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Rated: 13+ · Serial · Fantasy · #1554699
A Nebanaubae offers some strange information for a puzzling trade...
Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island
Previous chapter: "Part 74: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Acting Without Thinking

BY NOW, HE believed he was beginning to get the hang of it.

He emerged from the little tunnel into a place completely different from the one he'd just come from, and had to pause and glance around himself to take in his surroundings. Black Elk Horn found himself staring up at giant pine trees. He frowned and turned his head a little to make them out better. The Island had no trees of this size...yet he tried not to let himself be too awed by them. They were just trees after all. He started meandering through them, trying to keep focused on the vague trail he plotted out ahead of himself, but he couldn't help but keep peering up into their branches. Their lowest branches were so high up that he wouldn't have been able to climb them...if he'd wanted to. Which he didn't.

The going was a little rough, as the earth around the trees rose and fell in little hillocks and hollows, yet Black Elk Horn wandered over it with barely a thought. He thought he could smell water...but decided to shy away from it. Large bodies of water were bad luck, and even though he was armed, he didn't feel like facing that just yet. He wasn't looking for water anyway. He kept his eyes open for the color red.

It had been surprisingly easy to gain access to the giant Tree with the blue bark and white leaves, through the Fairy Arch. That Tree had been even bigger than these ones, and its branches, too, had been too high for him to even attempt a climb; but to his surprise, vines had crept down toward him, and he hadn't had to think twice about that before climbing up. Inside the Tree was another story. It had rooms within it. Rooms! Like the odd stick-houses of the white people, only furnished like those of his people. The only time that Black Elk Horn had ever seen a place with more than one room was in the Dupries house...yet even that hadn't resembled this, in the least. He'd wandered down smoothed hallways, glancing from door to door in confusion; he'd come across what looked to be the main room, but had crept away from it, sensing that it was occupied. Once or twice, he thought he'd seen strange winged people, and that perplexed him; he always kept out of their sight. When he'd found the room with the cabochon doors, somehow he'd known that this was the way to go.

It had taken him a few moments to choose a doorway. He'd finally decided on the reddish one...because that had been the color of the long knife's coat. He'd ended up in a meadow unlike anything on the Island...and had been following his instincts ever since. He hadn't seen head or tail of the long knife. But somehow he had a feeling that he was going the right way.

Still, the going hadn't been entirely easy. He ground his teeth when he thought of how many times he'd had to hide away from strange sights and sounds, and hated feeling like some sort of coward; he would have shot at them, if he'd felt he could spare the ammunition. It was while he was creeping away from a rustling noise in a much smaller forest that he'd crept into a partially collapsed tunnel, and after crawling back in it a ways...had found himself coming out into another meadow. He'd had to stand there and blink a few times before peering back into the tunnel and at last seeing the glowing webs lacing the walls. Stories he'd heard on the Island had come drifting back to him...of the strange cave on the northeast shore, and the strange things that dwelled within it...were they more than stories after all...?

He'd gathered as many webs from the tunnel as he could, shoving them into his pouch. When he'd found a cave set back into the side of a bluff, he'd stepped right in, touching bits of web to the walls. And he'd exited a hole in the cave to end up here, in this forest of absurdly giant pines. By now, he believed he was beginning to get the hang of it.

He walked along with barely a second glance, except for up at the pine branches high above. He didn't bother stopping to think about where to go next. When Black Elk Horn had reached the right age, like every other boy--and many girls--he'd gone out into the woods and had fasted for seven days without the slightest complaint, until a shape had appeared before him, and had told him that he would be able to act rightly, without having to delay to think things over. Stopping to think for too long could result in disaster. And so he'd learned early on that if one stopped to think for too long, things might not go their way. Some sort of intuition guided him instead, and he knew he was heading the right way.

Still, the smell of that water was quite nearby. His step slowed a little and he wondered just how much there was, since no matter how far he walked, he couldn't seem to get away from it. Was he in fact on another island? He scowled at this thought--he'd never considered that possibility--and craned his neck to try to see through the pines. They were so huge and thick, their trunks placed close together, that he couldn't be sure how far away the water might be. If he wanted to know for sure, he'd have to go looking for it.

That thought made him pause. He glanced in the direction that he'd been taking and bit his lip. His intuition said to go that way. And yet...

