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Tooth & Nail
CHARMIAN SQUINCHED HER eyes shut and gritted her teeth, knowing that the fireball she'd just thrown would do nothing to stop the oki stampeding right toward her. Even as she thought this, she could feel the fire being batted harmlessly away, and hear the breath of the oki as it bore down on her--then something thunked, and the oki let out a squeal and toppled to the ground. The earth shook around her.
Charmian's eyes shot open and focused on the oki, which lay sprawled before her, grimacing; her eyes grew when she saw the shaft of an arrow quivering just behind its shoulder. Then a voice yelled, "You! MOVE!"
Her head shot up and she at last saw something on the rise behind the oki's shaking form. Her jaw fell in disbelief when she recognized Tooth's face, and he gave her a truly venomous look before lifting his bow back up to his eye.
"MOVE IT!" he yelled.
She didn't need to be told a third time. Just as the oki started snorting and pushing itself up to its feet, she pushed herself away from the rock wall and dashed past it, cringing at how close she got to running into its antler. It whistled and tossed its head but just missed her; she scrambled up the slope, reaching out her hands blindly and letting one of the other Seneca drag her up. She blinked in confusion; Tooth was here, as well as five or six of his men, their weapons all drawn--where had they even come from--?
Tooth glared at her over his shoulder and jerked his hand at the air. "Get moving!"
She nodded, her face deathly pale, and turned to run; when she stumbled the Seneca closest to her grabbed her arm and pulled her up again. They made their way down the other side of the slope before a blaring whistle cut through the air, making her jump. She glanced over her shoulder to see Tooth jump over the top of the rise and come running down after them, still scowling; he glared at her before passing, and waved, and the rest of them followed him. He jumped into a hollow partly shielded by the overhang of a toppled tree's roots, the rest following, and Charmian crawled down into it with them; they stayed here for a few moments, Charmian trying not to gasp so loudly, her lungs burned so much. Tooth and one of the others peered over the edge of the hollow; after a minute or so passed in silence, he turned to the other Seneca and curtly bobbed his head, then slid back down to join the rest of them while the other one stayed on watch. Charmian stared at him as he settled himself against the hollow's side, pulling his bow out and looking it over. The string on it appeared to have snapped; he dug in his pouch and pulled out some sort of string or ligament and started wrapping it around, muttering the entire time.
"How...how did you know to come after me?" Charmian gasped, her heart thud-thud-thudding in her ears. "How did you know I'd need help--? I thought you were going back east!"
Tooth bit off the piece of cord and spat it out on the ground. "And leave you there on your own?" he muttered. "I saw that pup heading back to his camp--leaving you alone like that! Some BROTHER! I don't care how cute or smart you think you might be. There's no way you would ever make it back west from here on your own. One would think that brother of yours would have the sense to know that, but NO! And so now I have to do all the babysitting!" He finished securing the bowstring and started checking his arrows. "Should I ever make my way around to that camp of his guess what's going to get TANNED next!"
"Thanks for helping me," Charmian said a bit timidly; Tooth's ranting trailed off into unintelligible grumbling again, then fell silent as soon as snorting noises came from outside the hollow. They all sat without making a sound and listened to it as it moved past them and faded a little, the oki obviously sniffing about for them. Tooth glared at Charmian again, but she thought she detected a hint of confusion in his eyes. He started checking his arrowheads.
"What is that thing chasing after you, anyway--?" he whispered.
"An oki--sort of," Charmian whispered back, blushing a little when she realized that she wasn't sure what it was. "Either that, or some kind of medicine man. Disguised like a moose." She blushed harder. "It's kind of hard to explain."
Tooth let out a gusty sigh. "As if escorting you out of here isn't hard enough," he hissed, "now I have mad SPIRITS to deal with! What sort of fool are you to be pissing off spirits now--?" Charmian started, blinking at him when he rolled over and clambered back up toward the rim of the hollow, and puzzled over how he would understand a term like piss off before remembering that her little face necklace must merely be translating some other sort of phrase he'd used. She turned herself around and crept up to join him, the three of them peeking out at the oki as it snorted and pawed at the ground, pacing in frustrated circles.
