A Measure of Trust: Part Three
Several nights later, Maijitesa and Meseni returned to the Haunted Woods, and Meseni sat between his shoulders as if nothing had ever happened. Maijitesa was glad Meseni had not protested; he had been worried his little petpet might develop a fear of their favorite place in all of Neopia. He knew Meseni was tougher than he looked, and hoped that he would trust Maijitesa to protect him from whatever might arise, but the concern was there. They stayed far away from the place they had encountered Ticherai, as well as the location of the mutating pool, and Meseni seemed undisturbed.
They passed the Brain Tree (ignoring his pleas to find out when Thomas Kyrii died) and the hedge maze, and once again found themselves in an unfamiliar part of the woods. The Haunted Woods was large, and even Maijitesa did not know all of its nooks, crannies, and hidden spots.
Suddenly, he noticed that the forest surrounding them had gone silent. Even in the deepest-buried parts of the Woods, there were still noises, though they might be faint. Aside from his own breathing, Maijitesa could hear nothing. In fact, the silence seemed almost a physical thing, a thickening of the air all around them. He felt his muscles tensing of their own accord. He had never heard the woods this quiet. Something was wrong.
"Meseni?" Maijitesa whispered. His own voice sounded strange in the leaden air. He could still feel the Ona on his back, and even as he spoke the petpet inched further forward and held onto the end of his mane with one paw.
Maijitesa lifted his muzzle, trying to catch a scent, any scent. For a moment, there was nothing... then, a familiar smell.
Meseni sensed it too. He hissed, body going rigid, and dug the claws of all four paws into Maijitesa's skin.
"Stay calm," Maijitesa said quietly. Then he heard it: a soft thrashing noise. He took a few steps forward, ears pricked, trying to locate the source. Meseni made an odd squeaking noise. What are you doing? he seemed to say, urgently tugging on Maijitesa's mane. Turn back!
"Something is very wrong here, Meseni," Maijitesa replied to the Ona's unspoken words, and kept going. Gradually, the sound got louder, and that familiar stench got stronger. Meseni gave up trying to get Maijitesa to turn around, and dove for the safety of the underside of one wing. Maijitesa paused long enough to let the Ona hide himself, and then continued on.
After a few moments, he came upon a clearing, and right in the middle of it, his body ensnared in twisted, thorny vines, hung Ticherai. The sickly-looking, dark green vines encircled the Lenny's entire body---twining around his legs and neck, binding his wings, and even wrapped around his beak. As Maijitesa entered the clearing, Ticherai began to thrash again, but the movements were half-hearted at best. He looked thinner than Maijitesa remembered... how long had he been here? Maijitesa wondered. With his beak bound, Ticherai could not speak, but he had obviously been caught for quite a while and was beginning to weaken.
Ticherai did his best to glare down at the Uni, but Maijitesa only gazed up at him calmly. The big bird was no threat now. He considered just leaving him there to let the vines do with him what they pleased. He knew Meseni would prefer it that way. He also knew, however, that his conscience would not allow him to leave Ticherai to his fate, especially now that he knew the bird's appearance was due to the same pool that had given him Meseni.
"Stay still," he ordered. "Fighting them will only aggravate your predicament and wear you out more quickly."
The bird sniffed and scowled at him, but complied.
"I'm going to get you free," Maijitesa went on. "And then we will go our respective ways. Agreed?"
Ticherai managed to move his head the barest bit in a nod. Looking up, Maijitesa found the path of the vines, and began to walk in that direction. Even the most malicious climbing vines needed an anchor, a tree on which they could begin their ascent. If he could find the tree from which these vines originated, he could hopefully "persuade" them into releasing Ticherai.
Ticherai made an odd croaking noise and thrashed again. Maijitesa supposed he worried about being abandoned.
"Stay still," he said again. "I'm only trying to locate their source."
The vines were twisted so thickly about themselves and the surrounding trees, finding their anchor point proved difficult. Maijitesa tried to follow them with his eyes, but kept getting lost when they twined around other vines. He was beginning to regret his decision to help Ticherai.
He felt movement beneath his wing and turned to look as Meseni slowly crept out from beneath it. To Maijitesa's surprise, the Ona jumped down, landing in the moss on the forest floor with a soft noise. He sniffed along the ground for a few steps, then looked up at the trees and sighed. He glanced back at Maijitesa, then began to sniff the ground again, and walk forward. Curious, Maijitesa followed.
Meseni walked slowly, carefully, pausing often to sniff the ground and correct his course. After a few moments, they reached the trunk of a large tree. Maijitesa could see the thick, gnarled roots leading up into trailing, thorny vines and leading back to the clearing where Ticherai waited.
