He was grubbing for roots when he saw it. His fingers were muddy to the knuckles, dirt driven deep behind his broken nails. Beneath the earth, the roots were white and unhealthy-looking. He always felt queasy when he ate them. The alternative was worse.
He had six already, crammed into the pouch at his belt. His fingers had just encountered the seventh when a flash of movement caught his eye.
He dropped down, roots forgotten, and wriggled forward on his stomach. His heart was beating fast, his breath making the brown needles quiver in front of his face. The creature was close – far closer than he liked. He should have noticed it earlier. He should have been prepared. Without taking his eyes off it, he reached backwards for sweet comfort of his spear. His left hand closed around a rock, small enough to grip, but large enough to kill with.
The creature had taken human form, its foulness wrapped in the innocent hide of one his own kind. He knew it could not be human, though, for all humans were dead. He was the last one left. Anyone who came on two legs was his enemy - they had to be. He could not see its face, to see if it wore a face that he knew. The first one had come wearing the face of his cousin, and the second his oldest friend. He dreaded seeing his father, or, worse still, his wife. When he slept, he woke screaming from dreams of his cousin's shattered face, of blood dripping from his hands.
This one, though, he would not kill. It had been the shock, that first time. Something inside his mind had snapped, and he had returned to awareness hours later with a dim memory of screaming, of hands clawing, of a rock coming down again and again and again and again. This time, he was prepared. This time, he would be patient. This time, he would get answers.
It showed no signs of knowing that he was there. It was poised on the edge of the brackish water, as if debating whether to cross. As he watched, it crouched down, dipping the tips of two fingers into the water. Then it snatched them back abruptly, and raised them to its face. It almost put them into its mouth, then thought better of it.
So the water hurts your kind as well, he thought. Minor pain was all it was – not pleasant, but endurable. The spring in his cave was fresher, though still not pure. His body had not been free from aches since… since it had happened. There were worse pains, though, than pains of the flesh.
The creature had withdrawn from the water. It turned around in a full circle, clearly seeking a different way out. Anticipating the movement, he pressed himself down as flat as he could. When he raised his head again, the creature was facing away from him again. He had not been spotted. Or maybe he had been spotted, and this was all a trap.
If he had been spotted, then he had nothing to lose. If this was his time to die, he would at least take one of them with him.
Hefting the rock and spear, he rose quietly to his feet, keeping his upper body hunched over. This was his home ground now, although not by choice, and he knew how to move silently, and he knew how to hunt. The creature wore clothes of black and grey, hard to see against the blighted trees and dark ground, but its flesh was fairer than his own – a smear of white in the forest. If it ran, he would find it.
It started to walk, following the edge of the river. When it started talking, he froze, but it was still facing away from him. "Come in?" it was saying. "Anyone?" Then it cursed, and he knew it had been trying to contact others of its kind, but had been unsuccessful.
He had to strike now. The creature's step was unsteady, and it did not walk completely upright. Hurt, he realised, or sick. The world was full of poisons. It should have known that; its kind had created the world this way, after all. He had grown used to it over the years, but had been crippled by it for days at the start. That was the closest he had ever come to dying. When he had awakened and seen what sort of a world he now lived in, he had wished that the poisons had taken him for good.
It was armed. He did not recognise the large, dark object it held in its hands, but he had known enough warriors to recognise the way a man held a weapon. Not that it made the slightest bit of difference. All weapons gave way to surprise.
He was almost upon it. Dulled by poisons, the creature did not hear him. He raised the rock, brought it down, and…
Blood. Red on black. Red on white. A hand. A cry. Colours swirled and melted. The harsh scream of a bird, and a woman's face beneath his own. Death from the sky, and colours, always colours. Red of blood and black of ashes and the white, the white of death. Motes of death in the evening sun, and green of death in the morning.
He blinked. The rock slowly slipped free from his hand, and fell heavily into the mud. The creature was down. How long had it been? Memory had taken him – memory, and… and sometimes his brain didn't work as well as it should. Sometimes his mind… went places. Sometimes he knew that he was not entirely sane.
But for now there was work to do. The creature had fallen on its side, as if it had heard him coming at the last minute, and had been turning round to fight him. The blood was… No, he would not look at the blood. He had to secure the creature.
Spear in his hand, rock at his feet. Water stood brown and brackish, and dead needles lay thickly on the floor. The air was full of poison. His life was shreds and ashes. If he killed... Oh, but his hands ached with the urge to kill. A spear through the throat. A knife in the eye. Smash all its ribs, and the treacherous, lying face. Tear apart this human casing that the creature had no right to wear. Show the truth within. Show. Reveal. Get revenge. Live. Live.
"No," he moaned, letting the spear fall. He could not kill it. He must not kill it.
He crouched down beside it, and fought a fresh battle. A trap! gibbered the part of his mind was still afraid. Not really down. He looked for its eyelids flickering. He looked for its body twitching, for its right hand tensing, ready to grab. He looked. He looked. Bit his lip. Nothing.
He had lived through the end of his world; he could not be afraid of this. He rolled the creature onto its back, and its head flopped back into the mud. Its limbs were slack. Moving fast now, he ripped the weapon away from its body, unhooking it from the place where it was held. Another unfamiliar weapon was strapped to its thigh, and there was a knife on its belt; that, at least, he recognised. He took them all, piling them out of its reach.
