When Earth-Breather arrived in the clearing where the Snowy Barren village had been, his eyes sought out the south witch. The medicine man, his hair now more gray than black, had been gone for a lengthy stretch of time. He had ties to the Reindeer People to the east and had been hoping to recruit more help from the spirit-speakers there.
To his great disappointment, none of them had been willing to return with him, but they had given him a sizeable stock of herbs and powders that could not be found locally, as well as a few new tricks to aid him in his travels.
The Black Talon man did not spy Fawn at first, although he did catch sight of the wendigo, lingering along the tree-line. Seeing the monster unaccompanied by the spirit-chaser made Earth-Breather more than a little nervous. Especially when he heard he frantic cries of the woman’s kept spirits, begging her to rise and protect them from the beast.
It was only then that the medicine man noticed where the spirit-devourer was headed. He had not noticed Fawn at first, where she was sprawled on the ground at the edge of the clearing. He raced over to the fallen shamaness, beating the monster over there with ritual spear in hand, and he planted the base of the wooden weapon in the ground beside her. Then he used one of the new chants that he had learned from the Reindeer People. The spear began to glow, infusing Fawn’s kept spirits with light. The wendigo, almost upon them, pulled up short with a howl of terror. It then turned and bounded away into the forest.
Earth-Breather knelt beside the south witch, his heart-pounding, and carefully turned her over. She was still breathing, but she was pale, and looked much thinner than he remembered her, not that she had had much weight to her to begin with. Her lips were dry and cracked and large dark circles rested beneath her eyes. Her hair was brittle and starting to gray, although not nearly as silver as the medicine man’s.
Grabbing his waterskin from his belt and raising her head, he lifted it to her mouth and forced her to drink. She coughed and gagged at first, but eventually drank hungrily. She did not stop until he pulled it away from her, the Black Talon man worried that she would drink too much in one sitting and make herself sick. He was thankful that he had managed to revive her.
“Where’s the wendigo?” Fawn asked hoarsely.
“It was threatening your spirits,” Earth-Breather informed her. “I had to make it leave, to spare them. What happened to you?” As he spoke, Earth-Breather helped her into a sitting position. He brushed the hair from her face Fawn cringed at first, never comfortable with another’s touch. No one but Lariat and Darksky had ever reacted to her without some sense of repulsion. The medicine man, however seemed completely at ease, even as his fingers made contact with her scars. After a moment, she relaxed again.
“I’m too old to keep doing this,” she sighed. “That’s what’s wrong. It was difficult enough to keep up with it when I was younger, but the wendigo’s getting faster and stronger, and I’m getting slower and weaker. I can’t do this anymore, Earth-Breather. I’m so tired…”
He could see she was fading again. Supporting her with his shoulder, he dug for a restorative tonic from his pouch.
“Here,” he offered. “Take this. It will help.” He waited until she had followed his instructions, and seemed to be rallying, before he continued. “You can’t give up just yet, Fawn. I’ve tried, I really have. I went as far as making the trip east and following the Reindeer People’s migratory path as they followed their herds in order to track them down, but I haven’t found the four others that we need to make this work. None of their shamans would come back with me. To make matters worse, Fatal-Sting has started talking of raiding the Ice River Tribe. He believes we have recovered sufficiently since the raid on this village, and that we now have the numbers so that the odds will be in our favour. I have managed to deter him so far, but I don’t know how much longer it will work. If we have another massacre in the region, and you aren’t following the wendigo, I can guarantee you that it will manifest, and then nobody will be safe.”
“Three others,” the south witch mumbled dizzily. “You haven’t found the three others that we need.”
“You are exhausted, aren’t you? You forget – I told you we need six who can speak to the spirits, not five,” the medicine man reminded her.
“I know,” she said. “The news I have for you is not all bad. Some of the Snowy Barren Tribe survived the massacre. Less than a dozen who were not part of the splinter tribes, but fortunately that group included their shamaness, Silverwing.”
“But I thought you told me she had fallen deaf and blind to the spirits. Of what use will she be to us? We can’t use a broken spirit-speaker. We need ones who are functional.”
“She is. When I last saw her, at the Sacred Grove of the Ancients, her powers had been restored. She had been forgiven for her transgressions. She had made amends, and I got her to commit to helping us, in exchange for assisting in the birth of her youngest child. I only wish I had had some means of recruiting the other two shamans there to my cause as well, or even either of their apprentices, but I’m afraid that I was unsuccessful, despite my efforts.”
