|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
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The Unasked-For Gift
THE TRIP UP the river was the easiest part of the voyage that Charmian could remember, and she dozed throughout a good part of it, the others doing the same. Only the voyageurs seemed immune to sleeping, but far from distracting her, as she'd thought it might do, their singing lulled her into a drowse more than once and her head nodded over her chest. She half-waited for Chakenapok or the Red Swan to come talking to her, but the two of them were silent, and she hoped that was a good thing.
Along the way, they occasionally spotted manitous peeping at them from the woods; once or twice they passed small camps situated along the river; and once they crossed several canoes heading in the opposite direction, the voyageurs waving and shooting their guns and hallooing to each other. Winter Born, out of all of them, seemed most curious about everything they passed, and more than once poked at Charmian to wake her up and ask some question or another. Charmian bit down her resentment and answered her every time, even when she wasn't sure of an answer. She remembered what Geezhigo-Quae had asked of her, and sighed, wishing that she'd been given any other task than this.
She wondered if she'd ever been so annoying when training under Moon Wolf, then scoffed at herself for thinking such a stupid thing.
Eventually the canoes pulled in toward the bank, and they all began clambering out onto the shore; in the distance ahead Charmian could hear a dull roaring sound, and her ears nearly pricked. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and tried to keep out of the way as the voyageurs picked up the canoes and their goods and started portaging through the woods. Charmian had to keep her eyes even more open now, as Winter Born kept disappearing among the trees, only to reappear several moments later, and disappear in another direction. It took a while for Charmian to notice that she was gathering little things as they went--pinecones, needles, maple seeds, milkweeds. Every time she brought a new object out she marveled over it as if it were something quite astonishing, though Charmian herself had to fight to keep from yawning. Now that they were among the trees the only spirits that showed themselves were Mani and the two okis, who were continuously to be seen drifting along at a distance, like ghosts.
The dull roaring sound grew ever louder as they began to ascend a rise, and Charmian's spirits began to pick up; when at last the trees began to part, showing the river flowing along far below, she craned her neck to see ahead of them. Her eyes grew and she smiled at the familiar sight of the waterfall splashing down like a sheet of ivory and amber. The dark brown water splashed down into a hollow carved out of rock and flowed away, but atop the falls, she could see sheets of stone just inches under the water, worn smooth from countless years of water action. She tugged on Winter Born's arm and pointed.
"See that?" she asked; Winter Born had to stand on tiptoe. "Where I come from, that's called Tahquamenon Falls."
"Tah-qua-me-non," Winter Born sounded it out, and her face lit up.
"The water looks right filthy," Thomas said skeptically.
Charmian shook her head. "That's just tannin! It colors the water dark brown like coffee...I went to see this place a couple of years ago! Well--the one in the time where I live." She bit her lip. "Where I come from, it's kind of fenced off on this side...and there are lots of fudgies taking pictures." She waved at them before they could question. "C'mon! I've always wanted to see it up close!"
Winter Born started half-jogging, half-sliding her way down the slope before Charmian could even move. "Last one there's a rotten apple!" she exclaimed, and Charmian huffed a little before following.
"HARDLY!" she yelled, her voice echoing over the basin of the falls. She grabbed onto Winter Born's arm to keep her from plunging down into the Tahquamenon River, and started pulling her along toward more level ground. "There's an observation deck right here...at least, where I come from...but it's always misty." She waved the mist out of her face and smiled when a faint rainbow emerged and then broke apart. "Wish X'aaru were here, he'd have a blast. We must've passed by the lower falls; these are the upper falls."
"And all sorts of people visit this place, where you come from?" Winter Born asked.
Charmian nodded. "It's what you'd call a 'tourist spot.' They sell postcards of it...um...pieces of...birchbark, with pictures of this on it," she tried to explain, uncertain if she succeeded or not.
Winter Born's face lit up again and she pointed. "Oh! Does that mean that he's a 'toor-ist' then, too?"
Charmian turned to look. She frowned a little when she saw that someone was already by the falls, stooping beside the water and apparently splashing their hands in it. She craned her neck and tried to see better. It appeared to be a male native, perhaps around Singing Cedars's age or a little younger; he was washing his hands and then splashing his face, oblivious to them.
Charmian's frown grew a bit. "Huh...I figured we'd be alone here. Oh well...maybe he knows this place." She gestured at Winter Born. "Come on. If we're going down there, we're not going down there alone."
Thomas picked up his pace and stumbled along after them, nearly tripping and sliding down into the river himself. "Hold up a bit!! Not all of us are gifted with exceeding grace at clambering around on bluffs!!"
