Lynxes await at Gitchi-Gami, but something else is coming too...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 77: The Unasked-For Gift"
CHARMIAN HAD TO assume that the river they were on wouldn't lead them directly to where they wanted to go, and it turned out she was right.
She was starting to get sick of portaging by now--pulling up to the bank, getting out, pulling out all the belongings, lifting the giant canoes, and marching along to the next river or stream that went their way. They even meandered into a little lake or pond at one point, and Charmian was sure they were lost, but Bouchard assured her that this was not so.
"This whole PLACE is practically made of rivers!" he exclaimed. "And we voyageurs have rivers within us--rivers in our blood, ma chère--so of course we can hardly get lost!"
That hadn't assured her much. Francois had leaned back to her then and murmured, "The way is rather roundabout...but we should come out near the shore soon, ma chère. Then, a little more walking to the beach."
She'd sighed to hear that, but at least she felt that she could trust his word over the other voyageur's.
The trees and landscape around them grew taller and wilder the further they went, until only a sliver of sky was visible overhead on the narrow stream they traveled; the canoes, as big as they were, could barely make it through the shallow water, and finally they had to again clamber out and start walking. At least Bouchard and the others were quick at what they did. Charmian and Winter Born never did get tired of watching them jump out of the canoes, sling the goods over their backs, and lift the canoes onto their shoulders, carrying them along in such a way that it was a wonder they didn't run into anything. Yet they never did, that Charmian saw. She wondered if they could see through wood.
They passed through patches of swampland, and Thomas carried Winter Born on his back; Charmian walked, as Peepaukawiss had spent ten minutes or so gingerly attempting to poke his toes into the edge of the bog, before Mani let out what sounded oddly like a sigh, and scooped him onto his back. Marten and the two loons tagged along with him, humming the song that Charmian had sung earlier.
"Do you know any other songs, Charmian?" Winter Born asked, peeping over Thomas's shoulder; he was sinking in up to his knees.
Charmian grimaced. "What kind of songs? We aren't even rowing anymore!"
"One hardly needs to be paddling to sing a paddling song!" Bouchard exclaimed. "You say that you know songs--? Pray tell what are they, ma chère? We could always use a new tune!"
Charmian's scowl grew. The others started clamoring until she was forced to grimace and wave her hand in irritation. "All right! All right!!...but if it sucks, it's hardly MY fault!"
They all fell silent but she could tell they were waiting, their feet making squelching noises in the muck. Charmian racked her brain, then finally rolled her eyes and sighed. "I got this off an old LP record," she said, which earned her a few odd looks, but nothing else. She coughed. "The grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again. And when they were up they were up, and when they were down they were down, and when they were only halfway up they were neither up nor down!"
Crickets. At least, she assumed she would have heard them, had there been any. She squirmed in the silence that followed and considered singing a Christmas carol just to break it. Too bad it was apparently the middle of summer, here.
After a pause the voyageurs opened their mouths and she jumped. "The grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again! And when they were up they were up, and when they were down they were down, and when they were only halfway up they were neither up nor down!"
Marten started laughing. "That song's FUNNY! They're up, then they're down, then they aren't up and they aren't down! HA HA HA!"
Charmian let out her breath. Well...at least it wasn't "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." She silently thanked herself for not having thought of that song.
The sky began to grow gloomy as they progressed, until it hung low with clouds every day that they walked; Charmian fiddled with the corner of her vest, hoping against a downpour, even while Kenu fidgeted as he trotted along, glancing up often and biting his lip; she wondered if he was missing home. He tried to appear cheery when he noticed them looking at him, but the rest of the time he seemed antsy and fretful.
Eventually, Charmian noticed how the others in the party began to act differently as well; Stick-In-The-Dirt and Moon Wolf, in particular, craned their necks and seemed almost to be sniffing at the air, picking up their pace. She tried to figure out what drew their attention, but couldn't notice anything different; when she glanced down at Winter Born, who now walked near her, she could see her doing the same thing. "What is it?" she asked. "Do you guys sense something that we don't...?"