“I thought you said that you had an apprentice who had taken his mark? Was he not willing to assist you?” Earth-Breather asked
The scarred woman shook her head. “He would appear to be more broken than Silverwing was. He can hear the spirits well enough. He can even see the wendigo, but he has become malicious and cruel. He seems to relish the suffering of others. Silverwing’s mate was in the process of begging him for his assistance when I arrived at the central clearing. Viper had refused him, and I could swear he was enjoying watching the man squirm. A shaman of any worth would never have done that. We are supposed to help others if we are able to. He does not feel any obligation to me either, despite all that I have taught him. He only serves himself, and in some respects his own small tribe, because they are a part of his agenda, apparently. Even if I could manage to convince him to join us, we could never truly trust him. He might sabotage out efforts for his own entertainment. I really don’t think that Viper is an option.”
“And the other three that you mentioned?” the medicine man pressed. “What of them?”
“One of the apprentices, Starling, was Viper’s apprentice. I would not be surprised if she still remains under his influence today. I doubt she would have breathed without his permission. She was a malleable young thing, and Viper clearly took great pleasure in that. The spirits forbid that she ever start to develop a will of her own. If she were to stand up to him, there would be trouble. Viper lusts for power and anyone who threatens that power will be made to pay, I suspect,” Fawn said sadly.
“So she remains a possibility then? Someday, perhaps? If we can remove her from Viper’s influence?”
“I would hope so, but I can’t guarantee that,” the south witch replied. “If she can ever be salvaged from Viper and his unpleasant ways, who knows how damaged she will be by that point. I should have never allowed him to take his mark, but I felt even more uncomfortable, at that time, with the idea of leaving my family without a shaman when I had to start running again. My intentions were sound, but my judgment was lacking. That has happened a few times, I’m afraid. I shouldn’t have agreed to take Possum’s ghost to her brother, and bind her to him, despite the demands of the ancients. I should have stayed with Lariat and the Bears when I first encountered them, when I saw they did not have a shaman to protect them, but there was conflict there at the time. I did not want to be a part of it. If I had been better able to predict the consequences, I’d like to think that I would have made better choices.”
“You said that there were two others. What about them?” Earth-Breather asked.
“Badger and Kit? I couldn’t get near them, and I doubt I’ll be able to as long as Far-Runner lives. Kit seemed very submissive to his leader’s will, when he wasn’t protecting his apprentice that is, and Badger is Far-Runner’s daughter. I don’t think that she’ll be willing to disobey him for my sake. Far-Runner forbade interaction with the other groups. As long as that ruling stands, Kit and Badger will be beyond our reach,” Fawn said, exasperated. “I’m sorry, Earth-Breather. I tried too, but we are still short three spirit-speakers.”
“You were more successful than I was. There is always the Ice River Tribe, but I can hardly approach them. The moment they see what looks like a Black Talon approaching, they’ll probably go on the offensive and take me out before I can become a proper threat, without asking questions. I’m afraid the prejudice that would elicit a response as a result of my appearance would only hamper my chances at recruiting one of their kind,” he confessed, dejected.
“Do you think my chances would be any better, considering my appearance? I rarely encounter anybody who doesn’t respond to me with fear and/or revulsion. I needed my chosen mark, I would not have been able to chase the wendigo, or bind as many spirits to me without it, but it makes diplomacy more than a little difficult. I would never have gone to live with the Tribe of the Bear if they had not sought me out, and if Lariat had not been so welcoming. She wasn’t like the others. She never saw me for this,” the scarred woman gestured at her face. “She saw past this, and recognized some value in me. Darksky grew up seeing me this way. He never had a reason not to accept it.”
“I know this is asking a lot from you, but I need you to keep chasing the wendigo,” Earth-Breather proposed. Before Fawn could object, he interrupted her in mid-breath. “I’m not asking you to go alone. I’ll go with you. We can run in shifts, taking turns so that each of us has the opportunity to rest. I know I can’t expect you to do this much longer, but I’m not ready to give up yet. We’ll go for as long as we can, and maybe things will sort themselves out. Maybe Starling will disentangle herself from Viper’s grasp. Maybe Kit and Badger will find their freedom as well, if Far-Runner is overthrown, or slain. We have to give it as much time as we can. Can I count on you for that?”
“I’ve done it the better part of my life. If you’re willing to help, I’ll keep going as long as I can,” she agreed. She had never had anyone run with her before.
“Good.” He pulled the spear from the ground, and took some rations from his bag. “Stay here. Eat, rest, and when you feel up to it, you can catch up with me. I’ll take the first turn.” With that he veered to face the direction in which he had seen the wendigo rush off and darted into the forest.
Fawn watched him go, unsure how she felt about this recent turn of events. Her life would be different now, but in many ways the same. Earth-Breather’s idea had bought them some more time, but just how much exactly remained an unknown.