Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed. Real life has been evil and I haven't had time to get much writing done lately, but hope you enjoy.
Denan shrieked and banked, and Tsu'tey bared his teeth and shifted with her reveling in the feeling of finally flying normally again. Oh, his grip with his injured leg wasn't anywhere near as strong as it should be, but that would improve in time, and at least now he could hold the proper position.
A steep dive put them down among the tree trunks, and he felt his grin grow as she spiraled among them, coming within armlengths of trunks and branches. He had missed this. He was sure that his mother had known exactly where he was going when he'd left the healers' fire without a crutch—had known and disapproved—but she hadn't actually forbidden it, which he appreciated. Although he probably would have done it anyway, and she was his mother and knew him as well as anyone, so….
A shadow overhead made both he and Denan check cover automatically, but the surge of annoyance Tsu'tey felt through the bond was enough to identify the cause even before he recognized the red form. The fact that his ikran's opinion of Toruk was annoyance rather than any kind of fear generated some worry in Tsu'tey, but he was reasonably certain that Toruk—Jake's Toruk, anyway—wouldn't eat her, and it wasn't as though there was another Toruk in the area. With a thought, he sent Denan streaking up out of the canopy and past Toruk's shoulder, and he was certain that he caught a startled look from Jake even if he knew that Jake would never admit it.
Denan leveled off above Toruk, and Tsu'tey wasn't surprised when a snap of Toruk's wings brought him up underneath her to within easy shouting distance. "Hey, Tsu'tey, a little birdie said you were finally up and about for real!" Jake yelled.
Tsu'tey debated for a moment asking what a 'birdie' was and then decided that it didn't matter in the least and flashed the handsign that meant assent. Which Jake should—and apparently did—recognize from their pre-battle discussions before battle because he bared his teeth in a grin.
Another ikran passed them and banked, coming to glide above Toruk's other shoulder, and Tsu'tey recognized Banshee. Ikran didn't have expressions in the same sense that Na'vi did, but they did have flight posture, and by the look of his, Banshee was at least as annoyed at Toruk as Denan. Probably more so since his rider was on Toruk's back instead of his.
Jake apparently recognized that as well because he shook his head. "I was just up with you!"
Banshee shrieked his displeasure and traded speed for altitude, falling back behind them, and Jake shook his head again and said something to Toruk, patting his neck. "We're going down," he called up to Tsu'tey.
Tsu'tey had planned on staying up longer, but stressing his leg would probably not be the best thing to do his first day free of the healers, and he did have responsibilities back at Hometree. Denan wasn't happy with the thought, but when he insisted she matched Toruk's pace back to the lakebed.
"So how is your leg feeling?" Jake asked as he broke Tsaheylu and leapt off Toruk's back.
"Better. Still weak, but it carries my weight more easily, now." He broke Tsaheylu with Denan after a promise to return again as soon as he could. "She does not like him."
"She doesn't like anybody. Is there a 'world's most antisocial ikran' contest?"
Tsu'tey frowned, and Jake waved it off.
"Never mind. And if it makes you feel any better, you can tell her that he probably won't be around to irritate her for much longer. Or at least he won't be in the immediate area, anyway."
"Why not?" Tsu'tey asked as the two of them turned down the path towards Hometree.
"Apparently it's almost mating season and there aren't any mates around here." He shook his head. "Something about food and territory, I think. I didn't really understand a lot of it."
Tsu'tey nodded slightly. "Toruk requires a large territory to feed himself, as do all of his kind. Between mating and the time the young can survive alone is the only time in which they will share territory, and to find an acceptable mate they must often fly far." A Toruk's territory was very large, in fact—probably why Eywa had not been able to send any others to their aid in the battle against the Sky People—and he had no idea if there was a female Toruk that had territory bordering this one that would shorten that distance even slightly.
"Huh. Guess that makes sense. Anyway, he prefers the floating mountains to this down-on-the-ground stuff too, so I'm guessing he'll go back there afterwards. He stuck around after the battle since he was worried about me, but since I'm here and awake and obviously okay…." Jake shrugged. "I figure I'll be able to find him if I need him, but I doubt he'll stay with us again."
Tsu'tey nodded. While the songs talked of Toruk Makto in battle, there was rarely mention of the Toruk's actions afterwards, and a Toruk was not an ikran. It made sense that he would eventually want to return to his own nesting place. He didn't doubt that Jake would find him again if he needed to, but there was no need for his permanent presence. And Denan and Banshee probably weren't the only ikran who would be pleased to see him go.
"Hey, at least this way I won't forget and accidentally ask him to eat Denan before the challenge," Jake said with a grin. "Not that it would be much of a loss from my perspective since I'm still pretty sure she's plotting ways to make me supper, but…."
Tsu'tey hissed at him, but Jake's grin only widened in response. "So what's the latest word from the scouts watching the thanator?"
"Kel'tsi returned just before I went to see the healers and reported that he is beginning to get restless again," Tsu'tey said. "Tonight or tomorrow he will hunt again."
"I guess even a thanator—palulukan—can't live off one angtsik forever."
"Yes, and he's been quiet for longer than I expected," Tsu'tey said. "But then, he is not quite full grown yet." The palulukan had taken an older angtsik the day after his attempt on Jake and Tsu'tey, and since no fully-fed palulukan would leave his den willingly, Tsu'tey had taken the extra time to consult in detail with the hunters and make the plan as solid as possible. It was still not a guarantee that it would work, of course, few things in life came with such, but he'd been glad of the time.
