|TITLE: Return To Me
GENRES: Fantasy, mythology, drama, romance/love.
SUMMARY: When your enemy has long watched over you...are they your friend?...
WRITING STATUS: Completed.
WRITING DATE: Circa 2002.
LENGTH: 6800+ words.
CONTENT WARNINGS: Fantasy violence, mild adult themes.
COPYRIGHT: This story and all characters, unless otherwise stated in the Disclaimers, are copyright © tehuti_88 and may not be used or distributed without permission. The reader is free to print out or download a copy of this story for offline reading as long as the author's copyright information remains upon it. Please do not distribute; if you wish to share this story, send a link to this page.
DISCLAIMERS: Ocryx and his "species" are © the Haunted Theatre of Mackinac Island. Certain characters are from Ojibwa mythology. Although aspects of this story are loosely based on Ojibwa mythology and culture, artistic license has been taken as this is a FANTASY story. Please take note that this story was written around 2002 and that my writing style and understanding of the mythology I created may have changed vastly in the meantime.
ADDITIONAL INFO: NA.
RELATED STORIES: "Manitou Island" (serial), "Return To Manitou Island" (serial), "Escape From Manitou Island" (serial), "Tales From Manitou Island" (short stories)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This short story ties in with the Manitou Island serials listed above; as such, it might not make much sense out of context. This is a followup story to the ending of "Unleashed" and "Chance Meeting." I wrote a story about these two many years ago in my old "Legends Of Manitou Island" phase, and it was very horribly silly; here's hoping this version does the tale more justice.
* * * * *
THE OLD WOMAN knew more, much more, about plants and herbs than Little Dove did. She felt rather foolish trying to gather them on her own, but White Deer was busy with the clothes, and Lily Flower had gone off to barter with one of the neighboring tribes, which left her, Little Dove, with the task of gathering plants for her father. Sometimes she wished he wasn't a medicine man, but most of the time it didn't bother her much. Until she realized she couldn't find one of the plants he had told her to look for. She searched under all of the trees and logs and rocks and couldn't spot it anywhere.
She pushed herself to her feet and looked down at herself with a grimace. The knees of her dress were soiled, and White Deer had already gone off with the rest of the clothing. She would have to walk about in it like that for the rest of the day, at least. Dusting her hands, she picked up her birch basket and continued walking up the rough trail, running her fingers back through her hair and frowning. Her father needed those plants. She had no idea where to look for them...but on the other hand, she felt rather foolish having to ask him, when she was supposed to be helping him.
As she was pondering all of this she passed by one of the neighboring tribes and spotted the wigwam of an old woman she knew from childhood visits. She hadn't seen her in a long time, having grown now, but from the looks of the blanket upon the door, the woman still lived there. She had known a lot about plants. Little Dove's face lit up and she made her way off the trail toward the home. If the old woman was about, she could simply ask her where to find what she was looking for.
She went to the door of the small building, readying herself to knock for entrance, only to find the old woman seated outside already. She bowed her head respectfully and the woman peered up at her.
"Little Dove? 'S that you? I haven't seen you here in absolutely ages. You're all grown now!"
"Good afternoon, Grandmother. I was on my way through the woods gathering plants."
"Your father send you, did he? You'd probably best not dawdle too long or he'll start to fret. I know him; always worrying about something!"
Little Dove couldn't help but smile. "I know...I suppose he just thinks that with Mother gone he has to do the worrying of two people! Actually, I had not meant to come here, but I thought you might be able to help me with one of the plants I'm looking for. I've sought all over the woods for it but it's just not to be found."
"Of course, child. Let me know what it is you're seeking, perhaps I can assist somehow."
Little Dove knelt down beside her and dug about in her basket. "You see...it looks slightly like this one...only the leaves are longer, and narrower as well. He called it heron's-feather."
"Heron's-feather? No wonder you've had such a time of it; that's one of the harder roots to find about on the Island. You don't see them too often anymore. Now what was Stick thinking sending you out for something like that?"
