Part 4 coming in. Sorry for anyone waiting – doubly so because this is actually going to be the penultimate chapter. And I know that it’s more than a touch unpolished. Ultimately it’s more like getting ideas down for later. This story likely needs development in terms of plot and character, but as some would have it, “no work is without merit.”
So if you haven’t read the previous parts, you can check ’em here:
- Short Story (Part 1): When The Tide Comes In
- Short Story (Part 2): When The Tide Comes In
- Short Story (Part 3): When The Tide Comes In
Not sure what people make of it. Constructive criticism always welcome, or perhaps you’d like to see it in a more developed form? Let me know in the comments.
Aphelia looked down at Theran and smiled sadly. Shifting him had been like trying to move a sack of rocks. Now he lay on the grass pale and still, a piece of shrapnel lodged in his temple. There was not a lot of blood beyond what had leaked onto the sheepskin collar of his flying jacket.
She’d lost people before of course, they all had, and she had grieved for them, standing in the biting cold of the airfield as they saluted those killed in action. Last night they had lost at least four more squadron members, yet losing Theran was different. They had been so close, had loved each other certainly even though they had never been lovers. There was a partnership that went deeper than desire, and Aphelia wanted the empty space she now found insider her to be filled with something that reflected that; loss, rage or something, but instead she was suffused with a cool, calm melancholy.
Perhaps it was because she was a long way from safety, and a part of her had sealed it away until she could release it. So instead of digging for grief, she had instead laboured through the quiet of the night to haul the man from the downed biplane – she still had no idea how she had managed to land the thing without flipping it tail-over-engine – and when done she had slumped over him and passed out long enough for the sun’s light to touch her.
With the dawn there was warmth; not enough to remove the biting chill of night that still clung to her bare face, but a brightness that entered her soul as she looked up. Climbing up onto the wing of the downed plane she looked over the distance to the far, snow capped mountains and just for a moment there was nothing in the world but herself and the rising Sun, the pale sky ripening to a deep blue as lone clouds scudded along in the early breeze.
That was when she also been able to fully appreciate the scenery all around her. In the light of day it had taken her breath away despite being far into what must have been enemy territory, but also far beyond the retreating battle lines. This was the Tides land, a land that had been pounded with artillery, bombed and flamed and scoured until the troops and tanks had been pushed back by sheer weight of numbers. But of the scars, there was little beyond the dimples of craters now covered in a new skin of green grass, shoots and foliage. There were trees that had survived, not mere burnt skeletons but which were whole and budding! The land was repopulating with foliage like scar tissue growing over old wounds and bespeaking recovery.
Turning around she looked upon Theran. He lay on the grass as he had before, his still form clearer now that the Sun had risen, and all around him amongst the green she saw little white flowers pushing up and opening.
Aphelias, her namesakes.
The first flowers of Spring.
* * *
Despite the flowers, despite the beauty, Aphelia couldn’t stay. A part of longed to just sit down and stay, yet the fighting spirit in her wouldn’t allow it. The enemy would find her in the end and then she would be killed. So instead she would strike out towards the entrenched battalion who couldn’t be more than a dozen miles from her location.
She would take Theran with her, so set about building a sled to carry his body. There was splintered wood from the airframe, and the undercarriage had come away in one piece as the plane hit the dirt. Perhaps she could wheel him away.
As she worked the land was tranquil and quiet, so it was a surprise to her when she was disturbed by the sudden arrival of a trio of strange creatures. They were centaur-like, but their bodies were more bovine than equine, built more for labouring than for speed. Their torsos were covered in a rough, brown hide that bore long, multi-jointed arms in three pairs. Upon seeing her they emitted snorts and whistles of surprise, but they did not attack. In fact, they seemed more annoyed at the presence of the downed aircraft and quickly became engrossed in inspecting the biplane, prodding it and testing it’s resilience as they communicated to each other with shorts grunts.
Perhaps she could slip away…… but she wasn’t finished building the sled.
At that moment the creatures reached a consensus and suddenly attacked the biplane with co-ordinated vigour, pulling it apart with frightening ease. They ripped through the canvas and tore the wood frame to splinters. As they did so Aphelia dragged Theran’s body clear in fear that they might perpetrate some similar atrocity, but the act attracted the attention of one beast which trundled towards her.
Aphelia stood her ground. She would be damned if she would leave Theran’s body to the carrion things of the Tide and immediately drew her knife, fearing to use her pistol because of the noise. As the thing came closer she waved her arms and shouted, trying to shoo it away. It paused, and the three yellow eyes blinked in surprise. It snorted and grunted and reached forward, not for her but for Theran’s body. She slapped its grasping hand away, and the creature emitted a snort that sounded like annoyance. It’s three eyes regarded her, then poked a finger at her, grunting. She backed away, pulling Theran with her.
Still the creature came on, treating her as a hindrance rather than a threat. As it reached out she slashed at its arm with the knife, but the skin was thick enough to absorbed the cut, so instead she drove it full force into the hide bound arm. The creature bellowed and slapped her away. The blow was light, and she was pumping adrenaline as she screamed and charged, swinging and stabbing. This time the blow knocked the wind out of her and she crumpled to the ground, with a sob.
She wanted to shout, wanted to stand, but could only wheeze out the words, “Stop…. Leave him alone….”
The beast had picked Theran up with ease and was inspecting the deadman, almost muttering to itself. Aphelia drew the pistol now, aimed at the creatures lower chest and squeezed off a pair of shots.
