down were concepts that had no meaning within the riptide. His heart hammered in his chest, which suddenly felt two sizes too small for his burning lungs. He kicked out against a soft and tangled constriction around his ankle. It felt like weeds or grass. His shoulder struck something hard and solid; a stone or rock sticking out of the river bed.
His hand, gliding over the silt, brushed against flesh. Clawed fingers caught against his reflexively. Rashari snatched at that hand, weaving his own fingers with hers. He used that connection as an anchor. He couldn’t see a bloody thing, but he could feel, despite the cold numbing the ends of his fingers. Her hair brushed against his cheek and her skin was supple and cool under his questing fingers. He reached out to pull her toward him and his hands brushed against wood. A heavy log, too heavy to float, had pinned Madame Chimera to the bottom of the river. Blindly he pulled at the log, his knees scouring through the thick layer of sticking mud, twigs, and plant matter gathering at the bottom of the river. Tendrils of dead grass and drowned undergrowth twisted around his ankles and only the tether around his waist kept him from being swept away. Madame Chimera tried to help him push the log off her but she was weakening; every second under the water was another second closer they both came closer to drowning.
Finally they managed to dislodge the log and Madame Chimera weakly kicked herself loose of the bottom of the river, grabbing for Rashari and hooking one arm around his neck and shoulders from behind. For his part Rashari grabbed the vine, turning himself around and using it to make sure he was facing up. He kicked toward the surface. The water seemed to drag at his limbs, weighing him down. His legs ached, his head felt ready to explode, and he was sure his chest had already caved in against the pressure. Mdame Chimera hung from his back like dead weight. He surged upward, or at least he hoped he was headed up, but it didn’t seem to matter. It didn’t feel like he was moving at all. He could see lights in the darkness; angry explosions of red and yellow. His chest felt like it was full of liquid lead. His limbs twitched, jerking. There was an excruciating pain in his muscles, a burning tension, as if all of a sudden his tendons had shrunk and were no longer the right length for his bones. (So this was what drowning felt like. He didn’t much like it.)
Something struck him in the side of the head, a glancing blow, and instinctively he grabbed for the offending object. He flailed out with an arm, striking a log floating on the surface of the water. (The surface!) He grabbed the log and wrapped one arm around it. His head broke the surface an instant later. Air, sweet, wondrous oxygen –how he had missed it. Rashari clutched the log as a buoyancy aid, mouth open like the proverbial landed fish (although the situation was actually the reverse. Unlike a fish Rashari was inordinately pleased to no longer be submerged. So, in retrospect the simile might not be all that apt).
He heard Madame Chimera take her first gulp of air into starved lungs, her noisy gasps ringing in his ear. Her nails dug into his shoulders, pinching chilled flesh through his heavy sopping coat. His limbs felt at once indescribably heavy and strangely loose jointed. The cold gnawed at him, slowing his thoughts, weighing down his eyelids. His eyelashes were clumped together with thick droplets of dirty water. His first glimpse of the surface world since taking his little swim was therefore blurred and fractured, like looking through the lens of a kaleidoscope; he saw colour and motion and a shifting tumble of indistinct shapes.
Madame Chimera shifted against him letting go of his shoulders to grab the log. He caught a glimpse of her face. Strands of her pale hair, almost colourless when wet, plastered her head and face, but her eyes, a rich shade of amber like a cat’s, flashed with urgency. One of her hands moved to his waist, under the water. He looked at her in confusion too tired to even try and unclench his chattering teeth long enough to ask what she was doing. A second later he felt the tightness around his mid-rift lessen. It wasn’t until he saw the severed end of the vine tether race down stream that he understood. Madame Chimera stared at him, trying to impart a message, or some manner of instruction. She really did have incredibly expressive eyes. Numb to the bone and feeling more than a little slow Rashari managed to nod, not even sure what he was agreeing to, but trusting that if the Madame had some plan in play it was probably a good idea to follow her lead.
Madame Chimera grabbed his shoulder, prying his arms loose of the log. Immediately the current swept them forward, but this time they stayed just about afloat. They clung to each other, half swimming and half floating. The river stretched impossibly wide, more like a sprawling lake or a miniature sea. Lonely trees stood to attention in the middle of the current, cut adrift in the deluge. Others were not so lucky; uprooted trunks bobbed and crashed along on the surface. Fantel pulled him along, grabbing hold of those logs to hitch rides. Rashari didn’t know what her true intentions were – the current was far too strong to try and swim to either bank – but as he still had enough wits about him not to want to drown he decided that it really wasn’t too much trouble to let her drag him along in her wake.
