Charmian faces a hearty welcome back, as well as some awkward questions...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Escape From Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 118: Aftermath Of Escape"
PART ONE HUNDRED AND NINETEEN:
A Pain In The Head
FOR A WHILE, Charmian rode on X'aaru's back with the unconscious Little Wind; yet she kept threatening to pass out herself, so at last the demon stopped and Winter Born and Pakwa helped her down, and took turns poking her along as she walked, her head bobbing as she weaved from side to side of the narrow tunnel. At least there wasn't enough room for her to wander off, or fall sideways, though X'aaru made certain to keep right in front of her and the others right behind so she wouldn't keel over and hit her head again.
"My head hurts," she complained.
"That's what happens when you get hit with a MANITOU antler," Augwak grumbled, padding along after them.
"I just want to sleep," Charmian sighed. "Would it really hurt so much...?"
"Mother's said you're not supposed to let someone go to sleep after they've hit their head, Charmian," Winter Born replied in a serious voice. "So you have to keep awake! What if we wouldn't be able to wake you up again--?"
"I just mean a little nap," Charmian protested, and her eyes started to drift shut. Pakwa pinched her leg and she gasped and hopped. "Ow!"
"It's not too much further, Charmian," X'aaru promised. "If Winter Born's directions are right..."
"There should be three other tunnels ahead," Winter Born said. "This one took me to X'aaru, one's back to the mountain, and one is supposed to go to Gitchi-Gami, so I'm betting that if we take the last one, we'll end up where we belong!"
"That doesn't necessarily make sense," Charmian warned, and her eyes started drifting shut again. Augwak dashed forward as Pakwa reached out to pinch her, and sank his teeth into her leg. Charmian's eyes promptly shot open and her mouth went as wide as a cave. "OHMYFRIGGINGGODOW!!" She whirled around and started beating the GeeBee over the head. "WHAT THE HELL!! YOU DID NOT JUST BITE ME!!"
"I think it's just a few more paces," X'aaru said, hastening his step into a trot.
"As if I did it out of hunger!!" Augwak cried, shielding himself from the blows. "We shouldn't have to stop every few minutes just so YOU can rest!!"
Winter Born hurried ahead to grasp Charmian's arm and urge her along. Charmian shook a fist, face livid. "You even THINK of doing that again and I'll tear your tongue out and clean your NOSE with it!!" she yelled, before relenting and following the demon, albeit with a noticeable limp. "Holy GOD I can't believe you did that!!"
"Here it is!" X'aaru exclaimed, slowing down and nodding at the fork with his horns. "Which one do we take--?"
They crowded into the small space and Winter Born directed them to turn so their backs were to the wider tunnel which obviously led back toward the mountain. Three tunnels opened up ahead, including the one they'd just come from. "I think it's the one on the...right," Winter Born said; then, when both Augwak and Charmian gawked at her with jaws hanging open, she grinned. "I'm just kidding! I know it's the one on the right."
Charmian's jaws clamped shut and she fumed. "Funny." She ducked her head, as this tunnel wasn't quite as tall, and they slipped into it.
"How long exactly did it take you to get this far...?" she asked X'aaru as they traveled along.
"Oh. It wasn't terribly long," X'aaru assured her. "Though the rainbow helped. Should I cast another one? Maybe to speed it up...?"
"I get the feeling Kabebonikka wouldn't've shown us this tunnel if it didn't have a way back to where we came from," Winter Born mused. "I bet we'll come out not too far from the camp! Then we can head right on back to Gitchi-Gami again!" She started skipping, which was awkward in the cramped space. "I can't wait to return to the Island!"
"We've still got Megissogwun and Turtle to think of," Charmian warned, then sighed and rubbed at her throbbing skull. "Cripes...if I meet that manitou again I'm going to kick him in the head..."
She trailed off when she stuck her hand in her pocket and felt something soft there, then paused. The bit of Weaver's web that Lieutenant Barrington had given her. She'd divided some of it up already, to furnish the tunnels that had led to this land and to the Sky Tree...and the tunnel leading here was likely to have been destroyed as soon as they'd used it. She let out a miserable sigh. If they had to visit the Sky Tree again...or do one of a hundred other things...they wouldn't have enough web left without taking the time to seek out more Weavers and ask for some, and she doubted that Megissogwun would be so obliging, based on how he'd treated Niskigwun. She pulled her hand out of her pocket. Best to just take the long way right now and save time later.
"So Kabebonikka just let you go--?" she asked Winter Born with a puzzled frown.
"Well...not really," Winter Born admitted. "I think he just thought you could use my help or something...though I don't know why...I think he still means for me to go back if we lose." Her face lit up. "But I know that we won't! So it's no worry."
