Andrew’s mind was spinning. His stomach was full of an animal he’d never seen or heard of before, as well as a lot of what he was certain was dried fruit, and stifling yawns through a lesson in… whatever this language was had proven a daunting endeavor this evening indeed.
One thing, however, he knew. Just now, he guarded his sanity with notable vigilance, given the circumstances. But if he assumed that they were in… another world (his mind cringed from merely the thought)… a theory growing more difficult to deny as their time here progressed, then from morning to nightfall, there had to be a couple of extra hours. All of his comrades started tiring around the same time over the past few nights, yet it felt to Andrew like it was about… at least two in the morning. There was no way of telling time out here. One never noticed how much life was lived by the clock until there wasn’t a clock to be had. The thing was, they’d been yawning now for about two hours, but the sun had just sunk behind the horizon.
Andrew carried his theory a step further. If it felt as if they were going to bed at roughly four in the morning, and rising at dawn with the sun, then of the five of them, Andrew knew one of them at least would be exhibiting the effects of exhaustion, if not all of them.
Except that he himself had awakened feeling quite refreshed, both mornings, instead of feeling as if he’d just closed his eyes an hour ago. Some quick mental arithmetic told him that, given he was off on his measurements of minutes, the days here were six, maybe six and a half hours longer.
Andrew suppressed another yawn and observed thankfully Gabriella, with a puzzled and slightly amused countenance, bringing out the pile of blankets and furs that they’d slept in the last few nights before the hearth.
As his eyes drooped shut, Andrew thought Gabriella nodded thoughtfully at him as she extinguished the remaining lantern in the room, but, arranged cozily among his furs before the crackling hearth fire, he fell under the tempting power of sleep before a chance to contemplate that incident any further presented itself.
“Wake up, Red,” was the good morning greeting that accompanied the elbow nudging him in the ribs. As he drifted back to sleep, Andrew thought vaguely how much he hated being called Red….
That awful elbow.
“Hey, Derrick, Sleeping Beauty here needs a kiss from a prince to wake up.”
Andrew peered through one eye. Rick, of course.
“So what are you waiting for? Pucker up,” retorted Derrick.
Andrew groaned and propped himself up on an elbow.
“It lives,” breathed Rick dramatically.
Andrew pushed Rick out of the way grumpily and sat up, wondering how anyone could be so animated in the morning. Glancing about, he noted that they were the only people in the cabin.
“I could really use a razor,” Derrick sighed, running a hand over a steadily progressing beard.
“How long since you shaved last?” asked Rick, who was supporting his own shadow.
“What’s today, Sunday? Last time was Friday morning, the day we got here.”
“Jeez, I only shave every three days or so,” Rick returned appreciatively.
“Must be nice.”
Andrew, through this exchange, managed to scrape a hand across his own chin inconspicuously and encountered a little stubble himself, strangely enough. Shaving was usually a once a week grooming ritual, if that. He helped himself to the fruit-bread and honey left on the table.
Just then, the girls trooped in with wet hair, returning, he supposed, from the creek where Gabriella bathed during warm weather.
“Wow. Why don’t women dress like that more often?” Rick eyed their red-headed hostess with approval. She wore another set of the same close-fitting brown leathers and a belted tunic, with dark brown leather boots.
Gabriella shot an icy, exasperated look at them, the same kind of kind of in-your-dreams glare that girls bestowed upon men who catcalled and whistled at them. At least something’s universal, mused Andrew dryly.
She motioned quickly for them to get up and accompany her, probably to afford the girls some privacy, he supposed. Surely another lifeless animal wasn’t awaiting their amateur attention, he hoped as he crammed the last of his bread in his mouth and followed Derrick out the door.
Relieved to find their path was not in the direction of the supply shed, Gabriella led them around back of the cabin, where three chopped cords of firewood stood against the back of the lodge in neat stacks, awaiting use. Gabriella then opened a large, cunningly crafted cabinet, built into the back of the lodge in such a way that Andrew would not otherwise have recognized its existence. She drew out one, two, three axes, a hatchet, and… well, he didn’t know what it was. Closing the cabinet, she turned to them. And smiled.
Rick cleared his throat nervously and muttered, “Anybody ever see ’The Chainsaw Massacres?’”
For Andrew’s part, his curiosity overcame his own apprehension, which had settled into the pit of his stomach. He was interested to see what weapons made in a… a world without electricity looked like. Andrew held out his hand for an axe.
She obliged him, smiling encouragingly as she then passed an axe to Rick and Derrick.
His scrutiny found the axe moderately heavy, its wood smooth and its grain fine. Running his hand cautiously over the chill metal, Andrew tested the blade, finding its edge dulled with use. Fascinating to hold such a tool constructed in another world….
“Made in China,” read Rick.
“What? Where? Let me see –” Andrew craned his neck to inspect Rick’s lethal specimen.
