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WALK IN DARKNESS

David Bruce Bozarth

Jaine c'Kera was as much frustrated as she was frightened. "If I had started or delayed my journey by just one day!" c'Kera's ragged whisper, made harsh by lack of water and the fear closing her throat, came back in miniature echoes on the uncaring breeze blowing through the now silent forest. "A day earlier, or a day later, and I would have been out of the forest, or I'd have not braved the storm!"

"As it is," she fought to control her bitterness, "I'm blind!"

Jaine relived that agonizing moment when a branch, torn from a tree by the raging night storm, crashed into the base of her skull. When she'd awakened, the storm was past. She wondered how many hours—perhaps days—had been stolen from her by the unseen blow. She cared little for that knowledge: her mind too pre-occupied with the terrible horror of waking to darkness. The ebon darkness she fought had proved to be a fault with her eyes—not the blackness of an Uhrian night.

Jaine c'Kera struggled to hold to her sanity. She voiced critisisms, cursed when she fell over some unseen, unguessed obstruction, denied what had happened—forlornly hoping words would restore her sight.

"I was too proud to listen to the lensi's advice—" the woman chastised herself. An exposed root tripped the tall, thin, hard-muscled form. c'Kera fell full-length, voicing a cry of rage. "Why?" she snarled. "Why me?"

The anger dissolved into degrading self-pity; pity she'd not experienced since the night she'd taken the oath of Apartness and joined the company of those other women who refused to yield to the harsh laws of the Sa-Cor. Her clenched fists furiously rubbed at useless eyes streaming tears down her high-boned cheeks. Her despair was only momentary, Jaine c'Kera's strong will resurfaced. "I will not allow that to happen again!" she vowed. "The Apart don't—"

A slight noise in the forest caused the woman to lever herself erect. The creatures of the forest didn't move so clumsily. She ended in a half crouch, her keen-edged knife at the ready—yet, she was forced to admire the apparent competence of the approaching individual. The unknown was almost as silent as c'Kera, before she'd lost her sight. Jaine suddenly realized she might earlier have dismissed such a slight sound if she were not now dependent on hearing and sense of touch to inform her of her surroundings...

A rope whispered across her knife arm. Her response? Pulling with all her might. The woman hoped to over balance her unknown opponent, while determining the direction of the attack. To Jaine's surprise the rope came easily into her grasp. Confused, head swirling with pain and excitement, the desperate woman faced the direction of the strand. "Who are you? What do you want?"

The reply was not what she expected. There were three gentle tugs on the line, accompanied by a grunt which sounded more animal than human. The actions were repeated a second time. When no attempt had been made to harm her, Jaine c'Kera eased her ready stance without letting down her guard. "Who are you?"

"Uhn. Uhn, uhn."

Jaine frowned. "Can't you speak?"

"Uhn, uhn."

"Is that a yes or a no?" c'Kera asked. "One for yes, two for no—"

There were two grunts in response which made the woman straighten to her full height. She lowered the point of her blade, but her grip remained as white-knuckled as ever. "Who are you?" The silence lengthened before c'Kera realized the error of her question. "Do you mean me harm?" she asked.

"Uhn, uhn."

"Will you help me?" Yes. "The rope, is it to guide me?" Yes. "Where? Uh—" the young woman was feeling frustration with her attmepts to communicate. The constant pain in her head made it no easier to concentrate. "Are you taking me to help?"

"Uhn!"

The rope went slack in her grip as the person's footsteps approached her. Jaine waited, her head reeling with numbing pain and confusion. A light, almost timid, touch on the back of her hand frightened her, and Jaine reacted out of instinct: she harshly grabbed at the loose tunic worn by the unknown. Frantic hands easily broke her grip and pushed her away. Jaine fell to her knees while rapidly retreating footsteps told her she was being abandoned.

"Wait!" she cried with desperation. "I'm sorry! I wasn't expecting that! Don't leave me here!"

Jaine c'Kera's terror was so absolute she was unaware the person had returned until the rope flicked about her knees. With frantic relief she caught at the strand. "I won't do that again," she vowed. "Please..."

"Uhn!"

The rope tightened, drawing c'Kera to her feet. No other communication was made as her guide slowly led her by tugs on the rope, not chancing to close with her even over the roughest ground. Jaine c'Kera, fighting an greater darkness, impending unconsciousness, stumbled in the wake of her unknown guide. She was forced to trust she would not be led into trees or over rough ground. Only the coolness of evening, that time of day when the sun shed its warmth on the opposite hemisphere, gave the distressed woman any indication of the passage of time. Jaine was reeling with exhaustion long before the rope fell limp in her grip.

"Do we stop here?" Jaine gasped, her knees not quite willing to support her.

"Uhn.

"What do I do? Sit? Stand? Show me—I will not..."

