A pivotal moment arrives, and Red Bird goes away into the forest...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 79: Missing In Action"
SOMETHING GENTLY SHOOK Charmian's shoulder and a soft voice just barely managed to break through her slumber. "Charmian."
She mumbled a little and rubbed at her eye with her knuckle. Her exhaustion hadn't departed yet; she'd read about a study once where people were awakened every time they had slipped into REM sleep, meaning they were prevented from having dreams; and with each day their waking exhaustion grew until they were allowed to sleep as was normal. Then, they had had an abnormal amount of dreams, almost as if their brains were desperately trying to catch up on what they'd missed. She hadn't had a dream in quite a while; maybe that was why she was so tired?
The shaking and then the voice came again. "Charmian, please wake up."
The tone of it snapped her awake immediately. She'd never heard somebody sound so anguished. She opened her eyes and sat up--it was still dark--to see Red Bird sitting over her, tears streaming down her face.
"Red Bird?" she asked, stifling a yawn and rubbing her eye again. "What is it?"
Red Bird started, "I think that it--" and then cut herself off with a grimace, her hands on her belly. Charmian instantly understood and jumped up onto her knees, taking her by the arm.
"OH," she said, eyes widening. "All right--Tal Natha--?"
"I didn't want to bother him," Red Bird murmured, voice weak. She held onto Charmian's arm and her fingers suddenly dug in so hard that Charmian winced. Her breathing was hard and irregular. Charmian helped her lean back against the wall. "I don't know what to do..."
"Okay, we'll figure this out," Charmian said hastily. "Just--um--keep breathing. Like this." She sucked in a breath and let it out several times, exaggerating the action as she'd seen them do on TV. She couldn't think of anything else to do. Red Bird followed her example and seemed to calm down a little, so she turned to Drake and punched him in the arm. "Drake! Wake up! You have a kid sister, you know something about this!"
"Huh?" Drake mumbled, lifting his head. Charmian left him to figure out what was going on, scrambling across the furs to the other side of the cave. Somehow Red Bird had been quiet enough not to wake Tal Natha; what had she been thinking? He was the father! While Drake got up, quietly instructing Red Bird on what to do, she reached the demon and shook his shoulder. He raised his head groggily and shook it a bit, blinking.
"It's Red Bird," Charmian managed to say, before he'd gotten to his feet, ears pricking. He seemed to awaken immediately, and brushed past her to go to Red Bird's side.
Red Bird? he called when he reached her; she sniffled and managed to look up at him. He pressed his muzzle to the side of her head. You're certain--?
"I'm--I'm all wet," Red Bird said, and her eyes started streaming again. Charmian could tell she was embarrassed. "And it hurts, every few minutes."
"When it hurts," Drake said. "Does it keep coming sooner? Like, every four minutes, every three minutes, every two minutes?"
Red Bird nodded and then bit off a cry, hunching over. Tal Natha bristled and kept his head close to hers.
"Well," Drake murmured to Charmian, "her water broke and the contractions are coming faster. I think it's pretty safe to say it should be coming along anytime now!"
Charmian felt rather stupid that he would be the one to know about this, while she had no idea what she was doing, but nodded anyway. "I kind of figured. I don't know how they do this around here without hospitals. Is there anything we should be doing right now--?"
Go and see if X'aaru has returned yet, Tal Natha prompted. If Old Mother Manitou is with him, bring her here. She will know what to do.
Drake jumped up and went to pick up some furs and a bowl of water standing in the corner. "Charm? Think you can build that fire up a bit? I'm not sure if I'll need this, but just in case--"
"Sure, whatever you need." Charmian hurried to the smoldering embers and held her hand over them as she had before. Perhaps it was her own sense of desperation, but they lit more quickly this time, although a fireling still popped out of the ground, somersaulting across the floor to sit simmering in the corner. She paid it no attention as Drake set the clay bowl on the fire to heat it up, then she turned to the entrance to locate X'aaru.
She heard Red Bird whimpering as she went, and pain pierced through her middle. She wished she knew more of what to do.
