Sweat dripped down Malcolm’s face, through his scruff, and splashed onto the anvil. The workshop with the forge was hot, even in the cool October afternoons of Cambridge, England.
“Good,” Carmen said, watching but not interfering. “What now?”
“I take the sword out of the forge once it’s glowing hot and hammer it,” Malcolm replied in his gentle Scottish accent, tugging on the cuffs of his leather gloves to ensure they were snug. He checked to make sure his hammer was still handy.
“And how do you hammer it?”
“Evenly; the same number of hits on each side.”
“Good. How does it look?”
Carmen looked into the hot coals of the forge where her boyfriend’s first sword was being heated to over 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. She had been taking blacksmithing courses since before they’d met and Malcolm had definitely taken an interest. She was far from being a master swordsmith but she understood enough to teach Malcolm the basics. He was working from a prefabricated steel sheet which they had cut to sword shape before tempering it, rather than smelting the steel themselves. This was his first sword, after all; no need to complicate things too much.
“I think it looks good?” He glanced at her to confirm.
“How can you tell?” she asked, refusing to nod her agreement.
“It’s got an orange glow,” he said. “Not red or yellow. A deep, bright orange.”
“All right, get going, Mal.”
Carmen stepped back while Malcolm grabbed the sword by the tang with pincers and set it on the anvil. She crossed her arms and watched. Malcolm was a burly Scottish man with an easy laugh and a rousing baritone who looked like an American football linebacker (or, as he insisted, a caber toss champion) but was, in fact, a PhD candidate in history at Cambridge. They had met while they were undergraduates at the University of Edinburgh; they took art history together their second term of their first year and had become fast friends. They were both dating other people and neither had given much thought to their friendship as having potential for anything more. He was also quite geeky, as well; they had particularly bonded over their love of Tolkien (he had the white tree of Gondor tattooed on his back; she had the Doors of Moria on her thigh), Harry Potter, and A Song of Ice and Fire. It wasn’t until their fourth and final year of uni, about six months after Mal had been dumped by his girlfriend of almost three years and Carmen had broken up with her girlfriend of a year, that they started to realize there might be more there. They started dating in early October — three years ago today, to be precise.
It turned out he was also an outdoors enthusiast — he particularly enjoyed hillwalking. Carmen liked that (although she insisted on calling it “hiking,” since she was American). She preferred camping, but they often found themselves doing both, especially whenever they could get back up to Scotland. Her parents had moved to London when she was still in high school and were still in the area. Her mother was a biologist and a professor; she had been offered tenure at a university in London so they moved from Connecticut (although Carmen would be hard-pressed to say she was “from” Connecticut; her family was Puerto Rican and that is how she identified herself to others). Her father was an investment banker who could work from any major city — however, as an amateur astronomer, he often lamented the cloudy and light-polluted skies of London. Carmen finished at a private international school in Surrey and ended up studying art at the University of Edinburgh. She focused in metalwork and sculpture. In the past year and a half since graduation, she had started to take blacksmithing courses, as she had become quite adept at filigree detailing and wanted to learn to apply her techniques to both hilt and blade.
He grabbed the blacksmithing hammer and began tapping on the blade. Carmen tipped her head, watching.
“You’ll have to go harder than that — but not too hard. You want to actually compress the steel, but you don’t want to break it.” He grunted in reply but hit the steel harder, working down one side for about six inches, then switching to the other before flipping the blade over and repeating his work. He then hefted the sword and pushed it back into the forge, covering it with coals to reheat it.
“Good,” Carmen said with a smile. “You compensated for the cooling of the sword quite naturally by hitting it harder. Well done.”
“Thanks,” Malcolm replied, his concentration breaking for a moment to smile back at her as he turned the sword in the forge.
“How do you feel?” she asked as she pulled on her peacoat. She still had her leather apron on, but she figured it was easiest to wear it home; it didn’t really roll up small enough to fit in her satchel. Besides, it made her feel a bit badass.
“I’m hooked,” Malcolm admitted, turning over the sword and admiring it in the golden light pouring through the workshop’s windows. “And thank you for having a hilt ready for me.”
“You are quite welcome,” Carmen replied. “I’d made it for another project that I ended up quite screwing up. It’s pretty simple, but you could wrap it in leather if you like. Maarten could put in an order and it would help your grip.”
