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Rated: 13+ · Serial · Fantasy · #831834
Charmian makes a difficult decision, and faces a difficult foe...
Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island
Previous chapter: "Part 40: Too Much Information

The Back Burner

A LONG POINTED muzzle sniffed curiously at the little cowrie shell Charmian held in her hands, then withdrew.

They have asked you to join their Medicine Lodge? Tal Natha said. They must be quite impressed by your powers, to do this.

"I think Stick-In-The-Dirt had a little something to do with it, if you know what I mean," Charmian admitted, holding the shell out so Red Bird could see it. "I'm not really sure if I can join them anyway. He said it's best if one's had a vision before entering, and I've never had one that I can recall."

"Usually it is the men who have visions," Red Bird said. "At least, those of any importance. Women may have visions of songs or bead patterns...not usually anything bigger than that."

"I think he was suggesting something more important," Charmian said, rubbing her head. "He didn't really clarify though. I have no idea what I'm supposed to look for, nor even how I'm supposed to do it." She looked at Tal Natha. "Do you know anything about visions, Tal Natha? Since you spin dreams and everything, I thought maybe you could give me a hint or something."

Tal Natha cocked an ear thoughtfully. Dreams and visions are two different things, he explained. I do not bring visions to others, merely sleeping-thoughts. One is not sleeping when they seek a vision. Though I assume they are similar I do not know much more about visions than this. I am afraid I cannot help you seek one, if this is what you wished.

Charmian gave a small sigh. "Well, it didn't hurt to give it a shot, at least. I figured they weren't the same but I just wanted to be sure." She turned to Red Bird now. "Do you know anything about the Mide, by any chance? I know you weren't raised with your people, but maybe you've heard something about it that Stick didn't tell me?"

Red Bird shrugged slightly. "Only that it is quite difficult to be accepted in. This is why your invitation was such an accomplishment in itself. Most talented medicine men cannot even get that far. I've heard that some of those who fail to be accepted turn to becoming wabanos, instead."

Charmian felt the barest shiver on hearing this, and thought of both Moon Wolf and Snow Bear. Had that been what had happened with them...?

Seeing the look on her face, Red Bird continued, "Though some merely drop out of the Midewiwin and become wabanos at a later time, or so I've been told. The Mide do not generally like wabanos in their midst. They are good people; they do not use their medicine the same way a wabano does. You don't have to fear them for that."

"That wasn't quite what I was afraid of...you said it's hard just to get in? What is there, besides getting invited?"

"I do not practice medicine, so all I know is what rumors I've heard from others. Supposedly the initiation involves a voyage to the Spirit Land and back. If this is not difficult, then I do not know what would be..."

Charmian blinked, Red Bird's voice fading in her head. A voyage to the Spirit Land? she thought in disbelief. If that's all it takes...then I'm dead! LITERALLY!

If you speak with any of the elders or the medicine men on this Island
, Tal Natha suggested, then I am certain they may tell you more about how to seek a vision, and prepare yourself for the lodge. It would be only proper for them to help you prepare.

"Stick tried to get me to have a vision once," Charmian said. "Maybe I can just give that a shot again."

Red Bird put her hands together. "I know you would make an excellent medicine woman," she said, and the name made Charmian want to cringe. She refrained, for Red Bird's sake, and shrugged slightly instead.

"Well...I guess I'll find out in two days! Thanks for the advice and such; I'll keep looking around."

I am sorry we could not be more helpful, Tal Natha said.

Charmian waved and turned for the entrance. "It's okay. I'm sure I'll find out what I need to know sometime."

As she rode on Dakh Natha's back up to the top of the cliff again she thought, Like when it's too late!

Thomas stood up here with Cloud, Mani off to the side. They watched the demon ascend and land gently on the edge of the hill, Charmian climbing off his back. She waved at him as he descended from sight again, then sighed and wandered toward Mani.

"Any luck?" Thomas asked.

"Not much. They know as little about visions and stuff as I do." Charmian chewed on her thumbnail. "Right now I'm wondering if I should try to find Snow Bear and ask for his help."

