The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART TWO

BERTIE’S BALL

Chapter 17

          The smell of blood brought me out of the second dream of cows I’d ever had.  But where the first was a horrid nightmare about one monstrous, snot-slinging abomination, this dream was filled with many cows, a huge gaggle of cows, each as lethargic and sedate as only the profoundly stupid can be.  The only frightening part of the dream was that I was one of them, one of those thick, black and white cows.  And I was every bit as stupid and as content as the rest of them.  I stood in the very center of the herd, munching on huge wads of bland, dewy grass, and every time one of other cows became the least bit agitated or concerned with the rumbling and growling that came from outside our lovely, soft pasture, she would turn to me and study me with eyes as bland and dewy as the grass.  Whatever they saw in me calmed them so that nothing over the fiery horizon mattered.  I was the inspiration of their willful density—the very center of their vacuum.

          Yet blood smell is a potent stimulus.  As satisfied as I was, ingesting dream grass and ignoring dream threats, the bouquet of deer’s blood was much too strong to ignore, even for a dream cow.

          “You slept well, I assume, judging from the volume of your snoring.”  Mish-Shka lay a few steps away, watching over a ripped carcass.

          “I guess I did.  Is that a deer?  There’s a lot of it.”

          “She would have tasted better warm, Daks.  But when I returned, you were so solidly asleep, I decided against waking you.  Besides, cold deer meat is good, too.”

          The sun was up and crows were circling above, their greedy eyes on the meat.  (It almost seems as though the more sunlight striking a crow’s coat, the blacker the crow is.  An odd phenomenon, I think.)  I ate, and Mish-Shka was right.  The meat was good, even cold.  And there was so much of it.  With chicken and rabbit, it’s only courteous to limit one’s portion if there are others waiting to eat.  One chicken or one rabbit doesn’t go very far.  But one deer can feed a tribe as big as Mish-Shka’s, twice or more.

          “Aren’t you going to eat?” I asked.  Mish-Shka had opened up the corpse in such a way that I could partake with little difficulty, but almost none of the meat was missing.  He was once again smelling at the air as though he expected something to happen at any moment.  “And where’s Bandy anyway?  Did he come back last night?”

          “Yes, he was here for a while, took a nap, but he left again as soon as the sun rose.  And I’m not hungry.  I ate a bite, but my appetite … it’s not what it used to be.  Hurry with your meal now.  We must be away.”

          “But where’d he go?  He’s coming back, isn’t he?”

          “Daks, my oh my.  If questions had volume, you’d be bigger than I am, do you know that?  I don’t have time for your questions right now.  We must get moving.  So as soon as you’ve had your fill … “

          And if questions had weight, I’d have sunk to the center of the earth.  I did what Mish-Shka wanted, though, with no more questions.  Under normal conditions, and particularly with something as tasty as that deer, I prefer not to gulp my meals down.  I prefer to munch and relish.  Possibly I’m not as different from a cow as I’d like to think.  But the great Ogg was making it clear I had no time for munching and relishing, so I gulped.  After taking in a few chunks of meat, some so large I didn’t think they would pass my throat, we were on our way.  “There’s so much left over.  Won’t it rot away?”

          “Maybe, but I’m hoping such an available feast will provide an irresistible distraction.”

          “Distraction?  Whom do you want to distract, Mish-Shka?”

          “I’ll tell you, but not right now, Daks.  I want to put as many miles behind us as your legs allow.  And don’t worry about Fawrlingswad.  Rawl’Colmbs can take care of themselves.”  Mish-Shka was cross, irritable.  I didn’t know if the cause was worry, lack of sleep, or me.  So I assumed it was me and sealed my lips around my rubber ball, with one last objection.

          “But I don’t want to leave without him,” I whimpered.  Mish-Shka seemed not to hear.

* * *

          We used the slashes in the hills for our path and seldom came to the top of a ridge.  The ravines were filled with a stringy mist that hung to the lower ground like frigid puss.  The sun barely penetrated this fog and as we moved through it, the wetness soaked my coat.  I would have walked to the very tops of the hills, had I been making the decisions.  I would have gone to where the sun lay uninterrupted and bright upon the rolling crests and let them lead me wherever they wished.  I suggested as much to Mish-Shka in as polite a way as possible, but he replied, “We need as much cover as we can get, Daks.  I know it’s cold, but being cold isn’t the worst thing you could be right now.”

