Rescue Mission: A Short Story
The poor creature had no chance.
Trapped in a thicket its body was enmeshed underneath a network of twigs and branches. It must have tried to disentangle itself, but only ended up working its way into the thick of it.
Aremon could see that it was wounded but not critically. Would he leave it here?
He turned and looked at his two companions.
It was three days after they had ascended from Camp Tumaini. On this particular occasion, two scouts had obtained the camp leader’s permission to escort him out to the countryside. They were now on their way back.
He could see in Irban's eyes and those of his fellow scout that it was important for them to move on because of the lateness of the hour. After a moment’s consideration, he was inclined to comply with them and let nature here take its course.
He turned, rejoined his companions and the three set off again. Yet the further they went, the more he felt the tug within himself.
Nature? How could he even conceive of it in that sense here?
He recalled the extraordinary experiences he had been through since crash-landing in this peculiar region.
There must be something more to this than meets the eye.
Motioning to the others, he said, “Look. I know we need to move on because of time and Delvin may call both of you to account if we arrive late. But somehow, I cannot allow that helpless creature to be found by some wild predator or stalking beast. I don't think we just encountered it there by sheer coincidence. Nothing has so far occurred simply by chance.”
There was a pause. His two companions looked at each other for a moment. Eventually, they nodded their agreement. They began following him back to the spot where they had found the bird.
Undoing the delicate network of twigs, thorns and branches without further wounding the animal was a painstaking process. Aremon finally got himself a large pole and gently pried at the longer branches, while the two scouts unsheathed their knives and joined in, cutting away at the bushy stems.
Soon, enough space had been made for the bird to be taken out of its intricate prison. While each of the scouts held back a mass of tangle, Aremon reached in for the bird.
Immediately the creature shrank from him in fright. It was clearly unaccustomed to humans. He could see it did not know what to make of him - whether he was a greater or lesser danger.
Aremon gave one quick glance at the scouts behind him and then turned to the bird.
“Come now, don’t be afraid of me,” He heard himself whisper, “I have been petrified too. But I also know what it means to be rescued. I may appear a little strange to you now, but I have also understood true friends do not always seem that way at all. So if you will trust me and not judge this book by its cover, I could set you flying again.”
He pushed his way closer and started stroking its ruffled feathers in an attempt the calm the helpless creature. As he did so, his eyes began taking in its appearance and features more closely.
What struck him immediately was that this was unlike any bird he had ever seen in his life. It appeared to be something like a crossbreed between a wedge-tailed eagle and an Andean condor.
Aremon proceeded, trying to build trust, his curiosity now merging with fascination. Though it took a while, he did seem to eventually succeed in winning its confidence.
The creature, though previously frightened, was now offering little resistance. It seemed to slowly be coming to terms with the fact that this strange primate with a soothing voice and touch meant no harm.
Now Aremon began to lift the bird carefully from among the tiny stems and branches and was soon able to hold it to his chest with both arms. He continued speaking gently to the bird which now made fewer attempts to resist him.
He slowly turned and began making his way out of the thicket, crouching low as he went and using his well-built frame to protect the creature from injury.
With the assistance of the two scouts, he was able to finally bring it out into the open. They looked it over. Apart from some scratches and ruffled feathers, there did not seem to be any damage at all. Nothing that could not heal with time. They judged the bird's condition safe enough to test for flight.
The scouts moved aside as Aremon poised himself.
“There!” With one mighty swoop, he flung the bird skywards.
At first, it appeared like the creature was going to fall back again to the earth as there was no exertion on its part to stay airborne. But then, just as gravity began taking over, there was a tottering sideways, then the bird's wings seemed to suddenly explode into life.
Despite the cramped state it had been in, it didn't take long to find equilibrium. Now with wings fully outstretched, Aremon could see that it was much larger and more beautiful bird than he had originally thought.
The men watched silently as the bird circled above them. It started descending and eventually perched upon a protruding boulder. It then shook itself, expelling dust from its wings and feathers.
The bird moved forward and stood erect. For a moment, it gazed down at the humans below from the level of its new vantage point. They could clearly see its peculiar features.
With powerful strokes of its wings, the creature began to rise. Launching itself into the sky, it continued ascending further and further, calling out as it flew.
Aremon gave it one last look. He then turned back to the scouts.
Together, they gathered their gear and resumed their march back toward the camp.
They had not made much progress before their journey was unexpectedly interrupted.
A loud noise, similar to that of a train echoing in the distance, came to their ears.
They instinctively halted in their tracks, turned and stared beyond the mountains. The sound seemed to have come after the avian calls had gone out of earshot.
