A few minutes over the 12am deadline, here’s Tidal part 5 – The Wilds.
Fantasy, 3029 words.
The little sailboat stayed near the centre of the channel between the islands. They seemed deserted, at least of people. Wildlife teemed in the air, water and on the beached. The overly large gulls seemed to be fighting for some food on the waters edge, diving down only to be driven back by animals that looked a lot like seals.
When she rounded the islands Jenny could see a number of other islands scattered off into the distance. They were mostly small, tall and verdant. Most of the islands Jenny thought she could walk across in just over ten minutes. The Waypoint sailed much closer to the fourth island she passed, everything looked familiar enough. The landscape and plants made her think of New Zealand, or a particularly fertile English summer.
After a while the smaller islands fell into the distance as the sailboat skipped into the open waters again on a strong breeze. A loud noise caused Jenny to jump, she turned to see a downpour of water falling back into the waves. She understood the cause a moment later as another whale arched out of the water by the Waypoint, exhaled a huge fishy scented breath and slid back under the surface.
At least that’s what she assumed it was, it certainly looked like a whale but the animals skin was brown and marked a like a giraffe. The pod was larger than anything Jenny had experienced on the water before. She counted twenty-three but guessed the pod was thirty or so strong, it was hard to tell one whale from another.
They didn’t concern her. They kept on eye on her boat and surfaced near it, not under it. They kept with her for a while then veered off as a coastline came into view. The whales departed in style with a number of spectacular breaches.
The island became clear as she got nearer, it was much larger than the earlier ones. As she grew close she could no longer see both ends of the island. She aimed her little sail boat for a natural bay, framed by dark stone cliffs, a soft beach slope turned into rolling hills that led above the cliffs and inland. The tide was gentle but insistent and she found that she had to slow the boat as she moved into the bay.
She hadn’t seen the small wooden jetty as she’d approached. It had remained hidden by the curve of the bay. It was a welcome sight though, and she turned the Waypoint toward it. She had to do very little work to line the boat up so she could leap out and tie it off. She looked at her ride and wondered how often it had done this journey, and if the boat really needed anyone in it.
If she untied the Waypoint now, would it sail back to Mary’s kitchen on its own? She was curious, but not curious enough to lose her only way back off the island. The jetty was rough-hewn wood, obviously not made for its looks. Thick ropes lashed the wood frame together, split logs or branches made the surface slippy and she was glad to reach the beach.
A pleasant breeze cooled Jenny as she walked across the beach. The sun was out, and it was warm, even though it looked like the day was nearly over. The blue sky was dappled by scattered cumulus, high and slow moving. Beyond the beach were cliffs, rising sharply either side of a slope that Jenny saw was the only way up. She picked her way through the dunes and trekked up the hill and onto the grass above the beach.
It was a steeper and longer slope than it first looked and by the time Jenny reached the top she was breathing heavily. Catching her breath, she slowly walked around to the edge of the cliff. The view was beautiful. The arc of the bay lay below her, beyond that the open ocean stretched into the distance. Far away now, and only just visible, the stragglers from the pod blew spouts of water and played. She had an urge to follow them, to who knows where.
Jenny looked around, realising she didn’t know where to go next. The lightness of her mood faded with the realisation. Was this where she was supposed to be? Should she get back in the boat? Or just walk around the island? Either way, it was going to be dark in an hour or so.
That ruled out sailing, trying to sail in the dark with no equipment was a sure way to get into trouble. So, Jenny mused, she was here for the night. She looked inland but couldn’t see far, grassy hills rose nearby and trees blocked her eye line. She sighed, she’d only just got her breath back from the last hill but if she climbed she’d be able to see further inland.
It took a while but it was worth it, from the top of the hill she could see much further inland. Ahead of her lay rolling hills, trees, inland cliffs and bluffs. It was rough terrain, but passable. She saw no sign of houses, or roads. Jenny thought about this, it either meant she was somewhere very desolate, and quiet, or like the other islands she’d seen, this one was also uninhabited. If that was the case, why did the Waypoint bring her here?
Mary and Richard had asked her to trust them, and despite barely knowing them, she did. The Waypoint had brought her here, to this island among them all. So her dad must be here. Somewhere. Jenny decided to search, and rough it if need be. The weather was warm and sleeping outside would be picturesque.
A family of deer looked at her from a few hillocks over, then turned and strolled away. Jenny thought she smelled something, and then lost it. She stood, stock still, sniffing the breeze until she caught the scent again. It was wood smoke! So, someone did live here, a fire was burning on the island. Another smell overwhelmed the first, a sweet smell, which changed into something rotten and putrid and Jenny gagged.