The thing squealed, dropping the dead body and backed away, its hands touching the wounds as it stamped its feet. Yet, to her despair, it appeared to be relatively unharmed, and the other two were now coming to the aid of their companion.
It was the shadow that passed over them all that saved her. The three creatures paused, and everyone looked up at the wheeling carrion mount of the Tidecaller. It circled with avian grace and swooped down, landing lightly with a hop. It looked like a giant crow, and as it fluttered its wings and bent its head down, the Tidecaller dismounted, barking an immediate command that made the three beasts back away.
Aphelia watched him approach. He – if such a thing could be called a he – was robed in feathers like a cloak, their colour shifting from black to green to purple. Woven amongst it were thin vines sprouting small shoots and flowers. In a gnarled, feathered hand he bore a wooden staff while his face was as much a crow as the great carrion mount he had arrived on.
“You?” gasped Aphelia, the fuzzy image of the stranger in her dorm rising to her mind. But the creature did not reply, and instead cocked its head to one side. Aphelia braced herself. Was it looking at the stretcher? She sensed that it was, and was surprised when it commanded the attending creatures to bring her – of all things – the parts she might need.
Then the Tidecaller tipped his head and she understood what he was indicating: that she should continue.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked. The figure said nothing.
For a moment they stood regarding each other, Aphelia feeling studied by the dark orbits of the creatures eyes. Nearby the centaur things stood patiently while the carrion mount preened its feathers. The Tidecaller cocked it’s head. Was it amused? It gestured with a hand for her to continue, and in the absence of anything else Aphelia worked to finish lashing the sled together.
The worse thing about it was not a feeling of threat, but rather the sense that she was a child being observed by a teacher, as if this thing were going to grade her efforts. Still, it didn’t take her long to get it sturdy enough to bear Theran’s body, and lashing the harness she’d made from the parachute strapping over her shoulders she looked to the Tidecaller who nodded and gave a whistle.
In response the centaur things returned to breaking down the plane and the Tidecaller beckoned for her to follow, dismissing his mount with a gesture of his staff as he lead the way at a walk. The great carrion mount cawed with blood curdling fervour and took to the air with great beats of its black wings.
Taking a deep breath, Aphelia followed her strange intercessor, all the while wondering why this creature was taking her towards the entrenched soldiers….
All she could think was that there was some sense of honour in the thing, some intellect that guided its actions in an alien manner she couldn’t understand because if the situation had been reversed she was sure that no mercy would have been given.
It didn’t matter. They would still be enemies, and whatever boon this thing perceived she deserved would not stop the war. So she trudged on, straining to haul Theran’s body over the grass as she promised herself that she would still fight to the death for humanities survival.
The march was hard on her neck and shoulders, but finding a rhythm she pushed on through the landscape as the day passed. Several times she heard the approach of creatures, some of them oddities like the centaurs, others equally strange and some mere tidlings, frenetic and giggling. But the Tidecaller waved them away, and the beasts would fall back and continue on their way without another word. Hours later, as the Sun arced overhead, they reached a strip of land bearing the clear ravages of conflict. On one side fertile grass, on the other a barren, bare earthy….
Like a border between two worlds, and perhaps that was why the Tidecaller stopped short of the divide.
Aphelia almost walked straight into the creature. With aching muscles she straightened and looked to where he was staring. Far off she could see the hill, the matchstick fortifications and the little ants toiling to reinforce their position.
The Tidecaller turned to her and tipped its head before walking back in the direction they had come.
“Thanks,” Aphelia muttered, “I guess.”
She watched the figure strolling away, wondering at the land of greenery and sunshine that was its domain. Envy curled inside her, because all she had ahead of her now was a trek across a blasted landscape. As she picked up the sled once more she heard the Tidecaller whistle once again, a high, piercing note.
She spared the thing not another glance, even when she heard the far cry of his carrion mount. Had it been shadowing them the whole way? She shrugged mentally and set her mind to the task at hand. She set to the burden again, noting the worse thing about taking a moments pause was how much heavier it felt when you started up again. Aphelia took a deep breath, and trudged towards the distant hill.
From somewhere behind her she heard the rustle of feathers and the caw of the Tidecaller’s mount as it landed, and all she could say to herself was, pity the bastard couldn’t have given me a lift.
* * *
The Sun was well on its way to the horizon as Aphelia pressed on through the pain and cramp in her neck and shoulders. It had produced a tight headache and terrible muscle pains, but she wouldn’t give up on Theran’s body. She would hold on to it until she was ready to let him go, and so she stumbled on into the waning afternoon, through the wasteland of scorched earth. Smoke drifted across her path and on the left she saw the remains of an armoured vehicle, half sunk in the dirt and bearing the marks of the Tide’s burrowing creatures.
Her mind a blank from strain and weariness, the sound of voices approaching was almost startling alien to her ears. Then the realisation: human beings! She stumbled, finally, as much from relief as exhaustion. The entrenched soldiers had sent out a patrol to meet her and they immediately took up the sled between two of them, while the other two draped her arms around their shoulders and bore her weight.
Into the gathering twilight they shuffled back towards the Hill as the Moon peeked over the distant horizon, a giant mottled peach.
Later, under it’s pale glare they would bury Theran in the makeshift graveyard on the hill and Aphelia, too exhausted to weep, would fall into a deep sleep, Theran’s service tags wrapped around her hand.
End of Part 4
If you’ve made it this far you must be digging it, and so all that remains is for you to move straight on into the finale, Part 5: When The Tide Come In