Her shoulder was taken by one hand, another touched the nape of her neck, urging her to stoop. Against her right, a rough doorway, to the left, the coarse clothing of her rescuer. Once inside the small hut—c'Kera could not explain her feelings regarding the size and character of the dwelling, but she knew she was correct—, she was gently turned about until the back of her calf touched a low-lying bed of grasses. Strong hands suggested she sit. Jaine gratefully rested her backside against the rough wall. She tried to control the trembling of her body.

The pain in her head, which she'd been able to ignore as long as she was moving, began to intensify. Jaine allowed the careful examination of her blood-matted hair. She was half-surprised by the gentleness of the touch. It was painful, but she was careful not to lash out.

"What do you want?" she asked. "Why are you helping me?"

A rough-calloused finger touched her chin, turning it to one side. The sound of water dripping on the ground then her arm and shoulders told the Woman Apart her guide wished to cleanse the injury. With stoic silence Jaine c'Kera endured the careful ministrations of her unknown benefactor. Bandages were wrapped about her lacerated skull. Jaine had investigated the injury herself when she'd awakened: surprised to be alive!

Later, a bowl of warm stew was placed in her hands. She sipped at the rim until the broth was gone and the meat and vegetables were revealed to her shaking fingers. When she'd finished, she thanked her host then asked: "Where do I sleep? Do I sleep here?"

"Uhn—"

"Thank you..." Jaine slowly stretched out on her stomach. The ache in her head had eased, but not enough to make sleep come easy. She thought she lay awake for hours...

A hot, white fire—a demon shape coming out of the darkness—I can't see.

Jaine's waking protest was a mere whisper. For an instant the dregs of the dream remained vivid until the scent of dried herbs brought her to full wakefulness. Her limbs felt useless as she stirred on the bed of grasses. Her hand touched open eyes, confirming the horrible dream.

"Hello?" she called out before noting her nakedness under blankets pulled to her chin. "Where's my weapons?" she hissed, suddenly afraid. Her hands quickly searched about the bed until they rested on the hilts of her knife and sword.

Further groping produced her tunic and cloak. The items were quickly donned. Strapping her belt about her thin waist, the Woman Apart rose on unsteady feet.

Holding her left arm out before her, Jaine c'Kera soon discovered the dimensions of her shelter and its contents: three pans, a rude stone hearth with a carefully banked fire, a shelf with small pots of cooking herbs and oils, several blankets and articles of clothing, and—most welcome!—a large jar of water which satisfied her enormous thirst.

"Beh-ha?" a voice from outside the hut inquired.

Jaine found it easier to interpret the meaning of those odd sounds with a clearer head. "Yes, I'm much better. Is that what you asked?" Yes. "Where am I?" Jaine added.

The person entered the hut, warning the woman by a grunt and light touch on her shoulder so he could enter. There were a number of sounds voiced which seemed to indicate the speaker's inability to deal with the question. Jaine felt foolish.

"Your place?" Yes. "Are we still in the forest?"

"Uhn!" the voice stated. "Uhnry?"

"Starved!" Jaine replied. She smiled with the other's pleased response at her understanding. Food was offered to her and Jaine cautiously located the bunk and sat down.

"Thank you," she added. "I have no way to reward your service, but if you'll take me to the House Apart at Kolara, my sisters will reward you..."

"Uhn! Uhn!" delivered so emphatically the woman rose to her feet.

"Why not?"

"Ohh oo?" the voice asked.

Jaine's brows knit together. "Show me?" Yes. "By touch?" Yes. "You may show me," Jaine tried to keep her muscles from tensing as she waited for whatever the person was trying to communicate.

The hand which took hers was strong, but gentle. Her hand was raised to the person's face. Jaine was startled by the tactile evidence of horrible scars on the features. She was even more astonished when her index finger was inserted into the other's mouth.

"Your tongue was cut out!" she cried. "Who did this to you?"

The answer was simple: her hand was placed upon her small breasts and then to the other's chest. "You're a man! Are you saying the Women Apart did this to you?"

"Uhn!"

"Why?" No answer came forth. Jaine tried again. "I know you've been kind to me, but if you think me easy for your revenge..."

"Unh! Uhn!" the other cried. He brought her hand to his face which jerked back and forth in violent negative.

Jaine c'Kera jerked her hand away. She was numb, her face furrowed with surprise and worry. "If the Sisters took your tongue why would you want to help me?" Sudden distrust made her back warily away and the edge of the bed caught her at the knees. She would have fallen if strong hands on her shoulders had not set her aright before being swiftly withdrawn.

There were no more words, only the sounds of the other moving about the hut. Jaine c'Kera stood, her hand on the hilt of her knife, waiting. When long moments passed and nothing happened, she frowned. As the silence lengthened, she became apprehensive.

"Talk to me, sir," she demanded in a soft voice. "What are you going to do?"