The body of an immature oak swept toward them; one spindling branch rising upward like the mast of a ship. Smith perched on the top, purple eye beam fixed dead ahead, all he needed was a tricorn hat and Rashari would hail him captain of the flood. Hurry, Smith commanded. Get on. The forest is drowning. They each grabbed hold of the trunk as it passed. Small branches and twigs scratched and clawed at Rashari’s numbed flesh as he hauled himself up onto the trunk. Madame Chimera climbed up in front of him. They rode the dead tree down the river.
It was a lively ride to say the least. They careened along at the crest of a crashing wave. Chasing the surge was an avalanche of uprooted trees, undergrowth, and gods only knew what else. The wave crashed through the depths of the forest, smashing into anything that stood in its path. The forest collapsed in on itself, folding flat like a picture in a child’s pop-up book. Trees tumbled down one into the other and the ground fell away under the weight of the water. Clefts and drops formed numerous precipices along its ceaseless, relentless path, which they crashed down one after the other. The forest was gone. The surging waters erasing any trace of what had been. Not that Rashari had much chance to marvel at the total destruction happening all around him. No, all Rashari’s attention was focused on clinging on to the tree trunk as it rushed heedlessly along, borne by the furious current.
The waters were clogged with uprooted trees, like a logging flume. The carcasses of once proud oaks and pines rolled and tumbled alongside their makeshift raft. They were in danger of being capsized. Foot long chunks of sod, still covered in wildflowers, swept by like moving islands on the frothing surf. Rashari, his cheek pressed against the smooth bark of the sapling, thought he caught a glimpse of whipping tendrils and the unmistakable flash of orange flowers as an uprooted alraune was dragged down under the surface of the river. The water gained further momentum, whipped into a roiling mass of white frilled waves and deadly whirlpools. The river crashed downward, leaving fangs of rock exposed. The dagger rocks made instant kindling out of the trees crashing past. Their sapling raced along bouncing on the current, swerving around each new obstacle, ricocheting from one uprooted tree to another, and through it all Rashari clung on, eyes squeezed closed, his hands locked around the broken ends of branches like handlebars, his knees squeezing the trunk so tightly he knew he’d be bruised black and blue (not that he wasn’t already). Still there was a tiny part of his brain, the part not completely preoccupied with clinging on for dear life, that was already worrying about how they were going to get off this little displeasure cruise.
Smith? He sent the thought outward and immediately sensed his friend close by, still perched atop the mast-branch. Land ho? The surging waters showed no sign of abating but surely it would have to stop somewhere. Even in Battlan a raging river sprung from nowhere must still end somewhere. It couldn’t just go on and on. The thought that he and Fantel might be forced to cling on to the sapling while the entire steppe was consumed by an inland sea was not a happy one.
Smith? He called again, daring to lift his head and open his eyes.
Abandon ship! Abandon Ship! Smith yelped, leaping down from his perch and into Madame Chimera’s arms. Ahead of them the rushing waters crashed down a sharp drop. Rashari grabbed hold of Madame Chimera around the waist and threw them both off the side of the log. The current swept them over the edge. There was a moment of weightlessness before the swooping lurch of gravity hauled them down. In the fall Rashari clung tight to Madame Chimera.
He hit the water hard; crashing down through the nothingness of the fall and into the cold, hard, unforgiving embrace of the water below. The impact knocked him senseless. He might have drowned, buried under a mountain of falling logs if it wasn’t for Madame Chimera. He came too as they broke the surface of a deep pool, shards of wood bumping his shoulders and chest. Belated survival reflex kicked in and he started to tread water. Madame Chimera held him from behind, one arm locked around his chest, there positions somehow reversed in the fall or its aftermath. Strands of her hair stuck to his cheek, the water gluing them together. They were swimming in a bath of giant matchsticks. Rashari looked up at the dirty, mud clogged waterfall tumbling down into the pool. Logs and trunks crashed over the edge, causing large waves to ripple the surface, which in turn pushed the larger pieces of debris toward the edge. Breaking gently free of Madame Chimera’s hold Rashari turned around to face her. It was then that he spotted Smith, quivering miserably on the top of one of the larger pieces of wood floating bobbing on the surface.
“We’re alive,” Rashari gasped through chattering teeth. “Bugger me. We actually survived.” He might have laughed, if his teeth hadn’t been jittering together so hard his jaws clattered. Madame Chimera blinked at him, her amber eyes large and a little dazed. She seemed just as surprised as he was. Maybe their blasted luck was actually beginning to turn after all.