Friday, April 10, 2009

Comet Boy

Clover and goldenrod vied with one another for supremacy across the expanse of the meadow, whilst at the crest of the low hill a bank of trees stood silent witness to the slow seasonal struggle; through its midst came two men, mounted on horseback, their animals moving along at an unhurried trot. Both were barefoot, wore loose, light clothing and sported hair and beards that were two years or so long, but there the resemblance stopped for one had a carefully kept appearance and an old face deeply lined with character and weather and the other, younger, looked something of a wild man.

As they rode their eyes scanned the world around them, taking in everything from the ladybug eating aphids on a passing stalk to the play of light beneath the branches and the thin clouds beyond racing through the sky beyond. They paid everything close attention, not in a frightened or wary fashion but simply in a state of high alertness ... not looking for something, but waiting for something to come to them, something they knew to be out there.

It had been a long ride already, and it was in the middle of the meadow, their mounts stepping gingerly through old ruts torn by farm machinery or logging equipment or some other long-passed behemoth, that it came to them: a shout from the treeline, and then a small form, running towards them.

The younger of the pair immediately dismounted and stood, waiting, arms open at his sides for the young boy to run up and through his arms around him. He returned the embrace, wrapping the child in his arms and holding him for a brief but powerful moment, before pushing him back and regarding him cooly. The boy was filthy, grime and dirt smeared on every surface, as though he'd been running around in the forest for days. Clean, wet trails beneath his eyes and nose, however, said that he'd recently been crying and....

Pulling back, the boy wiped his arm across his nose and stared daringly, defiantly at the adult, before turning tail and running back off in the direction he'd come. The man contemplated the retreating form until he was halfway to the treeline, at which point the head start was used up and he took off in pursuit. His older companion watched as the two of them disappeared into the trees, before turning his attention back to the world.

It was tough work, keeping up with the kid. He sprang through the woods like an animal, hopping from tree to root to mossy patch whilst dodging through low whip-like twigs, over and under fallen logs, around puddles and stumps. A couple of times his pursuer had to stop, not so much to catch his breath as to wait for the snap of a twig to give him a fresh clue as to the direction his quarry had gone.

When the kid finally stopped, he almost fell on top of him he came up on him so fast.

He was kneeling next to the carcass of a wolf ... no, that wasn't right. Not a carcass, yet. It was still breathing, just barely, but it had a long, nasty wound in its side and there was blood everywhere. The man stepped slowly up to the boy, put a hand on his shoulder; the boy, crying, looked up. The man squatted next to the animal, placed his hand on its head and gave it a gentle scratch behind the ear, eliciting a low, quiet whine in response. With his other hand he reached into a large pocket, which in his clothing many were concealed, and withdrew a long, sharp knife.

The wolf opened its eyes and looked at him. It gave a noise that might have been a growl, though there was no threat in it, and, holding its gaze without daring to blink, he opened the wolf's throat with his knife. A quick, choked sob from the boy accompanied the movement, and after a short time that seemed to him a forever the grief really came.

The man held him while he cried, patting him on the back and stroking his head, until such time as the sobs had subsided and the boy was again able to hold his gaze. Then he stood, gave the child a last pat on the shoulder and walked off. He didn't get too far, though, because the boy was just standing there, watching him. Turning, the man saw him again run off into the woods. With a long-suffering sigh he made after him.

Before long he heard the sound of rushing water, and sure enough they came up to a spot where the ground fell suddenly away to reveal a river running over a mixture of rock and broken concrete chunks. Trees on either side crowded up to the very edge of the low cliff; had the child not known where to stop, the man might have plunged right over the side. Which, looking down at the river bank where the child was pointing, was exactly what had happened to some other unfortunate soul, lying splayed at the side of a river unconscious or perhaps dead. An urban dweller, judging by the clothes, which weren't completely impractical but certainly wouldn't have been his first choice.

Losing not a moment he clambered down the side, waded across the river and, checking to see that he was still breathing, verified that he was alive. A quick once over revealed that the man's arm was broken but nothing else; pulling back an eyelid, however, showed evidence of a concussion. He stood and climbed the river bank, pausing at the top to look back at the boy who was staring at him with naked anger. There was no mistaking how he wanted the injured man disposed of, but the only response he got was a quick shake of the head and then a matter-of-fact disappearance into the trees.

Shaking his head and looking thoroughly disgusted, the kid slammed a trunk with his fist and turned to wander back into the woods.

A few minutes later they met back up at the river, arriving at almost exactly the right time with armloads of various-sized branches and some twine. The man set his load down by their patient, then waded across the stream to get the kid's load, which was just too deep to walk through. Setting it down next to his own, he stood for a moment scratching at his beard and then, producing the knife again, set to work on the pile.

First he got a rough splint on the man's arm, improvising out of a couple of short, straight branches and part of his own shirt. The arm secured, he set to work on the pile, and some time later had constructed a serviceable frame on which to carry his patient. The whole time the kid sat, sullen, on the other side of the stream, watching the activity but lifting not a finger to help.

Shortly after the frame was finished, there came a crash of movement from the trees above and he found himself looking up at his older companion, dismounted and leading both horses. He handed the reins to the child and then went down to the river himself, to help ferry their new cargo across. When everything and everyone was on the right bank, the old one paused suddenly and stared hard downstream.

They all saw it: a small reflective glint, far downstream on the opposite bank, with a black smudge around it. When he saw its presence the man's face froze for a second, then broke into a large and slightly savage grin. He directed a large wave towards the light, gave it an exaggerated wink, and when he was finished mugging for the camera turned his back on it and returned to his responsibilities.

Working together they soon had their charge up the bank in one piece, at which point they quickly lashed him to the frame, tied the frame to a horse, and then proceeded off, the two of them walking on foot while the child road the back of the unencumbered mare.

It was a long walk home, through meadows and glades, around ponds and old, ruined houses, and the time passed in companionable silence until almost the moment when the Sun was to first kiss the horizon, at which point the man stiffened, an involuntary shout breaking from his lips.

The older man caught his gaze and, glancing at the boy and the casualty, nodded in agreement; the boy was removed from the saddle and within moments the man was galloping off as fast as the horse could carry him, leaving the other three to complete the journey on their own time.

As the first stars of twilight broke the Sun's fading glare, the older man looked down to see the casualty's eyes flickering open, dazed but coming back to the world. "Where the hell..." he moaned, and stopped, staring at the weirdly dressed old guy standing above him, a smile twinkling in his eye but reaching not a single other part of his face. The guy said something Randy couldn't quite make out, something that unpacked itself after a few moments into perhaps, "You're safe," but it came out too fast, low and mumbled, as though speech were too slow.

Before long the concussion whirled his mind back into dreamless sleep, but before he went he thought he saw the man pointing up, to the sky, and he and (was that the kid, standing next to him?) both looked and saw a black rock wrapped with blue and orange flames shoot by overhead, gone as fast as it had come and taking his consciousness, it seemed, with it, followed by the old man's steady, appraising look and the boy's astonished shout of glee.


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