"That arrow didn't even take it down," Tooth muttered, fitting another arrow to the notch. "Go figure that you'd pick some sort of spirit like that to irritate today!"
"I'm really doubting that it's a real oki," Charmian whispered. "Earlier when Cedars and I ran into it, I think it might've changed into a fireball." He looked perplexed again. "Where I come from, that means it's a medicine man. A bad one."
"And you have a good reason for having a medicine man chasing you--?" Tooth asked, aiming his bow.
Charmian shrugged one shoulder. "Your guess is as good as mine! I don't even know where he came from!"
"Stop to think that maybe he came here the same way you did--?" Tooth said, and she took pause at the comment, before the oki's head jerked up and whirled around to look right at them. It whistled and started bounding their way.
Tooth shoved her shoulder. "Get going! See if you can make it back down to the river with the rest of them."
"But--" Charmian tried tugging herself free when one of the others tried grasping her arm. "I don't want to leave you behind--!"
Tooth bared his teeth at her, and she wondered if that was how he'd gotten his name--he looked like a wolverine or something when he did that. "GET GOING! I hardly need a little sister of my own to look after!"
She got ready to argue again, but the oki appeared right above them, snorting and tossing its head. Its glowing eyes fixed on hers and flared--she blinked when she realized that it looked triumphant. It whistled loudly.
You should have just stayed on that Island of yours, it said, and her breath left her. Now I'm going to have to kill you--you should learn to listen to advice the first time around!
"Huh--?" Charmian said; then, "OW!!" Tooth had gotten to his feet and grabbed her arm, and he nearly pulled it from its socket when he went running. They scaled the other side of the hollow and he shoved her over the top so that she yelped and went tumbling over the outside; she managed to catch herself and clambered back up just in time to hear a thump, and then a furious whistle. Tooth appeared, his eyes wider than she'd thought possible; she craned her neck and saw the oki stumbling down to the bottom of the pit, snorting mad and attempting to make it up their side. Another arrow had joined the first, lodged in the thick ruff around its neck.
"SPIRITS!!" Tooth yelled. "Won't that THING just DIE?!"
He must have some kind of protection, Charmian thought vaguely, as the Seneca grabbed her arm and went running again; she didn't bother fighting him this time. "Megissogwun must have sent him," she blurted out, without thinking.
Tooth furrowed his brow at her. "Megissogwun--?"
"He's this big mani--oki--where I come from," she panted, stumbling but then regaining her balance. "He said he'd destroy the Island I came from if we didn't find the West Wind to fight him!"
"I hate to tell you this, girl," Tooth said, giving her a look, "but if you're looking for the West Wind then you were heading in the WRONG DIRECTION!"
Charmian's nose wrinkled. "DUH! I'm not THAT stupid!!"
He pushed her ahead of himself and stopped to fit another arrow to his bow. "Keep going to the river!" he snapped; the oki appeared and came charging toward them, and he aimed between its eyes. "The canoes are down there and--"
Charmian saw the little glint in the oki's eyes before he did--if he even did. "GET DOWN!" she yelled; Tooth hesitated the briefest moment to look at her, meeting her eyes, and something in them must have convinced him of her seriousness. He took a step back and started to turn away but for Charmian it was like everything had gone into slow motion again, just as it had with Barrington's gun. The fireball missed Tooth's head by the merest fraction--she could see one of the feathers in his headdress quiver, a few filaments searing off, as it passed--and perhaps if that had been all, he would have made it. As it was, the fireball seemed to startle him so much that his balance faltered, then the oki swept past, lowering its head and slashing its antler across his chest. Charmian pulled away from him just in time to avoid getting trampled, but could still see the fine mist of red that sprayed through the air as the oki stampeded by, and the surprised look on Tooth's face; the next instant, the oki was far ahead of them, skidding to a halt, and Tooth was left staring at the gash across his breast. His face went gray and he fell onto his knees.