What if they're heading toward water...?

I do not care where THEY might be headed! It's where
he is headed...

He thought he could even hear the water by now. His curiosity got the better of him. He found himself turning to face it, when more rustling noises in the woods made him freeze. He glanced over his shoulder--then remembered not to think--and darted in among the bigger trees again. He peered out from behind one and scanned the thinner area of the forest but saw nothing at first.

He blinked. Something was emerging.

It was a black bear. There weren't many bears on the Island, seeing as it was so small--if it had been any normal island, it would not have supported any bears at all. Still, it was the biggest black bear Black Elk Horn had ever seen. He stared at it, frozen to the spot, as it ambled out of the undergrowth and started coming in his general direction. At last a voice in his head told him to move, or hide, but there was no way he could hope to do that now that it was so close.

He found himself moving anyway, and blinked again, glancing around in confusion--he couldn't feel himself moving. To his surprise, he saw that it was the trees themselves which seemed to be moving--very subtly, so that their positions never changed, but somehow, they appeared to be drawing in closer to him, surrounding him, and somehow, even some of their branches now reached him--but hadn't they been too high up before?--he had no idea how it was happening, or if it even was, yet in a matter of seconds, he was shielded behind pine boughs, his hands pressed to their trunks, peering out at the bear as it made its way toward him. It finally halted and lifted its head, sniffing at the air--his muscles tensed and he attempted reaching for the gun, only to find that another bough was blocking him. He tensed even more, bewildered, but decided not to fight it--there must be manitous in these trees, if they could do such things. Black Elk Horn wasn't afraid of manitous, but he knew better than to fight them in such situations.

The black bear stared in his direction, then ambled closer. He took in a shaky breath and held it when the creature lifted its muzzle and snorted at the air a mere hand's length from his face. He was staring it right in the eyes, yet it didn't seem to see him. The gleam in its own eyes told him there was something not normal about it, even before the voice came in his head.

I know you hide something from me, Pines, it said, and his brow furrowed in disbelief to hear that it was a woman's voice. Tricky trees, always shielding things from us, as if you own this land, and everything in it. Remember though that you are just little manitous...and we are much bigger ones...and have a much bigger one on our side. She snuffled again, her breath wafting over his face and making him flinch. I know you hide something, Pines, she said again, eyes glittering, but it cannot be anything of importance...else you would not have to hide it. I know already it is not the flame-haired one, nor the winter-haired one...so I know already it is no one to be afraid of. You should use your medicine on something more...useful.

Black Elk Horn stared at the bear with wide eyes. Her nostrils flared, then she turned--she almost seemed to be sneering--and wandered off, back into the thinner forest and gradually out of his sight. He stayed frozen where he was until he sensed the trees easing away from him, and when he next glanced up, he was no longer shielded by their boughs--their branches were again too high up to reach. He gnawed on the inside of his mouth and tried to wrap his brain around what had just happened.

A Makwamosa...quae?

Why is there a Bearwalker here?

And what does she know about--

He sucked in a breath, his eyes going wide. The words flame-haired and winter-haired echoed in his head, and immediately he saw the mainlander--and his daughter--flash before his mind's eye. Somehow--that Bearwalker knew who they were. Somehow--they were connected.

But how--where--?

He tore himself away from the trees without even a glance back or a question or a thank you. He headed directly toward the sound of the water, splashing somewhere in the distance. He didn't know how or why, but somehow he knew that everything tied in to this. His intuition said so. He couldn't stop to think.

He crashed through more and more pines and lesser trees, stumbling over roots and rocks and clumps of weeds, scratching his arms and disarraying his feathers, until he practically stumbled out into it. Black Elk Horn let out a yelp and went barreling down a small sandy swath of beach, splashing into the water which sloshed against it; he stubbed his toes on rock, and jerked his head up in confusion. It wasn't a rocky beach. It was a beach of rock. The sand only covered the top of it, and he could see the stone descending into the water, worn smooth in places, jutting out as rugged as islands in others.

And there was an island, floating far out in the water ahead of him, just barely visible in the thin veil of fog drifting before his eyes.

