Chapter 17: Reunion
Ava opened her eyes in the morning haze and found Archer’s eyes looking back at her. He had been watching her sleep for some time. Although he was several feet from her, she felt the sensation like a warm embrace. They traded diffident smiles.
“Hungry?” he asked.
Ava solemnly shook her head no.
Drawing close to her, he held out his hand. “Have some berries anyway. You’ll need some energy for the day ahead.”
She sat up and took several from his hand. They ate in silence until all the berries were consumed. Rising up, Archer extended his hand to Ava. She let him pull her up. Her pulse raced standing so close to him. He gazed at her earnestly. There was intense longing in both hearts. But it was not yet their time. Archer traced her face with his fingers. Ava was comforted by their warmth. Mutually, silently, they acknowledged their current dilemma and reluctantly withdrew from their close proximity, busying themselves with the preparation to cross the river.
“I can’t swim,” Ava informed him.
Archer sensed real fear in her. “But the horses can. Just stay in the saddle and let Anani carry you across. I’ll be right beside you.”
They were crossing at a wide calm stretch, unlike the rough white-water rapids they rode past the afternoon before. Ava could not see a lake or river without thinking back to a near drowning incident from her days as a young girl. It was Les who had saved her on that day. He had laughed at her after pulling her to the safety of the bank. Over the years, he had reminded her of her debt to him for having saved her life. In fact, that’s how he had convinced her to marry him. She mourned the impetuosity of her youth. She had paid a high price for the knowledge that every choice has its consequences.
She intended to be reunited with the only two things that she did not regret about her union with Les before this day was over. This hope gave her fresh courage. She plunged into the water on Anani’s back with a death grip on his rein. The sound of splashing water was enough to stir apprehension in her mind. She could tolerate the water as long as she could feel the horse’s hooves striking the river bed; but nearing the center, she felt the horse lose his footing and sway as he began to swim. Ava started to panic and pulled hard on the horse’s rein. Anani struggled momentarily to maintain control of his bearings against Ava’s fear-induced commands.
“Remain calm,” Archer gently ordered. “Anani is a good swimmer; don’t try to guide him.”
Water sloshed in Ava’s face. “I’m afraid!” she cried out, tugging even harder on the horse’s rein, causing Anani to thrash even more. Ava was not steady in the saddle. She was gasping for breath. Archer swung himself off his horse and climbed on top of Anani behind Ava. He wrapped one strong arm across her.
“I’m here. You’re safe, Ava,” his voice soothed as he grabbed the rein from her trembling clutch. “Let Anani have his way. We’re almost there.”
Though Anani’s actual swim did not last more than a couple of minutes, it seemed an eternity to Ava. Even after the horse regained his footing in more shallow water, Archer could feel Ava’s continuous tremors and irregular breathing. Once Archer got behind her on Anani’s back, she shut her eyes tightly and grabbed the horn of the saddle. Terrifying memories of something entangling her leg in the water flooded her mind. The memory of the horrifying sensation of gasping for breath and flailing about flooded her mind as she fought to keep her head above water. The sound of the sloshing water and the feeling of not being in control overwhelmed her. She was consumed by fear and did not even recognize the feeling of being on solid ground when Anani crossed into shallow waters.
Reaching the shore, Archer quickly dismounted. He put his hand over Ava’s hands, which held a death grip on the saddle horn.
“Ava,” his voice calmed, “we’re on the bank. You’re safe.” He tried to gently loosen her grip on the horn. “Open your eyes,” he softly ordered. “Ava,” he called, but she did not respond. Finally, he pulled her forcefully out of the saddle, evoking a terrified shriek from her lungs. She began to kick and swing her arms wildly. Archer fought to gain control of her flailing limbs; he enveloped her with a strong embrace.
“Stop! Ava,” he shouted over her shrieks. “Open your eyes,” he demanded while trying to keep her in his grasp with one arm so that he could use his free hand to coax her eyes open. When she realized her feet were standing on solid ground, she opened her eyes. Finding herself in Archer’s arms and safe, she exhaled a relieved cry. Her tremors were reduced to shivers as she returned his embrace, wrapping her arms around his neck. She buried her face against his shoulder until she could feel strength returning to her legs.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Please don’t laugh at me.”
“I would never laugh at you, Ava,” he promised, stroking her damp hair, “with you, if you’ll let me; but never at you.” He pressed his lips to her forehead, wanting to draw her lips up to his; but instead, he pulled himself away and hoisted her into Anani’s saddle. “Let’s be off,” he suggested mounting the black horse.
They rode across the narrow peninsula between the Awrak River on the west and the Epangelia River to the east. The ground was marshy and soft. They followed a path through the thicket that Stranth and Onar had apparently traversed as well. The Epangelia flowed with greater force and speed than the Awrak they had crossed earlier. Archer tracked the boys south down the Epangelia bank, reckoning that they were looking for an easier crossing. He kept searching the far shore for movement or signs of disturbance in the wildlife. A malicious presence was waiting and watching there.
“Giddap!” Archer suddenly snapped at his horse. They began to race down the bank at full speed.