Charmian's skin prickled and she dashed at him. "Tooth!!" She grabbed his arm at the same moment that he finally grimaced and hunched in on himself, pressing a hand to the wound as the blood started to seep out. "Get up!" she yelled, tugging frantically and looking at the oki as it managed to stop and turn itself around. "He's coming back!!"
Tooth jerked his arm away from her and shoved her back. "I said...get going!" he wheezed, mock-snarling at her and reaching again for his bow; she blinked at him in confusion. "Go down to the damn river! No wonder that fool left you behind! I'll hold him off until then."
Charmian shook her head. "I'm NOT leaving anybody else! I have to catch up with my friends anyway!" She held up her hand. "I can maybe ward him off a little--"
She cried out and nearly fell over; Tooth's bow smacked against her legs a bit painfully, making her stumble. "GET GOING!!" He clenched his fists. "If you don't get moving I'm going to cut off your pretty red hair and STRANGLE you with it!!"
Charmian clenched her own fists, tears springing to her eyes. "You don't have to be such a JACKASS about it!!" she yelled, then whirled away and started running. She thought she heard the oki slow down or alter its course, then Tooth started thumping his bow against the ground.
"Hey, stupid dungbrain! What's the matter, have to fight little girls to prove yourself--?"
Charmian ground her teeth so hard that they hurt. If we get out of this alive I'm going to KILL HIM myself!!
She couldn't stand the thought of bailing out on him, no matter how little she knew him, and so skidded to a halt herself and whirled back around. The oki appeared to have taken his insult to heart, for it stopped and aimed at him now, snorting and gouging the earth; I WAS going to just let you go, but seeing as you can't keep OUT of things--! it said, and started running for him. Eyes widening, she threw up her hand and hurled a fireball at it, which glanced off the side of its head; it stopped, shook it, and glared at her. Tooth did the same, looking fit to start tearing trees from the ground.
"WOULD YOU GET GOING ALREADY?!" he screamed.
She planted her feet against the ground. "I'M NOT JUST LEAVING YOU BEHIND!!"
The oki snorted. Which one first--? The child, or the one who has it coming to him--? Either way you'll both end up in the same place, saying hello to Pauguk-- It bolted at her, and she held up her hands, but then before she could even fire, it spun around in midstride, charging right back toward Tooth. Even Tooth's eyes goggled this time.
"T--TOOTH!!" Charmian yelled, and hurled a pair of fireballs after it; all that they did was glance off its sides, not even slowing its approach. Tooth threw his bow down and drew a knife, giving the oki a look which plainly said he was quite ready to go down with it. Charmian quailed, her mind racing futilely to think of anything to do.
THUNK! The oki stopped again, legs going stiff and a sharp wheeze escaping it. Charmian and Tooth went stiff as well; the oki slowly sank to the ground, gasping for breath, then keeled to the side and fell over with a thud. Their eyes widened when they saw the hatchet handle sticking out between its shoulders.
Tooth let out a breath, then keeled over himself, landing on his back. He was still breathing, and his eyes were still open, so she could tell that he was more relieved than anything. Her own legs gave out and she sank to her knees, but instead of falling over, she started scanning the woods tensely. The rest of the Seneca had gone down to the river--hadn't they? Where had that hatchet come from then--?
There was the rustling noise of pine needles moving, and her head jerked to the right--Tooth's did the same. Something came walking toward them out of the trees and she drew in a breath. It was still practically night out, and even as it drew nearer, she wasn't sure who or what it was, only that it walked like a man, at least. As it passed by her she finally recognized Walks-On-The-Shore and let out her breath. He stepped over to the oki and to Tooth and halted, and he and Tooth stared at each other for a moment.