Thomas gaped at her in disbelief. "You honestly think that he would be much use, after how he treated you the last time? Even if you could find him again?"

She shrugged. "I didn't say it was a good idea." She glanced toward the dilapidated fort, then down into the woods. "I'm supposed to meet them in two days. Stick said he waited over a week for his vision to come. It doesn't sound like something that just pops into your head."

"From what little I've heard, it could take any amount of time; nobody is certain how much. You said you didn't have to have a vision, only that it was best. Do you think you could take sitting in the woods for a week by yourself?"

For some reason a memory of her last time on the Island--a night she'd spent racing all over the woodland trails in near-total darkness, feeling as if every evil spirit and monster were on her heels--flashed through Charmian's head, and she tried not to shiver. "I don't know," she murmured. "I told Stick I'd at least give it a try."

"Do you feel you owe him something?"

"Snow Bear said I make him think of his daughters. So yeah, I kind of feel like I owe him something. He was the first person to greet me here, after all." She'd been scratching Mani's ear, but now she pulled away and walked to the edge of the hill to stare at the trees clustered below them. Thomas came up beside her and stood there silent for a moment.

"What do you have in mind?"

"If I have two days until I'm supposed to show up, then that's two days I could spend at least trying to get a vision. I may as well not waste them." She shrugged again. "It's not like I have anything better to do." She took a few steps down the hill, then stopped and turned around. "From what I get of this whole vision thing...I think I'm supposed to be alone." She paused and chewed on her lip for a moment or two.

Thomas tilted his head. "Whereabouts are you going to go?"

Charmian looked over her shoulder and pointed. "I was thinking of that little hill way down there...next to that fallen tree. At least for starters."

Thomas pointed off to the left. "Then I'll be way over there, near that fallen tree. And if you should need something, all you have to do is yell."

Charmian felt a twinge of relief. She'd been hoping he would offer to stick around, even if not too close by. She smiled and nodded, then started down the steep hill again, Thomas and Cloud following a ways before turning to head left. Charmian slowed when she noticed Mani close behind her, and turned to look up at him.

"I think I'm supposed to do this alone, Mani," she said.

The manitou whistled. Part spirit same. Only one at vision place. Not breaking rules.

Charmian blinked. "You mean, you don't count as an extra party because we have the same spirit?"

Mani whistled and his nostrils flared; she could tell from the defiant look on his face that this was merely his own spin on things, and not based on custom, but the comment made her grin anyway. "Okay then," she said, "you can come along. But I really have to sit and concentrate or something."

Not get in way. Red Land One seek vision. Mani stay nearby. He snorted and tossed his head, nodding in the general direction Thomas had gone. In case not quick enough.

Charmian laughed. "If I didn't know any better I'd say you were jealous. Really, it's okay; I like both of you guys equally." She turned and started down the hill once more. "We better get going then. Those two days aren't going to last forever, and I think I need as much time as I can get."

* * * * *

So Charmian walked around the fallen tree until she could find a decent spot to sit, brushed off the decaying leaves, and pulled herself up. She crossed her legs and watched Mani settle down into a hollow nearby, grazing on some grass, and then stared into the woods. She couldn't see Thomas from where she was. Then she remembered she was supposed to be thinking about getting a vision. Flushing a little with embarrassment, she folded her hands in her lap and sat.

The sun crawled across the sky as slow as ever, and the noises in the woods changed as the day went past. More often than she'd have liked to admit Charmian found herself distracted by random things--Mani snuffling or sneezing in his hollow, a chipmunk or squirrel rustling in the leaves, a bird flapping overhead. Once she thought she even heard Cloud neigh, from somewhere far away. Each time she forced herself to clear her head again, but it was easier said than done. She lost track of how many times she'd caught herself fiddling her fingers, before realizing that she shouldn't even be keeping track of that at all.

No wonder Stick never had a vision. If this is what it's like, I think I'd be out here for a few years!

