A bear! Had she been dragged to the beasts cave? Fear held her still, listening. She felt no pain from ravaged limbs but was unable to move. Struggling only drained what little strength she had so she concentrated fiercely on opening her eyes. Finally one lid flickered up then the other and she blinked until dusty wooden beams came into focus above her. Where were the rock walls of the bears cave and the smell of…?
Ugh! Her stomach protested at the thought of rancid bones and smelly bear scat. There was a harsh creak, like unoiled hinges, somewhere to the right. Not the cry of an animal then… She tried to scream but couldn’t as a face covered in hair filled her vision and large paws grasped her shoulders.
“For god’s sake pipe down before you burst my eardrums.”
Erin stilled and tried to breathe past the knot of fear in her throat and think rationally. Bears didn’t speak, they growled. Well, this beast’s voice was definitely growly and demanding. She had to get out of here. Something plucked at whatever bound her and an arm came free. She took a deep breath and punched the furred chin as hard as possible.
“Ow!” She winced and shook her hand.
“Serve you right. Enough already!” Her wrist was clasped in a tight grip so she couldn’t swing again.
“Get your great paws of me. You can’t keep me here you…you throw back.” She flinched as his other hand lifted towards her face.
“Christ! I’m not going to…” Both hands dropped away from her. “You’re a bloody nuisance. When you can stand on your own two feet, I want you out of here.”
He stood back and she could see it truly was a man, although he was definitely hairy—at least above the neck. A full beard covered two-thirds of his face and long brunet hair hung past his ears. She pulled in a rasping breath. “Fine, I didn’t ask to be here.” Then she wondered where ‘here’ was. No matter, she had to move on, stay ahead of Fraeling, find a city and make money playing her guitar. At least enough to rent a cheap room or buy a bus ticket to take her…take her where? She had no idea what she was looking for, only what she was running from. And the thought of taking to the road again was daunting.
Erin felt wetness on her cheeks. Tears! She hadn’t cried for years. After all, what was the point? It didn’t solve anything. Suddenly she was free as hard calloused hands hauled her out of the clutch of twisted covers and pushed her against a nest of pillows hastily stuffed behind her.
A cloth swiped down her face. “It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you...” He blew out a gust of air. “…stop fighting me, dammit! You’re all tangled up in the sheets.”
She was uncomfortably hot and was glad of the cool breeze drifting through an open window, soothing her bare skin. Suddenly awareness made her yelp and drag the sheet over her exposed chest. “What have you done? Where are my clothes?”
Willing the unwanted tears away she looked into the face of the man as he finished tidying the bedclothes. It was a relief to realize she wasn’t bound with ropes and he didn’t have nasty looking knives stuck in his belt. But…but, she was naked. Her hand reached under the sheet, even her panties were missing.
Erin knew without a doubt she hadn’t been ravished but finding herself naked in a strange bed with a man hovering over her, that made internal alarm bells clang a warning. She did what she normally did when frightened, attack. “I asked you a question, mister. You better answer or…” He was so close she felt the puff of his breath on her cheek.
He straightened up and stormy grey eyes glowered down at her. “Or what? Are you going to stomp your foot and whine? That really scares the shit out of me. Get a grip, kid.”
Erin shut up. That shocked her. Fraeling was always punishing her for mouthing back at him. It was her only weapon and she had never been able to curb it, even when he...”
She bit her lip, hard, and tasted blood. Different day, different man. “I don’t have any money, or anything you could want. So you should let me go before you get into big trouble.”
He remained silent and she took a quick peek over the covers now bunched under her nose. He was dressed in a faded checkered shirt and rumpled blue jeans. The room was primitive, like the glowering man hovering over her. She wondered if he was a hermit or one of those weird people who believed the end of the world was coming and hid away from society. He looked doomsday grim as he bent and picked up a blanket and laid it across the foot of the bed. Strangely, his thick beard and overlong hair looked shiny clean. She pulled in a deep breath. There was no rank odour of unwashed man, only the scent of pine and loamy woods drifting in on the breeze. Strange, shouldn’t the bed be covered with crusted sacks and animal hides? She couldn’t help snickering. Imagination overload, Erin.