Charmian's brow furrowed. She couldn't see Walks-On-The-Shore's face, but she could again see his back, and the odd scar between his shoulderblades. She wasn't certain what to think of the way that the two of them stared at each other; Tooth seemed just as perplexed as she was, lying on the ground staring back up at him. Charmian blinked when she remembered what Singing Cedars had said earlier--They are the ones who hate the Wyandotte the most--and her eyes slowly grew wider when Walks-On-The-Shore leaned down and grasped the handle of the hatchet. The oki flinched when he did so, but neither of them took any notice; he just continued staring at the Seneca as he pulled the hatchet loose, then stood there for a moment holding the dripping weapon in his hand. Charmian's eyes again focused on the scar and she felt a chill settle over her.
The tension was broken when Walks-On-The-Shore wiped the ax head against his leg and slipped it back into the notch at his waist. Charmian let out her breath, then stumbled up to her feet and hurried toward them. Tooth blinked out of his daze and turned his head to look at her--she could have sworn that his face had gone a shade paler. Walks-On-The-Shore gave her a bland look as well as she crouched down beside Tooth, wincing at his wound and glancing up at the Huron.
"We have to get back to the river," she urged. "I guess there isn't any other way out of here safely."
She nearly pulled away when Tooth grasped her arm, but she held still as he pulled himself upright with a wince of his own. "We head back north. To the rapids, then find the nearest riverbranch west of that. It leads past a quarry; that way's safest."
Charmian's brow furrowed. "A quarry--?"
"They dig for stone there, to make pipes." Tooth started painfully getting to his feet and she hurried to get up and help him, Walks-On-The-Shore standing nearby and watching impassively.
"Pipes--?" Charmian echoed, confused. "I don't get it. Why is that way safest?"
"Stone for peace pipes," Tooth said with a grimace. He pressed a hand to his chest. "It's neutral ground there. Nobody attacks anybody else at the quarry. If you want to get back west safely, then that's the way to go."
"Oh." Charmian bit her lip and took a step back, helping him lean against a tree for support as he paused to catch his breath. "But I was told to take another way," she said. "Wabun said there's a tunnel..."
"Tunnel--?" Tooth lifted his head to give her a very critical look, and she had to avert her eyes; apparently the Seneca didn't know of the Weavers. "Hate to tell you this, girl, but that would have to be one hell of a tunnel. And didn't you have friends you wanted to meet up with--?" When she nodded he let out a weak snort. "Well then...if you have one of the black robes or some such among them, and he has any brains at all, that's the way they'll be coming. I sure hope your friends are at least that smart."
Charmian chewed her lip and thought over what the woman in red had told her about Francois. "I think they are," she murmured, and took a step back when he pushed himself away from the tree and took a few halting steps. Walks-On-The-Shore joined them and met Charmian's eyes.
"Whichever way you wanted to go, best decide it now," he said.
Charmian nodded curtly. "Wabun said to take the tunnel--but by now I'm not even sure that we'd make it all the way there, alive!--at least, if this oki is any indication--I think he's in league with those manitous we met in the woods back west!"
"Manitous--?" Tooth grunted, looking at the blood on his fingers.
"They're kind of like okis," Charmian said, turning to look at the oki behind her. She sucked in an involuntary breath as soon as she saw that the ground was empty but for a little smear of blood. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and started glancing around wildly. "The--where did it go? Wasn't it just here?!"
The other two looked as well. She couldn't read Walks-On-The-Shore's face, but Tooth blinked and looked as confused as she felt. She couldn't make out any stray hoofprints. She hadn't even heard it move and it couldn't have been more than a few feet behind her!
Tooth squeezed her wrist hard enough to hurt. "What sort of thing have you gotten tangled up with...?" he asked, and she faltered a bit, hearing the strange note in his voice. If she hadn't known any better she'd have thought that he was afraid.
She shook her head and waved at a pair of Seneca who appeared, coming back from the river. "I think we should get out of here," she murmured, and looked toward the river, not visible from here, although she could still hear the roar of the falls. "The quarry," she added. "If Francois's coming for me then he'll just have to meet me there!"
IF he's coming...I don't even know what he would do...he would look for me, wouldn't he...?
