Charmian sees a face she didn't ever expect to see again...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 45: Unbearable"
Friend Among Strangers
LITTLE WINTER GIRL...I can't reach her now. You have to be the one to seek her. Nobody else can hear me but you two...
Winter Born's eyes slowly opened, and she stared across the water. The night was moonless, yet starlight glittered on the wavelets; her eyes shifted and she could just barely make out Mishupishu's dark form resting near the bank. A glance in the opposite direction showed her Kenu, his head tucked under his wing; everyone else was gathered in a semicircle near the riverbank, sleeping or dozing. The tiny remnant of the fire barely smoldered now. Winter Born sighed to herself.
I'm the only one who can hear her now. The lady in red. But she's so far away, and getting ever further. Why does she talk to me? Why is she lost...?
She fiddled her fingers against her chest, then frowned a little and twisted her head to peer far behind her. There was another shape seated near the water. She rolled over and slowly got to her feet, then tentatively picked her way across the camp, stepping over Marten and around a snoring X'aaru and making her way toward the river. She stepped out onto the stone hanging over the water and sat down; Thomas didn't even bother looking up when she joined him, dangling her feet over the water.
"You're worried about her too...?" she asked softly.
He didn't answer immediately, and she peered up into his face. He didn't even look fully awake. She could tell that he was, though, and bit her lip to hold her tongue. Her feet bobbed a little more quickly.
"I nearly lost her twice before," Thomas murmured, making Winter Born's legs halt. "I thought for sure she wasn't going to make it. But she did, both times. And then some. At least then...I was with her...and she was right near me. Now...I don't even know where she is anymore. She could be anywhere by now." His already dark eyes clouded over and his head lowered a little.
Winter Born hurried to grasp his hand. "Just because we can't see her doesn't mean she isn't nearby!" she insisted. When that resulted in nothing, she pointed skyward. "You see those? I bet she can see the exact same ones where she is! Doesn't that make her not so far away?"
"You haven't been out in the world much yet," Thomas said.
Winter Born's lip stuck out. "But I know enough!" She squeezed his hand again. "I already said I had a feeling. Didn't I? My feelings are never wrong. Just ask Mother! She could tell you."
"If your feelings are always right then where is she right now?" Thomas asked, lifting his head to look at her.
She shrank back a bit, letting go of his hand. "I...I don't know," she said in a small voice. "But I have a feeling," she said again. After a moment she added, "And the red bird lady says it's so."
Thomas frowned at her now. "Red Bird--?" he echoed. "How does she know anything? She's back on the Island, isn't she--?"
Winter Born shook her head. "Not Red Bird. The red bird lady. You know, the one who talks in dreams."
Thomas just stared at her. After a moment or two she began to squirm, slowly realizing that he had no idea what she was talking about. "What dreams?" he said at last, at which she ducked her head and quickly got to her feet.
"Um..." She scuffed her toe against the rock. "Nothing...I guess I just woke up too fast." She turned and hurried down from the rock and back into the little camp, hopping over X'aaru's tail and settling down on the opposite side of Mani. She huddled in his shadow and chewed on her lip as the manitou whined and grimaced in his sleep. She wrapped her arms around her knees and stared hard at the ground, though it was so dark that she could barely see anything. She didn't care.
Is it true, then--? Only Charmian and I can hear her? If that's so then why won't she talk to me more? If I'm the only one who can hear her now...
Why doesn't she help us? Find Charmian or Turtle? Or Kabeyun or anyone else? Why does she talk to me...?
You have to be the one to seek her. Nobody else can hear me but you two...
Winter Born sighed and rested her head upon her knees. She stared at the ground until her vision swam, and she dozed off, without even noticing that she was tired.
* * * * *
The soft crackling noise of fire came to Charmian's dulled senses, and after what seemed like an eternity, she at last noticed the dull throb in her shoulder. She winced a little at the sensation, then frowned. Fire...? When after a few more moments she was sure that, yes, that was fire, she slowly opened her eyes, and had to blink a few times before she could focus on anything.
She still didn't understand what she was looking at. Her eyes fixed on the sight of wooden beams high over her head, various items dangling from them, and she furrowed her brow a little, confused. The last thing she remembered, she'd been out in the open... She tilted her head a bit to look to her right and could see some sort of wall blocking her view; there was an opening in it, but she couldn't see through it from her position on the--floor?--she tipped her head a bit to see that she was indeed lying on the floor, upon a pallet more precisely, wrapped in furs--then she tilted her head to look to her left.
