|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 91: Every Little Thing He Does"
SINGING CEDARS SAT stiffly beside the wall in Francois's cabin, staring at the short plump woman with the big gun. He mentally willed her to put it down, or to fall asleep, or do anything other than aim it in his general direction, yet it seemed like she wasn't going to tire any time soon. She managed somehow to keep it trained on him the entire time she cooked a pot of stew, and he wasn't even certain how she did that.
He scowled as she stirred the pot. "Crazy woman," he muttered.
Crooked Creek lifted her head and made a face at him. "Eera-koy mutt!"
Singing Cedars blinked, then lowered his head, flushing. How was it that everybody around here spoke his language so perfectly...?
He resigned himself to silence, continuing to watch as she set some meat upon the wooden table not far from the fire and returned to her stirring. The howling noise of the wind outside unnerved him, especially since it should have been the height of summer. He still couldn't believe the snow piling up around the windows.
He gasped and started when he noticed the woman coming right toward him, and shrank back toward the wall. She leaned over him and grasped hold of the loose end of his bandage.
"Time to be changed!" she snapped, and yanked it off. Singing Cedars let out a scream which seemed to bounce off every wall in the cabin and back again. Crooked Creek merely wadded up and tossed the bandage away, then dug out another one and grabbed onto his arm, pulling it up at an excruciating angle as she started wrapping the new cloth around his shoulder. Singing Cedars wailed the entire time.
"Quit whining like a baby!" Crooked Creek groused, securing the bandage under his arm. "Puppies take pain better than you!"
Singing Cedars gritted his teeth, squirming in agony. "Try sticking an arrow in your shoulder and putting up with someone like you, wench!"
Crooked Creek's face grew indescribable, and he cowered against the wall again. SMACK. Singing Cedars cried out when she whapped him on top of the head, making his feathers spin every which way before she whirled away from him and back toward the fire. She stirred the soup again as if nothing had even happened, though by now Singing Cedars was beginning to wonder if he would ever make it out of here alive. Facing off against the enemy chief seemed like a brighter option.
Just as Crooked Creek pulled the ladle out of the pot to sniff at it, a thudding noise came from overhead and both of them glanced up. Something scuttled across the roof, and seemed to be poking around near the chimney.
Crooked Creek bared her teeth and held up the gun. "Wendigo!" she muttered, and went to the door. Singing Cedars shivered at the cold that surged inside as soon as she opened it and stepped outside into the snow. He heard her tramping away, and strained his ears to tell what was going on. As soon as he realized she was not near the door anymore, his spirits rose again and he glanced around himself.
Finally! He was alone!
He very, very slowly got to his feet, and tiptoed across the room to peer out the door. He could hear talking, but it sounded as if the madwoman were alone, and she was still away from the door. Singing Cedars considered simply fleeing outside when a pain shot through his stomach and he put his hand to it with a wince. He paused to look at the table with its little pile of meat, and his stomach growled. He nearly started drooling.
How long had it been since he'd last eaten...? He couldn't even remember.
From outside came the sound of the gun discharging, making him almost jump out of his clothes. His eyes grew as big as saucers and he shook all over.
With hardly another thought, he dashed to the table, picked up the meat, and shoved it in his pouch. He then peeped out of the nearest window, and then dashed to the door. He made sure to crane his neck and look as far around the yard as he could, but the madwoman was still nowhere in sight. Unable to quite believe his luck, Singing Cedars decided not to question it, and fled away through the snow as fast as his legs could carry him.
* * * * *
Thunk. Two feet and two hands struck the roof of the cabin, a puff of snow rising in the air around them though the cold didn't bother them in the least. Pakwa crouched on all fours before lifting his head to sniff at the air. The last time he'd eaten something truly delicious...although he wasn't too picky...had been from the pack of the mainlander, and that had been a while ago now. An aromatic scent drifted up from the chimney of the cabin and Pakwa shuffled toward it like a moth to a flame, nostrils flaring. He tilted his head over the chimney and took in a breath of the smoke pouring out. Some sort of meat was roasting inside--rabbit meat. Pakwa could recognize the scent of any type of food he had ever eaten, even if just once, and this was definitely rabbit--probably cottontail, brown. He took another sniff. And of medium size. Salivating, he clambered toward the front of the cabin to try to seek the easiest means of entry, aside from jumping down the chimney or gusting in through a crack in the wood.
Just as he reached the corner the door opened and a short squat figure came bustling out into the side yard, holding something long in its hands. It turned and glared up at him and Pakwa recognized it as an Islander, though he did not know her very well, and didn't really care. She carried the scent of the meat on her, and he knew he was in the right place.
Before he could jump down and head inside, the Islander scowled at him. "Stupid GeeBee!" she snapped, and held up the gun. "Go back to where you came from! Nothing for you here!"