Little Dove flushed a bit. "Well, my sisters and he are quite busy, so I thought that I might be of help also. This was the only chore left."
"Well, I still say a medicine man himself would be best suited to gathering the herbs he needs...but if you still really want to find it, I'd say your best bet is to look on the far side of the Island. Toward the shore, not too far from the cave upon the beach."
Little Dove's eyes widened. "Where the GeeBees live? Father would kill me if I set foot there!"
The old woman smiled and her eyes nearly disappeared in wrinkles. "Ah, I believe the Wendigoes would actually get to you first. No matter," she said, before the young woman could protest. "The flower actually grows lower down, within the woods closer to the demon's lake. If the GeeBees were not much of a problem, then that would be. I truly do doubt your father would want you wandering about near there."
"The demon's lake...?" Little Dove's heart sank. Of all the places on the Island Stick-In-The-Dirt had told her to keep away from, that was the place he pointed out the most, even above the cave of the cannibal giants. He'd fought off GeeBees before, but never the demon. From what he and her older sisters had told her, the creature had killed their mother, as well as the rest of Stick-In-The-Dirt's tribe, when she was but a baby; it was only by sheer luck that the four of them had survived, and fled to take shelter with another tribe. She had grown up there, without her mother, so she couldn't say she missed her presence; though the fact that she was not there, while other girls' mothers were, left an empty spot for her. All her life her father had instructed, and occasionally threatened, her to keep away from the lake. His constant reminders she had found exasperating; though she could sense the fear behind them. He wouldn't keep telling her, if he didn't truly fear what lived within.
And so with all of this crowding about in her mind, suddenly the thought of finding the heron's-feather didn't seem quite as important, or as possible.
She bowed her head again. "Thank you, Grandmother. I'll just see what else I can do."
The old woman nodded once. Little Dove rose to her feet and left the settlement, heading back into the woods. She started on the trail back toward her own camp, but walked slowly, gaze on the ground. She'd truly wanted to find everything her father had told her to find. White Deer would return with all of the clothing cleaned, Lily Flower would return with what goods she had managed to trade for...meanwhile she would return with only partial success, which wasn't very helpful at all, especially when one's father was a medicine man who needed this particular plant.
She paused and looked back over her shoulder. This path led roughly southwest. Certainly if she followed it, and any of its offshoots, far enough, she would come out not far from the lakeshore on the other side of the Island.
If she changed direction before reaching the end of the trail, she would end up at the demon's lake.
If she stopped just a bit shorter of that, she would go into the woods surrounding the lake, and might find the heron's-feather.
Little Dove chewed on her lip for a moment. She hated doing anything that might worry her father, as he was so concerned about her and her sisters' whereabouts at all times; it had taken years before he'd even allowed any of them to leave his side! Still, she was grown now; and she had never seen any demon to speak of. For all she could tell, ever since it had attacked when she was but a small child, it had never returned. How dangerous could it be? Could it possibly be asleep again?
Barely without thinking further, she sensed her body turning about in the other direction, and her feet starting to carry her along, almost without her awareness. She would have stopped, only she decided she agreed with what her feet were doing. There could be nothing wrong in just taking a look in the woods not far from the lake. She wouldn't be going to the lake itself...and she would hurry back as quickly as she could, as it was a long walk anyway. If he asked, she would tell him she had stopped to visit with the neighboring tribe; it wasn't too much of a lie.
Plus, she would hopefully find at least a few of the heron's-feathers, and could return home just as her sisters would. They would have no reason to chide or tease her for not finishing her chores. Her father would be proud of that.
A small smile came to her face. In the end, that was what mattered, wasn't it? She finished weighing the two options and decided. Her step picking up in preparation for the long walk ahead, she continued on toward the southwest, away from home.