What was that? Where did it originate from?
As far as they could tell, there was nothing to be seen from where they stood. Nor was the noise repeated.
Again, Aremon turned to his companions with questioning eyes. They seemed to be just as surprised as he was.
Without a word, the trio resumed their trek and in the course of time, came in full view of the camp.
Days later, Aremon was on a tour of the camp accompanied by Delvin, Irban and a few other tribesmen. They had reached the edge of one row of huts, when a middle-aged woman suddenly burst into their presence, followed closely behind by a scout.
Clutching the leader’s hand in hers, she begun to plead with him. She sounded agitated and desperate. Delvin listened quietly for a few moments before turning to Aremon.
"She needs urgent assistance. Her son had gone out with his father toward their farm, a short distance to the north. On the way there, he got inquisitive and fell into a fissure high up a precipice. He is trapped and likely wounded from the fall. Visibility there will be gone soon. We have to act now if we are going to get him out by nightfall. He is their only son."
Delvin spoke some reassuring words to the mother before giving quick instructions to the scout. He then turned again to Aremon.
“Most of the able men are away from the camp at the moment. We will need you to come with us.”
“Sure, no problem.” Aremon heard himself respond.
He followed the leader back to the quarters where they fetched some strong rope and climbing gear. After Delvin gave him a quick crash course on how the stuff worked, they emerged in time to join four other rescuers. The latter too had been informed concerning the predicament.
The evening was slipping by and dusk was about to settle in. There was no time to waste.
They set out together, taking the shortest route to the cliffs. It led them through a tiny stream, over some rocky terrain and into open shrubland. Finally, they began descending along a narrow path bordered on either side by thickets and tall trees with low-hanging branches.
"What was that?" Aremon exclaimed suddenly, stopping in his tracks. So did the rest.
They had just been engulfed in darkness as the setting rays of the evening sun were blotted out in an instant. For the brief moment it lasted, it felt like a mysterious blanket had been cast over the entire canopy from above.
However, gazing upward nothing odd or unusual could be detected from where they stood. Their ears did not pick up any sound at all.
Unusual as this was, there was no time to investigate. Delvin was already urging the party on and they all complied, setting out once more in haste toward the scene of the mishap.
Upon emerging from the trees and into the open, they found the boy’s father, just as distraught as Aremon expected him to be. One gaze down the steep incline, and Aremon could understand why. They were standing atop a towering precipice whose jagged cliffs wound to thousands of feet below.
The father was pointing down to the right.
They could see a young lad, probably in his late teens trapped in a rock fissure, clutching onto a projecting bush with both hands while trying to steady himself on one foot. He seemed terrified and unable to hold on for long. Beyond him, the immense depths yawned like a bottomless pit about to suck him in at any moment.
Delvin directed the team back to the huge cluster of trees behind them. The men wasted no time in securing the heavy ropes around the trunks and in a short while, they were prepared to begin.
Within minutes, the first of the rescuers was already being lowered carefully, foot by foot. The second adjusted his rope and tested it briefly before joining him.
The father called out to encourage his son in the local tribal language. A feeble response came from beneath and Aremon’s heart went out to the lad.
Despite the sudden gusts of wind which would blow over the cliffs and almost throw them off balance, the rescuers braced themselves and continued the descent with unwavering determination.
Unfortunately, the single rope that had been thrown out for the lad to cling onto got tangled in a nest of bushes due to the force of the wind. However, the rescuers were on either side of the youth within minutes. With each laying his hand on either side, they motioned for him to let go.
It was a dangerous manoeuvre. But there was no other way.
The boy hesitated for a while, taking in the implications of what was being asked of him.
With his father’s reassuring voice still echoing down from above, the boy supported himself one last time with his hands on the crevice above him, placed his weight on the edge of his feet and instantly threw his arms first around one rescuer and then the other.
The motion made him lose his balance, but they both grabbed and steadied him not a second too soon. After a moment's confirmation, the rescuers gave the awaited signal and the men above began exerting themselves powerfully on the ropes.
It was a slow, precarious ascent. The lad was covered in dust and though he had been bruised from the fall, he bravely ascended with the assistance of his rescuers. They first aimed at getting him safely onto a rocky ledge a short distance above them where they could strap him properly with extra pieces they had brought along for him. Amid cheers from above, the trio managed to cover much of the way to the ledge.
It was then that the sudden gust of wind came.
The lad's feet abruptly slipped, causing his entire weight to fall on the shoulders of the two men. As he forced himself up again, his feet begun to feel desperately for alternative crevices on which he could steady himself.