“You think I’m funny? Take a look in the mirror, kid.”
She wanted to tell him he wasn’t funny at all. In fact he was a little frightening and she felt brittle enough to shatter if he touched her. Feeling defenceless was counter to the new tougher Erin she had tried to create during her long flight from Fraeling’s grasp. ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ was an alien concept right now.
The last thing Erin remembered was huddling in a frozen ditch as lights splintered the darkness and something large hunched over her. Then the lights went out. Now she found herself naked in a strange bed, as a brute glowered down at her. There was nothing reassuring in this, or the previous scenario. Even so, Erin wasn’t about to let him think he had the upper hand. She tried for a superior tone. “I have rights and I demand you give me back my clothes, or I will set the authorities on you.”
He let out a short bark of laughter. “What authority did you have in mind, kid? There isn’t a cop within hollering range. But don’t let me stop you. Go ahead, yap all you want. Maybe a wolf pack will answer.”
Last night she thought a bear was about to drag her away. Now there was the threat of wolves…she looked past him to the dense pines she could see beyond the window. Panic made her chest tight and any thought of venturing out without a weapon fled. Besides, she needed clothes and he wasn’t about to offer them.
“There must be a town close by, civilization?” She knew the hope was raw in her voice, although she wondered if he knew what the word meant. “You could take me there. I can get a job waiting tables so I can pay you back.”
His dismissive look was beyond rude. “Not likely, kid. Take a look in the mirror. Nobody would take a chance on hiring someone who looks like a trickle of pump water.”
As usual, her temper flared in response to cynicism. “I’m stronger than I look. Besides, you should take a look in a mirror before venturing into town for your beer and…and chawing tobacco. You would frighten elderly ladies and small children.”
A dark eyebrow twitched and for a moment she thought he was about to laugh. Instead he glowered. His nose had a slight hook, and his mouth was barely discernible beneath the verdant growth on his face. No wonder she thought he was a carnivorous bear, when she woke.
He looked her over as if she was three day old fish left in the sun. “Anybody ever tell you that smart mouth and snooty attitude could get you in a pack of trouble? In fact, us good old chaw-baccy boys like to feed uppety Limey’s to the hogs.”
So much for trading insults. His threat to turn her into pig fodder trumped her wretched attempt to intimidate him with her ill-humoured assessment. Still, she couldn’t back down. “You will give me my clothes. Now. You had no right to…”
“Jeezus! You’re not much to look at so don’t get your panties in a twist.”
She certainly wasn’t about to remind him she had no panties on to twist. Instead she turned her face away, glad he found her ugly. There was safety in that, although she couldn’t help resenting his jibe. Holding the sheet to her chest, she managed to roll to the far side of the bed and slid her feet to the floor. She must find her clothes. And where was her guitar and backpack? As she tried to stand, her limbs trembled and her hands reached out trying to find something solid to hang onto.
Once more hands reached out and held onto her. “Dammit, girl! What the hell is wrong with you? You’re going to hurt yourself.”
His irate voice echoed as she slid down a slick dark tunnel. The thought flickered: Alice must have felt this stomach-churning disorientation as she fell down the rabbit hole.
It was nighttime although the room was softly lit when Erin surfaced again. Once more remnants of the dream drifted away like smoke. A variation of a familiar scene, she had been searching endless corridors cut from glittering ice. Always ahead, music drew her on as the floors and walls twisted and spiralled into stairs winding climbing and turning back on themselves, going nowhere. Then she stumbled into a cave filled with musical instruments. As she reached out to touch the strings of a viola it shattered, filling the air with shards like glass as a mournful sound quivered through the cave.
