The skiff landed easily on the barren beach. From the ship this looked like a small desolate shore, once on it, the enormity of the nothingness increased.
It had been hard row into shore. Longer than what would have been normal. Indeed, the Inferno was farther away from beach than what would be considered normal. At least this was not in the middle of the night like when we had sent the men out into the bay by Rag Post.
We pulled our boat up away from the waves. Tall grasses, almost all shades of ochers, with hints of green hidden within, waved behind the ivory sands and opposite the waves of the sea.
After some easy talk, we set out in groups to explore and search for supplies, food, or anything “worth putting this land on the maps” as Huallpa had said. Four of the eight of us traveled along the shore in one direction. The crewman Urusulla, joined Leaf, Revinn, and myself as we proceeded the other way.
“You look betterr phorr being on land my phrriend,” Urusulla chuckled and nudged Revinn. I recognized him as the man who helped Revinn with his seasick stomach.
We put the sand behind us and climbed the dunes to a grassy ridge running roughly parallel to the water. On the other side lay brackish marshland, brushwood, then more tall grasses and hills.
“Nothing, just nothing.” Urusulla said looking around us.
“Yeah, nothing.” Revinn scanned the distance.
We kept walking along the division between land and beach, hoping to find anything. There was a vast nothing. Empty sands and the rolling sea on one side, empty fields and hills as far as we could see on the other.
We walked a long time, mostly in quiet silence. Even the most talkative of the party only spoke in infrequent whispers so as not to disturb the undisturbed country around us.
“What’s that?” Revinn pointed far ahead.
We looked where he had gestured. Part of the ridge hid it in the distance, but it appeared as though a dark green tree top was barely visible.
“A trree? Therre?” Urusulla’s brows were raised. “But would that not be in the waterr?”
“The land must jut out that way. Let’s see.” Revinn angled us toward it.
Once over the next hill, we could see one tree completely alone. The sand appeared to slide itself out into the sea all around it as well as around a large pile of white stone even farther out.
We continued on our way towards the tree and stones. As we got closer, we could fully see the peninsula we had been approaching as well as the sand and grass dune blocking it from the greater plains inland. The trunk sat on the ivory sands exposed to the sea.
When we reached it, we could see how stubborn the tree was. It was rooted in the beach and looked hard pressed to be even growing at all. There were fallen fronds on the ground below it.
“We have a trree like this back home.” Urusulla picked up one of the fallen pieces and looked at it. “The berrrries arre poisonous.” He shrugged and gently set it down again.
“Amazing that it could even grow here.” Leaf looked up into the scrawny limbs.
“Yeah, there no soil here. How could it even get roots down to live?”
“Hey, look at this!” Revinn shouted from near the white rocks.
We slowly filed over and across the beach sands. They weren’t stones at all.
“Bones…” Revinn shook his head.
It was a great pile of them.
“Like a from whale maybe?” Leaf looked at one of them.
“No, whales don’t have limbs. These look like legs. Look at the size of those.” Urusulla crouched down and pointed.
Revinn began walking around the mound to look in and among the great pile of bones.
“Whales don’t have anything like this eitherr.” Urusulla said while indicating a row of triangular plates coming down the side.
“What is that?” Leaf pointed.
Underneath what I presumed to be an enormous ribcage, was a long black metallic rod leaning on one of the larger ribs.
“It looks like it has symbols on it.” Urusulla leaned in and tried to reach it. “To far underrneath.”
We looked at him. “I’m not crrawling underr therre.” He shook his head and chuckled nervously.
Revinn appeared from the other side. “Come over here. Tell me what you make of this.”
We followed him around to the other side and a large field of bones. It was laid out from the side of the beast.
“Does this look like a wing to you?” Revinn shook his head.
I cocked my own head sideways to get a better look. The others walked around it. Long, thin bones spread like a fan far out across the sand.
“If I did not know any betterr…” Urusulla whispered, “I think this might be a drragon.”
We looked across at each other on all sides of the thing. The expressions seamed mixed. Urusulla suddenly searched the sky. So did Leaf.
“You’ve been at sea too long if you believe in things like that.” Revinn chuckled.
We came back to the tree and looked inland to the large dune. There was brush all along the seaward side.
