CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: ATTACK!
Nate was falling. The branch, only a moment before supporting him — providing him with protection from savage death at the jaws of Chirkah and his tribe — was now a stick in his hand. It was connected to nothing and slid with him through the empty air of the forest trees. Still, he clutched it fiercely.
In his consciousness, time slowed down. Each half-second swam lazily by and movement became a sluggish procession of images and thoughts. And now, as he plummeted toward the ground, he inwardly cringed at the thought of those sharp, canine teeth tearing into his flesh. A scream of horror escaped his lips as they stretched tightly over his clenched teeth. But the scream was abruptly cut short as one end of the branch he clung desperately to wedged into a crotch of the tree and the other end tangled in the branches of a neighboring hickory. With a jerk, it came to rest, and his legs swung back and forth in the air, just barely out of reach of the savage jaws of the pack.
It took a few seconds for Nate to realize what had happened, and then he began to pull himself, “chin-up” style back over the branch. With an effort, he worked his way toward the bole of the ash tree and then transferred his weight to another, sturdier branch. Shaking and sweating, he leaned his back against the smooth bark and closed his eyes. Once more he had managed to cheat death and the swarm of voracious monsters below him of their prize. When at last he reopened his eyes, his vision was a bit blurred and he blinked rapidly several times before looking to see what had become of Chirkah.
Nate had seen wolves at the zoo. He’d spent some time staring into their soft brown eyes and wondering at the quiet nobility he saw there. Even in captivity, there was a sad kind of grace that spoke well of the beasts; and he saw a haunting sort of stern benevolence in their gaze that made him admire them in spite of his deep-seated dislike for dogs.
There was no such look in the eyes of the beast whose gaze met Nate’s this day. Chirkah glared from below with a blazing fury that threatened to melt his small, piggish eyes and send them dribbling from their sockets. Nate thought he could actually see an ember-like glow radiating from their depths and the hatred that seethed within was actually palpable in its intensity. Chirkah’s jaw muscles rippled beneath the stubbly skin on his face and his shoulders bunched in huge ropey knots of tension.
For a moment Nate was intimidated by this formidable display, but then he thought of Zelda and the unfortunate creature they had torn to bits before his eyes. His heart became hard once again. He shook off the fear and haughtily glared back at his captor. From the safety of his lofty sanctuary, he hurled taunts, calculated to drive Chirkah mad with rage. “Sorry, old boy, guess you missed out again!” he shouted and then: “What’s the matter Chirkah? Didn’t anybody ever tell you? You can’t run with the big dogs… if you pee like a puppy!”
He laughed out loud, as much with relief as with derision, and he slid down to straddle the branch once more. He decided that climbing from tree to tree was not such a good idea. If he were to escape, he would have to think of another way.
As he sat thinking, the sun began to slant through the branches, and he became aware of the fact that it was setting and before long it would be dark. Already the morning doves were crooning their dreary notes and from high above the forest came the occasional sharp “preeent!” of a nighthawk, as it dived and swooped among the summer’s last hearty swarms of insects.
Nate’s mind ached from trying to think of a way out of this situation, and his tongue was swollen and parched. His stomach grumbled miserably and he thought back to what Chirkah had said about hunger driving him down from the trees. He tried not to dwell upon it though and continued to search his mind for an answer to this dilemma.
The creatures below became quiet, and Nate, suffering the combined effects of thirst, hunger and exhaustion, began to drift into a drowsy state of rumination. There seemed to be no solution to his problems; and so he let his mind wander as it would, resting himself mentally as well as physically.
He watched a gray squirrel gathering nuts and nonchalantly ignoring the Kophet-kur. It appeared to be no more wary of the hideous beasts lounging among the trees than it would have been of a bunch of humans in the park. Apparently, they presented no great threat to him and he scurried here and there amongst them with impunity. When one of the dozing monsters grunted and lowered its muzzle to sniff in its direction, the squirrel leaped nimbly off, bounding twice through the leaf-clutter on the forest floor before launching itself onto the trunk of a tree. There it scrambled quickly up the vertical trunk to the safety of a lower branch. Nate smiled, ruefully. Even the squirrels knew that the Kophet-kur were earthbound and could not harm them amongst the branches.