The dream always left her disoriented and hopelessly craving something unknown. She lay still as thunder sounded far off. Her stomach growled as if in harmony although she felt no hunger. She turned her head. A small oil lamp stood on a stand by the bed. The light was comforting. The walls were made of rough planks and no curtain hung at the window. Although, given the dense black beyond, there was probably no need for draperies. There was no moonlight or glitter of stars. She shivered at the thought of miles of forest and bush between this primitive hut and civilization. Then she recalled, wolves had been added to the creatures she didn’t want to meet.
An angry voice from below made her jump and her heart skittered ready to fly out of her chest and hide beneath the bed.
“This is not acceptable, Zachary Edwyn Pritchard. Why did you bring the girl to this…this ramshackle place…for heaven’s sake, you make me crazy.”
“Hold it down, will you. I don’t want her waking and trying to run off. She’s in no fit state at the moment.”
Erin gave a little snort. Zachary Edwyn? Who knew! Supposedly the name Zachary meant he was an artist, musician and a lover who always pleased his woman. Hah! More likely he was named after Jules Verne’s Master Zachary, the clockmaker who lost his soul to the devil. Footsteps sounded on the stairs and she hastily burrowed deep beneath the covers as the door creaked loudly as it opened and she realized that was probably the unholy shriek she heard earlier.
Footsteps crossed the room and stopped by the bed. “It’s okay to come out now, honey. No one’s going to hurt you.”
It was the same voice as moments ago although there was no anger in it now. The bedclothes were gently peeled back and a woman smiled down at her. Tiny crinkles fanned out from grey eyes. The woman looked as if she laughed often, so perhaps there really was nothing to fear. Erin tensed as heavier footsteps headed upward and the shaggy hulk blocked the doorway. There was a dangerous look on his face, although it was hard to see what was going on beneath the tangle of beard. His hair was tied back with a leather thong and she could now see a knotted scar arcing from his hairline and ending barely a breath from his left eye.
The woman had hold of Erin’s hand and she was glad of the comforting warmth, but couldn’t help asking. “Are we both going to end up in his stew pot?”
The woman laughed as the hulk mocked. “Madame Meg here, is more likely to roast my ass over the damned barbecue.”
“Language, Zach!” She patted Erin’s arm. “My son learned a great deal during his time abroad, but mostly he forgot how to be a gentleman.” She sat on the bed and placed a hand on Erin’s forehead. “Still a little fevered.” Competent fingers found a pulse. “Hmnnn, you’re ticking over-fast, honey. Probably due to this little drama Zach has created. He should have brought you straight to the lodge when he found you.”
“I told you, she was unconscious and suffering from exposure. Besides, the roads were washed out with all the rain.”
“Hmph! Strange, you can drive back and forth in all kinds of weather when you want a good hot meal. Besides, you said the lass has been here three days. You could have called me.” She turned back to Erin. “My name is Margaret, friends call me Meg. What’s your name, honey?”
Erin just managed to answer before her belly let out another loud grumble.
“Don’t tell me he hasn’t fed you yet? Lord, save me from incompetent men. Never mind, I came prepared. There’s a large container of chef’s cream of chicken soup, and a loaf of fresh baked bread. You settle back, Erin, I’ll have it warmed in no time.”
She stood and waved her son out of the way and headed down stairs. Zachary Edward Pritchard gave Erin a look that promised…what?
“I knew you were trouble the minute I picked you up and you threw up all over my jacket.” He scowled and turned to leave.
Erin felt tears sting her eyes. For a moment, Mrs…Meg…made her feel safe. Something she hadn’t felt in years. Ever since her… Erin blocked out the thoughts that were venturing far too close to the surface lately. Although Meg hadn’t made her feel like trouble, her son obviously didn’t feel the same. If only she didn’t feel so weak and teary. It was pathetic, she was pathetic. She steeled herself and tried not to break down in front of him. She was no longer a child, or a doped up junkie, unable to fight back.
