Free Fiction Monday: Primitive Area

By the time Sara finds herself in the middle of the Idaho Primitive Area, she knows she made a huge mistake. Her decision clouded by the blush of new love, she agrees to accompany Travis on a weeklong hike. Sara, the city girl, in the woods, camping. And just when she thinks things can’t possibly get worse, she discovers just how wrong things can get—but in ways she never expected. Magical ways…

 

“Primitive Area,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here. and is part of the Out of the Woods Uncollected Anthology, available here.

Primitive Area

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

Reader, I loved him.

It is my only excuse.

 

***

 

They flew us into the Idaho Primitive Area. Small plane, private airfield, the top of a mountain. Eight in the morning, and the sun barely cresting over the nearby snow-covered peaks.

The pilot, in unwashed flannel, with hair sticking up on both sides of his head, and more stubble than I thought humanly possible, smoked a cigar the entire flight. I wasn’t sure he was sober. He smelled like whiskey—but whether that was from his unwashed clothes or from his sweat, I couldn’t tell you.

He looked at Travis—6’2”, six-pack, muscles on his tanned arms—and nodded. Then the pilot looked at me, and guffawed.

One foot shorter than Travis, and so unmuscular that if my body could talk it would ask what a muscle was, I was already struggling with my backpack. Yes, we bought a size-appropriate pack, and yes, we practiced with the damn thing every weekend for two months. Still didn’t mean it was comfortable. Still didn’t mean I was used to carrying sixty lumpy pounds on my shoulders and back.

I got the “light” items—the freeze-dried food, the water tablets, the blankets, and the only thing I cared about—my precious Kindle with 250 titles (some specially downloaded for this weeklong trip). My own sleeping bag was rolled at the bottom of the pack, and there were other things—cooking utensils, pots, and a tiny little axe that looked like something one of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves would have used—Disney version, of course.

I was out of my league, terrified, and looked it, which is why the pilot laughed. He’d seen people like me before. Sadist that he was, he didn’t even help me put my pack in the back of his plane—on all the soggy boxes and dog-hair covered blankets. He swung Travis’s pack into the back like it weighed nothing, and Travis was carrying nearly 100 lbs., because, he liked to say, he could.

Travis swung my pack into the back of the plane, and shrugged. Later, he’d tell me he thought the pilot hated women. I thought the pilot hated idiots, and I didn’t blame him. I had Simpering Dumbass tattooed on my forehead.

Let’s be clear: My idea of a weeklong vacation that you have to prep for is one that involves ball gowns and high heels and tickets to the theatah, and maybe to the opera, and scrumptious meals—prepared by someone else—and hotel rooms that are actual suites, with beds piled high with blankets and chocolates left on the pillow every night, and champagne left to cool on the table, as a greeting from the hotel staff.

I was doing this for the very reason the pilot had clearly pegged, the I’ll-do-anything-for-you-darling phase, which I had never ever thought I’d find myself in. I always thought women who molded themselves into someone else because they had fallen in love with some guy were spineless doormats, and I thought guys who did it were pathetic losers.

But what did I tell Travis?

I’m game for anything, sweetie.

Sure, I’ll try. Once.

As long as you don’t mind if I read.

He didn’t mind. I always read. He knew that. The summer we met, we’d lay in the bed of his truck. We’d start out entwined, and then, after, we’d end up perpendicular. He’d fold his hands behind his head. I’d rest my head on his stomach. He’d look at the stars, and I’d read about them.

Sometimes he’d point out something unusual (it was damn annoying during the Perseids meteor shower—a Hey, look, honey, every minute or two. Once you’ve seen one bright light shoot across the sky, you’ve seen them all). Sometimes I’d read him a particularly witty passage.

Those evenings were enjoyable—if a little cold—and somehow we devolved from that to a one-week hiking trip in the Idaho Wilderness, something Travis had always wanted to do.

Why he though I was the perfect companion, I have no idea.

Why I thought I could handle seven straight days of walking up narrow mountain trails, I really have no idea.

But I tried. I did.

And it wasn’t until Day Three that it all went wrong.