* * * * *
Though it was only early afternoon, it had grown considerably darker by the time Little Dove reached the other side of the Island. True to what she'd suspected, the trail took her there, with only a few meandering detours down side trails, but once she reached the woods she wasn't certain if this had been such a good idea. The earth grew soft and moist even this far within the forest, and she could smell the lake before she could see it. She didn't spot any heron's-feathers right away, and so decided to creep a little bit closer.
Even from this distance, she could hear the howling and cackling noises of the GeeBees from near their cave at the other end of the lake. She shivered and kept low and close to the trees. The GeeBees were a nuisance, and potentially dangerous, yet she knew her father had faced them down once and had lived to tell about it. From what he had told her and her sisters, all he'd done was run away--but she suspected he could have done more than that. Daughters usually suspected more of their fathers.
There were still no heron's-feathers in this part of the woods, either. She squinted and looked all around her, but no white flowers lifted their heads. Finally she peered ahead toward the lake. Grasses and rushes grew around it; she couldn't be certain, but it looked as if there might be flowers there as well. Heron's-feathers? She couldn't tell.
Little Dove chewed on her lip a moment and thought. She glanced around her again, but aside from the occasional crowing sound of the GeeBees, all was still but for a faint breeze that rippled the water and swayed the leaves and grasses. She couldn't hear anything else. From the way the demon had been described, it must be huge. Surely it would make plenty of noises before it showed up? If it showed up?
It couldn't hurt too much to go see...the sound of White Deer's and Lily Flower's chiding filled her head, and she steeled herself and stood up straight, progressing toward the lake. There had to be some heron's-feather somewhere.
Once she stepped out of the woods, however, her resolve faltered and she paused, one foot lifted. The grass and reeds continued swaying in the slight wind, the black surface of the lake chopped into tiny wavelets that lapped at what little shore there was. She knew the lake dropped off almost immediately into a bottomless pit laced with caverns that stretched far beneath the Island; at least, that was what Stick-In-The-Dirt had told her. No matter how good a swimmer she might be, if she fell into it, she might never be seen again.
She pushed her fears down once more and approached. Some white flowers rustled off to her right side, and it was toward these that she walked. Her face lit up as they grew closer; they looked very much like the plant her father had told her to fetch. They didn't grow upon the grassy bank, as she'd thought they had; instead they protruded a few feet out into the water, perhaps from a small earthen ledge. She stopped on the shore and stared at them for a moment, then set her basket down and followed suit herself, pulling off her moccasins and then pulling up her leggings. Without taking too much time to think about it, lest she lose her nerve, she touched one foot into the water. It was slightly chilly, yet tolerable; she'd swum in colder water before. She felt around for the space the plants were growing from and found it; just as she'd thought, a small outcropping of earth stuck out into the lake beneath the surface, the plants growing upon it. She stepped onto it, feeling her toes sink into an inch or two of muck, then bent forward and stretched out her arm, reaching for the waving flowers.
Too far; they were just beyond her reach.
Little Dove bit her lip and strained even further. Her fingers just missed the stalks of the plants. With a frustrated sound she pulled back and glanced about, seeing if there were any branches nearby, something with which she might bend the plants toward her. There was nothing. She could have gone back to the woods to fetch something, but the wind had picked up slightly and the clouds were growing darker, and she didn't want to be stuck here should a storm arise. Her father would definitely suspect something if she were gone too long. Her lie about being at the neighboring tribe wouldn't hold long either, if he went there to see if she were present.
Doing the only thing left that was possible, she stepped onto the ledge with her other foot and waded forward a bit, stooping to retrieve the flowers. She yanked them free of the muck and they came out with a wet plop so she made a face. She stood up and started brushing them off with one hand, so they wouldn't leave mud in her basket.
Only by chance did she glance down into the water as she did so. The earthen ledge ended right before her, leading into black depths. They weren't completely black though. Some spark of light was coming up through them, red and green, straight toward her.
Little Dove gasped and remembered to take a step back toward the shore, but her foot slipped in the muck. Before she could fall, the water had exploded around her, vaulting upwards into a giant funnel that soaked her through to the skin and swept her moccasins away. A powerful grip seized around her waist, almost crushing the breath out of her; then the wind rushed up at her face, then the water, and then nothing was left by the shore of the lake but a mess of tattered flowers bobbing atop the rapidly fading rings of water.
