Day Twenty-Six

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As another day dawned without water, walking became more of a battle than a struggle. They trudged down the beach for half of the morning. Still nothing.

"We need to stop," Raina said. "Rance isn't doing well."

She had put it as nicely as she could. His forehead was warm against her hand, and sweat dotted his temples. He had broken out into a fit of shivers that had not stopped since they had awoken.

She lay him down in the sand as comfortably as she could, balling the bags together to make a rough pillow, and examined his leg again. There was a slight tremor, and she tried not to look too closely at the grey puss leaking from it, or the broken scabbing that encircled it.

She kept her expression neutral as Rance watched her, his eyes never leaving her face. "We should wash it again," she said. When she finally eased out his worst fears, she stood and turned away, and she grimaced. A tear spilled over her cheek, then another. But she did not make a sound, not after telling them she was going for a walk, and leaving them all behind. She walked and walked and stared at the wall, then the sand, then the sea, never looking behind her.

They needed a way to cross; that much she could handle. But not losing Rance. Not watching the infection spread and having to tell him it was getting better even though he could see for himself that it was not, even though even he knew she was only telling him what he wanted to hear.

She kept walking, one foot in front of the other, and realized just how badly her ankle hurt. The wound that had been cured by a miracle. It still throbbed every day and she could not twist it much at all, but she could walk. A limp, but a walk. She had lived.

But could Rance be that lucky? The waves thundered onto the sand in response.

Eventually the ground began to rise. She had seen it from afar, but as she walked the incline, she realized what it actually was. She passed a small plant, no bigger than her fist, sprouting by the wall. Then another. And when the hill at last crested and began to descend again, the wall began to curve away, back inward toward the mountain.

And her eyes filled with trees.

At first they were small; thin, scraggly things, beach trees with leaves blown by the wind until their branches reached behind them, bent backwards against the sea. But further inland they grew thicker and taller until the land at last returned to itself, no sign of the pollutants held back by the wall.

She turned and ran back to her crew.

"Trees," she said when she reached them, dropping to her knees as she searched for breath."I found trees."

By nightfall they were at the hill.

The ocean sang to her as Raina crested the hill again, the melody lifting her spirits, helping her to draw out the last of her energy. The thick, sticky taste in her mouth had grown, a swollen thirst taunted by the sea spray in the breeze, and her head pulsed with a hollow ache, pushing low against her eyes. She focused on the pounding of the shore as her stomach prodded at her. They could cross--they could find a way, as she had with Arleigh in the fire. Where there were trees there could be animals. There would be food. But after walking so far, the world blurring around her, her thoughts began to wander, flitting about before she could even finish them.

"Raina?" Kieran asked. She turned to him but the effort made her stumble. He looked as bad as her, Rance hanging off his side.

"I'll take him," she said. "You need a break."

Kieran handed Rance off to her and went to Maeve's side. Their hushed voices mingled with the wind, sliding in and out of Raina's earshot, muffling and sharpening as she wavered.

"Can we rest?" Rance asked. She pressed a hand to his forehead. It burned.

"Yes," she said. She lay him down. "And I'll find you food and water. I promise." She stood, bracing herself against the tree. She could barely move, but she would help him. She would do everything in her power to help him, even if she could not save him.

"No," he said, reaching up to grab her hand. "Stay. Please."

Raina looked to Kieran and Maeve, but they had vanished, leaving their bags but taking the gun. She turned back to Rance. He seemed so small, trying his best not to seem afraid, and the look in his eyes pleaded with her. "Okay," she said.

Raina lay down beside him. "Are you hot?" she asked, feeling his skin. The shivers had picked up again.

He shook his head. "Cold. So cold."

She wrapped her arms around him. He hugged her back, and within moments he was out, his face relaxing until he was at peace. "I won't leave you, ever," she whispered. Then she passed out without eating, head down in freezing sand, letting the earth leech everything out of her until her breathing settled in time with the waves.

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