|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 101: The Lost Tribe"
PART ONE HUNDRED AND TWO:
MANABOZHO CAME TO a halt in the snow and lifted his head to stare skyward.
Behind him, Wabasso came to an abrupt stop as well, Peepaukawiss running into him and Mudjikawiss stepping aside in the nick of time to avoid a pileup. Marten shivered atop Puka's shoulder and they all stared at Manabozho, then peered upwards as well.
"What is it?" Wabasso asked with a slight frown.
"The wind is different," Manabozho said absently.
They all stared at him. "The wind is different?" Puka echoed, and made a face. "The wind seems the same as it's always been, Baby Brother! Do you think maybe we've been walking too long?"
"Perhaps he hit his head," Mudjikawiss grumbled.
Manabozho just continued staring at the sky and at the dimming gray clouds shifting overhead. He frowned to himself.
Something is different. I can't quite place it...but the wind has changed. Was it that spirit stone? Did it go to someone else? Who would give it such a strange feeling...?
He lowered his head now to face east, a vague uneasiness settling over him. He fiddled with one of his necklaces before turning and tramping in that direction, the others blinking and then stumbling after him.
"Brother!" Puka cried. "I thought we were going to the Crooked Tree! To see poor Noko!" His face screwed up. "I haven't seen poor Granny in YEARS and YEARS--"
"Your own damned fault!" Mudjikawiss snapped. "You are the fool who decided to run off and...DANCE or whatever it is that an idiot like you likes to do!"
The two of them commenced arguing and pulling on each other's feathers. Wabasso fell into step beside Manabozho and peered at him uncertainly.
"You really feel something has gone so wrong?" he asked.
"I wouldn't say it if not," Manabozho said, then gave him a dark look. "You don't believe me? Or you think I don't know what I'm talking about?"
Wabasso's brow furrowed. He turned his head to look down at the snowy trail they followed.
"If it makes any difference, I thought I had felt something too." He paused. "But I thought perhaps it was just me. Nobody else ever senses these things, so after a while you tend to tune them out."
Manabozho stared at him for a moment or two, his own unease growing. After several paces he looked down at the trail as well, rubbing his rabbit necklace.
"You...sensed things when we were little. I remember that." He huddled into his skins. "I remember you were never wrong."
This comment didn't seem to cheer up either of them, not that it was meant to. If anything they both looked even more anxious, and when Manabozho picked up his pace Wabasso followed suit, Puka and Mudjikawiss trailing along after them into the darkening forest.
* * * * *
Charmian, Moon Wolf, Niskigwun, and Black Elk Horn all whirled about to stare at the oddly shimmering surface which appeared in front of the trees over the bluff, the image rippling and glimmering like heatwaves over asphalt. Charmian took a step back to stand closer to the others, her eyes wide as something stepped out of the shimmering wall and into the camp. Whatever it was, it was covered with fur, and walked with a shuffle, as if wounded; it turned its head to look at them, and then Charmian sucked in a startled breath when green eyes met her own.
Silver Eagle Feather stared at her for a moment before her eyes fluttered and she slumped to the ground to land on hands and knees.
Charmian hesitated only a split second before running toward her, Black Elk Horn following suit. She reached the medicine woman first, reaching out to touch her shoulder; Silver Eagle Feather was still conscious, though apparently exhausted, her breath coming hard and her arms shaking. "Silver--?" Charmian asked, her brow furrowing in confusion.
"Look!" Niskigwun cried, and she lifted her head as Black Elk Horn knelt to tend to his wife. The shimmering which had encased the woods began to break apart and evaporate, and to her surprise she found herself staring at dozens of pairs of wary eyes, all peering back into the camp from behind the trees. She blinked, perplexed, as all of the missing tribespeople, the women and children and old men, were revealed, from where they'd been hiding just yards away from the wrecked camp. They started looking around themselves and stepping tentatively forward now that the barrier was gone, and Charmian and the others turned to face them, utterly bewildered.
Charmian heard a gasp and one of the figures detached itself from the rest and came running forward. "Charmian!" White Deer cried, and threw her arms around her when she reached her. "You're all right! We didn't know if you were safe or not!"