She decided not to think of it too much. She kept hold of Tooth's arm while the other Seneca helped him toward the river, Walks-On-The-Shore following, and tried to keep her thoughts focused on the moment. This was rather difficult, though, considering that she kept scanning the ground the entire way there, and still couldn't make out any more oki hoofprints, no matter where she looked.
* * * * *
Singing Cedars's foot was beginning to hurt, and that fact peeved him.
He'd twisted his ankle a bit, scrambling over the rocks at the base of the waterfall; but he'd managed to keep that hidden from the other two. Now that he was on his own, he limped a little, grinding his teeth and wondering how he could let such a tiny injury affect him so. Several times he put his full weight on it, only to wince and start limping again with an irritated sigh. Perhaps back in the camp, he would make himself stand on it for an hour or so, just to strengthen it up. There was no excuse for going so soft; no wonder nobody ever respected him.
He sighed again and peered skyward. It was so very dark out here...and the camp was quite a walk away. He would certainly not make it back there tonight.
He slowed his step and finally halted, looking at the stars. He tried to keep himself from doing so, then looked back over his shoulder anyway. He'd wandered away from the river a bit, so by now it was barely more than a black streak slithering under the starlight. His stare followed it southward and he felt a dull ache in his chest.
I shouldn't have left her like that...even with that Wyandotte...it isn't right to leave one's sister, like that.
But I have to get back home, and I did tell her...
Did she want me to come with her? I couldn't tell...I would have stayed, if she'd insisted...
Another sigh. He turned back northward and began trudging/limping again. No point in thinking about it now; she was probably well on her way back to her own strange Island. He would have to settle for feeling fortunate for at least having gotten to see her again.
Every so often his hand crept to his neck, only to find the cedar pendant no longer there; he hated that even after all the time that had passed, he still did that now and then. He forced himself to drop his hand, and picked up his pace.
He stumbled over a rock and nearly went falling, having to hop a few times, gritting his teeth at the little lance of pain that shot through his foot; he at last managed to stop, and stood rubbing at his ankle and peering around himself. He flexed it a bit but knew that if he kept walking on it tonight, it would probably swell up and hurt even more; he could just imagine Snowy Pine rebuking him as she wrapped it in wet strips of hide. He scowled and lowered his foot. He hated people tending to him like he was an invalid. He noticed an arm of the forest extending somewhat toward the river off to the west, and started heading for it. A soft breeze rustled the trees as he approached, limping a bit more heavily now.
I'm betting she's already well west by now. She always seemed to know what she was doing...
He limped beneath the shadowy shelter of the trees and, after a bit of searching, settled himself beneath a particularly tall one, leaning against its twisting roots and stretching his leg out before him. He tested his ankle a bit but it hurt even more than before; he thought about how long it had been since he'd eaten, then decided not to think about such things. He'd gone without eating for even longer times, before.
He leaned his head back against the trunk and looked up into the branches for a moment or two, then shut his eyes and listened to the rustling. His thoughts drifted back to the Island...he hadn't liked that place...but at least, with her there, it had been a little less frightening.
Come on, stupid! I tried TELLING you you'd be better off with me...!
His mouth twitched when he recalled her strident voice, all the times that she'd erupted in anger or called him names--her fit in the medicine man's wigwam, her fit when they were being chased by the giant Wolves, her fit in the cave up in the side of the cliff, her fit before the chief himself, when she'd adopted him, obviously to everybody else's chagrin...yet the medicine man and his family had stood up for her...he could tell that they must respect her, despite how she seemed to throw fits every few minutes.
She's in my land now, he thought, and the start of his smile faded. I should have stayed with her. She stayed with me, almost the entire time that I was in her land...when she wasn't with me she was still looking out for me...every step of the way. She's probably the only reason I survived that. And then I go and leave her behind in a strange place...
She should have spoken up. I would have stayed with her, if I'd known...
