A forgotten gift leads Charmian and Manabozho in the right direction...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 26: Leap Of Faith"
Follow The Bouncing Pinecone!
SOMETHING WHIZZED THROUGH the air, hitting the ground with a thunk and then rolling. Niskigwun's head spun to the side as a big rock rolled to a standstill in the grass. Puzzled, he started to walk toward it, when a yell from one of the other guards he had called upon to watch the gateway drew his attention. He turned his head and saw that the open space of the gateway was glowing.
And something was coming through!
* * * * *
Thomas walked beside Mani, leading Cloud behind him. The three of them wandered down the trail Charmian had fled down not long before, and the looks on their faces showed they were obviously puzzled by her behavior. Thomas even turned to the manitou at one point and said, "Women," though he wasn't sure if the creature could understand him or not. Mani did whistle and flick an ear, which he supposed was close enough to a rapport. He sighed and looked back up the trail just in time to see two figures disappear further into the woods, and frowned.
"Who's she got with her now...?" He picked up his pace and Mani did the same, Cloud following. He hated feeling as if he were spying, but then again, she hadn't given him much of a choice when she'd bolted off like that. If he didn't go fast enough he'd lose her again.
"Is she always like this?" he asked the manitou, again not expecting any answer. He didn't get one this time, though Mani seemed just as concerned as he was. By the time they reached the point the figures had disappeared from, he could hear crashing and rustling noises coming from the woods down to the right, further down the face of the bluff. He paused to peer into the trees but couldn't make anything out from up here. His frown grew a little as he recognized the spot.
"This isn't too far from where the Fairy Arch is supposed to be." He craned his neck, still looking and coming up empty. "But I thought she tried that already." He finally sighed in frustration and tethered Cloud to a tree before starting down the slope, slipping and nearly falling on his second step. He grabbed hold of two saplings and lay sprawled like that, biting his lip. Well, at least Charmian wasn't here to see him.
"I don't see how she even does that," he grumbled as he tried to pull himself up. A loud whistle came from above him and he gasped when something pushed against the back of his legs, making him fall backwards. He landed in the spread of Mani's antlers as if the manitou's head were a chair and stayed that way for a moment, not daring to move, before peering down into Mani's face.
"I take it you're trying to tell me something...?"
Mani snorted and lifted his head just slightly, so Thomas's feet left the ground. He clutched the antlers even more tightly and gritted his teeth, then scrabbled to turn himself over, clambering over the manitou's head and down to his back.
"All right, all you had to do was say so!"
As soon as he grabbed hold of the fur at the base of Mani's neck his breath left him, the manitou leaping over the bluff and soaring out into the air. Thomas couldn't help it--he screamed. It was just a short one, but the feeling of the ground pushing away from them, and the sight of the trees coming right back up at their faces, made him open his mouth to let out another one when Mani's front hooves hit the ground with a thud, jolting him before they were leaping down the slope in graceful bounds, zigzagging around trees and roots and rocks.
Thomas decided to shut his mouth and held onto Mani as tightly as he could instead. They descended halfway down the slope in a matter of seconds, then Mani halted so abruptly that Thomas nearly flew over his head. As it was he gasped and slid from the manitou's back, his grip on his antlers the only thing saving him from plunging down to the lake far below. He let go and landed on the ground, falling over and grimacing.
"A warning would be good next time," he muttered, pulling himself up and dusting off his clothes. He glanced into the woods and could just barely make out movement ahead. When he started forward, he noticed the manitou wasn't following, and paused to look back at him.
"Well? Are you coming?"
Mani snorted, whistled, and pawed the ground. He tossed his head but stayed where he was.
Thomas shrugged. "All right, you stay here then." He turned back to the woods and bit his lip. "I should hope this won't take long."
Mani snorted again in response, and Thomas set off into the trees. The leaf cover was so thick that he lost sight of whatever was ahead, although he managed to catch tiny glimpses of rock every so often, and assumed that that must be the top of the Arch. The sound of trickling water came from all directions. He thought he heard some talking ahead and so picked up his pace. He heard somebody yell, "WAIT A MINUTE--!"--and broke into the clearing in time to see what appeared to be a foot disappearing underneath the Fairy Arch, somebody else dressed in native clothing jumping in right after it. Thomas's eyes goggled as the open space beneath the rock glimmered and rippled like water, and before he knew it he was running forward, arm stretched out.
