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.
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 in these parts 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 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 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 stroking 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 and it made no attempt to scratch or resist him.
He slowly turned and began making his way out of the thicket, crouching low as he went and using his 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 a flight.
The scouts moved aside as Aremon poised himself.
“There!” With one mighty swoop, he flung the bird skywards.
At first, they thought 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, was a tottering left and right, then the bird's wings seemed to come alive.
Though it initially a while to gain proper velocity due to the cramped state it had been in, the bird found its equilibrium. Now with wings fully outstretched, Aremon could see that it was much larger and more beautiful than he had originally thought.
The men watched silently as the bird circled above them, before eventually descending and perching on a protruding boulder. Once there, it shook itself, expelling dust from its wings and feathers.
The bird now stood erect. For a moment, it gazed down at the humans below from the level of its new vantage point.
Then with powerful strokes of its wings, it began to rise.
Launching itself toward the sky, it continued to ascend, calling out as it flew.
Aremon gave it one last look at the departing bird. 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.
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. Aremon turned to his companions with questioning eyes.
They seemed to be just as surprised as he was. Without a word, they resumed their trek and in the course of time, they came 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 some strong rope and climbing gear. After Delvin gave him a quick crash course on how to use the equipment, 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 who had taken in the entire episode, now turned to look at Delvin. Till now, he 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 heave.
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 began 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 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.
You would have watched, transfixed with horror, as his body lurched and fell several of 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 he was going to survive.
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 it was just a matter of time before he lost consciousness.
Very slowly, something else begun to happen. Out of what seemed like a huge void of blackness, he felt a change begin to come over him. Like fragmented pieces of a puzzle, he was suddenly aware that 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 else began taking place. He felt balance begin trickling back slowly, like 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.
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.
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 felt the grip.
The vice-like grip of steel.
Whatever these new set of circumstances were, it 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 else 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 critical readjustments, he chanced a gaze downwards and sideways. Then he turned 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 making mighty strokes against the wind currents.
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 this 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 him 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. Another look down and he was struck by the craziness of even considering the idea.
After a while, he noticed they had ascended beyond the precipice and were covering many miles into the interior. He did not know how long the creature carried him with the cold dusk air whipping against 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 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. 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 fully. This broke the fall and Aremon found himself landing like a paratrooper.
Afterwards, the giant avian moved further ahead and settled on a boulder. As soon as its feet made contact, it folded its wings and positioned itself upright.
Aremon was still very shaken but was able to get a grip of himself now. 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 - the fierce dark-brown eyes, the powerful breast, the colossal body, the sharp, arched talons.
Aremon could not brush away the cold shiver that rose within him with the realization of how close he stood to this mighty force of predatory destruction, so capable of tearing him into fragments in an instant.
His eyes now rose from the talons and body and back again to those fierce eyes.
From its perch, he could see the mammal too had riveted its attention and was now looking fixedly at him.
And so it was, that for an appreciable while, both man and beast stood within feet of each other in silence. It was as though each acknowledged the presence and close proximity of the other, while at the same time internally processing the tremendous heterospecific gap that spanned between them as living beings.
And those eyes. He knew he had seen them before.
Then, as he looked on, the massive creature stepped back. It threw back its head and again let out the same loud call as before.
Within moments, it was flapping its wings and slowly started ascending from the clearing.
Aremon watched as the remarkable creature began cutting into the air back the way they had come. Now fully airborne, he saw that powerful breast heave once 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. 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 recognised the eyes of that massive creature instantly. They were identical to those of the small bird we had rescued earlier in the forest."
"Irban told me about that," Delvin replied. "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 concluded, still confounded by the entire experience.
Delvin nodded. Then he went on. "You see, the Thun are a rare species here. There are not many of them. They are massively powerful, quite intelligent and belong to the highest order in the Kingdom of the Avians. They will often, however, keep a low profile 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. The continuity of the species which is limited in number, 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 the allegiance of these mighty ones."
"Another case of reaping what you sow."
Delvin smiled. "Unitan, the first leader you met when you arrived in this region, must have given you a comprehensive introduction to Ishara."
Aremon nodded his consent. There was a pause. Everyone around the fire seemed to reflect on Delvin's words.
Then Aremon recalled something else.
"The shadow that fell over us as we were heading toward the cliffs..."
"That was the same mother,” Delvin interjected. “After being reunited with her young, both of them must have followed us as we headed off to where the lad was. Your actions earlier in the day seemed to have aroused their curiosity. Then later at the cliffs, we were so engrossed in what we were doing, we did not notice what was happening around us or above us.
"As I stated before, they are a surprisingly intelligent order of species. She must have observed our activities right up to the moment you lost your grip. It was then that she took over. She was just in time.
"In the meantime, as you may have already seen, 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 rescue mission.
"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."
The Wajumbe leader rose to his feet. The rest of the group that had gathered around the fire also rose to their feet as if on cue. Aremon did the same.
Delvin approached and took his hand. Placing his free hand on the man's chest, he spoke, "You have made your mark here in this region. You are now a trendsetter among us, Aremon. Within you beats the heart of a true rescuer. You have become part of our family. On behalf of the entire community, we are privileged and glad, wholeheartedly, to have you here with us."
The leader paused. Then he continued, "Now that we are all thankfully home safe, sufficiently tended and fed, it is only proper for that we call it a day. Come, let us turn in for a well-deserved rest."