“It looks like the tree has been trying to send out seeds for years, but they never make it over the dune and better land.” Leaf brushed some with his boot.
We came over the top to see more grasslands, and a boggy looking marsh.
“I think I see a creek! Or at least water. Come on.” Revinn scrambled down towards it. We all followed, Urusulla and I were last through the tall grass.
“It’s fresh!” Revinn called from the side of the trickling stream. He brought another handful to his mouth.
The sun was beginning to set so we decided to bed down near the creek. Urusulla and Leaf slept across from Revinn and myself. Although cold, it was not unbearable without a fire.
I woke late in the night. Erratic shafts of light from the moon behind the clouds shown down on the land around us giving it a lost, shadowy feel with little to no color.
To my side I saw the sleeping form of Revinn. I stretched and sat up fully. Opposite from us, I did not see the other two but was not worried.
I drank some water and glanced at the small hill, the top of the tree caught a shaft of light beyond it. Quite suddenly, a man crested the top and came down nearby. When the cloud shifted, I could see it was Urusulla, he appeared to be carrying something. When he got to the creek, he knelt, set it down, and appeared to dig with his hands.
I got up and crossed to him slowly so as not to startle him. He looked up and smiled before continuing what he was doing. I stood and watched.
When he judged the hole satisfactory, he dug in the pile he had brought with him. He pulled out a group of berries from the tree, put it in the hole, and began refilling around the frond.
“Helping naturre a little,” he whispered. “I hate to think of anything so…” He studied my face for a moment. “…alone…” He shrugged. “Even a trree…”
He lowered his head to finish then took his pile farther down the stream and started again.
We woke to dull, overcast skies.
Before continuing on, we refilled out water and munched a few of our rations. I caught the sight of a few of the fronds sticking up from Urusulla’s work in the night.
Down the coast was more of the same before the tree. Nothing but grass, sand, and sea.
“Not even a bird,” Urusulla whispered.
“No animals at all,” Leaf said looking around. “All day, since we arrived.”
“Well, except the dragon,” Revinn said matter-of-factly, before grinning broadly.
Urusulla looked up again.
We turned around well after our midday. Because we needed to meet up with the other group at the boat, we could not go any further. We hoped they had found something, anything. As far as we could tell, there was nothing more to see along the coastline except more of the same under the increasingly cloudy skies. Coming this way, this far, felt like a dead end without and an actual end.
The sun had been long gone by the time we found our way back to the stream near the tree. We ate our rations and prepared to bed down for the night not particularly concerned with keeping watch considering how barren the land was. Although cool, we decided to live without building a fire once more, it would have taken time to find enough brushwood to keep it going anyway.
A few of us informally dozed off to the muffled sounds of the sea and the rustling of the grasses.
I still did not sleep next to Leaf, but I rested nearby in the dark. I remained boyishly fearful of what would happen or be said or not said when we might lay in each other’s company once more, as I knew, without doubt, would happen again. He did not ask me to join him anyway, so I let him sleep undisturbed by my thoughts.
In the middle of the night, I slowly stood and made my way up the dune to the trees. I had an idea where to look. He sat on the ground between the tree and the bones in a meditative pose. His hands were not raised to his patron however. I changed my mind and returned to our little camp and fell into a restless sleep.
We started the trek back to the boat using a wider swing inland to top some hills and get bearings. Only more of the same.
“Those look like larger hills.” Revinn pointed.
“We might be able to see more from the tops of them,” Leaf added.
“Maybe, but they arre too pharr to make now. We have to meet the otherrs so they do not think something happened. Hopephully therre is news from the Inpherrno.” Urusulla shook his head.
“Let’s get back.” They all looked at me. I shrugged and led the way towards the sea.
We heard the breakers before we saw them. When we came over the last dune, we could see the other group around the boat. One was flashing a lantern at the ship. The Inferno was returning the signals.
“Looks like we stay here tonight,” one of them said.
We gathered brushwood for a fire. This night we would have one. We bunched closer to the dunes to get out of the increasing winds and clouds. We sat and ate our rations while listening to the sparse news relayed from the ship.