Its upper body was covered with a sleeveless jacket. Pressing it firmly, he found that it was as solid as boiled leather. Removing that was harder, but he managed it, and wriggled into it himself. It was covered with cunning pouches, and he rummaged around them, looking for anything useful. In the third one, he found a roll of white fabric. He tested its strength, and found that it would serve.
His head was throbbing now; even after so much time, his body could not take too long outside. Moving as swiftly as he could, he bound the creature's hands behind its back, and lashed its ankles together.
All that was left to do was to drag it to his cave. Furious, he had killed the first one far too quickly. The second had lasted longer, but still had died too soon. He would not make the same mistake again.
No, this one he would keep. This time he would get answers. Even a creature as foul as this could be forced to speak with slow and subtle pain. Even a creature like this could be forced to give him what he wanted, if the alternative was worse than death.
He would make it long for death, and then, only then, long days afterwards, would he grant it the sweetness of its desire.
The journey home was almost beyond enduring. The poisons seeped into him with every rasping breath. He staggered backwards, bent almost double as he dragged his prisoner, his hands struggling to keep their grip on its body. He had to stop every few steps and straighten up, gasping. Acrid sweat trickled down his brow, stinging his eyes. Sometimes his prisoner's bound hands caught on roots or stones, and the body was jolted out of his hands. Soon his own shoulders were screaming. Pain lanced up and down his back, and his throat felt as if he had been burnt with the passage of acid.
Kill it, urged the blood pulsing in his head. Kill it. Kill it now. He bit his lip, and moaned his denial. No. No. Must be strong.
The ground started to rise, and his body became one red and searing mass of pain. Stopping half way up the hill, he let his captive fall on an irregular patch of ground that sloped more sharply than the rest of the hill. The creature rolled over half onto its front, its head lolling. Its bound hands had borne the brunt of the journey. They were scoured and dirty, with poisoned mud packed into the deeper cuts. The white bindings had turned a dirty black mingled with red. Red. He watched it, his muscles screaming. Red and black. Black and red.
A bird cried far above – a speck of black against the muddy sky. No birds came to rest in these trees now. He sometimes wondered where they flew to, and where they roosted in the solitary nights. The whole world was broken and gone; there was nowhere safe to rest. If I had the wings of an eagle… But there was nowhere to fly to. Even if he had wings, there was nothing left.
Pressing his lips together, he reached for his prisoner, ready to resume his climb. He would take it by the legs, and drag it face down. Let that handsome, treacherous face become as raw and bloody as the creature's hands. Slew off the mask of skin, and show the truth that lay within. Then he thought of soft mud clogging up the nose, soft mud sliding down the throat, clogging up the lungs. No, he would not give this creature the gentle escape of suffocation. He would drag it back alive, no matter what the cost.
Taking a deep breath, he reached towards its body again. His hand had almost reached it when he saw movement. Its fingers stirred; its head moved minutely. He recoiled, heart pounding furiously in his ears. "Not yet! Not yet!" he shrieked. Its movements became more pronounced. He could not see its face, but he saw the tension that suddenly appeared right across its body. It was awake. It was planning something. It was readying itself…
"No!" He lashed out with his foot, and caught it on the side of its head, hard enough to cause it to roll over twice, further down the hill. It moaned, and the tension left it, but he kicked it again, this time in the stomach, and again, and again… Flashes of white and red. Blood and mud; red and black. And redness, redness surging…
With a cry, he wrenched himself away, raking a hand through his tangled hair. No. No. The redness faded, and slowly he could see again. "Mustn't… kill," he rasped. "Must… try…" He raked at his hair again, fingers scraping across his inflamed scalp, and again, gouging chewed nails across his brow, pressing thumb and finger deep into his closed eyes.
He did not know how long had passed. The light had not changed, and the creature was still unconscious, but the air felt a little colder, as if night had come one stride closer than it had been before, like in the game of Footsteps he had played as a child – striding forward when his back was turned.
The last of the trembling was almost gone from his hands. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he grabbed his prisoner again, and began to drag it up the final slopes of the hill.
Home had never seemed to sweet. The darkness of the cave entrance enfolded him, but by then he was so far gone in effort that he barely noticed it. He dragged his prisoner for three steps, four steps, five steps longer than he needed to. It was only on the sixth step that he realised he was home. He let the prisoner fall, then collapsed beside it, breathless with exhaustion.
He could have slept, then; perhaps he did. When he opened his eyes again, the prisoner was still where he had left it. Their faces were not far away. The faint light from the entrance showed him a pale face, marked with dirt and stubble. Its hair was dark, matted with mud and something darker. Its eyes… No, he did not know what its eyes were like. This whole face was only a seeming – a mask over the hideous reality beneath it. And he had remained too close, lulled by exhaustion into… into what? Into seeing a fellowship?
He scrabbled across the cave, to crouch far enough away to be safe from any sudden waking. Unbidden, his own hands rose to his face, feeling the lean shape of it, feeling the matted beard where once there had been clean-shaven flesh. His skin was darker, but his hair was the same colour as the creature's. When he looked at his image in the sullen stream, his eyes were the same colour as the brackish water. But then, when he touched the water, his image dissolved into shards of broken things, and then whirled away to nothing.
"It is all lies." His voice came out more ragged than he would have liked. "I know what you really are."
He had to secure his prisoner, but there was nothing to tie it to. A determined enemy could crawl away even with hands and feet bound. No, he would have to remain permanently vigilant, and secure the prisoner with intimidation and brute force. Perhaps the head injury was enough to keep it docile.
