The sand was different. It was not so dry or so soft as in the desert; it was the sand of a beach. She felt dampness under her hand and could hear the tide lapping the shore not far away, starlight catching the slow crests of the waves and causing them to glitter. The smell of salt made her feel thirsty and she thought of Almarah and his never-empty flask. Why hadn’t she asked if she could take it? Them tampering, she thought; They had probably made it so it couldn’t be taken. Probably why she hadn’t asked; old magic of Theirs making sure that the thought never entered her head, or anyone else’s who came near. Typical of Them.
She winced at the pain in her ears. Her head was thumping, but it was nothing compared to those lancing pains, like needles pushed hard against her eardrums. She licked the blood from her fingers and gazed down the shore to her right. The beach ended here abruptly, grey against a dark mass of trees, dense and unwelcoming and moving like the ocean in the breeze. There was nowhere else, for behind her the sand met cliffs. But where there were trees there might be fresh water, and the forest also offered shelter and secrecy, a place to hide.
Walking closer however, she realized that it would be impossible to penetrate in darkness. Once beyond the first row of trees she’d be in pitch black, and not only that but around the trees sprouted tangling shrubs with thick stems and thorns. Her clothes were light and thin, the thorns were large, black-tipped things. She touched one very gently with a fingertip and felt a tingle there. Not worth the risk then, even to hide from Them.
She was forced to splash around the tree-line, the waves washing over her feet. It was soothing, but very cold and she began to shiver. It wasn’t until then that she thought how still it was. A desert was quiet, but even at night a forest should have been full of sounds. There were flies and other insects, but she’d neither seen nor heard anything larger than a dragonfly. There were no rustlings in the branches, no night-bird calls, no crackle of twigs in the undergrowth, nor flap of wings above her head.
Puzzling over this she kept walking, and slowly her feet grew numb and then her legs leaden and she could walk no more. Hungry and above all thirsty, she dug out a small dip in the sand where the tide was receding and fell asleep until the sunlight woke her by beating on her head unrelenting brightness and heat, and she began to walk again, feeling faint now and nauseous but knowing she had to keep going. Finding water revived her a little. A stream ran down the sand to the ocean and she cupped the cold water in her hands to drink, not caring it was full of grit, splashed it over her hot face and shoulders.
She walked, squinting against the glare of the sun on the water, and walked. She walked and thought dark thoughts about Them. Loathing churned in her stomach and kept her feet moving, punching out her hate on the sand. Her internal cursing was broken up with other thoughts about where she was and why it was so deserted. I hope I find somewhere soon. Anything that looks built, even if it’s a ruin. Why are there no people? Where are the animals? Is there even anything in the water? A fish would do – some shrimp even. Nothing but these damn bugs! Well, I’ll have to be hungrier than this before I eat a bug. Them! What is this? Is it one of Their places? A wooden boy.
She stared. There was a boy, a wooden boy. He stood on the sand, one leg stretched out as if caught in the action of taking a step. He didn’t look carved, but like he’d grown there. She went over to him and saw that his skin was bark, his limbs branches. He wasn’t built or made but looked more like a tree-trunk washed and weathered in the ocean, edges smoothed, the grain showing. He was not alive, his eyes stared unseeing at the waves and sand ahead of him. A statue of a boy, as if made by only natural processes of erosion and time.
She glanced all around sharply and gasped to see more of them. More wooden people of all shapes and sizes, arranged down the beach all looking toward the water, placed about fifty feet apart.