Chapter 38: Moving Targets
Balaam made his way across the moors and over a rolling hill into a hollow. The eastern gate and the refugees swarming to it shrank behind him. The boy was most likely dead, but Balaam had sworn he’d try. The conch horn and scroll inside his saddlebags shifted, and he paused to shake and adjust his flanks. The two greatest treasures of Gilead are secured with a bit of cinch. Why don’t they just paint a target on my back and be done with it? The donkey paused to look around. The heath and high grass would offer even less protection.
“Why in the Maker’s name did I agree to this?” He snorted. “How exactly am I supposed to find anyone out here, let alone rescue them?” But Balaam knew the answer before he finished uttering the words. In all his travels he’d been forced to learn one insidious fact. Life moved you forward, no matter your plans, even if the path forward was unclear. Korah’s Maw was still some distance and he knew the trail was hard to follow even in daylight. Perhaps another refugee would know . . .
Balaam looked about him and realized no one was near. “This won’t do,” he mumbled to himself. The distant chanting echo of people’s voices rolled across the hilltops before their cries were quieted by thunder overhead. For a time he wondered at it until the wind spurned him to move on, pausing occasionally to shake the rain from his ears.
Hooves. He turned his head, listening. Someone ahead, just over the ridge. Probably lost, too. He galloped up the hill and right into Mariselle on her steed. She reared her mare back.
“Enemies! Draw your weapons!” Ananias called from behind. Ten soldiers raced forward past Balaam down into the hollow behind him but found nothing. They quickly returned and encircled the donkey.
Mariselle steadied her horse. She glared at Balaam, but to his great relief, she didn’t recognize him. “He must have heard us approach and left the ass. He’ll be warning them. We must hurry and strike the gate before they can rally! Grab the donkey. We can use it to haul the supplies!” She rushed past Balaam and her soldiers followed.
The last of the Amorites in the vanguard threw a noose around Balaam’s throat and dragged him along in the rear. The rope dug into his neck, but he kept his head down. One of Samuel’s proverb’s echoed in his mind. Even a fool is thought wise when he is silent.
* * * * * * * *
The beast had been swimming for nearly an hour and Colin stared at the row of jagged teeth keeping him interred. How many miles had they gone? How far out to sea were they? If the monster ever let him go, there’d be little chance of him swimming all the way back. Even worse, if the creature happened to open its mouth while deeply submerged, tons of water pressure would instantly collapse on him. Colin saw his head popping like a balloon.
“Well, kid,” he mumbled to himself “How the hell do you get out of this one?”
You don’t. The reply seemed to crop up quite naturally in his head.
“I don’t? I don’t. Great. Thanks for that,” Colin shook his head.
Nothing you’ve done has been of your own accord. Why do you insist on relying on it now? The thought blinked into his mind again, as if someone were speaking in his ear.
“Ok, so maybe I can think up another one of those words? Expelus Meus!” He shouted at the teeth barring his way but nothing happened. It had been worth a shot.
The words are a gift. The thought echoed.
Colin sighed. He shimmied back away from the teeth and closed his eyes. Suddenly he felt a surge upwards. The smell, which he had come to tolerate, was now even more rancid. Colin again covered his nose and peered down into the dark throat of the beast. He heard a flood of saliva rushing towards him from the monster’s stomach.
Oh no. Not that, he thought just before warm green bile flooded around him, clinging to his skin and plunging up his nose. He gagged and instantly tasted the putrid essence in his mouth.
The beast crested the waterline and vomited Colin up with the rank bile.
Colin coughed and retched as he swam free from the acidic mucus. He felt the steady fall of rain rinse the slime from his hair. The cold saltwater was a welcome taste. Then, barely visible in the night and closer than he’d dare to hope, he saw cresting waves breaking on a shore. He swam for it and grasped at the packed sand as he washed up on the beach. He turned to see the giant creature make a slow arc and disappear back down into the depths. Colin gagged as he felt partially digested fish and phlegm cling to his skin and threw up. After several seconds he collapsed and let the waves wash over him and carry away the mess.
After a few moments, the cold of the night air crept up Colin’s arms and he shivered as he stood on unsteady feet. The rain had not let up. He looked around and saw that the waves had thrown him into a small cove that cut into a forest. Nothing looked familiar. If what Samuel had said was true, he couldn’t expect the morning sun anytime soon. Moonlight peeked through the clouds.
Colin staggered his way up the sandy shore and collapsed again to get his bearings. The trees towered over him like redwoods but all of them seemed to be dead and leafless. Cold. So cold. He forced himself to his feet once more, eager to escape the breeze blowing across the water and stumbled farther into the woods, followed a hillside up. In a single motion, he tripped over a root hiding in the shadows and tumbled down an embankment.
Colin rested for a moment amidst the crushed leaves and bracken. “Nothing’s ever easy, is it?” he griped as he stared into the starless sky.
No, baby, but who said it was supposed to be? His mother’s voice echoed in his mind. A canned response she’d given him on bad days when he felt like the world was closing in to smother him. It all seemed like a lifetime ago. Now get back on your feet.
Picking himself back up, he clenched his fists. Gotta get warm. But warmth was a ghost in this place, hiding in the shadows, always just out of reach.