Her eyes grew. The fire was in this direction--even though by now she was aware that there must be more than one fire, including one behind the partition to her other side, judging by the amount of light cast upon the walls. The walls themselves were all of wood, some sort of low benches built along their bottoms, and various items stored under the benches. She could see more partitions extending off in this direction, and her eyes grew when she realized what she must be looking at.
I'm in a...longhouse...
Her teeth slowly crept over her lip and she bit it. Her eyes grew again when a figure she hadn't even noticed before rose from beside the nearest fire and cocked its head. She blinked on seeing the old woman's face--she bore the same deep grooves and silver hair as Old Mother Manitou, yet her face was round and her build was stout, her hair tied back neatly at her neck. As soon as she saw Charmian staring at her she smiled and her eyes nearly disappeared.
"I see you're finally awake," she said, and Charmian understood her perfectly. Her mouth opened, then she remembered the little face necklace that she must still be wearing. The old woman came her way and bent down beside her, pulling gently at the corner of the fur covering her shoulder.
"Your shoulder was rather bruised...I hope it feels a little bit better now," she said.
Charmian bit the inside of her mouth but nodded tentatively. "Thank you," she said in a small voice, hoping that she was as understood; when the woman smiled again she let out her breath and peered up at the ceiling. She gasped and started to sit up. "Shore--!"
The old woman pressed a hand to her shoulder and nudged her back down. "Your friend is all right, just resting," she said, nodding to the right again; Charmian had to cock her head back at an awkward angle, and then she could see Walks-On-The-Shore nestled upon one of the benches, draped in furs and apparently unconscious; his arm had been bandaged and bound, but other than that he looked none the worse for wear. She let out her breath on seeing him and looked back at the old woman.
"You're very fortunate you two were found when you were," she said. "You could have been hurt out there, by animals, or attacked by someone who does not know you."
"You're Iroquois?" Charmian asked anxiously.
The old woman tilted her head, seeming amused. "We are Haudenosaunee. Iroquois is not a name we call ourselves."
Charmian started to gingerly push herself up, being more careful this time to tend to her injured shoulder; she winced at the ache in it, but could tell it was nothing serious. She rubbed at it nonetheless and peered around at her surroundings; she'd never been in a longhouse before, and hadn't really expected to see one any time soon. She chewed furiously on her lip the entire time, not quite sure what to say.
"So...are we prisoners, then...?" she finally murmured, turning to look back at the old woman.
The old woman raised her eyebrows as if surprised. "Prisoners?" Her eyes vanished again when a wide smile spread across her face. "You are guests. It would not be fitting for you to be a prisoner." She opened her eyes and her smile softened into a kindly one. "You are fortunate we found you when we did...my grandson just could not stop talking about you..."
"Grandson...?" Charmian frowned, sitting upright and peeling back the collar of her shirt to gingerly look at her bruise. She gave the old woman a puzzled look.
The old woman nodded. "You should hear all of the things he's had to say about you; it was all I could do just to send him for more firewood, he talks about you so much."
"Your grandson knows me?" Charmian asked, growing even more confused.
The old woman nodded again. "Of course he does. The last time he returned, you were all he could talk about, for weeks."
Charmian lifted a hand to rub at her head. "But...I don't know your grandson," she said. "I've never even been here before! Are you sure you've got the right person...?"
As she spoke she could hear footsteps coming up the central pathway of the longhouse, then a shadow fell across the wall, cast by one of the other fires; she lifted her head and turned it to see someone peer into their section. They were wrapped in skins which dripped with rainwater, a sort of hood or cowl covering their head; as soon as they saw her looking at them they raised a hand to pull this back, shaking their hair loose, and Charmian's eyes grew even wider yet when she recognized their face.
"S...Singing Cedars...?" she said, not knowing how it could be true, but knowing that it had to be. As soon as she said his name his own eyes--looking rather tense--lit up just slightly, and he stepped into the room, stooping down to be nearer her.
"You do remember me...?" he asked, somewhat hesitantly.