          With any sense, I should have been frightened.  What Mish-Shka implied, that we were in the vicinity of danger, should have been foremost on my mind.  But between the clammy cold and Bandy’s unexplained absence, there was too much upsetting me to be frightened.  The terrain wasn’t a bit easier to traverse than it’d been the day before, but the landscape was impossible to see through the fog, so it seemed easier.  When you can’t see the slippery deadfall you will soon have to scramble over, or the briar-lined mire that you will find yourself wading belly-deep through, you have less reason to dread the next few steps.  You cope with each snag as it comes, pick yourself up from each spill, and untangle yourself from the infernal thorns without having to anticipate the unpleasantness.  So my mind was clear to dwell upon my shivering bones and the missing Bandy.  Had he abandoned us?  Had he been self-conscious about being the only one there not an Ogg?  Had he and Mish-Shka argued while I slept?  Was the great hound not hungry for deer meat because he’d filled up on raccoon?

          My goodness, did I think that?  I’m ashamed to admit, I did.  And the thought became stronger in my mind with every step I took.  What if, while I slept, Bandy had returned from his crayfish dinner with a mouth full of fresh opinions?  What if he had expounded upon his theories of why Oggs are so inept, and Mish-Shka took exception?  What if Mish-Shka had shredded Bandy into bits of stringy meat and even now was digesting the fellow who had saved my life?

          I picked as opportune a time as I could find to broach the subject.  We had stopped in an open, mossy flat at the very bottom of a shy little streamlet’s bed and the wolfhound had his back to a broad cottonwood tree.  He was struggling to clear his bowels.  “Even the simple things become difficult when you’re old, Daks,” he said, and I couldn’t help but think that he might be trying to pass, at that very moment, my friend Bandy.

          “Mister Mish-Shka … uh … well, did Bandy tell you his plans before he left?”

          “Why, no.  He only said he was bored from traveling with two clumsy Oggs, and he said he wanted to explore the surroundings some without us slowing him down.  I wished him well.  Are you worried about him?”

          “It’s just that I didn’t expect him to leave without saying good-bye.  I .  . . well, I sort of thought he liked me.”

          “Fawrlingswad can see to himself.  They are capable creatures, Rawl’Colmbs, even if they are thieves and unrepentant opportunists.”  Mish-Shka finished what he was doing and proceeded on.  He called to me as I lingered, trying to convince myself he was telling the truth—that he hadn’t slept the night away on a stomach full of Bandy.

          “Come, Daks.  We mustn’t stop.  I’m confident your friend will catch up when he tires of talking to himself.”

          I grabbed up the ball, scrambled after him, and sprinted to pass him up.  When I was far enough ahead to turn and confront him, I spit the ball out.  “Mish-Shka, is there something I ought to know?  You’ve been acting, uh … well, like you were scared.  Er, something.”

          “I should tell him, I suppose,” he muttered, as though I were a weary world away.  We were following the tiny rivulet, a convoluted and indirect course through the ragged brush.  Convoluted and indirect, certainly, but not nearly as strenuous as it might have been, had we left the bed.  The mist was thin enough to allow sunlight through, but thick enough that I couldn’t see even midway up the stream banks surrounding us.  “Apparently, Daks, you don’t have much of a nose, or you’d be aware that we are not alone in these woods.”

          “We’re not?”

          “You see, long after you left the cave, Louis woke me.  As he stood watch, he sensed a pair of old enemies passing somewhere in the night.  A foul wind, these two.  Louis knows their scent.  Everyone in the tribe knows their scent.  For much of the way, they were following the same path you took, Daks.  I had no choice but to come after you.”

          “Are these enemies of yours behind us now, Mish-Shka?  Are they men?”

        “Behind  … ahead … I’m just not certain.  They’re not men, but they’re as vicious as any human.  They’re Oggs.  They have Ogg form, at any rate.”   … but they have another soul … and don’t ask me what it is.

          I knew then who Mish-Shka feared.  Legs as stiff as ancient bones … ears trembling over a twitching corpse … obsidian eyes, as empty as a spider’s heart.  I had come close—much too close—to them before.  An image filled my mind.  A cow being torn apart.  Legs flailing at a black sky.

          “Yes, you’ve seen them before.”  Once again, he was telling me my own thoughts.  “I suspect they are ahead of us.  They took that fat farmer’s chickens.”

          “And I thought the farmer meant Peter and Ah-Teena.”  I whispered.  Terror took me like a centipede stretched along my spine and my stomach fluttered.

          I stammered.  Words tripped in my throat like clumsy beetles.  “Clinky trash … Mish-Shka … we have to find cans and bottles … human sound!  We must make human sound … ”  But he wasn’t listening to me.