Nearby something unleashed a guttural sound that became a wet growl. Jenny looked around quickly, startled at the frightening sound she dropped to her haunches. She thought she caught movement far to her left. She stared at the spot but after a few tense breaths, she couldn’t see anything move.
“That’s that then,” Jenny said to herself softly. Direction was easy when your choice was either towards something growling, or away from something growling. She set off. After a while she was wet and tired, the brooks were hard to cross and keep dry feet. After rounding a copse her heart leapt, in the far distance she could see wisps of smoke, the remains of a column from a chimney dissipated in the breeze.
She couldn’t see what the smoke was from, but it looked like a twenty or thirty minute hike from her. Remembering the guttural growl, she wanted it to be quicker. Taking her baring from the surrounding landscape, she tried to memorise where she’d come from and where she was heading. It was a good trick, if she actually remembered, and she wasn’t sure she would. Still, it seemed like the only option.
She caught movement in the corner of her eye and turned, something large and brown moved, it was blending in with the landscape so well then when Jenny lost sight of it she thought it had vanished into the ground. She moved back toward the trees, climbing over the rocks. She tried to be as quiet as possible, and almost made it. As she reached the trees she stood on a branch.
The crack sounded like a gunshot in the silence, birds took flight from the trees around her and she jumped, letting out an involuntary cry of surprise. Jenny looked around, shrinking against the nearest large tree trunk as much as she could and for a moment, nothing moved, and she hoped. Then she saw it. A wolf like shape shook itself free of a bluff, crawling out of the rock face.
Not around it, or over it, but out of the rock itself. Jenny’s stomach cramped, her bowls tried the opposite but she was having not of that. The creature was almost back where she’d been on the hill about seven minutes back. It looked around, directly at where the sound had come from and let lose a howl.
Jenny didn’t know if it saw her, but after a moment it sidled down the hill and disappeared into some rocks. Jenny looked round, oriented herself again, and knew she couldn’t run the whole way to where she’d seen the smoke. She picked her way through the rocks as fast as she could and climbed the grassy embankment.
The other side was the top a high bluff, she couldn’t go directly down so she picked her way around it, the other side was a smooth hill down to another stream. A long step from a handy rock took her over the water without getting soaked, small mercies, and she started up the hill on the other side as fast as she could.
The smell hit her as she climbed. It shifted constantly, one moment it was flowers, then pine, or the smell of grass and so on. It could be a nice smell but underneath it was the smell of rotting flesh; death and decay. It was rancid, and close. Jenny heard it then, moving through the copse trees behind her, branches cracking as it followed her trail.
Jenny panicked, she looked around for a weapon of some sort, something to scare it off or drive it back. She kicked herself for not grapping a branch as all that was nearby was small rocks. She pried a handful from the soil and, keeping one eye on the treeline, climbed as fast as she could.
When she saw it in the trees, she stumbled and fell. She was closer than the last time she’d seen it, now it was brown and green, mottled and marked like a tree. The animal’s movement was hypnotic and magical. It stayed close to the ground, panting and sniffing loudly. The creature walked around some trees but ignored others, flowing into them and emerging on the other side. It’s coat a new pattern each time. As it cleared the copse it sniffed the air and the large head first looked around then turned toward Jenny.
The stench was awful, the growl something worse. It was like it was a physical presence. The sound slid up the slope toward her, and turned her body to into a shivering wreck. Her mind screamed, thoughts ran in every direction but her body was frozen to the grass. She knew the rock she clutched was going to do nothing, but she steeled herself to fight anyway, if she could get her body moving.
A buck and a doe jumped from the trees, sprinting away as fast as they could. Perhaps it was the growl that caused them to finally run, perhaps they’d held still as long as they could before trying to escape. Jenny didn’t know. What she did know is they saved her life. As the deer leapt and ran the creature turned, it yipped in excitement and took off after its new prey.
Jenny let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding, she dropped the stone and ran. She’d been running for a few minutes before she thought about what direction she was going in, it wasn’t to far off, she adjusted her course and headed for the large treeline in front of her. When she reached them she picked her way into the trees and stopped when she was a few deep.
She hunched down by the tree and cried softly. It was more the release of emotion in general than anything specific and it passed quickly. She wiped her eyes and realised that she didn’t know which direction to go in other than back out. Jenny oriented herself, increasingly difficult in the now fading light, and then went back into the trees. She wasn’t sure how long she could keep up a single direction but she was determined to try.
