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“Wander” by Rachel Bender

Rachel Bender is featured in our New Author Spotlight for Issue 1.
Read our interview with Rachel Bender

Drawing a graceful arc up over the paper, Schal hit a wall only she could see. She paused, furrowed her brow, and pulled her pen around in a sharp turn. The surety bled out of it, leaving the ink trickling like water over her page, a black creek that chuckled in her ears. She closed her eyes for a moment, shutting out the walls of foreign stone, and plunged her awareness into the cool, fresh waters in her mind.

The muffled groan of massive iron doors, more felt through the floor than heard, snapped Schal back to reality. She opened her eyes and found the pen had leaked, leaving a big black spot under her hand like a wound. She ripped the page off her easel and crumpled it violently, then tossed it under the granite table.

Sharp, commanding voices were coming from the docking bay. Schal sucked in a breath, held it, and let it out by degrees, summoning to her mind the heat and insect-drone of her homeland. It did not calm her, but sharp as a pinprick reminded her of what she had lost. She turned to face the door, as calm and composed as a figure of cold marble.

The guards entered first, stepping smartly in their plumed hats and scarlet jackets and shiny ink-black boots to either side of the heavy double doors to look down on her. The elegant man striding in between his guards seemed not to notice their impropriety. He bowed to her as deeply as he would to a duchess in her own keep. “My lady,” he said. “I’ve brought you gifts from across the Empire.”

Schal smiled at him bare-faced, though she felt the expression fail to reach her eyes. “Won’t you come in, my lord?” she invited, safe and self-assured. As though her prison were a fine palace.

“You’re much too kind.” His lordship, the Prince of Everroad and the Red Emperor’s right hand, bowed again, and gestured to the guards; they abandoned him far too quickly, hurrying back to the ship presumably for the gifts he’d promised. The lord himself entered her sanctuary proper, tanging the air with his scent: tobacco, soap, clean clothes, and a faint taste of metal in the back of Schal’s throat. “I have missed you, my lady,” he added in a lower tone. “I have traveled as far south as the Turbulent Sea, but you are never far from my thoughts.”

Schal turned away, shaking her head so her hair fell and veiled her face – let him take it as shyness. She had spent the past month pushing this clean, polite lordling as far from her thoughts as possible. “How generous of you,” she murmured, “to remember one so lowly as myself.”

“You mustn’t think of yourself as lowly.” His lordship pulled out a chair from the table in offering; Schal winced at the horrid scrape of stone on stone, but when her guest only stood behind it, waiting, she understood it was meant for her. She sat, shifting uncomfortably on the cold stone (all her furniture was stone, too heavy for her to pick up and throw in case she wanted to attack her visitors), as his lordship took a seat next to her. “You have great powers,” he went on, his dark, piercing eyes gazing into her. “More than that, you have useful powers. You can make people’s lives better and already have, in the short time you’ve been here.”

Schal’s fists squeezed in her lap. “I am afforded little evidence of that up here, my lord.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” His lordship’s voice was ever so gentle. “But you know why this is necessary. And it won’t be forever.”

“It feels as though it already has been forever.” Schal propped her elbows on the table, fingers digging into her hair. The young lord made sympathetic noises and patted her shoulder; she gritted her teeth and endured it.

“Will you show me what you’re working on?”

For a moment Schal panicked, remembering the ruined crumple of paper under the table. Foolish girl, it’s been a month since he’s been here. She rose, quickly enough that he couldn’t help her again, and fetched a rattling sheaf of paper from the low couch by her easel. “Scenes from the Eastern Reaches,” she said coolly, casting them onto the table before his lordship so that they spread open like a lady’s fan. “As requested.”

His lordship stood slowly, eyes wide, tugging the nearest one out to examine it. It showed a hilly area drawn in black ink, viewed from above, streaked through with streams that all but shimmered on the page. The hills were dotted with something pale and fluffy; his lordship ran his fingers over the marks as if expecting to feel their texture. “Are these bushes?”

“They’re sheep.”

“Amazing.” He pulled out another sheet from the stack. This one showed the streams merging into a small river with leaping fish and the spread wings of a wading bird. “It reminds me of our hunting grounds back home,” his lordship murmured. “It’s beautiful there. I’d love to show you.”

“I can’t see that happening, my lord.” Schal pulled out another sheet, letting it flutter gracefully down on top. Now the river began to split into a delta, and blocky shapes lined its banks.

“Ah! A village!” the lord exclaimed.