Black Elk Horn stared at it in surprise. For the briefest, most absurd moment he thought that perhaps he'd made his way full circle and had come right back to where he'd started, and he would step up onto its shore, and find the Fairy Arch, and the Arched Rock, and his own tribe on the East Bluff--his own tribe and not his own tribe--some sort of reflection or illusion, like an image in water--but then he shook his head to clear it, and saw that this island bore no bluffs, no arched rocks, in fact no apparent signs of life--it merely floated on the water, a small hunk of sand and rock and trees, and he let his breath out, wondering what had made him feel so confused in the first place.

Then the water around the tiny island began to roil a little, and with barely a sound, long, black, gleaming necks began to rise into the air, as graceful as those of swans, yet bigger than the biggest sturgeon he'd ever seen, and as dark and slippery as snakes, and with yellow-green gleaming eyes which focused on his as they started weaving their way through the water. They stared at him and he could have sworn that they smiled.

Black Elk Horn's mouth fell open. He'd been told vague tales of the Great Lynxes when he was very little, but that's all they had been, tales--everybody knew no such things existed. Yet here they were--Great Lynxes, coming toward him--weaving around and around each other as if they played a graceful game of baggitiway in the water--and he could even hear their hissing voices in his ears, muffled and yet amplified by the fog, which made even the island seem as if it were moving, coming closer--

Black Elk Horn decided not to think. Thinking could get one in trouble. Instead, he turned on his heel and went running, as fast as he could.

* * * * *

"I'm not supposed to tell you," the little Nebanaubae whispered in Charmian's ear, "but we have seen something. In our sleep."

"Yeah?" Charmian whispered back. "That's nice. What'd you see?"

The Nebanaubae fanned its fins, its large glassy eyes fixed on hers. "Something about you," it replied.

Charmian's brow furrowed. She squatted at the river's edge, her hand submerged although the Nebanaubae was speaking out loud; the rest of its fellows had quickly made off with the remains of the dead Mishupishu, in exchange for one of Kenu's feathers. The sight of the little Nebanaubae remaining behind had startled her at first. But not quite as much as what it had just said.

"Something about me...?" she echoed, confused.

The Nebanaubae nodded. Its finlike ears waved a little. "In our sleep." It peered upriver, then leaned toward her. "We have dreams in our sleep like land people," it said, its voice soft and slurry. "But no Dreamspinner brings them. Our own sleep spins its own dreams. We see all over, things all over the place, in sleep."

Charmian tilted her head a little; Mishupishu, Kenu, and Marten all craned their necks a bit too, as if to listen in. "And you saw something about me in there?" When it nodded again she frowned. "Well...what was it?"

The Nebanaubae lightly fanned its tail. "What will you give me?" it asked sweetly.

Charmian's mouth fell open. "What--? Give you? I thought you were offering this FREELY!" When the Nebanaubae started to pout she let out a gusty sigh. "Oh, fine! What do you even want?"

The Nebanaubae gave her a too-sweet smile and pointed. Charmian stared at it for a moment, then wrapped a lock of hair around her finger. "My hair?" she asked, dumbfounded. Surely she hadn't understood that right. The Nebanaubae nodded and she started to scowl. "Sorry, buddy, but I'm hardly going to go cutting off my hair just because of some DREAM of yours!"

"Not all of it," the Nebanaubae protested. "Just a little bit."

"What do you want my hair for? It doesn't have any use for you."

"It's interesting, is all. I have never seen a person with fire-hair before. Please?"

Charmian started scowling again--something about the request struck her as a bit off--but sighed and started digging in her backpack. She had to look back toward Kenu, blushing a little.

"Kenu--got anything sharp?" she asked, feeling a bit lame. "I forgot to pack scissors."

Kenu tilted his head in puzzlement, then scrambled down Mishupishu's neck. He pulled out a little knife--Charmian almost started awwwwing over it, it was so small and cute--but she reminded herself of how he would likely react to such a thing, and just said, "You're sure you should be handling such a dangerous weapon?" when he handed it over. He gave her an odd look halfway between indignation and delight before clambering back up to his seat atop the Lynx's head. Charmian separated the lock of hair from the rest and put the knife to it, wincing as she started slicing through it. "This better not look like a butcher did it," she grumbled, but the knife was apparently quite sharp, for it took only a few movements before it cut through, and she bit her lip as she handed the bit of hair to the Nebanaubae. Its eyes lit up and it accepted the lock, wrapping it up in its small hand. She thought that perhaps it would swim off without telling her anything, but it waved her closer again, and cupped its hand to its mouth.

