The Fragments – Chapter 2, Outside

From February 2022 I plan to publish sample draft chapters from upcoming books on my website. If you are interested in more information head over to the new section on Writing . And now … The Fragments – Chapter 2, Outside.

outside | aʊtˈsʌɪd |
noun

1 – the external shell or surface of an object or entity 
2 – the outward appearance of someone or something
3 – (the outside) – an area not enclosed by buildings or structures, often with undefined borders
4 – (also: the outside) [Arc] the worlds of the new domains past the divide,
see Note 4.1

4.1 – The outside Arc ideogram is proven to have pre-silence roots and allows, as all Arc ideograms, more than one interpretation (see outside in the Arc reader)  

Standard Anglaise, Fragments appendices, revision 4216 – Amik, Marcus

When Tayl finally dragged the girl out of the river, her body felt cold and completely limp. He rolled her on her back. Her face was deadly pale, her eyes closed. He leaned over her mouth but felt no breath and, when he pressed two fingers into the side of her neck, felt no pulse. He tilted her head back and checked her airways, then pinched her nose and repeatedly blew quick breaths into her mouth. When this yielded no results, he placed his hands on her chest, one hand on top of the other, and pushed hard. At his third push, her body jerked, and water thrust out of her mouth. He heaved her onto her side, silently thanking Graphyn for his first aid instructions. 

The girl retched up more water than should have been possible. For several minutes her body shook with coughs and desperate gasps for air.

She struggled to speak. ‘You … got … me out?’

He only nodded and sank back on his heels. 

The river bank lay in darkness, and the narrow beach would not be safe; the water was unpredictable and often rose without warning. They both were drenched and freezing and would need light, warmth, dry clothes. He looked up the cliff looming over the sandy bay. His gaze travelled along the gnarly roots clinging to the weathered stone to where an ancient tree perched at the edge of the high ridge—they had washed up on the ford below the marked tree. 

‘We need to get up the bank. Can you stand up?’ he asked.

The girl nodded and rolled onto her back. Her coughs had turned into shivers and chattering teeth. She looked up the bank. ‘Up there? How?’ 

‘There is a path between the roots. It’s steep but secure.’ 

She looked doubtful but took his hand when he held it out to help her up. Her fingers were cold as ice and trembled. 

They found the place where the roots of the oak reached down to the beach. Between the stems, sand and loose rock had caught in nooks and crevices, forming rough foot and handholds. The ascent would be like climbing a steep ladder with irregular steps in the dark. He let the girl go first and kept close to catch her if she slipped. After less than a dozen steps, her knees shook visibly, and she leaned heavily against a thick root. 

‘Don’t look down.’ He warned.

She nodded without turning and started climbing again. Eventually, she reached the top and pulled herself over the edge. He followed and found her lying on her back, gasping for air.

‘We can rest under that tree.’ He pointed, and she did not protest when he hauled her up and slung an arm around her waist. They stumbled the last few steps to the tree. 

The forest circled the towering oak at a respectful distance, and the wide, low hanging branches offered shelter and dry ground. He lowered the girl between the roots and knelt to get the glowglobe out of his pack. He flicked the sphere with his fingernail and let it hover close to the ground. 

The girl sagged against the tree without a word. Her hood was thrown back, and a mop of wet hair dripped water onto her shoulders and down her neck. Her near-white pallor emphasised the bruised shadows under her eyes, and her soaked parka and trousers clung to her lean frame and skinny legs. But her dark eyes looked alert, and her brows narrowed suspiciously as she noticed his glance. She looked like a drenched rat pressed into a corner, ready to jump at anybody who dared to come too close.

Tayl had stuffed his anorak into his pack before he jumped into the river. The watertight seal had kept it and the rest of the contents dry. He pulled it out, his red scarf fell out of its folds, and he put both aside, then went through his remaining clothes—a long-sleeved thermal, a woollen jumper, a spare pair of trousers. 

‘You better take these.’ He held out the thermals and his anorak. 

She stared at the clothes. ‘Why?’ She sounded genuinely confused. 

‘You’ll need to get out of your wet clothes.’ 

She looked down at herself, then wiped her hands on her wet parka. She took the thermals, but instead of the anorak, she picked up the woollen jumper. 

‘This will do. You’ll need your jacket yourself.’ She stood and vanished behind the tree before he could protest. 

Tayl shook his head, then peeled off his soaked top and undershirt and slipped into his anorak. The glowglobe radiated a welcome warmth. He sat down next to it and kicked off his boots. Next, he changed into the dry trousers and socks and finally pulled the anorak’s collar over his wet hair.

His gaze caught on a glimmer reflecting off the tree trunk. Almost hidden by the tree’s dark bark and ancient furrows, three smooth Arnok bands looped around its wide girth. Along the length of the bands, Arc ideograms faded in and out of the glass-like surface, their slow rhythm a mirror of the slow and steady life of their bearer.

Tayl spread his clammy fingers towards the warm light and asked himself how soon and how far the news of their nightly adventures would spread.

