Not being let out of the cave by the great silvery blue eyed howlie was startling enough for Herio and Philpott, but being held captive by the giants for well over a week was an ordeal. At first it was just the pair whose tracks they had followed, who squatted outside in the pouring rain, keeping them from running away, but in the moonlight of the following nights, they heard eerie howls echoing away over the rocky countryside, and each morning they would see giants which they had not seen before, milling about or squatted on the rocks, just outside.
This morning, when Herio awoke to the calls of a sunset thrasher, he realized that they were awfully close to the mouth of cave and sat up at once. When he saw that no big creature was sitting just outside, he sprang to his feet and peered out to find the biggest collection of howlies he had yet seen. “Damn!” he muttered quietly as he began counting.
“How many this time?” said Philpott, sitting up on his pallet.
“I’m not sure whether I see fifteen or sixteen. One of them is half grown and three or four of them are carrying babies. I’m not counting the babies.”
“Any sign of the unicorns?”
Herio stepped back inside, shaking his head as he squatted to pick up his leather water bottle before flinging it aside.
“After eight days, I’m surprised you even picked it up.”
“Yea? Well after eight days, I don’t see how a fellow could keep from it.”
“So how far away from the cave are they?” said Philpott. “Any chance that we could make a run for it?”
“They’d get us. There are just too many, and they’ve got us blocked every direction you want to look. Besides, this is pretty open country, even with all of the rocks. We’d have to know our unicorns were waiting for us or they’d just run us down. They’ve probably eaten them by now, anyway.”
“I doubt it, truth to tell,” said Philpott, picking up the bottle for a look of his own. “I mean, if they were going to eat them, don’t you reckon they’d just sit out there where they could keep an eye on us and champ away?”
“All right. So why did they bother to run off our unicorns, and why are they keeping us here in the first place?”
“To teach us a lesson, maybe. They’ve already made it clear as a bell that they don’t want us grazing that pasture.”
“You reckon they’re actually enough like us to try teaching us by holding us captive?”
“They just might be, Herio. I swear that they spend as much time shaking their hands at each other as people do a-talking. They just might have something in mind for us.”
“Starvation, I’d say. Do you have any idea about what they’re saying with their hands?”
“You can go a good while without victuals. Forty days or better. But they’re going to have to let us drink. It won’t take too many days to kill us. And no, I don’t understand a bit of it. I notice when they repeat some things, but I don’t understand any of it. However, we understood their drawings ‘way back at the sheep shed. What are you doing?”
“Smoothing out a place to draw a picture.”
Herio waited until one of the giants looked their way and waved his arms. “Hey!” he hollered.
The giant shook his fist.
“That doesn’t look good at all,” said Philpott. “You might want to try something else.”
“This ought to do it,” said Herio, picking up a rock.
“Whoa! I wouldn’t risk a lesson in manners from one of those curses. They might not like our talking with rocks. Why not do it their way? If they’re too far away for pictures and fingers, they howl, don’t they?”
Herio put down his rock and thought about it for a moment. Suddenly cupped his hands to the sides of his mouth, drew a great breath and bellowed out a tenor version of the howlies’ moonlit night wail. It sounded much more like a wolf than a howlie, but by the time he had put down his hands, all sixteen giants had converged on him, huffing and stinking of sulphury musk. “Aah!” he said, patting his stomach and pointing into his mouth as he made gulping noises. But before he could drop to his knees with his stick to draw, they had Philpott and him by the arms, ushering them down the hillside at a jog, hiking them up and over rocks as if they were toddlers. And a long way it was, too, stumbling to keep up with their great hairy-legged strides.
Far down the slope was a wooded ravine. When they came to the bank of a fast stream, the howlies let go of them at the water’s edge, where they fell to their hands and knees at once and drank. The moment Herio sat up on his haunches and wiped his mouth on his arm, the blue eyed howlie threw down their water bottles with a grunt. “Philpott, look!” said Herio. “I’d never dream that old Blue Eye would know what those are for.”
“Yea,” said Philpott. “Makes ye wonder what else they’ve figured out.”
“I hope they figure out that we’re hungry.”
“Well you’re good at this. Tell them.”
Blue eye squatted behind Herio and studied him.
“Well Blue Eye,” said Herio as he carefully turned about to face the giant. “I wish I knew how to thank you for the water, but maybe I can show you that we’re hungry.” He gave a moan and rubbed his belly.
“Hmmmp,” rumbled Blue Eye as he waddled closer to look him up and down.
“Mmm!” said Herio as he pantomimed grabbing up something and chewing on it with lots of exaggerated champing.
Blue Eye knitted his brow and sat back on his rump as he thought this over. “Hmmmp,” he rumbled as he picked his nose and resumed looking Herio over with studious consideration.
Herio rubbed his belly again and champed his teeth.
Suddenly, Blue Eye was on his feet, jostling a couple of other howlies and making signs with his hands.
“Did you see that?” said Philpott with a nod at the howlies as he bunged his water bag.
“What?” said Herio as he watched Blue Eye and the other giants wade into the water.
“Oh never mind.”
The howlies waded slowly about in the water for some time, pausing here and there to grab at things along the bottom. By now, Herio and Philpott and all of the howlies not fishing were sitting on the bank, watching Blue Eye and listening to a water thrush singing in the willows. A grebe surfaced just beyond the bank, saw that it had an audience and ducked back under water.
“He was!” said Philpott, the moment he saw for certain that the howlies were fishing. “I’d have sworn Blue Eye was making hand signs for ‘fish’ before they waded in. They just got one. That is what they’re doing.”
Presently Blue Eye stepped out of the water with a wriggling catfish in each hand, giving one to Herio and the other one to Philpott. They were trying figure out how to show that they were properly pleased when the other two howlies climbed out and shared a fish with Blue Eye. The howlies each bit the heads of their respective fish to kill them, and then wolfed down hungry bites, watching to see how Herio and Philpott liked theirs.
“You said you were hungry,” said Philpott, “but are you ready for raw fish, innards and all?”
“I’ve got my flint and striker,” said Herio. “What do you reckon they’ll do if I try to use them?”
Herio handed his fish to Philpott and scraped up a little pile of dry cottonwood leaves, crumbled up some of them and began striking his flint. At once all sixteen howlies crowded in close to watch every single move he made. He blew a faint stream of his breath where his sparks were landing.
Suddenly the howlies gasped and backed away wide eyed at the first curl of smoke. Herio kept striking and huffing as they crept back close to see. Directly he was feeding twigs into the first wee flame. Philpot took his knife and cleaned the fish. He paused at the sight of a female with a toddler on her hip, eyeing where the fish head and entrails had just dropped into the leaves. When he held them out to her, she snatched them away at once, shared them with her child and hunkered back to the fire, licking her fingers. Herio impaled the first fish and held it into the flames. Blue Eye waddled in close, craning to behold in wonder the fish in the flames and then Herio’s face, then his hands and then the sizzling fish again.
“Mmm!” said Herio, sampling the fish. He held out a pinch of it to Blue Eye.
Blue Eye gaped in awe and put the fish into his mouth for a thoughtful moment. “Vooove!” he boomed. “Oooooh!”
Herio and Philpott had no sooner divvied out all their catfish than they found themselves being plied with more wriggling fish. After an unexpectedly long meal, Herio and Philpott caught each other’s eye, rose without a word and made their way back to their cave with all sixteen howlies following reverently on their heels.
Ch. 9, Doom in Heart of the Staff: the complete series
Carol Marrs Phipps and Tom Phipps