"Thank you, Meseni," Maijitesa said. Meseni walked back to where the Uni stood, scrambled up his tail and across his back to perch between his shoulders once more. The Ona's posture was relaxed. He wasn't scared anymore. He nudged Maijitesa's neck with his flat little muzzle and chittered croakily. Maijitesa chuckled softly, but then turned back to the problem at hoof. The roots and stems of the vine were thick and woody, not the type of plant that would give way to a stab with a Uni's horn. Maijitesa looked down at his hooves, considering the flames that licked around his legs. If he applied fire to the vines, did he risk igniting the entire tree? Many of the trees in the Woods had evolved resistance to fire, but would the vines likewise resist? And if he set the roots of the climbing plant on fire, would it be enough to cause the vines to release Ticherai? He decided to risk it---other than biting them, he could think of nothing else. He stepped up to the vines and raised one hoof, turning up the heat of the flames just a bit as he held the foot close to the nearest root.
The root moved a little bit, seeming to shrink back against the tree trunk, shying away from the heat. Encouraged, Maijitesa turned up the heat a little bit, nudging his hoof closer until the vine actually caught fire. He stepped back, watching carefully and ready to stamp out the flames should it look as though the tree might catch fire. However, the fire seemed to cling only to the woody stems of the vines as it crawled up the tree. The vines began to writhe as the fire consumed them, twisting and whipping about as they sought to find a source for their anguish, raining embers down on the forest floor. Maijitesa stomped on each of these as it fell. He had no desire to set the forest ablaze. He thought he could hear a very soft whine from the vines as they burned---but perhaps it was his imagination.
From behind him, he heard a thump and a rustle of feathers, accompanied by a hoarse cry. Above him, the vines shrank back on themselves as they charred. Maijitesa watched to make sure the fire burned itself out and did not harm the trees around it, but other than a bit of scorching, the other trees seemed safe. Meseni scrambled back down his neck as he headed back to the clearing where he had left Ticherai.
The Lenny had managed to get to his feet, but he stood swaying, neck drooping, his breathing shallow and labored. Where the vines had touched, his skin was raw and red, angry looking; any feathers had been burned away. The Lenny could not have won the Beauty Contest to begin with, but now he was in quite a sorry state.
The Lenny raised his head slightly to regard him as he entered the clearing. "Thank you," he rasped.
"You're welcome," Maijitesa replied. "But most of the thanks should go to Meseni. He's the one who found the host tree. Without him, I likely never would have found it."
Ticherai gazed at Meseni (who had climbed up to sit on Maijitesa's head) for a long moment. His beak worked a few times without any sound. "Thank you," he repeated finally.
Meseni was quiet for a moment, and his paws tightened momentarily on Maijitesa's horn, but then he relaxed and made a soft chirring noise. All was forgiven.
"How did you get caught in the first place?" Maijitesa wanted to know.
The bird looked away, as if embarrassed. "Searching for food," he said. "The vines tripped me and tangled my feet, and then hauled me up. I tried to fight them, but they just sent out more and more tendrils."
"How long were you hanging there?"
No wonder he looked emaciated. "I can get you healing, and likely some food," Maijitesa offered, thinking of the old Zafara.
"You would do that?" Ticherai said, sounding surprised. "For me?"
Maijitesa nodded. "If I didn't, you likely would not survive. You are too weak right now to find food on your own, and those wounds will fester. Then all our effort will have been for naught."
The bird considered this. "True," he admitted.
"Can you walk? It is a considerable distance."
"I can walk," Ticherai said, the words a bit clipped, as if offended that Maijitesa would even ask. Maijitesa nodded, and headed out of the clearing. He heard a slow shuffling behind him as Ticherai followed.
Meseni was quiet, but he stayed contentedly on Maijitesa's head for the duration of the trip to Mephaira's shack. Maijitesa kept alert for any signs of distress from his petpet, but there were none. As a result of his injuries, Ticherai could not move very quickly, but they eventually reached the rusty gate. To Maijitesa's surprise, Mephaira was waiting for them on the path just inside the gate.
"I've been expecting you," the Zafara said. "Welcome back, Maijitesa, Meseni. And Ticherai."
As they passed through, Maijitesa gave a nod of greeting, and Meseni chittered. Ticherai, however, bowed fully, with his wings drooping and his head lowered so far his beak nearly brushed the ground. "Mephaira," he said in a low, respectful voice.
"Oh, go on with you," she gushed, waving a paw at him. "You look terrible. What happened?"
Rising from his bow, Ticherai shifted uncomfortably and looked at Maijitesa.
"I found him ensnared in some vines," the Uni supplied. "Meseni and I set him free."
Mephaira raised her eyebrows. "Did you?" she said. "Hm." She hobbled closer. "Let me have a look at you." Ticherai held still while Mephaira inspected his wounds. She walked around him in a slow circle, examining each injury. Finally, she nodded. "I can help you. Come into the house."