Her voice was tight and precise, as it always was when she needed to stay calm. “I’m sorry you find me such a burden, it was not my intention to inconvenience you. If you will give me my clothes and my other belongings, I will ask Mrs...Meg if she could give me a lift to the nearest highway.” She fumbled to keep her naked body covered as she sat up and waited for him to leave. Surely he wouldn’t refuse to let her go now his mother was here?
Erin was startled when he turned and punched a balled fist into the plank wall. She flinched. That must have hurt.
His look was grim as he turned and pointed a finger at her. “Don’t be so damned…British. You are not going off to die in another freezing ditch. Not on my watch. So forget it. Honey!” Then he clumped down the stairs.
Erin noticed a flash of something bleak in his eyes before he turned away and wondered what phantoms troubled him. Honey? It sounded like a curse. She lay back against the pillows, suddenly too tired to worry about anything. Maybe tomorrow he would leave, go shoot gophers or some other helpless creature. Then she could search for her things and find her way out of the forest, hopefully without being stalked by animals with big teeth or claws that ripped.
In spite of not wanting them to, her eyes drifted closed. She tried fighting the need to sleep as a snatch of melody danced just beyond reach. She knew those notes, the image of a moth dancing on the moon. Her fingers curled to hold a slender flute that was long gone, broken beyond repair. Then, from out of the darkness, the familiar sound of a woman’s laughter echoed from long ago. Sleep overtook her as tears still slid from beneath closed lids.
Zach wanted to curse as his mom came down the stairs, still carrying the bowl of soup she had taken up to the skinny menace in his bed. He sat at the small pine table he’d rescued from the dump and stripped of thick coats of ancient paint. He was about to stand and take the soup back up to the little witch. She wasn’t getting away with starving herself to death.
Meg laid a heavy hand on his shoulder and placed the bowl and spoon on the table in front of him. “Don’t you dare hassle that girl anymore. Sit. Eat.” Then she went to the small kerosene stove and ladled soup from a smoke blackened pan into a large mug and sat opposite him.
They both spooned up soup for a few minutes. Finishing his, Zach couldn’t hold back his unease.
“She has to eat she’s skinny as a rake handle and shaky as a kitten.”
His mom looked up, and smiled. He didn’t like it one bit. He went to the stove and poured the last of the soup into the bowl he’d used. “She’s going to eat before she keels over again. I want her out of here and that won’t happen until she builds up her strength.”
“My darling grumpy son, what am I going to do with you? She’s not one of the injured wild things you used bring home and care for and then released. You should have brought her to the lodge. And I checked your cell phone. It isn’t out of juice.”
“You know you’re a meddler?”
“Ummm, so I am.”
“Besides, I’m not that maudlin kid anymore. She was almost frozen to death. I had to get her warm before she…” He closed his eyes and blew out a breath. “She was almost gone when I found her.”
“You managed to prevent hypothermia and bring her fever down, Zach. That’s good. Right now I think she needs rest more than food. In the morning I’ll send over fresh eggs and milk, maybe some hot biscuits.” She grinned. “I think you can manage to scramble eggs for her breakfast on that bitty little stove. You know not to feed her anything too heavy for a little while, right?”
He lowered himself onto the chair. “Yes, mother, and I won’t demand she scrub the floors and skin the rabbits I have hanging in the root cellar.”
“She was too sick to for me to move her.” Zach tried to hold onto his temper.
“Perhaps she would have been better off in hospital, Zachary? She’s barely more than a child and needs taking proper care of. There’s something gone very wrong for her, more than falling ill and getting lost and ending up in that ditch.”
He never scoffed at his mom’s intuitions. She had an uncanny knack for reading people. “I don’t think we should move her yet.”
He looked up to find his mother giving him that look that said she could still read him like a cheap comic book. Didn’t matter he was almost thirty years old and had been around the block more than once. Plus going through a hell you can’t put behind you buddy. He tamped down on that unwanted thought.