As soon as she was out of Tayl’s sight, she slumped against the tree and slid down into a sitting position with her back against the trunk. Her chest hurt, and her wet clothes clung to her as if trying to suffocate her. Her arms still clutched the bundle of dry clothes. She had caught the end of a red scarf with the jumper and had dragged it behind her. She gathered it up and shook out the leaves. For a long moment, she just sat with her fingers burrowed into the wool, as if it was a lifeline. She wanted to scream at something or someone but could not even muster the energy to stand. The fabric warmed in her grasp. It felt dry and soft and comforting.

She tried to unzip her parka, but her fingers shook so hard she barely managed to fight herself out of the wet garment. She looked at the laces of her boots and dismissed even the idea. She had pulled her tunic halfway over her head when something caught in the fabric. She pulled again and felt a sharp cut on the side of her neck. Exasperated, she yanked the fabric free, pulled it all the way over her head, and finally freed her arms from the sleeves. 

A silver pendant dangled from a long chain around her neck. The round object felt too heavy for a locket; it looked more like a case for a watch. She felt a notch around the edge where it should open, but her trembling fingers could not unlock it. She let it fall back onto her chest with a sigh. Whatever it was, it needed to wait. 

She slipped into the long-sleeved T-shirt, pulling it straight over her wet bra, then peeled off her soaked trousers and kicked them over her boots. She heaved herself up onto her still-shaky legs. The T-shirt was long enough to reach her thighs. She considered the jumper. It had buttons down the front, and she could either wear it over the shirt or wrap it around her bare legs. She decided to tie the sleeves around her waist and wear it like a short skirt. She considered the scarf for a moment then looped it around her neck and gathered her wet clothes. 

Her legs still trembled, and she supported her weight with one hand against the trunk as she rounded the colossal tree. Tayl sat by the hovering sphere with his hands stretched towards its warm glow. She was just about to sit down when her fingers slipped over a smooth surface. A sensation not unlike pins and needles shot through her fingertips up her arms—

Lights flickered in front of her eyes. Her feet sank into moist and welcoming earth. Her toes grew roots, and her …

She snapped back her arm and almost lost her balance. Her knees buckled, not willing to carry her weight, and she fell back against the trunk. She glared up the tree. It was very different from the trees she had seen so far. Its trunk was wider, the crown denser, the low hanging branches spreading as wide as the tree was high. The bark was dark and creased with age, but she saw nothing that would explain the strange sensation in her fingers. 

She sighed, unceremoniously dumped her wet clothes next to the light, and dropped down opposite Tayl with the tree at her back and the light between them. Her fingertips tingled, and she pulled the long sleeves over her hands. The soft fabric hugged her skin, gathering warmth between the fine fibres. 

Tayl had looked up at her return. She met his gaze, then noticed that he was not looking at her; instead, he stared at a point above her head. She cast a glance over her shoulder, but she sat too close to the trunk to see anything other than her own shadow against the bark. 

She turned back to him and asked, ‘What is it?’ 

His gaze shifted back to her. She found it hard to read his expression—it was almost as if he was seeing her for the first time. 

‘Where did you say you are from?’ His tone was different, not unfriendly but clearly suspicious. 

‘What do you mean?’ she asked.

‘How did you get here?’ He repeated. ‘To the—forest?’

The slight pause told her that Tayl had meant to say something else. She turned to the tree again, this time leaning backwards to change the angle of her view—there, three handspans above her head, a dark band twisted around the trunk. The smooth material had cut deep into the bark, making it hard to spot. A glowing row of circles and dots faded in and out of the glass-like surface, the shapes changing with every new iteration. Was that band what she had touched earlier?

‘Is that a feed?’ she asked. 

‘A feed?’ Tayl repeated. 

‘Like a message—did it tell you something about me?’ 

‘Why?’ 

His question only seemed to confirm her suspicions. Her fingers started to tremble, and she dug them deeper into the soft fabric. ‘Because if it did, I need to know.’ 

‘What could it tell me about you?’ 

‘I don’t know.’ Her hands started to shake uncontrollably, and she clasped them together in her lap. ‘I don’t know—I don’t remember anything.’

‘You lost your memory?’ He sounded incredulous. 

She nodded. The tremors ran up her arms, and her shoulders started to shake. 

His expression softened. ‘You need to warm up.’ He drew his pack closer, got out a metal thermos, and filled a cup with steaming liquid. ‘Drink this.’

She unclasped her fingers and took the cup with both hands, careful to keep the sleeves tugged over her fingers. The fragrant, sweet tea released some of the tightness in her chest, allowing her to take a deep breath. 

‘Thank you—for the tea. And the clothes.’ She lowered the cup and wrapped her hands around the warm metal. Her mind chose this moment to notice the dirt under her fingernails and in the creases of her wrist, grime buried so deep that not even the river had been able to wash it away. ‘And—and for saving my life.’ 

Tayl only nodded. He used the cap of the thermos as a cup for himself. He drank, then asked, ‘Do you remember anything?’ 

‘I woke up under the trees. It was not long ago—the sun was just setting.’ She gestured towards the other side of the river. ‘Before that—there is just nothing.’