 

***

 

That is, from Travis’s perspective.

Me, it went wrong from the start. The guffawing pilot. The creaky and scary plane. The bouncing landing. The last bathroom I would see for days, inside the restaurant at the top of the mountain that catered to idiots like us.

The heavy pack digging into my shoulders. The bright sunlight, warm as it rose over the snow-covered peaks. The muddy trail, still chilled from snowmelt. The little tiny black bugs that Travis called no-see-ums, that hovered en masse along every single fork in the path. Why those damn things were called no-see-ums, I have no idea, because I-saw-um, usually as they enveloped my face.

They liked me. They hated Travis. He thought I was whining.

He was probably right.

I tried not to whine. About my bunchy socks which gave me blisters the first hour in. About the heavy pack that dug into my shoulders like the bra from hell. About the sheer repetitive boredom of marching the goat path to the main trail overlooking the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Halfway there, I was thinking we should have rafted the river. At least we wouldn’t be walking. Sure, my Kindle would’ve gotten wet, but I could’ve wrapped it in plastic—and maybe brought a reserve Kindle, or something.

But no, we chose to hike. To see the views. To “experience” Mother Nature.

She was a Mother all right, and the only thing I could think about when we reached our campsite at the end of the goat path, was getting my boots off, pasting antibacterial ointment over my popped blisters, and figuring out how be comfortable on the flat hard ground.

But before I could do any of that, I had to help Travis pitch the tent, gather firewood, cook the damn freeze-dried food in boiling hot water, and figure out how to shit in the woods.

I still didn’t know what the tiny axe was for, but that little experience in the woods taught me how to use the tiny shovel.

Travis thought the campsite beautiful. Just off the trail, on a wide spot overlooking the river several stories down, the camping spot seemed dangerous to me. Even though we were several yards from the edge, I imagined myself making a misstep and plunging into the waters below.

I didn’t tell Travis; he would have laughed.

Travis grew up in the woods. Not here, though. In the upper Midwest. His family tramped all over Northern Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He loved it there, and wanted to show it to me, but he promised we would never camp.

Not worth it, he said. Too much humidity and too many bugs.

Here, though, the air was dry and smelled of pine. It got cold at night (The better to huddle up, he said, which made me think more of a football game than snuggling with my boyfriend), and while there were a million no-see-ums in the actual woods, here, on the trail, there was constant breeze which, in Travis’s words, blew the bugs away.

I had no idea what to believe. I didn’t follow my usual habits and read up on the wilderness, after the first few days of planning that is. Most of the blogs were triumphant man-versus-nature stories. Most of the online articles were all about preparation or warning amateurs away.

I was an amateur, but Travis told me he wasn’t. And the way he bounded through that goat path, crossing fallen and rotting logs as if they were steel bridges, sitting on stumps and wolfing down a cold can of baked beans, he seemed like a pro at this.

We hadn’t been together long enough for me to know. He ran the Portland Marathon in the fall, and trained all winter, talking about an Ironman a year or so from now.

I found him exotic and beautiful. At night, I would run my hands over his ribcage, and down the hair along his flat stomach. Every guy I’d dated before him had a bit of flab at his belt line, but Travis didn’t. I wasn’t sure if he ever would.

He couldn’t sit still long enough.

I had no idea how he had gotten his Ph.D. Mine had taken hours and hours in the library, even more hours hunched over a computer, and one vomit-inducing morning of sheer terror, sitting across from the faculty advisors, defending my thesis. Of course, my thesis was on the use of the direct address in 19th century literature, which required me to read everything from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Charlotte Bronte, while Travis’s was on the eco-system of the Northwest, which required him to—I don’t know—eat berries or something.

All I knew was that from the moment I saw him walking across campus, I never thought of him as a subspecies of professor. He looked like someone who belonged in the athletics department or maybe as one of the boosters or the rich guy who handled all of the donations for alumni weekend.

And it didn’t hurt that he looked like a long-lost Hemsworth—tall, blond, Nordic, better suited to portraying Thor than lecturing students about old-growth trees.