Crouching on the ground, balancing himself with one hand splayed on the ground, he reached for his knife. The creature's weapons he had been forced to leave beside the water, and his own spear with it. The knife would have to be enough.
A sound reached his ears, and he realised that it was his own breathing: in, and out; in, and out. Then something about his perception changed, and he heard the creature's breathing, interlocking with his own: out when he breathed in; in when he breathed out.
Time passed. His legs grew stiff, but he was scared to shift position. He was suddenly intensely certain that his movement would cause the creature to wake; that his inattention would cause the creature to attack.
So it was that he heard the moment when the creature's breathing changed. So it was that he was ready, instantly alert, when the creature's eyes fluttered open. He was ready for the truth that was the groan of pain, although that did not come. He was ready for the lies that were words, issuing from the creature's lips.
For a moment, the words did not come, either. The creature was silent. Its eyes found him, focused sluggishly, then moved on. They found the cave entrance, and narrowed even at that faint light. He could not see its hands, but he saw the movement of its shoulders that showed it was testing its bonds, and he saw, too, the subtle movement of its ankles as it sought the truth there. When it struggled to drag itself into a clumsy sitting position, he did not stop it. It knew he had a knife. He would strike when he had to.
It opened its mouth as if to speak, then winced, and moistened its lips instead. He knew suddenly that he could not let the creature speak the first words. He was the one in control, and the creature was nothing at all.
"You won't escape," he told it. His voice was rusty from too many years of solitude. "You will tell me what I need to know, and then I will kill you."
"Then I can't see what's in this deal for me." The voice was unexpected. He had thought to hear shrill threats or broken cries for mercy. If he had imagined this moment for a thousand years, he would never have expected the strange half smile that appeared on the creature's lips.
It made him falter, where nothing else would have. He thrust the knife forward, letting it see the breadth and sharpness of the blade. "I killed the other two of you."
That seemed to reach it. He saw the stiffening of the muscles of its face. Already he thought he knew that this was this creature's way of concealing pain or dark emotion. He had once been the same himself. The creature said nothing for a while, then said, "Two?" It had not wanted to say it, he thought.
"One is in the water; I killed it with a stone." The face of his cousin, dissolving into fragments of red. "One I brought here, and left its carcase deep within. I killed it too soon. It is just bones now – only bones."
The creature swallowed, but this time its face gave nothing away. "I… uh…" It shifted awkwardly. "Bones, huh? A long time ago. I don't know who you think I am, but…"
"Be quiet!" he screamed. "I know what you are!"
It frowned, as if it was struggling to focus, struggling to stay awake. There was a patch of wet blood on the side of its neck, trickling sluggishly down from its tousled hair. "I don't think you do. We… I came through the…"
"Be quiet!" He leapt to his feet, and stood over the creature, hands itching to hurt. "You're one of them. Haven't you done enough? You come back and you come back. You came from the sky, and you took everything. You wouldn't even let me die, and now… And now…"
"I am not Wraith." It did not look afraid of him. Bloody and broken, it did not even look daunted. "Do I look like Wraith? I'm offended."
"Be quiet!" He struck out blindly with his feet, kicking the creature in the thigh, in the hip, in the side. "Be quiet! Stop talking!"
"Then be thankful you didn't get McKay," the creature mumbled, slumping to one side.
Breathing hard, he scraped his hand across his mouth. Calm. Calm. If he was angry, he would kill it before it was time. He teetered backwards, heading for the shallow pool of water. He fell to his knees beside it, and cupped cold water in his two hands, then cast it onto his face. A second time, and he plunged the hands in water up to the wrist. A small swirl of pale pink blood billowed from one hand like a flower. His reflection had fragmented, barely there at all.
He raised his head from the water to find the creature looking at him, its gaze surprisingly steady. It was sitting upright again. It worried him that he had not heard it do so.
He grasped the knife. "I do not think you are Wraith," he told it, spitting out each word like a stone. "The Wraith took many of my people, many years ago, but your kind did more. The sky darkened, and there were things – objects of death in the sky. You destroyed this world and everything in it."
"This world isn't destroyed," it said, and its voice was different yet again. "It's just this forest that…"
Lies! Lies! Redness pulsed on the fringes of his vision. All he wanted to do was to kill, to destroy, to hurt… He sought the memory of the cold spring water, imagining it washing away all anger; imagining it washing away everything, and leaving only cold resolve.
"I will not listen," he told it. "You are one of them, and I want to know why you came, and why you chose us. Why are you doing this to me?"
"Something's not right with the air," the creature said. "It must be affecting your mind. I know a man who can help you – a doctor. He…"
Red. Red. The blood stain on its neck was larger, trickling down to the dark fabric of its clothes. Red. Red blood. But the creatures did not bleed red, surely. The creatures had ice where other men had blood. They had filth in their veins, and an empty void where men and women had hearts. The blood was a lie. Everything was a lie.
He approached slowly, knife held ready in his right hand. "Why… did your people… come?" He paused with each step. With each step, he showed it a little more of the blade. "I am not afraid to hurt you."
The creature grimaced, managing to convey the impression of gesturing to its bleeding head. "Already worked that one out."
This one is tricksy, he thought. It hides much. The last one had cowered and begged. He had sat astride its legs and plunged the knife into its heart again and again, and it had twitched and screamed, and then it had died. He hid the knife again, feigning innocence. "But if you tell me what I need to know, I won't hurt you," he said.