“I took good care of her, dammit! You’re not the only one who knows how to read a temperature and bring down a fever. Don’t forget you taught me. Besides, I think she’s older than she looks.”
“Oh, Zachary, she’s a young woman who was lost and ill and now she’s sleeping in the bed of a stranger.” Her hand waved dismissively around the stark space. “This is a bare-bones shack way out in the woods. No wonder she looks scared to death. Besides, she must have a family somewhere hoping she will come home one day. Don’t you think they would be unhappy at this situation?”
“She’s running from something. It could be her family.”
Meg reached out as if to touch the scar on his temple where a bullet almost ended his life. He pulled away, not wanting that scenario to open again.
“Honey, I hate to see you like this. Why don’t you come back to the lodge? I don’t know what keeps you in this place. There’s a perfectly good winterized cottage right by the lake waiting for you. You designed it yourself so you know it’s comfortable, and the view of the river is lovely. Besides, I have a group of corporate people coming in for orientation workshops and I need your help.”
“You have the lodge staff well trained, and I’ll be there when you really need me. You just have to call.” He didn’t like to see his mom distressed. But he didn’t think she could understand. He wasn’t remotely like the architect son who, three years ago, had travelled to a village in Uganda with such optimism. He just wanted to be left alone to do the maintenance around the lodge and run his business from his laptop. That meant he would have to make the trek to the lodge soon as the battery had run down.
Meg left a short time later and he washed the few dishes in warm water heated on the stove. Boiling water was a tedious process and he knew something would have to be done so his visitor could take a bath when she was strong enough not to keel over and drown herself. He had the feeling she was used to more sophisticated living and wouldn’t take kindly to the outdoor shower he’d hooked up to a rain water tank out back of the cabin. On the other hand, he could bundle her up in a blanket and drive her over to the lodge in the morning. And yet…he had no idea why taking her to the lodge wasn’t an option, his brain must be seriously addled.
Turning the kerosene lamp off, stripped down to his shorts, and stretched out on the well-used couch he’d rescued after the fire that wiped out the old lodge. Moments later he hurriedly pushed back the blanket and sat up as a wavering cry drifted from above. Quickly hauling on his jeans he headed up the stairs. The storm had moved on and moonlight laid a pale light across the bare boards, although it wasn’t necessary as he was used to making his way in the dark.
His mom had left the door to the room open and the small lamp by the bed was still lit. The girl thrashed about as if caught in a terrifying nightmare, calling out something unintelligible. It was a desolate sound that twisted his gut in knots.
Once again she was wound tight in a sheet, though her arms were free this time. He wasn’t about to get socked in the jaw a second time, so he edged behind her, pulling her up so her back was against his chest. His arms crossed over small breasts, holding her as gently as possible. She was thin to the point of frailty and her skin was hot, slicked with sweat. Partly, he thought, from the fever that had scorched through her and still flared up at times. And partly from the nightmare that wracked her frame with tremors.
Another time another place intruded. Damn, he didn’t want to think about the trip to Uganda and the horror as he sat in the dirt, holding Tom Anders as he bled out from gunshot wounds as they were caught in crossfire between terrorists and local militia. No matter how he tried, the damned scene played over and over in his head. The girl let out another stark cry and struggled against his hold bringing him back to the present.
“No! No! I won’t let you.” Her body was rigid with terror and tears dripped onto his bare arms as they curved around her. “No more…no, no, no!
Her distress was raw and painful, filling the room with something dark and unknown. “It’s okay, Erin. Whoever hurt you isn’t here.”
She was beyond thought or hearing his quiet reassurance. The keening started again and she began to rock childlike in his arms. Zach loosened his hold and pulled her around to curl against him. All the fight had gone out of her and she lay trembling, the thin wail full of sorrow as tears ran unchecked.
“Mrs. Pritchard said to tell you there’s a jug of fresh orange juice, and the ham is great I had some with your mom’s waffles for breakfast, and the eggs were collected this morning.” Jefferson, a young waiter from the lodge, stood on the doorstep grinning as he waited for an ill-tempered Zach to take the large cooler he held out.
