This story is by Nick Mannis and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
He had learned early on that expectation could only ever yield either satisfaction or disappointment. But for T’chum, this time he was sure it would yield the former. Three seasons had passed, and in a life where he understood nothing was guaranteed, he dared to hope, for this was his special occasion. It was finally time for him to return and receive his gift.
Ishka was walking a few paces ahead of him, in typically protective behavior. He could understand why she would be weary of this trip, especially since they were away from the packlands. The ravagers were not known to venture this far from their settlement, but that didn’t make much of a difference. She was well aware of the dangers of traveling in small numbers. The wolf wasn’t the deadliest predator here, and the scars across her muzzle proved as much. It wouldn’t bother him to have her around though. He actually did feel safer. There would be no harm in her knowing. He was never one to be selfish, but he couldn’t risk leading the ravagers there. The fiends didn’t deserve such honors. They had already stolen much of what belonged to the Lords of the Forest.
There wasn’t much ground left to cover. The air was different here, an unmistakable might within it. He could tell that Ishka could feel them as well. Storm trees. They had traveled for quite a while, but had finally arrived at the threshold that separated the storm forest from the rest of the woodlands. Woodland trees weren’t dense, and they certainly weren’t tall enough to obscure the sun either. Ishka stood there, gawking at the giant protruding roots that blocked their path before hastily bowing by lowering her head. T’chum could tell that she was trying to be respectful. Her anxiety however, was painfully obvious. He couldn’t blame her. Not much was able to grow within the storm forest except for the storm trees. Maybe she thought that there was a reason for that. But T’chum knew otherwise. The way the earth reacted to their arrival was, if nothing else, an invitation.
He was given a power by the Lords of the Forest that allowed him to thrive within their domain, a power that allowed him to be in tune with all of his brethren. He was all of the Lords of the Forest’s creations combined into one being. T’chum was a woodling, and he was the Lords’ favorite son. Ishka had some understanding of that, he knew. Yet, he noticed that she was still a little frightened, as she retreated with a small whimper as the roots removed themselves from his path. He gave her a calm, relaxing look, and that was all that was needed to put her mind at ease. She insisted, however, that she continue to lead the way.
Not a few moments later, they had reached the clearing. It was beautiful. Tiny rays of sunlight descended onto the glistening landscape. It was the only vegetation they had encountered since entering the storm forest. Great leaves of green outstretched in all directions revealed little clusters of familiar-looking blue spheres.
There they were… his blueberries. He had not had the foresight to bring a bag with him, but he didn’t mind consuming his gift right then and there. Ishka was less excited, however. She was more preoccupied with trying to discern if anything had recently been here. Yet, only he knew of this place, she could spend her time sniffing the dirt all she wanted. He would enjoy his meal, and she could wait.
However, as soon as he knelt to receive his gift, Ishka, startled, raised her head and looked back at the path they’d taken. It was only that that he heard it. A howl. T’chum snapped back, his gaze locked with Ishka’s. This wasn’t good. The wolves knew better than to make their presence known that close to the ravagers.
The pain and the confusion were clear though. Whoever it was, they were desperate enough to cry for help. It was probably Burk, or Zima maybe… only they were daft enough to venture that far into ravager territory. Ishka wasted no time and rushed towards the sound they just heard. Almost instinctively, his legs propelled him forward, trying to catch up to his longtime companion. Ishka did not know any better, her protective instincts would surely take over. He could not have her put herself in harm’s way. Yet despite his urgency, the gap between them was increasing. He could not catch up to her running on his hind legs. He needed to become faster than a wolf.
T’chum’s bones began to crack, shifting underneath his skin. His shoulder blades flared out as he hunched over, now running on all fours. The wind hit his face so hard his eyes began to water. Ishka’s growls grew fainter as he flew past her. He was fast now, but his body needed to adjust. He had seen the spotted animal run only once before, which was hardly enough to learn its ability properly. Having lived with wolves all his life, he was able to learn much from them. How they eat, how they run, and how they dealt with threats. Those kinds of abilities were just as much of a part of him as breathing was. But this was different. His vision tunneled, and his wolfish sense of smell was no more. If he hadn’t heard the second howl, he wouldn’t have been able to steer himself in the right direction.
As he drew closer, he could hear their voices. Every time they spoke, it was different. The sounds, grotesque as they were, were being used in a manner that could only be described as both chaotic and orderly. He would notice different sounds repeating themselves many times. There was only one class of creatures that communicated that way. T’chum stopped, thinking about what would happen if he got caught, or even if he didn’t. They wouldn’t give up the search, they would push far pas their settlement to find him. His pack would pay the price. The ravagers were known to be relentless hunters, and some of them were stronger than he could learn to be.