"Pfft!" Charmian retorted. "If this is such a hard bluff to you then it's a wonder you've survived on the Island so long!" She put her fingers to her mouth and whistled loudly to attract the stranger's attention, then waved when he shot to his feet and gaped up at them. "Hey! Hi down there!"
The stranger blinked a few times, opened his mouth, then shut it. His brow furrowed, then he grimaced and promptly sank to the ground.
Charmian blinked this time. "What--?" She picked up her pace, alarm lighting up inside her when he slumped over, nearly falling in the water; Thomas tried to make a grab for her arm but missed and she started jogging/sliding down the slope and closer to the river. She emerged on the little outcrop of land where the observation deck should have been, and came to a gasping halt at his side. She stooped down as he had done and shook his arm. "Hey! Are you all right--?"
"I...think so," the man said weakly. He seemed even younger now that she was right next to him; he was dressed rather warmly for the weather, in a long deerskin robe, shirt, and leggings, and carried a pack with all sorts of assortments dangling from it over his back. She caught sight of the multitude of birchbarks tied to it with strings and furrowed her brow before trying to help him sit up. His face had gone pale, his long dark braids trailing over his shoulders.
"I've been...traveling all day and night," he murmured as she attempted to help him stand. "I suppose I lost track of time, and didn't rest when I should have..."
"I guess that happens," Charmian said, pulling on his arm a little as he shakily stood. "We've come quite a ways ourselves, though hardly by walking! Have you eaten anytime recently--? We have some food..."
She put her hand against his shoulder to steady him, then gasped and pulled it away. She rubbed her fingers together, finding them wet; when she glanced down at them and saw the color red, her eyes grew. "Hey! Your back!" she exclaimed, Winter Born coming up beside her with a wide-eyed stare. "Are you hurt--?"
"I think I...ran into a branch, a ways back," the stranger said in a faint voice. "When I wasn't watching where I was going...I think it scraped me a little, is all. I was going to wash it off...I think I'll be fine, though."
"Well...at least sit down a bit and let us get you something to eat, okay?" Charmian offered, and gestured at Stick-In-The-Dirt. The stranger peered up as the medicine man approached. "This is Stick-In-The-Dirt...he's a nanandawi. He should be able to patch you up a bit. You can rest with us; we needed to take a break anyway."
The stranger didn't object, letting her set him down on the patch of grassy bank near the falls. Charmian was relieved that they weren't nearly as big as Niagara, though she knew that they were the biggest falls in this region. She went to one of the voyageurs' packs and started digging around in it as Stick-In-The-Dirt tended to the other man's back, frowning and pressing his fingers against the wound. She pulled out some dried meat and came to him with it, sitting down and watching silently as he started gnawing on it like a starving wolf. Her brows rose.
"When's the last time you ate?" Winter Born asked, sitting down and sticking one foot in the flowing water.
"I can't remember," the stranger said, only it came out something like I an't emembeh. He seemed to enjoy the meat at least, and Charmian fished around in her own pack to find a relatively intact candy bar; she handed it to him before Pakwa could catch on. He sniffed it, tore it open, then started eating it just as assiduously, his eyes alight. "It tastes better than maple sugar!"
"That's because it's chocolate," Charmian said with a smile. "Oh...that's right. I'm Charmian, and this is Winter Born, and that's Thomas over there..." she waved at him, as he was still trying to navigate his way down toward them, a scowl on his face. "And the rest...well...they can come and introduce themselves if they want. What's your name? What're you doing way out here?"
He slowed in his eating and lowered his head a bit. "Little...Little Wind," he said in a small voice, then resumed gnawing on the candy bar. "I was just making my way along the river..."
"Oh! Are you seeking a vision?" Charmian asked, pointing at the scrolls hanging from his pack; he glanced at them as if having forgotten they were there. "Those look like Mide scrolls! Are you one of them--?"
Little Wind blinked, then blushed a little and quickly shook his head. "No--not really--"
"Oh." Charmian frowned a little. "You don't have a Megis shell," she said, finally noticing that there was no cowrie among his necklaces; he put his hand over them as if to hide them. She felt a little bad for embarrassing him. "Oh! I bet you're studying to be a Mide--right?" she asked, and smiled again. "I know the feeling!"
Little Wind blinked a few times, meeting her eyes, then seemed to relax a little, and offered his own meek smile which made hers grow. "Actually...I'm hunting," he said after a moment, rubbing at his neck as if embarrassed to admit it; then, "Ow!"--when Stick-In-The-Dirt pressed something against his back.
"Hunting?" Winter Born turned back toward them, tilting her head and looking at his pack. "You don't look like you're carrying any hunting things..."
"It's a different kind of hunt," Little Wind explained when Charmian waved at Winter Born to shush her. "It's a bit hard to explain," he said to Charmian, apologetically.
