The man lay on the stretch of dark sand where the ocean lapped the beach. His face was young and flushed: he could not have been dead long.
Faith backed away, a mix of sickened fear and excitement welling inside her. She hadn't seen a sailor for seven years. And finally, after nearly half her life spent waiting and scanning the horizons, here was proof. Evidence. Their patience had not been in vain.
If only the man was alive to tell his story.
Approaching cautiously, Faith knelt down and inspected the man at close range. His wet hair shone a pale gold, and he looked younger than she had first thought, perhaps only in his late teens. His thick coat was drenched in water, white crystals of salt clinging to the fabric. Pushing aside the coat, Faith saw that the man wore a waistcoat that must have once been white. Blood blossomed through the fabric like ink on wet paper. So he died of wounds. It certainly made more sense - he looked too well preserved to have died drowning.
Sitting back on her heels, Faith scanned the beach. Who should she tell? Her mother? But her mother would be occupied with the current class load of city girls. Angel's mother? Or one of the other village women? Perhaps she should simply tell Angel, her best friend. Angel would be sure to know what to do.
Bending over the body again, something about the blood caught Faith's attention. Grossly enough, it looked fresh. Uncertainly, she took the man's hand, placing her fingers on his wrist and feeling for a pulse. But she had barely held it for a moment when the hand she was holding grasped her own.
She gave a short, sharp scream. The man's eyes snapped open. He was alive.
His other hand reached up and grasped the front of her shirt, pulling her down. Face to face, Faith saw perspiration on his brow. His jaw was clenched and he seemed to be fighting to stay conscious. But his grip was as strong as iron.
"Who… are you?" he managed from between gritted teeth.
"Faith. Faith Araucaria." Her voice came out in a terrified squeak.
"Where am I?" The man's breathing was laboured and seemed to bubble in his throat.
"T- the coast. This is Barnacle Bay."
"Does anyone know I am here?" The man's voice lowered to a growl, his grip on the front of Faith's shirt pulled their faces closer together. She could smell his hot breath and the stench of blood filled her nostrils.
"I don't think so."
"No one must know I am here." The man's eyes bored into hers. They were a pale gold, flecked with amber and silver. Each word he said seemed to cost him a huge effort; sweat soaked his brow and his jaw was clenched in pain.
"What can I do?"
"Hide me." The man's blood scented breath was suffocating. Faith raised her head and scanned her eyes up and down the beach. Hidden away behind this shelf of rock, they were completely hidden. If the man reached up and strangled her right now no one would know until days later.
With a jerk the man pulled on the front of Faith's shirt, and Faith found her cheek pressed against his, her ear by his lips. "You've got to hide me," he whispered. "They'll kill you all if they know I am here."
"Who? Who will?" Faith was terrified. "Let me go. I'll get my mother, she'll sort this out."
"Don't leave," the man growled. Letting go of her hand, he grasped her shoulder, his fingers digging deep into her flesh. Faith stifled a gasp of pain. "Is there anywhere you can hide me?"
"There's… a cave," Faith whispered.
"Up the beach a little way. No one knows about it."
The man released the front of her shirt. "Take me there." Leaning back on her heels, Faith breathed in the fresh sea air, trying to clear her head of the man's stale scent of blood. Looking around, she saw that the sun had set below the water, and the sky was a soft violet. Everything was silent.
Leaning down again, Faith worked her arms under the man's body, tensing as she felt his hands on her shoulders. Months of being outside playing tennis against Angel had strengthened her arms, but the man was heavy and his coat was waterlogged. Faith strained and pulled, but she couldn't move him.
"I'll need to take off your coat." Looking down at him, she saw that his eyes were glazed in pain. He gave a tense nod, and she released him and unbuttoned the rest of his coat. It was made of thick, dark fabric and was heavy with water. She eased one of the man's arms out of the coat, and he gave a low moan of pain. The second arm was easier. Without the coat on, Faith could see the man's vest and shirt were stained with blood. With a wound like that she didn't think he'd live very long. But she said nothing.
Bracing herself, she worked an arm around the man's muscled shoulders and helped him into a sitting position. His face contorted in pain, another stifled moan escaped him.
"I'm afraid you're going to have to walk," she told him gently.
"I… don't know if I can."
"Then I'll go up and get my friend. She and I can carry you." The man's arm, which was slung over her shoulder, tightened around her neck.
"No one must know I am here," he growled.
"Then you'll have to walk." An arm behind his back, Faith stood slowly up, the man bending his legs and standing too. He seemed overcome with dizziness, swaying where he stood and leaning heavily on her shoulder. He was lighter without the coat, but still a good deal heavier than herself.
Slowly they began to walk up the beach. With each step Faith thought the man would stumble or fall but he somehow kept upright, his grip on her shoulder so tight it nearly drew blood.
The cave was a good ten metres up the beach, and to Faith ten metres had never felt so far. With each step the man leant more heavily on her, his face drained of blood, his jaw clenched, his breathing ragged. Faith could feel his blood wetting her shoulder.
They reached the cave, a low entranceway in the base of the stony cliff. Faith had loved to play in it when she was little, and to her knowledge no one else knew of it. Seeing the cave entrance the man collapsed completely on her, and she stumbled forward into the cave, pulling him by the shoulders behind her.
The cave floor was sandy and the roof rose higher once inside. Faith dragged the man to the far edge of the cave and settled him on his back. His eyes were closed, she assumed he'd passed out.
Turning, she went out of the cave and ran down the beach to where his coat lay on the sand. Their footprints lead clearly to the cave, and she dusted them away with the coat as she walked.
Re entering, Faith knelt down by the man. He looked younger in sleep, his face no longer contorted in pain. In fact, he looked barely older than herself.
Faith knew little of first aid, but decided to do her best. She pulled off the man's boots and socks, which were both waterlogged. She unbuttoned his vest and took it off, then unbuttoned his shirt. It felt weird to be undressing a man. Faith had never spoken to a sailor in seven years, and could never remember being this close to one.
Pulling the shirt open, she saw three deep gashes ran down the man's chest. Now that he was lying down they were no longer bleeding, but the salt water clearly hadn't helped. As far as Faith could tell the cuts didn't appear deep enough to have caused serious damage, but she could see that he needed medical attention badly. So why was he so unwilling to have anyone know that he was here?
Her shirt was already soaked with the man's blood. Faith took it off and tore it into strips, covering the wound as best she could.
"I'll come back," she whispered, covering the man with the waistcoat. Then she turned and crawled out of the cave.