“As though I’ll actually be using it,” Malcolm said, a small laugh escaping. “But maybe I will. It would be nice to have it looking right, even if it basically lives on my wall.”
“You could take it to reenactments, since the edge isn’t sharp.”
“True. Although you should really have something grand.” He set his sword on a work counter and grabbed her by the waist, spinning her around. Carmen laughed, thwapping his arms.
“I’ll make something grand, someday,” she said, still chuckling as he set her down. “Maybe Éowyn’s sword. That would be a lovely challenge.”
“Oh,” Malcolm said, face falling a bit as he stepped back from her.
“Oh?” Carmen repeated, confused.
“Yeah, ‘oh.’ I guess you don’t want this, then.” He reached over to the workbench and pulled away what Carmen had assumed was a haphazardly-crumpled apron to reveal a beautiful replica of Éowyn’s sword.
“Oh! Oh gods, Malcolm,” she breathed, stepping over to look at it more closely. It was screen-accurate, she noted, admiring the beautifully carved horse heads on the hilt. “This is for me?” she asked, carefully picking it up.
“Aye — careful, it’s actually sharp,” he said. “It’s not custom, I’m afraid, but I did have Alison put an edge on it.”
“You scoundrel!” Carmen laughed, taking a few steps back and giving the sword a practice swing, admiring the look of it. Now that she’d had some training, she could tell the balance was good but the quality of the steel was only okay. It had a fine edge to it, though; Alison had clearly done her best with it. It was still nice to have a copy of her own as she’d be able to more closely emulate it if she could study it in detail. She grinned at Malcolm and held out a hand for the scabbard. He grinned back at her and tossed it to her. She sheathed the sword and then threw her arms around him. “Thank you. It’s too much, really, but I’m not going to turn it down.”
“Happy third anniversary,” he replied, grinning as he kissed her. “And happy almost-birthday. I hope you’ll forgive me for rolling your presents into this.”
She kissed him. “Forgiven,” she teased. “Really, you’re the first person I’ve dated who’s given me a sword at all and it’s perfect, truly. Thank you.”
“That is good to hear.”
“Come on, grab your sword and let’s grab some takeaway from Bo-Thai Noodles on the way home.” Once he had his sword and his backpack, she slipped her free hand into his.
“You sure do know the way into a man’s heart,” he laughed. “I hope they allow swords!”
“It’ll be fine; although I imagine a sword-wielding Scotsman would not go down as well in, say, the pub.”
Malcolm let out a laugh and put on his thickest Scottish accent. “Aye, well, the Sassenach bastards, they deserve it.” He waggled his sword menacingly.
Carmen laughed as they stepped outside and let the door close behind them. “They’ll be running for the hills.”
They crossed the gravel car park and passed into the small, dense thicket bordering the western view, taking the shortcut through to the small village where they lived in a rented semi-detached.
The sun was just beginning to touch the horizon as they entered the copse of trees.
After two minutes of walking, Carmen frowned. “Shouldn’t we be through by now?” she asked, stopping. The sun slipped fully below the horizon. “It usually barely takes us a minute.”
Malcolm glanced around. “Maybe we wandered at an angle.”
“We’re following the path,” Carmen pointed out.
“Are we?” Malcolm asked, looking down, then behind them. Carmen followed his gaze. This was barely a deer path. She frowned. “Well, let’s keep heading towards the sun,” she said. “We’ll probably be out of it any second.”
They followed the orange and pink glow of the sky for another five minutes before emerging onto the top of a hill overlooking a shallow valley. There was no village, no town. There was no road and no cars. There was definitely no Thai food. A small forest was visible across the low valley. It was stark and raw and beautiful countryside — but they were not near home at all.
“What the fuck.”
Carmen wasn’t sure whether it was Malcolm or her who’d sworn so loudly. The view before them was absolutely gorgeous — but it was not their village. A gentle slope led down to flat land to the west and north. The final light of the sun illuminated the tops of a rolling series of hills far to the northeast. The hill and field below them were dotted with white, purple, and yellow wildflowers. A deep purple hung to the east and the first twinkle of stars was beginning to appear. She tugged his hand a little, drawing his attention to the darkness.
“It’s not orange,” she whispered.
“No sky glow from the city lights,” he agreed.
“Malcolm, where are we?”