"I guess we could dump a couple of the yerik carcasses we've got on him and hope that shuts him up for a little longer," Jake suggested.
"Feeding him would encourage him to stay in the area," Tsu'tey said with a shake of his head. "We want to make him leave. We will act when we can."
"Hm. Good point. So as last I heard we're waiting until he goes out hunting and then filling the den with bad smelling stuff and piling rocks up in front and hoping it takes? And the scouts will try and make sure that he doesn't get anything big for dinner?"
"Yes. Tosna and Kayin are watching him now; one will follow and the other will report if he leaves before nightfall. If he does not, Eykir and another scout will take their place at full dark." The second part of the plan, the attempt to keep him from making another large kill, was risky since there was the possibility that he would double back to Hometree again in the hopes of finding prey, but if he was fully sated there was the danger that he would accept even an inferior den to sleep off the meal. Ideally he would take a yerik or something small, return to his den and find it uninhabitable, and begin the move away from the area with enough food in his stomach to keep him moving but not so much that he required sleep.
Jake nodded. "Are you planning on going along?"
"Now that I can help transport materials, yes." As much as he wanted to, he didn't trust his speed on the ground yet, but at least he could now contribute something to the effort. Even if Denan would not be pleased to help carry the foul-smelling material they'd been collecting for the past several days. "Are you strong enough to help with the rocks?"
Jake rocked a hand, and his expression wasn't entirely pleased when he answered. "Small to medium rocks, maybe. I'm still not back to where I should be." He tilted his head, and his lips twitched. "Of course, now that you're officially okay I guess I've got more incentive since we still need to settle the question of who will win in combat. Don't worry, I'll try not to break your leg again."
"I am not the one who should be worried."
Denan remained silent as she swept upwards after delivering their burden, but he could sense her relief that it was gone. Of course, he shared that relief…an ikran's sense of smell wasn't nearly as acute as a Na'vi's, and even moving into the wind it hadn't been a particularly pleasant flight out. The rotting remains were delivered now, though, and from this point on he would be acting as eyes above—with the light wind keeping his nose free of the foulness—while Jake and the others filled the den. He couldn't say that he liked it, he was the clan leader and should be working amidst the others regardless of discomfort, but at least he had been able to contribute something.
Those on the ground were only marginally visible; the mouth of the den obscuring the bioluminescence around them, but he could still make out general forms passing burdens along. It would take them some time to fill the entrance, but they all knew they had to work as quickly as they could.
It felt like a great deal of time had passed, although he knew that it hadn't, when he heard a faint whistle on the wind. That was the signal that the palulukan was returning, and he could only hope that the scouts tracking him had been successful. He relayed the whistle quickly to those below and the rustling of work suddenly became much louder for a few moments before other ikrans began to join him and Denan in the air.
"Damn it, we needed another half an hour at least," Jake muttered as Banshee came on level with Denan.
"It cannot be helped."
Eykir winged in from the darkness a moment later, Atta following on his ikran's tail, and Tsu'tey nodded in greeting. /Did he eat?/
/Three yerik, two adult and one young./
Tsu'tey frowned. It was not a full meal, but it was more than he would have liked, especially for a palulukan the size of this one.
/He took the first adult and its cub in his initial attack, the other fell and was too badly injured in the stampede to run again,/ Eykir continued. /There was no way for us to reach it before he did./
Tsu'tey nodded in understanding. Even attempting to take a palulukan's prey under those circumstances would have been foolish in the extreme. /He is still moving easily?/
/Not so quickly as when he left hunting, but he didn't gorge./
It would have to be enough. Tsu'tey signaled those ikran makto carrying bows around. Palulukan were not hunted by anything and rarely paid attention to what was above them, but they'd discussed striking him with arrows in a further attempt to dissuade him from entering the den and he wanted the archers in the best positions possible. The last thing he wanted was for the the palulukan to be driven into the den.
The palulukan was even harder to see in the dark than the other Na'vi had been, but Tsu'tey heard his disturbed rumble as he approached the den and then pulled away again. The action was repeated several times and then the palulukan yowled fiercely, and Tsu'tey signaled for first wave of archers to take aim. Now would be the point where it would either force its way in or turn and go.
Another yowl, and then there was a thump as it spun and leapt back in the direction in which it had been hunting, and Tsu'tey felt himself relax slightly even as he turned to the two ikran makto beside him. /Follow him,/ he orderered Kel'tsi and Yatan even as he signaled the archers to lower their bows. /If he circles back towards Hometree, one of you stay with him and the other fly ahead and alert us. If he continues beyond the territory we discussed, follow him until sunrise and then return, otherwise mark where he dens first./ The palulukan would almost certainly den somewhere come daylight; hopefully it would be beyond the point where he was a danger to the clan.
They both nodded sharply and their ikran banked as one, and Tsu'tey signaled Denan higher so he had the full attention of the others. /We will return to Hometree and sleep in shifts until it is sure that he will not come through in the night. If we were successful, we'll know tomorrow, otherwise we will need to plan our next action./ He probably hadn't needed to give those orders since they had been discussed that part of the plan in advance as well, but none of the others commented on that as they turned their ikran homeward .
"Well, so far so good," Jake said as Banshee came back alongside Denan on the flight back. "Although, you know that if it worked, you're going to have to give another speech."