His hand grasped empty air. Thomas landed on his stomach in front of the Arch, staring upward into the fading ripples as it resolved itself into a regular old opening, the woods showing through on the other side. He scrabbled up and started forward again, intending to go through, when something pulled on his collar, dragging him back. He glanced over his shoulder to see Mani holding his clothing between his teeth. The manitou whistled, and though he didn't know exactly what he was saying, he knew a warning to stay away when he heard one.
He let out his breath, considered arguing with the creature, then changed his mind. He looked back at the Arch, now returned to normal, and rubbed at his head. His face grew confused.
"Who was that she was with...? Was he her friend, or an enemy?"
Mani whistled. Thomas sighed and pushed himself to his feet.
"Great, she's in there, and I don't know how to speak manitou!" He glanced at Mani, mouth twitching, then looked once more at the rock. The sigh he let out this time was not only frustrated, but worried.
"I hope for her and your sake he's a friend."
* * * * *
Charmian's arms were starting to hurt from holding them out straight at her sides. At least she wasn't alone in having to do this--Manabozho looked just as irritated as she was nervous--but that didn't help matters much. More than once she peered back over her shoulder at the line of men following them, but she didn't dare to look for long, as they all wore the same unpleasant expression. They also wore the same clothing--buckskin breechcloths, moccasins, head feathers, and beaded necklaces--and all wielded either spears or bows and arrows. The one directly behind them wielded both, though it was his spear that was leveled at their backs. Charmian had the feeling he was the one who had fired that first arrow.
So much for diversions...I guess I should have considered that they'd have more than ONE guard now...!
"Well," she murmured to Manabozho, who walked beside her--at arm's length, of course--"at least they aren't cooking and eating us, or something."
"I TOLD you this was a bad idea," Manabozho grumbled in response. "Did you listen? Noooooo..."
"Oh, shut up," Charmian snapped--as quietly as one could snap something. "Like you knew this would happen! Last I checked you weren't psychic!"
"There's a reason why I'm considered a teacher!" Manabozho returned. "You'd best start learning that soon!"
Charmian considered retorting yet again, then bit her lip instead. Arguing wasn't going to get them anywhere, and where they needed to get was to someone with some knowledge. Nokomis had said the fairy people were wise about the Island. If they knew she was here to help them, then they'd have to welcome her to their land, and tell her all they knew. She just had to get past these guys first.
Manabozho, she thought, and saw his eyes flick in her direction. Can you hear me when I talk like this?
Of course I can, he muttered in her head. You really think I've gone that stupid?
Can they hear us?
If they did, do you think I'd even be talking to you right now?
Listen, we have to find a way out of here so we can talk to whoever's in charge. Charmian's eyes darted from left to right. I think that if they wanted to kill us, they would've done that already. Maybe we still have a chance.
NOW what are you thinking? He gave her a venomous look which she ignored as she perused the landscape around them. A stand of trees was approaching on the right--a few leaps and bounds away, but if she ran fast enough, maybe...
I'm out of bright ideas so this is the best thing I can think of, she thought at Manabozho, and lifted one hand to grasp the strap of her backpack. You'll cover me, right?
WHAT--? Even as the word made its way into her mind Charmian was already running, bolting toward the nearby stand of trees. She sensed rather than saw their captors' surprise, then flinched and dodged from side to side just as a volley of arrows started thunking into the ground all around her. One quick glance over her shoulder showed her Manabozho knocking away a spear that was poised to zoom after her, but it was the leader of the group whose actions surprised her the most. He pushed on the bow nearest him so its arrow flew high and yelled out something that sounded like a command, at which point the arrows stopped flying. Her eyes just briefly met his--seeing the open fury and disbelief there--before she plunged into the woods and into darkness.
She was grateful now for whatever medicine Snow Bear had worked on her, as her feet flew quickly across the forest floor. She carefully dodged trees and jumped over roots, running until the woods surrounded her so thickly on all sides that next to no light filtered through, before finally slowing to a walk, then a stop, leaning her hands on her knees and panting heavily. Her throat burned when she tried to swallow and she peered around herself. Aside from the chirping of birds high in the pine branches, and the rustle of a squirrel or chipmunk nearby, there was nothing else to be heard.
