The waste of it all hung heavy on his heart as he crested the hill and froze. From the protection of the tree line, he could see where the trail had started and the man who had caused it. He quickly ducked back down behind the rise and took a deep breath.
The enemy was still there, smugly surveying his handiwork. Tasunke closed his eyes and forced his heart rate to slow down. He should have known. Looking back the way they'd come it all made sense now. The stranger had been attacked by the enemy– perhaps on some instinctual level he'd sought out Witashnah. He tried to gather his thoughts, then signaled his brother.
"The enemy is below," he signed.
Wicasa nodded and, then signed back. "Watch him. I must finish here."
Tasunke watched as his brother went back. Then focused on his task. He carefully inched forward until he had a good view of the clearing below. It took all his resolve to remain there when he saw a young man roughly dragged from the cabin.
They had found the stranger's brothers.
Unable to do anything else– he watched.
Finally his brother finished and joined him on the ridge. He could tell from his brother's reaction he'd come to the same conclusion. There were too many of them.
"Go– get the others." Wicasa's voice was soft, but the tension in his voice was clear.
Tasunke shook his head. "No, I'll stay."
Wicasa smiled. "You will have your chance little brother, but as much as I hate to admit it– you are faster, and we will need help. Especially if the other is here."
Tasunke's face tightened, reflecting the inner battle. Finally he nodded. "Be careful... I ... can feel another presence nearby."
Wicasa rested a hand on his brother's shoulder, his expression softening. "It has to be you," he finally said.
Tasunke nodded, then turned and headed back the way they had come. He knew his brother was right– but he didn't have to like it.
Witashnah shifted wearily. The stranger– Geoff...was doing better but she knew it was only temporary. She smiled as she remembered the moment they shared while she was healing him. It was as if she'd known him all her life if only for an instant.
In that instance she knew him, knew his name, knew his dreams. She looked down at him as he slept– his head resting on her lap. His peaceful expression belied the battle raging within his body. A battle he was doomed to lose.
She eased her hands under his head and prepared to move him when she heard Tasunke's worried call to the warriors. He'd found the enemy.
She froze as Geoff opened his eyes and looked up at her. The pain was gone, and she could see the determination had taken its place.
"I must go..."
She looked at him, confused. His lips hadn't moved... had they?
She closed her eyes and nodded. He was right. There was nothing she could do to protect him, and this was the battle he had to fight. In her heart she wished him well.
"It must be done," he answered as if he'd heard her.
She watched as he struggled to his feet, then turned offering her a hand up. She gave him a slight smile and took his hand. Again she felt a power between them. It was an irresistible force.
When she smiled at him, she could see a pained wistfulness reflected in his eyes. He knew.
"We must fight him."
She wasn't sure anymore if it was her thoughts or his voice. But the truth of the words were clear. The enemy would destroy everything they valued. Somewhere in her heart, Witashnah knew that his life had never matter to him as much as that of his brothers.
With them safe– he could go peacefully.
As she headed towards the doorway he froze, pulling her away from the door.
She turned the question, "what" clear in her eyes.
He gave her a sad smile. "Stay here– stay safe... if anything were to happen to you..."
She gently rested her hand on his heart and closed her eyes.
‘Come back to me...' the thought came unbidden.
"I will always come back to you," he promised.
Witashnah opened her eyes, startled. He had heard her. How she did not know, but he had heard her.
Geoff gave her a wistful smile then kissed her on the forehead. "Be safe."
Tasunke looked up in surprised as the stranger exited the tent. The last time he'd seen the man he was lost in the throws of the enemy's curse. He could still see the signs of exhaustion in the way he moved, but there was a determined set to his shoulders.
He was startled when the man turned and took both of Witashnah's hands in his.
Without realizing it, he was on his feet, ready to deal with this interloper– then he saw the look in his sister's eyes. Instead of anger or shock, he saw love there– love mingled with sorrow.
He bowed his head knowing there was nothing any of them could do for either of them.
"We must go," he said finally.
The stranger gave Witashnah's hands a gentle squeeze and joined the others. Tasunke saw the look in the man's eyes and nodded. He took one last look at his sister and then focused on the mission ahead.
Geoff could feel it growing stronger again, the division between himself-- who he was and what he was becoming. He didn't want to die– but he wanted even less to become the toxic shaman's creature. The only thing that mattered was his brothers. The thought of Davy, or Joey... or any of them going through this was too much for him to bear.
