With the hope that the woman with the red hair might reappear he stayed up later than he’d wanted to. Eventually he realized that wasn’t going to happen. He curled up next to the dying fire only to find what sleep he did stumble into was filled once again with images from another lifetime.
With morning came determination. He wanted to find someone, anyone, who could at least fill him in on his present location. He couldn’t find where he was from until he knew where he was.
With only his hastily formed hunting spear as protection he decided to slip back into his tatty armour. He was aware that it might advertise an allegiance he wasn’t yet aware of but the risk of being vulnerable in just his trousers and torn shirt was too great to ignore.
He took one final look at the beach and absorbed the memory of the view. For now it was the only good memory he had.
It didn’t take much wandering among the trees before he came across a path, or more accurately, a track. He stood there for a while looking both ways wondering which direction he should take. A little fear crept in and stole the simplicity of the decision; the wrong way could lead him further from people and answers. While he had accepted the fact last night that his search could take days, weeks or even years, he would still do all he could to speed up the quest and regain his past self.
Yet there was nothing, no one thing that could guide him one way or the other. Like the rest of the world, this small, dirt track meant nothing to him and neither did whatever lay at each end. It would be luck of the draw.
He hoped he wouldn’t have to spend too long in fate’s company. He wanted so badly to have knowledge to aid his decisions.
He glanced up at the sun and decided then that he would follow the journey of the world’s light. West it was.
He made it two steps before something caught his eye. Coming from the direction in which he had decided upon he saw someone running towards him. As the person closed in he saw it was a woman and that she looked more than a little distraught, though it became relief once she caught sight of him.
“Oh, thank Salus,” she said as she slowed in front of him. “Please, sir, you have to help me.”
“Help you with what?”
She didn’t say anything, only turned and pointed back the way she’d come from. Following in her wake were three men on horseback. The woman stepped behind the man from the beach as if he were a shield. The men on horses slowed down and finally stopped just a few feet away. They dismounted.
“There you are, precious,” said the first man as he approached. His face was dirty and he wore a patch over his left eye. Though his weapons weren’t drawn, each hand rested on the daggers nested in his belt. “We’ve been looking all over for you.” He looked now at the man from the beach. “Thank you stranger, we’re much obliged.”
The man from the beach said nothing. He felt the woman’s hands grip his arms. She was shivering.
Eye-patch went to step around but the man from the beach blocked him. This made Eye-patch sigh. “Look, stranger. This doesn’t concern you. And, even if it did . . .” He didn’t need to finish the sentence. His two friends stepped closer and they had their daggers drawn. Eye-patch moved closer so that the man from the beach could smell his breath. “So just step outta the way and get to see another day.”
The man from the beach had no idea of the events that had shaped him before he woke, reborn, just a day earlier. But something from that hidden past was trying to make itself felt now. His senses began to sharpen and his body tensed, ready to pounce. He sized up his opponents and a confidence swelled inside him. He felt like he could take these three men with one arm tied behind his back.
He smiled, dropped his pathetic spear and head-butted Eye-patch in the face. Eye-patch grabbed his now bloody face and cried out but his only reply was a swift kick to the ribs and then he was pushed over.
The man from the beach stepped past him and readied for the next two. The one on the left, whose mouth had seen better days, lunged with one dagger as the bearded man on the right swung his axe. The man on the beach blocked one, ducked the other. He released his grip on Toothless and punched him in the throat. Beardy came at him again but overshoot and received an elbow to the jaw as compensation.
The man from the beach felt a red mist start to bathe his mind and found he was ready for the next level; to end these men instead of just incapacitating them. At that moment he felt someone watching. He turned and saw the woman with the red hair standing among the trees. She still had the look of sadness on her face that she’d served to him last night.
She was shaking her head like a mother disappointed.
His fists unclenched and his muscles relaxed. Slowly the red mist drifted away and he felt the sounds of the surroundings come back. And then he took a punch to the back of the head. His fall just missed a tree and he hit the ground hard. He barely got his breath back when feet started striking him. He tried to call out but dirt, twigs and leaves choked him.
“Grab him,” said Eye-patch.
The kicking stopped and the man from the beach was dragged to his feet and pinned against a tree. He opened his eyes and saw Eye-patch stood in front of him, blood surrounding his mouth like crimson curtains. He held the woman by the wrist and seemed to need no effort to keep his grip despite the way she was thrashing around.
“Who the Dark do you think you are?” said Eye-patch.
Despite the pain and despite the predicament, the man from the beach couldn’t help but laugh at that question. He couldn’t answer that, even if he’d wanted to.
“You got something loose in that battered head of yours?” said Toothless.
“He’s already been too much hassle,” said Eye-patch. “As have you.” He turned to the woman who was still struggling and slapped her across the face. She froze and through her dishevelled hair she glared at him. He didn’t care. “Kill him,” said Eye-patch, “and let’s get back to camp.”
The man from the beach struggled to free himself as another dagger was aimed straight at his head. Yet the strike never came. Instead, his captives were all staring at his chest. He looked down to see a strange purple light glowing softly from beneath his chest armour. Before he could wonder what was happening he realised that he was no longer being held against the tree. Eye-patch noticed too.
“What are you waiting for? Kill him!”
The man from the beach dodged Toothless’ dagger but, before he could react, found himself doubling over in pain. From head to toe it felt like everything was suddenly being crushed. He looked down at his hands and saw the skin darken and crack. On the edge of his senses he thought he felt the dagger slash him but is was nothing more than a bug sting. His body started to change, his skin becoming like rock. He could make out the panic from those around him; confused and scared. His armour split front and back and felt to the ground.
And then there was no more pain. He stood up, a little taller than before, a little heavier too. Looking around he had four sets of wide eyes focused solely on him.
Toothless thought he’d have a go and charged forward. He met with a mighty stone fist and flew off between the trees, landing several feet away.
Eye-patch and Beardy knew a losing situation when they saw one and thought better of it. They hurried to their horses, leaving their comrade behind and rode off down the track, back the way they had come.
For a while the man on the beach felt strong enough to take on the world. He clenched his fists and felt the weight of his arms. He turned to find the woman frozen by fear of whatever it was he’d become.
His breathing slowed and he began to feel drained. Slowly, and less painfully, his skin began to soften. His shirt was torn and hung loosely across him. His lungs felt chilled as if he’d just run flat out in winter. He’s legs gave and he fell to his knees as the change washed away. The sounds of his surroundings returned once more; the leaves in the breeze, the birds in the trees.
He looked around but there was no sign of the woman with the red hair. There was only him and the woman who had been chased by the thugs.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the woman. “I . . . I don’t know what that was.” When she didn’t say anything he turned to check on her. She stood over him, a large branch gripped in both hands, held over her shoulder. “What are you doing?” he said.
She swung the branch and caught him across the side of his head.
His world went black.