After five minutes of slow progress through the thigh high plants and leaf litter Jenny realised she was crossing a trail. It wasn’t much a trail, but it was the first she’d seen. She was so relived that she grinned at the thin path. It stretched off to the left and curved upwards to the right. That was more like the direction she needed, she started off at a much faster pace.
The trail led out of the trees and she found herself stood at one side of a valley, at the top of the other side of the valley, nestled between a rocky outcrop and few trees, was a wooden rancher. Smoke curled from the square chimney. Jenny had never been happier to see a building, she picked her way across the valley and climbed the other side more slowly than she’d have liked. Her legs were hurting now, she wasn’t used to this level of hiking.
Doubts circled her mind as she approached the front, what if this wasn’t her dad, or if they were hostile. She wasn’t sure what she’d do. She needed a place to stay regardless, so she was going to try and stay here. She was within twenty meters when the front door clicked, creaked and opened. A man, older than her dad, looked out. His face crumpled in confusion as he stared at Jenny.
Then she realised, his expression, the shape of his face, this was her dad. The only photos she had of him were so old she’d not recognised him.
“Julius?” She asked, her voice soft, vulnerable.
“Yes … is, is that you? Jenny?” He stepped from the doorway, but he didn’t get far. Sore legs ignored, Jenny ran forward and into her father’s arms. Tears were more welcome this time, from both. It took a couple of minutes, some sniffing and a giggling fit before Jenny and Julius moved inside his home.
“I, I don’t believe it. You’re finally here!” He paced as he spoke, Jenny pulled out a chair and sank into it gratefully. “Are you ok? Do you need anything?” Jenny shook her head.
“I don’t believe you’re here, you know mum told me you were dead?” She said.
“What? I … I never wanted that. Why?” Julius asked. Sadness and anger flashed across his features.
“I don’t know,” Jenny replied, she caught his eye and held it, “we’ll never know. I’m sorry dad, she passed away.” Julius went still.
“When?” He asked. Jenny wasn’t sure of his reaction, but Julius seemed unsure too. He was over her and the relationship, but it had been a large part of his life.
“A few weeks back, I was sorting the house out when I found your notepad.”
“Oh yes!” He said, animated again. “Did you go see Mary? And Richard?”
“What? They put you right on the boat?”
“More or less. Plied me with gallons of tea first.”
“That sounds like them. I guess they’ve been waiting a long time for this too. I haven’t seen them in months. Time is a little different here.”
“What? Oh, later,” She waved away his reply. Tiredness was really seeping into her now.
“Let me get you a drink,” Julius said, “you look as though you had a rough trek here.” He bustled about, pouring water into a pot and hanging it from a hook in the fireplace. Jenny watched him work, unable to take her eyes off him. The wall creaked as the wind, or something else, howled briefly. Jenny pushed herself up and moved closer to her dad. They smiled at each other and hugged.
She pushed him pack a little, holding him at arms length. Jenny tilted her head toward the door.
“Are we safe? Something was hunting me, some deer saved me.”
“What?” Julius replied, his face showing confusion, not fear. He looked to the door then back at his daughter.
“You must have seen it, the … animal that’s out there. Or whatever it is.” Jenny persisted. Julius realised what she meant.
“Ah, you mean the wilderness. It’s not bad, just unpredictable. You know, sometimes it’s a rabbit, then sometimes a bear, or many things in-between. Really, you never know with the wild.”
“Oh. It was huge, like a wolf. It passed through things. Rocks, trees.”
“Sounds like you caught it at a bad time,” Her caught her angry look and went on faster, “really. It’s not evil, just best to be avoided sometimes. Other times it just wants to play. I’ve a tennis ball it loves around here somewhere.” He looked at her, so much older but he knew her eyes so well, he watched the fear leave her but she still looked worried.
“You will stay? Won’t you? At least for a little bit.” He asked.
“Yes, yes of course. I don’t think I could make it back right now anyway,” Jenney said. “I think I have about a thousand questions. I’ll start with where is this place? Why are you here?”
“Let’s get you settled, and I’m not sure I have a thousand answers, but I’ll do my best.” Julius smiled as Jenny did, a weight lifting from his heart.
“In short, before I finish your tea, I’m here because I accidently found this place many years ago. A few other know about it, but I’m the only one studying it. No one knows how many islands exist, or what’s on them. I’m doing an Attenborough, exploring and studying the animals and plants.”
“That makes me think of another thousand questions.”
“Like I said, time is different here. We have tine enough to run through all your questions. But for now, do you take milk?”
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