Perhaps he would have seen fit to correct her--the scent of meat was definitely coming from this place--had she not chosen that moment to lift the gun and fire it, blasting the corner off of the roof. Pakwa jumped back, startled, landing nearer the middle. He made certain his fingers were all intact before feeling a tiny bit affronted by such treatment. Then he noticed the other little figure dashing out of the cabin and off into the woods, and cocked his head to the side in curiosity. An even stronger smell of meat came from this figure, and Pakwa's ears pricked in immediate interest. Without another thought for the person with the gun, he rose into the air and swooshed off after the second figure.
The Islander with the gun just shook it at him as he flew overhead. "Go on then! Stupid Wendigo! Eating anything that moves!"
That wasn't true; Pakwa had never gotten quite used to the taste of things which still moved. It didn't matter, though. He kept his eyes on the little figure stumbling away through the woods, and swept down overhead to make certain to keep it in his sight.
* * * * *
Singing Cedars ran as fast as he could, tripping and nearly falling every few yards, clutching at his pained shoulder. A gust of wind swept over him and he paused just long enough to look up and back. An eerie shape floated down from the sky, descending just overhead. Singing Cedars's eyes widened when he saw the large owlish eyes and abnormally long crooked fingers and claws. The creature opened its mouth and all he could see then was row after row of needle-sharp teeth. Singing Cedars's eyes nearly fell out of his head; with a scream he turned back to face the snow-buried trail, picking up his pace so that he tripped and stumbled even more, yet he didn't even notice. All he could think of doing was getting away from there, as quickly as possible.
Enemy chiefs! Little medicine girls! Brutish madwomen! he thought feverishly as he ran. And now--WHATEVER this thing is! Will this Island ever let me go--?!
The little figure continued its mad rampage down through the woods and toward the town, the GeeBee following along right after it.
* * * * *
Moon Wolf sat and stared at the far corner of Cave of the Woods, trying to make out anything that might lie there, though by now it was so dark that it was a wonder that he could see anything. The fire was on its last legs, but he made no move to stir it up. Cold drafts wafted around him but he didn't even notice them anymore.
All that time...he was here, watching me. All those years when I thought I was doing some small service. He watched me all that time...? He used me to try to get to her. What would I have done if she hadn't stopped me in time...?
Did I even make it to the Spirit Road? I cannot even remember...
He shut his eyes and rubbed at them, furrowing his brow. He clearly remembered everything from the mainlander's last time here, by now, including their fight with Ocryana. He remembered going at her with a little knife; even though he knew such an attempt was utterly ridiculous, still, it had given Charmian the time she needed. He remembered the searing stab of pain to his breast when the demon impaled him, and he dimly remembered Charmian's teary face before his own, just before...he couldn't remember anything else. He had a vague hazy thought of being in the dark, of feeling lost, but...that was all. He didn't remember seeing the Road, and he certainly had no memory of ever seeing Chakenapok.
All of this trouble she is in this time...this is because of me? Because I was the one who trained her? He sighed to himself. She would probably have been far better off, if I had never spoken to her in that dream so long ago...
The sound of shifting snow caught his attention and he lifted his head, peering back toward the cave entrance. Something crouched and crawled inside on hands and knees, and Moon Wolf sat and watched, perplexed, as Charmian made her way into the middle of the cave. Without a word she moved to sit not too far from the corner he had been staring at, and she drew her legs up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. She stared at the pathetic fire for a moment before holding up one hand.
"Fire," she murmured, and a fireling popped out of the weak flames, bouncing around a few times before vanishing back into the embers; a moment later the fire grew somewhat, and started to warm the cave. Moon Wolf stared at it for a moment or so, then looked back up at her.
Charmian was staring at her snowshoes by now. After a pause she reached behind herself to pull off her backpack and started digging in it. She stopped after a moment, blushed a little, then set it beside her and fiddled her fingers.
"I forgot," she said. "I think you have it."
Moon Wolf frowned slightly, then dug in his own pouch. He pulled out the silver wolf-and-moon pendant and held it up questioningly.
Charmian nodded. When a short time passed and she didn't say anything else, he lowered the pendant to the cave floor and glanced at the fire.
"I'm trying to understand," she said, and he looked at her again. She stared at the fire also. "What would make somebody do something like what you did," she continued, and he had to look away. "Especially when you're somebody who I know's not selfish. I'm trying to figure out what would be so important that you would give something like that up, and I'm not understanding it."
"There is nothing to understand," Moon Wolf said.
She looked up at him. "I don't believe that. If you taught me anything, it was that nothing ever has a simple answer. That's why I'm even bothering to try to understand." She paused. "Just tell me why it was so important. That you got your powers no matter what the price. That's what I can't get. I know you're not stupid; so why did you do that?"
"You have never done something stupid?" Moon Wolf asked.