Zach hadn’t heard the sound of the all-terrain vehicle arrive. He’d been up half the night trying to keep Erin from hurting herself as she went through a cycle of sleeping and thrashing about when the nightmare kept returning as if a needle was stuck in the grove of an old record. Finally, as a hazy dawn light lit up the room, she fell into a deep sleep. He thought she was probably as exhausted as he was. To be woken by pounding on his door and then to find this idiot grinning and babbling at him was too much.
“For Christ’s sake, couldn’t you just leave the bloody thing on the doorstep?” Unfortunately, there was no squelching the affable idiot.
“Nope. Mrs. Prichard said to remind you not to feed your…visitor the ham, just scrambled eggs and orange juice or milk.” He nodded his head. “Yeah, milk would be good.” He tried to peer around Zach’s frame, no doubt wanting a glimpse of whoever was stupid or brave enough to share the snarling wolf’s den.
Zach grabbed the hamper and was about to slam the door in the fucking idiots smiley face before he tied the cretin’s nuts in a knot. Unfortunately, smiley wasn’t done yet.
He yelled, “Hold on.” And raced back to the vehicle and ran back with a pillow stuffed with something and dropped it at Zach’s bare feet. “Clean sheets and sweats. Then he finally took his ass out of danger and rode off down the narrow trail back to the lodge.
Zach kicked the door shut as a throaty voice demanded, “Call him back. He can give me a lift into town.”
Spinning around, Zach bit back a curse that would have curled her toenails if he’d let it out. She was dressed in one of his plaid work shirts and stood clinging to the back of the couch looking like death warmed over.
“No I won’t call him back. And no you won’t be getting a lift into town.”
He watched her eyes narrow and her mouth open to give him grief then her teeth clicked together as he dropped the hamper, took two strides and scooped her up to dump her on the couch. The blanket he’d wrapped himself in last night was still bundled in a heap. He dragged it around her then leaned down and got in her face. “You will quit making demands. No leaving. No lift. No more crap! Got it!”
Erin watched Zach turn away. His harsh words resonated, made her want to run, from him, from herself, from the past she feared was about to overwhelm her. Splinters of long-rejected memories spilled through dark cracks. Still she floundered to rise and head for the door, wanting to outrun the veracity of what had been. She could hardly breathe as sorrow wound tight around her chest and blocked her throat as she pulled open the door and stepped out into cool, fragrant air. Suddenly, her weakened body gave out and she stumbled, cracking her knees on the stone step and sprawled forward, arms outstretched, her cheek slamming into damp mossy ground as the past she had rejected escaped and wouldn’t be denied.
Vaguely, she heard Zack call her name and felt the thud of his footsteps hurrying towards her. He was too late. Memory dragged her back to a place she didn’t want to be. She was twelve years old again and drained as she always was after a performance. Her mom and dad should have been back from their dig and sitting in the reserved seats at the Albert Hall. She had watched for them from the wings before stepping on stage. Her dad always sat in the aisle seat so he could stretch out his long legs. Adam, her parent’s friend, sat there instead. A sense of tragedy made her feel ill. Still, the audience waited to hear her play so she tried to concentrate on giving the performance expected of a professional. Later, Adam took charge, cleaving through the well-wishers and autograph seekers and handed her into the waiting limo. The London townhouse was silent. The dining table set with glinting crystal goblets and fine china, ready for the special late dinner planned for her mom and dad’s homecoming. Then Adam told her things she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge, then or now.
Clods of earth and moss tore beneath her hands and a howl of crazed fury and grief rent the air. It sent birds fluttering above the cabin roof and winging away over the treetops. She wanted back what had been stolen from her, wanted Fraeling to die a thousand times, wanted someone to hold her before she slipped into madness. But most of all she wanted to be free of heart-rending pain.
Candle Without A Flame continues in coming issues of A Writer’s Journey.