They sat on the hillside, stomachs growling as they assessed their situation.
“We’re both awake, right? We’re not dead or anything; we didn’t, like, trip over a root and crack our heads open, right?”
“Well, if that had happened, only one of us would probably be hurt and the other would probably be calling 999.”
Carmen shivered briefly as a breeze cut across them.
“Maybe we should pinch ourselves?” Malcolm suggested.
“At this point, I’m up for anything.” Carmen rolled up her left sleeve and tugged off her right glove. She gave her wrist a sharp pinch, hissing as her nails dug into her skin briefly. “Well, I am definitely awake.”
He did the same and grimaced. “If it’s a delusion, it’s a shared one.”
She pulled out her mobile again to check for a signal, then sighed. “Still nothing.”
“Just turn it off, we’ll need to preserve the battery life on our phones for as long as possible. I’ve got a portable charger in my bag, but it’s only good for a few refills.”
Carmen smiled faintly. “I’ve got mine, too. Ingress makes it too tempting.” She turned her phone off and tossed it in her messenger bag.
Malcolm put an arm around her. “I don’t know what’s happened, but we should probably find shelter for the night and try to rest as best we can. We can tackle finding civilization tomorrow.”
“Yeah, we don’t want to break an ankle walking in the dark.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s focus. We need to assess our supplies before it gets any darker.”
“Well, we’ve got two swords, so I’m feeling pretty safe.”
Carmen rolled her eyes but smiled a little, leaning into him. She was glad he was keeping a sense of humor about himself.
“Okay, two swords. Do we have any food?”
“I’ve got a couple of granola bars for certain,” he said, opening his backpack and digging down into one of the pockets. “Oh! And some dried cranberries — they were supposed to be a snack today but we ended up working through tea time. I’ve also got my Camelbak, which is mostly full.” He held up the water bottle to show her.
“I’ve got some tea bags and half a Dairy Milk bar. Let’s eat the cranberries now and share a granola bar. We can have the rest in the morning.” It wouldn’t go very far, but they would need to have some strength to face tomorrow.
“Okay, food’s sorted,” Malcolm said. “Survival supplies? I’ve got a small first aid kit. It’s just the basics, but we should probably include it in our list.”
“I’ve got my Leatherman,” she said, pulling out the well-used multitool. After years of art studies, she almost never left the house without it. “I’ve also got, well, my present to you for our anniversary,” Carmen said, looking a bit embarrassed as she pulled out a small package with a ribbon tied around it. “So I guess it’s really yours. Go on.” She held it out to him. “You kept saying how you’d wanted to put a survival kit together, but I thought maybe this would be a nice, convenient one to start with — and since it’s a keychain, it’s less likely to be left behind. It’s not much, though.”
“I don’t know why you sound so apologetic!” Malcolm said, hugging her tightly. “You may have just made tonight a lot easier.” Carmen smiled into his neck and hugged him back. “Hell, you might have saved our lives.”
“Let’s not be that dramatic. It just didn’t cost much, not compared to the bleeding sword you got me.” Carmen said, although she smiled. Her stomach was knotted more than she cared to admit and she was definitely slipping into Survival Mode; she would deal with the impossibility of their situation later. “Go on then, open it,” she urged him, pulling back a bit. “Wait, hold on — let me get my mini flashlight out.” She dug around and found her small Maglite. She kept it handy, as she used it while inspecting her finer detail work, especially if working late at the studio. She adjusted her glasses on her nose and shined the light on the haphazardly-wrapped present.
He laughed and opened the package, reading the contents from the back.
“Four feet of paracord, a ‘Sharp Eye hidden knife,’ fire stick flint, six inches of firestarter material, and a three inch strip of duct tape. And that’s all inside this keychain that’s the size of my thumb?”
“Very clever, isn’t it?”
He smiled at her. “Aye. Just like you.” He dropped his voice and gazed at her. “Whatever is going on, I’m glad to have you here with me.”
“Same,” Carmen whispered. They sat there together for a moment in silence, watching the darkness grow in the valley.
“Let’s move back to the tree line,” he suggested. “We don’t really want to stay exposed out here. We can build a fire. Do you think we’ll need a shelter?”
“We should at least find a large tree or rock that can act as a windbreak,” she said, carefully packing everything away and putting it back in her bag. “It doesn’t look like it will rain, but since I have no idea where we are, it’s hard to say.”