"Don't worry," Charmian replied. "I know how personal these things can be, so I won't pry too much! Which way are you headed, though--? Maybe we could travel together."
"Oh." Little Wind lowered his head again. "Actually...I'm supposed to be on my own...you understand...right?" he said when her smile faded. She blinked, but made herself nod again.
"Sure...of course I do." She pointed. "We're heading north. Up the river, and then out into Gitchi-Gami!"
"Gitchi-Gami?" Little Wind echoed, his eyes growing. "Why do you head there? You do know that it's Mishupishu season, don't you--?"
Charmian shrugged. "They're kind of the reason why we're going! We're looking for somebody and we kind of have to take a shortcut somewhere up that way...to get north of the lake."
Charmian nodded; Thomas at last reached her and plopped down beside her, still scowling. "We have to speak with the North Wind."
Little Wind's brow furrowed. "Kabebonikka? If you must speak with a Wind, why not try another of them? I've heard he's the nastiest of the lot..."
"Well...we've already tried the other ones," Charmian admitted. "And they were kind of dead ends."
"Gitchi-Gami is dangerous this time of year," Little Wind went on. He seemed genuinely concerned, and even scootched a bit closer, ignoring how Stick-In-The-Dirt frowned at him. "Not only are there the Lynxes but there's an island there as well, a strange island with a strange man on it--"
Charmian nodded again. "Mishosha--we know," she said, when his eyes grew. "Everybody's been telling us about him all the way here. But I think we can handle him."
"He's as powerful as a manitou," Little Wind insisted. He shivered. "He's been terrorizing these parts for ages now...since before I was born, at least...you really think you can stand against such a person?"
"We have our ways," Charmian said, glancing around at their party; Kenu was scratching his nose while Pakwa picked his toenails, and she rolled her eyes and turned back. "Sort of."
Little Wind pursed his lips. "Well...I certainly hope so! I have yet to meet anyone with medicine strong enough to face such a being. He has manitous who serve him, and the Lynxes, and everything...some say the island itself obeys him. Oh!" He started grabbing at the dangling scrolls, first looking one over, then another, before tugging one loose. "I have a spell somewhere on here--here it is!--which might help you out, just a little bit...nothing too grand, I'm afraid." He meekly handed it over; Charmian unrolled it and looked at it. She could tell what the figures on it must represent, but they made no real sense out of context. Little Wind started pointing at them.
"I had a dream like this so it should work," he said. "That's Gitchi-Gami...see?"
"I guess," Charmian said, even as she thought, I didn't know Lake Superior was square.
"And this is where the great rocks are, the ones that look as if they've been painted," Little Wind went on, "and here is the island Mishosha supposedly lives on...though it travels, they say...and here are the Lynxes in the lake." He pointed at some little birdlike forms drawn above the square that represented Lake Superior. "And here are some Animiki! They who fight the Underwater Lynxes. The Animiki are the friends of mankind. If you find yourself at the lake, and being attacked by the Lynxes, just recite the words on this scroll, and the Animiki should come."
"I'm not sure how to read it," Charmian admitted, feeling a bit foolish.
"Oh," Little Wind said, blinking. He coughed. "Well...just say, 'Animiki, in the sky like lowering clouds, hurl your lightning, and bring death among the Lynxes.' This is all that need be done. The Animiki should come at that."
"Thanks," Charmian said, her spirits lightening a little as she rolled it up again. "This should come in really useful."
"Be careful that you recite the words just so," Little Wind advised. "Just as I said them. 'Animiki, in the sky like lowering clouds, hurl your lightning, and bring death among the Lynxes.' If you say it wrong, it might not work. This is the way it was said in my dream."
"'Animiki, in the sky like lowering clouds, hurl your lightning, and bring death among the Lynxes,'" Charmian echoed. "Got it." She tucked the scroll in her vest pocket, snapping it shut just in case. "Oh," she said, remembering. "I should give you something in return..."
"No--that's all right!" Little Wind said; he got to his feet so hastily that he nearly bowled over Stick-In-The-Dirt, who was just finishing patching up his back. "It's a gift," he insisted, and smiled. "For your trip to Gitchi-Gami! In the hope that all goes well in your search."
Charmian stared at him for a moment, then her smile returned. "Thank you then!" she exclaimed, and Little Wind readjusted his pack and swept his birchbarks aside so they didn't dangle over his arms. "You're leaving so soon? There's more food, if you need it..."
Little Wind shook his head. "No...I probably shouldn't have eaten what I did!" He blushed. "Though it really did help. My back feels much better already; megwetch," he said to Stick-In-The-Dirt, who was slowly rising to his own feet. "I'd better get going before I fall too far behind," he finished, giving her a rather awkward but winning smile. "You understand...right?"