Charmian let out her breath in a whoosh and collapsed next to a tall pine tree, needles scattering all around her. She leaned back against it and tried to catch her breath, looking up into its branches and flinching again with a feeling of guilt.
With a sigh she tried to put him out of her mind--he should be all right, for now--and considered what to do next.
I hated doing that to him...but I really have to find the person in charge around here! I'm never going to get anywhere being marched around like a prisoner of war!
So you ADMIT you're nothing but a shirker! Running off like that! Who's bailing out on who NOW?
Charmian gasped and sat up. Her head whirled to the side when a small brown rabbit hopped into the clearing, pausing and wrinkling its nose at her. Charmian let out her breath, her face lighting up.
"Manabozho--? You got away from them?"
"Of COURSE I did," the rabbit snapped. "You think I'm going to just hang around with them for FUN? And let you do all the easy work?" His ears swiveled. "The next time you use that bailing-out excuse on me, I'm going to remind you of this!"
"Hey, I can't help it. We have to get something done and that's the only thing I could think of!" Still, even as she argued with him she felt grateful that she was no longer alone. She stood up and started walking in the direction she'd been headed before, the rabbit hopping along behind her.
"Anyway, Nokomis said the Turtle Fairies know just about all there is to know about the Island. They were here first." She felt rather silly conversing with a rabbit, but compared to most of the other things she'd done on this trip so far, she supposed it wasn't that weird. "If there's anybody who can help us figure out what these Wolves have to do with anything, it's them. I just wish I knew where to find them..."
"I hate to tell you this," Manabozho said, "but those WERE the Turtle Fairies."
Charmian halted and glanced down at him. She blinked. "You mean--those guys?" Her brow furrowed. "Those guys we just ran away from?"
"Yes!" He hopped to stand before her and sat on his haunches, nose wriggling. "What else do you think they would be? I tried to tell you--they don't take very kindly to people trespassing on their land! Why else do you think they had guards waiting for us? We're not welcome here!"
Charmian's look of confusion grew. "But...they didn't look like fairies..."
The rabbit let out a gusty sigh. "What do you EXPECT fairies to look like?"
"Well--I don't know! Definitely smaller, and with wings! Those--those just looked like people! Kind of short, yeah..." She frowned. "But still just people." She scowled. "They didn't even glitter when they moved!"
Manabozho gave her an odd look. "Where did you learn about fairies, anyway? Because that doesn't sound like any fairies I know."
Charmian's scowl darkened. "Like you know any!" she snapped, and continued walking. He looked ready to protest but she didn't let him. "Even IF those guys are the fairies--and that's a pretty big if--we still haven't found the one in charge here, and I don't even have any idea where to loo--"
She gasped and jumped, then started striking at her side in a panic. Manabozho halted and stared at her curiously. Charmian continued jumping in circles and hitting herself, frantically burrowing her hand in her pocket.
"Something moved!! Something's in my vest!!"
The rabbit's nose twitched. "Well, with the way you were bolting through the woods like that, you're bound to have picked up something..."
Charmian continued digging until her fingers clasped around the wriggling object and she pulled it out, hurling it at the ground as hard as she could. She stared in open-mouthed surprise when she saw that what she had taken to be a rodent or some kind of large insect instead turned out to be...a pinecone?
Charmian blinked, then sucked in her breath. "Nokomis's pinecone!" She bent forward to peer more closely at the little carved object as it bounced around and rolled in circles on the forest floor. "I completely forgot about it!"
Manabozho sniffed at it. "A pinecone? That's all she gave you?" He grumbled. "She never gave me anything like that..."
"She said it would react whenever it came near a magical tree." Charmian picked up the tiny juddering object and held it in her hand, watching as it continued to roll around and bounce in her palm like a jumping bean. Her face lit up and her mouth parted in a huge grin.
"A magical tree! I bet a powerful manitou would live in a magical tree--that sounds just like the person we're looking for!"