She tried merely staring at something, to see if that would help her focus. She selected a nearby tree and stared at it as hard as she could. The colors of the woods began to waver and then swim and she had to blink a few times before her eyes could dry out. It even looked like the bark was crawling. That creeped her out, and she stared at the leaf-carpeted ground instead. After a while that began to crawl too. This time she stared at it in awe as the leaves picked themselves up and started wandering away one by one, then in larger groups. Had the leaves always been able to do that?

Charmian gasped and her head jerked up. She blinked and saw that the shadows cast by the trees had changed somewhat from when she'd been staring at them before, and a glance upward verified that the sun had descended even further. She couldn't believe it. She'd just dozed off.

She sighed and rubbed at her eyes. Mani lifted his head and looked at her when she climbed down from the log, brushing damp leaves off of her shorts and stretching her sore muscles.

"I think I have to have a talk with somebody," she grumbled, then cupped her hands to her mouth to yell for Thomas before pausing and thinking. She sent a thought out at him instead, not knowing if he would be able to sense it or not--not everybody could read thoughts--but deciding it was worth a try. Maybe they could keep in better touch with each other this way. She sighed again and waved at Mani, who rose to his feet and followed her toward the hill.

"Mani," she said as they went, "do manitous ever have to look for visions?"

Visions mostly a two-leg-walking thing. Manitous seek them sometimes, but usually higher manitous.

"I guess you mean like Geezhigo-Quae, maybe. I suppose that makes sense." She lifted her head to see Thomas approaching with Cloud, a puzzled look on his face. "I see you heard me? I didn't mean to freak you out, if I did."

"So that was you?" Thomas shook his head as he reached her. "I just thought it was puzzling, is all. You never told me you could do that."

"That's because I wasn't sure if you could do it. The last time I was here it was Drake I was always talking to." She fell silent, suddenly remembering her companion from before. She hadn't even talked to him in months. She wondered if he even remembered her.

Thomas saw the preoccupied look on her face and didn't press the issue. "Either you're incredibly lucky, or I take it the vision thing didn't work." Charmian shook her head. "Where are we going to now, then?"

"Back to Stick's tribe. I have to talk with somebody."

She felt he would complain about them always going back and forth--it was starting to bother her as well--yet he said nothing. He didn't even climb atop Cloud, just walked beside her as she walked. It would be dusk by the time they reached the tribe, but it wasn't as if she had anything better to do.

As they started up the hill she thought she saw something move out of the corner of her eye, and turned her head and slowed her step to see what it was. But there was nothing there but trees. She frowned, staring a second longer, then continuing. Thomas glanced into the woods as well.

"What is it?"

"I don't know. Maybe another squirrel. Either that or I need more sleep. I think I'm starting to hallucinate."

She hadn't meant it as a joke--the sight of the crawling leaves had been weird enough in itself--but Thomas chuckled anyway. "Maybe you should ride then," he suggested. "Before you get a vision the hard way."

Charmian blushed a little, though his joke made her spirits pick up just slightly. She waited for Mani to kneel down before pulling herself atop his back, Thomas following suit with Cloud, and the four of them continued on their way back to the Red Leaf Tribe.

The area of the woods they had been in now being vacated, the leaves and trees and grass fell still but for the lazy piping of the few remaining birds. Then the leaves rustled again, and a small head popped out of the ground, turning to peer in the direction the others had gone. Nearby, another tiny head emerged, and then another appeared from a tree, until the woods were full of them, their little eyes glinting in the dying light. They all stared at the path left by Thomas and Charmian, and then started chittering at each other.

* * * * *

Charmian had dozed off atop Mani's back by the time they reached the tribe, the last traces of sunlight having vanished over the far west side of the Island. Thomas carefully pulled her down and then followed White Deer, who led the way to Stick-In-The-Dirt's wigwam. As he came in the entrance, somehow managing not to wake Charmian up as he avoided being hit by the flap, White Deer straightened out a bed at the side of the hut, and the two of them settled her on it, covering her with a light fur to stave off the evening's chill. Charmian yawned and snuggled beneath it, completely oblivious to them.