Winter Born looked up at her, then bit her lip. "Well...I'm not sure," she admitted meekly. "But the air seems different...cleaner...and lighter, somehow."
Charmian frowned. "Lighter--?"
Winter Born nodded. "Like the woods are fading away," she said, which didn't do much to clarify matters. Charmian looked to Thomas but all that he could do was shrug.
"Don't look at me!" he said. "I hardly have any idea what she means, either."
"I smell...water," Stick-In-The-Dirt said when she looked at him, and then she understood, and her spirits rose a little.
They at last fell in beside a stream which headed vaguely northwestward, and here met up again with Mishupishu and X'aaru; the two emerged sopping from the water, the demon clambering out to shake himself off while the Lynx could only lift his head. The stream was quite small, so all that he could do was swim straight along it, since Charmian didn't like the thought of sending him back into a tunnel. Winter Born threw her arms around the demon's neck and hugged him, while Kenu promptly ran over to Mishupishu and hopped up and down, feathers bobbing.
"You're all right!" he exclaimed, then stopped jumping and coughed into his hand. "I mean...I knew you would be all right...just as I knew it all along! We Animiki just have a sort of sixth sense about such things..."
Charmian ignored him as he droned on, and started picking her way along the stream as the other voyageurs did. "Are we very far from the lake--?" she asked.
"Oh--not that far at all!" X'aaru exclaimed, trotting after them. "We had to double back, in fact--we went a bit too far--there weren't any more Lynxes in sight, thank goodness, though the scenery was rather odd..."
Thomas sniffed and then frowned. "Is it just me--or does something smell like water?"
Charmian sniffed, but pouted a little when she couldn't smell it. "I don't know! My nose must be broken. Then again, I live on a big lake..."
"Well, so do we!" Winter Born protested.
"Yeah, but you guys are evidently more attuned to this sort of thing! Just like you can...tell which way is west when it's cloudy out or...build canoes from scratch or...leap tall wigwams in a single bound!"
"I can't leap tall wigwams," Winter Born said, frowning a little.
"Are we there yet?" Augwak exclaimed, hopping forward and drooling. "Is there FOOD there--?"
"Not unless you like fish," Pakwa said, but hurried along just as well, the thought evidently appealing to him, at least.
Charmian had to dodge aside as several of the others picked up their pace and hurried ahead; even the voyageurs were quickly left behind. When Winter Born went running, Charmian and Thomas shared a look, then went after her. The trees started to thin ahead, and at last Charmian could hear a faint lapping sound, and could feel and smell the water in the air herself--she told herself to remember that smell, since everyone else did--and she kept her eyes focused on Winter Born as the girl hopped over a tumbled tree and then vanished from view. Her eyes went wide and she started running. "Winter Born--!"
She leapt the tree and went stumbling out of the woods as well. Just in time Thomas grabbed hold of her wrist to keep her from falling, for the solid earth abruptly cut off into a small ledge coated in sand, which then plunged into the water itself. Winter Born was standing in it up to her ankles and staring out into space. Stick-In-The-Dirt emerged behind them and slightly off to the right, then Moon Wolf, then the others, one by one and in groups. Charmian glanced at them and saw the Islanders' eyes go wide.
They had stepped out onto a small sandy beach, which apparently covered a small layer of rock; off to the far right was more rock, and off to the left was even more, only here, it rose up into towering cliffs, jutting outward into the water, and in the hazy distance Charmian could make out a gigantic arch cut from stone. Her eyes widened yet again when she saw it--it looked just like one of the shadowy shapes she'd seen in her dreams of the Red Swan.
She turned her head to look northward. Although she'd briefly seen Lake Superior before, she was still awed by its sheer immensity. It seemed to go on forever, and she couldn't even see the other side. She could have easily been standing on the ocean for all that she knew, and for a brief absurd moment, she thought that Glooskap himself might pop up and shake her hand and ask for Marten back so they could make waffles together. The wind wasn't blowing, and so the water was relatively calm, lapping at the stone beach only a little, and everyone stood and stared at the immense lake in silence.
Stick-In-The-Dirt finally spoke, his voice faint. "Gitchi...Gitchi-Gami...?"