Wish I were that optimistic, Charmian thought, when Little Wind let out a soft moan and moved his head. All five of them immediately halted, the demon's fur bristling. Augwak started gnawing on his own lips.
"Told you it was a bad idea to bring HIM along..." he whined under his breath, creeping back from the demon.
X'aaru's tail twitched nervously. "Ch-Charmian...what do we do if he w-wakes up...?"
They all stared at the wabano for a moment or two. "I have an idea," Charmian said at last. "Just wait a minute." They stood and waited until Little Wind finally lifted his head and blinked, then Charmian swung and punched him. His head promptly dropped and he fell silent again. Everyone stared at Charmian now with wide eyes and jaws hanging; she winced and rubbed her hand before gesturing. "Okay. Let's keep going."
"Wow," Winter Born said, though thankfully that was it.
Pakwa and Winter Born took turns nudging her every time she started to doze off again, and at last daylight started to become visible ahead. "I hope that's the opening!" Winter Born exclaimed, hurrying toward it. The others had to slow down now as tangled roots were protruding from the ceiling and walls, threatening to trip them if they moved too quickly; several times they had to stop completely so Charmian and the GeeBees could extricate X'aaru from them, the demon hanging his head as if greatly embarrassed. This delayed them a little bit; Winter Born at last popped back in, eyes wide. "I think I can see the bay from here!" she said. "And something's out in it. I think it's Mishupishu!"
"I hope it's Mishupishu..." Charmian muttered, straining to snap a particularly thick root away from X'aaru's horn without breaking the latter, and they at last fought their way out of the opening.
They came out of a small hillock and splashed into marshy grass which instantly chilled their feet, Charmian shivering and rubbing her arms. When they looked around, she at last began to recognize her surroundings, although they were from a different angle and vantage point; they stood quite near the bay, but way to the east of where the camp had been, judging by the look of the shoreline. Something large and black was moving back and forth in the water. Charmian didn't want her to, but Winter Born went running off toward it, waving and hallooing. It vanished underwater for a moment or two, then popped back up somewhat closer. She let out a breath to recognize Mishupishu's large yellow-green eyes and bent spine. His mouth opened wide enough to swallow any of them whole and he came swimming toward them, a roostertail shooting up behind.
"You're back! You're back!" he cried, and began swimming in circles. "I felt something coming under the ground but couldn't tell where from! Kenu felt it as well. So he said he would keep an eye on the mountains and I would keep an eye on the water! Oh, I can't believe you're all back! How wonderful!"
"How are things going down here...?" Charmian asked tensely, pulling some wet plants off of her foot.
"Oh!" Mishupishu swam up close, his head sticking out of the water. "Everyone got quite nervous when those awful thudding sounds came! But they convinced themselves that it was likely good news. I'm so glad they were right! But they're still anxious. Kenu says the old woman is keeping them in check. From the sound of it the half-windling one is wanting to go up the mountains but no one will let him. Oh!" He lifted his head and sniffed at Charmian. "And the manitou's head hurt! They said that meant you were hurt! Is that so--? Should we call a nanandawi--?"
"I think I'll be okay for now," Charmian started to say, only to feel Winter Born grasp her hand and start dragging her back toward the camp, which she now just barely saw around some shrubs which had been blocking her view.
"No you won't!" she insisted. "That manitou hit your head hard."
"Manitou--?" Mishupishu asked, swimming alongside the edge of the bay in an attempt to keep up.
X'aaru hastened to trot beside him. "That's right! That big black mitchi manitou made his way through--he and the two Makwamosa, and this fellow right here..."
Mishupishu sniffed at the unconscious Little Wind, then took in a breath and hurriedly swam back. "ONE OF THEM! You brought him back--?" When they nodded he bristled in panic. "Why did you bring him back--?"
"He's hurt," Charmian said. "We can't just leave him there."
The Lynx came swimming back again. "But he's one of them--you do understand--?" he asked, his eyes earnestly meeting Charmian's. "Isn't he the one who gave you that bad scroll--?"
"Yes, he is," Charmian tried not to snap, feeling tired and cranky. "But he's hurt! So we're going to take him to see Mudroot. I don't think he can really hurt us anyway. Mishosha and the others left him behind. I don't think they care anymore."
"Mishosha?" Mishupishu quailed and sank down so only his horns and eyes showed, darting left to right.
"Don't worry--he we didn't bring back," Charmian said, fighting a yawn. "But we have to get going back to the camp. I don't like the look of how much blood he's lost."
"Oh." The Lynx raised his head again. "Well--all right! But please do be careful with him! I'll call back Kenu, by the way, and let him know that everything is all right now. They'll be so glad to see you all back safe and sound!" And he disappeared beneath the surface; Charmian didn't have the energy to wonder how one called a Thunderbird from underwater.