Malcolm stood and offered a hand to Carmen, who took it and hauled herself to her feet.
They took shelter under the eaves of the forest. Carmen found a spot behind a rock that stood about shoulder-high, moss gripping the northern side. It was a bit out of the wind and seemed like their most promising option to set up a primitive shelter, just in case it rained. “Why don’t you go gather some kindling and firewood? Enough to get us through the night, if you can. I’ll see if I can’t find something to create a small lean-to and dig out a fire pit.”
“Sure - but who gets the torch?”
“I’ll use the small one on my keychain,” she replied, pulling her keys out of her bag and handing the Maglite to him. “Don’t wander too far into the woods; we don’t want to get separated.”
“I’ll make sure I can see the tree line,” Malcolm agreed. He stepped in close and hugged her. “If I’m not back in five minutes…”
“Then we’ll each whistle until find each other,” Carmen said, reassuring him. She smiled and gave him a quick kiss. “Now quickly, before we lose what little bit of twilight is left to us.”
Malcolm smiled and squeezed her hand before moving off to gather firewood, leaving his bag with her but taking his sword — not that it would do much besides leave a hearty bruise, but Carmen suspected it made him feel better to be armed. Carmen picked up a few fistfuls of dry leaves, a couple of pinecones, and some pine needles, then set them by the rock. She gathered up some stones, cleared out a little area for a fire pit, and lined the edge. A quick inspection of the area led her to find some larger fallen branches she felt she could probably prop up to create a small shelter. She dragged them over to the rock and leaned the three largest together against the rock. A cracking noise and moving brush alerted her to Malcolm’s return. He stepped into the small clearing.
“I found plenty of deadwood.” He put down a large bundle of sticks of various thicknesses. They clattered a bit as they settled on the ground. “Tripped a few times, but I’ve got enough to get us started.”
“Let’s build a fire and then we can finish gathering wood for the night, find some more branches for the shelter, and eat.”
“I’m pants at starting fires without matches,” Malcolm admitted, sounding embarrassed.
“Now is a really good time to learn,” Carmen said, crouching down. She picked out a few twigs and stuck them into the ground, leaning into each other in the tipi shape she’d learned about in Girl Scouts as a kid. She stuck some of the dried leaves inside the little structure. “Gotta make sure it can breathe,” she said, then glanced up at Malcolm. “Got the survival keychain?”
“Here,” he said, digging it out of his pocket.
Carmen quickly undid the parachute cord and handed one bright orange piece over to him. “Tie it around a belt loop so you’re visible.” She did the same for herself with the other piece. They didn’t glow in the dark, but they would catch just about any light. She unwrapped the duct tape and stashed it in her satchel, then stowed the firestarter rope, as well. “Might want to save that for a rainy day,” she said.
“I really hope we’re not out here long enough to encounter a rainy day,” Malcolm said, beard twitching a bit as he watched her.
“Same,” Carmen said. “But still, we should be planning for seventy-two hours.” She didn’t say that chances of survival and rescue drop off sharply after seventy-two hours. He was a clever man; if he didn’t already know that, he could very well infer it. She finally got to the miniature knife and the flint.
“This isn’t hard - wait, actually, do you have any lint in your pockets?”
“Seriously?” he asked, digging his hands into his jeans.
“Seriously, lint is some of the best stuff to use as a fire starter. Cotton is very flammable and lint has air all through it, so it is really very useful.”
“Makes sense. I’ve got maybe a pinch of it,” Malcolm said, pulling out a small amount between his fingers.
“That’ll do nicely,” Carmen said, accepting it and setting the bit of lint on the bed of leaves and pine needles. She angled the flint, getting very close to the kindling. “You may need to strike several times to get a sizable spark — and you have to hope it will land on the kindling. Sometimes this means adjusting the angle.” She hooked her finger through the hole at the top of the knife to get a good grip, then scraped the serrated edge of the knife quickly along the flint. A couple of small sparks flew out, but nothing caught. She got the flint even closer and struck several times in a row. While most of the sparks smoldered for a split second before extinguishing themselves, one managed to land on the edge of the lint. She quickly knelt down and pressed her face up by the lint, blowing gently on it. The ember began to glow, then little flames suddenly burst out of the lint.