She started actually scrabbling up the cliff face before Pakwa arrived, yawning and hovering upside-down. She grabbed onto his hand when he rubbed his eye and he squawked with surprise, dragging her up with him and vanishing into a puff of air when she landed on the ground. Mani rested nearby; he lifted his head and blinked as she rushed past him.
Red Land One?
"It's Red Bird. Where's--"
Even as she started to ask him, she sent out her net, locating two presences approaching from the north. She hastened over the fort and to the top of the slope, spotting them below, about three-quarters of the way up.
"X'aaru!" she shouted, waving. The demon lifted his head and his ears flickered. He held one hand up to his mouth.
"Charmian! I'm sorry it took me so long--"
"Just hurry up! It's coming! RIGHT NOW!"
X'aaru froze with surprise. Old Mother Manitou came forward, pushing him aside and hobbling up the hill, leaning on her stick. "Oh, out of the way, out of the way, dumb demon, let me see her first. You males, you hardly have a mind what you're doing half the time anyway..."
X'aaru barely had a chance to look offended before following her. Charmian hopped from foot to foot as they came, at what seemed to be an agonizingly slow pace. When they arrived she felt like grabbing the old woman's frail wrist and dragging her forward, but knew that wouldn't be a wise idea.
"Come on, this way," she said instead, and ran off again.
"'Bout time that girl dropped her pup," Old Mother Manitou muttered as they went. "Something about Ocryxes that makes 'em reluctant to come out into the world. This one was the same way!" She jerked her head at X'aaru, who blushed. "Took his mother two full days to drop him! Good thing she's built so tough 'cause of her father. Did it all by herself, too. Time I finally showed up, she already had him out and cleaned and everything and had even walked back to the tribe on her own! They don't make too many women like that!"
X'aaru whimpered. Charmian could tell he didn't like hearing quite so much about his own birth.
"Walked back? On her own?" she blurted out. "You mean she just wandered off and had her baby by herself?"
"Well, of course!" the old manitou returned. "How else are they supposed to learn? By having everyone coddle 'em? Sure, I would've lent her a hand had I arrived in time, but she hardly needed me by the time I showed up."
"Where did she do this?"
"In the woods, of course."
Charmian gaped at her in disbelief. "THAT'S what the women do here? They go off into the WOODS to have their babies?!"
Both of them looked at her as if this should have been obvious. Even X'aaru. "Of course," they both said, in unison.
Charmian stared at them with her mouth hanging open before turning and running toward the cliff. "RED BIRD!"
Pakwa and Mani awaited them above the cliff, the GeeBee still shaking his sprained wrist with a grimace that made him look like Augwak. Mani danced out of the way when they arrived.
Red One? She has her pup?
"Pretty soon now, I hope," Charmian said, and held out her arms so Pakwa grabbed onto them. He dropped her onto the ledge so that she landed on her elbow, but she figured he owed her that much, at least. She stumbled to her feet as X'aaru came flapping down, Old Mother Manitou on his back. The old woman climbed off and promptly shoved him aside so he bumped into Charmian.
"Come on now, out of the way, out of the way. Let an old woman through, for love of the spirits."
X'aaru and Charmian blinked at her a few times, then followed.
Inside, little had changed, except that now the bowl of water was steaming, and Drake was dipping a piece of softened doeskin into it. He shrugged at Charmian when she poked her head in. "I guess they don't have towels around here anywhere!"
"How come you know all of this stuff?"
"Oh! I didn't tell you? Well, my mom was pregnant with my sister Stacie and she started driving herself to the hospital because Dad was at work, but Stacie decided she wanted to come out right now, so right there in the car--"
Red Bird let out a high-pitched whine; Charmian was rather grateful she cut him off. She wasn't sure she wanted to hear the rest of this story right now!
"Let me through, let me see," Old Mother Manitou said, nudging Drake aside. Tal Natha lifted his head to look at her as she leaned down before Red Bird, feeling her forehead, pulling up one of her eyelids, and listening to her breathing. She grunted noncommittally, then gently pushed the demon away and took Red Bird by the arm, helping her to her feet. Red Bird winced with pain and both Charmian and Tal Natha started forward, but Old Mother Manitou kept them at bay.