"Since I'm not who you think I am, I guess the outcome's inevitable," it said.
Two could play the game of lies. He drew closer. Behind his back, his hand clenched and unclenched on the blade of the knife. "Tell me who you are, then," he said. "I'll let you go…"
Prepared as he was, he was still taken by surprise. The bound legs came up, sending him sprawling. Terrified that his own blade would cut him, he let it go, hearing it skitter across the hardened mud of the floor. His enemy was round, over, holding him down with the weight of its body. Its knees struck him painfully. Then it was off him, rolling desperately, bloodied fingers groping behind its body for the knife. Its judgement was good. Its fingers were only inches from the blade when he managed to scramble to his knees again. They were brushing the handle as he slammed a foot into its back, sending it onto its stomach. He stamped harder, pinning it to the ground.
But even then it was not defeated. Using its bound hands as a club, it struck heavily at his ankle. Fast as a snake, it rolled over, and he fell again, landing heavily on his back. His head struck something, a sharp pain exploding in his skull. Everything wavered, but he was up again, lunging for the knife, just as the creature hurled its body towards it. But he had two free arms, and the creature had only the barely-moving fingers of two bound hands. He had two free legs, and the creature was as pale as the snows of winter, a red stain shocking on its face.
He could not do anything other than win. He reached the knife first, feeling beads of fresh blood on the bone handle. Without a moment's hesitation, he brought it round and up, plunging its long blade into the creature's side, and pushing, pushing, hard enough for the muscles of his arm to tremble. He felt it pop free on the other side, and then he stopped, leaving the knife buried to the hilt in the creature's body.
Throughout it all, the creature made no sound.
The water showed him things he did not want to see.
The creature was still silent. At first, it had been the silence that came from a stubborn desire not to show any pain to an enemy. Now, he thought, it was the silence of unconsciousness. Impaled by the knife, the creature lay completely still. The only sound was a distant dripping from the deeper parts of the cave.
The water showed him blood. The water showed him his own face. When had he come to be such a monster? The fragments of reflection did not show the face of a human. Once, long ago, he would have balked at killing the vermin in his crops. Now he deliberately sought to cause as much as pain as possible… But this creature was not human. Hurting it was only right.
It stirred as he turned away from the water. Its lips moved, and he braced himself for lies. "I was going to say… I am not the sort of guy who accepts the inevitable. I'm glad I didn't." It was struggling to sit up. Even with a knife right through the side of its chest, it was struggling to sit up. "Would have been kind of embarrassing."
He swallowed painfully, his mouth completely dry. His hands felt the lack of the knife, but he had another one – the creature's own short knife tucked in the back of his belt. He imagining whipping it out and sinking it into the creature's eye or groin. His hands, though, refused to move. It was easy to kill someone who begged for mercy, when all the world fell away and left nothing behind but the fury. Killing someone who stayed so silent required a heart of stone and ice, and his, it seemed, was not yet frozen.
There was little blood, at least on the front. I could pull the knife out, he thought. See if it screams then. His hands started to sweat. That, he thought, might kill the creature. If he left the knife in, the blade would shift with every tiny movement, scraping against its flesh, doing fresh damage, causing fresh pain.
The creature had managed to raise itself half into a sitting position, slumping slightly sideways against the cave wall, so that no weight was put on the protruding tip of the knife. Its skin was pale, but its eyes were bright, even though its eyelids kept sliding closed.
"I'm not what you think I am," it said quietly. "Nothing's how you think it is. Your people… If they're your people… They didn't have your post-apocalyptic chic thing going… They welcomed us as warmly as you did. They…" Its eyes closed. He watched, mesmerised by the fluttering pulse beneath the blood stain on its neck. "Chased us," it said, with a tiny smile. "We got separated. Stupid, really. Or maybe they were herding us. I ended up here. Don't tell the others I got lost. McKay'll never let me hear the end of it."
The words flew around him on wings, teasing him, like butterflies. He wanted to take each one in his hands, nurture it, and have it be true. Lies were like that. They made you lose yourself.
"Something… bad happened." It opened its eyes again. He saw the tiny convulsive movement in its shoulders, saw each movement ripple through its body and set the knife quivering, and wondered why it was seeking pain like this. "This forest is poisoned. McKay says… McKay said…"
"Lies," he said dully. He could not take his eyes off the reddened bone that was the knife handle. Red on white; a stain of sin on a heart that had once been pure.
"Why do you think these… people destroyed your world? Why do you think I'm one of them?"
He clenched his fist, digging fingertips into his palm. "Everyone else is dead. If you're here, and alive, you're one of them."
"You're wrong." Its eyes were bright and gleaming. Still the convulsive movement of its shoulders went on. "We came from… somewhere else. Never been here before. We'll go, but you… you need help."
He felt a pricking in his eyes, and he recognised it from long ago as tears. Don't do this to me. Don't do this. He was supposed to be in control. Knife in his hand, blood on its blade, and his prisoner screaming in agony, babbling every secret that it had.
"How…" The creature coughed weakly. When it regained control, it pressed its lips together, but not before he had seen the smear of blood on them. "How did this place get like this?"
"They did it!" He edged a fraction closer, very aware of the knife at his belt. "You did it."
Its head was resting back against the wall. "But how?"
