She felt like an idiot.
Luck of the Dragon: Cold Comfort
© 2010 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
The red panda lost her balance and fell straight to the tumbled rocks in the tidal pool below. The surprise was total, and she didn’t have time to reorient herself or go into a tuck before she slammed into the water.
Along with the icy embrace of the water closing over her was a sickening wave of pain along her left side and a harsh impact on the left side of her head.
A kick, and her head broke water as she gasped for breath. She scrambled to get her feet under her and tottered upright. She could hear Brigit yelling as the Irish setter climbed down to the tidal pool.
She didn’t even bother to notice that she couldn’t understand her at first.
Shin tried a few steps, her feet, paws and tail already starting to go numb from the frigid water. She knew she had to get dry, and fast; hypothermia and frostbite would set in swiftly in these temperatures. The red panda started assessing her injuries even as she slogged out of the pool.
Pain in her ribs, on the left. Nothing seemed broken there.
Her head hurt, and the ground kept tilting underneath her.
She tried to move her left arm, and gasped at the sudden pain. The sensation didn’t go away, either, and the limb hung limp.
And her left paw felt numb.
Shin cursed in Hokkien as she sat down on a rock, using her right paw to wring as much water as she could from her tail before it started to freeze.
“Shin!” and she looked up to see Brigit picking her way to her. “Are ye alright?”
At any other time, she might have tried to put a brave face on it.
“No, Brigit. I think my left shoulder’s dislocated or broken.”
“Damn. Well, let me lend ye a paw an’ get ye back t’shelter. Easy now,” and she helped Shin to her feet again.
They trudged back up the slope and Shin muttered, “Sorry.”
“Now, none o’ that, m’girl,” Brigit said. “True an’ it’s both our faults, untyin’ th’ rope like that.”
“It was too short. And it was my idea.”
“Aye, but who agreed with ye?” The Irish setter raised her muzzle and whistled, two short blasts and one long. “We get ye back, dry ye off and make up th’ fire. Yer fur’s startin’ ta ice up, Shin.”
The red panda nodded, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other for the moment.
The pain in her shoulder and head still wasn’t going away.
They met Liberty and Tatiana on the way, and the half-coyote and the sable fell in on either side as Brigit helped Shin. It wasn’t necessary to ask questions or talk. The Chinese girl’s appearance and obvious discomfort spoke volumes.
Liberty went ahead and flipped the tarp open as the sable and the setter helped the red panda in. Shin had started shivering as the water still in her fur began freezing. Once they were all inside, the New Havenite built up the fire as Brigit eased Shin out of her flying suit. The next order of business was to wring as much water as they could from the red panda’s thick pelt.
The setter’s paws gingerly traveled over Shin’s left shoulder. “Pain?”
“Your paw goin’ numb?”
“I’d say so, from th’ look of it. Tatiana, what say we dry her off and then reduce it?”
The sable nodded. “Best thing, da.”
Brigit continued her examination as Liberty started helping the Russian girl. “Maybe bruised ribs, too. An’ ye got a right stout knot on yer head. Ye did yerself a treat, m’girl.”
“Yeah, I know.” Shin sat down from the half-crouch she’d been in since coming into the shelter, still shivering. “When do you want to do this?”
“Now!” Tatiana and Liberty threw themselves across Shin, holding her down as Brigit felt for the dislocation. Determining the best point to reduce it, she shoved.
The scream turned into curses in five languages and at least two dialects as Brigit felt her shoulder again. “Looks like I did it. Liberty, want ta check?”
“Hold still, Shin.” The half-coyote’s strong paws kneaded the joint. “Yeah, it feels like you popped it right, Brigit. Shin, we need to carve up a shirt to strap your arm up.”
Shin nodded, breathing hard as the pain ebbed and flowed. “Do what you have to do.” She shivered again and winced. “Damn. I shoot with that paw.”