“A fortified village.” Schal pointed at the two buildings on either side of the delta’s mouth. “I’m almost sure these are watch stations. I felt a sense of vigilance there.”

His lordship gave her a gentle, reassuring smile. “It’s nothing the Empire’s army can’t handle, my lady. Don’t trouble your heart about it – just keep making your wonderful maps, and leave the harder duties to those of us who serve in the military.”

Schal gave him a thin, brittle smile in return, and covered the village map with another showing only hills and wild sheep.

***

His lordship was at least good as his word. Schal’s stony abode was filled with gifts from lands she had seen only when she Wandered: fruits and vegetables grown in unfamiliar climes, sweet-sharp spices and smooth wood carvings, a richly embroidered blanket fit for a queen’s bed, and – as always – pots of black ink and reams and reams of crisp white paper to replace the maps she’d drawn and that Everroad had taken with him. The room was noisy with unfamiliar scents, making it impossible to sleep. Schal kicked off the expensive blanket (a gift from the Prince, who knew where it had come from) with a violent curse, tumbled out of bed, and ran to the single window where she flung open the shutter and gasped at the dizzying rush of cool air. Its sandy odor was a far cry from the scent of home, but it cleared her cluttered head.

Her mind began Wandering almost immediately. Moonless as the night was, Schal couldn’t see the bottom of the ravine her tower overlooked, but her senses could map it out easily, every crack in the stone and every pebble as clear to her as if she were running her fingers over it. From there her awareness rushed outward, flooding the ravine with herself, heart beating fast with effort and exhilaration. Scrubby plants shook from the force of her passing; the wind hissed through her, warm and sharp with sand.

She spread herself as far as she could, until she was sure her Wandering mind would snap free from her body. She crashed against walls, wriggled into cracks. She tried to convince herself she felt free even as her mind beat at craggy stone for escape, already knowing she would fail.

She’d mapped the area surrounding her tower a hundred times in the almost-year since she’d been brought here and locked inside. It was a shattered stretch of land, the random cracks formed by ancient earthquakes creating an impassible natural labyrinth, circled on the far side by the turbulent Black River. Even if she could escape the tower by some fairytale means, Schal, with her magic of terrain and maps, knew better than anyone that she would never find her way out.

***

The groan of the docking bay doors opening woke Schal up. She dragged herself to her feet in a daze, brow furrowed as she tried to remember why that sound was happening so early. Had she overslept?

The doors ground open. A man dressed in red, a mask over his face, stepped inside, and Schal went from half-asleep to shocked-awake in an instant.

The Regal Guard officer, chains of rank jingling against his magic-proof chestplate (what did he think she was going to do, throw her maps at him?), stood straight as a tree and addressed her in clipped tones, obviously in a hurry to get this onerous duty over with. “The Emperor commends your efforts on his behalf, and extends his most heartfelt thanks.”

The Emperor said no such thing. Schal remained motionless, staring at the armored man. Her mind, far from Wandering, curled up hidden in the back of her skull.

The officer shifted his weight impatiently. “The Emperor asks you to investigate further into the Eastern Reaches, especially for other settlements.”

Schal nodded to acknowledge the order, and forced her stony throat to speak. “My homeland?”

The Guard did not hesitate, speaking in the same rapid, careless tone. “Yaostil continues to thrive under the civilizing influence of the Red Empire.”

Schal pressed her lips together. Liar, she thought, but the Regal Guard, his duty discharged, had already spun on his heel and left.

***

“What will you do when you’re released?”

Schal lifted her head from her maps, tilting her head at the young lord. When I am released? Is it such a foregone conclusion that I will be? “Why do you ask, my lord?”

Everroad shrugged casually. “Curiosity.”

Curiosity, as if her pain and loneliness were a story in a book he could pick up and put down as it suited him. Schal turned away, letting her hair hide her face. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I suppose I haven’t really thought about it.”

“You haven’t thought about freedom?” Everroad’s voice was gentle. “You have often expressed to me that you are not happy here.”

Her hands itched for something to throw at him. Instead she answered, “It is not given to the conquered to be happy. That is the province of the conquerors.”

Her tone was light, as if reciting a line from a poem she didn’t understand. She heard Everroad push his chair back to stand, heard his bright leather boots tap on the floor as he approached her.

“Lady Schal,” Everroad murmured next to her, and Schal’s skin shivered at his nearness and the sound of her name on his lips. “I know our methods must seem – overly harsh.”

Brutal, Schal corrected in her head. The word is ‘brutal.’