"Our dreams said you came from an Island far away, to fight a powerful manitou, and that you will face mitchi manitous and medicine men and all sorts of things."

Charmian steamed a little. "Well duh," she grumbled. "I already knew all that."

The Nebanaubae pulled itself a tiny bit closer. "But that's not all that my dream said," it whispered.

"Well what did your dream say? If you take much longer with this, I'm quite willing to turn you into bouillabaisse. You do know what that is, don't you--?"

"My dream also said that in addition to all this, there's another you'll face, someone you fear more than all others. That you know this one, and have for a long time, and that you will need them if you hope to get to this manitou."

Charmian frowned again. "Somebody I already know?" she echoed, before the Nebanaubae slipped back into the water and drifted backwards from her. "That's all you've got?" she groused; it smiled a little and waved the lock of her hair, then turned and flitted away through the water, following the others. Charmian sat and watched it go, unable to shake the oddly perplexed feeling that it had given her.

Somebody I already know...? she thought, puzzled. And how exactly would I meet somebody I already know way up HERE?

"Dumb fish-person," she muttered, getting awkwardly to her feet and shaking the water from her hands. "That's what I get for cutting off my own hair." She walked along the shore back toward Kenu and the others, tossing the knife carefully up to him and brushing her hair around with her fingers to try to hide the cut spot. She hoped it didn't show too much, then growled at herself for worrying over such a stupid thing. "You guys'll be all right here, right--?" she asked as she had before.

Kenu and Marten both nodded; Mishupishu yawned, and the stink of fish wafted over her, making her want to gag. "All right," she said. "I'm heading back to the camp then...we'll see what we can do in the morning. Goodnight."

"Have a good sleep, insignificant being!" Kenu called; when she glared back at him he blinked, then shrank in on himself. "Um...I mean, goodnight!"

Thomas, Winter Born, and--to her surprise--Stick-In-The-Dirt all stood at the edge of the camp, waiting for her; the first two crowded around her, while the medicine man trailed behind, still occasionally grimacing and rubbing at his arms; Thomas had been right, and the reek of the dead Mishupishu didn't seem like it would be going away any time soon. Reminder to self, she thought, brain Barrington.

"My mother made me this dress," Winter Born said, as if reading her thoughts.

Stick-In-The-Dirt at last crept up beside her when Thomas stepped aside and picked up Winter Born, carrying her toward the fire. "You managed to speak with a Nebanaubae?" he asked; she nodded. "There should be no more Lynxes coming, then--?"

"Not if luck holds out," Charmian said, then sighed. "I hope." She watched him rub at his arms some more. "You can wash off in the river a bit; they took care of everything."

"I think I've had more than enough of that river for now," Stick-In-The-Dirt said a bit quickly, and grimaced again. "My skin feels like it's crawling!!" He started scratching his back, making an awful face.

"I'm sure it's just nerves," Charmian offered. "Anyway, I gave them one of Kenu's feathers and they carried everything away, so even if the Lynxes show up they're likely to follow them instead. Mishupishu just has to lie low a bit."

"This was all they asked, was a feather--?"

"A Thunderbird feather. Oh, and a bit of..."

"Ma chère?" Bouchard called out; Charmian glanced toward him to see him sitting near the fire, the rest of the voyageurs, and the others, already seated; a few still rubbed at their own clothing, but most appeared to have shrugged off the odd smell. Lieutenant Barrington had joined them, though he sat somewhat apart from everyone else, scowling at the fire, with a new gun propped over his knees--Charmian could only assume he'd gotten it from one of the voyageurs. Bouchard waved to capture her attention again.

"Do come and tell us some more about that Island of yours!" he exclaimed. "Seeing as it's real and all!"

"In a minute," Charmian promised, and Winter Born started talking about Manitou Island instead. Charmian managed to capture a bit of her speech as she made her way around the fire.

"...On the back of a great turtle, who speaks to medicine people, one of which I'll be someday...and the Arched Rock where spirits pass over, and the Fairy Arch where we came through..."

"Mind if I sit down?" Charmian asked; Barrington glared up at her, then back at the fire. His nose wrinkled a little, which she took to mean Okay. She sat down beside him and stared at the fire as well, the voyageurs ooh'ing and ahh'ing at every other thing Winter Born said.

