The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FIVE

A HARD WAY HOME

Chapter 40

 

          Just as I have been cursed with episodes of undesired flight, I have been, for the most part, blessed with relatively soft landings.

          I came down through naked aspen branches, dense but brittle. They snapped like moth spines as I fell. Ice came next, eggshell-thin, and it easily gave way beneath me. Then came water. I went completely under and my nostrils filled. From that store of knowledge that passes in the blood from mothers to sons, my muscles knew enough to strike out against the water. But I was one leg short for any sort of productive paddling. I thrashed frantically, but my efforts seemed to do nothing but push me further down.

          My back came to rest against a bed of sand and rotted vegetation. I was gasping from the piercing cold and water poured into my lungs. I could do nothing to stop it. A warmth—just a tiny, unexpected spot in my gut—spread like tendrils and made me lazy. I stopped thrashing, stopped fighting, and relished that heat, letting it grow into my muscles like a slow poison. A moment passed—several moments, maybe. It’s so hard to judge time when one is drowning.

          Hold on, Ah-Teena! I’m …

          Luck be with you, chum …

* * *

          Bandy?

          “HOLD ON, AH-TEENA!”

          A few, lonely bubbles drifted to the surface, the last of what air my lungs held. I pushed the seductive warmth away, forcing myself to remember Bandy … Ah-Teena … and at the same time, thrust out with my hind legs. They found purchase against a rock slimy with cold and algae, but I still didn’t move. The blasted contrivance that held my leg immobile was caught on something. An unusually smooth branch I thought. As I wrestled to free myself, it pulled loose from the creek bed, along with the elk skull to which it was attached.

          I twisted my head to see what this new weight was and stared into a jagged eye socket. The skull rotated slowly in the lethargic current and a jaw—there remained only the top jaw, made more morbid by a few blunt and black teeth—scraped past my nose and came to rest on my brow.

          I pushed again, this time out of terror, to escape that devouring skull. Never, not even with Cawley’s fossilized face back in the cave, have I been so provoked by a mere bone. And never after was I able to eat elk meat without thanking that single-antlered fellow who sent me scrambling out of the water.

          I owe the elk clan a mighty favor.

* * *

          It wasn’t much of a creek, really. Even later, in the spring thaw, it wouldn’t be much of a creek. And that night, in the womb of winter, it was probably no more than a trickle as deep as a Rawl’Colmb is tall and as wide as an elk’s rib cage.

          Yet as I struggled to reach something solid, it seemed like the confluence of all the great rivers. I came to the surface spewing out frigid water from nostrils and mouth and possibly even my ears, judging by the pain of it all. After flailing about in panic for a bit, I found that I could have put my feet on the bottom, all along. I was able to hobble to the bank on the tips of my toes. The fragile ice parted under my chest, and the elk skull followed, still caught in my plastic truss.

          Willow wisps hung low over the water. Had I been unencumbered, I could have shinnied under them to open ground beyond. But the skull and its lone antler snagged on them and no amount of shaking, twisting, pulling, or pushing would release me. There was nothing left to try, except to chew the plastic sling off of my leg and leave it there, dangling from the skull.

          Ah-Teena had told me I would know when my leg would be ready to carry my weight again. If it wasn’t ready now, it would never get another opportunity.

* * *

          “HOLD ON, AH-TEENA. I’M COMING!”

          I’m coming.

          The first step wasn’t the worst, but it was the one that made me consider giving it up, made me consider joining the fleshless elk fellow and remaining in that hollow until all the world’s troubles resolved themselves without me. Even the tips of my ears felt that step, ripping through my body, reverberating from one nerve to the other like blue light trapped in a rotted tooth. I let the night know how much it hurt, and my cries were answered by Ah-Teena’s, from far away but with even more shrillness than mine. I continued, adding step to step. They all hurt, each separate step, but her desperate appeals hurt even more, and that agony pulled my heart along.

          The reluctant leg followed.

          Bandy had kicked me over a slope much too steep to scale, so I followed the path of the creek, trying frantically here and there to climb. It was as though I were inside a deep and slick box, and I was going down when I should have been going up. But still, with each of those excruciating steps, I could hear Ah-Teena ever more clearly. The slope gradually dropped to meet the stream bed, and finally, I was able to claw my way up the bank.

          A few clouds huddled around the summit of the mountain, and the moonlight was so thick it could have been lapped up like buttermilk. Above me, across a barren field of snow, was our encampment, close enough to see movement, but too far to distinguish features on the midge-like figures. To my right was where we had met Anna-Bar … where Bandy was. In that shadowed place, there was no movement.

          How many times had he saved my life? How many debts did I owe him? It tore my soul in two, yearning to join Bandy—or whatever was left of Bandy. But from the camp, from that midge battleground, came Ah-Teena’s desperate cries, calling for Peter, calling out for help.

          Only the demon Roth answered.

* * *

          Even with four legs in perfect condition, I could not have properly run. In places, the crust was treacherously slick from the daily thaw and nightly freeze, while elsewhere it gave way and I had to break a path with my muzzle. Breath came into my lungs mixed with fire and brought my blood to a scalding boil. The muscles in my good legs cramped and the muscles in my bad leg knotted in protest. But I couldn’t stop. Bandy might have been beyond any help, but for Ah-Teena—the puppers—I was all they had.