“But they are necessary,” Everroad continued. “Too many people live in poverty and filth, scratching at the dirt and clinging to old superstitions. We can bring them roads, schools, libraries, clean water and healthy food. You see us as conquerors – I hope someday you will see us as builders.”

Schal tipped her head back, letting a brittle smile escape. “Of course you must rule over what you build.”

“The laborer earns his wage. So does the overseer. It would be unfair to deny them the fruits of their work, when they risk so much to bring civilization to the continent.” Now Everroad did touch her, squeezing her shoulder briefly. “You do understand, don’t you?”

Schal bit her lip, as hard as she dared. Then she stepped away from his lordship, and he let her go. “You must forgive me, my lord,” she said, in clipped tones reminiscent of the Regal Guard, “but I am tired. Giving the Emperor all he asks for taxes me greatly.”

“Of course. Forgive me.” Everroad bowed. “Is there anything you would like me to bring you, the next time I visit?”

Bring me my city back. “Those yellow fruits from Crescent Forest. I liked those.”

***

The fruits were hard and green when they were brought (by a retainer of Prince Everroad, his lordship being busy ‘winning glory for the Empire on the front lines of the savage wilderness, you know’), but they turned yellow over the next few days, during which the pile of completed maps by Schal’s bed grew to ankle height. Schal ate them with every meal, guessing that the massive bunches his lordship had sent to her would rot as quickly as they had ripened. It was no great hardship.

Days turned into weeks. Schal found herself Wandering more and more along coastlines, soft sand under her feet as she stared across an ocean even her mind couldn’t reach across. She lingered there, breathing long salty breaths as she documented every little wiggle of coastline on her maps, and when night came she fell into her bed and slept gorgeously.

But in time when she discovered the ink in her big clay pot was running near to empty, and there was only so much coastline in the Eastern Reaches before she started heading into the swampy, briny deltas. These she’d mapped before, and found them much less pleasant to spend any time in. So Schal traveled north again, her pen dawdling along the banks of one of the rivers that fed into the swamp. She spread out her maps on what little floor space she had, trying to locate gaps in between them she might fill in. She stepped very, very carefully to avoid treading on them. And for the next two days, Schal did the bidding of the Red Emperor who had conquered her nation and taken her prisoner for her magic. She mapped the Eastern Reaches, and as her awareness sailed up the river, she found more settlements and duly plotted them. Only the buildings – no more sheep, and if the warm spark of a human’s awareness brushed against her own, she ignored it.

The river wandered past the hills, into mountains that couldn’t be considered part of the Eastern Reaches anymore, and though Schal had kept her newest maps sparse on purpose, she was scraping the bottom of the pot for ink. “Too much time on the beach,” she muttered into its black depths, then, “What am I saying? There’s no such thing as too much time on the beach.” She scooped up all she could in her blackened ladle and poured it into her inkwell (shaped like a turtle, another present from his lordship), and set up a new sheet of paper.

She Wandered. The stone walls of her prison faded; the world opened to her. Sunlight fizzed warmly on her face, so intense she was sure she would come back to herself with a sunburn on her cheeks. Below her feet was not a rugged stone canyon but cool green grass, thick as sheep’s wool, starred with pale blue and white flowers. Back in the tower, Schal’s blind hand filled a corner of her page with those blooms.

She walked. Over the chuckle of the river, she heard shouts and the sharp crack of muskets. The freshness of the air was spiced with smoke. A shadow of a man, rank with sweat and fear, ran past her; Schal startled away from him, though as always he couldn’t see or hear her. The joy of Wandering forgotten, she ran in the opposite direction, downriver, and only belatedly realized she’d mapped this area before. The first village she’d mapped in the Eastern Reaches was under attack, and the shadowed zeppelins overhead flew the flags of the Red Empire.

Schal’s hand drew a small line in the center of the page, doubling back on itself; it was impossible to tell if it was a feature of the landscape or the fold in a sleeve.

The village’s fortifications were charred in spots – one was actively on fire – but the villagers had not given up. Arrows, and the occasional musket ball, flew from the slit windows, into the street that surged red – torn red jackets, ragged red plumes, and blood. Schal found her heart clutching at her throat, watching from the edge of the village grounds. Even to her, whose only experience of war was the sacking of Yaostil, it was clear that the Redcoats were losing.

It was clear to the soldiers too, but the commanders – they were the ones with plumes – kept bawling them on, wasting their musket balls on the walls of the twin forts, or shooting at anything that moved outside of them. Schal stayed where she was, holding herself back from the scene, a lone speck of cold in the heat and rage of battle until a horse galloped right through her.

