Kyle collapsed onto the dirt floor of the cave, gasping for breath. His lungs felt like they were on fire, and there were little white spots dancing in his vision. He had not run that hard for that long in, well, ever.
Of course, Pocahontas was not even breathing hard.
They had run for what seemed like hours. It had not even been a simple run over even ground, which would have been hard. Instead it had been a crouched darting and weaving through trees and undergrowth, trying to make as little noise as possible. His legs had started to hurt after only a few minutes, but every time he started to think about stopping there would be a noise or movement in the forest, just out of sight. A constant reminder of their pursuit. Each time they heard or saw something the girl he was following would change directions and speed up, and somehow they managed to avoid contact.
After only a little while he had been too tired to even see clearly, much less think. All he could do was follow her, and he knew that if he had been alone he would surely have been caught.
The girl, on the other hand, moved through the forest like she had been born for it. She never seemed to tire, made almost no noise, and always seemed to know where she was going.
Kyle was finally starting to catch his breath, and he looked around a little.
They were in a tiny space under the root base of an old tree, where two rocks leaned against each other. The tree had grown over the two boulders, and covered them, forming a triangular space underneath. The entrance was a hole between the roots of the tree, barely big enough for Kyle to fit through, and completely concealed in underbrush. The cave was only about ten feet long, and maybe six feet wide at the back and narrower near the entrance. There was just enough headroom at the peak of the cave for Kyle to sit up, so he did.
The girl was at the back of the cave, her back to him, digging at the dirt floor.
Kyle said “What-” but at that moment she pulled something out of the dirt and turner around.
“Good,” she held up a bag. “Still here.” It was covered in dirt, but it looked like canvas coated in wax. She pulled at the wax at the top, ripping it off and pulling the bag open. She pulled a small cloth-covered bundle out of the bag, and unwrapped it. “And still good.”
She dug a bit more, and pulled a pair of clay jugs out of the dirt, their tops also sealed with wax. She tossed one to Kyle. “Water. Drink up.”
Kyle tore the wax seal off, pulled out the cork, and chugged.
He downed almost half the bottle before stopping and gasping for breath. The last time he had something to drink he had still been in Tennessee.
“Alright then, stranger.” She was looking at him intently. “Let’s talk.”
“Heh. Yeah, let’s. How ’bout we start with where the hell are we, and why are people trying to kill us? What did you do to them, and why’d you have to get me mixed up in it?”
She blinked. “What? I did nothing. They’re orcs. Killing is what they do.”
“Are they some kind of gang, or something?”
“I…I’m not sure what you mean. They are orcs. Do you not have orcs in the south?”
“What?” Kyle stared at her for a moment. “You keep saying ‘orks’, do you mean, like, Orcs? Like real orcs, like Tolkien orcs?”
“I’m not sure what tribe they are, but yes, orcs. Although these are much more organized than I’ve seen before. I saw them marching rank and file this morning. Not sure what that means, but it can’t be good.” She paused for a moment, staring at nothing, distracted.
Kyle leaned back against the wall of the cave. “Great. I’m in Middle Earth. God, I must be tripping. Or in a coma. Or something.”
The girl looked at him again. “Well, either all Southerners are this strange, or you are sun-touched. Either way, let’s start again. My name is Llara ka’Vardin. What’s yours?”
“Ky-el. Interesting. I can tell from your clothes that you are quite wealthy in your land, and you are clearly not from the north. So, nobleman, where are you from?”
“I live in Atlanta, but originally I’m from Florida. And until last night, I was in Tennessee. Now where the fuck am I now?”
“I’ve heard of none of these places. This is the Darrowood, and we’re almost a day’s hike north of New Rinsdale. Or where New Rinsdale used to be.”
“Oh god. I’ve got to be tripping.”
“No, you are, um, sitting. Were you hit on the head recently? Perhaps when you fell?”
“God I hope so.”
She blinked. “That is a strange wish.” She carefully wrapped her hand around the hilt of the sort sword at her waist. “You’d best tell me how you came to be alone on Broken Hill in the middle of an orc invasion. If you had anything to do with what happened in New Rinsdale, I swear by Kala I will end you now, addled or not.”
Kyle held out his hands, and backed away a little. He did not like the look in her eyes. “Woah, woah, calm down. I’ve never even heard of New Rinsdale. And the last thing I want to do is get involved in some gang shit.”
“Speak, Ky-el. Tell me your story. Now.”
“Um…” How much of it should he tell her? How much of it was he sure of anyway? “Look, I was just hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I saw this shiny rock in the water. I reached down to get it, and I must have hit my head or something, because next thing I know I’m face down on that hill. Okay? That’s all I know.”
“You’re lying.” Her hand tightened on the sword.
Shit. He was not even sure himself what had happened, how could he explain it to her? Well, he had better think of something, she looked like she thought he was working with the orcs or something
“Look, I don’t know what happened, I swear. I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how I got here, and I don’t know how to get home. If I did, I’d be out of here right now. See, here’s the rock I was talking about!” He fumbled in his pocket, and yanked out the rock, glad it was still there.
Light was filtering in through the vegetation blocking the entrance to the little cave, just barely enough to see. Kyle’s eyes had adjusted to the dim light, and when he pulled the stone from his pocket he expected to see it glimmer, just a bit, in the dim light. Like it had in the water when he found it.
He did not, however, expect it to glow.