|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 76: Dream Quest"
CHARMIAN STARED AT Dakh with wide eyes. She no longer noticed the wind whipping warm yet madly around her. Somehow she could see the Ocryx in the blackness, as if he glowed, yet gave off no light. He, the dim sun, and herself were all she could see.
"Dakh...?" she murmured, confused. "What...what are you doing here?"
This is my duty, Dakh replied, hand still extended. He tipped his head. You know this is a dream...so you have no reason to fear it.
"What...what do you want?"
I wish to show you something.
She hesitated a moment before reaching up and taking his hand. He pulled her up toward himself and her feet left the ground, yet she didn't hang limply in the air. It was as if she floated now, the demon merely guiding her. She glanced around at the ground invisible beneath her, the only light below that reflecting off the lake.
"Why aren't you with Drake?" she suddenly thought to ask.
I am, Dakh said, yet wherever else I am needed, as well. Do you remember this place?
"I told Sikt that already. This is another dream I had a long time ago."
You claimed you do not remember how the dream goes, Dakh said. Do you stand by this claim?
Charmian swallowed. "Why would I lie about it? And why are all you guys so concerned about what I'm dreaming--what I USED to dream? I forgot about it all until now."
The wind picked up again and she gasped and clung to his arm. He cocked his head.
Do you still stand by your claim?
She glanced up at him and flushed, forcing her fingers to loosen. "I...um...might kind of vaguely remember it. But not very much."
Allow me to refresh your memory then.
He raised his other hand in a sweeping gesture and once more the wind howled. Charmian glanced up to see the already-dim sun grow even dimmer as dark clouds moved in, and she clung to Dakh's arm again, eyes welling up.
"Make it go away."
This is your dream. I do not make it go away; I only show you the side you do not wish to see.
"What kind of thing is that for a friend to do?"
I told you that I am the Render of Dreams. This is what I do.
Charmian squinched her eyes shut and clung tightly to Dakh's arm as the sun blacked out. After a moment the wind slowly died down--and Dakh seemed to disappear with it. His arm vanished from her grasp and she gasped, eyes popping open onto utter blackness. She glanced around wildly but saw nothing, heard nothing but the faint murmur of the wind.
She turned in a tight circle a few times with no results. Her heart squeezed up into her throat and she screamed as loudly as she could. "DAAAAAAAAKH!!"
I am here, Charmian.
She sucked in a breath and held it. He was still nearby. The panic that had been surging up through her lessened a little bit, still boiling beneath the surface. She swallowed and it went down hard.
"Where are you? Please come back!"
I have never left you, as Sikt never left you when you were alone in the dark.
"She was--she was with me?" Charmian's voice rose into a shrill squeak. "She was WITH me all that time when I was wandering around? Why did she do that? Why are YOU doing this? Are you some kind of sadists?!"
It is the duty of a Dreamrender to show to the dreamer that which they do not like to see, but must. She strained her ears when he paused. You do remember this dream, Charmian. You had it when you were young.
"SO I DID! SO WHAT!" Charmian yelled. "What does it even matter anymore! I told you I forgot about it until now! Just like that stupid fountain dream!"
How do you feel, right now?
"ANGRY!" Charmian clenched her fists and waved them, though she wasn't sure he could see. "Angry and freaked out and--"
The voice wasn't Dakh's. It was her own thoughts. Her voice immediately lowered into a murmur of surprise as the adjective worked its way out, unbidden.
The wind murmured and fell silent. Charmian's eyes widened and she glanced around futilely for any vision, any sound of any kind.
"Dakh?" she cried, pleading.
You feel alone, Dakh's voice said, instantly calming her somewhat. This is how you felt when Sikt "left" you. You are not afraid of the dark. You are afraid of being alone.
Charmian's hand crept up to grasp at her collar. She forced herself to stand still, though in truth she wanted to go running.
"So...so what? What does this matter?"
You have faced almost every fear that you have, Dakh replied. Yet this is the one you refuse even to acknowledge. Why are you afraid to admit that you do not wish to be alone?
"I never said I did. You said it."
