Flint awoke with his heart pounding, as if he had run laps around Tazmily in his sleep.
He sat up too quickly; Flint sat dazed for a moment until the dizziness passed, and his sheets fell down to his waist. It was warm enough in the room where he slept that he felt like he might as well have fallen asleep with his warmest clothes on. But nothing seemed out of place. He couldn't place the cause of the dread building in the base of his stomach.
The other half of his shared bed was empty.
Tazmily seemed further away today, and the sun felt hotter. Usually, a sea breeze blew in from the south, keeping the village cool even during the months between rainstorms.
Never before had Flint been so grateful for the wide rim of his hat. Yet even with the shade it provided, Tazmily Village's buildings loomed taller and brighter than yesterday, as if all made of mirrors and reflecting one-another. Flint had woken up late, and even though the sun was already falling in the sky, even though Flint's sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and his bandana was loose around his neck, Flint sweated.
Tazmily moved on, despite Flint standing shaken at the threshold. The crowds were lessening, an afternoon laziness setting in, and Flint saw no mingling trace of his wife. Flint hesitated, then fixed his hat and entered the square.
He ran in to Bronson almost immediately.
"Flint! You're here late," he said, hammer slung over his shoulder and apron still coated with metal shavings. Bronson was smiling, but his face fell as he looked at Flint more closely. "And you look awful. Did something happen?"
"Have you seen Hinawa anywhere?"
Bronson thought for a moment. "No, can't say I have. Why? What's wrong?"
"I'm worried. I haven't seen her all day."
"Aren't you overreacting, Flint? I'm sure she and the baby are fine."
Flint couldn't voice his dread, couldn't put in to words the churning in his gut that told him just the opposite, but Bronson must have seen it on his face.
"If it makes you feel any better, I'm done with work early today, so I'll ask around."
Flint's shoulders untensed, and he did feel a little relieved. Bronson smiled again, as if to reassure him.
"We'll find her," he said.
Flint and Bronson reconvened after the sun started sinking behind Tazmily's buildings.
"Nothing," gasped Bronson, and Flint nodded. Bronson sat down on a bench in the corner of the square, breathing heavily, while Flint found himself unable to sit, though his legs shook with the effort it took to stand. Mapson, who had been sitting on the bench before the two arrived and had made it clear hours ago that he hadn't seen Hinawa, gave them both a solemn nod.
Bronson took a moment to catch his breath before speaking. "Don't worry, Flint! She has to be somewhere!
Hey, maybe she went to Alec's house?"
Flint had, in fact, considered that. It took hours to trek through the Sunshine Forest, long enough that if they started the journey now, it would be dark by the time they got anywhere. Bu Flint was more than willing-
"It's easy to get lost in the forest at night," interjected Mapson. He, like Bronson, must have seen the thought etched in Flint's features. "Too dangerous, no matter how worried you are. In fact, it might make things worse."
"I don't care. I-"
"No, Flint, Mapson's right," said Bronson, breathing normally again. "Hinawa can take care of herself, you know that. She's probably at Alec's house, and I'm sure she was extra careful going through the forest, too. If that wasn't where she was, we probably would have found her by now."
Flint said nothing.
He still felt uneasy; why would Hinawa leave, even to go to her father's house, without telling him? Especially in the state she was in; while pregnancy hadn't seemed to hit her too hard, she still had some trouble on hot days like this.
That terrible clenching at the base of his stomach remained. Why wasn't anybody worried?
Flint looked at Bronson, and then at Mapson. He seemed to be thinking hard about something, head tilted downward and arms crossed.
"Wait," he finally said. "Didn't something like this happen before?"
Bronson jumped up from his seat. "That's right! I completely forgot. Didn't she run off like this once, when we were kids? And obviously she was fine!"
Flint honestly couldn't remember it at all. But Bronson and Mapson were set on the idea, as if Hinawa was right there and nothing was wrong at all.
"Fine. But I'm leaving for Alec's at dawn," Flint lied.
Bronson and Mapson looked relieved. "I'm glad you're such a sensible man," said Mapson.
"We'll tell you right away if we hear anything," said Bronson, and the two of them left Flint to the rest of his evening.
As if unable to hold himself up, Flint sat down on the bench, slumped in his seat, and stared at his lengthening shadow. He felt like his entire body was stuffed with dread, filling further and further as the sun sank lower in the sky, so much that his body was stiff.
His eyes met those of the last few villagers, who nodded with smiles in his direction as they returned to their homes, but Flint was too focused on his breathing to care who they were.
You have to move, thought Flint. You have to find her.
Flint was alone in the square by the time the bell at the Crossroads rang.
Flint ground his teeth, gathered his strength, and stood. Suddenly mobile, he ran through the square toward his house; he had no intention of staying there through the night.