Charmian flushed. "I do stupid things all the time! At least I learn from them!"
"You are young yet," Moon Wolf said, "and you'll do a lot more stupid things before you get older. And you'll learn from every one of them. But I know there'll be a few you will always regret. Just because you learn from something doesn't mean you can make it right."
"But you had that chance," Charmian protested. "You had a MILLION chances."
Moon Wolf lowered his head slightly and drew up his own legs as she had. "And when you are young, you also often neglect to think of the most obvious solution possible. I joined the Mide to get power. When that did not work, I became a wabano. When that did not work, I took the last path available. Do not ask me why it was so important...by now I can't even remember anymore, if I even had a good reason. Except to say that when you are young you feel the world owes you everything. I saw men twice my age practicing medicine and speaking with the manitous. It made no sense to me to take so long just to learn how to do that. What use would I have of medicine when I'm old? I could do so many more things with it when I was still young. What things, it didn't matter, just as long as I could. Have you never done something just because you could?"
Charmian blinked. "Yeah," she admitted, then shifted her eyes to the side. "Stuck my tongue to a frozen pole."
Moon Wolf's mouth twitched. "And I take it you learned from that, the hard way."
"My tongue hurt for a whole day," Charmian said.
"This is sometimes the only way to learn." He looked down at the fire again and his voice grew softer. "It seemed like such a small thing at the time. Even after I learned...I thought perhaps it was best the way it was. I could not care for her. I would not have known what to do. It took me a long time to see the truth. Perhaps I did not want to see." He picked up a stick sitting near him and poked at the flames before his hand fell still, and he was silent for so long that Charmian stared at him. "Even after then...I could think of nothing to do. Everything, every path, seemed blocked from me...everything I tried to think of crumbled apart. I thought of a million things, and each one was more worthless than the last. And time just kept passing. Some days I awoke, and told myself to give up. After all the trouble I had gone to, there was nothing I could do."
"But you had your powers," Charmian protested. "I know you didn't like the way you got them, and I understand that now...but why didn't you use them, just that once? It wouldn't have been so bad; you never would've had to use them again."
"And then what?" Moon Wolf asked, giving her a pointed look. "Tell her I had hesitated all those years? Had her live here, in a cave, with me? The one who gave her up? Who gave her up every single day of her life? There were days I told myself that everything I did was much worse than what the demon did."
"That's not true," Charmian said with a frown.
He shrugged and poked at the fire. "It felt true at the time," he murmured. Then, "And you think I refused to use my medicine because of where it came from? This is only part of the truth. I would have used it a million times over, no matter who it had come from, no matter what it would have done to me, if I'd known for certain it would free her. That was why I never used it. I knew it couldn't help her." His voice grew bitter. "All of my training, seeking a vision, practicing, following one path and the next, making a bargain that made me recoil even back then...none of it could have helped her. Even after all of that, what I gave up, I still wasn't powerful enough. That was what taught me--the moment I learned everything. What had seemed so important didn't matter anymore, and that which didn't seem to matter was the most important thing, and I had given it away--for something that wouldn't help me get what I wanted more than anything. The Mide teach that to get what you truly need in this life, you must work for it and earn it, and even then, you will not always get what you wish for. Even the wabanos teach that you can use all of your powers to get what you want, but the price will always be steep, sometimes steeper than you can even imagine. After everything I thought I'd learned, I hadn't learned anything. There comes a moment when you look at yourself, and see that you are not at all who you thought you were. At this moment you lose yourself, and this is the moment when nothing seems to matter anymore. The one thing which matters is the one thing you can never have. I had chosen the wrong thing to accept, and the wrong thing to give away. This is when you realize how truly foolish you are. I finally learned, but even then, there was still nothing I could do." He set down the stick and stared at the fire for a long time, Charmian sitting in silence. After a while he drew himself slightly out of his thoughts and said, "So I thought perhaps I could teach others. The best teacher is one who has made the most terrible mistakes, so they say. I never once believed it made up for anything I had done...but it was either this, or do nothing at all. Perhaps if somebody I taught learned something, they could make use of it, and I would have done one small thing."
"Then I came," Charmian said, looking at him.
Moon Wolf met her eyes. "The Dreamspinner," he said. "You stepped right into my dream as if you belonged there...I had seen no one else able to do that. I did not know who you were, but I quickly learned. You came to do the one thing I had never been able to do, and you were too naive to think that you might not be able to do it." His eyes softened. "If I had been more like you, perhaps I would have tried myself."
"You taught me instead," said Charmian. "To do everything you couldn't do. You knew I would face Ocryana--you weren't teaching me to save the Island, at all."