* * * * *
For what seemed to be a long time, but might have been merely moments, she wasn't certain where she was, or what was happening. All she could feel was that tight grip around her middle, and water swirling past her. She tried to yell, once, but felt bubbles against her face and knew that if she didn't hold what little breath she had left, she would drown. Only now did a cold feeling set in as she realized, finally, that she had been drawn down into the lake--she could see the sky above rapidly growing fainter and dimmer as the water grew deeper, until everything around her was murky black.
Her lungs burned for want of air. She kept holding her breath, but wished she could make it back to the surface. Everything looked the same down here--she didn't even know which way was up anymore.
She had just enough time to wish she'd listened to her father's warnings, after all.
Just as soon as she thought this, the water splashed around her head and she gasped and sputtered, not water, but air. She opened her eyes and caught a glimpse of rock, but the liquid ran into them again and she could no longer see. Her lungs burned anew and she coughed, a great racking sound she'd never known she could let out. The pressure around her waist released, and she felt stone against her palms; she wanted to rise, but her muscles were too weak from lack of air. So she simply lay panting where she had been placed; as she didn't know where she was yet, her confusion was greater than her fear, but exhaustion was even greater than that; and she shut her eyes again, and all around her faded into darkness.
* * * * *
Stick-In-The-Dirt raced through the woods on foot, and though he'd been running a long distance, it was as if he didn't even need his breath. Panic fueled his motion, and he sped across the Island, from his own tribe to the far end, where the dark lake lay. Not that long ago, he'd asked as to where his youngest daughter could have gone off to. Finding the heron's-feather shouldn't have taken so long; he'd told her, clearly, that it could be found in a particular spot in the woods not far from where they lived, near a hidden spring. Did she never listen to his directions, the foolish girl? He'd had it in mind to rebuke her severely for frightening him so by wandering too far away from the camp.
That was before he had spoken with the old woman of the neighboring tribe. She had told Little Dove not to go near the lake...but he knew his daughter better than any...and knew that was exactly where she would have gone. If only to please him.
As soon as the woods cleared and the ugly lake came into view, he stopped and shouted at the top of his lungs. "LITTLE DOVE! LITTLE DOVE!"
His voice bounced off the trees and the rocks of the home of the cannibals, yet for the moment, he didn't care whether they heard him or not. He could hear them, gibbering and cackling as if from a distance, yet they showed little interest in him aside from wondering to each other what the foolish man was doing out here by himself, yelling at the air. He ignored them. Dread dragged his feet, yet he approached the lake anyway, to see if perhaps she was hiding, fearing his anger; right now he also didn't care to rebuke her anymore, just as long as they got away safely. He could see no trace of her--so perhaps his suspicion had been wrong after all. Yet the further he ran along the shore, the greater grew his anxiety; right here, a ruffled patch of grass, as if someone had stood not too far away--and over here, the grass matted and wet, and flower petals drifting upon the lake's surface, a mangled plant floating in deceptively shallow water. He froze and stared at the plant, striving to recognize it.
Stick-In-The-Dirt's chest hitched. The pale petals...the same kind of flower he'd sent his daughter out for, earlier that day. When she should have gone merely to the spring not far from home, she'd come to the accursed lake instead. She was a good swimmer...she would not have fallen in and drowned. She had come this far, despite his warnings, to get the plant; she would not have dumped it so unceremoniously in the water and gone again, emptyhanded. She would never have done any of these things.
His fear didn't leave him, but it was replaced, fear for himself supplanted by fear he would never see her again. With a strangled scream he launched himself at the lake and fell to his knees upon the shore, balling his fists and striking them against the surface so the water splashed up around him, soaking his body.
"Give her back!" Stick-In-The-Dirt screamed. "You already took Rain-On-The-Leaves! You can't have Little Dove! GIVE HER BACK! GIVE HER BACK!!"