Charmian nodded. "Lake Superior, where I come from," she said, feeling a bit of pride that she knew this minor fact. "Biggest of the Great Lakes!"
Winter Born turned her head and at last noticed the great stone formation in the distance. Her face lit up and she pointed, as if none of the rest of them could see it. "Look! It looks just like Arch Rock--only way BIGGER!"
"I think that's called the Grand Portal," Charmian said a bit reluctantly, not wanting to mess her facts up. "I have to admit...I've never been to Pictured Rocks before...but I plan to go!"
"Pictured Rocks?" Winter Born was wallowing out further in the water to get a better look. She held her hands up to her eyes as if taking a photo.
Charmian nodded. "That's what this place is called, where I come from."
"Is it another toor-ist spot--?"
"As a matter of fact, it is..." She started splashing after her, only to notice that, while the others were already starting to move around and get a better impression of the place, Stick-In-The-Dirt still hadn't moved from his spot. He looked as if he'd been frozen that way. Frowning, Charmian turned and made her way back to him, splashing up onto the little beach and grimacing at the feel of sand getting inside her sandals even as she tried to shake it out. She bent down to take off her sandals and started tapping them against her knee as she spoke.
"Stick...?" She tilted her head. "What is it?"
The medicine man slowly blinked. He gave her a small look, then turned back to the lake, then back to her again. He rubbed at his neck meekly.
"I...I knew it would be big, but...I had no idea it would be this big," he murmured. He again turned to the lake. "It is the biggest thing I've ever seen..." Charmian took a step or two to stand beside him and they stared out at the lake together. "I had not thought there could even be something so immense," he went on, and then added, as if embarrassed, "It makes the Island feel so small...and I feel like everything I know now...means very little itself, if such big things exist which I do not know about."
Charmian blinked. "I don't see it that way!" she retorted. "The way I see it, yeah, there's things you don't know yet, but...that just means there are more things for you to learn about! Do you think that when I first came to the Island, I felt that everything else I'd learned didn't mean anything anymore...?" He looked at her and she blushed a little. "Well...sometimes, but, not always! For example, now I really have to get used to the fact that at least sometimes, giant birds cause thunder, and not gas..."
"Can we go looking around?" Winter Born called, and pointed again at the Grand Portal; she stood in water almost up to her waist. "I think I can swim right through that!"
"Now hold on," Charmian said, replacing her sandals and wading back into the water. "That thing's gotta be a mile away! It might look peaceful here, but this lake changes really fast--remember? We have to keep on our guard."
Winter Born's face fell. "Awwww." She came sloshing reluctantly back, the hem of her dress wet. She stepped up onto the rock and lifted one leg, staring curiously at something small and dark on her ankle. "Hey! Something caught a ride on me!" she exclaimed cheerily.
"EW!!" Charmian yelled, and promptly put her hand out, sending out a tiny flame which made the leech curl up and fall off. She started checking her own legs. "God I hope there aren't MORE of them!!"
"It must have come from the swamp," Francois suggested, and gestured at several of the voyageurs to move the canoes. "Well, ma chère?" he asked, and Charmian looked at him. "Think we should head out while the lake is calm, or wait until tomorrow?"
Charmian frowned and started chewing on her lip. "I don't know...we've been at it all day, but the lake can change so fast...do you think we should wait...?"
Francois shrugged. "There's honestly no telling what it might be like tomorrow. Then again, one could say the same for ten minutes from now. The decision is up to you."
Charmian sighed. "Well...it's still kind of early...maybe we could rest at least a little bit?"
"I think that sounds like a grand idea," Bouchard exclaimed. "Take a peep, the sky's getting just a mite bit darker over there--see?" He pointed eastward, and they all looked. Charmian shielded her eyes. "Looks like a little storm might actually be on the way--likely not a big one, but they can get pretty magnified out here!" He started patting at his pouches while Pakwa walked by, picking his teeth. "Now that's odd...could've sworn I had a few pieces of jerky in here..."