“And will again,” Tatiana said judiciously. “We are fortunate that we are only here another two, three days.”
There was a sound of ripping cloth as Liberty got ready to rig a makeshift sling. “Mrs. Oelabe won’t be happy,” the canine said.
“Lib, I’m not happy,” Shin said in a pained tone. “What really irks me is that I didn’t bring a flask. I’d do anything for some whiskey right now.”
“You know the Tutors would have probably found it.”
“Probably, yeah.” The red panda struggled to a seated position and sat as quietly as she could while Liberty and Tatiana strapped her arm close to her body. “I’m an idiot,” she muttered in Chinese.
“Yes, you are,” Liberty said in the same language. The New Havenite chuckled as Shin growled at her and added, “But you aren’t dead, only injured. You can learn from your mistakes.”
“Your confidence is touching.”
The others laughed and started to collect items for lunch as Shin snuggled into her sleeping bag, shivering again.
Lunch consisted of fish, seasoned with salt and chili paste. Tatiana brewed hot cocoa. “Still cold?” she asked Shin as she passed her a canteen mug.
“Yeah. And my head aches.”
“Nu, possibly a bit of shock. Try to relax.”
“I’m just angry at myself.” Shin considered. “I guess.” She sat up and sipped at her cocoa, part of the sleeping bag slipping down and exposing her chest. “I’ll be okay tomorrow.”
Brigit snorted. “Are ye already fergettin’ our classes? Dislocations take time ta heal proper, they do.” She set her cup aside and ran a paw over Shin’s headfur. “That lump’s a worry, I’m thinkin.’ What’s today, Shin?”
The red panda thought. “Tuesday?”
Liberty shook her head. “Off by a day,” she muttered.
“If it weren’t for our journals, we wouldn’t be sure either, Liberty.” Tatiana was staring intently at Shin’s eyes.
The red setter frowned. “Ye know where ye are?”
“Um, in a cave?”
The other three shot worried glances at each other. “Maybe concussion, maybe not,” Tatiana observed. “Drink your cocoa, Shin, and get under cover. You’re cold.”
“All right, Tatiana,” Shin replied in a meek tone none of them had heard from her before. She drank her cup dry, then set it aside and curled up in her sleeping bag. She was soon fast asleep.
“We should set a watch on her,” Liberty said. “Wake her up from time to time.”
“Good idea,” Brigit said. “Ye start watching her, Lib, an’ Tatiana an’ I’ll head out an’ gather up th’ Professor’s equipment.” She glanced back as she started to crawl out of their shelter. “We’ll scavenge up some of th’ old crates ta use as firewood.”
The New Havenite nodded as she settled by the fire to watch Shin.
After an hour, the red panda started shaking again. “Cold?”
Liberty gazed down at the Chinese girl, then nervously looked back at the shelter entrance. She muttered something in Spanish, then added a bit more wood to the fire and moved toward Shin.
“Ummph . . . huh . . . wha? What are you doing, Liberty?”
“Quiet. You need warmth. You’re not dying on me, Wo – you’ll cost us all points.”
“There’s not enough room in this . . . “
“Shut up.” Liberty moved to press against Shin, muttering irritably, “I’m just glad Brigit didn’t bring her camera . . . “
The shared body heat in the confines of the sleeping bag slowly reduced Shin’s shivering and she drifted off to sleep. Liberty forced herself to stay awake, occasionally rousing the red panda to ask her a question.
Shortly after asking Shin what her brother’s names were (and receiving an accurate reply), Liberty caught herself starting to feel drowsy as well. The half-coyote recognized that she was feeling comfortably warm for the first time in weeks, and she shook her head to clear the gathering cobwebs.
A soft click made one ear move.
There was another click.
She recognized the sound.
Before Liberty could climb out of the sleeping bag to investigate, a scuffle could be heard outside, followed by a grunt and the sound of something hitting the snow. The half-coyote drew her knife and waited by the doorway.