“Yes!” she heard Malcolm say behind her, but she focused entirely on the tiny flame. She had to feed it but not smother it. A few pine needles went into the flame, curling as they caught fire themselves. A couple more gentle puffs of air and the fire grew — it would still have fit in the palm of her hand (if she were foolish enough to try to carry it), but it was definitely there. She kept feeding it kindling, watching as the leaves below caught fire and then, finally, the tipi of twigs that barely stood four inches tall began to burn.
She sat back and felt safe enough to spare a glance for Malcolm.
“Woman make fire.”
She laughed. “Go get some large, leafy branches, Tarzan,” she said. “We can use them to cover the lean-to. I’ll keep growing the fire.” She felt his touch briefly on the top of her head before he disappeared into the trees again. Somehow, the fire made her feel a lot better — they had warmth and they could even use the fire to defend themselves against creatures, if necessary. Not that there were a lot of predators in England, but she wasn’t sure if they were still in England. Better to be safe than sorry.
She shook her head and tried not to think about their situation too much, focusing instead on the fire in front of her. She continued to feed it, growing it to a small but respectable campfire by the time Malcolm returned with some large, leafy branches, which he propped against the lean-to’s frame.
“Thank you, love.”
He smiled and sat beside her, holding his hands out to the fire briefly before pulling his backpack towards them. “Let’s eat.”
A container of dried cranberries and a shared granola bar later, Carmen finally felt ready to talk about their situation.
“So,” he echoed. “I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that this is not actually a reality show and you’re not pranking me for our anniversary.”
She glanced over at him to see a gentle smile on his lips.
“No,” she said, matching his smile. “I’d be far less worried if I actually knew what was going on.”
He took her hand, fingers sliding into their familiar places, reassuring and grounding both of them. “I would, too,” he said. “But we’re reasonably clever people and we’ve got some survival stuff with us. We just need to stay warm tonight and find some kind of civilization in the morning.”
“We should step out onto the hilltop again in a little, see if we can see any lights of a town or city. And it’s clear, so we should be able to at least check the stars.”
“Can you navigate by them? I mean, you personally.” He laughed a little and she joined him. “I know it’s possible to navigate by the stars. I just never learned.”
“I can find major constellations easy enough,” she said, leaning in close against him. “Hopefully the Big Dipper and Little Dipper will be visible and I can find the North Star. Or, if they’re not visible, I should be able to find the Southern Cross — I mean, I’ve never been south of the equator, but I know what it looks like from photos. That is, assuming we’re still on Earth.” She let out a weak laugh.
“I really hope we are,” he agreed. “If not, at least the air is breathable!”
She smiled and stood up. “Come on, let’s go ahead and look. We can rule out alien abduction real quickly.” She didn’t really think they’d been abducted — after all, she had a clear memory of every moment between entering the trees and exiting them — but at this point, the whole thing was just weird and she couldn’t make any sense of it. Malcolm stood and joined her, then glanced at the fire.
“Do we just… leave it unattended?”
“We’re going away for a minute or two, tops,” she said. “I cleared plenty of space around it, so we’re not likely to accidentally start a forest fire. Come on.” She tugged on his hand a bit and they walked the twenty feet to the edge of the woods.
They both gasped.
It was just after 8:30 PM, according to Malcolm’s watch, and the sky was truly breathtaking. A waxing moon hung low in the west, its cold light casting blue shadows across the land. Stars lit up the night sky, spread from horizon to horizon. Carmen twisted her flashlight until it was off. Their eyes slowly adjusted to the dark away from the fire. Malcolm shivered. They stood there in reverent awe for many minutes, the sound of the wind and the evening birds their only company.
“I’ve never seen the sky this dark or clear,” Malcolm finally said. “Not even when we went camping on the Isle of Skye.”
“Me neither,” Carmen admitted. She squeezed his hand and sighed a little. “It’s beautiful. But let’s see if we can find some sign of civilization — or at least guidance.” She raked her eyes over the galaxy of stars, twinkling as the heat from the day escaped into the atmosphere. “It’s — I think it’s actually too crowded. I’m having trouble picking out constellations.”
“I don’t see any light pollution anywhere, either,” Malcolm said, scanning the horizon in all directions.