“Just kidding,” the tall boy grinned.
“Boy, he sucked you in, Red,” Derrick chuckled.
“Don’t call me Red,” Andrew responded, with a glare for Rick.
Gabriella said something and gestured for them to follow her.
Rick groaned. “No more animals, please.”
Andrew heartily agreed. Skinning that galdor yesterday was one grisly job he hoped never to repeat.
“Well, she didn’t give us any of those hunting knives,” Derrick pointed out hopefully. “What was the word for those?”
“Acru,” Andrew supplied vaguely.
“That doesn’t mean anything. We might have to hack something to pieces,” Rick suggested.
“You have a sick mind.”
“Hey, did you say it was Sunday?” asked Rick as they strolled at an easy pace behind Gabriella into the dense forest.
“Yeah, why? What, did you have a hot date?” Derrick teased.
“With the TV, yeah. The Panthers play Detroit tonight. An awesome game, man, and not a TV anywhere.”
“The Panthers have no chance. I don’t personally like Detroit, but their defense is ten times better than ours is.”
“Yeah, but our offense kicks butt –”
Andrew lost interest in Rick and Derrick’s conversation – he preferred college football anyway. Instead, he examined the hatchet-like weapon he was toting along to wherever Gabriella had been leading them for the past ten minutes. He wondered if such things were created here the same fashion people at home constructed them, by blacksmiths and steel-workers and the like. Was this blade even steel? Were there mines here?
“Hey, where’d she go?”
Andrew glanced up. Gabriella was nowhere to be seen.
“Anyone see where she went? Red? Gabriella…” Rick called.
Andrew stared intently into the nearby bushes and trees all about them but detected no trace of her passing. But she’d been before them less than a minute or two ago, he’d seen her there.
“Oh, great.” Derrick, his brow furrowed with concern, placed his hands on his hips as his eyes searched the surrounding vicinity.
“Gabriella!” called Rick again. “Yo, Gabriellllla….”
“Shut up! You want every wild animal in the forest to know there’s fresh meat waiting for them!” hissed Derrick.
“Listen –” Andrew grabbed Derrick’s arm. He knew he’d just heard something….
The sounds of the forest filled their ears, insects buzzing, birds twittering and flitting from branch to branch, the rustle of leaves in the breeze, with the occasional leaf wafting down to the ground, flickering through the filtered sunlight.
And the sound of a heavy paw crunching the dead leaves on the forest floor. Once. Twice. Three times and getting closer.
Rick swore as Andrew’s heartbeat accelerated.
Derrick looked around wildly, his blue eyes round.
“All right, quick!” he hissed in a stage whisper. “Up this tree! Quick, quick! Now!” he shoved Rick and Andrew toward the designated tree that any kid would have loved to have had in his backyard – easy to climb, easy to fall from….
Rick hauled Andrew painfully up by the arm as his sneakers scrabbled on the rough, uneven bark of the tree. The sounds of the paws grew louder and faster.
“Derrick! Get up here!” yelled Rick, his hand grasping for Derrick’s. Andrew balanced haphazardly against the trunk of the tree as he sought to climb higher without losing his grasp on the branch above him or snapping the wildly waving branch below him.
“Where is it!”
As Derrick gained purchase on the first foothold, a terrible roar reverberated through the woods and a dark brown shape leaped liquidously at the spot Derrick’s foot had just vacated. Terrified, Rick and Derrick scrambled up to the next branch as the beast roared its wrath.
But the branch couldn’t bear the weight of all three of them; it dipped dangerously downward.
There was nothing to do but scream wordlessly and heave himself up to the thick branch above him with his arms and lift his weight off of the branch Derrick and Rick were perched precariously on. How he wished he’d spent a little more time with the weights in his dad’s weight room! Andrew lugged himself up with incredible effort and saw with alarm that the… panther? cougar? had sunk its brutally sharp claws into the tree and gained purchase onto the first foothold. If that thing could climb, then they were doomed–
“Shiiiiiit!” screamed Derrick.
Andrew felt his bladder starting to loosen as the beast roared its omnipotence again, its jaws bare inches away from Derrick and Rick. Cat-like, it swiped a huge paw at Derrick’s dangling foot. Derrick yanked his leg out of the way with mere seconds to spare.
“Bastard!” Rick yelled suddenly and kicked the beast in the jaw with a loud thock! It fought for footing, extending its claws into the bark of the tree, snarled –
None of them dared to breathe.
Andrew, his feet swinging gracelessly in the air above Derrick and Rick, pulled himself up further with a grunt and stared unbelievingly at the branch the animal had just occupied. The sound of blood racing through his temples filled his ears as he searched all around the tree for the cat.
“Holy shit,” breathed Rick, his voice cracking.
“No way –” Derrick trailed off simultaneously.