She yelped and stumbled to the side; the horse half-reared, startled by the sense of her, and danced until its rider got it under control again. Badly shaken – this was why she didn’t like horses! – Schal retreated behind a tree, further removing her ghostly presence from the battlefield as the man on the horse charged up to the Redcoats. His own coat had tails that went all the way to his knees, and the plume in his hat was the longest of them all.

“Retreat, you fools!” he bellowed – at the commanders, not at the hapless men bound to obey them. “You waste time and good men!”

Finally, a smart one, Schal thought wryly.

Through more bellows and musket-pops, the commanders got their men turned around, the general on the horse moving to cover their retreat. As they marched stumblingly out, a ragged cheer reached Schal’s ears; the villagers were celebrating their victory.

Savor it, friends. The Red Empire is never defeated – it always comes back with more troops.

One last arrow, perhaps loosed only to taunt the retreating force, left the slit window of the left fort with a sound like a violin string snapping. Schal blinked at the sound. When she opened her eyes again, the arrow was buried halfway up the shaft in the shoulder of the general on the horse.

He did not cry out, though Schal did – unheard, unheeded. The commanders were too busy salving their pride by bullying their troops to notice the wound until the general fell from his horse, clutching at the arrow. At the thump they all turned, but it was the foot soldiers who moved, sitting their general up again, using their own cravats to apply pressure to the wound, stripping off his helmet to let him breathe.

Schal knew that face, clenched with pain as it was. It was the Prince of Everroad.

She’d never snapped back to herself so quickly. She fell backwards, pen still in hand, landing hard on the cold stone floor beneath her. She lay where she’d fallen, breathing heavily, eyes stinging from the fall, as outside her window the sun sank and what little light was left faded. It was nearly fully dark when she found enough strength to stand; she groped for a candle and lit it with shaking hands.

On the easel, she discovered the Prince of Everroad, in profile, his aspect calm and almost smiling. Tiny five-petaled flowers surrounded him. The portrait was almost masterful, the most beautiful thing she had ever drawn. The only thing that marred it was the angry black slash of an arrow shaft, pointing toward his heart, dripping ink like blood down his fine jacket.

Schal reached out, fingers trembling, and touched the prince’s cheek. Ink smeared softly down the paper, staining his face in shadow.

***

She didn’t sleep at all that night. She did not eat at all the next day. Her portrait of the Prince stayed on the easel, while the ink dried in its well and clogged up the pen and the black blotches faded from her fingers. She kept her mind inside her skull, afraid that if she Wandered, she’d lose herself completely. At sunset on the third day she forced bitter raw vegetables down and deliberately thought of Yaostil, until it brought tears to her eyes. She could see the streets of stone and cobble, the squares that exploded in a riot of color on festival days, the daring minstrels she tossed coppers to on her way to her mage-master’s house. She could see her own mother’s house, always filled with strange smells that could have been either magic concoctions or the day’s soup. Oh, it had been beautiful.

She resisted the urge to Wander there. The Yaotsil of her childhood no longer existed. The mage who taught her their craft was dead, his house burned to the ground. The squares were filled with grim-eyed soldiers in red. The minstrels no longer sang.

She wondered what her mother would think of the Prince of Everroad.

Schal washed down the bitter taste with sweet juice from some faraway island she didn’t even know the name of, and lay down in an exhausted slumber.

***

The village was silent. No – the village was dead. Schal could smell the smoke even before she saw the burned husks of buildings dyeing the river black as ink. She walked slowly, knowing she could do nothing.

The twin forts were burned straight down to their foundations, as if receiving the full brunt of the Emperor’s temper for their defiance. Beyond, the blackened streets threaded through charred and empty houses, the wind kicking up gusts of ash that stung Schal’s eyes. Half-blinded, she nearly tripped over the body she hadn’t seen by virtue of it being burnt the same color as the road.

It was a woman, her clothes charred rags around her knees. Beyond that Schal could make out no identifying features, but in the horrible shrunken face she saw the eyes of her mother.

***

She sat bolt upright in bed. Her eyes still stung, the smell of ash and burnt flesh clung to her nose – that had been no dream, but a Wander. The village she’d shown the Prince was burned to the ground.

Schal rushed to the window and was violently ill.