“Oh! OH! I found the Big Dipper!” Carmen said, relieved and excited to finally see something familiar. She pointed almost straight in front of them and up about 45º, where the familiar constellation hung upside-down, looking as though it had spilled the Milky Way across the sky.
“Definitely on Earth, then,” Malcolm teased a little. Carmen stuck her tongue out at him, smiling.
“Like the moon didn’t give that away?” she teased back.
“Good point,” he said, grinning. “So what do we do now that we’ve found the Big Dipper?”
“Not much,” she admitted, “since we’re not walking anywhere tonight, but finding the Big Dipper means we can find the North Star — and if we do end up having to walk at night at some point, it will be helpful.” She pointed to the outside of the bowl part of the ladle. “Those two stars point to the North Star, which is in the Little Dipper.” She followed the line with her finger and her eyes, coming to rest on the brightest star in the smaller twin, the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper. “Polaris,” she breathed.
“I really wish I knew more about astronomy right now,” Malcolm said. “I mean, I can pick out things like the dippers and Orion and I can tell a planet from a star. But mostly, on our camping trips, I tend to just enjoy appreciating them. I never really need to use them. I’m not very good at astronomy.”
“Well, I’m about where you are, really. Astronomy is Dad’s hobby. I like looking, and I know a few more constellations and what a Messier object is, but even that doesn’t really help us here. I sure as hell can’t tell how far north or south we are — only that we are definitely in the northern hemisphere. Even in Girl Scouts we were basically taught that Polaris is always to the north and you can navigate by that. I wouldn’t know what to do if it were cloudy. ”
“Sleep, I think,” Malcolm said with a wry smile. “Speaking of, let’s get back to the fire. It’s cooling down quickly and we should try to get some sleep before tomorrow.”
Carmen nodded and, taking another glance at the sky, turned to follow him back to their campsite.
After putting a good deal more wood on the fire to keep it burning as long as possible, they spread Carmen’s leather apron on the ground. They sat side by side, backs against the rock.
“Do you think one of us should stay up to keep watch? You know, keep the fire going and such?” Malcolm asked, sitting down. Carmen had had the same thought, but didn’t want to voice it.
“I think,” she said slowly, mulling it over, “that we should both get as much sleep as we can. If we take shifts to watch, we’ll both be tired tomorrow, and we don’t know how far we’re going to have to walk. Maybe we can agree that if either of us wakes in the night that we’ll stoke the fire?”
Malcolm nodded. “Sure. What about wild animals?”
“What, like squirrels?” she teased.
“Like wolves or bears or something,” Malcolm said, smiling at her and wrinkling his nose at her playfully.
“You know better than I do that wolves have been extinct in England for something like five hundred years, and bears even longer than that.” She wrinkled her nose back at him.
“Well, you said yourself you can’t be sure we’re anywhere in England,” he pointed out, maddeningly reasonably. “There are still bears and wolves in northern Europe and all over Russia.”
“Well, thank you for that,” Carmen said. “I sure feel loads better now!”
Malcolm laughed. “Well, I guess we haven’t heard any howling, and the fire would probably keep anything big at bay, anyway.”
“Just the same, I think I’m going to sleep hugging my sword now.” Carmen chuckled and Malcolm put his arm around her. They fell quiet for a few minutes, listening to the sounds of the forest. Neither would admit it, but they were both listening for the howling of wolves, too. Trees rustled in the light breeze, golden colors turned to shades of grey overhead, the occasional star peeking through the canopy.
“What do you think happened to us?” Malcolm asked quietly, voicing the question neither wanted to face.
“I don’t know,” she replied slowly. “We were taking the usual shortcut home and the woods went longer than they ought have done. We are clearly nowhere near Cambridge anymore, even though we couldn’t have walked more than a quarter mile in the woods — we were walking, what, five, seven minutes?”
“And the path disappeared.”
“Well, it was barely a path in the first place, but you’re right, it really did just disappear from beneath us.”
“We didn’t turn at all, either; I mean, we were walking straight into the sun.”
Carmen nodded in agreement. “We’re not where we should be.”
“And the forest is thick behind us.”
She sighed. “Whatever has happened, I don’t know what we can do about it right now.”
“Not much,” Malcolm said. “I just hope we can figure it out.”