"They came in vessels," he rasped, "like in the tales of the Ancestors, or tales of the Wraith. I didn't see them, but I saw fire come from the sky. My village burnt, and it came from the sky, and I wasn't there. I wasn't there to die with them. I came running back but I got there too late. They were all gone, all gone. And the fire… Smoke… The noise of it. Leaves were ripped from the trees. The sky went black. And I saw one of them… one of you… He looked like my father, but he couldn't have been my father, he wasn't my father, because his skin was black and red, hanging from his bones, and he walked like… like creatures in a nightmare, and he didn't speak, but made a sound no human has ever made and never will and…"
The water showed him more. He closed his eyes, and still saw water. It was his mirror, leaving him no escape.
The shambling figure held out one arm, but he screamed hatred at it, and fled. And then running, sobbing, beneath a blackened sky. Something tangled in his feet, and he fell, to come face to face with the sightless eyes of his wife. Cold flesh clung to his own. Repulsed, revolted, he swatted her away, and fell to his knees and was violently sick. Staggering to his feet, still gagging, he lumbered blindly to the shelter of the trees, where black, bare branches did nothing to hide the devastation of the sky.
Thorns lashed at him. A line of blood opened up on his palm, but when he sucked it, he gagged again, dribbling into the dark mud.
Fire from the sky. He fell to his knees beside a stream of water, sinking into the cold mud. Fire and ash. His eyes slid closed. The next thing he knew, it was dark, and he was still kneeling there. A thin moon shone its copper light through the sparse branches, and far away, beyond the trees, he saw the flickering flames that had once been his home.
Who did this? And maybe he had slept, or maybe he got his answers. The copper water showed a human face, broke it into fragments, then reassembled it in the face of a monster. His own face. He plunged his hands into the stream, and pulled them out, trailing water. His own face. The monster.
And every night, for all the long years that had passed, he dreamt the same dream. Humans were not what they seemed. Beneath the mirror lay the truth. They came, and they could take any form. They had destroyed his world, and one day they could come for him and everything would end.
He opened his eyes. Still the water showed its fractured image – his own face with the features of a monster. His throat was hoarse. He had no idea how much of this he had said aloud. Memories took him sometimes, and whole days passed; he knew this only by the hunger and the aching thirst.
"I'm no shrink," the creature said. There was a bead of blood at the side of its mouth. "Fact, I hate shrinks. Never saw the point of them. But have you ever thought…?"
Sound roared in his head. He pressed his face into his hands, rocking to and fro to stop the screaming. He had run away from a dying creature that bore the face of his father. He had pushed away a dead body that wore the face of his wife. They were creatures. They were enemies. They had to be.
"Was it you?" the creature's voice said, and he remembered that tone. It was his father ordering him to confess to stealing fruit. It was his teacher commanding him to answer. It was the foreman, when he dallied too long from work, poking around in the ruins in the wood.
It was a voice that had to be answered. It was a voice that drove into the red mists of his mind, parting it like a knife pressed into a small fault in a rock.
He blundered sideways, finding the water, one arm sinking into it so that his face came to rest only inches from the surface. The reflection was true. There was nowhere to hide.
Poking through the ruins, knowing that his wife was bright and eager, expecting him home. Struggling with a door, knowing that his father had asked for help with the crops, and he had said yes, he would do it after work. Pushing through cobwebs, venturing into the dark, shivering with fear, but shivering with thrill, too. A door. A pit. A button…
"No!" He meant to bellow it, but it came out closer to a whimper. "You're lying. You're doing this to me." If they could change their faces, perhaps they could plant lies in another man's brain. Perhaps they could make a man think…
Sobbing, he snatched the knife from his belt, meaning to finish it once and for all.
The creature was gone. Smears of blood marked where it had been, and blood-stained bonds lay limply on the ground, but the creature had gone.
His hands fell limply to his sides, and for a moment he was completely at a loss for what to do. How had it…? Why hadn't it…? He had been distracted, lost in thought, but the knife had been obvious and unguarded at his back. If the creature was free, why hadn't it killed him?
It doesn't matter, he told himself. There was still time. He had no idea how long had passed, but the creature was badly wounded. No knife lay on the ground, so the blade was still in. It could not have gone far.
He left the cave, hurrying down the slope. The tracks were easy to follow, clear in the mud above the marks of his earlier slow progress up the hill. His quarry had fallen several times. He saw specks of blood on skeletal leaves, and the churned-up mud that came from someone trying several times to rise, and failing.
The trail ended at the water, where he had known it would. The creature had found its weapons again, and had sheathed the small one on its thigh, and held the larger one calmly pointing at him. Its hands were like gloves of red, but they did not tremble. As he neared, the creature met his eyes, and made its weapon explode in fire and fury.
So this was it, he thought. This was the end.
"Just to show you," the creature said, "what these things do. Just so you know not to do anything stupid."
He brought his hand up to his cheek, feeling the sting of the splintered bark. "Why didn't you kill me? So you can torment me further?"
"I don't much fancy dying." It staggered, but the weapon never wavered. It found a tree at its back, and slowly slid itself to the ground, resting heavily on the uninjured side of its back. The fall was not as controlled as it could have been, but still the weapon did not waver. "I will kill you if I have to, to defend myself."
Oh, but he had lived too many years. His people were gone, his world was destroyed, but still he endured. Even the food that kept him alive left him feeling permanently sick. Why hadn't he given in years ago? Death would mean the sweetness of forgetfulness.
