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The Weeds in the Wilderness

Chapter Text

Water.

 

Mud.

 

Black, pulling, oozing, grasping mud. The earthy-rich smell of it; decay and water and roots. There was a scent of burning too. Was it chemicals? Smoke?

His face was damp and his head ached. Coldness and wetness seeped into his clothing like chilled fingers. He could hear trickling water, and beyond that, silence all around him; deep, full, endless silence. Somewhere far off, a bird called.

He was going to be sick.

The knowledge arrived about the same moment that his aching body convulsed, and his throat was suddenly full; on instinct he dragged his head to one side and the foulness poured out. He managed one desperate breath before his stomach twisted again, and he was left heaving and gasping in the dirt.

His eyes opened themselves, and took in a world in high contrast. Black earth, wet and fibrous, stretching up on either side. Dark water splashing over white rocks below. Above, tufts of grass and marshy plants of vivid green under a low grey sky. Cautiously he tried to lift his face out of the sticky mess it lay in, and even that little movement ushered in more pain. Breathing, he quickly discovered, was almost no good at all. Bracing himself, he pushed up with one arm and managed to roll on to his back. There he lay still for a long while, as a bird swooped and dived far off in the grey sky, and the fire in his body ebbed and flowed with it. When the flames of pain eventually died down to sullen embers, he was able, with some reluctance, to sit up. While he recovered, and the world span, he made an account of himself.

 

One: He was alive. A good start, all things considered.

Two: He was injured. The burning agony of cracked ribs was loudly proclaiming itself on his consciousness, so he counted that first. Moving to examine his ribs lead to a side observation of;

Three: He was wearing a loose long-sleeved tunic and trousers, possibly once in a pale colour although both of which were now caked with peaty muck and soaked through. His feet were bare, and also filthy. He had walked here.

Four: Oh, yes, his injuries. So his torso was bruised to deep purple all down the right hand side, with a worrying black area under his rib cage. He had hit something hard. Or something had hit him. There was a deep pain in his hip; a chipped bone perhaps.

Five: There was something embedded in his right thigh. He could see the end of it, a little shorter than his palm, sticking out from his leg, channelling a little blood. Brushing it with his hand sent a sickening vibration into what felt like the very bone itself and he almost threw up again. He stopped touching it.

Six: Someone had partially dressed his wounds. The shard of whatever sticking out of his thigh was showing between thick rolls of bandage tightly bound either side of the puncturing object.

Seven: There was something wrong with his neck and face on the right side. His shaking fingers were somehow reluctant to investigate the agonising wound, but there didn’t seem to be much blood on his tunic, so he tried to ignore it. But while he was on the subject of fingers, a couple of those seemed to be broken as well, and his wrists were rubbed raw.

Eight: He was not armed, had no possessions. There was nothing in his pockets, and there was nothing lying around or nearby.

Nine: His belly was empty with the kind of aching hunger that meant he had been hungry for a long time.

Ten: He was very tired. His head hurt.

Eleven: He was cold.

Twelve: He didn't know who he was.

That last observation took him by surprise, and he cast all the others aside for a moment to examine it further. It seemed to be true. He had no idea of who he was, where he was, how he had got to this stinking marsh, or how he had been injured. Why he had been running.

He didn't know his own name.

A tendril of panic pulsed through him, but he crushed it after only a couple of moments. This was because, as the panic had started, he had come to two further observations.

Thirteen: It was getting dark.

Fourteen: If he stayed here, he was going to die.

Neither quickly, but in the time he had been conscious and sitting here, the grey sky had noticeably deepened in colour. There was a slight wind, bringing a chill with it across the moor. Evening was on its way.

He needed direction. There was no use setting off blindly the way he had come. Besides, some instinct inside was still whispering run run run, and he was not going to sit here and ignore it when it apparently knew more about the situation than he did. Looking around, he saw he was lying in a wide channel, that the churned-up mud on its edges suggested he had fallen into. Rising on either side were sloping banks of peat, topped a metre or so above by tussocks of grass. Painfully slowly, he rolled back over on to his hands and knees, and clawed his way up the bank to the top. Perhaps he would be able to see a settlement nearby, a path maybe, or some sign of what he was doing here.