Dakh's form appeared, above her again. The dim sunlight returned over the black lake, and she could feel the ground beneath her feet. The demon gave her a reproachful look.
Even yet you deny it.
"I'm not denying anything!" Charmian's temper flared. "I'm just asking why this even matters! So what if I'm afraid of being alone? Go ahead and laugh! You think that bothers me by now?"
Laugh? The demon spoke out of what sounded to be genuine surprise; then his voice became more neutral. I see. The root travels deeper than I had thought. You are not afraid of being alone. You are afraid of being weak.
"Wh--what--?" Charmian started, paling.
To be afraid of being alone is a sign of weakness. You are afraid of admitting this. Even to the point of being caught in a lie. Why is this so? Do you feel you will no longer be able to protect the Island if you are seen as weak?
"I'm not weak, for God's sake!" Charmian snapped. "So I freaked out a little bit when YOU guys decided to abandon me! It's hardly my fault you think it's some kind of game!"
You deny you are weak?
"I'M NOT WEAK!" Charmian shouted, before realizing how like Ocryx's her cry was. She clapped her hands to her mouth with a horrified look, unable to believe she'd just said that.
Do you have another fear? Dakh mused. A fear of becoming like that which you despise...? The darkness around her began to shift and lighten. Charmian looked about, to see walls of rock form around her, rising tall and vanishing into mist overhead. The ground solidified beneath her feet, changing to damp stone. The murmuring wind was replaced by a distant dripping, and she again recognized the scenery of Devil's Lake.
You, Dakh, now invisible again, said. Afraid of being alone. Afraid of being weak. Charmian blinked and frowned, squinting when a shape appeared far down the tunnel ahead, coming slowly her way. After a moment she finally recognized the face, eyes downcast, filled with sadness. Her brow furrowed.
She, Dakh said. Afraid of being alone. Afraid of being strong.
Charmian opened her mouth to speak, when several manitous appeared before Red Bird, seemingly melting out from the walls. Red Bird lifted her head--she didn't seem to be able to see Charmian watching her--and her eyes widened on seeing the creatures. At first the manitous stared at her with some surprise, evidently not expecting her to be there; then their eyes narrowed and they hissed and skulked away into a side tunnel. Red Bird raised one hand.
But by now the manitous were gone. Red Bird stood alone in the tunnel, staring after them. Her head lowered again and she continued on her way, past Charmian, who watched her go by in silence. As soon as she passed, the cave walls shifted and changed again to form the trees of the woods on the Island, the dimness now replaced by sunlight. Charmian blinked a few times to get used to it before looking back to see what Red Bird would do now. She still walked, only now through the woods, not seeming to notice the strangeness of her situation. Charmian hurried to follow her.
Red Bird stopped and raised her head again. This time, instead of manitous, a pair of women went walking across her path, laughing and chattering with each other. Two natives, who could have come from any tribe upon the Island. Red Bird's eyes grew with a look of hope and she stared after them longingly. A moment passed before the two noticed her, and they stopped as well. Their own eyes grew, but with not quite the same look; they whispered to each other and hurried away into the woods, leaving her behind again.
Red Bird's eyes welled up. She put her hands to them and turned and ran the other way, brushing past Charmian as she went. "Tal Natha!..." she sobbed, and disappeared among the trees.
Charmian just stared after where she'd vanished, eyes wide and glassy.
She has a power. This you know, Dakh said. You also know that she denies it. That she fears being strong. She knows that to be strong she will be shunned and she will be feared. Like you she does not wish to be alone. The trees faded and vanished back into darkness. Yet unlike you, she wishes to be seen as weak. So she will belong. The same thing that you wish.
Charmian shook her head again. "I...I don't understand."
Dakh reappeared; again they were near the lake, though the dim sun was a tiny bit brighter and she could make out the shapes of trees lining the water's edge. The demon cocked his head with some curiosity.
It is interesting how willing you are to deny that you are alike. You are a reflection.