Manabozho looked skeptical, but it was the best thing that had happened all day, in Charmian's opinion. She held the pinecone flat on her palm and held her palm up in the air, turning in slow circles and watching the little object's reaction.
"All I have to do is narrow down where exactly it's coming from...and this should take us right to it..." She stopped when the pinecone started jumping wildly, even going so far as to leap out of her hand and land on the ground below. She gasped and started jogging after it when it rolled and bounced away into the woods. "Come on! We go this way!"
Manabozho sighed. "It's never that easy..." he mumbled, but hopped after her nonetheless.
The trees grew thinner the further Charmian went, so it was easier to follow the pinecone's progress along the ground. She jumped over little hillocks and ran through hollows, the rabbit following, and lifted her eyes to notice that the woods parted ahead, revealing an open field. Something stood far off at the edge of the field.
Charmian held a hand up to her eyes, even though the sun wasn't glaring. "What's that up there...? I think maybe that's it!"
A small stand of trees blocked her path, and she had to turn to the side, trying to keep the pinecone in sight as it bounced straight through. She arrived in time to watch it come out the other side, then continued, keeping her eyes on it now. There would be time for looking up later. If she lost sight of it, then that would be the end of everything here.
"Getting closer!" she called out to Manabozho as the pinecone rolled out of the woods and into the grass. She leapt out after it, slowing her pace as it did the same, ambling leisurely along the ground. Manabozho caught up and hopped alongside it, still sniffing skeptically.
"It would be just like Noko to give you some sort of trick pinecone, you know..."
"It would be just like you to pull a stunt like that," she returned. "I didn't get that vibe from Nokomis. Jeez, if she heard how you talk about her..."
"You WOULDN'T!" the rabbit roared. "If you do I'll skin you MYSELF!"
Charmian rolled her eyes. "I think you're the one in greater danger of being skinned, buddy!"
Manabozho halted. Charmian kept jogging, feeling a bit of smugness at leaving him behind. When she noticed he still wasn't following she slowed to a stop and looked back at him in puzzlement.
"Hey, I didn't really mean it that way. I don't dissect anything any bigger than frogs, you know."
Manabozho just sat where he was, nose twitching. Charmian frowned and then turned to look back at the pinecone, still rolling ahead. Then her gaze rose to look up to where it was headed...and stopped there. Her eyes grew.
The shape she'd just barely been able to make out at the far side of the field rose taller than ever now, seeming almost to reach the sky. It was a massive tree, though massive wasn't nearly the right word to describe it. Charmian had gone to see the redwoods in California once with her parents, and this thing certainly rivaled those--only they didn't have redwoods in Michigan. And those had been...red. This tree bore a trunk of the purest azure blue, its leaves shimmering the color of opals and mother of pearl. They rustled in the breeze, and instead of the regular rustling of tree leaves it sounded to Charmian almost like windchimes, faraway and slightly musical. Every so often a different-colored light would glint through the leaves and then vanish as if rainbow fireflies were flitting among its branches.
The pinecone rolled ahead a little ways and then stopped and fell still.
Charmian stood with her mouth hanging open. She tried to think of something, anything, to say to Manabozho, but no words came. She'd expected a magical tree, but nothing like this.
"Wow," was all she could finally manage. She had to summon her senses again and shook her head to clear it, glancing back at Manabozho with a growing smile. "That's GOT to be it! A manitou's got to live there for SURE!" She looked at the giant tree again. "This makes Noko's Crooked Tree look like a...withered twig," she murmured.
Manabozho hopped forward. "Well, at least you're finally thinking on my terms," he muttered, moving past her. She followed him, keeping her eyes on the tree the entire time, except for when she stooped to retrieve the still pinecone and put it back in her pocket.
"Who do you think lives in there, anyway?" she mused aloud. "Who rules over the Michinimakinong?"
"Do I look as if I have any idea what goes on around here?" Manabozho snapped. He shimmered and then resumed walking in his normal form, giving her a glare. "I've never BEEN here before, in case you didn't know."
"Well, you were the one chewing my ear off yapping about how much you know about fairies! And now all of a sudden you plead the Fifth?"
His face screwed up. "The Fifth what?"