"What..." Charmian continued blinking and looking around at them. "What the heck happened...?"
White Deer let go of her and threw her arms up into the air. "It was awful! They came from everywhere--dozens of them! They kicked in the fire, and hacked at the wigwams, and tore everything apart..."
Stick-In-The-Dirt came wandering out of the woods, peering meekly from side to side. "It was the men who came from the shore," he said quietly. "The ones from the east. They stormed into the camp...the men were gone, so we could not fight them off."
"How did any of you even escape--?" Charmian craned her neck to look at the trees. "What was that--? How come you guys are all right--?"
"Oh!" White Deer gestured toward Silver Eagle Feather, whom Black Elk Horn was helping to her feet. "We heard them coming before they entered the camp--they were so horribly loud! They yelled and shrieked and laughed like crazy men! Silver Eagle Feather told us to go into the woods, and hide on the bluff, and she used her medicine to keep us from their view..." She shivered and rubbed at her arms, as if the severity of the situation were just now sinking in. "They came, and couldn't see us, so they attacked the Mide lodge, and then the homes, and destroyed everything they could get their hands on...and ate all the food they could find..."
Stick-In-The-Dirt grasped Charmian's elbow. "Their eyes! They were bright yellow, and they laughed and shrieked like GeeBees!" Fear settled upon his face. "What you said had happened to Augwak, when he gained his powers back--has this happened again somehow? With the men?"
Charmian averted her eyes. "Something like that..." she murmured reluctantly. "It's a Wendigo spirit stone," she said in explanation, when they looked at her. "Chakenapok gave it to Augwak, but as soon as we got it away from him, it started taking over other people. It went after the Iroquois this time...I think every one of them got a part of it in him. This must be Chakenapok's next move."
White Deer's brow furrowed. "But--why give it to them? They're not even manitous. He could have given it to somebody much more powerful, couldn't he?"
"I think he meant to bring it a little closer to home," Charmian said, at the same time thinking, I really have no idea WHAT I think! "Do you guys have anywhere safe to go if they come back--?" she suddenly thought to ask, and they started glancing around at the ruined wigwams. Black Elk Horn blinked, then flushed, and she suddenly felt guilty, realizing that he must feel responsible. "How about this," she said, turning to White Deer and Stick-In-The-Dirt. "I'll call Mani--he's a friend of mine. He has his own tribe somewhere on the Island. If you guys are safe anywhere, it should be with them. The Shadow Wolves mostly don't go after manitous, and Chakenapok doesn't seem interested in them. Plus they can look out for themselves."
"Stay with manitous...?" White Deer said, looking uncertain. Charmian was about to say sure, why not, when she caught the looks on the other faces and realized exactly what she was suggesting, and blushed a little. Fortunately Silver Eagle Feather stood up straighter, capturing their attention, though she still leaned on Black Elk Horn's arm.
"They live in a grove at the northern end of the West Bluff," she said. "Badin Grove, Monsieur LaCroix has called it. Not many venture near there; they say there is a crack nearby."
"A crack--?" Charmian said, brow furrowing in confusion. White Deer turned to face the others and held out her arms.
"She speaks with manitous, you know that! You saw what she did with the dancing wigwam!" Charmian's blush grew deeper when everybody started to murmur and cast her strange looks. "If she's friends with a manitou, don't you think this would be the safest place to be--?"
Charmian instantly glanced at Black Elk Horn, and saw him open his mouth; he noticed her stare and shut it, blinking in surprise. Charmian blinked as well; she hadn't even thought before looking at him. They both averted their eyes and Black Elk Horn scowled.
"They came up on the east shore," Charmian said, "so closer to the west is probably the best place to be right now. It isn't too close to Devil's Kitchen, is it--?" she suddenly asked with much anxiety. "Because with how I last left him, Augwak is probably going to wake up pretty pissed..."
"Badin Grove is inland from the bluff and full of dense trees," Silver Eagle Feather said. "The GeeBees do not usually wander near the manitous."
Charmian nodded. "I think that sounds best, then." She shut her eyes for a moment and thought, calling out to Mani, then whistling aloud for good measure; everybody started looking around themselves curiously. "I told him to bring a few friends just in case you meet trouble along the way. You guys'll be safe with him."