"What--?" Charmian managed to blurt out, before the Ocryx disappeared once more and the wind rose, black clouds obscuring the sun. She chattered and clutched her arms, willing it to all go away. When the wind reached a screaming crescendo she let her voice join it, clapping her hands to her ears.
She sat up abruptly, still screaming. Her eyes flew open and she saw X'aaru and Manabozho jump back. The cry died in her throat and she gasped and jumped herself when something soft nuzzled at her neck.
Red Land One! Mani exclaimed. He stood beside her, still in his deer form. You are all right?
Charmian stared through him for a moment, not really seeing him, before glancing around at the others, her breath fast. They gave her curious looks but remained silent. She put one hand to her breast to try to stop her heart from fluttering about so wildly.
"I...yeah, I think so."
"You had a dream?" X'aaru asked, taking a step forward.
"Yeah, a...a nightmare." Charmian sucked in a breath. She finally realized exactly what "Dreamrender" meant. He who tears apart thought. She took hold of Mani's leg and pulled herself up. "Where are we?"
Manabozho pointed upward, and she saw the start of a great high slope. "Fort Holmes. Up there, if you're up to it."
Charmian nodded. She pulled herself atop Mani's back--she figured she either must have fallen off while dreaming, or they'd stopped and let her down--and the four of them started up the steep hill toward the top of the Island.
"My offer still stands," Manabozho said, leaping up the slope effortlessly. He grabbed onto saplings as he went, and she wondered how he didn't fall. "Red Bird has, what, how many moons left? Perhaps four or five? That gives you four or five moons in which to learn how to better defend yourself--and her." He got ahead of them, and X'aaru hurried a bit to catch up. Gouts of snow rolled down the slope behind them; she had to avoid looking back so as not to become nauseated. She cast him a look as he slowed down to let Mani past.
"You can really teach me something new?" she asked dubiously. "That Moon Wolf didn't already?"
"Trust me, friend, there are plenty of things he didn't teach you simply because he wasn't able to." He waved a hand at her before leaping ahead. "Did you know that every tree has a different sort of medicine? A maple tree will give you a broad strong power, but a birch will give you a power that's sharp and quick. This goes without mentioning the power that pine trees give..."
"Okay, so you can teach me the difference between tree powers! What good is that?"
He made a chucking noise. "That maple you used on Kawaduk was pretty effective in surprising him. But I doubt it would have worked very well on the female Ocryx--especially since she's not a woodling."
Charmian felt like snapping at him, but something about his response piqued her interest. "Say she was a woodling," she said. "Then why wouldn't it have worked very well on her?"
"Like I said, a maple has a broad strong power--wide, but not very focused. The Ocryx is very quick and agile. She could easily dodge such an attack, and the most it would probably do is knock her over. You would need to use another type of tree."
"What do you recommend?" she asked, feeling as if she were in a restaurant looking at a wine list.
He shrugged and grabbed onto a sapling. "A birch is quick and flexible. With a medicine that's easily manipulated. A pine is also good, sharp and stinging..."
"Oh." Charmian made a face. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but this sounds like it's starting to make sense."
Manabozho smirked at her and dodged a fall of snow. "You see? This is only a little of it. I have yet to talk about rocks, soils, waters, fires, grasses, flowers, plants, winds..."
"Okay, okay." Charmian sighed. "But I should really keep an eye on Red Bird."
"You're already doing this. We simply keep to the same schedule as before, only more so. You are slacking."
"I can't help it that demons decide to attack me wherever I go. It's kind of distracting, you know."
"Understandable. Speak with Red Bird when we get there and let her know what you plan."
He rushed on ahead of them, disappearing from sight. Charmian chewed on her lip, wishing he would have waited up. She nudged Mani in the flank and, breath rasping, he trudged along.
Fort Holmes looked much different in winter. The wooden logs rimming the top were coated with snow so only a great white bowl existed on top of the hill, a small hole at the far end where the entranceway sat. A trail was already here, where Manabozho had crossed. They tromped through it to get back to the cave, facing the usual difficulty of getting down the cliff face safely; Charmian climbed off Mani, who was already having a hard enough time, and allowed X'aaru to carry her down. Drake poked his head out of the cave to watch them descend, and waved.