"Go on, go on with you! She's not an invalid! Have to get her to the woods before it decides to come out right here and now. Least you could've done is help her out yourselves so I wouldn't have to do this."
"Can't she stay here?" Charmian begged. "She can barely walk!"
"She goes into the woods. Ai. I don't know what it is your people do, but it must be positively barbaric! Now out of the way! I have to figure out a way to get her over that cliff!"
I will carry her, Tal Natha said. Charmian sensed his reluctance to let her out of his sight. Old Mother Manitou gave him a narrow-eyed look before jerking her head.
"Mm, fine, but soon's she gets up there, she and I head off alone. Don't need you mussing everything up. You and the others can stay about here till it's over."
She helped Red Bird find her way to the entrance. Charmian cringed to see her forced to walk, her face pale, her eyes pained, yet Red Bird didn't protest as she was led from the cave. She clung tightly to the old woman's arm, then when they were outside Tal Natha scooped her up as if she were merely a feather, flapping his wings and carrying her up over the cliff. Old Mother Manitou dusted her hands and waved at X'aaru to assist her.
"You," she muttered at Charmian. "Soon's we get up there take the pup here and see if you can find his mother. She dropped an Ocryx; I should think she'd have ample experience with this sort of thing."
Charmian nodded. Despite the crowding and confusion they all managed to find their way to the top of the hill, and Old Mother Manitou again took Red Bird's hand when Tal Natha gently set her down, leading her off toward the trees. Charmian hated seeing them go, and hated even more leaving them behind; but the idea to fetch Silver Eagle Feather sounded like a good one. If the old woman's story was true, that was exactly the person she wanted to be present when Red Bird had her baby.
"X?" she called, and the demon promptly came. "We have to go find your mom. Fly as fast as you can!"
He nodded, and let her climb atop him. His wings spread and he launched himself into the air with such a rush that she was pressed against him almost flat. She managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of Drake, Tal Natha, Mani, and Pakwa below, staring upwards, before they spun out of view to be replaced by the sky, then, with a rush of wind, the treetops. X'aaru sped in and out between the trees, soaring back toward Stick-In-The-Dirt's tribe.
Charmian was grateful at the moment that they lived not that far away, still on the southeast side of the Island, yet it seemed to take forever. Her hands felt cold even in the balmy air. Was she really this nervous? Of course Red Bird would be all right. Old Mother Manitou had said Silver Eagle Feather had done it on her own, as she was half Ocryx. Red Bird was half Ocryx, and tougher than she looked. Just because she was afraid didn't mean she couldn't do it on her own.
She briefly thought of the girl being led into the woods by herself, only Old Mother Manitou standing by perhaps to hold her arm, and had to shut her eyes. In her mind, Red Bird's face was just too terrified to think about.
I would have been there if I could, Red Bird. I'll help you any way I can!
"Duck your head!" X'aaru barked, and coasted down below the treetops. Charmian pressed her face between his shoulderblades and could hear the branches whistling overhead. She ended up getting a mouthful of fur when his feet hit the ground abruptly, jarring them both; only his wings prevented them from crashing forward into the earth. He fell to all fours and started running faster than she'd thought an Ocryx could run. Was he that worried about Red Bird, as well?
Charmian slipped off of his back as soon as the rounded hulking shapes of the wigwams came into view ahead. They all looked alike in the darkness, and she had no idea which one was Silver Eagle Feather's; she was too flustered to call upon Apakwaanaajiin's help. Instead she simply started running and yelling at the top of her lungs--pretty fitting behavior, considering.
"Silver Eagle Feather!" she shouted, hoping this was the right tribe. "Silver Eagle Feather? Silver Eagle Feather!"
She saw heads start popping out of the doors, people rubbing their eyes groggily and giving her looks as she ran past. She couldn't remember where Silver Eagle Feather's house was, if she'd ever seen it at all. At the moment she wasn't sure. Why couldn't they at least paint the wigwams bright colors or something so she could tell which was which?
"Silver Eagle Feather--?" she yelled, only now reaching the far end of the camp and despairing of ever finding the right one. Someone pushed open the bark door of the last wigwam to her right and looked out at her. She squinted and thought it looked like Black Elk Horn, rubbing his eyes with a rather irritated expression. She took a breath and jogged his way.