They followed her into her house and waited in the front room while the Zafara went to a small set of shelves against the far wall. They heard the clink of glass as she rummaged, and when she came back she held a jar in one paw. "This should do the trick," she announced, opening the lid and scooping out a pawful. Maijitesa could smell it: sharp, pungent, like pine sap mixed with vinegar. Meseni sniffed and pushed his nose against Maijitesa's neck.
"Hold still, this might sting a bit," Mephaira directed, and began smoothing the salve over Ticherai's wounds. Maijitesa heard a sharp intake of breath from the bird when the balm first touched his abraded skin, but other than that, he kept still until the Zafara was done applying it. "Now just leave that on there. When it dries it will flake off gradually, and underneath you'll be healed. It will take time for the feathers to grow back, though, and until then you'll be grounded. You're welcome to stay here a while to recuperate, if you like."
Ticherai bowed low again. "I would be honored." He slowly and carefully lowered his body to the floor. It had been a long walk after a terrible ordeal, and Maijitesa did not blame him in the least.
He seemed quite a different creature than the one who had tried to eat Meseni only a few days prior. Mephaira had called him "funny in the head," perhaps he had different aspects of personality that emerged at different times. Maijitesa found this thought very intriguing.
"I'll also get you some food," Mephaira added. "I'm sure you could use it." She turned and headed through a curtain into what Maijitesa assumed was her kitchen. He did not miss the way Ticherai visibly perked at the mention of food, and felt a little humbled. He and Meseni never had want of food or a place to stay, he could not imagine how it was for this bird to live from day to day, hiding in the deepest parts of the Haunted Woods, never knowing where his next meal would be.
"It seems as though you're in good paws, Ticherai," Maijitesa said. "I think we will take our leave and let you rest."
Ticherai fixed his yellow eyes on Maijitesa's red ones and nodded once. "We have---a truce?" he asked.
Maijitesa nodded. "As long as you don't threaten to eat my petpet again," he cautioned.
The corners of Ticherai's mouth twitched. "I won't. He helped save my life. Thank you again."
Maijitesa nodded and turned to go. Before he could, however, Meseni put a paw on his neck to stop him and then jumped down. Stalking right up to where Ticherai lay, the Ona gazed up at him for a moment, then motioned a paw at him. It was a gesture familiar to Maijitesa, but Ticherai was unfamiliar with Meseni's body language and so looked to the Uni for translation.
"Lower your head," Maijitesa clarified.
Ticherai blinked curiously, but then turned back toward Meseni and lowered his head obligingly. Meseni put a paw on the tip of his beak and made a raspy purring noise, then scrambled back to Maijitesa and ran up his tail, onto his back.
Maijitesa chuckled. "He forgives you," he said.
"Ah. I am grateful."
Maijitesa nodded. "Take care, Ticherai."
"And you, Maijitesa," the bird replied.
Maijitesa turned and headed the way Mephaira had gone. He poked his head in past her curtain. "Mephaira, we are leaving now."
She looked up from where she was mixing something in a bowl. She put the bowl down and dusted her paws off on her dress. "I will walk you out," she said. "I'd like to have a word with you before you go."
Maijitesa pulled his head back and headed toward the front door with Mephaira close behind him. A glance over at Ticherai showed that the big bird was dozing, his eyes closed, beak resting lightly on his chest. He probably hadn't slept in all the time he'd been caught in the vines, and needed the rest.
They went out through the front door and Mephaira closed it softly behind them. They stood on the front porch, Mephaira gazing out into the dark woods beyond her gate. "That was a very noble thing you did," she said without looking at the Uni.
"I knew I could not just leave him there," Maijitesa told her.
"You could have," she insisted. "A lesser creature would have, after the initial impression he made upon you. He is not a bad pet, he just has some issues. You are a good Neopet, Maijitesa."
"Well, thank you for saying so, Mephaira."
"Any time you are in this part of the Woods, feel free to come visit me. My hearth will always be open to you and Meseni. And should you happen to ever be near Ticherai's hiding place---well, he could likely use some companionship as well. He trusts you now, I can see it. He needs someone he can trust."
"I will keep that in mind."
The Zafara looked at him finally, and gazed at him for a moment before she touched his shoulder, very gently. "See that you do. Now, off with you... I need to see to my baking. Take care. You too, Meseni."
From Maijitesa's shoulder, Meseni made his croaky purring noise again. Mephaira chuckled and reached up to give him a little scratch behind the ear, then turned and went back into the house.
Maijitesa headed back down the stairs, through the overgrown garden, and out through the rusty gate. "What do you say, Meseni, perhaps a late dinner in Faerieland? I almost feel the need for somewhere... a bit happier."
Meseni croaked his assent, and grabbed hold of his mane. Maijitesa leaped into a gallop, then spread his wings and took to the air. He knew that neither of them would soon forget their encounters with Ticherai. Perhaps, he mused, he would pay a visit to the Lenny the next time they came close to his little hiding place, just to see how he was doing. After all, according to Mephaira, Ticherai trusted him. And everyone needed someone they could trust.