His fists pummeled the water uselessly. All he succeeded in doing was thoroughly drenching himself. Still he screamed and beat upon the lake as if it were the demon himself, tears streaming from his eyes and his words devolving into a senseless, garbled sound. He beat until his arms wore out and he could only slap at the water weakly, and he collapsed into an exhausted pile, sobbing and keening at the air. Even the GeeBees refused to mock him now, his grief was so great. The only thing he could hear was his own crying, and the lapping sound of the water, the sound he most hated in the world.
* * * * *
Little Dove dragged her eyes slowly open. Things were sideways. She had to blink a few times to even make out what they were, and then her confusion just returned. She appeared to be upon the floor in a cave.
Wincing slightly from a throbbing headache, she pushed herself up a little, rubbing her forehead, then looking around. Her first impression had been right; this was a cave of some sort, with a high naturally vaulted ceiling and walls of bumpy yet water-smoothed rock. The ground was flat and covered in sand, a flickering light from...somewhere...illuminating the space enough so she could see. She noticed that a pallet of furs had been placed beneath her...so she hadn't made her way here completely by chance. Someone had carried her. She could still hear the lapping of water, but it was nowhere near. She wasn't alone.
As if to confirm this, she heard a slight brushing noise against the sand and jerked back with a gasp, forgetting about her headache. A large black shadow loomed just beyond the ring of light, but it wasn't entirely dark. Two red and green dots glowed from where the head should be.
Little Dove's eyes widened and now the fear came. She crept back toward the wall, drawing her legs in toward herself and looping her arms about them protectively. She couldn't stop shivering, even though she was dry--how had that happened?
"P...please don't hurt me," she whispered to the large dark shape with the glowing eyes. It tilted its head a little but made no move and no response, and she couldn't tell if that was a good thing or not. It hadn't attacked her, yet, but she knew the way of strange animals, and how their behavior could change without warning. She didn't even know if this was an animal or not. Where was she? How had she even gotten here?
It was only as the dark shape stepped forward, the light falling upon it, that she realized where she must be. The lake. She'd fallen into the lake. Or had been pulled. There was one reason her father had warned her repeatedly to keep away from the lake--the demon, with the glowing eyes, who had destroyed their tribe and killed her mother so long ago. This creature, with the wolf's face and the great wings and the snake tail sliding across the sand as it approached, must be him.
Little Dove shrank in on herself all the more, shaking. When the creature didn't cease his approach she ducked her head down, squeezing her eyes shut and waiting for the end. How many times had her eldest sister told her that story? Of how a great ominous shape had descended from the sky, laying waste to the wigwams--of how their mother had told them to run into the woods, to get away from it, to wait for her and their father there--of hiding inside a hollow tree, one they had played in often, hearing the screams and shattering wood and the bellows of the monster as it finished with its bloodshed and flew on ahead, to the next tribe that lay in its path...her father had further warned her that now it seemed the demon was not only content with killing, but was not averse to seeking out the women for other purposes, as well. She didn't know what to be more afraid of. She let out a whimper when she heard him sniffing at her, but he must have heard her in turn, for he drew away--she couldn't feel his warmth close to her anymore--and the cave descended into silence.
Little Dove waited, gritting her teeth. But nothing happened.
She finally dared to peek over her arm, into the cave beyond. The creature still stood there, looking down at her. His stance didn't appear to be threatening; rather he seemed somewhat curious, or perplexed. His nostrils twitched again, picking up her scent; he hovered his nose over her for a moment and she felt that he was looking her over, for some reason. She wasn't injured, and he seemed to realize this, for he stood back, a step away from her.
Little Dove sought out her voice. "Are...are you going to kill me...?" she murmured, and he must not have expected her to speak, for his ears flickered. He lowered himself a bit, so he did not stand quite so tall; now she sensed displeasure, and wasn't certain how she could tell. She bit her lip and her eyes welled up.
