Battling a Tree

by Charles Matthias

Michael kicked with his stubby legs at the snow that lay like a blanket over the upper slopes of the mountains. The glistening whiteness sprinkled about in a cloud of particles until it settled back down gently without a sound upon the trees, bushes, and rocks that were in abundance. He continued to stomp through the cold, the wind on his face and fur. It would not take Lindsey and the others long to discover that he had abandoned them at the flume, but he did not care either. Lindsey had worn a shirt made from black and red cloth to mock him, and the others had all thought it a hilarious joke.

Staring back behind him he looked at the wide trail his thick tail was leaving behind him. Certainly they would be upon him any moment now for it was not snowing. It wasn't like he blended into the foliage either. His black and red fur organized in neat squares no bigger than his paw - not to mention the skin beneath which was a creamy pasty color - stood in stark contrast to the white forest floor. This was fur that Pascal had given him as a sort of experiment in her bizarre and twisted fascinations. The mail shirt did indeed cover up the most of it, but it was slight, and only for cursory protection. He also had worn his pantaloons, but still his arms and head proclaimed his plaid nature.

The past few weeks of his life had been quite upheaving. First he'd become a beaver after a month in limbo wondering what Metamor had in store for him. Then he'd found his way onto the timber crews under the tutelage of the amazingly burlesque Lindsey. And finally he had sorted out his differences with Pascal and had nearly slept with her on a couple of occassions. His infatuation with her had persuaded him to try things her way for a while. He'd shown up naked per her request to the poetry reading and to the Gnawer's Meeting. He'd even made use of her morph ring - a most peculiar device.

The grand finale and experiment had been to try her potion which would modify his skin and fur colors just as hers had been. Pascal's obsession with colorings had at first turned him off and gave him the impression that she was a freak. Why he had decided to drink that potion when he knew that his own fur would be painted anew he had no idea. Perhaps he'd felt like taking a chance, or perhaps he was just still upset that he was so awkward looking as a beaver. Whatever it had been made no difference now, not when he looked like a a ridiculous and tasteless tapestry.

Kicking another pile of snow, Michael felt his anger and frustration only increase. The realization that his condition was now permanent had been the last straw. Her confession to him had forever put a wall between them once again. He did not want to be a freak, he wished people would stop looking at him and mocking him. He wanted to ascend to the highest peak, throw up his arms to the sky, and shout at the top of his lungs, "Why me?"

Michael put his paw against a nearby tree, his short stubby legs sore from his hike. He could feel the anger bubbling up from inside of him, demanding release. He began pounding against the bark with his paws, slowly at first, but faster, and harder. A cry of rage began to gurgle forth from his throat, growing in intensity with each passing moment. Finally he let loose his anger, and began biting and gnawing ferociously at the bark, beating it with his hands, forcing his head into the tree's vitals.

Once more, time seemed irrelevant, and all of his problems became quite remote as his entire focus came to felling this tree. The rodential instincts kicked in, and his body bcame full of the excitement and the need to chew. He circled the tree, his hands becoming more pawlike as he unconsciously shifted to his a more feral posture. His tail flapped up and down, sending sprays of white powder in all directions. The timber creaked under the stress, branches waving back and forth in the shifting winds. Michael's vision was full of bark and wood, the sweet taste filling his mouth as his tongue pushed the bits out, spilling to the ground.

He finally felt the rage pass, he lifted his head up, and turned away from the object of his ferocity. Michael felt the anger flow from him, even as he stared down at his black and red arms. Pascal had done this to him out of love. It was her way, and he had accepted so that she might know how much he cared for her. He tried hard to share her interests, but they were just simply not for him. No matter how much he wanted to be mad at her, he just could not bring himself to stay angry for long. He should get back to Lindsey and the others; they would be worried about him.

