Rescue Mission: A Short Story
The poor creature had no chance.
It appeared trapped in a thicket, its body 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.
They began moving on 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.
He stopped. 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 beast. I do not think we just encountered it there by sheer chance or coincidence. Nothing has so far happened here by accident.”
His two companions looked at each other for a moment. There was a pause and eventually they nodded their agreement and 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 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 out 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 from danger. 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. As he did so, he observed this was unlike any bird he had ever seen in his life. It appeared somewhat like a crossbreed between a wedge-tailed eagle and an Andean condor. He proceeded, his curiosity blending with fascination and though it took a while, he did seem to succeed in winning its confidence. He began to lift it carefully from among the branches. With the assistance of the two scouts, he was able to finally bring the bird into the open. They took some time to examine its features and determined it was good enough for a test flight.
“There!” With one mighty swoop, he flung the bird skywards. From the cramped state the bird had been in, it took a while for it to gain some velocity. It tottered this way and that in the wind, but finally managed to find its balance. Then with powerful strokes of its wings it begun to ascend into the sky, giving a screeching sound as it went.
Aremon gave it one last look and turned back to the scouts. As they resumed their way back toward the camp, a loud noise similar to that of a train echoing in the distance came to their ears. They instinctively halted in their tracks and looked beyond to the mountains in the horizon. The sound seemed to have come after the screeching of the bird had gone out of earshot, but they could not see a thing in the gathering dusk.
Aremon turned to his companions with questioning eyes, but they seemed to just as surprised themselves. Without a word, they resumed their trek and were eventually 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 heavy rope and climbing gear. After Delvin gave him a quick crash course on how the basic equipment functioned, they emerged in time to join four other rescuers. They 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 begun 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 was almost like a mysterious blanket had been thrown over the canopy above. However, nothing odd or unusual could be detected from where they stood.
There was no time to investigate. Delvin was already urging them on and they 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 downwards 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. The rescuers gave the signal and the men on top begun to pull back powerfully on the ropes.
It was a slow, precarious ascent. Though the lad, covered in dust had been bruised from his fall, he bravely climbed the slope with the assistance of his rescuers. They first aimed at getting him safely onto a rocky ledge a short distance above, where they could properly strap him with extra gear they had brought along for him. Amid cheers from above, the trio managed to cover much of the way to the ledge.
Sudden gusts of wind.
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 with which he could steady himself. In the process, his arms were slipping from their shoulders. He clung onto their waists awkwardly as they held on to him with their arms.
With the rescuers immobilised, the ascent was halted. Clearly, further help was required if they were to cover the remaining feet 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 realized he was the only one closest to the one remaining gear. The others were too far away and their limbs were already covered with the ropes they were tugging. As he looked up, his eyes met with Delvin’s. He knew what had to be done.
Springing into action, he grabbed the gear, wrapped it on himself and gestured his intention to those further up next to the trees. He was going to be the third rescuer. After testing the strength of the knots with his weight for a few seconds, he begun to descend before fear could make him change his mind.
Trying as much as possible not to look below him, he carefully proceeded downward, 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 free hand.
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 about it. 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 could 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. And this was 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 started wrapping them onto the lad’s torso. 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 around both of them and Aremon was busy tightening the binds. Relief was already showing on the dust baked features of the two rescuers as the weight of the lad begun easing from their arms and sides. Soon, they would be on their way up again.
Three pairs of eyes watched hopefully, patiently, as Aremon worked on the binds.
Then it happened.
As he twisted to make an adjustment, his left foot slid off the crevice making him lose his balance. This caught him off guard and he reached out to steady himself, clinging onto a protruding rock as yet another gust of wind swept by. As he held up the lad with one hand and steadied himself with the other, he tried to slip his foot back into the crevice. But the binds had not been fully tightened and he had felt the straps around him loosen in those brief moments.
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 as he pushed himself up.
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 was held by 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.
He could hear loud exclamations above him as he slid down several feet among jutting pieces of rock and protruding bushes. He tried to seize at them, but they were too weak to hold up his weight. In stark disbelief, you would have watched transfixed, as his body lurched and fell hundreds of feet down that incline and finally shot out into the open space beneath.
Arms outstretched, Aremon's body plummeted further down the expansive precipice. The sky above him moved round in circles as the momentum made his head spin and the force of rushing air completely cut off his breath. All his senses seemed to implode on him and soon he was swaying this way and that like a rag in the gale.