Everyone started filtering toward the trail leading out of the camp, murmuring quietly and casting glances back at the demolished homes. Charmian stared at them with a somewhat sick feeling in her stomach.
If I'd let Black Elk Horn go through with...what he wanted to do...then would any of this have even happened...?
Don't be stupid--of course it would have! Cedars didn't call them here--they were already on their way! And Chakenapok would've gotten to them no matter what I did...
But would Chakenapok have even gone to all this trouble if I hadn't even come here...?
She sighed and rubbed her chilly arms. Silver Eagle Feather and Black Elk Horn passed her just then, and the ogimah shot her the darkest look imaginable; she lowered her head meekly, having hoped he would be over it by now, but apparently he was holding a grudge. Silver Eagle Feather noticed the exchange and stumbled; Black Elk Horn's attention immediately turned to her and he helped her along, forgetting about Charmian, who sighed.
Afraid, a voice in her head said, making her start. Be patient with him. Some show fear through anger.
She lifted her head to look at Silver Eagle Feather but they were already walking off into the woods. Stick-In-The-Dirt and White Deer approached but she waved them into the woods as well.
"It's okay. I'd really feel better if you guys went to Badin Grove too."
"You're sure you can't use us...?" White Deer asked anxiously; Stick-In-The-Dirt responded by taking her arm much as Black Elk Horn had taken his wife's, and he gave Charmian a knowing look as they went. "You will call us if you need us!" White Deer exclaimed over her shoulder. "Right...?"
Charmian nodded. "Sure thing." Several of the elders were the last to walk by and Laughing Lynx gave her a look as he went, though she wasn't quite sure what it meant. She remembered the wrecked lodge and felt like sinking into the snow.
Niskigwun stepped up beside her. "You put this much faith in your manitou?" he murmured, scanning the woods.
Charmian flushed. "He's not my manitou! We're just...friends, is all!" She nodded vigorously. "And yeah, I do trust him this much. He's never let me down yet. If he protects them half as well as he tries to protect me, then they'll be just fine."
Niskigwun didn't seem entirely convinced, yet didn't object. He rubbed his own hands together as a whistling noise came from the woods, several sets of glowing blue eyes drifting in among the trees. "What's bothering me most is those guys are still out there," she murmured, so only Moon Wolf and Niskigwun could hear. "And I'm guessing that it's not Elk's guys they're after, so they should be mostly okay...but that leaves the question, what are they after?"
"You said, 'bring it closer to home,'" Moon Wolf said. "You suggest that he's doing what he did with me, and with Thomas."
Charmian nodded. "Only I don't have any connection to the Iroquois--so it's not personal against me this time! And I can't for the life of me think of what it has to do with 'Bozho, either."
"Perhaps he tries to get to you through Singing Cedars--?" Niskigwun suggested.
Charmian frowned. "I don't know...I'm not too close to him. In fact I'm actually wondering if I should've let Elk scalp him." She winced. "Maybe he's trying to get to Singing Cedars--? After all, it's got to be pretty freaky seeing your own guys turn against you."
"But he has little connection to the Island," Moon Wolf said.
"I know." Charmian made a frustrated noise and rubbed her knuckles against her head. "I wish this made sense!"
Another whistling noise came, and they turned to see Mani stepping their way through the snow. He lifted his head and whistled, his antlers scraping against the low-hanging branches; he spotted the destroyed wigwams and paused briefly, before coming to a halt before them. His eyes roamed over the wreckage and then came back to Charmian.
Something...happen? he asked, sounding confused.
Charmian nodded. "Kind of...I hope you don't mind if I ask another favor. Those people in the woods--well, they used to live here." She gestured behind herself, though it was obvious that he'd seen the sight already. "I need a safe place for them to stay until this all blows over, no pun intended. Do you think you and your manitous could look after them until then?"
Mani peered back at the remains of the tribe waiting in the woods, the other manitous already standing at strategic points around them. Will not be trouble, he said, and turned back to Charmian. His ear flicked. What of Red Land One?