What the attraction was on his side, I’ll never know. The initial attraction for me was fairly obvious. I’d never had the American-equivalent of a Greek God look at me with approval before. The fact that he was nice and smart and willing to put up with me made him even more attractive. The fact that he didn’t mind that I was constantly reading made him even more ideal. And the fact that he didn’t mind that I was constantly reading what my fellow English professors called dreck made him damn close to a saint, in my book.

Maybe I felt like I owed him. He didn’t mind my hobbies. He let me practice them right in front of him. I really shouldn’t have minded his. And mostly, I didn’t. I stood at the designated spots during the marathon, cheering as a scrum of sweaty bodies shuffled by. I took hikes with him all over the Northwest, mostly as practice for this stupid trip, and I even kinda liked sitting on a flat rock by a running river, reading, while he and his waders stood in hip-deep water, casting some kind of line and catching fish he would eventually release.

But by the end of the first night, in the “beautiful” campsite, I wasn’t sure this relationship would last. The air mattress had lost its air, and the rocky ground scraped every single part of my anatomy. Even though our sleeping bags were zipped together and Travis was radiating heat, I was still chilled to the bone. It got worse whenever I had to pee—which was much too often, probably because I was thinking about it.

Me and my toilet paper and my untied sneakers and my extra-long T-shirt would hurry into the woods to the designated pee area. At least at this altitude, the groundcover was sparse. Even the grass had to struggle just a bit to grow here. After the first trip, I didn’t bring a flashlight because the moonlight was so bright that it seemed like daylight out there—weird daylight, with all of the colors leached out of it daylight, but daylight all the same.

The moon wasn’t quite full, but it was fullish (I knew Travis knew what that phase of the moon was called, but I was too proud to ask him), and that meant creatures were rustling. Travis had warned me about what to do if I saw a bear cub (leave it alone) or a cougar (leave it alone) or a coyote (leave it alone), but he hadn’t told me what to do about that sense of being watched.

I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the wolves howling one Christmas night. I thought about Thoreau’s wilderness, filled with creatures to hunt. I thought about Heathcliff on the Moors and the Hound of the Baskerville, howling, howling, howling. The dark nights of the soul beside an Italian lake on a summer night darkened by soot from a faraway earthquake, a night that gave us both Frankenstein and vampires and all kinds of beasties.

And the tales of fairies out to trap the unwary, and the naked dancing around a bonfire, and banshees and witches that eat little children, and James Witcomb Riley’s goblins that’ll git you ef you don’t watch out, and by the time I’d peed twice, I was so thoroughly scared, I was thinking of peeing the bed—not that I would have, because we would have had to carry our soaked sleeping bags for the rest of the trip (and the smell, lordy). But I thought about it, and that was bad enough.

I couldn’t laugh it off by morning. I was exhausted and itchy and achy, and I longed for a bath more than I longed for anything else. Travis cooked me an oatmeal breakfast, and made campfire coffee, and talked of our grand adventure, and then, seeing how quiet I was, reminded me we’d have a hot springs near the next camp.

That was enough to get me walking, although the grooves in my shoulders ached worse than they had the day before, and the blisters on the bottoms of my feet threatened to become wounds, and the no-see-ums trailed me wherever I went. I marched forward sullenly, getting sunburned despite my SPF 50. The laughter and screams echoing up from the river canyon sounded like delight to me, and more than once I peered over the edge to see the happy faces of the people who had paid a small fortune to have guides babysit them down the rapids, set up their tents at night, and cook them gourmet meals.

Travis made fun of them—“tourists,” he called them. “Lazy,” he added by the end of the day. “They’re not enjoying like we are,” he said as he set up camp, and he was right: they were enjoying themselves more.

But I didn’t say it. I had signed up for this. I’d even lied to Travis and told him it had sounded like fun, thinking all the while that it wouldn’t be bad, and it would be one of those experiences we told our grandchildren about, and I would be happy I had participated.

The problem was, when you misjudged something on a 50-plus-mile hike in a wilderness the experts called extreme, you couldn’t just throw in the proverbial towel and go home. You were stuck.

Either hike out or die.