They came to a rickety old pier that launched a half-rotted ferry across the river by a tattered pulley. The boys were not many yards from the eastern shore. Ava’s voice broke as she called out their names.
“Shield!” Archer shouted out, leaping off his horse. He bolted for the water’s edge with one of the shields the boys had constructed from the fowl’s breastplates.
Stranth and Onar looked back at their mother and rejoiced to see her waving at them. Then they noticed Archer stepping into the water with a shield. There was a sudden commotion behind them. They heard Archer shouting something like, “Come back!” or “Return!” But with their eyes fixed on their mother on the west bank, they didn’t catch all that Archer was saying. A look of horror swept across their mother’s face before they felt something smash upon the dilapidated ferry. Onar saw a waterspout rise up in Archer’s place across the water just as he turned to see a hulking figure land on the decaying craft. He heard Stranth’s voice calling out, “Reverse! Pull back!” He saw him lunge between himself and the assailant hurtling toward them both.
Suddenly, a legion of peacekeepers was charging into the water from the east bank of the Epangelia. Onar pulled on the opposite rope with all his might. But they were so close to the eastern shore that they would quickly be overwhelmed by the sheer number of attackers who appeared to be pouring out of every crevice of the woody bank.
“Keep pulling back!” Stranth ordered as he fought.
Onar couldn’t bear the sight of this giant foe pummeling his brother. He had to find some way to help. He stopped pulling long enough to swing at the marauder’s legs with his light stick, which was all he could wield at the moment. The unexpected blow caused the assailant to stumble and afforded Stranth the edge he needed to topple the man off the ferry into the water.
Stranth darted for the pulley to help Onar get some distance between themselves and the bank. But he was quickly diverted to fight off two more who had reached the craft and were trying to climb aboard, along with the first attacker who managed to hold on to the under carriage and was being dragged back to the depths of the river. Arrows began to strike the planks. They had nothing to shield themselves from the hail of arrows raining down upon them. Stranth surprised one of the attackers climbing aboard by helping him up. Just then, an arrow struck through the assailant’s back and Stranth stabbed him with his dagger to make sure there was little fight left in him. Then he positioned himself close to his brother, using the man’s body as a shield. He tried to pull on the rope with his free hand, but he would not be able to last long under the dead weight of the dying peacekeeper. Others were swarming around them in the water, still trying to gain the ferry. Onar pulled with all of his might, but the ferry seemed to move very slowly. He heard the sudden rush of swirling waters behind him and felt compelled to look. To his utter amazement, he saw Archer leaping out of a waterspout just as it grazed the edge of the ferry and engaged two peacekeepers in battle as they simultaneously climbed aboard. The waterspout dissipated just as Archer put his foot on the ferry, sweeping another assailant away from the ferry’s edge with crashing waves.
On the opposite shore, Ava watched, transfixed with fright. She felt powerless to act. But she had to do something! She could not stand by and watch her boys be slaughtered before her eyes. She shook herself and dug her heels into Anani’s side. With a shout, she drew her sword and darted forth toward the water’s edge with the intent to join the fight.
However, at that instant, the world around her suddenly went very dark. There was no sound. The rolling river with the sloshing of peacekeepers ambushing the ferry and the shouts of her children went suddenly silent. Ava looked up in time to see a dongrel descending upon her like an enormous cloud of blackness that absorbed all light and sound around it. It flew at her on black wings, toppling her off her horse just as Anani raised up on his hind legs to ward off the strike.
Their eyes locked as they came face to face. She instinctively recognized him. She quickly rolled away from him in the sand and found the footing to dart back to the palmetto carrying the other shield. Les fired off several spikes at her but missed, stabbing the horse instead. Anani came up behind and gave him a blinding kick with his back legs. Les turned to fire off a round of razor sharp quills at him, but the spry horse was able to dodge the assault. Returning his attention to his wife, he found her standing behind a large shield, on guard.
“Why have you come, Les?”
“You recognize me.”
“I’d a thought my altered appearance would’ve at least given you a moment of doubt,” he said in mock disappointment.
“Your new excess of face could never mask your absence of heart,” she sneered at him. “You’re only showing on the outside the monster I’ve always known was on the inside. How could I not recognize you!”
Circling her slowly, he answered with a snarling growl. How he hated her for her brutal honesty! “Trembling yet?” he needled her.
“I’ve never been frightened by cowardice.”
Enraged, he pounced upon her. She managed to gash his leg with her sword and bash his neck with the rim of her shield. But she stumbled at his brute strength. He pinned her to the ground under her shield.
Beating her hand against a nearby rock, he barked, “Let go of the sword. Let it go!” He kept pounding the back of her hand against the rock. Ava fought hard to roll out from under him and to pull her hand away, but she couldn’t escape. She finally relinquished the sword and found herself floating up off the ground in a cloud of black.