But you don't deserve…
He bit his lip, as if that could stifle his own thoughts. "Then why didn't you…" We, it had said. We came. "Why didn't you go back to your people?"
"See, I'm wondering that myself." Its head was resting on the tree trunk. He would have thought it on the verge of unconsciousness had it not been for the bright eyes and the unwavering aim of the black weapon in its hands. "Perhaps because I don't know the way. Nothing works here. Perhaps because I can't…"
He edged closer; crouched down in the mud, one hand on the ground. "That's not why."
"Something's very wrong," the creature said, "but not how you think it is. You need help."
The creature. Inhuman. Every word it spoke was a lie. And yet… And yet… Its clothes were shiny with blood. Its eyes were glittering… No, not with alertness, but with incipient fever. How many hours since the mud with all its poisons had been driven deeply into the fresh cuts on its hands? It had been knocked unconscious twice, and it held its neck with a stiffness he recognised. His father had suffered crushing headaches, too.
And it could have killed him, but had not. It could have run away, but had waited for him.
The creature… No. The man. And if he was a man, then that meant… Cousin and friend, dead by his hand. All of them dead, dead because of him.
"No," the stranger said firmly. "You can't think about it now. We need to get out of here."
He raised his head tremulously. "We?"
There was no lie in the fever-glazed eyes that met his own.
He had been prepared to kill, but now, perhaps, in this little tiny way, he could atone. The night would be terrible, he knew, and he planned to die before morning. He edged forward cautiously, but even now he knew the truth. He had known the truth all along. The water had known the truth, and had shown him, but he had refused to see.
A pace away from the man, he stopped and awkwardly offered his hand. "I'll help you…"
The stranger looked at the weapon held in both hands. He seemed to think about it for a very long time, a muscle twitching in his jaw. Finally, with a sigh, he laid it down on the ground. It seemed that more than one of them was fighting a struggle with distrust.
Making a sudden decision, he dropped the knife. He felt naked without it, but strangely eased, too. "I appreciate the gesture," the stranger said, "but I prefer to keep mine." He gestured weakly at the smaller weapon strapped to his thigh. But he let himself be helped to his feet, and even let himself have some of his weight supported.
This close, he could tell how much it hurt the stranger just to breathe, and sense the agony of every step. He could hear it in the quiver of his breathing; he could see it in the fine beads of sweat that clung to its face. He could feel the hesitation that quivered through his body, as if his whole being was crying out, No, please! Don't put that foot on the ground! He felt, too, the iron control that kept him standing, kept him walking, kept him alive.
And I did this, he thought. He had done so many other, worse things, but this suddenly seemed the most indefensible of them all. The others had been a mistake, or a failure of nerve, or done in the heat of red fury, of madness that had stolen his thoughts away. But today he had driven a knife through a man's body, his thoughts as clear and dispassionate as the water in his pool.
"Luckily," the man grated, through gritted teeth, "I don't hold grudges."
He glanced around, feeling the fluttering of desperation. He still had no idea what to believe. He knew some of it, but not much. Your world isn't destroyed. The stranger had told him that. Your people chased us. And his cousin and his friend had lived, until he… until… He choked back a sob. How much? How much remained?
"This way," the stranger rasped. "I think."
He had not asked him his name. He had not given his name, either. He had no desire to do so, he realised. As long as they were strangers, this would not have to be entirely real. Besides, it was years since he had thought of himself as possessing a name.
How much…? How are…? He could not ask his questions. He could not bear the puncturing disappointment of a grim answer. He did not deserve the happiness of an answer that was good.
Perhaps the stranger knew. Perhaps you were bound to someone forever when you had held their life in your hands, even if you never knew their name. "It's an area about ten miles across. Half of this wood, and the area just outside it. McKay said it was…" The stranger coughed, and almost fell. "McKay…" He was reeling, knees sagging, but grasped desperately for a protruding branch, and managed to stay upright. "Chemical hazard." The words were forced out through his teeth. "Probably in the soil. It's so damp here… it also… gets in the air."
The air was burning in his own lungs now, making him gasp for breath. His mind was a tunnel. On one side capered hope, and on the other gibbered the horror of what he had done. He could not look either to the right or the left. Focus only on putting one foot in front of the other. Focus only on keeping this man upright, on bringing him back alive to his friends. The rest could come later. The rest would come later, and if it killed him, it was no more than he deserved.
"We found the… the ruins of your village." The stranger's voice took on a dreamy tone, as if he was no longer truly there. "That's when we started getting sick. That's when McKay thought to test the air. Should have thought he'd do it before we landed, but no. He was just launching into his usual hysterics about being a dead man when your people showed up."
This time when the stranger stumbled, there was no preventing him from falling. He twisted, managing to land on his uninjured side, but this time he could not keep himself from screaming. It was a sharp, terrible sound – a brave man reduced to voicing his pain – and it echoed through the bare trees, and came back doubled.
"Noise," the stranger mumbled. "That'll bring 'em." He groped blindly for his weapon, for his eyes no longer seemed capable of seeing much. Fumbling it out, he did something to it, and pointed it at the canopy of blackened branches above them. "Cover your ears."
The sound was terrible. It was fire in his village. It was death from the sky, and bodies burning. His hands clapped to his ears, he edged backwards, but again, it came, and again.
"Now they'll come." He saw the stranger's lips move, but could not hear his words. He saw, too, the expression of peace that spread across the other man's face, like a weary man coming home for the evening, and knowing that now, at long last, he could rest.