Charmian nodded. "Of course I remember you." She had run into him and his fellow Iroquois during her last time on the Island, when they had arrived from the east, apparently with ill intent...Augwak's sudden increase in powers, however, had thwarted that plan, and she'd ended up saving his life when the rest of his companions had temporarily turned into Wendigoes and abandoned him. She blinked when she remembered how else she'd saved his life; Black Elk Horn had been just about ready to scalp him, from the looks of it, when she had stepped forward and claimed him as her own. She'd seen it done in movies and read about it in books, but hadn't been sure if it would work, and Black Elk Horn had in fact denied her claim, as she wasn't one of his tribe...but Stick-In-The-Dirt and White Deer had chosen that moment to also step forward and apparently claim her, and so her request had reluctantly been granted, and Singing Cedars had been handed over to her. She still remembered the hateful look the ogimah had given her after cutting the Onondaga loose--He is your problem now--as well as how irked Singing Cedars had seemed, to be under her care. He'd eventually come around, however, and had even given her his little necklace, to assist her with her vision. She remembered how he'd stared at her as he and the others had left, the way that he had seemed to want to make sure that he remembered her. She glanced around the little enclosure again and rubbed at her head. "But...what are you doing here?" she asked at last, looking back up at him with a frown.
Singing Cedars furrowed his brow. "This is what I was to ask you," he said, sounding equally as confused.
Charmian's own brow furrowed. "You mean...this is your land--? You live here--?"
He nodded. "We always have." His face screwed up. "How did you get here--? That Island is so far away! Surely you didn't walk all this way--?"
Charmian shook her head as the old woman rose and went to tend to Walks-On-The-Shore. "I'm...not quite sure how we got here. We took some sort of tunnel...we meant to go east, but I didn't think we'd end up this far from home!" She bit her lip uneasily and peered toward Walks-On-The-Shore. "I know you guys don't get along..." she started to say.
Singing Cedars shook his head. "He's in your company. As long as he stays with you, he'll be fine."
Charmian let out her breath and relaxed against the side wall. "We kind of got separated from everyone else," she explained. "There was a group of us heading east, but we were attacked by some bad manitous, and then after we went through the tunnel, some bears came after us..." She winced and rubbed at her shoulder.
"Oh." Singing Cedars blinked, then started digging in a pouch he wore tied at his waist. He pulled out a small packet and opened it up. "I got this for your shoulder," he said, sounding a bit embarrassed. "It won't get rid of the bruise...but it should help the swelling a little."
"Thanks," Charmian said, suppressing the surprise that she felt and accepting the contents of the packet; it looked to be some kind of lichen. Not knowing what else to do, she put her hand inside her collar and pressed it to her shoulder, wincing at its cold feel. Singing Cedars turned his head to watch as the old woman left the enclosure, then turned back and leaned toward her.
"Why did you come here?" he whispered, as if he'd been waiting for the woman to leave; Charmian furrowed her brow a bit. "It must be something important, if you're back on that Island. I saw how you reacted toward it before. It isn't even your home, but you act like you live there! Are those Wolves doing anything again--? Or that cold wind--?"
Charmian shook her head a bit hastily. "No--neither of those. It's--actually something quite different. But yeah...I thought maybe I could help the Island," she admitted, and his face lit up as if she'd just let him in on some sort of secret. "But I think I'm lost now," she added, feeling rather stupid.
"What is it that you were looking for?" Singing Cedars asked. "If it's nearby, perhaps you can still find it--?"
"Well..." She rubbed at her head. "Actually it's the East Wind," she said, and the look that he gave her was very strange indeed. "I know it sounds weird. But it's important that we find him...or her...or whatever. So...we came east." She paused. "You wouldn't know where he is, would you...?"
Singing Cedars blinked. "Me--?" he said, just as the old woman returned, carrying a small wooden tray with some food on it. She set this down before Charmian, who looked at it.
"Go on," she coaxed. "The drink first, because of your shoulder. It should help relieve the pain a little bit. It has some of the same substance that Cedars just gave you, though it's better if it's boiled." Singing Cedars flushed and ducked his head a little; Charmian picked up the little wooden cup and started sipping at it. She frowned a bit at the slightly bitter taste but managed to down it, and sighed when she realized that her head didn't ache so much anymore.
"And so, have you two been catching up?" the old woman asked; when Charmian looked at her she noticed how Singing Cedars blushed again, nearly scowling. "You should have heard him the first time," the old woman continued. "You were the only thing he would talk about. The others, they didn't remember well what had happened; he was the only one who could describe everything. No one else really believed his stories...although I knew he would never make up such lies, I found them a little difficult to believe myself. Still," she said, smiling at Charmian, "you're here now, so I find myself believing them after all."
"What sort of things did you say...?" Charmian murmured out of the corner of her mouth.
Singing Cedars glared at her. "I told only the truth! That I was stuck on some Island with giant Wolves and people who throw fire and large moose-things that can talk! Of course you see why nobody believed me--?"