Her cry drew Archer’s notice for the first time. He had been preoccupied by the onslaught of peacekeepers attacking the ferry. By this time, they were nearly half way back across the river; and though not yet out of harm’s way, their danger was not as imminent as the danger Ava was in at that very moment. With a violent thrust, he skewered the only attacker standing on the ferry, then cut off the hands of two others about to climb aboard. He gave a mighty tug on the rope. The tiny craft lurched toward the western shore with surging speed. Archer leaped off the ferry and appeared to run on the water’s surface before another waterspout consumed him. Within seconds, he reached the bank where the waterspout became a whirlwind, spewing water over the tree tops as it raced toward the black cloud that carried Ava off into the foggy mist. High above the trees, Archer overtook the howling dongrel who was struggling to hold onto his screaming wife. Les enjoyed listening to her scream and did not notice the roar of wind coming up behind him. A sudden sharp pain pierced his side, and Ava slipped from his grasp. Howling in furious pain, Les slowly drifted down to the ground.
Ava found herself sliding through a twisting tunnel. The roar of the wind around her was deafening, but there was a strange calm inside the tunnel. She heard Archer’s voice saying, “I have you.”
She landed on the ground, softly, just where the boys were gaining the shore. She flew to embrace her sons. They exchanged quick tears of joy and kisses. Stranth cut the ferry loose from the pulley and pushed it off the shore so that it would drift south. Archer came up behind on Anani. He euthanized the injured palmetto. Meanwhile, Ava examined her sons’ wounds that they had not even realized they’d suffered. None were life threatening, but they would need attention soon.
“We must be off,” he instructed, tossing the other reins to Stranth and Onar. He extended a hand to Ava, pulling her up into his saddle. Then he darted into the thicket with the boys following close behind.
Les landed, bleeding, not more than a mile or two behind them. He needed to rest and let his body heal. Frustrated, he pawed and pounded the marshy ground beneath him.
Stranth and Onar were startled by a loud, fierce roar coming from the woods north of the ferry. They had so many questions and so much to tell, but testimonies would have to wait. For now, they needed to get as far away as they could, as fast as they could.
Of the peacekeepers that survived, half crossed the river to pursue them south down the peninsula. The rest returned to the east bank of the Epangelia. If the fugitives were trying to make their way to the Great Wall, they would have to cross again at some point.
Archer determined their only chance was to cross back over the Awrak in the hopes that the peacekeepers’ attention would be focused on the east shore. They would be expecting them to try to cross the Epangelia again soon. Their pursuers would not have been delayed long by crossing back for horses. They could easily be tracked to the west bank in this loose soil. They rode hard to the south until dusk began to settle, when they came upon a marsh in a wide clearing.
Perfect, thought Archer. They dismounted, and Archer appeared to be having a conversation with Anani. He bent down to draw a crude map in the mud. Archer and Anani examined it closely, and the horse nodded his acceptance. Before he stood, Archer was careful to stamp out all vestiges of the drawings. Anani helped, appearing to literally dance over the spot.
Ava hastily cleaned and bandaged their wounds as fast as she could.
“Quick,” Archer called. “Grab all your gear from your horse and sling it over your back.” Then he tethered the horses together with Anani in the lead. The horses waded out into the pond before turning east toward the Epangelia.
“Come, boys,” he said, scooping their mother up in his arms. “Do not fight me,” he warned in response to her exclamation of surprise. He waded out into the bog until he was sloshing through knee-deep water where he turned west, back toward the Awrak. Setting Ava down at the water’s edge, he said, “If we hurry, we can make it back to the canoe by tomorrow morning. We’ll have to walk long into the night.”
The marshy soil was difficult to walk on. They walked in single file behind Archer, trying to step only where he stepped, a difficult task because of his long stride. Yet on they hiked in the gathering darkness, mile after mile on a north-west track. They rejoiced to enter again into the thicket where the ground was firmer. Now they had to endure the thistles scratching them as they cut a path through the briery wood.
They dared not light a torch to illumine their way as they forged a fresh trail through the brush. With each passing hour, their steps grew heavier. They were fortunate to be on relatively flat ground. But the tedious task of cutting their way through the brier grew more and more tiresome. The ax and blade grew heavier with each swing. The sting of the brush against their limbs and faces slashed increasingly raw flesh with every step. They could hear the trickle of the gently flowing Awrak in the distance.
“Archer,” Stranth finally whispered, “my mother needs a rest. Can we not stop until dawn? We’ll never find the canoe in the dark.”
Archer looked back at the weary family. They hadn’t complained once along the way. He realized his zeal to gain the river had overruled his compassion. He had wanted to journey down the river under cover of darkness. The rivers were being watched. They came to a large weeping willow tree with a dense curtain of leafy limbs. Once under its canopy, he was relieved to find a large patch of ground covered with elpece flowers.
“We’ll rest here,” he announced.
“Elpece!” they each whispered.
Gratefully, longingly, they set their gear aside and lay down on the soft blanket of white flowers, drinking in their wonderful aroma. The aches and pains of the day’s battle and toil were soothed away by the plants’ vapors. Ava gathered up a handful to chew, making a poultice for the boys’ wounds. She ran her fingers through their matted hair and stroked their faces. Relieved to have them back safe with her, she lay down between them. The trickling of the river lulled Ava and her sons quickly to sleep.
“Why don’t I take the first watch,” Archer chuckled to his snoozing companions.