(Or, Travis told me when I asked before we left, use your satellite phone to call for help, so someone could fly you out, which sounded reasonable enough until he explained, on that first afternoon, that you still had to hike to some airstrip somewhere, because planes couldn’t just land willy-nilly in the Idaho Wilderness. It was no coincidence that he kept the satellite phone in his pack, and not in mine.)

He managed to patch the air mattress so the second night wasn’t as bad as the first, at least on the sleeping on rocks thing, and I slept the sleep of the deeply exhausted, until my bladder couldn’t take it any more.

Our pee spot this time was behind some big rocks because, in theory, this camping location was a popular one, due to the hot springs nearby. I say “in theory” because we were alone here, except for the damn no-see-ums.

The hot springs themselves were a mixed blessing. It was nice to scrape off some of the grime, although smelling like sulfur afterwards wasn’t my favorite of all perfumes. And much as my overtaxed muscles liked the heat, my blisters hated something in the water. They stung for hours afterwards.

Travis almost fell asleep staring at the stars, which was the only way I knew he was getting as exhausted as I was. He was actually snoring when I unzipped the tent, taking my flashlight and biodegradable (and damn near useless) toilet paper into the woods.

The moonlight was silver. I’d read that description in countless books and fairytales and I’d never known what it referred to. That leaching of the color I’d noticed the night before was worse here. My skin actually looked like someone had layered a silver patina over it. The plants seemed alive with light, but dead from the silver.

The night had an odd quiet. The river was too far away to hear, and Travis’s snoring had faded into the distance. Unlike the night before, nothing rustled around me. There were no chirps or cracking sticks, no crickets or small burrips from creatures I couldn’t identify.

The wind touched my hair like a hesitant lover, but even it didn’t make the leaves whisper. The silence felt eerie and unnatural, and even though I couldn’t hear anything, I had the odd feeling that I wasn’t alone.

That feeling was so strong, I didn’t want to pee. Not that I had much choice. I’d waited as long as I possibly could.

I cleared out an area near a tree well, something that would be easy to cover over, and did my business, and felt like I was peeing in an alley behind a really popular bar. My cheeks flamed, and even though I didn’t see anyone around me, I still wanted to apologize.

I’m not this person, I wanted to say. I’m really, really not.

I finished up, covered over the biodegradable paper, and scrambled back to the tent. Just as I rounded the rocks, I thought I saw movement—small movement, like a mouse or a vole or some kind of wild thing that scrambled by in the night.

My heart pounded, and I vowed silently to myself that I would never ever ever do anything like this again. No matter who asked. No matter the reason.

I liked cities. I liked neighborhoods. I liked knowing that if something was going to attack me, it wouldn’t have fangs. It would have a knife or a gun. It would have an intent I understood—like theft—and it would have ability to listen to me beg and whine and make promises. It would understand when I held a cell phone and dialed 911 that I firmly believed someone would come and save me. And it would have vulnerable spots that I could kick, like the tops of the feet or the crotch or the spleen, places I’d learned to attack in a long-ago self defense class. Its eyes wouldn’t be protected by fangs, and it would have an Adam’s apple (pronounced or not) that would be vulnerable to the side of my hand or my car keys, or my suddenly useless phone.

I had no skills here, no way to survive. I was sunburned and aching and tired and all I really wanted was a soft bed, electricity, and a fucking shower. And ointment. God, what I wouldn’t give for ointment.

I let myself in the tent, peeled off my T-shirt and shoes, and sidled in beside the still-snoring Travis. I joined him in sleep (if not snoring) until dawn decided to bathe our tent in golden light, which annoyed the hell out of me.

I rolled over, grumpily, and Travis laughed. “Catch a little more sleep,” he said, “and I’ll make a spectacular breakfast.”

“Of roots and berries and bird poop,” I muttered or maybe I just thought I did, because I did doze back off, hand covering my eyes, blocking a little of the light.

I have no idea how long I slept, but I know what woke me up. The whomp of something heavy falling on the ground.

I grabbed my shirt and my shoes and peered out of the tent in time to see Travis, horizontal, trussed like a Christmas goose, being carried away by a phalanx of ants.