Shouts started arising as soon as they crested a small rise on the way toward the camp, and Charmian rubbed at her eyes to see all of the little figures racing back and forth. She frowned, perplexed, to see how they cheered and waved their spears as if she'd done some great thing, and she felt somewhat uneasy when they finally reached the camp's perimeter and the inhabitants kept up their cheering and waving on the entire way to the main lodge. The doorflap was flung aside and the people within began pouring out, Thomas and Stick-In-The-Dirt first among them, followed by Mani and Singing Cedars and then the rest. Charmian bit her lip guiltily to see how Mani swayed from side to side and shook his head but he let out a happy whistle just the same. Then she couldn't see anything anymore because Thomas was hugging her.
"You're all right!" he said with great relief, then grasped her arms and held her away from him a bit, looking her over. His smile vanished and a frown replaced it when he saw the bruise now darkening the side of her face, and he reached up to gingerly touch it, making her wince. "Mostly," he corrected himself, and she bit her lip at the reproachful note that had entered his voice.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she said, Stick-In-The-Dirt now examining the injury. "Just a bruise. That Wendigo won't be coming back down and causing any more trouble, by the way."
"Truly?" Mudroot asked, the old medicine woman poking her way forward, a disapproving look on her face--but Charmian could tell that was how she always looked. "You took care of him?"
"Sort of," Charmian said, which earned nearly a scowl. "It's a long story."
"Did the North Wind know where to find Kabeyun?" Niskigwun asked, craning his neck to see her as everyone else was getting in the way.
"Sort of," Charmian echoed herself. "It's an even longer story." She winced. "Can we go inside? My head is killing me. And it feels like it dropped ten degrees out here! It got colder," she clarified, when this statement earned her some odd looks.
"It very well could have," Mudroot muttered as they turned and started making their way back inside the lodge. "That's rather what had me wondering if you'd even come back at all! So what's this about the Whittiko and about the old North Wind--? You finally got somewhere?"
The fires within the lodge were stoked, and everyone, save Augwak, began settling back down around them and warming their hands. "Yes and no," Charmian replied, settling down beside Mani and reluctantly letting Stick-In-The-Dirt press his fingers against her bruise before he started poking around at his bird-bone necklaces.
"Yes and no--?" Thomas echoed, then gave her a dark look. "Perhaps you'd better explain from the beginning."
"It's kind of hard," Charmian said; then when everyone gave her dirty looks, "but basically, no, Kabebonikka didn't tell us where to find Kabeyun. He did though tell us HOW to find him..."
"Riddles?" Lieutenant Barrington snapped at no one in particular. "Is that what this entire thing is going to be--?"
"Perhaps close your mouth and listen," Moon Wolf said in an icy voice, and the lodge fell so still so suddenly that Charmian's ears burned. She coughed and tried not to wince when Stick-In-The-Dirt placed one of the bones against her cheek and started sucking on it. She felt intensely ridiculous, but did her best to ignore him.
"We were kind of told that Kabebonikka's basically a big jackass and he thinks of everything as a game," she said. "Well, that's pretty much true. But apparently even he works by rules."
"What were those awful noises up there?" Singing Cedars asked.
"Oh. That." Charmian lowered her head a little. "That was the Wendigo--Whittiko." When the natives gathered at the entry sucked in a collective breath she waved her hand. "It's dead. I'm sure there's more, but Kabebonikka and I came to an agreement. When we get west, he'll call them off, and they won't bother you anymore."
"That sounds rather too simple," Mudroot muttered.
"Well, that's not all of it," Charmian replied. "There was a bit more involved but it's nobody's concern here. As soon as we get to the plains, you guys should be safe. I don't know exactly what he's going to do in the meantime...so things might get kind of messy for a bit. We plan on leaving here soon though, and he's not interested in your camp. So as long as he follows us, you guys should be relatively safe." She shifted her eyes to Mudroot's, as she couldn't move her head. "I wanted to ask for a favor."
Mudroot frowned. "Yes?"
"We met this person up there named No-Tongue. He said he'd been living up there for a few years because people thought he was a Whittiko."
Mudroot nodded. "I never met the man, but I heard of him. Supposedly he came to this camp long ago. What of him?"
"He wasn't what everybody claimed he was." Her eyes shifted toward the entryway to look at the others. "He was just a human like everybody here. He proved that when he helped us kill the real Whittiko."
The people in the entryway started murmuring uneasily to each other, lowering their eyes. "I see," Mudroot mused. "You wish for his name to be cleared?" When Charmian nodded she said, "Where might we find him then?"
"You won't," Charmian answered, and the murmuring fell silent. "He was killed in an avalanche," she said, and could hear the people in the entryway pulling away from the lodge and leaving them alone. "I promised him I'd vouch for him here in the camp, and people would know that he wasn't a cannibal," she went on. "But the real Whittiko got to us before we could come back. We built a little grave-house, but we couldn't do much else."