Michael turned to leave but the sudden cracking and snapping made him turn about in surprise. With a start it became quite obvious to him that he had forgotten to push the tree over. He had gnawed through its base, but had left it perched precariously upon its remaining foundation. The wind was blowing in his direction, and he cried out in fear as the tree toppled over directly at him. His little legs were insufficient to propel him far. He rolled over onto his back just in time to see the massive shaft crash down upon the snow and him.

In that moment, he had to be thankful that there still was snow left on the ground, for it cushioned the impact and prevented him from being instantly killed. However that moment was gone as quickly as it came for the pain of having the trunk slam into his chest and stomach, snapping ribs and crushing his belly caused him to yearn to scream out. Yet there was no air in his lungs, and he could barely breath in to speak. He gasped beneath the structure, pushing at it with his hands, trying to roll it back from him.

Michael felt his eyes bursting and his brain shattering in his skull. He squirrmed about as much as he could, looking in every direction, the sky swirling overhead and the snow, everywhere the snow! He pushed until his muscles were overcome by the pain, the metal links of the mail biting in his skin and tearing up his fur. The large stump of the tree gave a bit, rolling towards his legs which were gyrating out of control. He looked up at it, trying to see what it was, trying to comprehend what had happened to him. He pushed against the bark, his paws slipping and slidding against it.

His mind knew only one thing amidst all of the pain and agony that his chest reported to him. That if he did not move this tree he would suffocate beneath it. Already his vision was blurring and the tree became just a mass of white and dark brown splotches. The sky was a distant memory, it's vagueness incomprehensible to him.

Michael's paws clutched and scrambled over the bark's surface, searching for some leverage, something that might give him a chance to live. They found such purchase in the form of a knot that was protruding slightly from the tree's surface. He put both paws to it, trying to hold onto what sanity he had left. He heaved, his shoulders aching, and his chest screaming with each motion tearing further into his muscles. The tree proved resilient, and gave only slightly, rolling firmly back into place over his chest and belly with each try.

Michael could barely see anything, his mind so wrapped up with the constant fire throughout his chest. He gasped as he pushed, his lungs desperately needing air. Putting his back into the ground, he pushed one last time, not letting the pain balk him as it had done before. Praying to every god he knew, even the one of Charles's Southlands, he pushed at the knot on the tree, the callouses on his paws tearing at the effort.

Finally, with a groan and cry of brief ecstacy, the tree lugubriously and reluctantly rolled off his chest and onto his stubby legs. The snow was deep enough to prevent them from suffering anything but minor strain. The tree however stopped there solidly locking into place. Michael tried to sit up to push the tree off of his legs entirely, but the pain in his chest increased ten fold and made him fall back to the snow. He lay there, breathing slowly, his eyes blinking away the darkness and cloudiness that had begun to settle over his mind.

With each breath however came pain. It was not unlike the pain he had felt when Chief Tathom had exercised him that first day. However, he knew this was life-threatening. However he could not force himself to get to his feet. He could not bear it. At the very least he could breath, and that was enough.

"Is anybody out there?" He called out at a whisper. He tried to scream, but he could not get enough air to even speak normally. Why weren't they searching for him? His trail was there for all to see; they should have been well on their way by now. He could not believe Lindsey would abandon him like this, not after these last few weeks.

Though he had spent most of his evenings with Pascal, and most certainly his days off, Lindsey and he had always gone to the Deaf Mule to share a drink or two. He liked to think of himself as good friends to the much bigger man, though Lindsey had shared little other than old stories of Metamor Keep and the timber crews. Michael had told him many things about himself that he usually kept secret. He had revealed the fate of his family, and of the sorrow it had wrought. He had told him of his love for Pascal before any other; similarly he had revelaed his contempt for that ruffian interloper Scratch.

Yet still Lindsey had worn that shirt to match Michael's new fur. He bristled at the insult, and the laughs the other members of the timber crew had poured out upon him. He wished it had been them who had been under the tree when it fell, and not he. Yet, without them, he would die out here in the woods on this mountain slope all alone. That thought sent a shiver down his spine, and cooled his anger.