"I have to stay here and figure out what's going on. I'll be okay, I promise." She paused, knowing how trite it sounded, then patted his nose. "I mean it. If you want me in top form," she said on a whim, "then you can help by keeping them safe. So I don't have to worry."
The manitou seemed just as unconvinced as Niskigwun had been but, to her relief, bobbed his head slightly and whistled. Will watch Island ones, he said, turning back to the trail, but Red Land One will watch Red Land One, right?
Charmian smiled faintly to herself. "You bet. Thanks, Mani," she remembered to add, and he whistled; Charmian cupped her hands to her mouth. "Oh! After you get them away, maybe have one or two of your guys keep their eyes open for the rest of them! They'll probably be confused!"
He whistled an affirmative once more before the manitous surrounded the Islanders, herding them into a group like dogs herding sheep, and wandering off down the trail and out of sight. Charmian waited until they were gone before letting out her breath and rubbing at her head. She and the other two resumed looking at the mess lying before them, and Charmian chewed on her thumbnail.
"So like I was saying," she said, "Chakenapok doesn't seem to be trying to get to me, or to 'Bozho...this whole thing smells like a scare tactic. Like, a bluff or something, no pun intended."
Moon Wolf started to get an odd look on his face, then slowly looked around them. Charmian lifted her head to look at him. "Moon Wolf...? What is it..."
She trailed off when tramping noises started coming through the woods; her muscles tensed, and Niskigwun raised his spear. They weren't coming from the trail, but rather from the woods themselves; after a moment several shady forms appeared, then a small part broke off of one of the bigger ones and came speeding through the trees. Charmian had enough time to gawk before it launched itself at her, clinging to her neck.
"CHARMIAN!" Marten yelled at the top of his tiny lungs. "YOU'RE OKAY!"
Charmian responded by shrieking and grabbing him by the scruff, hurling him to the ground. He landed in the snow so hard that he disappeared from sight; the other two, plus the shapes emerging from the woods--now clearly Manabozho and his brothers--all peered down curiously at the little hollow he'd left behind, his tail twitching out of it.
"EEGGGHH!!" Charmian yelled, shaking herself off like a wet dog. "YOUR HANDS ARE FRIGGING COLD!!"
"What happened?" Manabozho exclaimed, gawking around at the site. He started walking around the wigwams, then glanced up at Charmian and waved his arms. "What did you DO to this place--?"
"It wasn't me, stupid!" Charmian snapped, still rubbing at her neck. "It was that stupid spirit stone of Chakenapok's! He put it in the bodies of the Iroquois, and they--"
Manabozho's face screwed up. "Iroquois?"
"Look, I don't know what your people call them, but that's what my people call them, and they're all over the Island at the moment. I was--"
"That doesn't make sense," Manabozho stated. "This stone was in the GeeBee, wasn't it?"
Charmian nodded in frustration. "Jeez, will you let me finish? First it was in Augwak, then in Chepi--" he looked at her as if she had just lost her mind "--then in Thomas, and now it's in them. Like I was saying, I'm trying to figure out why he would do that, and it doesn't make sense to me either. He tried using both Augwak and Chepi to get to me, then Thomas, but..." She shrugged, flustered. "You're right. This part doesn't make sense."
Moon Wolf had started walking over to the woods again, looking down the bluff. "You had started to say this sounded like a trick on his part," Niskigwun reminded her. "Why do you think this?"
Charmian frowned. "I don't know. It just slipped out." She looked at the wigwams. "But then again, it makes as much sense as anything else. There's no way Silver's medicine is anywhere near as strong as his. He could've gotten through and killed the tribe if he really wanted. But he didn't." A bit of anxiety flared in her chest as she realized this, and she turned around also to look in Moon Wolf's direction. "Why didn't he? Is it because he really didn't want to, or..."
"The tribe wasn't his goal," Moon Wolf said from where he stood, not turning to face them.
"That's what I was starting to think." Charmian sighed. "Well, if not, then what was his goal? Now that everybody's gone from here, it's not like he's got any bargaining chips or anything left."