At least, that was what it looked like. I blinked, rubbed eyes, and slapped my cheeks. My palms on the sunburn stung. I’d never slapped myself in my dreams, and if I had, I wouldn’t have added sunburn, so I knew I was awake.

I pulled on a pair of shorts, grabbed a shirt, and shoved my bare feet into my shoes. I hurried outside, slipping on the shirt as I went.

A fire burned in the fire circle, and the coffee pot that Travis had brought sat on a rock just outside it. The package of oatmeal stood nearby as well, along with a pitcher of water that was slowly turning blue as one of the purification pills dissolved inside it.

He had been making breakfast when he had—fallen over? When he had been kidnapped by ants? When they had tied him up?

What exactly had I seen?

I peered into the woods and saw a glint of blond hair in the sunlight dappling through the leaves. Something Travis-like was moving horizontally through the trees. Moving slowly, it seemed.

I figured if a thousand ants had to carry something that was, from their perspective, the size of a mountain, it wouldn’t be a task they could complete quickly.

I tied my shoes because I didn’t want to trip over the laces, and I grabbed a knife out of the cooking utensils. I wished the packs were smaller—I’d grab Travis’s—but at the moment, I didn’t want anything to slow me down.

It was easy to see the path the ants had carried him along. At calf-level, small branches were broken. In a few places, the ground actually looked trampled.

I ran along that path, wondering if I should notch the trees or something in case I got lost. I knew a lot of survival lore, but it was old—as in James-Fenimore-Cooper old—and I doubted any of it meant much these days.

Besides, I didn’t have time to double back and get supplies, even if I knew what supplies to grab. I had the panicked sense that I would lose Travis forever if I didn’t follow him now.

A hunk of blond hair was caught on some bark. That had to have been painful, but at least I wasn’t seeing blood.

Then I realized that, at the pace they’d been moving before, I should have caught them by now. They probably heard me, blundering along, snapping twigs and breathing hard, muttering to myself in my panic.

I turned in a full circle. The path vanished, right where that hunk of hair was. I crouched near it, and saw a flicker—glints of yellow light, which I had taken to be glinting blond hair in the sun-dappled forest.

It wasn’t.

It was something else.

I stuck my finger in it. Something grabbed that finger and pulled my hand forward. I nearly pulled back, but at the last minute, I shoved my arm forward instead—that old self-defense class rearing its memorable head: do something the bad guy doesn’t expect.

I lost my balance and had to put that hand down, and as I did, the trees vanished.

I was in a large clearing, and at the center of it was Travis, unconscious and tied up with teeny tiny string. He looked like an 18th century illustration from Gulliver’s Travels—Gulliver, captured by the Lilliputians. Eighteenth century political satire wasn’t my specialty and I couldn’t remember, for the life of me, if Gulliver ended up all right.

Not that it mattered, because I was being surrounded, not by ants, but by very tiny people, all less than two inches tall.

I almost said, “This isn’t real,” but I knew better. If this was real, then I would have to go along with it. If I didn’t, they would cast me out.

I crouched, trying to go through everything I’d seen in literature in one speedy thought—like the computer nerd in the movie who knew how to scan through the entire internet in one sitting to figure out exactly what he needed.

“Hi,” I said in a near-whisper, remembering how one of the most annoying things about Jack in the Beanstalk’s giant was that he talked too loud. “I’m Sara, and that’s my friend Travis. What did he do wrong?”

A ripple ran through the tiny people—conversation flowing like heat lightening across a dark sky. I couldn’t make out their words, only that they were saying something. Then they turned en masse to the center of their group, forming a very tiny circle.

In the middle of that circle, a woman as fair as Travis. She clapped her hands together, and suddenly the people weren’t tiny, and the clearing wasn’t clear, and the trees had returned, and Travis was still trussed like a deer about to be placed on top of a car.

The woman had a pale, angular face, and hair as silver as the moonlight. She wore a gown that looked like flowing water, dappled with golden sunlight—the glinting I had actually seen.

Dozens of people stood around her—all angular and thin, dressed in all colors of the forest, their eyes an icy almost clear blue.