"Uhn—"

The scent of food near her nose translated the statement. Jaine had forgotten the bowl she'd dropped in her surprise. "You still want to help me? I—I don't understand."

Jaine overcame her mistrust and held out her hands. A bowl was placed in her right, a cup was placed in her left. There was no further contact. After a time she sat down on the bed and carefully placed the cup beside her foot. The man was already eating, she could hear him chewing from the other side of the hut. With her nerves on edge, the woman finally succumbed to her hunger and ate what had been given her. Later, the bowl was taken, refilled, and returned to her. After that the other left the hut.

Six meals passed while Jaine c'Kera regained her strength. The bandages were changed on a daily basis, the injury already closing in the first stages of healing. There were times Jaine thought of the day the wound would have disappeared with new skin and covered by her hair—and wished it were as simple for her sight to be restored.

During those long days the young Woman Apart managed to learn more about her benefactor though the arduous process of proper questions, supposition, and intuition. The man had, sometime in the past, been much like her own father: domineering, demanding, inflexible. His decision to force a marriage on his daughter she did not desire had resulted in the most severe beating she had ever received—causing her to seek shelter with the Women Apart. He had pursued his daughter and found a number of Women Apart instead. They punished him, leaving him life, but little else.

Jaine had not thought of her father in years. She had never desired to have any contact with the brutal man who had sired her. It was not uncommon among the Lor to have arranged marriages, but rarely were they forced if the woman indicated her reluctance–though there were those...

"So, you never returned home. You live alone in the forest?"

"Uhn."

"Was it worth it? You should never have followed her once she had joined the Women Apart. In fact, I'm surprised you're even this close. The House is only a bare handful of miles from here. Why stay? They'll kill you..."

The silence lengthened. Jaine sensed the other's need to speak, to communicate his thoughts. She felt a brief moment of pity for him. He was mute—she was blind. Jaine frowned. She had tied them together in some fashion—a disturbing thing for a woman who declared herself free of men other than those of her own choosing.

Jaine was surprised on the end of the seventh meal: a rope was placed in her hands.

"What?" she asked. "Are you taking me someplace?"

"Uhn."

"Where?"

"Ooh oo?"

"Please."

The man drew closer. Jaine sensed his presence, his apparent height and width though she could not say how she knew this was a tall, well built man...

She was startled at the touch on her cheek, the tap on her breast, and the careful hug on her stiff, unresponsive form.

"Home?" c'Kera asked. "Kalara?"

"Uhn!"

"I thought you were afraid of—"

The hand which covered the lower half of her face with careful strength stopped her words. Immediately the man's hand took hers and touched first her knife, then his breast. He then brought her hand to his face and shook no.

"You're not afraid," she tried, "but you are cautious?"

"Uhn!"

"So you won't take me all the way to Kalara?"

"Uhn."

"But I should be able to get back?" Yes.

"Why are you helping me?" Jaine asked as she followed the lead of the strand wrapped about her left wrist.

The story came out in an endless series of questions as they traveled. The answer took hours of walking, guessing and intuition, but by the time they had stopped for the lunch break, Jaine thought she understood.

This man's reaction to his daughter's rebellion of Lor customs had been noted by the Sisterhood. Jaine c'Kera felt a blush of shame heating her face, her own father had done the same. She'd sought the protection of the Sisterhood and had never tried to learn of her family. The man told her he had hidden in the forest near Kalara nursing first his hatred of the Women Apart, and later his sorrow for losing his daughter.

When they stopped to eat the midday meal Jaine was tempted to ask the nagging questions which could flesh out his story. It was too similar to her own...

The man touched her with consideration. When Jaine indicated she was receptive, he placed her hands on his crossed arms and made the motion of rocking a babe then tapping her breast.

"I'm like your daughter?" she asked a second before the truth numbed her. "No!" she denied. "You're not my father! He was killed by bandits! The Sisters told me—are you?" Jaine gasped when her palm was placed against the scarred cheek. The man's deliberate head gesture was too obvious, too truthful.

"They'll kill you for sure!" she cried.

"Uhn. Uhn." His hand squeezed hers reassuringly. He then showed her that he would bring her near, but not too near, by moving her hands in that fashion. He cleared the camp and then handed Jaine the rope.

"I don't understand," she said as they moved out on the trail. "Why are you helping me now when you wouldn't, couldn't, those years past?"

Her answer was a whistle in the wind which ended with an inarticulate howl of pain. A second whistle ended in a dull thud while the rope went limp in Jaine's hand. The sound of running feet confused her as she followed the rope to the man. He was lying on the ground with two arrows through his breast. Jaine c'Kera's hand came away damp with hot blood.

"No!" she whispered in shock. "No!"

"Jaine!" a familiar woman's voice shouted. "We saw you on his lead rope and we..."

"Damn you!" Jaine screamed. "He was my father!"