Wabasso got the same look that Moon Wolf had gotten, and peered around them. "But everybody isn't gone," he murmured, and as soon as Charmian looked at him she understood. She looked into the middle of the wrecked camp, uneasiness settling over her like a cold blanket.
"We're here." She paused, then shivered. "Is that it?" she said to Moon Wolf. "He wanted us all here--? But why us, and why here--? I can think of a million other places where he could reach us better, or get rid of us, or..."
"South," Moon Wolf said, and at last turned to look back at them. "This is the way they were going, when they came here. They destroyed the camp. But not to kill the people. To drive them away, or at least just because they were there, in the way. This place was not the goal."
"I know that," Charmian said.
He gestured at the bluff. "What else lies south--?"
Everyone stared at him blankly. Charmian at last walked to the bluff and bit her lip, then started counting off on her fingers.
"Well...there's Arch Rock, Dwightwood Spring, Robinson's Folly..." She froze on the fourth finger and then her jaw dropped. She looked at Niskigwun and her face went gray.
"Uh-oh," she murmured in a small voice.
Niskigwun furrowed his brow. "What...?" When she couldn't answer he continued staring at her, perplexed, but after a moment or two understanding dawned in his eyes. They grew wide, and he turned to stare southward, along the bluff. A second later he whirled around on one foot and went racing through the snow, wings flaring wildly.
The others stood where they'd been left. Puka rubbed at his head and frowned. "What's his problem?" he inquired. "The way I see it, so long as those nasty fellows aren't anywhere around here..."
"That's just it," Charmian said. "They're NOT here. They went south." She pointed. "Fairy Arch!"
"Fairy Arch...?" Manabozho scowled. "So they went to the Fairy Arch! Why should that be any concern of--"
Charmian clenched her teeth. "Geezhigo-Quae!"
Now everyone's face went white. "Oh," Puka said, meekly.
Charmian turned and waved. "I'm betting that if they went through there, Niskigwun might need a little help. And Geezhigo will probably be expecting an apology." She winced. "I hope her Tree can stand snow!"
She jogged off along the bluff. Moon Wolf paused just a moment before following, Marten pouncing along after him. The other four stood in the ruined camp, watching after them uncertainly; Puka and Wabasso both took a tentative step forward, then glanced back at Manabozho.
"Baby Brother--?" Puka asked. "You coming?"
Manabozho scowled again. "Why should I? They're just humans. Geezhigo-Quae can handle humans."
"But they have that spirit stone," Wabasso said, then turned and jogged off after Charmian and the others. "She went to all the trouble of calling us here. I think we should rather pay back the favor!"
"Favor?" Manabozho grumbled. "More like CHORE."
Puka fiddled his fingers, then turned away. "I liked all of us getting together again," he pouted. "And she did go to an awful lot of trouble! And that Sky Woman did have a gorgeous outfit..." He mumbled to himself a little and then followed. "Wait for me! I have to make a great entrance...!"
Manabozho's scowl grew darker and darker. He glared at Mudjikawiss and crossed his arms, having to refrain from baring his teeth.
"What about YOU? I find it hard to believe that YOU would have any interest in following them!"
Mudjikawiss gave him an evil look. "I have no interest WHATSOEVER in helping them!" His nose wrinkled. "Yet if I remain back here with YOU my reputation will be scarred FOREVER!" He stomped across the camp, kicking a birchbark mat aside. "You stay here and play the coward. I will go through and SAVE everybody, as I'm expected to do!"
Manabozho stared after him until he was gone from sight. His mouth opened and closed several times and his eyes goggled in disbelief. After a moment his feathers flared and his face went bright red; he clenched his fists and hissed through his teeth.
"LIKE I'M GOING TO JUST SIT AND TAKE THAT!!" he snarled. "THERE IS NO WAY ANY OF THEM IS BRAVER THAN I AM!!" And without so much as another thought, he stormed off through the snow, arms swinging and eyes flashing.
* * * * *
Chakenapok watched the small group trail out of the mangled camp, fading from view over the East Bluff. He stared after them for a while, and then a faint smile made its way to his face.
"Just as expected," he murmured, and his smile grew. "I hope you don't mind losing one of your playpieces now...Mainlander!"
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