What ink was left in her pot had dried to an unusable sludge, for which Schal was grateful. She pushed it to the side and gathered up the maps she had, placing them on the table where the Regal Guard could collect it when he came. She forced herself to eat and drink, but only a little, and managed to keep it down.

The moan of the docking bay doors opening did not startle her, but she’d been expecting a Regal Guard with his uniform spotless and his plume standing proudly from his hat. When his lordship the Prince of Everroad strode in, she leaped a mile.

He was paler than she remembered, his hair disheveled. One arm was kept in a black sling. He walked in alone, his usual pair of honor guards conspicuously absent, and looked for her with his mouth opening to offer greeting: then he froze, and Schal realized with a hard thump of her heart that she’d left his portrait up on her easel.

“I’m glad you survived your injury, my lord,” was all she could think to say.

His lordship closed his mouth, throat bobbing as he swallowed. “Your powers are greater than I knew, my lady,” he said faintly, and approached where she sat on her bed. “The wound is a minor one, but I am touched by your concern.”

For the first time Schal deliberately looked into his eyes. They were brown, like her own, and watery with pain and fatigue. “Minor or not,” she said, “you should be in a healer’s care. Why do you come to me?”

The prince glanced at his portrait again. “You know it will be thirteen months since you first came here, in three days.”

“Is that so.” Schal glanced away.

His lordship sat carefully down beside her. “According to our laws, after thirteen months, lady prisoners of war can marry citizens of the Empire, and become citizens themselves.”

Schal went cold all over. “Are there men lining up to marry a foreign witch locked in a tower on the edge of nowhere, my lord?”

“There is one.”

His lordship took Schal’s hand in his own, squeezed it gently as if to soften and warm it like clay. “I know you must still have your reservations about the Empire. But I admire you, my lady, and will treat you with all the honor you deserve. Not even the Empresses will be as well-loved. I have a vast estate, there are hunting grounds, trails for riding, my own lake—”

Schal stood mid-word, pulling her hand out of his lordship’s grasp. The Prince fell silent, his breath harsh in her ears as Schal slid the maps on the stone table to one side to see the ones on the bottom of the stack.

“I will accept your proposal,” she said quietly, “if you agree to certain conditions.”

She heard the creak of leather as his lordship stood. “Name them.”

Schal took a deep, quiet breath. “You must shave my head,” she said, “and fix a heavy collar around my neck. You must make me walk behind you in public, and never address me by my name.”

“My lady!” the Prince burst out. “How can you say such things?”

Schal whirled on him, furious. ” ‘All the honor I deserve,’ you said? That is what I deserve! I am a traitor to my city, and spoils of war to your Empire. Don’t forget that. I will never let you forget that!”

His lordship’s expression turned from bewildered to thunderous. “Don’t forget all the gifts I have given you, my lady,” he said. “And don’t deny that I am in your heart.”

“Under the circumstances,” Schal bit out, “my heart cannot be trusted, and neither can you. Marry one of the women in the village your Empire just destroyed, if you can find one still alive.”

The prince’s breath hissed through his teeth. “You are distraught,” he said slowly. “And not in your right mind.” He moved to the table, and set something on it that clunked. “The Regal Guard will be back tomorrow to deliver your provisions and collect your maps. When he comes, show him this. It will be a sign you have accepted my proposal.”

He paused, then added, “I hope you do. Accept, I mean.”

Schal swallowed bitter words and bitter tears, and made no sound. After a moment, the wounded Prince turned and went back to his zeppelin.

When he was gone, and the doors boomed shut, Schal reached out to the object he’d left behind. It was a heavy pewter medal, stamped with Imperial sigils of rank and showing prominently a shield resting on a laurel wreath. It was the Everroad family crest.

Schal squeezed it in her hand, fighting the childish urge to hurl it out the window.

***

But the crest remained on the table, and Schal did not touch it again. Nor did the portrait of his lordship leave her easel, though she was tempted to tear it in two. As the sun set, she prayed for the first time since her incarceration, alternately asking for strength to resist her captors, or forgiveness for accepting Everroad as husband, for though she hated him, she was sure she couldn’t stand living in the stone tower another day. She wanted to travel where she would without always getting snapped back to herself in a prison. She wanted to feel sand between her toes.

She wanted her city back, but that was beyond her reach, though that night she dreamed of it. She dreamed of the harvest festival in Yaostil, but in her dream she went hooded and masked, afraid that if anyone recognized her, they would seize her and kill her chanting traitor, traitor. The dull roar of the docking bay doors awoke her just as a child’s hand was reaching up to tug off her mask.