As he did so, his arms started slipping from their shoulders. He soon found himself clinging onto their waists awkwardly as they held on to him with their arms.
With the rescuers immobilized, the ascent was halted. Clearly, further help was required if they were to bear him up again and cover the remaining distance to safety. Given the slippery incline and the unexpected winds, how long could they hold onto him unaided?
Something had to be done. Quickly.
A Precarious Incline
Precious seconds were slipping by.
Aremon who had taken in the entire episode, now turned to look at Delvin. Till now, the latter had been so absorbed by the happenings below them he had hardly paid any attention to what taking place around him.
In order to gain as much leverage as possible, the others had retreated back to the trees that lay several feet away from the edge and were doing everything possible to hang onto the ropes and prepare to heave.
Aremon took in the gravity of the predicament and decided not to wait around for instructions. Springing into action, he grabbed what gear he could find closest to him, wrapped it on himself and gestured his intentions to the men behind him.
He was going to be the third rescuer. The sight of the terrified youth, his distraught father and the memory of his desperate mother waiting for news back at the camp seemed to call out to him. He was going to let his heart rule his mind.
After testing the strength of the knots with his weight for a few seconds, he began to descend before fear could make him reconsider. Trying as much as possible not to look below him, he carefully proceeded, a few feet at a time.
He tried to follow the pattern he had observed with the other rescuers, holding to the rope above against the straps around his chest, while feeling for cracks or crevices with his feet and hands.
He could hear Delvin’s encouraging voice against the occasional howling of the dusk wind. He deemed the first stages of his descent a bit clumsy and uncoordinated, but there was no room or time to think all that. This was a rescue operation, not a professional drill exercise.
How true to life. He thought. How many genuinely desperate ones we easily allow to deteriorate and perish as we show off our own superiority and selfishly compete with one another? So many needy, trapped lives about to fall off into oblivion, yet we are too engrossed with breaking a higher record than the last one to be involved in what really matters.
The winds had ceased and Aremon found himself beside the youth much faster than he had imagined it would take him. He paused to assess the situation for a few seconds and then looked into the youth’s weary but hopeful eyes.
“Don’t worry, young man,” he panted, “Just a few more feet up and safety will be within reach.”
He received a nod and half-smile even though he knew the youth did not understand a word he said.
He ruled out putting new strapping gear on the lad in these circumstances. But Delvin had shown him it was possible for one's own straps to accommodate another in the event of an emergency so that two are secured instead of one.
A quick observation revealed there was no way the other two could fasten their own gear on the lad. Their limbs were already locked in a precarious position as they held him from slipping away. The extra gear they had brought for him could not be put to use anywhere short of the rocky ledge.
Aremon secured himself on some crevices to the left and leaned his weight against the rope. He then cautiously begun the process of unfolding the huge leather straps off his chest and shoulders.
He moved closer and started wrapping the ends around the lad’s torso as the others maintained their hold. He found them just as expandable as the leader had explained and he knew with the support of the heavy ropes, they would be sufficient to hold the weight of upto four persons at a time.
With the lad’s cooperation, the leather straps were soon secured around both their torsos and Aremon now busied himself with tightening the binds. Relief was already showing on the dust-baked features of the two rescuers above him as the weight of the lad begun easing from their arms and sides. Within a short time, they would be on their way up again.
Three pairs of eyes watched patiently, as Aremon worked on the final binds.
Then it happened.
So keen was he on what he was doing, he had not prepared himself for the unexpected. A fresh gust of wind blew over them and he found himself having to twist to make an adjustment.
As he did so, his left foot slid off the crevice. This motion caught him off guard and he reached out to steady himself, clinging onto a protruding rock as yet another gust of wind swept by.
He pushed the lad with one hand and steadied himself with the other while trying to slip his foot back into the crevice. But the binds had not been fully tightened and in those brief moments, he had felt the straps around him loosen.
Stretching his arms and clinging onto the cracks above his head, he let go of the rope for a few seconds as he hoisted his body upward for leverage. Falling pebbles and dust particles had him momentarily blinded and he blinked several times in the effort.
The rocky support above him was unable to bear his weight and without warning broke off in his hands. The binds came undone and though the youth again in the arms of the other rescuers, he himself was slipping down through his own gear! He grabbed at the rope but it was no longer where it had been.
His hands clutched at empty air.
Loud exclamations from the entire party rent the air as he slid down several feet among jutting pieces of rock and protruding bushes. Aremon tried to seize at them, but they were too weak to hold up his weight.
You would have watched, transfixed with horror, as his body lurched and fell several feet down that incline and finally shot out into the open space beneath.