Talk was the Inferno was indeed stuck on a large bar. They had hoped a high tide would dislodge it. So far there had been no luck, but they were still hopeful. Minor repairs were going well. The small amount of water it had taken on seemed of little to no consequence.
Between those of us on the shore, it was agreed that the land we were now sitting on had nothing of value. The tree we had found would do little good by itself and ‘dragon’ bones were of no practical use. The other team had found nothing other than the grasses, marshes, and hills.
Leaf and I slept on either side of Revinn. Urusulla on the other side of Leaf.
The morning was a misty and bleak. Behind the Inferno more black storm clouds hung in the distance. More rain was coming.
Presently, there was no reason to go back to the ship. With nothing to bring with us, the effort to row all the way out was impractical. Some of the men decided to try their luck at fishing to stretch our food supply. I walked in away from the sea.
“Nothing to do but wait,” Leaf said from my side.
I scanned the distant hills looking for the highest. I nodded.
“Revinn saw you walk off this way.” He looked at the hill I was looking at. “Do you want to try to make it out there? We might make it before nightfall. Some of the others were going to go out again as well.”
“Something to do.”
“I’ll tell Revinn and grab a few things.”
I nodded and he left me to myself to wait. The hill was far but hopefully achievable before sundown. I looked up at the sky. If it did not rain, we would be fine.
“Here.” Leaf handed me a pack. “Some more food. I got the stuff for a quick shelter.”
I took it from him and he smiled. I smiled as well. He had come alone. This was to be our trek.
We continued at a regular pace all day. The wide sea of prairie kept us concentrated forward to our goal, the tallest hill we could see. It seemed to grow higher as we got closer. The sun was nearly down by the time we made it to the first part of its rising flank.
“We should rest,” Leaf gently whispered.
There was brush so we made a quick small fire for warmth, nothing elaborate. It would keep us warm and delay relying on each other for the same.
Dawn came with clouds, always with clouds. We ate and did a quick pack up around the dead fire. The walk started the same as the day before, but before long the hill became steeper. It was not quite a climb, only a slower advance up the side.
“Do you think anyone has ever been this way?” Leaf puffed. “Ever?” I slowed to make it easier on him.
The top of the hill was flat and all but hidden from below. There was less grass and more scrub than I had expected.
We stood a few moments and looked back the way we had come. Beneath the black clouds was the blue slash of the sea consumed by the grasses below us. The other direction, the land was hidden by the flatness itself. The sky was bleak and gray.
“Do you want to keep going?”
I nodded. He readjusted his back and we continued on. There were a few scattered shallow stale freshwater ponds among the brush. They were most likely trapped rain that was too slow to absorb and too little to find a way to run away and down. It seemed they were as lifeless as the rest of the land.
After another hour or so, we were rewarded with another sight. When the other, steeper side of the hill came into view, so did that of water and more lands below.
“It’s a lake,” Leaf whispered.
I shook my head and pointed to the dark line of the sea behind the land on the other side.
He studied it for a second. “We are on an island then after all,” he sighed.
I chuckled as I was not sure what he had thought we might have been on in the first place.
He grinned and nudged my shoulder. “Come on, let’s go down and see for sure.”
The rest of the day was spent making our way down and to the water. The sun just begun to set under the sky as Leaf trotted across the thin line of sand to the water ahead of me. He reached down to get a bit to taste and promptly spit it out.
“Salt.” He shook his head. “Too bad.”
The wind whipped along the water and caught me for a second. The gust had been cold.
“Let’s set camp.”
It did not take long. Leaf set up the tent quietly and I put together a fire.
“It has been a while since I have seen the stars.” Leaf looked up from his food. I looked too. The night sky was partially clear.
“I don’t recognize them.” He looked across the water to the crescent moon making, in my mind at least, an early appearance. “Now that I recognize.” He smiled.
We sat by the fire to keep warm in the cool and occasionally brisk air. He nodded at one point and I could see he was tired.
He roused himself and crawled the small distance to the tent. Just before sliding in, he turned to me.
“Don’t stay out here too long. It is too cold and you need your rest as well.” He smiled with sleep in his eyes and went in.
I sat for a little while longer, alone under the sickle moon.
When I finally chided myself enough, I crawled in beside a dozing Leaf. I did my best not to touch him while we slept.