Charmian blushed now. "I can't help it that you don't have an island like that around here! I can't even talk about that place to anybody where I come from, they'd think I'm nuts!"
"Cedars was quite impressed with you personally," the old woman said.
Singing Cedars grimaced and nearly threw his arm over his head. "Grandmother--!!"
"He said that you showed a remarkable deal of courage, for a girl," the old woman went on.
At any other time the comment would have made Charmian scowl; yet for some reason this time she blinked in surprise, then glanced at Singing Cedars. He looked as if he wanted to disappear into the ground; a small smile made its way to her face and his eyes went wide as he practically gawked at her.
"Well...thanks," she said. "I guess."
"Don't get him wrong," the old woman said, rising again and taking the tray with her, "I'm certain he meant everything good by it." She departed again.
Charmian turned back to Singing Cedars and smiled at the way he made a face and rubbed his neck. "She seems nice," she said. "I was close to my grandmother too...she was the only one I ever told about the Island, back where I'm from." He peered up at her. "I don't know if she believed me," she said, "but at least she didn't look at me funny."
He stared at her for a moment, then let out his breath and seemed to relax. He scootched forward a bit to sit in front of her. "So you're seeing to this Island again?" he said. "Do you not ever get tired of dealing with it so much--? It just seems like so much more trouble than it's worth..."
"I feel like it's my second home," Charmian insisted. "So I never get tired of it. I get tired of all the trouble, yeah, but that place just seems to draw it like stinky things draw flies! Don't you have anywhere else that you'd go to so much trouble for--?"
He ducked his head again and fiddled his fingers. "I've always lived here. There isn't anywhere else. That Island was as far as I've ever gone from here, and I hope to never go that far again!"
"It wasn't that bad," Charmian said. "Once you take away all the Wendigoes and Wolves and stuff."
He adamantly shook his head. "You can keep it!"
"So..." She peered around at their surroundings again. "This is your longhouse, then...?"
Singing Cedars gave her a wide-eyed look, as if she'd just said something quite odd, then shook his head. "No...not mine. Several of our families live here...this is our part. The women own it, pretty much."
Charmian's eyes grew now. "The women?"
He lowered his head a little, again rubbing at his neck. "Yes, the women...everything in the family goes through them. I rather get the feeling this isn't the way it is on that Island, based on how that chief treated you!" He sat up and wrinkled his nose. "If anyone tried that with one of the women here, he would have a split lip by now. I hope you gave him what was coming to him."
Charmian had to fight down a laugh. "I wouldn't worry too much. Black Elk Horn's backhand may be hard but I think Moon Wolf's right hook is even harder! So you mean your grandmother owns part of this place--?" He nodded. "So where's the rest of your family? Your mom and dad?"
She knew she'd said something wrong as soon as the enthusiasm quickly faded from his face and he lowered his head again, his eyes darkening. She bit the inside of her mouth, ready to apologize, but he spoke before she could. "They...they aren't here. My mother died giving birth to me and my father died fighting another tribe when I was little."
"Oh." Charmian lowered her own head. "I'm sorry." An awkward silence drew out; she started racking her brain to think of any excuse to break it, then took in a breath and reached for one of her necklaces. Noticing her attention, he leaned forward a little in curiosity; when she pulled out the little dried sprig of cedar his brow furrowed in disbelief.
"You kept it...?" he asked.
Charmian nodded and held it up. "Of course...I wasn't going to throw it away or anything!" She held it out toward him and he actually leaned back as if she were holding out a snake. "Here," she offered. "I didn't get to give it back to you the last time. It really helped me; I wanted to say thanks."
Singing Cedars blinked, then his eyes darkened again and he shook his head shortly, making her pause. "I said to keep it," he said. "I don't need it."
"But..." She faltered a little, confused. "You got it from your vision. I can't keep it."
"I said I don't need it," he said, a bit more peevishly, and abruptly got to his feet; she glanced up at him, believing that he was going to leave in anger, but he made sure to look at her before turning to the aisle.
"Your pack," he said, and she glanced around the little room, finally realizing that it was missing. "I took it to make sure it wouldn't get tossed about in all the commotion...I'll go get it now. So you don't have to worry about it. I don't think anything was lost."
"Thanks," Charmian said again, watching him go. She tilted her head back and could hear the rain pelting softly overhead, and shivered a little, tucking the sprig back in place and pulling the furs around herself again. The old woman returned once more and sat down near the bench, carefully peeling back the bandages over Walks-On-The-Shore's arm and examining his wound. Charmian tried to make herself comfortable on her pallet.