The wet snow about him was slick with blood already. He peered down at his chest and saw that the mail shirt was sopping wet with the crimson stickiness. Michael gingerly pulled at the ring mail, catching his flesh in it as he did so. Wincing, he pulled it open and apart with his paws. The undershirt was ruined completely, torn in several places. He pulled each aside, peering down as best he could. There were several small gashes in his belly; the fur there was all red.

Thankfully, they were only bleeding. Lindsey had told of tales during the Battle of Three Gates in which he had seen men fall to the ground with their stomachs split and their intestines drooling from the gaping wounds as they futily tried to hold them in with their hands. The thought of loosing his entrails upon the ground revolted him, and he gagged on his breath, coughing and spitting blood out through his muzzle. The taste of it upon his tongue was bitter like ashes. He spit it out of his mouth onto the snow.

The cold about him was quick to permeate his body. The high lofty branches of the trees, these still without leaves, sprinkled snow upon him as the wind shook the branches. He blinked as they settled upon his blunt face. He sniffed at them, their particularly dreamy odor caressing his senses. He saw the bright blue sky far above; the clouds were a blurry whiteness against the azure firmament. Behind him the crest of the rocky mountain towered above. The white peak pierced the sky, its point far above where normal men would ever go. It was a place for creatures of the air to survey that which was below. He wished to touch it, to feel its splendor in his paws.

Michael lay in a stupor for some time, just staring up at the trees and slopes and sky as the sun passed over him and moved along its daily course. The one thought that did come to his mind with any regularity was that of a certain porcupine. Her quills moved and swayed as her small eyes stared at him, beckoning to him. He saw her own stubby legs and her own chest and her own multicolored fur. She was a strange one, yet each time he thought of her his heart beat a little faster. No matter how much the pain took his mind away from reality, she was his anchor into the world.

He held his paws over his wounds, his legs aching from the strain, but his chest was going numb. He could not really feel it anymore, and for that he was glad. He still could barely speak in more than a whisper, and had long since given up calling out to his far off companions. They would come or they would not. It did not really matter as long as he could think of Pascal and be with her. They danced together and they ran about through the woods naked together. They lied together in the sunshine, and in the darkness by a silverly lake with the moon gazing down upon them. She made his fur different colors, and made them so permanently.

He cried at the last, realizing that it was so. She had thoughtlessly done this to him, never realizing that he might not actually want it. Yet Michael could not put a name to his feelings for her. They were so mixed. At the same moment he wanted to hold her as tightly as one could a porcupine and he wanted never to see her again. He cried even more at that, unable to exrpess himself or to know what he really wanted. Finally, the anger melted away, washed out of him by each tear and all he wanted was to be with her again. Michael knew it would not last forever, that his other more baser self would return, but at the moment, with all of his pain and numbness, he just wanted to be with her.

The sudden sound of bushes being disturbed brought his gaze to look back the way he had come. Standing against the sunlight, dark and indistinct was a group of figures pointing. He saw them coming his way, obscured by the sunlight, but he saw them nonetheless. His rescue was at hand, and he cried out in his loudest voice to them. They were grunting, possibly from exertion, but there was something unsettling about the sound of their voices. It was guturral, almost animalistic. Yet so many of the Keeper's were animals that he was able to pass off his concerns for another moment.

Once they stepped out from behind the sun to get closer, he could see the green sheen of their skin, and the hatred in their eyes. These were Lutins, and there was blood on their claws. Their jaws opened in a cry of rage and they dove to drive their talons into his soft flesh. Michael screamed, finding voice against the pain that had overwhelmed him in that moment of singularly brobdinagian terror.

Then the first Lutin fell forward, a timberman's axe protruding squarely from his back. The second Lutin turned with a screech of purest bile and hatred and lunged at the looming figure that had just crested the ridge. Two others came over behind the first, none as tall. And from the genreal outline of their shape, he could see that it was a group of Keepers. Michael watched, his body still shaking from the fright, as the second Lutin was cut to pieces by the trio.