"Are...are you going to hurt me, then?"
With this the demon turned and walked away, to the other side of the cave, his tail swishing through the air. Little Dove let out her breath but didn't dare to feel relief, just yet. He hadn't said what he planned to do with her. There had to be some reason why he'd kidnapped her from the surface. He hadn't killed her yet, so she dreaded to think what his plans might be. Instead, when he approached again, she curled up tightly, hoping to make herself as small as possible. She couldn't make him out very well through the tears in her eyes.
"Please," she whimpered. "If you let me go back, I'll never tell Father I was even here. He'll never know. I promise."
The demon came up before her, looming over, and reached down his hand. Little Dove's whimper grew louder and she almost shut her eyes again before noticing he hadn't reached down to touch her, but rather he held something in the palm of his hand. Offering it to her. Still shaking badly, she managed to peer up, to see what it could be.
In the demon's hand, dwarfed by his great clawed fingers, rested a tiny figure made of sticks, arms and legs protruding at odd angles from its body. A tuft of dried and thinning grass lined the top of its head and a face had been drawn on it, but it too had faded with time. A crackling leaf formed its dress, and most of the clothing had by now fallen away. Little Dove stared at the tiny, pathetic doll with growing confusion. This was what the creature had brought her down here for? Why was he offering her this?
Then she looked at it harder, as a memory started to surface. The doll...it was familiar. As the moments passed the memory grew clearer, and her brow furrowed.
"This...I made this. A long time ago."
She reached up and tentatively took it from his hand, bringing it close to her face to look it over. She frowned.
"But...I gave it away..."
Her eyes widened. She looked up into the face of the demon staring back at her, and the little doll nearly fell from her fingers.
"That means that you..."
Years ago, what seemed to be another lifetime ago. Sitting in the woods, making a family out of sticks and grass and leaves. Her own clumsiness destroying them all but two. Her friend who came to her that day, as he always did, with a simple offering...a necklace of rough crystals...she giving him the little dolls in return, before her father called her away, back home...
"That was why Father was so angry with me," Little Dove barely managed to whisper. "That wolf. That was..."
The demon finally turned away again, his ears folded back. She could sense he didn't like the conversation. Her fingers wrapped around the tiny doll, cracking off its dress and threatening to break it in two.
"You...you killed my mother. My mother!"
When he didn't respond she dragged herself to her feet, her eyes welling up so she couldn't see anything but colored light. "You...you give me a necklace...and a little doll...and you bring me here and think that this is all right? That this makes up for it?" She tossed the doll to the ground as hard as she could, one of its arms snapping loose. Tears streamed down her face. "My mother! I never knew her! Do you know how long Father cried for her? He still does! I can hear him at night! You took her away from us! He was right about you. You think a stupid little necklace will make everything all right again! No wonder he didn't want me to speak with you, made me promise never to go back to see you again! If I'd known--I'm glad that I never went back!"
By now her voice was shrilling off the walls, echoing throughout the cave. The demon's ears pressed flat to his head and he made a face, whether of pain or shame she couldn't tell. She didn't care. Having nothing else to destroy, she picked up the pallet he'd placed her upon and tossed it to the floor, stomping on the furs and scattering them about. "This is what I think of everything you gave me! Every little gift! Should I ever get back home, I'll destroy them all! Just the way you destroyed Mother!"
She kicked the furs at him and they skittered to his feet. He looked down at them and still said nothing. His silence infuriated her; she picked up the little doll and tore it limb from limb, then tossed its remains at him as well. "See! See what I think of your gift!" she spat, and promptly sat back down, drawing her knees up to her breast and dropping her head upon her arms. Sobs racked her body; she'd never really mourned her mother before, as she had died when Little Dove was still small; but it was as if she could hear her father's cries even now, faint and faraway, the way he must have sounded mourning Rain-On-The-Leaves. She thought of the whimpering sounds White Deer always made when she awoke from a nightmare, remembering the sight of the demon descending upon their tribe. She thought of Lily Flower, sitting sometimes and staring off into space, as if waiting for somebody to return, who never would. She thought of her mother's face, which she'd never even seen. She would never be able to see her, because of the one she'd once thought was her friend.