Augwak splashed into the water and started digging around; he pulled up the dead leech and popped it in his mouth. Even Winter Born made an awful face at this, and Charmian smacked the GeeBee in the back of the head so that the leech popped back out of his mouth and plinked into the water. He bared his teeth at her.
"WHAT?" he yelled. "I DON'T SEE YOUR NAME ON IT!!"
Charmian clenched her fists in return. "YOU ARE FRIGGING DISGUSTING!!"
Barrington stepped out into the water now and started walking carefully away from the shore, shielding his eyes. "You there," he said to Francois, and pointed. "Is that an island--?"
They shielded their eyes as well and squinted. Charmian's frown grew when she could at last see the hazy shape in the distance; the heat and the opacity of the air made it difficult to make out, but it looked a lot bigger than she'd imagined. She furrowed her brow.
"Grand Island." This from Bouchard; he stepped up beside her and put his hands on his hips. "No wonder it has that name, eh?"
"That's where Mishosha lives?" she asked, turning to him, puzzled. She hadn't seen anything like that in her dreams.
He pursed his lips and shook his head. "No, no, ma chère...some claim this, but it doesn't fit the tales...I believe they say he lives on a smaller island, one that travels in the fog. It's hazy right now but not foggy...his island shouldn't be here, so it should be relatively safe, for now..."
"If that's so," Barrington interrupted him, pointing again, "then what in the bloody hell are those?"
Everyone looked. At first, they could see nothing but the faint outline of the island itself, and Charmian began to scowl, thinking that perhaps he was being a pain again; then several of the others, Peepaukawiss, Manabozho, and Kenu among them, tensed, and took a step back. Puka started hopping from foot to foot, grimacing.
"Ooohhhhh!!" he cried. "It's those UNPLEASANT things again!!"
"Huh--?" Charmian said, and then she saw it--them--too.
At first she could see only a faint rippling here and there on the surface of the water--then little black dots appeared, and then these rose up into the air atop long sinuous bands of black which swayed from side to side. Her eyes widened when she saw the glowing yellow-green dots atop them, and the coppery glint of horns, and she too took a step back without even noticing.
"Crap," she whispered, feeling like slapping herself for not heeding her own advice to stay on guard.
Francois whistled and jerked his hand; immediately the voyageurs picked up their canoes, and retreated back into the woods. Several of them remained on the shore and lifted their guns. Puka let out a squeal and went running after the others, but Manabozho stayed and held up his own hands; Charmian flushed but followed suit, Thomas and Moon Wolf doing likewise as Niskigwun raised his spear. She glanced at Winter Born and jerked her head.
"Go on! Back with the others!"
Winter Born looked ready to protest, then turned and disappeared among the trees.
"Well, what do you reckon the odds are?" Thomas murmured to her. "I see about five of them."
"Six," Charmian corrected, spotting another one rising from the water. "And who knows how many OTHERS might be with them!" She ground her teeth. "It's just like we were warned. We should've been more alert. I shouldn't've just led us out practically on TOP of them like that!"
"A little late to cry over spilled milk," Thomas said.
She tensed and readied herself to hurl a fireball, seeing Barrington raising his own gun. "I rather think this goes beyond spilled milk, by now!!"
"FLESHLING!" a voice yelled; Charmian flinched and then glanced over her shoulder. Augwak was behind a tree, Puka and Marten cowering near him. He shook his fist at her. "You'd better defeat those things!" he snapped. "But in case you don't, I call dibs on your intestines!!"
Charmian's jaw fell. Then it clacked shut and she gave him the finger. He got a confused look before she whirled around again, Mani coming up on her left side and whistling.
Red Land One--? he asked anxiously.
She met his eyes. "I think you'd be better off keeping an eye on Winter Born and the others," she advised. "Since I have no clue how this is going to play out!"
The manitou lowered his head a little but nodded, and joined the others among the trees. Charmian turned back when she heard the Lynxes hissing softly as they drew near, their motions oddly casual, as if they were in no great hurry to do anything.
"Is it just me or are they way too relaxed?" Thomas asked, confused.
"Not just you," Charmian said. "They should've been attacking by now--what's holding them?"