Arms outstretched, Aremon's body plummeted further and further down. The sky above him spun endlessly and the force of rushing air completely cut off his breath. All his senses seemed to implode in him and there seemed to be nothing else but endless space.
He was conscious of the horror that had seized him from the split second he had lost his grip and he knew there was no way for him to survive this.
Apart from the catastrophic fall, the air pressure was exerting its force rendering him breathless, like all his vital organs were getting crushed. His eyes were shut and everything indicated that it was just a matter of time before he completely lost consciousness.
Now very slowly, something else began to take place. Out of what seemed like a void of swirling blackness, a change started coming over him. Like fragmented pieces of a puzzle, he was aware of his senses were gathering themselves together. Ever so slowly.
Was he alive or was he dead?
He must have still been airborne as he could feel his body floating against the strong wind currents. But from an engulfed state of dizziness and near insensibility, something was happening. He felt balance trickling back slowly... faint signals registering in his brain.
His whole body felt limp.
With the little energy he could muster, he managed to slightly steady his face and open his eyes. It was all blurry at first. But then things started coming into focus.
Huge boulders and cliffs were flashing past him.
Only this time, something was different.
What was happening to him? Had he lost his mind or had he passed into another realm?
He closed his eyes and shook his head in an effort to steady his mind. New sensations were now registering in his brain. The crushing pressure seemed to have disappeared and he could feel air returning into his lungs. There was a new sound in his ears as well.
The world around him was no longer ascending. It was descending.
Slowly at first, a few feet at a time, and then fast. Very fast.
He had caught onto something. Something physical. But why was his body still airborne?
No, it can't be.
Again, he opened his eyes. He had not caught onto something.
Something had caught onto him.
The realization hit him like a wave. Both his shoulders now felt the grip. The vice-like grip of steel.
Whatever these new set of circumstances were, they explained the new game-changing reality his mind and body was trying to adjust to. He must have been descending for quite a while since he fell off the cliff. Now, something beyond himself had intervened.
Something that now was taking off into the air with him with a force more powerful than his mind could register.
Previously, he had been at the verge of passing out. Now, as his sensory receptors began making crucial readjustments, he chanced a gaze first sideways and then upwards.
Immediately, he was thunderstruck by what he saw.
As though out of a prehistoric realm, the underbelly of a gargantuan creature came at once into view, complete with massive wings that were now battling the currents of wind with incredibly mighty strokes.
Aremon could see its huge talons wrapped around and beneath his shoulders and knew exactly how his freefall had been broken.
This was unlike anything he had ever seen or experienced before. Was it a dream? Had he suffered a concussion during the fall and completely lost his mental faculties?
It couldn't be. The fact that he was now fully conscious and had regained the use of his senses made sure of that.
Next, a new line of questions presented themselves. Where was he being taken? Was he going to be a meal somewhere beyond the towering cliffs? He may have been out of one danger, but was he now about to be plunged into another?
The talons made it clear that he had just been captured by a monstrous bird of prey. He tried to struggle to free himself but had to give up quickly as there was no possibility of even budging an inch. Plus a chance gaze downwards communicated to him how irrational such a consideration was.
After a while, Aremon noticed they had ascended beyond the precipice and were already covering many miles into the interior. He could not tell exactly how long this flight was taking as the cold dusk air whipped against his face and body.
But eventually, the creature did begin to slow down. There was going to be a landing. Somewhere.
Aremon could see they were now over a huge plateau. Unlike what he had imagined previously, he could see no nest in sight. He strained this way and that but could not see anything that resembled a home for a creature of this magnitude.
Then the huge fowl began circling as though seeking for something. Aremon was learning new definitions of both suspense and apprehension.
Finally, the bird let out a loud, calling sound and slowly flapped its wings as it descended. The ground in a clearing rose up to meet them and Aremon felt the talons begin to ease their grip on his shoulders. Just when he thought he would be crushed by the impact, the creature stretched out its wings fully. This broke the fall and Aremon found himself landing like a paratrooper.
The giant avian flapped its wings again and moved further ahead, settling on a boulder. As soon as its feet made contact, it folded its wings and positioned itself.
Aremon was still very shaken but was starting to get a grip on himself. Grateful to have his own feet back on terra firma, he could hardly believe what had just happened, much less the incredible sight that now met his eyes.
The graceful, majestic form of the bird towered above him, its feathers ruffling in the wind. He took in its breathtaking features - those fierce dark-brown eyes, the powerful heaving breast, the colossal body, those sharp, arched talons.
Aremon could not brush away the cold shiver that rose within him at the realization of how close he stood to this mighty force of predatory destruction, capable of tearing into pieces any jungle beast in an instant.
