Part of the opening chapter for my second Work in Progress (WIP).
Galen Sinclair couldn't focus when he opened his eyes.
Not that he would have seen anything. The night was dark, with only the sharp chirping of crickets breaking the utter stillness.
He hurt. He could feel the pain radiating from his face, and could feel the dried blood that covered his lips and chin cracking now that he tried to move. His neck was sticky with it, and his entire body was cold and clammy. But he wasn't ready for the fresh wave of pain that engulfed him as he tried to roll over. It took his breath away. Ribs. He had broken a couple of ribs at least, which explained why breathing was so difficult, so tiring. So bloody awful. He knew the feeling well, having broken ribs on two separate occasions over the last three years.Briefly, he wondered if he had been in a car accident, if he and his dad... No, wait... Of course not.
Galen tried to gather himself. He was battered and bloody, that much was clear. He was lying face down against something hard. Wood. Painted wood. A faint glimmer of memory flared, then died. He listened, and there, underneath the endless song of the crickets, he heard a whisper of a river.
And there... Rocking! It was almost imperceptible, but now Galen could feel the gentle cadence of water, light but unmistakable.
A boat. Galen was on a small boat.
Slowly, the memory formed, nothing more than flotsam at first, but as the bits and pieces accumulated, he remembered.
Mr. McNeil's boat. He had borrowed Old Man McNeil's boat so he could get away from life, his life. Angry, frustrated, and profoundly wounded, he had rowed with wild abandon until his arms and shoulders burned with fatigue, and he was miles from his new home.
And then, gasping, Galen had tried to let the anguish fall off his shoulders. He remembered doing as he always did on McNeil's boat. He stood, and perching his feet confidently on the rocking wooden frame, assumed a deep kiba-dachi — a horse stance — so he could practice the three tekki katas from Shotokan karate as the boat floated down river.
The River Tweed challenged his balance; most would have ended up in the drink. But Galen was nothing if not confident in his abilities, and it was as if his bare feet had been glued to the narrow frame, just three inches wide. His arms flew through the kata movements — blocks, strikes, combination attacks. All precise, fast, devastating. As soon as Tekki Shodan was finished, he moved to Tekki Nidan, and then Tekki Sandan. Only after a half hour or so, his shirt pasted to his back, his legs shaking from effort, did Galen step down.
He remembered beginning to cap his sadness. Remembered drinking heavily from a water bottle, and welcoming the slow drip of peace. He was a survivor, and he knew it. He was stronger now than he had been before, and he would survive again.
When he was ready, Galen again assumed the kiba-dachi position, and again practiced the Tekki katas to exhaustion. None of that explained why Galen now found himself crusted with dried blood, but that wasn't a mystery he could fathom with his face pressed up against an old boat. He tried rolling over, and managed it on the third try, the pain so intense that nausea swamped him. Steeling himself, he sat up slowly, and realized that the back of his head was aching. He felt it, and discovered that his hair was matted with blood and clumped around a lump the size of a golf ball.
The night was deep and the stars were thick. He must be at least 10 kilometers away from town. He could see the spine of the Milky Way stretching off into the distance to where tall trees blocked his sight, and a wave of dizziness brought his eyes back down to the boat.
Galen tried to climb onto the riverbank, but that was a mistake, for it brought vertigo, and a wave of retching that doubled him, despite the knife-like pain in his ribs. But after a minute, he felt ever slightly more like himself. Through sheer force of will, he managed to step out of the boat, which had become wedged against two rocks, and into knee-deep water that felt bracingly cold.
He found the rope to tie the boat, freed the boat from the rocks, and struggled downstream to find a place to secure it. He lost his footing a few times, although the river wasn't flowing fast in this passage, and he threw up twice from the agony and the effort. He somehow kept hold of the line, but the battle took what little reserve he had. He eventually found a strong young trunk to which he made his boat fast. Then, his lower half numb, and his upper half throbbing, he dragged himself up the bank into a dense thicket, and collapsed.
He hadn't a clue where he was, but realized he must have meandered down the Tweed for hours. After all, it had been mid-afternoon when he had grabbed the boat, but now the darkness was complete, with faint light shining down from the sky. The stars seemed impossibly bright, but that was probably just a concussion, Galen decided, for his brain felt foggy and aloof.
His Gran would be frantic, but... Wait, no. She might not have even realized he was gone yet, Galen thought, though he couldn't say why. He lay very still, deciding how to proceed. He needed help, but where could he find it, in this strange place, in the middle of the night?
Gradually he heard faint sounds drifting though the woods. Far ahead, he could hear... what? Music? That wasn't quite it. Singing? At times he was certain he could hear voices, but then it ebbed to a low hum again. Was he hallucinating? Galen shook his head to clear it, and instantly regretted the move as his brain bounced around in his skull. Whatever the sound was, it beckoned to him. So Galen began crawling towards them, like a moth to the flame, without making a decision to do so. He struggled to his feet — Jesus, that hurt — and went onward through the trees.
It wasn't easy. Galen struggled for breath and stumbled, three times in all, which somehow seemed significant. He threw up twice. He spotted a light winking through the trees, not more than 300 meters in the distance, but each step was so hard won. How long? Fifteen, twenty minutes? It seemed much longer. An age. Vaguely, Galen was aware of smoke from a fire, and it seemed a scent more beautiful than anything he had ever inhaled.
He came to a clearing, with a cottage just a few yards from the trees' edge. A large one, but rustic, with a thatched roof, and uneven logs visible even in the deep night. He could hear a few chickens clucking, and could feel the presence of a number of animals in a stone shelter that was just visible as a black lump behind the cabin. He couldn't see a car, or any lines that would suggest a telephone. Galen swore to himself. He knew some of the rural farmers saw no need for electricity, but he would have thought along the River Tweed that modern conveniences would be thick on the ground.
Through the cottage window, he could see the remnants of a fire glowing in the hearth. Two dogs suddenly began thunderous barking inside. Galen struggled onward, his energy fading fast, darkness threatening to overtake him. Just a few more steps. He knocked on the door, though whoever was inside must know he was there... but, God, he couldn't wait the eternity for an answer, so he fumbled the latch, and stumbled forward. Whatever he was expecting, it wasn't this. The room was broad and comfortable, with books and papers strewn everywhere. It looked like a rustic hunting retreat, but one from a distant century, something like one of his noble Scottish ancestors might have known.
But it was the scarecrow of a man who sent his head spinning again. He was old, but somehow vital, his long grey hair a match for the long grey robe that he wore. He was spry and at the ready, with a stout stick to strike Galen about the head, should he need it. The dogs barked ferociously, but stayed behind the man. Without thinking, Galen instantly assumed a defensive stance, though the movement made him cry out. "I see you've injured yourself," the old man said plainly, his voice strong and commanding. A man used to being heard. "I'm afraid that's not very convenient."
None of it made sense. From his stance, Galen felt the darkness encroaching, but managed to croak— "Gandalf. You're Gandalf."
Then his legs failed again, and he started to fall. But the old man was quicker than that, catching Galen and lifting him into his arms. He staggered slightly, but not from the teenager's weight. He felt something that he hadn't felt for generations, and the shock was physical, a small jolt of electricity that made him gasp, and pulled the air from his lungs...