"What is this?" he called as she approached, and she cringed at the annoyance in his voice. "Must you wake up everybody?"
"I'm sorry, Sir--um--Sir. But it's about Red Bird. I need to talk with Silver Eagle Feather--"
Another head emerged from the doorway, and at first she didn't recognize her. Rather than the braid and feathers Charmian was used to seeing, instead now she wore her hair down, the long black strands trailing over her shoulders. It was only the green eyes, slightly glowing in the dimness, that convinced Charmian it was her.
"Charmian?" she queried. "What is it?"
"Red Bird," Charmian said, and pointed needlessly back at X'aaru. She meant to say more, but didn't have to. Silver Eagle Feather ducked her head and exited the wigwam, Black Elk Horn watching them as if uncertain what was going on. She brushed the hair from her eyes as she hurried past Charmian.
"Where is she, do you know?" she asked.
"Old Mother Manitou led her off into the woods down the side of the hill at Fort Holmes. The far side."
Black Elk Horn looked as if he wanted to say something. Silver Eagle Feather cast a look back at him.
"I'll try to return as soon as I can."
Black Elk Horn blinked. He then let out a flustered sigh but leaned back against the rim of the doorway and watched them rush off.
"You can return with X," Silver Eagle Feather said. "I'm certain she already told you to stay with the others. I can get there more quickly on my own."
"All right," Charmian said, and gasped and jumped back when the woman was suddenly enveloped in light. When it faded the lithe silvery Ocryx shot up into the air like a bolt of mercury, rising over their heads and flickering out of sight.
Now X'aaru blinked. Charmian grasped the fur at his nape and pulled herself up.
"Let's follow her!"
She didn't need to say another word. Almost as quickly as Silver Eagle Feather, only not quite, the two of them soared into the air back toward Fort Holmes.
Charmian tried not to think too hard during the return journey.
A light flickered atop the hill when they arrived, almost as if marking the spot of their landing. She felt dizzy as they descended, the small group still waiting as they had been before. Drake held one of the torches from the cave and waved it at them like a runway signaller. X'aaru's landing wasn't quite as hard as the last time, though he still stumbled a bit before Charmian could climb off, tottering from side to side. She doubted he'd ever flown so fast; the demon's sides heaved and his tongue lolled from his mouth as he struggled to catch his breath.
Charmian waited to regain her balance before jogging toward Drake. "Did...did we miss anything...?" she gasped.
"What?" Drake said, jamming the torch into the ground beside him. "Nuh-uh! At least, if you missed something, then we missed it too!"
"They're still down there?"
"Uh-huh. OMM took her out into the woods where we can't see her...I can hear her once in a while though..." As if to verify this, a faraway cry rose up through the trees, making all of them stiffen. Tal Natha's hackles rose and he paced in circles, growling. Drake nudged Charmian's arm and continued in a whisper. "Anyway...Silver Eagle Feather showed up a little bit ago--she was an Ocryx--and went down there too. I don't know what they're doing, but it sounds like it's already started. I hope it doesn't take two days like she said it did with Silver Eagle Feather!"
Charmian let out her breath and paced to the edge of the hill, looking downwards. "I just hope it doesn't hurt her too much..." she murmured. She briefly thought of calling Justin, just in case...then realized how he had acted the last time she'd seen him, and what she'd heard about him since. Her heart squeezed inside her chest.
"She'll be okay," she heard Drake say, behind her. "Actually--I'm more worried about him!"
She turned to see him jerk his head at Tal Natha. The demon wouldn't stop pacing, just like an expectant father in a waiting room. Only twice that size, covered in fur, and crowned with wicked horns. Another cry came, and he started forward, but Mani's antler to his leg stopped him. He growled again, but she could tell the sound wasn't out of anger. Once more he began his relentless pacing, his anxious gaze fixed on the woods below. Out of them all, only Pakwa remained unfazed, licking one hand and preening his ear.
Drake touched Charmian's arm again. "It really could take a while. Maybe we should just sit down and wait until then? I'm sure they're not that far away, we'll hear it when we're needed."