Chattering noisily, the squirrel hurried along the branch and flung itself into the air to land in the branches of the next tree. Nate’s smile faded as he watched it work its way through the forest and disappear in the foliage. Suddenly he felt terribly alone and frightened. The light was fading fast, and the thought of spending the night up here in the stygian darkness of the forest while a group of savage man-eating escapees from a horror movie waited below was something he was not sure he was capable of handling. City born and bred, Nate had never been alone in the woods at night. It was an alien environment, and he wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
The sounds of the impending night were sweeping through the woods like a rumor through a small town. He turned the collar of his shirt up and hugged himself tighter as a cool breeze rustled his leafy bough and tossled the hair on his forehead. He looked below to the hulking shapes, now becoming vague and shadowy in the gathering gloom and once again he was a little boy, shivering alone in the dark. Again he heard his father’s voice, harsh with irritation and thick with sleep: “There’s no such thing as monsters, Natey Boy, now go to sleep!” Suddenly the voice became harsher and evil sounding. Come down! it said. Climb down from the tree, Nate!
With mounting confusion Nate realized the voice was not just a memory — he could actually hear it. But still, it seemed to come from within his mind rather than from without. Gradually his idling consciousness became cognizant of the fact it was Chirkah’s voice he was hearing. Again it urged him to Come down! And this time the voice seemed more demanding — as though time were running out for this game of cat and mouse.
Nate looked for Chirkah and found him directly below, his forepaws braced against the trunk of the tree while he craned his neck to see Nate, among the branches.
I grow weary of this game, Nate Malone.
Indeed, the chieftain’s voice sounded tired. But Nate thought he heard something else there too — something not quite distinguishable, but definitely odd. Was it fear? No. that wasn’t possible. What could Chirkah have to fear? It was more like worry or distracted anxiety. There was a definite hint of frustrated desperation.
Don’t you see there is no hope for escape? You will die slowly, alone in the tree-tops. Hunger and thirst will take an excruciating toll of your body before leaving you dead and draped over a limb. That is… if the wood ants don’t get you first.
Nate’s knuckle still throbbed from the painful bite. He thought of hundreds of thousands of the big black insects crawling over his body, biting and stinging in the dark, and he shivered.
It will be dark soon, Nate Malone. I’m sure you don’t want to stay in that tree all night. Why not come down and get this over with. Then you can rest for as long as you want. No more pain… no more worries… only sleep… deep… quiet… peaceful sleep…
Even in his tired state, Nate could recognize the attempt at hypnosis and he fought off the heaviness creeping into his eyelids. He grinned down into the upturned face of Chirkah and said, “You’re gonna have to do better than that. I may be from the city, but I’m not stupid. I’ll be quite comfortable here in the trees, thank you; but as for you…” He looked up at the darkening sky. A few clouds were moving in, skittering before the freshening wind. “It looks like it may storm tonight. Wouldn’t you creeps feel better crawling back under whatever rock you came from?”
Chirkah stared at him, for a long time before speaking again.
Perhaps you are right, Nate Malone. After all, we have your woman so we know you aren’t going anywhere. He glanced around at the mob of monsters lounging around him. Maybe we SHOULD withdraw. If you do go for help no one would believe you. No, I think you will come down and try to find our lair. And when you do, I’ll be waiting for you there… An evil grin split his wrinkled black lips, making Nate shudder.
… And I’ll be with your mate, in the slave chambers.
With that, he signaled silently to the others and they stood up and began dispersing into the undergrowth.
Go or stay Nate Malone, Chirkah’s voice rang in Nate’s mind as the big beast walked toward the edge of the clearing. When he reached it, he turned and spoke one last time. It really matters not to me. Either way, I have won and you… you have lost.
As one, they melted into the forest like a bad dream.
Suddenly, Nate was alone in the clearing and silence moved in and nestled close about him. It happened so quickly that Nate was stunned. He sat in the tree, staring at the place where Chirkah had disappeared.