But he could not. Even if the stranger's tale was true, he had no home to go to. The sound of the weapon still echoed in his ears, bringing with it the echo of older sounds. He had done that. There could be no rest. There could be no forgiveness.
He sank to his knees, all alone. He was lost without this stranger's voice. The stranger's voice had brought him to the truth, and the stranger's voice had kept him from being destroyed by it. Now the stranger was silent, and there was nothing he could do but cower and wait.
He brought his knees up to his chest, and wrapped his arms around them. He did not know how long had passed before he heard voices.
He raised his head slowly, blinking. Three figures were approaching through the trees. Two of them were dressed in a similar way to the stranger, and held the same weapons. The one at the back was talking loudly. "…and every extra hour of exposure increases the chances that I'll be damaged for life. I'm sensitive to such things. I'm sure that Ronon could cope with losing a few brain cells, but mine are precious. How often has the fate of the galaxy depended on your brain?"
McKay, he thought sluggishly. Something about the rhythm of his voice reminded him of the way the stranger had talked about him. His stranger, at least, would be safe. He had no such illusions about himself.
They had seen him now. The second figure, the smallest, gasped. The leading figure leapt on him, hand at his throat, knife beneath his eye, and crushed him to the ground. Did you do this? his eyes demanded.
He could not deny it. "I'm sorry." His voice was tiny, driven from his chest by his attacker's weight.
"He has a knife in his chest," said the one called McKay. "Has anybody noticed he has a knife in his chest. Oh. He's awake." His voice did not change. "Have you noticed you've got a knife in your chest?"
"Yeah," whispered the stranger. There was a smile in his voice, and the comfort that came from being with friends, even if you were on the brink of death. "'s kinda hard to miss."
"Pull it out, Teyla!" McKay urged. "It's not right."
"I cannot," said the third voice, and he realised that this was a woman. "It will make his injuries worse. We need to get him to Carson as soon as possible."
"What did you do?" growled the large man, digging his knife in deeper.
"Leave him, Ronon," said the stranger. A second later, when the giant didn't move, he hissed it again. "Ronon!" It was a command; dimly he recognised that. The large man climbed off him, but made no attempt to spare him from trampling.
"…and, in case you haven't noticed," McKay was saying, "the jumper's miles away, and yes, I know I can fly it – quite well, if I say so myself – but not even Sheppard could land it in these trees. And if I stay here another hour, I won't be flying it anywhere."
"If he stays here another hour, he will be dead," hissed the woman. The woman pulled up the stranger's right hand, showing the bloody mess to McKay. McKay looked sick. "These will get infected, if they're not already," she said. "He's got a head injury..."
"And the knife. I can see the knife." McKay threw up his hands. "What happened to him? Here I am, dying from poison, and he has to go one better."
He shifted cautiously on the ground. He thought they had forgotten him, but then he saw that the big man was still watching him, eager for the excuse to kill him.
"Do you know what happened here?" McKay seemed to be addressing the stranger. "Turns out that the natives are friendly enough, once certain things are explained – something that Teyla is a whole lot better at than you, I hasten to add. Teyla should do all the talking in future. Your 'we come in peace, and, hey, can I flirt with your women?' routine always seems to end up with us running for our lives."
"McKay," the woman warned, but the stranger seemed a little stronger, a little more alert. He could not manage words, but he managed a smile.
"It turns out that this place is your typical once-great-civilisation-now-fallen-into-the-Dark-Ages sort of thing. Old weapons lying around that none of these idiots understand – that sort of thing. Someone must have set one off by accident. It must have been broken. Either that, or this once-great-civilisation-etc.-etc. thought it a good idea to make a weapon that wiped out its own territory. Explosions, missiles, chemical warfare – the works. Of all the stupid ways to die – killed by a stupid, messed-up weapon activated by a stupid, messed-up native."
"McKay," the big man growled.
McKay threw his up hands. "Okay, okay, I'll help carry him. Again."
The stranger stirred. "You've never carried me anywhere, Rodney."
"Ronon and I will help him walk," the woman said. "You should go ahead and bring the jumper as close as you can. Contact Atla… home, and get them to prepare a medical team."
"What about the prisoner?" the man called Ronon asked.
He thought his stranger was unconscious again, and he was alone, but the wounded man opened his eyes again. "He comes with us. He needs help."
"He stabbed you," McKay exclaimed. "What's with this bleeding heart forgive and forget routine? He stuck an enormous knife through your chest."
"It wasn't his fault." Although weak, the stranger's voice still commanded obedience. "He needs help."
"Have we started collecting strays now?" McKay swallowed hard, clearly nervous, before, with a sigh, he turned and jogged away.
He lost track of days. He saw wonders that were more than he could ever imagine. A man called Doctor Beckett prodded at him, and pronounced that he would get better in time, and there would be no lasting damage from the poisons. A woman called Doctor Heightmeyer kept happening casually to pass by, and asked him if he wanted to talk.
He kept to his bed. Whenever the man called Ronon neared him, he stiffened, and feared for his life. Teyla, the woman, smiled at him with stiff friendship. A woman called Doctor Weir welcomed him, but made clear with her eyes that she could never forgive him, even though her words said otherwise. McKay just ignored him.
"…why Colonel Sheppard didn't just kill him when he had to chance…" He heard that once, spoken in a voice he did not recognise. Later, days later, he heard laughter, too, but that was not for him.