          Roth was digging savagely into the ice cave and Anna-Bar stood atop it, slathering with blood lust and encouragement. “THROW ME A PUPPER, ROTH! BEFORE SHE DIE-ZZZZ, THROW ME A PUPPER AND LET ME CRUSH ITS SKULL WHILE SHE WATCHES!” Ah-Teena roared and lunged out, flinging blood from a dozen wounds across the snow. Roth fell back, laughing, while his awful mate slashed at her back from above. Neither of them saw me coming.

          Or if they did, it didn’t seem to trouble them much.

          Roth trembled as the she-devil cut away at Ah-Teena’s neck and shoulders. She was pinned down, struggling to pull back into the cave, but weakness had taken command, and she could barely raise her head, much less fight off Anna-Bar. These monsters seemed to be in no hurry. Had Roth joined fangs with Anna-Bar, they could have finished Ah-Teena in seconds.

          I came upon him from behind, thinking to duplicate the testicle-crunching I had performed once before. His hind legs were spread in that audacious, D’Buerr-Munn stance and his scrotum dangled in the moonlight with glaring simplicity. I stumbled through the remaining distance and reared to the target, jaws as wide as I could get them.

          He whirled, struck me down with a blow to the side of my head like I was no more than a swaying daffodil and thrust his foaming snout into my throat. “Not again, rodent,” he hissed. “You’ll get away with that trick only once in a lifetime.” I could smell the essence of a thousand violent deaths on his breath.

* * *

          My arrival accomplished one thing only.  Anna-Bar abandoned her onslaught, looking up to see what this peripheral scuffle was all about, and Ah-Teena was able to pull herself back into the cave. “Have fun with him, deary Roth. Enjoy yourself. Let’s make a night of it, don’t you think?” She licked a paw in vain satisfaction. “I’ll hold the bitch down while you give little Dah-eegz his due.”

          “His due … yes, yes … his due.” Roth giggled with insane relish. Some fluid, either snot or saliva, dripped onto my face. “I have waited quite too long to give you your due, you little shit. Let’s start … where? … yes, let’s start … right … here!”

          I cringed as he ran his nose up and down my body and I quivered as he settled on my bad leg. Roth was born to smell out pain. “Yes, yes, YES! Right … HERE!” He took the leg at the knee and jerked … twisted … shook and raged. I was snapped around, whipped against the surface, lashed back and forth with no more effort than it would take to rip the sinews out of a sparrow’s wing, and flung down again. I’m not sure exactly when my leg was reshattered, whether it happened at the beginning of Roth’s frolic or when I was slammed down onto the snow, but in the few moments I had to take stock before he came at me again, I accepted the leg was ruined.

          I wasn’t aware of my own screams, they came so naturally by now. But it must have been those screams that brought Ah-Teena out of the cave again. “DAKS! FIGHT THEM … FIGHT THEM!” Before she could tell me how, the witch was on her. It took all she had to pull back to protect her family.

          “Fight us … oh, come on, runty Daks … yes, yes … fight us.” Roth licked his thin lips and mocked all decent things. “We’d enjoy a good fight, wouldn’t we, smeekums?”

          Anna-Bar cooed in response. “A fine fight it’s been so far, that’s what I think. Ooooh Teeeeen-nawww. Come out and pla-yaayy!”

          “I picked a good place to start, oh yessss.” Roth strutted over to where I lay. There was no urgency to his walk. He knew well that I wouldn’t be going anywhere. “Didn’t I pick a fine place to start?”

          Yes! And my leg throbbed like molten rock as testament.

          Once again, he scanned my body with his finely-tuned snout. “Where next? Where oh where next? It will be hard to pick another place so tender as the last, don’t you think … Smeekums?”

          “I have ultimate faith in your dizzz-cretion, Roth dearest.”

          With the last fiber of my being that wasn’t paralyzed with agony, I snapped at his looming face, pushed up with my remaining foreleg, and caught just a wee piece of his nostril between two teeth. He wasn’t expecting this and recoiled violently, tripping over his hind legs. His one yelp was short and terribly high. A chunk of the filthy Roth, a bit of flesh from his nose about the size of a limbless ant, clung to my tooth. I spit it out, expecting that to be the last thing I would ever do.

          He came back with an awesome rage, but still didn’t deliver me a fatal blow. “I have chosen, Smeekums. Yes … oh my, I have it.” He flipped me over with his paw and dived into my underside. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before,” he snarled. “It would’ve been the purrr-fect place to start.”

          With horror, I realized he was going for my testicles, and they presented themselves with an alarming lack of resistance. I was too shocked to even close my hind legs.

          “Yes, yes, YES! I’ll just chew on these nuggets … roll ’em over me chompers … then I think I shall rip them off. Won’t that hurt? Runty Daks thing, can you imagine how much that will hurt?”