"So, mind telling me why you even came after us, seeing as you don't care for the sights or the company?" Charmian asked, as if conversationally.

Barrington snorted. "Don't think it's out of any sympathy for these savages! The only reason I followed was because YOU'RE my only way out of that place!"

Charmian's mouth twitched. "You should speak with Singing Cedars...that one right over there."

"As if I wish to speak with one of those heathens."

"He's not an Islander, he's an Onondaga."

"They're all the same if you ask me. Now bugger off. I hardly need to sit here making smalltalk."

She just about stood up and smacked her hand over his head, but made herself take a breath and keep her hands to herself. "Fine," she said in as neutral a voice as she could muster, rising. "But seeing as you're going to be stuck with us all the way to the northern shore of the lake and beyond, I think you should start getting used to the idea of sitting with a bunch of heathens and making smalltalk!"

She caught his glower before turning back to the others. Bouchard and Baptiste and the rest, at least, were more welcoming, and as soon as she sat down and started telling them about her own first trip to the Island, with Drake and Ocryana and Augwak and Ocryx and everyone else, the atmosphere lightened considerably, and it wasn't too long before she forgot about the unpleasantness near the river.

* * * * *

The river got colder and darker as it went further north, toward the shore of the big water. The little Nebanaubae fought its way up the current alone, the rest of its fellows having swum on far ahead of it. It glanced left and right, flitting around fallen rocks and trees, tasting the water to try to tell which way they'd gone. Nebanaubae had no real homes. They simply wandered and rested as they saw fit, sometimes in the same place every so often, sometimes in different places. And so by now, unless it could sniff them out, it would be hard telling where they'd all gone off to, this late.

It drew near to the riverbank, still tasting and sniffing; it put its nose up close to the surface and swam along, tail waving from side to side, scales glittering in the starlight. It frowned to itself a little and wondered if it were lost.

Something reached into the water and grabbed onto its arm, yanking it up and outward. The Nebanaubae let out a startled sound as it was dragged toward the bank and half out of the water. It blinked in confusion for a moment or two before it was able to see the face staring back at it, and its gills flared open, its eyes wide.

The figure held out its hand. "Give it," an unpleasant voice growled.

The Nebanaubae blinked a few times, then bit its lip and held out its own hand. Into the palm before it it dropped the little lock of the human girl's hair. The other hand rose so its owner could get a better look, and the hair gleamed in the dimness as well, rich fiery red. The eyes staring at it narrowed, then flicked back up to look at the Nebanaubae. The Nebanaubae ducked its head a little, gnawing on its lip.

"You told her?" the unpleasant voice asked.

The Nebanaubae fanned its fins even more. "Only a little," it admitted meekly.

The eyes narrowed again. "You are a bad little fish," the voice said, and then the hand let the Nebanaubae go. It slipped back into the water with a small splash, waving its fins and taking in deep breaths. It floated in the shallow and stared back up at the face looking down at it.

"There is anything else?" the voice asked.

The Nebanaubae stretched its neck out a bit, talking now as if tattling on a sibling. I said only the truth, so I wasn't lying, it said. But I said only a little. She's confused now! She probably does not even believe. Oh! It swam forward and stuck its head back out. "And she gave the others an Animiki feather!"

"Animiki...?" the voice echoed.

The Nebanaubae nodded. "They have one traveling with them! Just a small one. But the grandson of an Animiki ogimah, unless he lies."

"Animiki are braggarts," the voice said. "They only rarely resort to lying." The figure the voice belonged to stood up straight and gave a short nod. "You've done well. Go back to your own people now, and forget that you've dealt with us."

The Nebanaubae nodded again, turning and swimming quickly away. The figure holding the lock of hair looked at it again, turning it this way and that. It raised one hand, and blue fire illuminated the hair, even as it turned its shade darker purple. The glittering eyes narrowed again.

"Feel unfortunate," the voice said to itself, "that the Nebanaubae know no loyalties. And that you are so foolish as to deal with them." The fingers wrapped around the lock and the figure turned away from the river. "Fortunately for us."


 Part 76: Small Sacrifices  (13+)
An ailing Augwak gets an unexpected helping hand...
#1581820 by Tehuti, Lord Of The Eight

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