Charmian waved at him and sighed. "Never mind...whoever he is, I bet he's right up there with Gitchi Manitou. Has to be! To live in a tree like that." She started imagining what the manitou must look like, growing more gleeful with every word. "I bet he's tall...with lots of feathers on his head...a whole mane of feathers. Of every different color. He probably looks like a bodybuilder. With lots of those beads and such around his neck. And fringes on his arms and legs...and he has to have really ornate patterns on his buckskin and moccasins...I bet his eyes are like flint and his spear is like lightning and his voice is like THUNDER!"
Manabozho was the one to roll his eyes now. "Have you been reading too many books? Next thing I know you'll be insisting he'll greet you with 'How, paleface.' I really don't know where you people get these things."
"I bet my idea's closer than yours is," Charmian challenged.
"I didn't even give you my idea!"
"See? My point exactly." She broke into a jog. "Come on! I want to see him already!"
"Hold on a minute! Have you even thought this thing through--?" Manabozho's voice trailed off as she ran ahead of him, when an odd whistling noise made the hair on the back of her neck prickle. She jolted to a stop and instinctively ducked, her eyes widening when an arrow hit the ground right in front of her. She whirled to look behind her and instead of seeing Manabozho, she saw Manabozho, plus the dozen or so warriors they'd met earlier, their spears all sticking out like the quills of an angry porcupine. Manabozho stood with his arms up and a scowl on his face.
"Like I was saying," he growled between his teeth, "have you thought this thing through?"
Charmian could only swallow. Where had they all come from so quickly like that...? The lead one she'd made eye contact with earlier stepped forward and leveled his spear at her, his expression no friendlier than it had been before. A moment later they were again being paraded in front of the group, this time toward the giant tree.
"Well," Charmian said this time, "at least we're going in the right direction."
"Shut up!" Manabozho snapped. "It's because of that stupid tree that we're here in the first place! You never even bothered to think that THAT might be what they're guarding from us?"
Charmian shrank down into her clothing as much as she could. "Sorry," she murmured, suddenly feeling very stupid. Of course, it made sense now...what else would a bunch of warriors be protecting around here, if not the home of the resident manitou?
As if to verify her thoughts, Manabozho added, "Stupid!"
Charmian made a face at him. "Okay! So I didn't think it through--so sue me!!" The spear poked her in the back, making her hop forward. "Ow!" She glared at the warrior walking behind her. "Not so hard! I'm going, okay?"
She turned to face forward again with a miserable sigh. While she was glad that the giant tree was practically in front of them now, the thought of entering it with a dozen spears aimed at her back made her uneasy. Before it had seemed easy enough to believe the Turtle Fairies weren't acting on direct orders from whatever manitou lived here--perhaps they weren't even affiliated. But now that the massive blue trunk loomed ahead of them, she couldn't deny that these men had to be working for him.
He had them set out to keep us from entering through the Arch, for whatever reason...and now to keep us from the tree...but we're going there anyway. What will he want with us? Should I make up some story, or tell him the truth...? How will he react to that...?
She had plenty of time to chew her lip and think over this as they were marched up to the trunk, and she looked up into the branches. Manabozho stopped beside her and did the same, then she turned to look at the warriors standing silently behind them.
"I guess you want us to go up there," she said, pointing. When the leader didn't reply except to give her a cold glare, she frowned. "Whatever! I'm not a monkey, in case you didn't notice. Either you get the world's longest ladder, or..."
She trailed off when something fell from the warrior's back to hang at his side--a leather case of some kind, open on both ends and connected to his belt with a cord. Her stare lifted from this as something else rose from his back--two somethings--which glittered in the sun's fading light. Charmian gaped when she found herself staring at a pair of long, iridescent dragonfly wings. The other men loosed the leather cases from their backs, and suddenly sprouted wings as well. Only now did she finally notice the tattoos they bore across their chests--turtle tattoos--and realized Manabozho must have been telling the truth.
Again, as if reading her thoughts, he gave her a superior look. "Believe me now?"
Charmian blinked. That was all she had time to do before the lead warrior came at her, grabbing her by the arms so hard that she gasped. She tried to struggle, when she found that the ground had vanished and empty air had taken its place--and one look up showed her the huge blue branches zooming straight at her face.
"Part 28: Prisoners Of The Fairy Realm"
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