          “I’m not sure, but I think they might be after Peter.  If not for that, I’d take you back to the tribe.  But I must warn Peter and Teena.  They hate Peter as much as they hate me.”

          Like an icicle through an eyeball, a voice came through the fog … “Couldn’t be more wrong about that, Meesher.  Ah-ah, couldn’t be more wrong.  We don’t hate anyone as much as we hate you” …

          . . . and it came from atop the creek bank.  From directly over my head.

* * *

          Mish-Shka stiffened.  His upper lip curled back to reveal yellowed fangs.  “Roth!”

          From the other side of the ravine came a second voice, sultry and deadly.  A female voice.  “Don’t forget me, old Meesh.”  She dropped from a fallen tree like a Scrat, coiled and ready to strike before she ever touched ground.  She was exquisite—lithe, muscular and svelte, but those are words I ascribed to her later, when I’d time to picture her in subsequent, disturbing dreams.

          “Who’s the grunty, Meesher?” asked the voice above me.

          “Rothums dear, can’t you see?” said the female.  “That’s Meesher’s lunch snack.  The old stink is beyond hunting down his food.  His meals travel with him now.”

          “Methinks you wrong, Smeekums.  Certainly this is one of Meesher’s disciples.  Notice the reverence in his piggley little eyes?”  They both cackled, but the voice overhead cackled loudest and longest.  Air whistled through Roth’s teeth as he sucked it in.

          Mish-Shka motioned to me, and he didn’t need to do it twice.  I scrambled to his side.  Next to him wasn’t close enough to suit me, tough, so I edged between his front legs and peered up into the sun-fired fog.  This Roth creature dropped, seemingly from empty sky.

          “Please allow me to introduce myself, teeny grunty.  I be Roth, and that beauty there is Anna-Bar.  We’re old friends of Meeesh-Shkaaaah, am I right, Meesher?”  He said Mish-Shka’s name with a toothy hiss.

          “Friendship is beyond you, Roth.  I should have killed you before.”

          “You’ve grown uncharitable, Meesher.  Whatever happened to your ‘Lah-Tsee’ bitch and all of that ‘brotherhood’ tripe?  Tell us, old teacher.  No more brotherhood?”

          Mish-Shka slowly raised a front leg, as though his paw were a snake’s head preparing to lunge.  With the female on his right flank, he addressed Roth obliquely, ready to pivot and snap.  Except for that trembling paw and his eyes, he was as still as a weathered snag.

          In contrast, the two monsters never stood still.  The female swayed from leg to leg, as though she were quietly crazed, and Roth paced back and forth, describing a tight circle.  Roth was a male reflection of beautiful Anna-Bar—as taut as a nerve, as intense as fire.  They were of the D’Buerr-Munn Pinzi clan, and I suspect there is as much pit-viper blood as Ogg flowing through the hearts of the D’Buerr-Munn Pinzi.

          “Does the grunty have a name, or does he only answer to your whims, Meesh?” cooed Anna-Bar.

          “I’m Daks.  That’s my name,” I answered, but the quivering in Mish-Shka’s paw found it’s way into my voice.  And I had so wanted to sound ferocious.

          “Daks?  DAAAAEEEGGZ?  Is this a name?”  The she-thing dripped with mockery.  “Maybe a fat hamster or a half-witted sparrow might get by with a name like ‘Daaaeeeeggz’ … but an Ogg?”

          “Well … well, I’ve never found a reason to change it.”

          With each pass, the circle Roth traveled widened, bringing him ever closer, and Anna-Bar’s swaying motion was moving her mysteriously nearer to Mish-Shka’s withered flank.  I had no way of knowing if Mish-Shka noticed, except that I could feel his breath tighten.  Drool ran from Roth’s jaws.  With sham sincerity, he asked, “Did I hear you mention dear Peter’s name, Meesher?  Is he near?  What a divine comedy that would be … to send both you and Peter to your ancestors on the same day.”

          “My ancestors will welcome me, if that’s what happens, Roth.  I’ve a notion that even your mother wouldn’t have you.”

          Anna-Bar, of the two, seemed the most eager.  “Enough chatter, Roth.  Let’s kill them and find Peter.  I told you I smelled him last night.  Him and that mongrel bitch, I told you!”

          “I doubted you, Smeekums.  Yes, I did.  And I apologize, dearest.  But let me have my fun with this sanctimonious, stinking old fart before I gut him.  I’ve looked forward to this for years.  Yes, yessssss.  Years.  So let’s not rush.  No, noooo.  Let’s not rush.  You know what they say.  ‘Never wish too hard for what you want, for it might come about’.”  Roth laughed at his own obscure humor and his laughter grew from a snicker to roar.  The female laughed as well, an astonishingly high wail that reinforced my impression she was crazed.