“Tatiana? What’s happening? I heard noises.”
“Come out and see.”
The canine clambered out and stood up, brushing snow from her knees as she rounded a corner and stopped. “Ah.”
A short sheep in a parka was face down in the snow, Brigit’s booted foot on the back of his neck. In her left paw she held an expensive-looking camera as her right paw extracted a long ribbon of film.
“Zut alors, mademoiselles,” the ovine keened, “pourquoi are you so mean to poor Conica?”
“Nye fotografivorat,” Tatiana growled.
“Back in Eire we’ve ways of dealin’ with dirty window-peepers like yourself, so,” Brigit said as she threw the exposed film aside and spat after it. “There!” and she dropped the opened camera into the snow next to the sheep’s head. “Take yer camera an’ get yerself back ta yer boss!”
“What’s going on?” Liberty asked.
“This one was crouched by the wall,” and the sable indicated the makeshift barrier of piled stone. “He was looking through a hole, and taking pictures.”
Tatiana was looking down at Conica.
So she didn’t see the Trotskyite suddenly blush clear to her eartips.
Or notice Liberty breathing a sigh of relief.
The Irish setter prodded Conica to his feet with a well-placed boot. “On yer feet, you,” and the sheep started scrambling. Once he was upright he took off running toward the south end of the island. Brigit, Liberty and Tatiana trailed behind at a discreet distance.
From the cover of a small rise they saw Professor Arriflex greet his assistant with open arms and busses on each cheek. Conica spoke to the goat, and Arriflex’s demeanor changed. He dashed the camera out of the sheep’s paws again and started boxing him around the ears.
“Should we help him, do you think?” Liberty ventured.
The other two looked at her.
“Nah,” all three said and continued to watch as the short sheep protested, then started waving in their direction.
Arriflex looked peeved, then walked into the small shed and emerged a moment later with a squat pistol. He raised it skyward and pulled the trigger, sending a bright red flare skyward.
In the distance to the southeast, an answering green flare could be seen against the pervasive grayness.
“Reinforcements,” Tatiana judged, and the sable looked back at the others.
Words were unnecessary. Red Dorm fell back on their shelter, knives readied.
“What’s going on?” Shin asked sleepily as the others came inside. Brigit told her, and the red panda drew her trench knife.
The next day dawned with heavier overcast and a stiff wind from the northwest. If anything, it felt colder, although the spit test indicated it was only just freezing.
Brigit shivered as she peeked out. All four of them had taken turns watching and waiting for a possible assault by Arriflex and his men. Nothing had happened, which had made them even more suspicious.
Hurt as she was, Shin had insisted on taking a turn watching, and Brigit had relieved her a few hours earlier. The red panda had gone to sleep after assuring the setter she’d seen nothing.
“Mmmph . . . anything going on, Brigit?” Liberty asked as she woke up.
“Jist colder, Lib. Makes me wonder what’s happenin.’”
“You and me both.” The New Havenite yawned and poked Tatiana as the sable started to stir. “You think we should go take a look?”
“Yeah. What about Shin?”
The half-coyote. “She’s asleep. Probably needs it.”
The three girls bundled up and, knives ready, slipped out of the shelter.
They took a roundabout path to the goat’s encampment, taking their time to come at their potential adversaries from an unexpected direction. Finally they caught sight of the shack, and Tatiana flipped open the small set of binoculars Shin had brought. “Hmm, nu, no sign of anyone,” the sable said.
“Nyet, Liberty . . . and the Maconochie is gone, as well.”
The half-coyote’s relief was palpable. “Let’s go look.”
The three crept down to the shack. Sure enough, Arriflex and Comica were gone, taking their supplies and equipment with them.
“An’ good riddance,” Brigit said, sheathing her knife. “Y’know, we can use this shack.”
The others nodded.
A while later the trio, arms laden with firewood made from chopping up the hut, headed back to their shelter.