Colonel Sheppard was his stranger. Lieutenant-Colonel John Sheppard. "Call me Sheppard," he said, when they met for the first time, afterwards. He did not want to. It felt different when names were involved – more ordinary. As a stranger, this man had unshaped his life, and remade it in a new and impossible fashion. The pieces of his new life had yet come together, but the reshaping was no less miraculous for that.
He did not want to remember the horror of the journey back to the vessel that they called a jumper. He could barely even remember the marvel of ascending into the sky, for Teyla and Ronon were bent over his stranger, trying to force life back into his body. He remembered the shocking smear of blood on the jumper floor. He remembered the grim faces of the healers as they loaded the body onto a wheeled stretcher and whisked it away. He remembered sitting forgotten on a bed in the place of healing, hearing the shouts and the alarms that issued from a curtained space at the far end. He remembered the anxious faces of those who were waiting – and their relief, too, two days later, when Doctor Beckett emerged from the curtains, red-eyed with exhaustion, but smiling.
He had done all that. If it hadn't been for him…
"Hey." He raised a sluggish head to see Sheppard standing beside his bed. He still looked weak, barely able to stand, but there was a determination in his eyes that showed that he would die rather than admit it.
"Are you always so friendly with people who try to kill you?" he blurted out. For he had seen other things, too, during that desperate attempt to save this man's life. Colonel Sheppard already bore scars.
"Not usually, no." Sheppard cautiously lowered himself onto the adjacent bed, resting on its edge. "Ask a guy called Kolya."
"You were sick," Sheppard said. "People do things when they're sick."
"I killed everyone I've ever known," he said. It was the first time he had said it out loud – the first time he had clearly thought it. "I know what McKay said. It was an accident. I pressed a button, and made something bad happen. But I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. And afterwards… I ran away from my father as he was dying. I killed… I killed my friends. I convinced myself they weren't real, but I think deep down I always knew the truth. It was me. I just couldn't accept that. It was easier to hide in fantasy. And I hurt you. Why didn't you let them kill me?"
Sheppard seemed to think for a while, before coming to a decision to speak. "See, I didn't know the reason myself, but a guy gets time to think, stuck here in bed with nothing to do. Last year…" Sheppard shifted uncomfortably on the bed. "I was… infected with something. I… You don't need the details, but I became something… different. I was out of control. I did things… I hurt people. I had friends who stopped me from hurting people too badly and brought me back, but if I'd been all alone…" He had been looking at the floor while talking, but now he looked up. "I don't know what it's like for you, but I know better than you might think."
"Like I said then, I'm no shrink. I'm not much good at talking about these things. Normally I wouldn't… not in front of the others… but… I don't think it's for anyone else to forgive you. I think it's for you to forgive yourself." He ran the tips of his bandaged fingers up and down the edge of the bed. "People make mistakes. Some things can't be changed. It's how you carry on living afterwards that makes you what you are."
He did not know what to say. And then he was saved from any answer at all by Doctor Beckett's scolding. As Colonel Sheppard was hustled back to bed, he lay back down and stared at the ceiling.
He did not look away through all the long evening, as Sheppard's friends came and went, but no-one stopped for him.
"You're sure of this?" Sheppard was still not allowed to go anywhere without someone hovering watchfully in attendance, but he had shaken off his guard once again.
He nodded. "I am."
Doctor Weir had stiffly invited him to stay. Teyla had promised him a place with her people, if he wanted it. Ronon had glowered, his eyes promising death if he had taken her up on the offer. A stiff-backed man had been heard to mutter that he could not leave, now he had seen as much as he had seen. Sheppard had put him in his place, though, quite calmly, but with utter command.
"You have to know that we can't give you a way to contact us," Sheppard said. "There's too much at stake. If you go back, you're on your own."
He raised his head, trying to hide how badly he was shaking inside. "I've been on my own for six years."
He was going back. For six years, he had hidden from the truth of what he had done. He would hide no longer. His own village was gone, but people in his village had had friends and cousins in other villages. There would still be people who wanted him to be called to account for what he had done. He might still have friends, but he did not want to think of that. Two survivors had come looking for him, and he had killed them.
"I cannot blame everything on the poison," he had said, the night before, and Sheppard had said nothing in response. Sheppard, his stranger, was no magician. He could not make everything right.
"We can come back," Sheppard said now. "Maybe in a few months?"
He wanted to say yes. He wanted to have that hope to look forward to. If things were terrible, he would have way out. But he could not. He had run from reality for far too long. "No," he said, shaking his head. "It is better not."
He walked towards the Gate. Sheppard came with him, seemingly awkward, not sure of what to say. He was human, too, as much as any of them. "Well, I guess this is goodbye."
He did not know what would happen. He did not know if he would break as soon as he saw the ruins of his village. He did not know if the others would condemn him, or if they would forgive. He did not know if he could ever sleep at night. All he knew was that he was going to try. He would run away no longer. A stranger called Sheppard had taught him that.
The Gate opened. Raising his hand once in farewell, he took a deep breath, and walked towards it.
He had never told Sheppard his name; that was his last thought as paused on the brink. Sheppard would carry on with his life, and would forget him. When he saw the scar on his chest, perhaps he would remember for a while, but that was all it would be. His life would carry on, unmarred by the tragedy of another.
Closing his eyes, he stepped through, and entered his future, alone.