His eyes now lifted from the talons and body and back again to those fierce eyes.
From its perch, he could see the colossal creature too had riveted its attention and was now looking fixedly at him.
And so it was that for an appreciable while, both man and formidable predator stood within close proximity of each other.
There was silence. It seemed like each was internally processing the tremendous heterospecific gap that spanned between them in the realm of life.
Those eyes. He knew he had seen them before.
As he looked on, the creature stepped back. It threw back its head and again let out the same loud call as before. Within moments, there was a flapping of wings and it began to ascend from the clearing.
Aremon watched as the avian began cutting into the air back towards the way they had come. That powerful breast heaved again and a new sound came forth.
It was akin to that of an express train rushing in the distance.
Intrigued, Aremon watched it go all the way until it disappeared in the darkening sky.
It was late. Most of those who had been present by the campfire had already retired for the night. A few remained however, wrapping up the day's events. Among them were two who seemed to be the centre of attention.
"It was just as well that they found you before the darkness set in," one was saying to the other. "After such an adventure, you wouldn't want to be walking around the forest on your own in the night, would you?"
"How exactly did they find me?"
"It is rare to hear the call of the Thun," Delvin replied. "Some of the farmers were returning back from cultivating near the hills when they heard it. So naturally, they changed direction and hurried to investigate. They were just on time to watch you being lowered into the clearing. Not sure who was more shocked than the other, you or them, but it was something they had never witnessed before. Even in their wildest dreams."
"I recognized the eyes of that massive creature instantly," said Aremon. "They were identical to those of the small bird we had rescued earlier in the forest."
"Irban told me about that," Delvin responded. "That was a young Thun you rescued while you were returning from your scouting trip. Its mother was on the way, but you managed to free it before she arrived. It was a good thing too, otherwise she would have torn you all into pieces if she so much as suspected a hint of foul play.
"They have a powerful vision and can spot your activities from very far even if you cannot see them. It must have been this same mother that later saw you lose your grip and fall into that dreadful chasm."
"Then she intervened," Aremon was still confounded by the entire episode.
Delvin nodded before continuing. "The Thun are a rare species here. They are massively powerful, intelligent and belong to the highest order in the Kingdom of the Avians. They will often, however, remain imperceptible when crossing through these parts during the course of their hunting, or in their annual migration.
"Despite the fact that they are wild and predatory, their young are priceless to them. As they are low in numbers, the continuity of their species is an objective that drives them to be all the more dedicated, and they will go to great lengths to defend and preserve their young. It, therefore, stands to reason that anyone who facilitates this quest readily wins over their allegiance. You did not know this when you met that trapped young bird now, did you?"
"Not at all," responded Aremon. "A case of reaping what you sow, I guess."
Delvin smiled. "Unitan, the first leader you met when you arrived here, must have given you a comprehensive introduction to Ishara."
Aremon nodded his consent.
There was a pause. Everyone around the fire seemed to be reflecting on Delvin's statements.
Then Aremon recalled. "So the shadow that fell over us as we were heading toward the cliffs-"
"That was the same avian; the mother of the bird you rescued,” Delvin interjected. “After both had been reunited, they must have traced then followed as we headed off to where the lad was. Your gesture earlier in the day may have aroused their curiosity but for a good cause. Later at the cliffs, we were all so engrossed in the rescue that we did not notice what was happening around or above us.
"As I stated before, they are a surprisingly intelligent order of species. She must have observed the chain of events right up to the moment you lost your grip and plummeted from the precipice. She took over just in time.
"While you were being rescued by your new ally, reinforcement did arrive for us from the nearby village. We were not only able to complete the rescue of the lad, but of the other two men as well. They are incredibly grateful that you were willing to place your life on the line because of this.
"They are not with us now, having returned to their villages, but word has already reached them concerning your remarkable adventure, and they expectantly await to see you again tomorrow.
"You should have seen the tears and expressions on the lad's father and mother when each was able to hold him again. He was dead as far as they were concerned, but now is alive again."
There was another pause. Then the Wajumbe leader rose to his feet. As if on cue, the rest of the group that had gathered around the fire also arose.
Aremon stood as Delvin approached and took his hand, placing the other on his chest. "You have made your mark here in this region and you are now a trendsetter among us, Aremon. Within you beats the heart of a true champion. You have become part of our family. We are wholeheartedly thankful that you came here to be with us."
Aremon returned the smile. The leader paused, glanced around then continued. "And now that we are all thankfully home safe, sufficiently fed and taken care of, come, let us turn in for a well-deserved rest."