He noticed how the others kept their distance. That was fine. Without Witashnah's magic nearby it was only a matter of time before the shaman's curse would once again ravage his body, and spread to those around him. They all knew it.
He was simply grateful that they'd allowed him to take part in the rescue attempt. As they drew nearer he understood why he'd been included. He was not the shaman's first victim. Another wondered the woods– one who spread the disease and decay... and enjoyed it.
That thought made him shudder. Would he welcome it? Would he allow himself to destroy the world that She protected? He could accept his death– but the thought of hurting her, hurting those she loved...
Once his brothers were safe, he would do what he knew needed to be done. None of them needed to watch him die– to watch him change. At least he could spare them that, and see to it that there was nothing left for the creature to control.
He took a deep breath and froze-- it was near now, tracking them. He signaled the others.
There was no sign for what was following them– the closest he could come was enemy but it was so much more. It was evil– a corruptor... When Tasunke looked at him, Geoff closed his eyes– he knew how to describe it.
He pointed to himself and indicated the future– it was what he would become. Tasunke froze, a mask of fear and regret show in his eyes.
Geoff studied him for a moment, not understanding.
"My best friend," Tasunke signed. "My blood brother."
Geoff noticed the way the younger man distanced himself from the sign for brother. He nodded. They man knew all too well what was happening inside him.
"I will stand between you and him," Geoff promised.
Tasunke nodded and then pointed down the trail. "We will be there soon. As you protect us, so we shall protect your brothers."
Geoff nodded, then met the young man's gaze. "Don't let me hurt any of them..."
When the young man nodded, Geoff could see the respect and sorrow in his eyes. "If it comes to that– it will be quick."
Geoff closed his eyes and let his breath out slowly. "Thank you."
Tasunke gave Geoff a sad smile. It would be over soon, they both knew it.
Wicasa stiffened slightly as he heard the others approach. He was used to the sounds his brother and friends made, but he sensed another with them. The man's footsteps were quiet enough, but there was a difference to them. He moved to a more steady rhythm, pausing at odd intervals as if it was an afterthought rather than second nature.
It was the stranger.
He nodded to himself and then concentrated on the cabin below. The guards were stationed in an even spacing– patrolling a set area, with no overlap. It was clear that they didn't expect trouble, but that they were not taking any chances.
Of course they didn't expect anything– they hadn't expected the stranger to have made it as far as he had. He should have changed by now– become their ally's servant.
That gave him an idea. If the stranger could convince them that he was the enemy's servant– he might be able to get them in close enough to free the others. From what he'd seen, it was the only way to get close enough to do anything– that or attack from behind the river.
Whatever they did, it would have to be soon, and fast. If they gave the enemy any time to react the stranger's brothers would be dead, worse, they would be his...
He alternated between watching the guards and listening for the others. By the time his brother and the others arrived, he'd worked out a plan.
Geoff's eyes widened in shock and horror as Wicasa explained his plan. After fighting the shaman's curse, after everything he'd been through...
"It has to be this way, don't you see," Wicasa stated. "The enemy will know if you are his or not– if you go to him, it will allow us to get close enough to help your brothers."
Geoff took a deep breath as he searched desperately for another way. Anything that would not mean surrender– he would become the Shaman's creature soon enough, but to willingly let go of everything he was, to purposely give up, even to save his brothers.
There had to be another way, but there wasn't. Not unless he wanted to watch them endure what he had gone through.
"Do you know what you're asking him to do?" Tasunke asked in a hushed tone.
Wicasa gave his brother a grim nod. He knew all too well what he was asking.
Geoff bowed his head his shoulders sagging there was a tone of surrender to his voice. "Promise me– that you will not allow me to hurt anyone."
Tasunke tensed slightly as he caught the sadness in the man's eyes. Although he didn't say it, his message was clear– ‘don't let me hurt her.' He reached for Geoff's shoulder, but he flinched away.
"Promise me," he repeated more vehemently.
Wicasa met his gaze and nodded. "I will not allow you to harm those we protect."
Geoff looked up at him, all too aware of Wicasa's meaning. The innocent would be protected, those who worked with the enemy would not. Geoff gave him a haunted look. No one deserved this fate. No one.
"My duty is to my people," Wicasa told him. "Then to innocents– your brothers..."
Geoff nodded, forcing himself to think of his brothers. "I... tell them... I'm sorry..."
Geoff gave them all one last look and then moved forward. Once he was clear of Witashnah's people, he fell to his knees. "Forgive me..."
His last conscious thoughts were of Her, and what could have been.
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