The wilderness of the peat bog stretched in an unbroken wave of green and black out to the horizon, undulating with a thousand water gullies, a million tussocks of heather and reedy grass. He could not see a single tree. Out of the protection of the channel, the wind whistled around his head, cold and mournful. He fought back despair. He was not dead yet.

Turning through a full circle, he realised that in one particular direction the moor was not featureless. Grey shapes, strangely amorphous, rose from the wild wetland around. They barely stood out against the sky, and judging their size was difficult in that featureless landscape. Could they be houses? It seemed unlikely that anyone would live in such a desolate place, but without any further direction, this seemed the best choice of any. And it was the opposite direction to where his footprints had come.

Run run run whispered the voice.

He limped. It was the best he could manage, for now.

 ~~~

The man with no memory would be the first to admit things were not going well. It turned out to be nearly impossible to keep to the raised grassy areas as he had intended. The peaty channels, once carved out by rivers of water long since gone, criss-crossed the moor in every direction, and his route was frequently interrupted as the high ground fell steeply away into another gully. He was soon forced to awkwardly climb down into the mud every few metres and then painfully scramble his way back up. The man tried following along the base of a gully that seemed to be going to direction he wanted, but after a while he realised it had sinuously curved away and was taking him in a different direction entirely. His thigh burned, and sweat was prickling at his forehead and back.

The shadowy shapes on the horizon didn't seem to be getting any closer, although as the sky darkened they stood out more starkly; black silhouettes over the dim brown land. While he was looking at the horizon, the next gully opened up sharply at his feet. It was only the louder sound of water that alerted him; and he caught his balance just in time. This channel was much larger; several metres wide, with a narrow stream the only remnant of the once great river which must have carved it from the peat. The thin water trickled down its centre over round pale stones. A huge stump from some enormous prehistoric tree jutted out from the bank, twice as wide as he was tall. At that moment, the last light of the dying sun burst through a gap in the clouds, painting a red finger of light across the moor. As the man paused, looking at the red-lit tree, a couple of startled birds suddenly burst into flight from the heather at his feet. He started back with alarm, instinct making him reach to his side for….

For what? Hanging from his belt, there should be …. But no. He wasn't wearing a belt. There was nothing there. As hard as he tried to make sense of the missing something, it dissolved away into the nothingness in his head, leaving just a faint nagging wrongness. The sun dipped behind the horizon and the light died. The man gritted his teeth, forcing back his frustration and anger. He had to keep going.

The momentary pause, however, had not helped the agony on thigh and hip, both of which seemed to have seized up as he stood still. The bandage was flapping loose, and he could barely put any weight on his leg now. Half hopping and half sliding, he made his painful way down to the shallow stream, and dunked his whole head in. The cold water washed the taste of sick from his mouth, cooled the fire of the wound on his neck, and cleared some of the dull fogginess from his brain. Crouching back from the water and blinking droplets from his eyes, he suddenly saw what he needed. Washed against the bank by an eddy in the stream, bleached white by the sun, were several long thin branches. In a moment of inspiration he tugged free the loose outer layer of the bandage around his thigh. It was filthy and stained, and the wound seemed to have stopped bleeding for now. He used his teeth to tear the bandage in half, and tied several of the longest sticks together side by side. It might be strong enough to form a decent crutch. He tested the walking stick by pulling himself up to his feet. It held his weight as he leaned on it. Yes, it would do.

Wearily, he took sight of the distant shapes he was aiming for. Did they seem any closer at all? He set off again. It was certainly colder, the light breeze had picked up to a chill wind the whistled through his wet clothing. There was barely any light left in the slatey sky now, and it was starting to become difficult to distinguish the black mud from hollows and gullies at his feet. Even though finding walking stick had alleviated a lot of the pain in his leg, he was forced to slow down to keep his footing.