“Why do you think he did something?” the woman asked. Her voice burbled like a stream over rocks.

I let out a breath. I didn’t know what these creatures were, but if they were the basis for all the humanoid fairylike creatures in English and American literature, they were tricksters. And there were common rules about tricksters: don’t eat their food, don’t touch them, and don’t let them control the conversation.

“What did he do?” I asked again, this time speaking in a normal tone.

“He volunteered himself,” the woman said. “Are you doing the same?”

My heart was pounding. No one had come near my little knife, useless as it would have been against dozens of these creatures, and no one even looked at it.

The woman stared at me, her eyes changing color from ice gray to gray blue to sky blue and back again. It was dizzying.

“What did he do?” I repeated, hoping the third time was the charm.

“I told you,” she said, sounding irritated. Wasn’t that a rule too? Don’t irritate the fairies. “He volunteered.”

I could ask a variety of questions, which would then send me deep into losing control of the conversation. She wanted me to ask how he volunteered. She wanted me to comment on the tiny ropes. She wanted me to think about rescuing him, instead of whatever they were doing.

All I could do was keep what little control I had.

Forgive me, Travis, I thought, thankful he was unconscious.

“Well,” I said in the calmest voice I could manage. “Since he volunteered, I’ll be on my way.”

I leaned back, hoping that would place me inside the forest again—the regular forest. I wasn’t sure what I would do when I got there. Get the satellite phone from Travis’s pack? Call for help? And say what? That Travis had been kidnapped by creatures of myth and carried off into fairyland?

“Wait,” the woman said, sounding surprised. “I thought you wanted him.”

I froze, feeling a strange energy around my middle. I cast my gaze downward without moving my head. My upper torso was inside this strange land, but everything from my hips back remained in my world—at least, I hoped that was what was happening.

“Well,” I said in my driest tone, “maybe I did two days ago, but seriously, lady, look at me. I’m sunburned, I’m tired, I’m filthy and I’m covered with blisters. This man loves the outdoors, and I’ve come to realize that I don’t. So he volunteered for your little games, whatever they are. Fine. Enjoy him. You clearly like it out here. It suits you. In fact, you’re one of those women who looks better when she’s outside. Me, I look like an overripe tomato and probably smell like day-old sausage.”

Someone tittered in the back, confirming my opinion.

“If he wants to eat freeze-dried food for the rest of his life, and pee in a tree well—” I almost stopped right there, as I realized what he had probably done. Were these pixies? Nyads? Dryads? Some kind of tree-worshiping fairy, that could change size, and had maybe built their city around the base of a tree?

I had all of those thoughts while I continued talking. That would be the only explanation. He had to have done something before I woke up—crossed a fairy circle, grabbed a charmed branch, ate the wrong kind of berry—oh, idiot. He had probably eaten something he shouldn’t have, brilliant professor of Ecology that he thought he was.

“—then he’s welcome to all of that,” I said. “Because, me, I prefer indoors. Libraries with big glass windows as the rain pours down them, and concrete staircases with wrought iron railings. I like cityscapes, big brick buildings with modern steel frames. I like streets and alleys and restaurants and—”

As I spoke, she shuddered. At first, I thought maybe she was shuddering because she didn’t like cities. And then I remembered. Fairies and metal. Was it steel? Iron? Or was it all metals? And was she a fairy or something else? I had no idea.

“—a roof over my head and human neighbors and—”

“I understand,” she said in a tone that also indicated that she disapproved. “So if you dislike our woods so much, why are you here?”

Her eyes stopped shifting color. They were suddenly a very intense blue. Paul Newman blue, my mother would have called it.

I looked at Travis. He was still unconscious. His mouth was open just a bit, and his tongue was tucked to one side. No one stood near him now, although he still looked like a Christmas tree that had been braided closed.

“I love him,” I said.

The blue in the woman’s eyes frosted over as she smiled. “Then you would be willing to change places with him?”

My own mouth opened slightly. My heart started pounding, and my grip tightened on the knife.

All of the fairies—or whatever they were—stared at me. They had half-smiles on their faces, that look of “bright menace” that I had read about in so many books.