His thoughts started growing hazy as sleep began to settle in, and he decided not to fight it. When he woke up, his ankle would feel a bit better; and she would be even further away, so he wouldn't have to think about her anymore. He hated thinking about something for too long, especially when there was nothing he could do about it. She was obviously on her own quest, and he had little that he could do to help; certainly nothing of use. The most useful thing that he'd done for her was carry her around when she was tired. He let out a small drowsy sigh and nestled against the tree. It was best to let her go on her own. With the way that things had gone on the Island, he probably would have just held her back anyway...
His arguments and counterarguments began to fall still. The wind in the treetops picked up slightly, so that the branches swayed and rustled, whispering in the air. Singing Cedars started dozing, the forest around him slowly fading, although it somehow stayed with him; he began to feel light, as if he could float away, but was too far gone to focus on it. Instead he listened to the rustling and whispering, as the wind picked up yet again, and the branches tossed against each other, the noise that they made growing.
Singing Cedars frowned vaguely in his sleep. He didn't hear whispering or rustling anymore. It sounded almost like...
He hesitantly opened his eyes. The tree branches moved far above him, swaying and waving; their whispering seemed to take on a pattern, and as he slowly sat up, staring at them with widening eyes, he thought that he could almost make out words in there, somewhere. His stare drifted from treetop to treetop, the whispering growing louder in his ears, and he couldn't believe that he hadn't even noticed it until now...
He leaned forward as slowly as a snail might crawl, and pushed himself up to his feet, not even noticing the pain in his ankle anymore. He turned in a circle, always staring upward, feeling his heart start to thud hard in his breast, ringing in his ears; it sounded like a drum. This only emphasized what he was hearing far above and all around him, and he turned a little faster, feeling his throat go tight now, as he finally understood what he was hearing. There couldn't be any mistake. The trees were singing.
Singing Cedars's hands crept up to press against his ears and he shook his head, dazed. "It...it can't be," he whispered, but no matter how hard he plugged his ears, the singing continued, the words vague but growing clearer. The old tune he'd heard before began to come back to him; suppressing a whimper, he took a quick step backward, nearly stumbling, and began running back toward the river.
Have to get out of here!! I'm going crazy! Trees don't sing! Things like that don't happen! There aren't any SPIRITS here...!
Just because I don't see them doesn't mean they're not there...!
I don't find that scary. I think I find that comforting! At least we're never alone if they're around...
That doesn't mean they're not there. I bet they've always been right near you...
You see things more than I do.
I don't know. I think you would see just as many things if you wanted to...
Singing Cedars's mad run started to slow and falter, and he stumbled awkwardly, gradually making his way to a stop. He stood there gasping for breath, the trees swaying and whispering all around him, his heart thudding like a drum keeping beat with the singing; his skin felt like ice; but for some reason, he couldn't make his legs move again, no matter how much he wanted to.
You don't call okis because you're afraid of them...?
I AM afraid of okis! Everything around us right now is just FILLED with these things. EVERYWHERE! That's where these things are supposed to be! Watching every single little thing we do...
I think I find that comforting! At least we're never alone if they're around...
If that's so, then how come they never show themselves or do anything--like they're SUPPOSED to?
That doesn't mean they're not there. I bet they've always been right near you...
The back of Singing Cedars's neck prickled. His fingers slowly curled into fists as his teeth clenched tightly, but the singing in the trees didn't abate. If anything, it grew even louder, as if they were appealing to him, but he couldn't understand what they said. Slowly, though, their language began to make sense, and the terror in his heart began to fade. He tried to let his fear go, and let his eyes go shut, listening to what they sang, trying to make it out.
...Deep under soil...far to the west...the path to take...in webbings dressed...
Singing Cedars slowly opened his eyes, seeing black tree branches against blue sky and tiny glittering stars. His fists loosened and he let out a breath, then his head jerked up and he found himself staring westward. He put his weight on his foot. A bite of anxiety, rather than pain, surged through him.
The prickle came again to Singing Cedars's neck, his fingers once more curling in. He forced himself to take a breath, and slowly turned around, his eyes fixing on the blue eyes just behind him, as human and oki stared at each other for the first time.
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