A sharp ache in her stomach awoke her. She blinked rapidly in the bright light, as a cramp squeezed her guts. She rolled over and slowly sat up, the world swinging wildly around her as new pain visited her. She threw up suddenly, a watery bile that she expelled violently.
The water mustn't have been good to drink. It must have been filled with little bacteria or heavy metals or whatever it was that made water bad. Maybe a bear had pissed in it upstream.
After puking up everything in her stomach, she rested her head against the tree truck at her back, her eyes closed, her ears filled with a different bird song. It must be morning now. She'd somehow slept through the night. She hadn't woken in her bed, in her flat, with her dog or her car or her computer. She was still stuck in this God-forsaken autumnal wood, with the red grass and the huge cliff and the bad water.
She dragged herself to her feet, knowing that she could very well die out here if she didn't find someone soon. She was just not equipped to deal with this sort of life. She didn't have any weapons, so she couldn't kill a squirrel and gut it. She didn't know any of the plant life, so she couldn't forage for a meal. She had no shelter, no shoes, and no way to purify the water.
She took a deep breath and pushed off the tree, turning away from the cliff and moving deeper into the woods. Maybe she should follow the stream the other way, back the way she'd come. It certainly couldn't hurt. She took a step, then another and another. She pushed past the dizziness and the horrifying thought that she didn't know where she was and forced herself to walk.
There was a rustling in the undergrowth off to her left. Avi's head whipped around and she narrowed her eyes, even as her heart began beating in triple time. Of course. Because being stalked by a man with a machete and a mask was totally her luck.
She saw a flash of brown fur, heard a snuffling noise and more crashing, and then smelled a stomach-turning stench. A boar? Avi began casting about for a tree to climb, but none of the trees near her had branches low enough for her to reach. Not for the first time did she curse her short stature.
Should she run? Would a boar chase her? “Oh, God,” she muttered and began backing up. She couldn't remember if it was wise to run from a boar or if she should stand her ground. Stuart had told her what to do prior to their walk through the Taynish woods, but like with most things concerning Stuart, she'd forgotten.
There was another tremendous crashing behind her and a middling-sized, brown-furred creature burst out of the under-brush, headed right for her. She screamed and all logical thought flew from her head. She turned on her heels and ran, sliding on the wet leaves before she'd taken five steps. Of course; what else would happen in a dream? Was it too much to ask that she not have a nightmare? She reached out, catching herself on a tree trunk, and scrambling to her feet before running once more. The rough bark split her palm open, spilling her blood in a hot, wet ooze between her fingers. The bright flash of pain cleared her head and she began zig-zagging through the trees, all the while looking for deadfall or a rock or something else she could defend herself with.
Shouldn't she be awake now? She'd just split her hand open on a tree, after all. Didn't pain usually force consciousness on dreamers?
The crashing noises, combined with the stench and the growling, was getting nearer and she tried to run faster, but her bare feet kept slipping on the fallen leaves and she was having a hard time getting traction. Tears began streaking down her face, blurring her vision, and she ran into something solid and fell onto her backside. She looked up and was confronted with a man-shaped figure, dressed in earthy browns and greens.
“Behind me, girl,” the figure said, and Avi got a brief glimpse of sea-green eyes and lush lips before the man—she hoped it was a man and not a ghost or something—stepped around her. She scrambled to her feet once more and hugged herself tightly, trembling and whimpering in fear.
She was staring at a broad back that was covered in a dark brown cloak. The man was very tall and had short, dark blond hair. He seemed to be holding something in front of him, and Avi noticed that there was something that appeared to be a scabbard hanging from his left side. Then she glanced over his shoulder and saw the thing that had chased her for the first time.
It was the size and general shape of a boar, but that was where the similarities ended. Boars had tiny, piggy faces—little beady eyes, a snout, tusks. The creature that she was confronted with had none of those attributes. It had no eyes, a mouth like a human being's that was lined with sharp teeth, and a small nose that looked more suited for a cat's face. Its huge ears sat on top of its bullet-shaped head, and its sleek body was covered in matted, filthy brown fur. Four legs ended in paws that were tipped with inordinately long claws.
It reminded her a little of something in a manuscript she'd read in the last month or so, one she rejected due to the author's poor grammatical skills. Maybe it was time to get a job reading romance instead of horror novels.
The creature pulled up short when it came within ten feet of the man and a long, low growl came out of its mouth, a growl that raised goose-pimples all over Avi's body. She darted a look at the man and saw that he'd cocked his head to the side and seemed to be studying the creature. Then he snorted in derision, reached down to the ground to pick up a stone, and tossed it over the creature's head, in the direction Avi had just come from.