"You guys look like drunk spiders!"
She nearly yelled, but the comment was just so stupid--and the ledge so precarious--that she didn't.
She landed on the ledge safely, Manabozho already there and X'aaru following shortly. Mani landed with a loud clump and a batch of snow fell on his back. He stood up to shake it off every which way like a giant dog, and made a sheepish face.
"Red Bird and Silver Eagle Feather made some stuff to eat," Drake continued when she approached, brushing herself off. "Meat, I think. I mean I hope. You can never really be too sure in this place!"
"It's probably venison."
"I'm just glad we don't have to sample the fare over at Devil's Kitchen. You would probably give me g--" Charmian smacked him hard on the back before he could finish, and he started choking and coughing.
"If anybody would give anybody else gas, Drake, it would be you, trust me."
Drake just continued coughing. "...What did I say about you before, Charm?...that you're a snit...?"
Charmian made her way inside the cave, rubbing her hands. Ocryx still dozed where he'd been before, and Silver Eagle Feather now tended to a fire. Charmian had no idea where the smoke went, but it certainly didn't clog up the cave. Tal Natha was in the back, sleeping himself; she wondered if he spun his own dreams, or went without. She saw Red Bird picking up a few pieces of meat, and went over to join her.
"Hello, Charmian," Red Bird greeted, and handed her a wooden plate with the meat on it. Charmian took it and they sat down not too far from Tal Natha, in the corner of the room. Charmian started picking at the food, casting Red Bird a glance.
"You're not going to eat?"
"Oh." Red Bird put her hands on her belly and smiled meekly. "I don't much feel up to it today...even though Tal Natha says I should eat to keep up my strength..."
"He's right, you know."
"I know...perhaps tomorrow when I feel better."
"Are you scared?" Charmian asked around a mouthful of...whatever it was. "About the baby. Not really knowing how to take care of one?"
"Oh." Red Bird flushed a little. "Well...yes...sometimes. I...don't really know if I would make a good mother." She looked down at the floor. "Tal Natha says that I will, but I keep fearing..."
"Are you afraid of yourself?" Charmian asked it before she knew what she was saying; once out, she had no way to take it back, and was too embarrassed to see Red Bird's reaction, so stared at the floor herself. She sensed puzzlement from the woman beside her before she answered.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Sometimes."
"Why?" Charmian finally looked up at her. Red Bird didn't meet her eyes, instead picked at the corner of her dress.
"The way everyone looks at me when I don't act the same way they do...I hate to be looked at like that. Some days I just wish to be normal..."
"They treat you differently?"
"Oh yes, of course. They do this with all Ocryxes and halflings...even Silver Eagle Feather...though she has much more respect in her tribe, and Black Elk Horn is one of their best warriors, so they don't dare speak aloud about it. But..."
"But...I lived with him, for a long time...and now with Tal Natha...they fear him also, even though he's never done anything to hurt any of them." Her fists tightened and Charmian was surprised to sense anger. "I know it's just because they've seen so many bad things happen because of my father...and they simply don't understand...but it still hurts inside to see them look at me like that, as if I would hurt them too..."
Charmian frowned. "Are they all like this?"
"Many of them. Not all...I feel that Black Elk Horn doesn't trust all of us, but he gets angry too, because of the way they look at Silver Eagle Feather sometimes." She peered toward the fire and lowered her voice. "He's...I heard he wishes she would have given him a son, but he never speaks of it, and it may only be a rumor..."
"But he has a son," Charmian said. "X'aaru."
"But this is Ocryx's son."
Charmian blinked, surprised she hadn't even thought of that. "Oh."
"He doesn't trust Tal Natha either...but at least he's not as bad as some of the others. Yellow Turtle is tolerant. I've spoken with him before, and he was very kind. Perhaps this is because he's so old and wise. Little Dove is friendly to me; she's not afraid even of Father himself. Stick-In-The-Dirt...well...I sense that he's afraid, but he's kind, and he's never turned me away." She chewed on her lip a little bit. "Though he has every reason to, from what I've heard..."