"You must forgive him if he comes across in the wrong way," the old woman said softly, and Charmian looked at her again. She pulled off the soiled bandage and dabbed the injury clean. "I've had to raise him on my own, and he's never been close to anyone before. I think you are the first person he's ever really felt close to."
Charmian blinked. "Felt close to--?" She felt her face grow warm. "Doesn't he have any brothers or sisters or friends or anything--?"
The old woman shook her head. "Cedars has always kept to himself, for the most part...he was never terribly interested in making friends. Most of the other men his age, they do not care for him much, as he's never been the best at hunting or fighting. This is why he volunteered to go to your Island, you see; he wanted to try to prove himself at something, but unfortunately it seems to have backfired somewhat." She dried off the wound and started packing moss around it. "It is just as he's told you, and he never knew his mother; his father, he looked up to him very much, but he had to go away when he was just a little boy, and was killed by one of the enemy. His stepmother...she left him with me shortly after, and said that she would return, but that was the last that we saw of her. I believe Cedars knew that she never intended to come back. It's been the two of us ever since."
Charmian's stare drifted toward the floor. "I'm sorry to hear that," she murmured, not sure what else to say.
"Oh...we get by." The old woman fished about for a bandage and began wrapping up the Huron's shoulder. She glanced at Charmian as she did so. "He's stronger than he thinks." She raised her eyebrows. "Oh, that's right...I never even told you my name! How rude of me."
"I thought it might be rude to ask," Charmian said.
The old woman smiled. "Much ruder of me not to just tell. It's Pine-Which-Gathers-The-First-Snows-Of-Winter." When Charmian's brow furrowed a little her smile grew. "You can just call me Snowy Pine. I hardly think Cedars can remember it all himself, and it gets to be a pain saying it all the time."
Charmian smiled again; she found herself liking the old woman. "Okay. Snowy Pine..." She bit her lip. "Am I doing anything wrong trying to give his necklace back to him?" she asked hesitantly. "I mean...back where I come from...what you get from your vision is a really important thing. I don't know if it's the same here..."
"It's much the same, at least from what little I know," Snowy Pine replied, fastening the wrappings around Walks-On-The-Shore's shoulder; he made a face in his sleep and shifted a little. "That little necklace was what Cedars obtained after his first vision...his last vision as well...and so yes, it means much to him."
Charmian's lip started to hurt with how much she was chewing on it. "I feel bad keeping it, then," she said. "Isn't there any way I can give it back? Without pissing--um--getting him mad? It really did help me, but I can't exactly keep it, can I--?"
Snowy Pine lifted one shoulder and stood to pull the furs back over Walks-On-The-Shore. "I'm afraid I cannot make him take it back...if he gives it up, then this is his choice. I believe the only thing for you to do is honor his request and keep it."
"But doesn't he lose the power his vision gave him if he gives it away like that?" Charmian asked.
Snowy Pine nodded. "Unfortunately...I believe this was his intent. Cedars gave up his vision a long time ago...you just happened to be the lucky person he chose to take it in his place."
Charmian's face screwed up. "Huh--?" she blurted out in disbelief. "How can he just GIVE UP his vision--? I mean--doesn't that make him who he is?" She paused for a moment, moving her mouth soundlessly. "Why would he pawn it off on me like that? Doesn't he need it?"
Snowy Pine gave her a resigned shrug. "This was his choice; what is one to do? His vision did inform him of the path he was to take; but he rejected it, from the very beginning. He has not sought another vision since. Perhaps this is why he doesn't do so well at things; or perhaps it is just his luck. In any case, he has never shown interest in seeking another, and this was the only one he ever had, the one which he gave to you." She nodded at the sprig of cedar around Charmian's neck.
Charmian rubbed at her head, perplexed. "But why would he give up his vision?" she asked, unable to quite comprehend it; everyone she'd dealt with on the Island had seemed almost desperate to obtain a vision, so how could somebody give theirs up so easily--? "What did it tell him that was so bad?"
Snowy Pine picked up the old bandages and balled them up, turning away from the Huron's resting place. "Cedars's vision merely told him of the path that he was to take."
"So, what--?" Charmian asked, furrowing her brow. "Did it tell him to become a warrior or hunter or something, then--?"
Snowy Pine shook her head. "Those were not the paths that Singing Cedars was meant to take," she replied. "His path was to become a medicine man."
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