Charmian nodded. "Right!" She reached out her hand to him; he stared at it, puzzled, for a moment, then took it, and she shook it up and down. "Nice to meet you, Little Wind. Maybe we'll cross each other on the way back!"
His face lit up. "I think I would like that!" He turned and started walking along the riverbank, heading roughly eastward. "Good luck at the lake!"
"Likewise with your hunt!" Charmian called after him, waving and then standing to watch as he picked his way through the tall grass and eventually faded from sight around a bend. She patted at her pocket and turned back to the others. Stick-In-The-Dirt, Thomas, and Winter Born were all staring at her.
"Wasn't that nice?" she exclaimed, adjusting her own pack. "Now aren't you glad we stopped?"
Winter Born furrowed her brow. "I don't remember saying we weren't!"
"I don't know," Thomas said in a suspicious voice. "Something about the bloke was way too friendly."
Charmian rolled her eyes and tramped up the slope toward him. "Oh, for goodness' sake. No wonder you don't like to make friends on the Island!"
"That injury to his back was pretty deep," Stick-In-The-Dirt murmured, rubbing his hands together. "I'm not certain that he should really be traveling in such a condition."
"You heard what he said," Charmian said. "He said a branch poked him. That's got to hurt."
"It seemed rather too deep for that," Stick-In-The-Dirt insisted. "I think it was more like a wound." He lowered his head. "But I wouldn't know for certain," he admitted.
"Maybe he was attacked by this Mishosha person or one of his manitous!" Winter Born suggested. "And didn't want to admit it! Because he didn't want to appear too weak or something. Maybe?"
"I suppose," Stick-In-The-Dirt said a bit reluctantly.
"Oh, come on!" Charmian sighed, stepping back out onto the little overlook. "Let's just enjoy our break, and then head on to the lake. We shouldn't have anything to worry about now, with this scroll and everything. At the very least, it'll give us a leg up."
"Charmian," a voice said, and she glanced up to see Moon Wolf making his way down toward her. He held out his hand. "Let me see that scroll," he said.
Charmian frowned a little but unsnapped her pocket and took it out. "Why? You think something's wrong with it?" she asked as he received it and sat down a little way above her to open it up and look at it. "It seems on the up and up..."
"I find it strange that he would hand you a scroll without asking for payment," Moon Wolf said, perusing the little images.
Charmian's brow furrowed. "You mean you don't trust him, either--? Well, what does it say then? If that's not what it really says?"
Moon Wolf shook his head, frowning himself. "Each scroll is different and the systems of reading are different as well. Unless the owner advises you how to read it, it may as well be in another tongue." He sat and stared at the drawings for a moment or two. "It looks as if it might say what he claims," he admitted after a while had passed.
Charmian rolled her eyes. "Well, that's a relief! Do you think I can have it back, then?"
Moon Wolf stared at it a moment more before his eyes grew dark, but he rolled it up and returned it. "It is still strange," he said, "that he didn't ask for payment in return."
"He said it was a gift."
"Such a scroll as this is never given as a gift. It's far too valuable."
"Well then, he gave it in return for the food and help we gave him," Charmian said, gesturing at Stick-In-The-Dirt. "That's what it was for."
"But why didn't he just say that?" Winter Born asked. "If that's what he wanted to pay for..."
"He was just being polite! It kind of takes away from the meaning of a gift if you say it's in exchange for something!" Charmian glared at each of them. "Cripes! A guy stumbles along practically on his last leg and all anyone can think of is what he might be up to. I think Winter Born might be right, and he probably was attacked by Mishosha or his manitous. You did say that wound was deep--?" she said to Stick-In-The-Dirt; he blushed a little but bobbed his head. "And he did seem pretty scared of him, and concerned about us meeting up with him. He just wanted to save face. I bet this scroll was his way of getting back at him, in fact--he sees that we stand a far better chance than he did. So there--is that payment enough?"
Moon Wolf scowled a little, then pushed himself to his feet and went back up the slope.
Charmian watched him go, brow furrowed, perplexed; she glanced down when Winter Born appeared at her side and looked up at her.
"I think you're right!" she said. "It all makes sense that way!"
Charmian stared at her for a moment, then sighed a little and ruffled her hair. "Yeah...I guess. At least we're one step closer to Mishosha." She glanced down at the river, and suddenly yearned to put her feet in it, just like she'd always wanted to do. "And Gitchi-Gami isn't too far away," she added. "We can afford to take a little break before then. And then--the lake, the Weaver tunnel, and Kabebonikka!"
"Kabebonikka!" Winter Born echoed, hopping up and down so her braids bounced. She started running for the water again. "Last one there is a rotten pinecone!"
"A rotten egg!" Charmian retorted, and raced her down the bank and into the water with a splash.
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