          Crazed or not, she managed to edge closer, as though she were sucking in the space between us with that mad cackle.  In a voice so low I thought for a moment my own blood was speaking to me, Mish-Shka said, “Daks, listen to me.  When I move, you run.  You run as though your soul were at stake and don’t stop running until you’re back in the cave.  Tell them what happened here.”

          “Mish-Shka … no.  I’m with you.  We can take ‘em, you and me.”  Bravado was all that was left in an otherwise empty armory.  It took no imagination to imagine what these D’Buerr-Munns’ jaws could do to even the stoutest part of my body.  But I couldn’t—and wouldn’t—leave Mish-Shka to face them alone.  “I won’t go.”

          “You’ll do as I say!” he shrieked, bringing an end to Roth’s cruel laughter.  His fury alarmed me and I rolled out from beneath him.  Rage boiled in him like his weight in hornets and I was astonished to see that even in the light of day, his eyes smoldered from the inside out with that hot glow of unnatural fire.  “NOW!  FLY!”

          The power of his voice turned my resolution to dust.  It was a though a mighty wind came from his lungs, blowing me from the arena like so much chaff.  This same astounding force frosted my mind into numbness and before my senses returned, I had penetrated many steps into some brown and crinkled tulle blades.  I ran with no awareness.  No plan.  No direction.  I ran without even meaning to run.

          From outside the cattails, Mish-Shka roared as though all the great beasts of the world’s greatest wilderness had roared at once, a sound like all rage and pain and blood-lust were mixed in the same cauldron and spewed out from the guts of the earth.  I turned, executing a less-than-graceful somersault, backwards, in order to extricate my fur from the grasping tulles, and burst from the thicket in time to see Roth tear a vicious gash in Mish-Shka’s shoulder.  They were both thrashing about on hind legs, clasping one another like angry men with arms entwined.  The gray giant towered over Roth, but his height gave no advantage.  He was trying to take the back of the D’Buerr-Munn’s neck in his jaws, but it was like trying to catch a whole tub of earthworms with his teeth.  Whenever he found something to bite, it turned into hair and loose skin.  Anna-Bar darted about like a malicious horsefly, nipping at Mish-Shka’s flanks and legs.  He gave her a ferocious snarl, but was unable to do anything to protect himself from her attacks.  Roth demanded his full attention.

          Roth tried again and again to take Mish-Shka’s throat from beneath.  He was so quick.  It appeared his head was in several places at once.  Mish-Shka was fast enough that his throat—and the mighty channel of blood it contained—stayed just out of the devil’s reach, but damage was being done.  Already, Mish-Shka was bleeding from a number of smaller tears on his chest and the sides of his neck.  But they didn’t seem to bother him.  It was the great rip in his shoulder that brought him down.  He broke from the deadly dance and went to all fours.

          Roth knew then that the battle was won.  He pulled away for a moment, coiling up for the killing strike.  His eyes gleamed and he laughed again, a triumphant and malevolent sneer.  Mish-Shka tried to position himself for a defense, but whatever weight he put on that ruined shoulder was enough to crumple his leg.  He came very near to falling on his side and Roth went at him, over and again, taking pieces from Mish-Shka’s forelegs and nose and ears.  I believe he could have finished my friend at any time, for Mish-Shka had no recourse but to retreat, backwards into the slippery bank.  The female joined Roth and they worked like one, double-headed snake, joined at the shoulder.  Roth held back while Anna-Bar attacked, and then the reverse.  Mish-Shka had no opportunity to even catch his breath . . .

          . . . not until I took Roth’s testicles in my mouth and chomped down hard enough to crack a black walnut.

* * *

          The savage screamed.  I thought Mish-Shka had been loud a few seconds earlier, but I didn’t know then what loud was.  The shriek rattled my skull and my eyeballs felt like crystal about to shatter.  Everyone came to a stop.  Even Mish-Shka was shocked.  Squirrels could have hibernated in his mouth, it gaped open so widely.  And had his eyes popped any farther out of their sockets, they would have gone rolling into the same low spot my rubber ball had found.

          Anna-Bar seemed nearly as startled as Mish-Shka.  She had been on the offense, slashing her sculpted snout into Mish-Shka’s ribs when Roth screamed, and she stood frozen on three legs, her skin tight.  Only a vein throbbing on her neck showed she wasn’t cast from iron and ice.