‘Do you remember how far from here you were when you woke up?’

She shook her head. ‘I think I walked in circles … there were so many trees—everything looked the same.’ 

‘Do you remember crossing the river before we met?’

‘No.’

‘And you don’t remember anything else?’

Other than somebody screaming at me to run? She kept that thought to herself and shook her head. ‘The symbols—what did they tell you?’

Tayl looked up at the dark bands circling the tree. ‘One of the marks’—He pointed to a symbol to her left—‘changed when you touched it.’ 

The symbol looked like a broken circle with a dot outside. ‘What does it mean?’

He hesitated then said, ‘It means that you are not from around here and that you have come a very long way.’

‘Like another country?’ That might explain the different dialects. 

He nodded slowly but didn’t meet her eyes. ‘Something like that.’

Tayl’s gaze kept returning to the Arc mark the girl had touched. The ideogram explained why he had never seen her before, but it did not explain how she could possibly be here—no one had been able to cross the divide for more than fourteen years.

Tayl split a bruised apple and offered the girl one half. The apple, a handful of nuts, and a few crackers were all the food he had left.

The girl stared at him suspiciously but took her half. ‘You said I am not from here, but where exactly is here?’

He didn’t want to lie, but he had no idea what or how much he should tell her. So instead, he asked, ‘What is West 12?’

The apple in her hand started to tremble. ‘West 12?’ 

‘You said this is where you come from. Before you fell into the river.’

She looked down at the shaking apple in her hand as if it could answer his question. ‘I—I don’t know. I remember the word, but it means nothing.’ She dropped the apple and started to get up. ‘I need to go back.’

‘You can’t go anywhere tonight.’

‘But I need to go. I—I lost something. I need to find it.’ 

‘You lost something? Is this why you are in trouble?’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘Why do you think I am in trouble?’ 

‘You are afraid of something.’ 

‘I am not afraid,’ she snapped. ‘I just need to go back.’

‘How do you know you need to go back when you don’t remember—’ 

She cut him off. ‘I remember that I need to go back. It’s the only thing I remember.’ Her eyes sparkled with anger and, however much she might deny it, fear.

‘You can’t go tonight.’ The girl had barely been able to get to her knees, let alone stand up. ‘Not before you eat and get some rest.’

She sank back down. ‘I am not crazy. I—I just … .’ 

She shook her head and pulled her knees up to her chest. She had wrapped his scarf around her neck, capturing most of her wet hair, and water dripped from the loose ends and beaded between the folds of wool. She picked up the apple and brushed it off. 

‘I don’t think that you are crazy,’ he said. If the Arc mark was right, the girl was more lost than she could imagine. ‘But you don’t know where you are, and I am on my way to meet somebody who might be able to help you. His name is Charles Graphyn.’

‘Help how?’ she asked. 

‘He might be able to explain some of this—of what has happened to you. I was going to go to Bay’s End tomorrow to meet him.’

Her brows creased. ‘Tomorrow? Why not now? How far is it from here?’

‘Not far.’ He hesitated. The involuntary bath in an icy river had made the idea of a comfortable bed enticing, and Graphyn would want to know about the girl as soon as possible. ‘We could be at Bay’s End at nightturn.’ 

She frowned then asked, ‘Do you mean midnight?’

Tayl nodded. He drew out his echoscope and opened the first ring. ‘We have enough time to eat and dry our clothes.’

The girl looked from his echoscope to the apple in her hand. She took a careful bite, swallowed, then ate the rest hungrily.

He ate his half of the apple more slowly and refilled both their cups. ‘There are a few nuts and crackers.’

She nodded and took her cup. ‘What are you doing out here?’

‘I am studying different … landscapes. I often hike and sleep outside.’ 

The girl frowned but let the explanation pass. ‘How long have you … hiked? … through this forest?’

‘Two days.’

‘Is the forest as big as that?’

Tayl nodded. ‘The way I took is one of the shortest ways to cross it.’

‘And the man—Charles?’ she asked.

He nodded. ‘Charles Graphyn.’

‘What does he do?’ 

Tayl drained the last of his tea and shook out his empty cup. ’Does the word Entrelacier mean anything to you?’

The girl shook her head. ‘Is that what he is? An Entrelacier?’

Tayl nodded. ‘He can—’ he stopped. He should leave that explanation to Graphyn. ‘Graphyn will be able to explain this much better to you.’

She pulled the sleeves of his thermal over her hands again and fiddled with the cuffs. Her eyes were so dark it was hard to describe their colour as anything other than black.

‘We need to spread out the clothes so they can dry. And give me your shoes.’ 

She frowned but unlaced her boots and pulled them off her feet. Tayl stuffed them with dried leaves and stood them next to his pair under the glowglobe. By the time he had spread both their wet clothes around the warm flame, the girl had curled up between the roots and was fast asleep. She had eaten her half of the apple and all the nuts and crackers. He took this as an agreement that she would go with him. 

Tayl sat next to her and leaned against the tree. It would take them less than half an hour to reach the rim, and they had two hours to nightturn. That left him enough time to come up with a safe way to take the girl through the tear.