At least he didn't approach her again. The demon retreated, allowing her to sit and let her grief wash over her. She cried until her eyes burned and her sides ached, and had to stifle some hiccups as she caught her breath. She lifted her head a little to wipe at her eyes, staring at her tear-stained dress. A pang went through her when she realized she must have been down here a long time. Where was her father? What was he thinking right now? If only she'd listened to the advice of the old woman. No amount of praise for finishing her chores could be worth this.
A shadow loomed close, and she cringed away from it. Only now did she take the time to regret her outburst; the demon had every reason to attack her now. Instead, she peered aside to see him offering his hand again, and again something was within it; he looked away when she glanced up at him, his ears still folded back. He didn't meet her eyes.
Little Dove looked back into his hand. Another little doll rested there, this one slightly bigger than the last. It was made much the same way though, except its clothing was more adult, not the little dress of a child. It even wore a tiny necklace, and she couldn't be sure if she had made that, or if he had.
She remembered again, how she'd given him two dolls, not one. The only two that had survived her clumsiness that day. The youngest daughter, and...
Little Dove reached out to pick the doll from his fingers, her eyes watering anew. She didn't bother to brush the tears away as she stared at it, her hands shaking.
The demon stepped back, but didn't leave the room again. He rested on his haunches with his head low, as if awaiting her response. Little Dove lowered the doll to her lap and had to search for her voice.
"You're...you're giving her back to me. You want to give her back." Her breath hitched as the tears worked their way from her eyes. "You can't bring her back...and so you're giving me this?" She lifted her head to look at him. "You really think this makes things better? That this is the same thing?"
He turned away again. She was ready to retort angrily, when she finally recognized the look he bore, why he wouldn't meet her stare.
She blinked a few times, and the room grew clearer. She wiped the rest of the tears away and again got to her feet, fingers clutching at her dress and unclutching.
"You didn't mean to kill Mother...or any of them...it just...it was something that just happened. Is that what happened? Is...is that why you brought me here? To tell me this?"
He lifted his head and finally looked at her. She saw the wary yet hopeful look in his eyes and bit her lip, grasping the doll. She took a step toward him.
"I believe you."
One of his ears pricked, slightly. Little Dove lowered her own head again and let her gaze wander along the sandy floor.
"But...I can't stay here. I don't belong here."
He drew himself up now, but not in a threatening manner. For some reason, she felt more afraid of hurting him than of him hurting her. She had to force herself not to wring her hands lest she ruin the doll, and she took a deep breath and faced him.
"I know what you're trying to say to me...and I believe you. I know you didn't mean to trick me. That you didn't mean to kill Mother. But..." She faltered a little, then regained her voice. "But I can't stay. I have my father and sisters. If you keep me here...they will die from grief. I know Father already must be frantic looking for me. Please, don't do that to him again, even if the first time was a mistake. Please let me go back to him. You'll find someone, another day, to stay with you here. But please let me go back home."
The demon's ears folded back and his eyes narrowed. Now Little Dove did feel a twinge of fear. She looked at the floor and traced her foot in the sand.
"I know I...I promised you I would return. And I never did...because I promised my father also, that I wouldn't. I'm sorry," she said, and was surprised by how sincere it sounded--before realizing it was sincere. Until now, she'd never thought of the guilt she'd felt, never going back to the woods to seek out her friend again after that day. "I didn't mean what I said before," she murmured in addition. "I'm not glad I never returned. I'm sorry that I broke my promise." Once more she lifted her head. "But you have to let me go. You can't keep me here. I know you. You would never be happy, if you made me stay. I know that all these years, you've just wanted to make me happy."