"Michael! Dearest gods, what has happened to you?" It was Lindsey's burly voice. The big man kneeled down next to Michael's broken body, putting a cautious hand to the wounded chest and belly. Michael blinked, the man's face fading in and out. Lindsey looked back to the other two, and then at the tree pinning his legs. "Help me move this thing!" he cried out, putting his hands beneath the trunk.

Michael was only dimly aware that the tree was off of him. The last thing he heard before passing into unconsciousness was Lindsey's worried voice. "You're going to be all right. We'll get you to Coe. Help me with him, and watch his chest. You'll be all right, Michael."

There were voices about him when he woke. He could hear them indistinctly through the fog that had come over his mind. His chest was tight, and there was a soreness in his legs that he could not explain. Something lay a top him, smothering him. He tried to claw his wayout of the depths of the fog, but it seemed to go on forever and ever. The further he got towards the dim light, the more pain he seemed to be in. Resolutely he pushed onwards, blinking and swinging from side to side as his paws swept away the fog before him.

His eyes opened to find himself in his own room. There were three people there; Chief Tathom, scraping his hooves on the ground and chatting with the raccoon healer Coe. Lindsey was standing by the bed, putting a big hand down upon his shoulder to prevent him from getting up.

"He's awake," Lindsey said in relief. Coe turned in surprise, and quickly scampered over to the bedside, and peered deeply and probingly all over Michael's face and chest. Michael followed the raccoon's ministrations and saw that his chest was wrapped completely in bandages. The raccoon took a claw and gently poked him in several places.

"That hurts," Michael winced as the healer did his work.

"Two of your ribs are broken. You're going to have to stay in bed for at least a week, maybe longer. If things get worse, I'll have the Lightbringer take a look at it. You are very lucky they found you. You lost a lot of blood, and it took thirty stitches to sew you back up. If you'd been out there any longer, you would have needed a grave." Coe's voice was stern, but comforting to hear. Michael wasn't sure if he wanted to even move. One week of bed rest sounded really nice.

"Pascal?" He asked suddenly.

"She's on her way," Lindsey assured him.

Tathom patted him comfortingly on the shoulder with one hoof-like hand. "That is why we always go in teams, my boy. We would have found you sooner had we not been set upon by a group of Lutins. It is a very dangerous place out there, even with the patrols." He looked to the raccoon for a moment and then went on. "I'm sure in a couple weeks you be back out there with the rest of us. We'll save you a spot when we take the logs down the flume." The bull grinned widely, and then excused himself from the room.

"I think my job here is done for now. If the pain ever comes back, just call me." Coe's eyes smiled brightly through the mask of fur, and then he too left the room.

Lindsey sat on the bed, the offensive shirt still upon his chest. He smiled grimly. "I'm sorry. I did not know that it would hurt you so to wear this."

Michael blinked at the shirt, staring at it."I'm just not sure who I am yet. I didn't react well."

Lindsey patted the beaver upon the shoulder. The big man then reached down to the floor, and pulled out two mazers and a large cask of ale. His big red beard dangled over the bottle. "Care to share a drink?"

"But Pascal will be here soon."

"This won't take that long." He grinned widely. Michael sighed, and took one of the mazers in his paw as Lindsey poured out the ale. It tasted warm and smooth as he took his first sip. By the third it filled his body with a sense of uplifting contentment.

Lindsey stripped the shirt from his chest, and drank alongside him. "So, do you think you will be all right?"

Michael nodded, taking another drink. "Yes, I'll survive."

Lindsey chortled throatily. "I knew it! You are quite a man!"

Michael could not help but feel better about himself and his situation. Perhaps something could be done about the color of his fur. Perhaps Pascal would find a way to change it back. With that thought in mind, he drank amicably with his fellow timbersman.