“Where’d it go?” Rick wanted to know.
Andrew, his nerves jangling beneath his skin, caught sight of a movement on the ground. Panting, he focused in on it and realized that it was a little blue bird, hopping into the middle of a comparatively massive paw print. Stupid bird, there’s a cougar down there….
And then he saw the error of his ways. Their ways.
If an actual cougar had been raging down there, birds wouldn’t still be frolicking about, they’d have long deserted the area. Or silence would ring throughout the trees, rather than birdsong. Same with those elusive wickas Gabriella was always pointing out. And they certainly wouldn’t be sitting on the ground in the immediate vicinity of a cougar.
As he watched, the little bird flew lazily up to a tree across from them. Straight into the cupped hand of their red-haired hostess.
Perched comfortably on a branch several lengths up from their own, Gabriella’s eyes blazed green sparks.
And then her image ripped into Andrew’s mind, furious.
-- You fools! You should be left here to fend for yourselves! But you can’t fend for yourselves!
You can’t even pay attention! You laugh and disport so loudly you alert every carnivore to your presence, and you don’t even take note of where you’re going in the event that you should need to find your own way back! --
She shot desperate images of wolf packs surrounding them, cougars attacking them, strange bands of armed people accosting them, of their being lost with no notion of where they were….
Finally the mental tirade ended. Gabriella jumped fluidly down from branch to branch until she stood on the ground impatiently, glaring greenly up at them. Tossing her braid over her shoulder, she gestured disgustedly for them to descend from the tree in which they still roosted in all their ungainly glory.
Clumsily, humbly, silently, they dropped to the ground one by one. She stepped forward to Derrick, scowling at him. Was she going to slap him? No, instead Andrew watched as Gabriella placed a slim, tanned hand beneath Derrick’s whisker-ridden chin and closed his mouth with an audible click.
Andrew’s head pulsed with the impact of Gabriella’s mental tirade. That was something he had purposely neglected to speculate on, this... telepathy thing. He’d only entertained credence in what he believed to be factual, tangible evidence that had documentary proof. There had been times when he had intuited his way through situations and hence he held a little belief in intuition, but when it came right down to it, if pressed to declare a yea or a nay on either of the two, he’d have called intuition instinct.
Now, fully one third of a guilty and sheepish looking threesome, he knew undeniably such a thing existed. What he couldn’t explain, or rationalize, or even account for, was the cougar. Andrew’s brain could only accommodate so many previously nonexistent concepts at a time, and… magic? (Yeah, right). Was not on the list.
Gabriella turned a keen gaze on him that seemed all at once challenging and omniscient.
“Man, this sucks.” Rick threw his axe down in the leaves and sat on the fallen tree he’d been hacking up laboriously.
Andrew allowed himself a small smile as he split his log. Rick was the only one bearing a grudge for the little scene Gabriella had manufactured. It hadn’t helped that Derrick and Andrew had continually recapped the event, laughing uproariously whenever they pictured Rick yelling his war-cry and kicking the cougar in the head.
Andrew was dealing with the fact that there had never been a cougar slowly, regardless of Gabriella’s painstaking charades explaining what she’d done. In fact, there had never even been a bird, she’d conjured up the same little bird reposing contentedly in the palm of her hand before his amazed eyes.
Rick thought it had been a cruel thing to do and if she had wanted to make a point, why didn’t she just say so like any normal human being? Andrew tactfully neglected to point out that Gabriella was hardly normal, nor was their situation. Of course, he thought with another small smile, Rick had waited until Gabriella had returned to the lodge to voice his churning opinions.
Andrew and Derrick both continued good-naturedly to consider it a lesson well-learned and tried to convince Rick that there was no better way to get across the meaning of survival than to actually run for your life. Rick pouted for a while despite their attempts at persuasion, but eventually his sunny nature and extemporaneous jokes reigned supreme.
“Don’t let her see you with that axe on the ground,” warned Derrick.
Yes, that had been another frustration of Gabriella’s. Not only did you never, ever discard a weapon or weapon-like object in such a disparaging manner, but instead of abandoning their axes so hastily and running as they had, why had they not instead brought the axes up the tree with them, thereby establishing a means of defense aside from their own extremities?
Shame on you, bad children, thought Andrew, chuckling to himself.
Rick stretched and wiped the sweat off of his face. Picking up his axe again, he started singing.
“Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go, with a – hey, you know what?” Rick interrupted himself with a trace of his old humor and remarked, “I think she’s holding us captive. You know, as slaves? Maybe she’ll make me her love-slave.”
Derrick snickered and told Rick to dream on as he lobbed his log on top of the pile he’d accumulated. Andrew watched Derrick arch his heavily muscled back and decided he’d have to build up his own muscles if he expected to survive here… after all, as they had just experienced first-hand, it truly was survival of the fittest.