“Why would you want me?” I asked, and as I did, I realized I had just lost control of the conversation. I shouldn’t have asked the question, even though it was a very good one. “I mean, he’s about as perfect a specimen of humanity as you can get.”

The woman looked at him. I recognized her expression. If he had been a car, she would have been kicking his tires.

“I’ve seen better,” she said.

“Then let him go,” I said.

Her gaze met mine. “If you stay.”

“I made myself clear,” I said. “I don’t like all this nature stuff.”

“And that would make your sacrifice even more precious to us,” she said.

Sacrifice. What had I read about sacrifice? It was the center of certain primitive magics, things I didn’t entirely understand.

“Let me get this straight,” I said, regaining my I-don’t-give-a-toss tone. “You want me to give up my life so this guy can live his life. You would set him free.”

“Yes,” she said with an almost feral intensity.

“Because a willing sacrifice means more than…revenge? Ineptitude? Whatever the hell it was that he did,” I said.

“Yesss.” Something in her tone made me think of Golem and his precious.

“It’s my choice,” I said.

“And you love him,” she said, prompting me.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I said. “Didn’t you people get sick of this kind of stuff centuries ago? I mean, really. It—”

Choose,” she said.

The hilt of the knife bit into my hand. There were close to fifty of these creatures. I wasn’t sure if I could stab them all and suck their powers away with my little steel blade—if, indeed, the knife was steel. If, indeed, steel was what hurt them. If, indeed, they didn’t have other magic I was unaware of.

Choose,” she repeated.

“Okay,” I said, and leaned backwards. My head popped out of that little circle. I couldn’t even see it any more, although I suspected I could feel it if I stuck my hand forward.

I turned around, and saw that the trail remained, some of it trampled by my big galumphing feet.

I followed it back to the campsite. The fire had burned out, leaving only gray ash in the fire ring. The sun was setting over the western edge of the mountains. It was going to get cold.

I shivered. I was alone up here. Really alone. No screams from rafters down below. No sense of eyes watching me any longer.

I was shaking. I set the knife down next to the coffee pot and, with shaking hands, grabbed the water pitcher before I realized I probably shouldn’t drink out of it.

I found the last bottle of water, which I had stowed in my pack. I hovered over both packs, heart still pounding.

I knew how the stories went. Either I went back in with all the magic I could find, or some kind of trinket that was made of cold metal, or with holy water or something, or I sacrificed myself, saving Travis or dooming us both. I had no idea.

Or I found some magical assistance, and we all went in, but by then, he might be decades older or decades younger or his soul would be gone or he would be happy in his little woodsy world.

Fairy tales—the real ones—always had a touch of cruel truth to them.

I grabbed the satellite phone before I could think about it, and dialed the number that Travis had pasted onto it. The direct number to Idaho Mountain Search & Rescue.

They answered immediately. I told them where I was more or less, told them that Travis had disappeared before breakfast and I couldn’t find him, told them I knew nothing at all about hiking, that he had been my guide, told them I was scared to death.

They told me to stay put. They’d come for me.

And they did.

 

***

 

He’s been missing two weeks now. They’re despairing of finding him, although they tell me that people have managed to live in the woods for sixty to ninety days in the summer, particularly people who have some wilderness experience.

But their eyes say he’s gone, maybe for good.

Three days in, I did tell the guy in charge of my rescue the truth. He chalked it up to a hallucination, or so he said, but shortly after that, their leader told me to brace myself for the fact that we might never know what happened to Travis.

It seems to me Idaho Mountain Search & Rescue volunteers have heard stories like this before.

I keep replaying the events over and over in my mind. Of all the companions Travis could have had on this trip, I was probably the best, the one most versed in fiction and fictional lore.

But that didn’t save him.

It did save me.

And I suppose I should feel guilty about that.

But I don’t.

Because, Reader, you see, I’m pretty clear on one thing:

I loved him.

Just not that much.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2016 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Nelieta/Dreamstime
Uncollected Anthology logo art © Tanya Borozenets/Dreamstime
Uncollected Anthology logo design © Stephanie Writt

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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