"I see," Mudroot said again, pursing her lips. She lifted a stick and poked it at the fire, making sparks jump. "Well. If the North Wind does as he promised you, then once this is over I will head up there myself and see to his grave-house. In fact..." She stood up and dusted off her dress. "I will head up there just as soon as your group leaves, and make sure he finds his way along the Spirit Road. I know a few tricks. The Road owes me a few little favors and it's about time I asked for them."
"We need to reach the great plains to the west," Charmian said. "But I've never been that far from Michi--um--from where I live. Do you have any suggestions as for how to get there?"
"It'd be best if you headed somewhat southwest instead," Mudroot replied. "That's the easiest way to them, but I've never gone quite that far. Strange things supposedly dwell there, and none of us have any desire to find out exactly what."
Charmian nodded, making Stick-In-The-Dirt pull away. "Thanks. It looks like day's just coming here...?"
"You were up there all night," Marten said. "We wondered if you'd EVER come back down!"
"Then maybe we can get started today," Charmian said, and carefully got to her feet. She winced and rubbed at her cheek. "I wish I had an ice pack..." Those closest to her gave her odd looks and she frowned. "What? Do I have something stuck in my teeth?"
"Well..." Singing Cedars pursed his lips now as if uncertain of what to say, then gestured at the entry. "There's ice all over, out there..."
"Oh." Charmian blushed. "Well--I just got whacked in the head so I'm not thinking straight! Jeez."
"I can go get you some really nice ice!" Marten offered, then started hopping up and down. "OH! OH! If it's nice ice do you just call it ni-ice--?" He scampered for the entryway. "Be right back!"
"I can get some more of that moss and wrap it in that," Winter Born added, and hurried out after him.
"We might have to come back through these parts to get back home," Charmian said thoughtfully. "Kabebonikka pointed out a tunnel that's supposed to lead back to Gitchi-Gami, and I like the thought of that better than trying to use the tunnel we took here. That mitchi manitou showed up again, and I rather get the feeling that he destroyed it. Mishosha has ways around that we would never have."
"Speaking of," Francois said, and when she looked at him he nodded toward the corner of the lodge. Everyone looked. X'aaru was crouching over here, a meek look on his face, Little Wind still sprawled out on his back. Charmian let out a little gasp and moved toward them so quickly that she nearly fell when a wave of dizziness passed over her.
"I nearly forgot!" she exclaimed. "I know this is hard to explain..."
"He's the same one from the falls!" Stick-In-The-Dirt cried when X'aaru rose and moved toward the firelight. The medicine man hurried to scramble back. "The one who passed off that awful scroll!"
"You bring him back here--?" Moon Wolf snapped, giving her a venomous look.
"I couldn't leave him behind!" Charmian exclaimed. "Mishosha and that other stupid bear practically ran right over him! And he's still hurt pretty bad. Look at him, he can't be too much older than me! And his medicine isn't even that much stronger than mine!"
"How would you know such a thing...?" Thomas asked with a furrowed brow as Niskigwun and Francois gently lifted the unconscious wabano from the demon's back and settled him closer to the fire.
"Because he tried attacking me, and I tried attacking him," Charmian said. "And neither of us hit each other. I'm telling you, he's not that powerful. That scroll I got from Cutfoot back at the Mide lodge--that changed him back into his real form as easy as anything! I'm willing to bet it was Mishosha who gave him that other scroll, because I really doubt he would be strong enough to come up with such medicine!"
"You have a problem," Moon Wolf said; when she looked at him she saw how dark his frown was. "You pity too easily," he said, "and this is your problem now."
Charmian's lip started to stick out, the doorflap opening and Marten and Winter Born hurrying back in. "Say whatever you want! He's hurt, and where I come from you're supposed to take care of hurt people. At the very least we can patch him up and then dump him in the middle of nowhere, can't we--?"
"Hey," Remy said, leaning over Little Wind, "I think maybe he's waking up now."
Francois nudged him back and Charmian and a few of the others leaned over him. Little Wind's eyes were still closed but he was wincing slightly, and a small pained noise escaped him. He slowly lifted a hand to put it to his head, then winced harder and shrugged his shoulder a bit, evidently still feeling the pain in his back. They stared at him for a moment, then Charmian looked at Moon Wolf.
"Still think he's too much trouble...?" she murmured, when the young wabano dragged his eyes open to blink up at them blearily. They looked at him again and his eyes grew a little, apparently confused.
Marten hopped up beside him and presented Charmian with the ice, waving at him as he did so. "Hi! You look like you could use some ice too!"
Charmian saw Little Wind's eyes go as big as moons. Then he let out a startled yell and threw up his hand, aiming it right at them.
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