Charmian sighed. She had to admit that for once he was right. With a heavy spirit she sat down atop the hill, below the fort, and Drake sat beside her, X'aaru to her other side. And they waited.
Minutes passed into hours; or was it really that long after all? Charmian had no sense of time now that she felt she would have wanted it the most. All she knew was that even Tal Natha finally sat down to rest, though his posture remained alert, and Pakwa dozed off. Drake seemed to do the same thing, shutting his eyes and letting his head fall forward onto his arms; how could he sleep at a time like this? Truth to tell, she was tired herself, especially after her interrupted sleep and her brief burst of adrenaline, and even now she had to fight to keep her eyes open; but keep them open, she did. At least for as long as she could. They had started to drift shut without her knowledge--her brain concocted the scenario that she still sat wide awake on top of the Island--when a high-pitched sound from far below jerked her instantly awake, bringing her to her feet.
Tal Natha also stood, ears straight and high. She strained her own for any other sound, uncertain if the first had been real or not. A moment passed, another, another...her chest felt like it was ready to cave in, when again the sound came, louder, more insistent this time. It wasn't Red Bird.
Tal Natha waited for no other sign. He spread his wings and soared off down the hill. Charmian nudged at Drake and went running, not waiting to see if he or the others would follow.
She ran and jumped down the slope almost as fast as Mani, as fast as Manabozho. She leapt over every branch and stump that got in her way and didn't stop to think of taking a breath until she could make out a huddle of dim shapes below. Four of them. Her heart raced almost as fast as her feet and she had to force herself to slow down as she approached, the shapes growing clearer. One standing, two crouching, one sitting back against a tree. Red Bird.
"Red Bird!" Charmian called out breathlessly, Drake coming down behind her. The two crouching figures--Silver Eagle Feather and Old Mother Manitou--glanced at her, then the third shape lifted its head. She could see Red Bird's eyes in the pre-dawn light, hollow and exhausted, her hair hanging in limp wet strands around her face and her frail shoulders rising and falling--yet when she saw Charmian she managed a weak smile that made Charmian feel as if she could live off of it, rather than off of the air itself. Her own mouth, of its own accord, broke into a huge grin, and she hurried the remaining few steps forward to meet them, falling down on one knee.
"You're all right?" she gasped, only now the burning pain rising in her lungs. Red Bird gave a slight nod and her own smile grew. When she spoke her voice was as soft as a feather, and Charmian could barely hear it.
"Just...just as you all said I would be..."
Charmian smiled at her for a moment more before noticing the bundles she held against her, wrapped in doeskin. Her smile faded with confusion. Bundles. Two of them. She held them closely to herself, and Tal Natha poked his muzzle in at one, then the other, licking the tops of their heads. One of them made a whining sound like a small animal and squirmed as if to break free; the other was still and silent.
Drake moved to kneel beside her and looked from one to the other. "Wow. Twins!"
"Can I see them?" Charmian asked. She didn't know why, but a strange feeling had again arisen inside her.
Red Bird nodded. She reached to pull back the covering from the head of one, then the other. Charmian and Drake gasped. Whatever they might have expected, they hadn't expected this.
"Wow," Drake whispered again, and grinned. "They look like two tiny X's!" And it was true. The babies were nothing less than miniature Ocryxes, wolf ears, wolf muzzles, and all. Unbelievable.
"This is how they are born," Silver Eagle Feather said softly. "When one is more than half Ocryx. They take the shape of the demon side."
Charmian could only stare at the two tiny furry heads, both hornless, their eyes shut tight. The one on her left was grayish, almost white, and appeared to be sleeping. The one on her right was a different story. Its fur a pale reddish with a golden tint, it squirmed and cried, its tiny jaws working. She could see the difference between them already.
"Do you have any names?" she asked, reaching out to stroke with one finger the fur on the side of the reddish one's face. It twisted its head to chew on her fingertip and she smiled again.
Red Bird nodded--"Yes"--and Charmian saw the pride in her eyes. She motioned first at the red one, then at the gray one.
"This one," she replied, softly, "will be Dakh Natha...and this one will be Sikt."
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