She approached him now, close enough to take his great hand in her own; he started at her touch, his ears flickering wildly, and she could tell he hadn't expected her forthrightness. She smiled at him, a watery smile, and saw his surprise grow. "Please," she whispered. "If you want to make me happy, just let me go home. Back to my family. Please?"
His ears lowered. He couldn't look her again in the eyes, but now she sensed resignation, and a mixture of guilt and relief swept over her. He went toward one of the exits from the cave and she followed hurriedly, until she saw an underground lake stretching out before them, the way they must have entered the cave system. He stopped by the shore, head and wings drooping slightly.
"Wait," Little Dove said. He looked in her general direction, yet said nothing. She reached to the base of her neck and pulled something loose, over her head. A thin string of glittering crystals slipped off and dangled from her hand. He looked at it with recognition in his eyes. When she held it out he put out his hand, and she draped it over his fingers.
"I said that I would wear it the next time I saw you," she said softly. "I kept that part of the promise."
He stared at the little necklace before his fingers wrapped around it. He reached out his other hand and she stepped forward; his arm grasping her around the waist, she sucked in as deep a breath as she could, clutching the little doll close to her chest so as not to lose it. A second later the water plunged up to meet them, and they sank, and then ascended again.
* * * * *
Stick-In-The-Dirt lay on the shore, the side of his face pressed to the sand. He had long since stopped crying, though the sand had dried to his face and his eyes were red. Aside from his faint breathing, he didn't move, not even when a dragonfly alighted upon his shoulder. If he could not return home with Little Dove, he saw no point to returning at all. One that he loved, two...it was as if he forgot the two who were still left. It was too much to lose one's wife and one's youngest daughter, to the same fate. He lay on the ground and waited for death to come; then he could be with them both.
The water began to roil several yards away. His eyes grew wide, first a brief surge of panic racing through him, then anger. All his plans of waiting patiently to meet his end fled him and he pushed himself weakly to his feet, grasping his club. He stood no chance against the lake demon. But the thought of dying while striking at least one blow was the most comfort he could draw from this.
His grip tightened when the water lashed and splashed and something popped up, gasping and sputtering; then his fingers failed him and the weapon fell to the ground with a thud when he saw it was not the demon in the lake, but his daughter, panting and struggling to find her way to the shore. Her hair fell in her eyes and she flailed around a bit, as if uncertain where she was.
Stick-In-The-Dirt opened his mouth but no sound came out. He gasped a few times before his voice came back to him, croaking at first, then stronger. "L-L-Little Dove. Little Dove! Little Dove!"
"Father!" Little Dove cried, striking out blindly in his direction. She had always been a good swimmer, but this was no normal lake. Still, she moved as if guided, straight toward him, even though her eyes were closed. He knelt on the shore and waved his hands, reaching out to grab hold of her own when she was close enough. He pulled her ashore, crying her name and holding her to him as if, if he let go, she would be lost forever. She clung back to him, still coughing for breath and dripping wet.
"I'm sorry, Father," she gasped. "I'm sorry I broke my promise."
"It's all right; it's all right, little one." Stick-In-The-Dirt ran his hand over her hair when she rested her head against his shoulder. His own hands shook badly now. He couldn't believe she'd been returned to him, but here she was, and he wasn't going to question it now. He slowly stood, helping her up along with him. They had to leave this place, as soon as possible.
"Come," he urged, touching his head to hers and turning her away from the lake. "Home. Let's go home."
Little Dove nodded and stifled a sniffle. He couldn't tell if she was crying or merely exhausted. It didn't matter. He led her away from the lake, the heron's-feather forgotten. Once they had reached the woods, she finally lifted her head to look back behind them, her eyes searching for something he didn't care to see; she seemed anguished that she apparently couldn't find it. Her hand clutched something small and wet to her breast, and he saw that it was a little wooden doll. Where in that lake could she have gotten a doll...?
She turned away from the lake and rested her head upon his shoulder again, the tears now streaming freely. Stick-In-The-Dirt stroked her hair and murmured as they went, the woods opening up a pathway before them.
"Let's go home."
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