'This game is starting to get interesting,' Axehand mused darkly, as he crept low across tall grasses.
From a comfortable cushion of eight taal tokens, his fortunes had reversed sharply. Practically every elf in the game had stripped him of a bone. He had gotten in the crossfire between Oakhand and Agate, surrendering a token to each. He’d come up even against young Briar, one token lost and one gained. The sudden arrival of an agitated skunk had cost Axehand a token to both Strand and Turtle, who were acting in concert as always. Snaptwig had routed him twice in between all that, even though Axehand was a better sneak than Snaptwig was a tracker. Two tokens more, and he’d be out of the game.
'At least Ash hasn’t gotten to be a part of my woes. I'd never hear the end of it.' Axehand's brother had yet to win a game of taal. It was an eights-of-turns-old slump that somehow failed to whittle down that mountain-wide ego of his. Axehand and his chums never let him live it down! He was just too easy a target not to fire at! And oh so sensitive about it, which just made plucking his strings all the more fun.
The only reason why even young Briar had been let into the ‘big elves' game’ was to rub Ash’s nose in his failings a bit more. It had been Lure’s idea; as the game was forming and boundaries decided upon, he’d playfully announced he was stepping out, and letting the eager cub take his place. “I’m content to sit back and enjoy Ash’s inevitable besting by a cub one third his age.” Everybody got a good laugh out of it… Well, almost everybody. Oakhand didn't say anything, but he looked down on teasing on principle, and everyone knew it.
Coming up from the tall grass, Axehand saw the trees that marked the eastern edge of the game boundaries. A set of footprints clearly ran behind one tree, and then appeared a few trees over, loping back around that trunk to return to the moon-shadows of the underbrush.
They had to be Ash’s. His grey-haired weasel of brother had a bad habit of skirting the outside edges of the game boundaries, running in when there was a chance at a tag, and back out when he was exposed. While not technically a disallowed tactic, it was a highly discouraged one. Then again, one who chose that tactic could no more make a tag than be tagged themselves. It was, in Axehand’s opinion, a losing bet.
So who better to start his comeback through? Who better to show how the game was played? He’d never been run out of a game before, and he wasn’t going to start today. "I can dodge arrows, pup!" he'd boasted not long ago.
Trading stealth for speed, Ash’s tracks were easily followed, even from within bounds. And his wily brother elf followed them right to-
Oakhand was waiting in ambush behind a tree just barely within bounds. The wind was at Axehand’s back, which wasn’t much of an issue when tailing Ash. But Oakhand was plenty able to take advantage, and struck fast. Axehand dodged his stick and swatted back, too high to connect. No tag -- and no more attempts at one-- could be made until they got out of each other’s sight again. Oakhand, ever the courteous elf, spread his arms wide and backed away, eyes low to show he was no "threat".
Backing away himself, Axehand lowered his eyes as well. That's when he saw what Oakhand was backing into. He was mere steps away from the camouflaged loop of a rope-snare! Axehand rushed forward, knowing he wouldn’t make it in time. **STOP!**
Oakhand's eyes went wide. His flailing body flew into Axehand's.
Axehand rubbed a brutally sore wrist, scowling. He had rooted himself and tensed his muscles when he should have gone prone and limp. ‘If that had been a tumbling log or a bear claw bounding at me instead of an elf...’
Oakhand had paid a higher price for his mistake. A few wolf-lengths to the right, Owl's glowing hands were putting the final mends to a broken arm, which had been set by Snaptwig when he freed the chief’s mate from the tree he'd been left swinging from. A raw red line arced above Oakhand’s ankle where the rope-trap caught him. Yet he was taking it with his typical ease, declining to add to the fury already before Ash.
Easysinger was chewing Ash's hide to bits before the tribe, demanding the names of his accomplices. Ash was taking what he’d earned, but if there were names to share, he was stubbornly refusing to. Axehand wasn’t really listening.
His thoughts were on what might have been. He didn’t need Ash's confession to know it was supposed to be him swinging from that branch, helpless as Ash came up with a taal stick and an overly-rehearsed line of retribution. All of this had been arranged to allow Ash the chance to take his brother out of a game for the first time.
If that were so, then the chieftess was right to think Ash might not have acted alone. There were just too many ‘coincidences’. Other tribesmates claimed to have been pulled into the chaos he’d created and taken advantage of. Strand and Turtle had been tricked into running smack into each other, and the latter was waiting his turn with Owl. Agate reeked of skunk-juice; nothing the healer could do about that. Half the crowd was eyeing Briar, who was desperately defending his honor to any who would listen.
“I didn’t have help, and I didn’t need any!” insisted Ash. A pouch full of tokens on the ground was the only evidence Ash needed. “I won the game, and I did it on my own. And I did not break any rules.”
“Well until now, nobody needed a rule about not setting elf-traps!” Strand yelled. “In a game-field or any place else!”
“And that oversight is my fault how, exactly?” Ash retorted coolly.
‘Typical Ash,’ Axehand groaned. His brother had won the game – sort of -- therefore in his own mind he must be right.
Owl harrumphed in his ear. “Not even sprained. But there'll be a nasty bruise if you don’t stop cradling that arm and let me-”
“I’ll keep the bruise, thanks,” Axehand muttered under his breath. He was amazed the healer could hear him, because the display was just getting louder. The others weren’t taking their defeats as well as Oakhand had his injury.
“What you did was completely unfair-“
“didn’t really win-“
“Just because he couldn’t take a joke-
“- is no excuse to cheat-“
**I. Did. Not. Cheat.** Ash sent with force and finality.
"Those who stick their hands in a dark hole without first checking to see if it's a blacksnake's den get what they deserve!" Easysinger declared, unshaken, looking clear at Ash when she said it. Something else passed between the two, a private send that reddened Ash’s cheeks. There was then a strong sense of dismissal as she walked away, towards her mate. Axehand could see a cold fire burning in her eyes, and he looked away. Oakhand just shrugged, happy enough to have two good arms to shrug with, and to wrap around his lifemate.
The tribe slowly scattered, some satisfied, others not. Ash quietly picked up his bag of hard ‘won’ tokens. He gave the elves that remained a high-nosed look that dared any of them to give him any more guff about how he played the game, and then he walked quietly into the Mother Tree’s large gathering den. He simply tossed the bag, tokens and all, atop the exposed taal basket. A statement to all of who had come out on top, whether they’d liked it or not.
Axehand shook his head and lock-sent. **You still don’t get it, ‘black snake’. What’s the point of winning if you do it so no one else wants to play with you again?**
Ash’s answer was slow in coming. **Make that my new name, then. So I won't forget the lesson.**