“Honestly, I think I’d rather not worry about that part so much.” She pulled her peacoat more tightly around her. “I just want to find civilization — anyone, really. A telephone, a signal on our mobiles — any of it would be welcome. God, at this point, a road would be brilliant. I mean, we’re going to need to start thinking about water and food tomorrow, if we end up having to walk more than a few miles.”
“Well, I’m sure we’ll find something,” Malcolm said, rubbing her arm reassuringly. “I mean, this place is lush and green and doesn’t seem to be that cold, so surely there must be people around somewhere.”
“I hope you’re right,” Carmen said, thinking of the perfectly dark skies. Maybe there was a hunting lodge or something nearby, at least.
Malcolm leaned forward briefly to toss another branch on the fire, watching the smoke curl up into the dark leaves above them.
“Let’s sleep,” he said, pulling their bags towards them. “These will do, I guess, for pillows.” They lay down, curled up together on the leather apron. Carmen’s sword lay beside her, one hand gripping it protectively. Malcolm’s sword was in his backpack, top half sticking out.
“This is so uncomfortable,” she said, fidgeting a bit, trying to find even a slightly less awkward position. She could feel every lump of ground underneath her body. “What I wouldn’t give for a sleeping bag and a real feather pillow.”
“What I wouldn’t give for our bed,” Mal said, pressing a brief kiss behind her ear, hand wrapping protectively around her waist. He felt her relax against him.
“Amen to that,” she said, turning her head a little to look at him. She offered a small smile. “This anniversary is certainly one for the history books,” she said, giving him a kiss.
“Aye,” he agreed, kissing her back. “Love you. Tomorrow, we rescue ourselves.”
“Good plan,” she smiled against his lips, then turned back and closed her eyes. She doubted she’d sleep very well, but she had to try.
Malcolm awoke once during the night. The fire had died down to embers and he needed to pee pretty badly. He left Carmen on the leather apron and relieved himself on the edge of their campsite, not wanting to go too far from her. He shivered a bit in the now much-cooler night air. He crouched by the remains of their fire, poking one of the glowing embers with a stick. It broke open and glowed brighter, exposed to the air, so he tossed a few pine needles on it and watched them curl up and burn, little flames licking along their length before extinguishing themselves. He tossed a few more on, then quickly fed a leaf on top of the small flames. It caught fire, burning from edge to stem, tracing the veins and arteries that gave it structure. He put a pinecone on top of that, hoping it wouldn’t smother the fire. It smoldered and, for a moment, he thought he’d managed to kill it. As he was reaching with his stick to knock it aside, it suddenly went up in flames.
Mal quickly added more twigs to the fire, as he’d watched Carmen do countless times. He finally started to add branches he’d broken earlier, doing his best to construct a tipi shape. The fire was looking pretty good — it was a respectable size. He watched it for a few minutes, lost in thought. He finally thought to check his watch — 3:43 AM. He didn’t really even know if that was actually right, given that they were definitely not in Cambridge anymore, but he had to go by something. Since the sun had set at the same time here as when they’d left the workshop, it wasn’t a totally unreasonable assumption. Although at this point, he wasn’t sure he wanted to assume anything. In any case, he’d managed about six hours of sleep.
The sun should be coming up in about three hours or so, he mused. He knew he should try to rest up, but the ground was so hard, even with the leather apron and the layer of pine needles underneath. He was definitely feeling it in his back and neck.
Carmen shifted in her sleep, drawing his attention. He looked over at her. She looked peaceful in her sleep. Her sleek, dark brown hair was in a loose ponytail. He knew she’d been called names by ignorant prats at uni, particularly by people who’d assumed she was Indian or Pakistani. He also knew she’d endured a fair amount of racism back in the States. He was ginger as a kid, but he knew that it was nothing compared to the terrible things she had heard all her life. Such a shame, too, that such awful beliefs still existed. He had been working on learning Spanish for her over the past few years; she really only spoke it with her family, but he wanted to be able to share her culture. Besides, if they had kids someday, he wouldn’t want them to be ignorant of half of their heritage, and how could he expect them to respect that if he didn’t even bother to learn the language? Not that kids were going to happen anytime soon; they had agreed to wait until after Malcolm defended his dissertation, and that wouldn’t be for several years yet. Besides, he wanted to get married first.
He added another few sticks to the fire and then returned to her side under the improvised lean-to. He curled up against her. He didn't think he'd be able to fall back asleep, but before he knew it, he had drifted off again.