He walked past the half-open gate, past the sheep asleep in their pens, past Boney's new doghouse, which still smelled of freshly-cut wood. Boney, small enough to bound easily between flint's long strides, awoke and stared at Flint as he slammed the door to the house behind him.
Flint hardly waited for the door to stop shaking on its hinges before hastily lighting a candle and gathering his things: a half-stale roll of nut bread, an antidote, a box of matches, his homemade knife. He unrolled his sleeves, and looked himself over before once again leaving his home.
Boney barked at Flint as he left, but his owner left without a word. Flint could hear the tiny dog until he was in and out of the square again.
The last bit of sunlight vanished beyond the Sunshine forest as Flint walked through the Crossroads, and Leder still rang his bell in to the darkening sky.
Flint did not hesitate as he had when stepping in to the square that afternoon, and turned left, though his legs were shaking and a breeze chilled his arms through his sleeves. But he slowed as he passed Leder, looking up only briefly at the giant. From the angle and the glare on his glasses, Flint couldn't read Leder's expression.
Somebody walked out of the Prayer Sanctuary as Flint passed by. Flint jumped behind a fringe of bushes so that he would not be seen. There was no room in-between all of Flint's worry for a conversation to distract him. Flint turned to leave, but stopped when he heard a shout:
Wess, of all people, was holding his son by the wrist. Flint didn't see much of the man, especially just after sunset, but the pair were still distinct among Tazmily's residents. Flint wondered, for a moment, if they were there to stop him, but Wess' expression said otherwise.
Duster, though taller and stronger than his father and more than old enough to make his own decisions, stood meek and unresisting.
"You may be my son," hissed Wess, "but you are also my apprentice." Duster was staring intently at the dirt below Wess' feet, but was otherwise expressionless. "And you will no longer be my apprentice if you keep running from your lessons, understood?"
This isn't any of my business, thought Flint, and he turned toward the forest, toward Hinawa. "I just wanted to go somewhere," he heard Duster say behind him.
Flint struck a match against the bottom of his lifted boot, and the forest, pitch-black, was cast in yellow around him. There was barely a trace of blue left in what Flint could see of the sky between the trees, and their leaves shook with the breeze, pointing in to the forest as if to say "Hinawa is there!"
He ripped a low-hanging branch off one of the trees, and set it alight.
Flint was sure that Mapson was underestimating him; he wouldn't get lost as long as he marked his path along the way. As long as he could see, and kept the rising moon, peeking through the trees, on his right
Alec's house was due north, and very few things in the forest were even slightly dangerous, even after dark.
But with every root he stepped over, he imagined Hinawa stumbling. Every shaking tree was her shivering with fear, every animal's cry was her running from a feral beast. And every fallen boulder, as he neared the Drago Plateau, had Hinawa crushed beneath it.
Flint marked a final tree with his knife before finally reaching the river at the base of the Plateau.
He was close the river was, if he remembered correctly, more than three fourths of the way to Alec's cabin. But despite his desire to keep moving, Flint was hungry, and exhausted. He drove his torch in to the mud of the riverbed, and leaned against a tree at the edge of the tiny clearing, sliding down against it until he sat in the dirt. He dug shakily in to his back for the half-loaf of nut bread.
Flint took a bite, and looked up at the stars through the trees. He vaguely remembered looking at the stars with Hinawa on a night like this, but he couldn't place the location or season at all. His head swam with thought of his wife, of looking at the stars with her, of how it felt when their hands were entwined, of his head against her belly, listening together to their unborn child.
Something hit the river with a splash.
Flint felt the spray of water even from where he sat. His torch was suddenly and silently doused, and flint fumbled for a new match.
He struck it, and once he could see again, he jumped up from his seat, nut bread forgotten. He couldn't catch anybody or anything moving through the pinprick of light the match provided, even as he held it an arm's width in front of him.
There were no more splashes, no wind or rustling grass, and even the running water was noiseless. Flint realized only then how heavily he was breathing, and he let his arm drop just slightly, still holding the match before him so that he could see. He breathed, and the air was misty as if with fog, the match's light shining through a fine mist.
He wouldn't accomplish anything by jumping at noises. I've spent too much time here, he thought. Alec's house is right there. Flint grabbed his things, slinging his bag over his shoulder, and walked on to the riverbed to grab his doused torch.
As if somebody breathed right beside him, his match blew out, and something pressed against his back.
Flint hit the water, sinking in to the river, its water as black as a starless night sky. He could barely see the moon from beneath the current, and he tried to swim toward it, but he felt sluggish in the water. He felt as though his legs were caught in mud, or being held. The surface of the river seemed far further away than he remembered.
Flint continued to thrash through the water, even as his last bubbles of breath bobbed to the surface.