An unguessable amount of time passed, one foot placed unsteadily in front of the other. Dizzy, shivering with cold, he looked up. To his surprise the black shapes he had been aiming at were looming up right ahead of him out of the darkness. He couldn't help a swell of disappointment when he realised the shapes weren't houses or any structures of civilisation, but giant pillars of weathered rock. The rock stacks were huge, many times his own height, formed of flat parallel layers of stone. The night around was featureless but for five or six more stacks disappeared off into the gathering dark. There was a deeper darkness behind the rocks to his left. He limped over to the closest rock pillar and leaned against it wearily. The rock was gritty and cold beneath his hands. The man closed his eyes, just for a moment, and tried to hold back despair. He could feel that he was almost at the end of his strength, and there was nowhere else to go. Aiming for these rocks had been a long shot anyway, but there was no help to be had here. The wind whistled past him and he shivered again, considering his options. It really all came down to two choices. Stay here, or go on. He could stay, and try and make a shelter at these rocks. There could be a cave. He might find enough wood around for a fire, not that he could light one. He might survive. Or, he could go on. Set out wildly into the dark in some random direction, on the off-chance that he stumbled across some help. It didn't seem like much of a choice at all, and the thought of just lying down here and not moving again was very compelling.

With a groan he pushed himself back onto his one good leg, and laid down the walking staff, swaying a little. The flat-layered construction of the rock stack at his back formed a number of thin stacked shelves. He pushed his hands into one narrow crack, found a foothole for his bare foot, gritted his teeth, and pushed up. The gritty rough texture of the stone provided good grip for his cold hands and feet, and despite the shaking in his bad leg and pain of busted fingers, he managed to pull himself up onto the top of the stack. Gripping it tightly, he turned, peering out into the night. Looking back the way he had come, there was nothing but dark shadowy land, indistinct and without feature. In the distance, very, very far off, he thought there was a lightening of the sky along the horizon. Perhaps it was just the last light from the setting sun, or perhaps there was a city out there. It didn't matter. It was too far to be any use to him.

He turned back, looking out instead over the deeper blackness behind the rocks, and gasped. There were lights! Half a dozen, perhaps, small flickering orange specks far down in the darkness. The land must fall away just beyond the rocks. A cliff edge probably, and down on the valley floor...fires, houses? A village? If so, it might just save him. As he tried to work out their nature and number, a suspicious thought came into his mind. Somehow he had been injured, and had ended up alone in this desolate place. His injuries may have been caused by an accident, but how could be have been injured that badly out in the middle of nowhere? And the fact he was wearing no shoes was telling. It seemed far more likely that either he had escaped from something, or someone had hurt him and then left him to die. Neither of those circumstances presented the opportunity for friendly innocent people to be nearby. What if he was returning straight back to the place he had escaped from, and the people who had harmed him? He gritted his teeth again. There was no real option. If he went down to the settlement, he might die. If he stayed here, he certainly would. He was under no real illusions that any shelter he could make up here would be enough to keep him alive through the night. Onwards it was, then.

He got the best sense of the direction off the lights below as he could, and then slithered down from the rocky height, scrapping the skin from feet and hands on the rough stone as he did so. He picked up his walking stick, and set off towards the cliff edge. There must be a way down. Fate would not be so cruel as to let him see his salvation but deny him the ability to get there. His strength would hold. It must.

Before long, he heard the trickling of water in the dark and realised that he had come across the stream again. It was flowing parallel to the way he was walking and he followed it willingly. After a few minutes, the gurgling of the water suddenly fell silent. He limped forward, cautiously. He had reached the cliff. The stream poured over a great rocky edge and out into the darkness. Below, he could hear the crashing of water on rock. Now he could see over the edge, and those hopeful lights flickering in the valley below.

His bare feet felt a change; the rough grass had given way to worn earth. A path. He felt himself smile, and it pulled the wound on his neck painfully. After a few hundred yards, the earth path turned to stone, and his foot found an edge. Steps.

Everything started to lose focus a little after that. Step after step, and each more agonising than the last. He lost his balance once as the muscle in his abused thigh gave out, and slid down several steps. Clawing himself back up through the wave of agony was almost more than he could manage, and he was never sure afterwards how he managed it. His eyes were swimming with black spots, feet so cold they couldn't feel the stone any more, breaths catching in his abused chest…There was a rushing sound. Was it water or the noise in his head?

Flat ground under his feet had him stumbling. The walking stick slid in his grasp, he almost fell again. Get up. Keep going. The lights were flickering and blurring in his fading vision. He would not fall. More unsteady steps, the lights drawing near. Just a little further…

He fell, and did not get back up. He dreamed of blue eyes and metal walls.

 

~~~