          Transfixed in time, space and pain, Roth was petrified.  For as long as it takes a healthy heart to pump a tumbler of blood to the farthest extremity and back, he moved not a muscle.  He could only scream, with his hind legs splayed out and me hanging between them, his black walnuts between my teeth.  I moved first.  Even before that stump-splitting scream had stopped bouncing from ridge to ridge, I let go my hold and my front feet dropped to the ground.  That I was no longer crunching his scrotum seemed no consolation to Roth.  His scream thinned out to a watery whistle, but he continued to stand as though his legs were wrapped in rose thorns.  His entire body began to quiver.  I was at a loss as to what came next, as was everyone else.  Mish-Shka stared at me with faltering eyes, Anna-Bar stared at me with hate-filled eyes, and Roth merely trembled.

          “WELL DONE, DAKSIE!”

          I had never been so relieved to hear another voice.  The words were embellished with the sound of snot, bubbling deep inside narrow sinus cavities, and they came from the center of a skeletal holly shrub hanging over the rim of the bank above us.  I suspect they came just at the right moment, for Anna-Bar had begun to swivel like a knife with a mind to skin me and reskin me.  I had also begun to suspect that one testicular crunch did not a war win, for even Roth demonstrated what a resilient killer he was and was resuming his battle stance.

          Of course, words alone don’t win wars either, so when Bandy dropped from the holly bush and wrapped his body around Anna-Bar’s head, I suspect that, too, happened at just the right moment.

          He dug in with all of his talons as though he were trying to open up a melon.  Anna-Bar let out a startled screech, but it was muffled in Bandy’s soft belly.  She rolled in the mud and clawed, trying to dislodge him, but Bandy was as tenacious as a tick.  He bit at the back of Anna-Bar’s neck and his claws brought blood streaming from long gashes behind her ears.  Roth turned stiffly, obviously still in numbing pain, and went at Bandy’s exposed back.  I leapt in, trying to get another grip on his testicles, but that stratagem was a one-trick thing.  All I managed to do was get a small piece of the taut skin on his thighs before I was kicked aside.  I rolled into a pile of smooth rocks and knocked my head on the least smooth of them.

          Mish-Shka attacked with a renewed fury.  I had feared he was beyond contributing to our salvation.  His eyes were dim and blood poured from the wound on his shoulder.  But from within that magnificent breast burst another flood—a flood of determined will.  He reared forwards and up, coming down atop Roth.  The D’Buerr Munn collapsed beneath the weight.  Mish-Shka clamped down on his skull, but the reptilian thing twisted and the great hound was left with nothing but a clipped ear between his jaws.  Making the most of it, he wrenched his head away, and once more, Roth shrieked, then twisted again and scrambled with what seemed to be hundreds of legs instead of four.  He came scrumbling out from beneath the giant.  As soon as he was free, he ran, howling and stumbling through the mist like a drunken ghost.

          Mish-Shka rose up on bloodied legs, his chest broad and proud.  The gory trophy was still in his mouth and I shuddered to think what Roth must have looked like then, with one ear and such a large patch of his scalp missing.

* * *

          With Roth gone, Bandy released his hold on the she-thing.  She fell backwards as though she had pulled her head free from a tight hole and followed after her mate—and with much the same slipping and scrambling around, as though her forelegs meant to go one way and her hind legs another.  But where Roth had disappeared without even a look back, Anna-Bar stopped at the edge of the clearing and offered a prophetic benediction to the battle.  My, what carnage Bandy had inflicted upon her fine, lizard features.  All about her nose and eyes was a new and bloody topography.  I shuddered, reading the future in the criss-cross slashes encircling her face, and the omens were only reinforced by the ominous threat she made.

          “That’s twice you should have killed us, Meesher.  You’ll wish you had.  you’ll wish you had!”

          In such a short time, that exquisite and erotic face had been made to look like something only infant birds would eat.

          Not that the three of us looked any too splendid.

          Mish-Shka stumbled sideways into the thin creek and fell.  The water turned crimson with his blood.  Clots of matted hair plugged the stream and a small, gory reservoir formed around his ravaged chest.  He pushed his wounds into the soft mud and then collapsed into a knotted, awkward position.  I thought him dead.

          Bandy was no help.  I turned to him, thinking if there was any life left in my giant friend, Bandy would know what to do to coax it out.  But he only grinned at me and fell over on his side.  It appeared that Anna-Bar had damaged him as much as he had her.  He was bleeding heavily from his stomach and in the filtered light, I saw the ragged end of what I believed to be his entrails.  All that was needed to push me over a dark threshold into unconsciousness was that grim vision of Bandy’s interior.

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