She sat up, heart pounding, a cry scratching at her throat. She swallowed it and huddled in her bed, bare toes curling in the blanket, as the iron inner doors opened and the masked and armored Regal Guard strode in.

“The Emperor-” he began.

The stone moaned, a painful sound. Schal looked up, confused – why were the outer docking bay doors opening again? Then her prison lurched, shuddered, and rattled like a child’s toy and her bed began to slide.

“Earthquake!” screamed the guard, and turned to flee back to his zeppelin.

The stone table and chairs, which Schal could barely move, flew across the room, so close Schal felt the breeze. Over the rattle and roar of the quake she heard a scream and a sickening crunch. Her bed began to slide the other way; Schal leaped for the window and clung to it, half in and half out, gripping the sill with all her strength as the shutter battered her side. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the table slide back again, upside-down, a spatter of blood bright against its underside. She shut her eyes and rode the stone like the world’s most horrible horse.

As quickly as it had started, it was over. Schal slid from the windowsill, limbs wobbling, and almost stumbled onto her bed as she discovered the floor now had a distinct slant. She groped for a handhold, her ears roaring; her fingers again found the window that had saved her life. The sun banked off of something roiling copper, blinding her, and she realized that the sound wasn’t in her head.

The canyons outside were filling up, overflowing, with fast-flowing water. The Black River to the west must have burst through its banks, and the impassable labyrinth with no way out was now itself the way out, singing to her in its thunderous voice.

A dangerous way out that might kill her, to be sure. But Schal laughed as she tore through the beautifully embroidered blanket to make a rope.

The rope didn’t reach quite all the way down to the water level; Schal took a deep breath and one last look at the crooked tower that had been her home for thirteen months, and let go. She plunged into the silty water and was immediately swept – north, her talent whispered, home – she kicked herself to the surface and laughed again until water splashed into her mouth and she coughed. The current was fast; she let it take her, and concentrated on keeping her head above water.

She swam in two places at once. Her body, paddling at the surface; and her mind, darting forward like a swallow, finding bends, rocks, hazards, and an uprooted tree that spun in the current until her fingers found and gripped the bark. Schal clung to it, catching her breath. It wasn’t a big tree, but it was tough from growing in this harsh environment. She let it keep her afloat and sent her Wandering mind out again, toward the mighty roar ahead.

Waterfall. The water was banked by high canyon walls at the edge of the plateau, but for one place where it spilled out in a cascade, into a spreading caldera at the edge of a plain. Schal came back to herself with a gasp and paddled uncertainly, pushing her tree ahead of her. She hadn’t seen any sign of the kind of cliff she could easily climb down. Had she escaped captivity only to be crushed to death by water?

You were ready to marry his lordship to escape. This is better, her own mind whispered, and Schal agreed. The sky loomed ahead in her vision; she was out of time.

“Yaostil!” she screamed into the blue, clutched her tree and cast her mind into the caldera ahead of her as the water took her over the edge.

When her mind left her body on a Wander, her body became as one sleepwalking: able to move enough to draw a picture of what she saw, but unspeaking, numb to its surroundings, and relaxed. Schal counted on it now; falling into water was a dangerous proposition from such great heights, but it could be a survivable fall if one was relaxed, as Schal’s body was now. She watched herself descend, wet hair flying, hands clinging to the tree, until she saw herself disappear into the mist at the bottom; then there was a shock and she snapped back hard.

A blurt of bubbles escaped her; she clamped down on her own mouth to keep herself from breathing in. For a moment she was so tumbled and shocked from the impact that she couldn’t tell which way was up. The tree, once her friend, got a branch tangled in her shirt and tried to drag her down; she kicked at it viciously, and her shirt ripped free and she shot to the surface. Her first breath in open air was almost a sob.

Away from the fall, the water in the caldera was surprisingly calm. Schal took her time getting to the edge, her limbs shaky but whole, and crawled out onto hot wet stone. She hurt all over, and had no idea where she was, but she couldn’t bear to let her mind Wander.

She was battered, exhausted, and had nothing but the clothes on her back, but Schal was free. She sank down and pressed her face to the stone, and smiled.

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About the Author

Rachel Bender was born in Tuscon, Arizona and since then has lived in seven states and two other countries. Despite all that travel, she still can’t read a map and gets lost at the drop of a hat – which is the best part about traveling. Currently she lives in Virginia.

Rachel Bender is featured in our New Author Spotlight for Issue 1.
Read our interview with Rachel Bender

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