He considered his actions for a moment, but when the third howl came, all doubts were removed. He scanned the trees above him, finding a branch that could support his weight. He suspended himself from it like the mouse-birds of the night and closed his eyes. The sounds started to take shape. The first one was fat and arrogant. “Would you look at that Gulliver! Another filthy mutt caught in a trap”. The second was tame, yet powerful, “It appears you were right, these woods aren’t safe enough for our children to wander through yet”.
He let go of the branch and landed on his feet. It was worse than he thought. They discovered their prey, and they were armed with their hunting tools. It was all planned. To make matters more complicated, Ishka was approaching, and she would never leave one of her own to die. He had to act fast, the element of surprise was his only advantage. He darted forward, moving silently, until he was able to see the attackers. He was right, it was Burk they had in their trap. He was on his side, breathing heavily, with a metal clamp firmly locked around his bleeding leg. If Ishka was the older protective sister, then Burk was by all means the reckless younger brother. T’chum had to give the little one some credit though, only he would be defiant enough to growl at his would-be killers in that situation.
“D’ya hear that Gulliver?” laughed the first one, “the little bastard thinks he can scare us!”.
“Yes…”, replied Gulliver, unamused, “just get it over with, and try to be careful this time!”
The first then proceeded to grab Burk by the scruff of his neck, smiling as he flashed his blade, “Stop worrying, will you? I’ll show this mutt who owns these forests!”. The knife edged closer to Burk’s neck.
T’chum let loose a menacing roar. The ravagers’ heads snapped back, “The fuck is that?!” said the fat one. The second one, Gulliver, calmly raised his spear, as if expecting the threat that was now before him. T’chum jumped out from the bushes, his sharp nails now elongated, crouching in a stance that left no doubt as to his intentions.
“Leave. Alone.” he said, attempting to mimic their speech. The ravagers exchanged wide-eyed looks, but it didn’t seem to be due to their surprise at his ability to speak.
“I told you these woods weren’t purged yet!” yelled the fat one. He let Burk go and pointed his blade at T’chum instead “Damned separation still left some of the scum behind!”, he stood up and started towards him “Stay back Gulliver. I’ve been hoping to run into one of these fuckers for myself”.
“We don’t know what that is Lorud, we’re not prepared to—” began Gulliver. But the attempts to instill wisdom into his friend were in vain, as the fat one had already raised the blade over his head and lunged forward. T’chum instinctively dodged to the side, and slashed at his back. Lorud screamed in pain as he landed flat on his stomach.
“Damn it Lorud!” cried Gulliver. T’chum spun around to pay the real threat the attention it was due. One-on-one, the fight would end badly. This Gulliver, was indeed stronger, but he was also visibly less bloodthirsty. He decided to wait for a response.
“I don’t know if you can understand me, beast. But you should stay away from him.”
“No attack… wolf. Go, no return.”
“This is our territory. We’ll leave the pup alone… But you’re the one that needs to leave”. T’chum, unversed in this form of communication, couldn’t tell if he was being threatened or negotiated with.
“You leave Lorud! You leave here! And I leave wolf!” said Gulliver, registering the confusion.
T’chum, understanding the arrangement, started slowly towards Burk. It would be better to cut his losses. The tip of the spear followed him as he moved. Both of them were nervous. And if they weren’t so preoccupied with trying to save the lives of their respective companions without killing each other, they may have noticed the literal embodiment of viciousness that was descending upon them.
A silvery blur rushed past T’chum, and sprang onto Gulliver, taking him down. She was now above him exposing sharp rows of teeth before sinking them savagely into his flesh. Gulliver cried out fiercely and retaliated by shoving her off of him. He then shuffled himself upright, positioning himself for a good spear throw. But before he knew it, T’chum was already behind him, slashing at the exposed part of his neck. The spear fell to the ground into a large pool of blood. The momentum sent Gulliver’s body spinning on its way down, exposing blank and lifeless eyes. A loud thud later, it was all over.
She didn’t know what she made him do, she couldn’t understand. It was his fault this happened, he should’ve acted sooner. He shouldn’t have hesitated so much…
The fat one was still moaning when T’chum loosened the clamp from Burk’s leg. He considered what to do with him before deciding he had enough blood on his hands, literally. He gave Ishka and Burk a stern look. They left him there in the dirt as they darted back, deeper into the woodlands.
A few days later, T’chum attempted another journey into the storm forest. This time, he didn’t make it past the threshold. Beyond the trees, the whispers of the grotesque speech he grew to hate could be heard, most of the words were slurred and couldn’t be made out through the laughter. One of them, however, sounded an awful lot like “Blueberries”.
His world grew a little bit smaller.