Minutes later something else begun to happen. Out of what seemed like a huge void of blackness, he felt a change come over him. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, his senses were gathering themselves together ever so slowly. Was he alive or was he dead? It must be that he was still in the air as he could feel his body floating against strong wind currents. From an engulfed state of dizziness, he felt trickles of balance being restored to his brain.
Though his whole body felt limp, with the energy he could muster, he slightly steadied his face and opened his eyes.
Huge boulders and cliffs were still flashing past him. Only this time something was different.
What was happening to him?
He shook his head in an effort to steady his mind. New sensations were registering in his brain.
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. Both his shoulders felt the grip. A vice-like grip of steel. Whatever thing it was had broken his fall and was taking off into the air with him with a force more powerful than his mind could register. As his sensory receptors begun making critical readjustment, he chanced a gaze upwards and was immediately thunderstruck by what he saw.
As though out of a make-believe birdlife museum, the underbelly of an enormous fowl came at once into view, complete with massive wings that made mighty strokes against the wind currents. Aremon could see its huge talons wrapped around and beneath his shoulders and knew how his fall had been broken. Though he could not make out all the features, he could see this airborne creature was not like anything he had ever seen before.
Was this a dream? Had he suffered a major concussion during the fall and was now hallucinating? Where was he being taken? Was he going to be supper somewhere above the towering cliffs? The talons indicated it was clearly a bird of prey. He may have been out of one danger, but had he found himself in another? He tried to struggle to free himself from its grasp but soon found it was impossible. One look down and he knew even if he did free himself, he would not live to tell it.
After a while, he noticed they had ascended beyond the precipice and were covering many miles into the interior. He did not know for how long the creature flew him with the cold dusk air whipping past his face and body. But eventually the bird did begin to slow down. It was about to land.
Aremon could see they were now over a huge plateau. Unlike what he had imagined, there was no nest in sight. He strained this way and that but could not see anything that resembled a home for a bird of such magnitude. Then the huge fowl begun to move around in circles as though seeking for something. Aremon was learning a new definition of suspense and apprehension.
Finally the bird let out a loud sound and slowly flapped its wings as it descended. As the ground in a clearing rose up to meet them, Aremon felt the talons begin to release their grip on his shoulders. Just when he thought he would be crushed on impact, the creature stretched out its wings, giving him the landing of a paratrooper.
The giant bird moved further ahead and settled on a boulder, folding its wings as it did so. From its perch, it turned to the human and for a while, the two gazed at each other. Aremon could clearly see its colossal features were even more pronounced than he had imagined. And those eyes. Yes, he had seen them before. Somewhere.
Again the huge bird threw back its head and let out the sound akin to that of an express train rushing in the distance. Within moments, it flapped its wings and ascended from the clearing, cutting into the air back the way it had come.
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 almost seemed to be the centre of attention.
"It is good they found you just before the darkness set in. After such an adventure, you wouldn't want to be walking around the forest on your own in the night, would you?"
"How did they find me?"
"The men were returning back from cultivating near the hills when they heard the rare cry of the Thun. It was then that they saw you being lowered into the clearing."
"I recognised the eyes of that giant creature instantly. Same as bird we rescued some days back in the forest."
"Irban told me about that. That was a young Thun you rescued while you were away on 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 had she suspected you were about to harm the young one. They have a powerful vision and can spot your activities from very far even if you cannot see them. "
Aremon was amazed. Delvin went on. "You see, the bird is of a rare species here. To this day it is a dangerous and cautious breed, and will often keep a low profile when crossing through these parts. Yet because of the continuity of its species, those who fend for its young easily win its allegiance."
"Another case of reaping what you sow."
Delvin smiled. "Unitan must have given you a good introduction to Ishara."
Aremon recalled something else. "The thick shadow that fell over us as we headed for the cliffs…"
"That was her.” Delvin interjected. “She was following us and must have observed the moment you lost your grip. In the meantime, help arrived in form of reinforcement from the nearby village. We were able to rescue the lad as well as the two other men. They are incredibly grateful that you were willing to place your life on the line because of the rescue mission. You will see them tomorrow."
The Wajumbe leader rose to his feet. "Now that we are all thankfully home safe, tended and fed, I think it is proper for us to call it a day. Come, it’s time to get some rest."