by Engor

Chapter 6

Julien was almost out of air. He seemed to have been underwater for ages, and although he knew that his body was slowly floating up towards the surface, he was also very much aware that being struck just before he hit the water had meant that he hadn't been able to take a deep breath before going under. Nor did he know how far he had sunk. In any event, in a few seconds he'd be out of air, and so – on the grounds that he would definitely die unless he tried something – he looked around him, decided that the water looked a little darker beneath his feet, and struck out in the opposite direction.

The first stroke he took was agony: he felt as if there was something piercing right through his chest. But at this stage the pain was irrelevant: within a few seconds he was going to be unable to stop himself opening his mouth and trying to breathe underwater. So he kept going. Every stroke took a huge effort, and he knew that he was using the last of his energy reserves, and yet he wasn't afraid – in fact, the searing agony tearing through him made him almost think that drowning would simply be a release from pain. Nevertheless, something inside him refused to give up and kept him struggling towards the surface.

But a few seconds later he realised that he had reached the end of the road. He had no more strength and he was out of air. Everyone had to die one day, he thought...

He opened his mouth and expelled the air that seemed to be trying to burst his lungs in a scream of pain and despair that began as a stream of bubbles... and which ended under a sky that seemed full of an incredible number of stars.

Julien gulped in air. AIR! Forgetting his wound for a moment he basked in the pure pleasure of being able to breathe once more – and if the act of breathing was tearing open the wound in his back, and each stroke that he took to stay afloat was turning the arrow-head in the wound, well, too bad.

"Julien! Dive!" yelled a voice.

He turned and saw Izkya close by on his left.

Dive? No chance, he thought. But she yelled at him again.

"We've got to go under!" she shouted. "We need to swim under water – that way, towards the lights!"

She got close enough to grab his shoulder, and now he could see that she was pointing to a cluster of lights on the shore off to his right. They seemed to be miles away.

"I don't think I can," he told her. "I'm wounded."

"I'll help you," said Niil, who had just appeared on his other side. "Where are you hurt?"

"It's my back – the right-hand side."

There were sudden splashes all around them, the closest only three or four feet away, and Julien realised that the killers were still trying to finish them off. He duck-dived back under the water, getting as deep as he could and then trying to use his feet and left arm to propel himself in the right direction.

He still felt like death, and now he was starting to wonder how much blood he had already lost. He was sure he was never going to reach the side of the lake, anyway. But then he felt a hand grabbing his tunic and pulling him forwards, and he realised that he'd do better just to use his legs and let his friends help him. He popped up for air and saw that it was Niil who was trying to tow him along.

Izkya was a little way ahead of them, but she turned, saw that Julien was struggling, and swam back to them.

"I'll take his other side," she told Niil.

They dived once more, this time without any arrows hitting the water nearby. They hadn't got very far, but Julien was starting to hope again despite the pain in his chest.

They surfaced every thirty seconds or so, each time expecting to hear the splash of arrows, but it looked as though their attackers had lost them, which wasn't surprising in the near-total darkness. Nonetheless, they stayed underwater as much as they could in order not to betray their position with a lot of splashing. Julien was exhausted, and soon his legs had more or less stopped working.

Then they heard shouting, and they could see lights on the surface of the water.

"Boats!" gasped Niil, relief in his voice. "Someone's coming to rescue us!"

"Wait!" said Izkya, before he could call for help. "We don't know who they are. They could be working with the killers, looking for us to finish the job."

So they just kept swimming, on the surface now so that they could keep an eye on the boats, which fortunately – or not – didn't get any closer to them.

It took them over half an hour to reach the shore . Julien was vaguely wondering how he could still be alive after probably losing half the blood in his body, but he was so completely exhausted by now that it didn't seem to matter. Even the pain in his chest had faded to a dull ache.

The current in this part of the lake wasn't particularly strong, but it had still carried them quite a distance, and instead of the stone pier where they had moored that afternoon, they fetched up against a dilapidated wooden wharf . It took them several minutes of groping their way around the slimy pillars before they finally found a ladder that would take them up to dry land.

Julian found it almost impossible to climb the ladder: his right arm had more or less packed up on him and he needed help from both his companions before he finally made it to the top. He slumped down on the edge of the wharf.

"We need to have a look at your injury," said Niil, starting to take off Julien's tunic.

Julien let him get on with it: he was too tired even to think properly. Very carefully indeed Niil got the tunic off him, although getting it over his right arm made Julien give a moan of pain.

It was hard to see anything: the only light came in the form of a vague glow from the lights of the city, and those were quite some way away.

"You're all right," reported Niil. "It hasn't broken the surface."

"What?!" gasped Julien, roused from his torpor. "That's impossible – it definitely hit me! And it hurts like hell, too!"

"Yes, you were hit," explained Izkya, "but you were wearing a hatik. They don't just look good – the material also protects anyone who wears one. It's almost impossible to make a hole in it. I'm guessing the arrow, or whatever it was, broke one of your ribs, and that's why it hurts so much."

A wave of relief swept over Julien, hotly followed by another reaction, and this one made him absolutely furious: he'd spent the last three-quarters of an hour or so convinced that he was bleeding to death, and neither of these rich bastards had bothered to tell him the truth. No, they'd been perfectly happy to keep quiet and let him make a fool of himself. He took a deep breath, ready to tell them exactly what he thought of them... and passed out from the pain in his back.

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