          There was no argument left in me. As he took my petite bollocks between his teeth, confession seemed the only thing left. “I love you, Teena. I do, and I’m so, so sorry.” I can’t know if she heard me or not. I closed my eyes, so that I wouldn’t have to witness my own disassembling …

          . . . and missed seeing Peter’s fierce surprise.

* * *

          He must have come out of the trees farther up the slope, or possibly he came across the same ice field as I had, I don’t know. He hit Anna-Bar from the side like an exploding star, knocking her from the dome of the cave with rib-shattering force. She squealed once, a rat’s watery squeal, and hissed, then her air was gone.

          But that ratty squeal brought Roth to attention and I rolled away with renewed vigor. Anna-Bar was on her back, pawing at the clear night, gasping for breath and trying to slide from beneath Peter’s furious attack. But her flailing accomplished nothing. He remained low, his fangs buried in her chest, then her gut, then her writhing neck. He tore at flesh from one end of her torso to the other, racing over her like a supernatural wildfire, black except where the most rapid of moonbeams caught up with him and turned his coat into a mantle of undulating sparks and flashes. Anna-Bar’s face, that mess of scar and misshapen meat, was further twisted with the terror of a cowardly death.

          Roth could move like light too, and did, once he realized what was happening. He was away from me and upon Peter’s rump before I could utter the simplest of warnings. “WATCH OUT!” But they had already reached full height on hind legs, going at one another’s throats like mating swans.

          Ah-Teena came from her nest, crawling, unable to gain her feet. I moaned to see the damage the beasts had already done to her. Blood poured from many wounds, about her neck, her shoulders, gashes in her spine. One fox ear was torn to shreds. How much blood could my lovely Ah-Teena lose? After a day of birthing and a night of battle, how could she continue? Five tiny mouths called after her like frightened chicks.

          I gained my feet—just three of them, but that was something Ah-Teena was unable to do—and pushed towards the fight. I had stepped onto the ruined leg for the last time. It dragged through the snow with no more life than a strand of matted hair.

          As furious as he was—as brave and strong and quick—Peter was not Mish-Shka. Roth was taller, whether on four feet or two, and the beast struck down with lethal accuracy. Coming from below, like something that should have spent forever in fetid subterranean waters, was Anna-Bar. The war raged directly over her body, and all she had to do was rise, fangs first, into Peter’s exposed bowels.

          “WATCH OUT!” Such a feeble assistance I offered. Unable to reach the battle in time to contribute anything worthwhile, I contributed another useless warning. Too late. The witch entered Peter’s gut with a viper’s precision, took his soft belly and ripped. He collapsed, caving in upon her while she still held his tender underside in her jaws, and Roth came down upon him. Peter twisted, screaming and frothing, and attacked that evil presence lodged in his belly. Roth found his throat.

          In fact, Roth took the entire side of Peter’s exposed neck in those elongated jaws and clamped on. I reached the fray just in time to be drenched in blood, and I bit down upon the first obstacle I found.

* * *

          A soft web of skin that connected Roth’s foreleg to his breast, it was. But it was Peter’s blood that drenched me. It poured into my nostrils and clogged my breath. But I hung on. Peter’s essence mixed with Roth’s, two blood fountains that should never have been part of the same creation, blinding and choking. Roth’s blood spewed onto my tongue and down my throat. And I still hung on. Had I not hung on and continued to gnaw down until I reached a slender cable of pure nerve, there would have been nothing to stop Roth from chewing through to Peter’s great vein, maybe from chewing straight through Peter’s neck.

          But I hung on. And Roth didn’t.

          He released his hold on Peter and took me around the center of my body, twisting and snaking his neck to reach me. I heard the snap of ribs giving way—one snap … two … three—before I felt it, before that distinct pain registered among all the others. His teeth punctured my hide, entered my flesh, and pressed against my broken ribs. There was to be no more playing around, no more torture for the sake of amusement. Roth was simply going to bite me in half.

          There was time. He would not be disturbed. Whatever life was left in Peter was trying feebly to dislodge Anna-Bar from his gut.

          Then I could no longer hold on. It wasn’t the pain, layered in my body like stacks of jagged ice. It wasn’t the blurry glimpse I had of Ah-Teena, struggling to rise on legs too weak to support dry feathers. It wasn’t the bitterness, sweeping over me like a rough tongue, that came as I realized how small a part righteousness, justice, and love play in the outcome of most things.

          What caused me to let go of Roth’s vile flesh was the sight of that carnivorous moon, settling over the bristled shoulders of an ancient and spectral figure, massive even beyond my memory of him, hovering over our gory embrace from atop the ice cave.

* * *

          Mish-Shka?

* * *

          Oh, were it only possible that benevolent spirits might take shape and substance during our most hopeless of times, that the great ghosts of the greatest warriors could reach over and save the worthy, then it surely would have been Mish-Shka who cast his shadow upon us.

          But I can only assume that the spirits must work in a manner unseen, undetected. In a manner that we living fools cannot understand, lest we try it ourselves and corrupt their world as we have corrupted ours.

          It wasn’t Mish-Shka who set upon Roth with the most final of all judgments, though I will forever believe it was Mish-Shka who guided them.

          It was Kruk.

          Kruk … and his entire Wolven tribe.

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