Bayou Shadow Protector
by Debbie Herbert
He came in second place to a dead lover. If that wasn’t just so typical of his life.
Tallulah placed a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry. Really.”
Anger pounded his temples. He didn’t want her pity. Chulah shrugged her hand away and took a step back. “Forget about it,” he answered curtly, knowing his resentment was ridiculous, but unable to control the emotion.
“I had no idea you felt that way about me,” she continued.
Tallulah actually looked surprised. Like he and every other warrior should know that she still thought about Bo, lived for Bo, even when he’d been dead for over a year. Crazy women. He’d never understand them.
“No problem,” he lied. He didn’t want to hear any more of the words that killed his dreams. Chulah took a deep breath and started for the woods, aware of Tallulah’s eyes following him as he made for the tree line. His heightened senses from hunting evil bayou spirits allowed him to feel her focused energy on his rigid back.
I love you as a brother, she’d said. As much as I do any of my fellow shadow hunters.
He should have known better than to reveal his feelings, should have stuck to his code of displaying no vulnerability. Chulah kept his back straight. Eyes ahead. No need for her to realize that the blow had hurt his pride as much as his heart. He was a warrior, damn it. Well, mainly he stuck to the code—with the mistaken exception of this afternoon. But the way she’d stood in the sea breeze—black hair teased by the wind, shirt pressed against her strong, lean form, the leather fringed necklace disappearing into the cleavage of her breasts—he’d lost all reason. She was the epitome of a warrior hunter, the only female hunter in their tight clan. A perfect match. Or so he’d imagined. He’d dared to hope that she must know and return some of his desire.
He’d let his protective barriers down, told her of his secret feelings. Stupid. He deserved the I-Just-Wanna-Be-Friends brush off.
Marching away, he was so latched onto the eyes-straight-ahead approach and shoulders-back posture that his left foot tangled on something and he stumbled.
His pride took a dive along with his feet and he dared not look back. The old Tallulah would have laughed and teased him; now she must see him as a bumbling idiot or, worse, as a man to be pitied.
Chulah regained his balance and plunged into the woods’ underbrush, heedless of the nettles and brambles that tore at his jeans, not caring to follow the easy path. Instead, he strode forward, straight at the black trunks of massive trees, solid, unmoving and forbidding. As unyielding as Tallulah’s words. Words that pierced like poisoned darts. He struck savagely at the parasitic kudzu vines that hung between the trees and underbrush, making his way deeper into the shadows.
Tallulah, even with her heightened hunter senses, couldn’t see him now.
He wished he could turn all his senses off. His heart, too. Just off.
His breath grew ragged; his long legs shook with exhaustion. Chulah abruptly stopped and inhaled deeply. The green lushness of pine and moss soothed his battered spirit, even more than the peace his job of repairing motorcycles provided. Fixing motors, his mind and hands were in sync and focused on correcting problems.
In the bayou forest, his trekking abilities kicked in, providing a welcome diversion.
The scent of salt drifted from the Gulf on early autumn breezes and mixed with invigorating pine. His supernatural hearing picked up the lap of the tide, the rustle of leaves, a scampering squirrel and a cawing of crows. Chulah opened his mind to it all, relaxing the barrier he put in place to avoid sensory overload. The forest bathed his battered heart as he drew in the ancient wisdom and energy of the trees, calming his mind.
Chulah worked his way to the path and sat on a large tree stump, resting his tired legs. So he’d finally taken a chance and she’d turned him down, with a swift directness that typified all her actions.
And while he was being honest…he was more relieved than disappointed, now that the initial embarrassment had passed. Tallulah had been, perhaps, a little too convenient. They’d grown up together, had shared similar gifts and had fought alongside each other. Their families were close. She’d been his secret crush in high school and with Bo gone, it was only natural he’d drifted to her familiar, comfortable presence.
Now that he’d spilled his guts and she’d rejected him, he could move on.
That was the plan, anyway.
For the past few weeks, he’d grown increasingly restless…bored, even. The last great battle was over, and with it Chulah seemed to have lost his purpose. He spent his days repairing motorcycles, and at night took his Harley out for long, solitary rides. He’d grown lonely.
The future stretched before him…the same old, same old.
A sizzle of energy traveled up his spine. Chulah glanced at the empty woods, wondering where the presence hid. He’d experienced it many times before and yet it had always eluded him. He tried to puzzle it out. It was nothing evil like he would sense with the Ishkitini, birds of the night, or with the few stray will-o’-the-wisps that still eluded the hunters.
This energy was…soothing. And familiar. He often picked up on it alone in the woods and a few times when he had hunted down a wisp and was in danger.
“Who are you?” he asked, searching the shadows. More to the point, “What are you?”
Whatever that presence was, its silence was getting damned annoying.