The stone landed with a thump and a small noise, and the creature turned to face it. Avi drew a breath and the man whipped his head around to look at her—gosh, he was handsome—and shook his head fiercely, raising his finger to his lips. She nodded dumbly and saw that he was holding a naked sword in his other hand. The creature must hunt by sound, since it had no eyes and those huge, bat-like ears.
One of the creature's ears flicked in the direction of the stone's falling, but the other stayed trained on Avi and her rescuer. A tense span of three heart-beats passed before the creature turned and sped off towards where the stone had landed. The man sheathed his sword and moved towards Avi, roughly taking her arm as he walked by her. “Quietly,” he murmured and led her away from the creature.
Avi stumbled along beside him, her feet making so much noise she was certain the creature would follow them instead of investigating the rock. As she and the man moved farther away, she felt her heart-beat slowing and her breathing returning to normal. It was beginning to dawn on her that this was somehow not a dream, that everything she was currently experiencing was reality. Strangely enough, she wasn't frightened. She wondered if she was deeply in shock.
Soon, the man led her through a break in the trees and stopped at a campsite. There was a rock-ringed fire in the centre of the clearing and a covered cast-iron Dutch oven sat next to it. A canvas tent was off to one side, and a pretty brown horse stood loosely hobbled at the far edge of the clearing. The man let go of her and turned to face her. His eyes narrowed as his gaze moved over her from head to toe, no doubt taking in her wet nightgown, bare feet, and the rat's nest of dark brown hair atop her head, and he shook his head slightly. “Robbed, were you?” he said and took off his cloak to spread it across her shoulders. He led her to a log and helped her sit down on it.
The rough wool was warm from his body and ignoring the strange intimacy this created, she pulled the cloak tighter around herself, grateful for the heat. “No. Not robbed—” She broke off, wondering how to explain what had happened when she wasn't exactly certain herself.
“Let's get your hand fixed up.” He reached over and took her hand, inspecting it closely. Then he leaned over and dug in a saddle bag that was leaning against the log and rummaged around in it. He withdrew a small jar that was filled with a smelly green paste and a roll of torn strips of white cloth. He smeared a little of the smelly green stuff on Avi's palm and then wrapped it tightly with some of the cloth. The paste was soothing and the gash on her palm slowly stopped stinging.
“Now, then,” he said, sitting next to her, and reaching over to rub her back. His broad hand made slow, comforting circles on her back. “What is a lovely girl doing in the middle of the woods in naught but her dressing gown?”
“I went to sleep last night,” she began slowly, piecing things together as she spoke. “In my bed. In my flat. And then some water fell on my head, and I thought it was the sodding leaky roof again, but then I opened my eyes... Oh, God. Where am I?” Her breathing quickened and she felt light-headed. Sitting down abruptly, she leaned forward and closed her eyes tightly. “It must be a dream. It has to be a dream. This isn't real.”
“Oh, you're a Dreamer then,” the man said—she could hear the capital letter in his tone. “First time Travelling?” Again, she sensed the capital letter, and she lifted her head to look at him. She noted absently that the bridge of his nose was crooked, like it hadn't been set right after a break. There was a smattering of freckles across it and his cheeks and his eyes were the perfect blue-green of the Caribbean sea.
She shook her head. “No, I've been to the Virgin Islands and all over the Continent,” she answered. “Where am I? What is this place?”
The man frowned. “You don't know?” Avi shook her head and sat up straighter. “How can you Travel if you don't know your destination?” he asked. “Are you that powerful?”
“Powerful?” Avi blinked in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“That's not helpful,” Avi snapped, her confusion and mounting fear making her irritable. She felt instant regret when she saw the minute tightening of the corners of the man's eyes, like she'd hurt him somehow with her outburst. “Sorry. I'm just... Lost. And confused.”
The man smiled a bit and then said, “You said you fell asleep in your own home last night, yes?” Avi nodded and he smiled at her. “Then you must have Dreamed and Travelled in your Dream and wound up here. In the Evermere. We're about three leagues from Brynmuth.”
“Evermere?” Avi asked. “Brynmuth? Is this England?” She glanced around again, thinking it was possible that she was in the Lakes District, maybe somewhere near Ambleside. But that did not explain the autumn leaves.
Now it was the man's turn to frown. “England?” he asked, his high brow furrowed in confusion. “I'm not familiar with that place. Is it a village nearby? I confess I don't do much travelling in this area. Too close to Litsey.”
“A village?” A hysterical laugh bubbled up, borne of confusion and fright. “Either you are taking the piss with me or I'm—” Avi trailed off, uncertain, or perhaps unwilling, to finish her sentence. “What country is this?”
The man stared at her for a beat and then said, “Ieskya. On the continent of Oshetavalen.”