Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pilgrims Progress

Part Three

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The howl of the wind was a distant murmur as he stood mesmerized by eyes like polished emeralds, a green so deep Will wasn’t sure there was a name for such a color; her dark lashes framed them in exquisite contrast. He couldn’t decide if her skin was actually the burnished tone of raw honey, or if she had come from somewhere below the Equator, where the sun was still hot enough to tan human hides. The long ear flaps on her native hat kept her hair hidden, though as the wind whipped the corded ties, he could see tendrils of rich mahogany. But it was her mouth that was killing him, making him weak-kneed and stupid as he stared. Full, lush. When she began chewing on her bottom lip, he wanted to fall at her feet, begging.

“What’s wrong? Why are you looking at me like that?” the woman said, her eyes suddenly wary, her body tense, stiffening, though there was nowhere to go, or room to maneuver.

“Ah…” Will shook his head, hard. “Sorry. I can’t—” A sudden, violent gust of bitter wind slammed into them, jarring them both. It was the slap of reality he needed to get moving. Quickly he spun her around to face the rock wall, and spoke urgently into her ear, trying his best to ignore how she felt as he pressed into her back.

“I’m going to boost you high enough to get over the edge and onto the path. Stay flat on the ground until I pull myself up.”

The wind was savage, gaining in speed and intensity, and the light was fading. Will knew they had to get to the shelter soon. “Ready?” At her nod, he grabbed her hips and lifted her as far above his head as he could. When the full weight of her body slackened, he moved his hands down to her calves, heaving her the rest of the way onto the trail. “You okay?” he shouted.

On her stomach, she crawled to the edge to peer down at him. “Yes,” she said, her smile tentative as if she wasn’t exactly sure. “I might just stay on my belly for awhile though, if it’s all the same to you.”

Will chuckled as he easily hauled himself up the rope. Loosening it from the boulder, he sat on the ground next to her, wound it into tight loops, then strapped it back onto his pack. The wind was relentless now, cold and serious.

With the danger past, and on safe footing, they stared at each other for a moment, then Will said softly, “I think after all that excitement, we should maybe introduce ourselves.”

“Eva Wilder,” she said, “and you?”

“Will Donovan.”

With an easy smile, Will stood, holding out his hand to her. “There’s a shelter of sorts up ahead." Looking into the sky, judging how much time they had, he adjusted his pack between his shoulders and said, “We should hurry.”

She let him pull her to her feet, but before he turned away, she put a hand on his arm. “I don’t know how to thank you. You saved my life.” He could feel her fingers tighten, digging in, saw the flash of fear that crossed her face. Placing a hand over hers, he said quietly, “It was just pure luck I was behind you on the trail.”

Her eyes roamed over his face, searching. “Was it?” she murmured.

“What do you mean?”

Shaking her head, she bent to retrieve his walking stick. Admiring it for a brief moment, she handed it to him with a half smile. “Bet there’s a story behind this.”

“You have no idea.”

When another strong gust had her swaying against its force, Will again took her hand, and began to walk steadily up the trail, determined to find that shelter as quick as possible.


An hour later, sitting cross-legged in front of the fire, reveling in the warmth, and the relief of being out of the wind, Eva watched Will. He was big, strong, and seemed very confident and self-sufficient. His hair was dark, long, tousled from the wind; his eyes were blue, like the sky just as evening comes. There was no hardship in watching him move.

There had been a small stash of kindling and wood--along with some dried, cake-like things that Will said was Yak dung--stacked near a shallow fire pit in the stone floor. The cleft had turned out to be a surprisingly roomy small cave, and no doubt had provided shelter to many generations of indigenous people trekking these mountain trails. Will had put the tent in the back to take advantage of the residual heat as the fire warmed the rock walls, and was now digging in his pack for food.

With a dark scowl, he pulled out a narrow, flat stone, about ten inches long, two dehydrated packets of soup, and a bottle of water. Positioning the stone in the fire, he carefully propped it against a small log to keep it slanted. Eva watched with interest, though wondered what he was upset about.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

Will looked across the fire at her, frown deepening. “It’s just occurred to me that you have no food, no pack, no gear.” He fairly growled, “What the hell are you thinking, coming out here, into these mountains, without proper gear?”

Calmly, Eva met his scowl with a cool amusement. The slight curl in the corner of her mouth seemed to add fuel to Will’s anger. His eyes burned with a fierce light as he glared at her. Quietly, she asked, “What makes you think I don’t have gear? Or that I’m unprepared?”

He snorted, waving his hand, the gesture encompassing the whole of her.

“Ah,” she said, “in your world, then, what you see is what you get?”

Will narrowed his eyes. He ran a sharp gaze over her. She was still wearing the hat, and a native coat and long full skirt over a pair of jeans. Under the coat he could see a thick wool sweater, and her hiking boots were sturdy, well-worn and cared for. Eva sat still under his scrutiny, though the curl had turned into a broad grin by the time he was finished.

“You might be dressed reasonably, for a short hike,” he conceded, “but not for doing the three week Annapurna Circuit.”

She watched as he made a slit in one of the food packets, poured in some water, then laid it against the hot stone in the fire. “I like that,” she said, nodding toward his improvised cook stove. “The Aborigines use a similar method to cook food, though not with prepared meals in packages, of course.”

Reaching inside her coat, she rummaged for a moment, then brought out a small, folded square of what looked to Will like something wrapped in a leaf. He watched as she peeled back the green frond and couldn’t help leaning closer to see what she was doing. “When the soup is ready, we can sprinkle some of these seeds into the mix. They'll add some zing, and are rich in calories.”

“So you carry weird spices in your coat. That hardly qualifies as a major food group.”

With a deep sigh, Eva got to her feet. “I will expect a heartfelt, truly sincere apology when I’m done,” she said. “I wouldn’t bother justifying myself to anyone else, but considering you saved my life and all…”

First in confusion, followed swiftly by amazement, then finally a jaw-dropping disbelief, Will watched her slowly shed a steady accumulation of packaged food, utensils, water, spare clothing--socks, underwear and two tee shirts--a book, journal, maps, several strange packets like the spices, a small pistol, bullets, folding knife, compact flashlight, space blanket, iodine tablets, antibiotics, first aid kit, and just when he thought there couldn’t possibly be one more thing, she lifted her skirt, dug in the back pocket of her jeans, and pulled out a silver flask.

Sitting down, she screwed off the cap, had a good swallow, then handed it across the fire to Will. He took the flask without hesitation, and took a long swig of a potent and extremely good whiskey, letting the fire burn down his throat while his eyes held hers. There was no way he could miss the smirk, and honestly, he deserved it.

Moving slowly around the fire, he crouched down, giving her back the flask. “I am humbled by your astounding ability to carry the equivalent of a hefty backpack on your person.” He shook his head, eyes raking over the gear heaped next to her. “I sincerely apologize, heartfelt and true.”

Eva smiled.“Very nice.” Then, raising a shapely brow, she said, “So, what you see isn’t necessarily all there is?”

“Not by any means,” he whispered, carefully leaning toward her, giving her time to stop him please don't stop me before putting a hand on her nape to pull her closer, wanting to taste that smile, needing to feel her mouth. He didn’t know who she was, what she would become to him, but he had saved her life, and according to some philosophies, she now belonged to him. And he just might be fine with that.

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