Charmian chewed on a piece of meet and peered at her. "What have you heard?"
"Oh...about Stick-In-The-Dirt. I heard that...he was the one who set Father free from the lake. He didn't mean to. But it happened. And..." She trailed off and stared at her knees, eyes slightly wet. "And they said that...Father tore a pathway across the Island...he was enraged...and he killed everyone in his path. Everyone...everyone in Stick-In-The-Dirt's tribe...his chief, his friends, his wife...everyone but himself and his daughters...they were all killed. For...for some reason Father let his daughters escape into the woods...and he found them there and went to live with the tribe he's with now. They talked about him behind his back for a while, so I've heard...saying that perhaps he was responsible...so maybe this is why he understands how I feel sometimes." She wiped a hand across one eye. "Though I still wish it were something that had just never happened."
Charmian was about to say, If it had never happened, you wouldn't be here now, but then thought better of it; what if Red Bird's point was things would be better without her here? She tried to think of what it would be like if her own dad were a murderer of dozens of people, and the thought wasn't a pleasant one.
No wonder she's upset...
"They think that maybe I have the same powers he does," Red Bird continued in a soft voice. "Even though when I was with him, he tried to make sure I never used any powers...I heard that he did much the same thing with Silver Eagle Feather after she was born, held most of her medicine from her, until she demanded it back...I never wanted my own though, with the way they would look at me when I would leave the lake...I would have been happy to be without it, all of it, if they would just not be afraid of me. I hate that they hate me."
"They don't hate you," Charmian countered quickly. "They just...I don't know, don't understand. Maybe if they understood...?"
"Who would explain it to them?" Red Bird wiped her other eye and looked up at her. "They would never listen to anyone, since the only ones willing to explain would be us. We the...halflings. And of course, they think we lie all the time, also...my father and Ocryana and that other Ocryx haven't done much to change their minds..." She sniffled and wiped her nose. "I do wish sometimes someone else had this power and I didn't..."
Charmian bit her own lip. The strange dream with Red Bird in it, herself viewing Red Bird's nightmare, floated around in her head, making her anxious all over again. She swallowed the feeling down and took a breath.
"Will you promise me something, Red Bird?"
Red Bird looked at her again, questioning.
"I have to say something," Charmian said. "I'm afraid of myself, too."
Red Bird blinked. "You...you are? But why?"
Charmian leaned back against the cave wall and poked at the plate sitting on her leg. "Somebody showed me that I'm a lot like you...I keep thinking Tal Natha chose the wrong person, too. You're worried that your powers might be out of your control? I'm worried that I might not have the right powers. What if I mess up? This whole Island goes kaplooey. I promised to help, and what if I can't keep that promise?"
Red Bird stared at her with a look of surprise. "You really think you might make a mistake? That you can't help us? But...you always seemed so confident. I was certain you knew what you were doing, and I was the one who didn't know."
Charmian's mouth twitched. "Well...I think we've both been surprised, today." She sat forward. "But will you promise me something?"
"I...I don't know. What do you want me to promise?"
"If Tal Natha turns out to be right," Charmian said. "If one of us does turn out to be just as he said we were. Whether it's you or me. Whichever one of us proves this first...the other one of us has to promise that we'll believe in ourselves, too. If I prove him right, then you have to believe he was right about you. If you prove him right, I have to believe the same about me." She held out her hand. "I think we could both use some confidence like that."
Red Bird stared at her for a moment, then looked down at her hand as if not certain what she was meant to do. Finally, she tentatively reached out and placed her hand in Charmian's; Charmian's fingers wrapped around hers, and she felt Red Bird squeeze back, just a little. She smiled and Red Bird flushed.
"I'm...still not sure that I can do this," she murmured.
"It's okay," Charmian replied. "If I can end up proving him right, then you can do anything!"
Dark eyes met her own. "You--you really believe this?"
Charmian nodded and smiled again. "I'm promising too, aren't I? What do you say?"
Red Bird continued to stare at her, uncertain, before braving a tiny smile of her own and moving her hand up and down.
"All right...I promise."
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