"HEY!" another voice suddenly yelled, and this time she jumped. She whirled around to see Kenu hopping up and down not too far away, waving his arms. He pointed eastward excitedly.
"It's Grandfather Nigankwam!" he exclaimed, just as a low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance, and Charmian's brow furrowed in disbelief.
"How do you know--?" she blurted out.
Kenu's lip stuck out and he clenched his fists. "DUH! I know my own grandfather!" He began pointing again. "I knew he would be coming soon! Don't you see? From the east! Most Animiki come from the west--but Grandfather Nigankwam was already IN the east! Here he comes!" Charmian's spirits started to rise as the little Animiki started hopping again and waving his arms; even the Lynxes paused to peer eastward, vaguely tense looks on their faces. "HEY! GRANDFATHER!" Kenu shouted, his voice echoing across the water, but just as he yelled this the distant boom of thunder came again, and he stopped jumping, a look of dismay coming to his face.
"I don't think he can hear me all the way from there!" he exclaimed, then threw his arms up. "I have to go speak with him personally to tell him where we are--!"
"Hold on!" Charmian barked, and tackled him so that they both splashed into the water, making Moon Wolf take a step back. Kenu blinked the water from his eyes and gawked up at her, his feathers sopping; Charmian glared.
"If you turn into a Thunderbird now, what makes you think they won't snatch you right down from the sky?" she snapped. "Use your head for once! You may be an Animiki but you're still just a LITTLE KID!"
Kenu looked ready to pout, but a growl of thunder, moving closer, made him shrink in on himself a little, tears welling up in his eyes. "How are we supposed to call Grandfather then--?" he cried. "He can't hear us from way up there! Animiki make a terrible amount of noise when traveling..."
Charmian started clambering to her feet, splashing around as she unsnapped and dug in her pocket. "I think this is just the sort of thing Little Wind was talking about!" she stated, and pulled out the little birchbark scroll; she worried that it had gotten wet and torn, but when she lifted it, she saw that it was in as good a shape as any. Feeling a twinge of relief, she hastily unrolled it and glanced at the others still standing on the beach. They met her eyes but said nothing.
"Well," Charmian said in a shaky voice, "time to try this thing out!" She cleared her throat, focused on the scroll, and raised her voice.
"Animiki!" she yelled, her shout making the Lynxes pause. "In the sky like lowering clouds! Hurl your lightning, and bring death among the Lynxes!"
The Mishupishus glanced up, then back at her. She wilted a little when she could have sworn that she heard them letting out an odd hissy laugh, and they resumed moving forward. Anxiety flared in her breast and she stepped out of the water, the others getting ready to attack again; even Mishupishu remained coiled up near the shore, spines flaring and teeth glinting. She hated the thought of him having to fight, but it looked pretty inevitable...
The boom of thunder came again, and her head jerked up. She stared at the darkening clouds in the east. They had been moving along somewhat north of them, but now that she looked more closely, it seemed almost as if they had veered somewhat, and were now heading southwest--toward them!
Her eyes grew just as Kenu exclaimed, "GRANDFATHER NIGANKWAM! What did I tell you? Of course he would never let us down!"
"It...it worked," Charmian whispered, and glanced down at the scroll. "It actually worked." She looked at the Lynxes and saw that they had noticed the clouds' approach as well; they glanced at her, hissed, then started coiling and flaring their spines just like Mishupishu was.
Barrington shielded his eyes and stared at the clouds. "What is this Grandfather stuff?" he snapped, seeming confused. "I don't see anything but rainclouds!"
"Take a closer look," Charmian said, and pointed. "I think that's Grandfather Nigankwam right there!"
They all looked. The cloudbank advanced dark and rumbling, rolling forward like dust rolling over a plain, lighting up here and there with flashes of lightning which didn't emerge from the clouds. Something flickered in the nearest section of the bank, and Charmian stared upward in awe when a glowing yellow eye appeared, then the shape of a beak, and the shape of a wing. Barrington's own eyes grew and she could tell that he saw it as well. They all stood and watched as the advancing clouds boomed and began shifting into the gigantic forms of the Thunderbirds.
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