Moon Wolf looked back into the fire. "The Island was part of it," he murmured. "But not all, or even most...I couldn't tell you this then, though...you might not have listened to me, had you known how selfish I truly was. I knew that if you defeated Ocryana, then Shadow Water would be free. And so I taught you everything I knew. I saw how the manitous listened to you, a mainlander. It was like seeing the Mide all over again, seeing someone who was everything I had tried so hard to be but was not. But I did not care anymore--if they chose you to listen to, and not me, then it did not matter just as long as she was defeated. I knew my skills would never defeat her, but in your hands, they stood a small chance. I did not care how small. It was much more than I had ever done. And if you failed..." He trailed off, picking up the stick and nudging at an ember. "Then I would do the one thing I had never tried."
Charmian stared at the flames until her eyes hurt. "You would've killed her," she said quietly. "You would've killed both of them."
Crack. The fire snapped and Moon Wolf set the stick aside. "I would have killed Shadow Water," he said. "Because she was not as strong, and I knew it was within my power."
"But Ocryana would've killed you," Charmian said in surprise. When he met her eyes she paused, then shrank in on herself. "Oh," she said in a small voice, understanding.
Moon Wolf's stare drifted. "At least she would have been free...and my debt would be paid. After that, nothing else mattered."
"But you didn't kill her," Charmian said, confused. "You went after Ocryana--I was there. You knew you couldn't beat her--so why did you do it? Why did you go after her when you could've gone after Shadow Water instead--?"
"This is simple," Moon Wolf said. "Something changed my plan." He looked at her once more. "You were far more powerful than I thought. I knew you could defeat her easily, if you tried. Shadow Water did not have to die so long as you were there."
Charmian's brow furrowed. "But...why did you go after Ocryana, then--? If you knew you couldn't win, but I could? Why didn't you wait? You never would've had to die..."
"Then my debt would have gone unpaid," Moon Wolf said quietly, staring at the fire.
Charmian opened her mouth, then closed it. Her perplexed look grew, and she leaned forward on her knee.
"You...you wanted her to kill you..." Her eyes grew pained. "You...wanted to die? This was your debt? To die--?"
"I gave away a life," Moon Wolf said, the sullen note returning to his voice. "Both the Mide and the wabanos teach that that which you ask for, you must be willing to repay in full. So long as I was alive, you would never realize your potential, and my debt would certainly have not been repaid. This is the way of things--and you and I both know this now."
Charmian bit her lip, looking as if she wanted to ask something else, then held out her hand. When he saw that she was looking at the pendant he handed it to her with a puzzled look, and she ran her fingers over the smooth metal.
"I have a debt too, then," she said, lifting her head. "You made me promise, and I broke it. I never gave it to her."
Moon Wolf blinked, then flushed. He held his hand back out.
"No...this is all right. It's best that you did not give it to her. She doesn't need to know by now."
"What do you mean?" Charmian's head popped up. "Of course she does! You're the only one she has left--of course she would want to know who her own father is!"
Moon Wolf nearly scowled now, waving his hand at the pendant. "Just because I learned does not mean she has to! You yourself know that she has a life of her own now--let her live it. She's safe, and this is all that matters."
"No it isn't!" Charmian retorted, holding the necklace back from him. "You paid your debt already--and you came back. Doesn't that mean anything? Don't you think it's, I don't know, a sign or something? A second chance?" She looked at the pendant, then opened her pouch and shoved it inside. "I have a debt too, then--and if you won't tell her, then I will. I know her," she said, on seeing the look on his face change. "She could never hate you, especially if she knows the truth. Everything you did to help the Island, you did for her. There's no way she can overlook that. Maybe it didn't seem like it at the time, but you did care for her, the whole time. The smallest thing I can do is let her know that."
"You're making a mistake," Moon Wolf said wearily.
"The only mistake I made was not telling her sooner," Charmian said, and turned for the cave entrance. She started crawling toward it on hands and knees. "Once this is all out in the open, we can just--"
She let out a little shriek when a gust of wind blasted against the mouth of the cave, a gout of snow pummeling against her. She tumbled backwards head over heels--she managed to catch a brief glimpse of Moon Wolf's startled face before something yanked on her arm and she fell flat on her back, her head hitting the rocky floor. She winced and rubbed at her head before lifting it and blinking dizzily. Moon Wolf crouched just beside her, shaking his hand and wincing; she noticed that if he hadn't pulled her aside, she would have landed right in the middle of the now mostly extinguished fire. He picked up a handful of snow and pressed it to his burned hand as she pushed herself up onto her elbows.
"What the heck was that--?" she exclaimed.
Another gust of wind came, and a moment later a shadow appeared in the cave entrance. Thomas peered in at them, his clothes whipping around him, and had to yell over the roar of the wind.
"Charmian--?" he shouted, and a great whooshing screeching sound came from overhead, making them glance up as if they could see what loomed outside. "Your friend's on his way here...and I don't take it that he's too happy!"
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