Thomas and White Deer stared at her for a moment, then looked at each other. Thomas then turned and exited the wigwam while White Deer poked at the fire and sat down before it, staring silently at its flames.

* * * * *

Charmian blinked with a start to realize she was staring at what appeared to be a wall of nothingness. She whirled away from this to face a large glittering body of water, surrounded by the same night-black. She had no idea where the tiny source of light came from.

Oh, great. I'm HERE again!

She stood still for a moment or two, straining her ears, but heard nothing. She took a deep breath and clenched her fists. "I KNOW SOMEBODY'S OUT THERE!!" she yelled as loudly as she could, but all she heard in return was her own echo, and even that was muted, as it seemed to have nothing to bounce off of. Still, she didn't feel alone...and the last time she'd been here, she certainly hadn't been alone, either.

"So what is this, a recurring dream...?" she murmured aloud, half hoping somebody would respond, half hoping they wouldn't. "Dreams recur only when they're trying to tell you something important that you don't get yet, right? So what am I supposed to be getting...?"

She looked at the rippling lake, then sighed and walked toward it. Looking within showed her her own reflection yet again, except this time, rather than crying, her reflection looked afraid. Charmian frowned, then stuck out her tongue, then made what she assumed was a very ugly face, but aside from mimicking her general movements, the look on her reflection's face stayed the same. She sighed again and pulled away from the water.

"I think it made more sense when I kept seeing Red Bird down there!"

A soft growling sound came from further away. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle, then slowly lifted her head. Although she already suspected what she would see, that still didn't minimize the anxiety that welled up inside her.

The giant, hazy, yellow-eyed wolf stared at her again from across the lake, its mouth grinning so its teeth showed...and when she let her gaze drift down to the water, again, she saw its blue-eyed reflection, and her brow furrowed.

Its reflection is always different too...it has blue eyes. Like the old Shadow Wolves.

Charmian blinked.

The old Shadow Wolves! Is that what it's trying to tell me? Stop looking at...

The giant wolf started to fade away, and with it, its reflection. The lake followed suit, and Charmian glanced around herself in confusion as the space around her began to slowly grow lighter, the invisible cave walls evaporating and taking on different, more familiar shapes.

"Not NOW--!"

Why do dreams always fade away right when you're figuring them out--?

Almost as if in answer to her--the cave walls were replaced by a flare of yellow-orange--fire?--and a voice in her head said, No fair cheating!...and then she sat upright with a gasp.

Charmian blinked. The familiar shapes had resolved themselves into the objects of Stick-In-The-Dirt's wigwam, and for a brief weird moment she could have sworn she was back in the morning White Deer had fixed her dreamcatcher. Then she remembered dozing off atop Mani's back the night before, and everything else came flooding back to her, except for...

She frowned, then screwed up her face, trying to think. For some reason the word "cheating" was stuck in her head...and she had a feeling that she'd dreamed of something familiar...but that was all. Even when she tried to remember what other event the dream had reminded her of, she couldn't remember that either. The harder she thought the more she felt as if the memory had been...stolen somehow. She opened her eyes and rubbed her arms, suddenly feeling cold.

Stolen? Even Ocryana couldn't steal dreams. Why do I feel like it's been stolen? Maybe I didn't even dream at all...?

She sat still and tried for a few moments longer to recall what she'd just dreamed; then, giving up, she let out a sigh of frustration and pushed her covering aside, standing and stretching her legs before going to the doorflap and letting herself out.

She'd slept later than she'd thought. Already it was around noon, and the camp was nearly deserted but for some elders and children. She nearly bumped into Mani, who was dozing beside the wigwam in the shade; he yawned and stood up and stretched just as she had, and she rubbed his nose.

"I think we're both getting lazy. I've been sleeping here a lot more often than I did the LAST time, and I had a lot more reason to sleep back then!"

"Charmian?" She looked and saw Thomas at the far edge of the camp, holding a basket of something to Cloud's muzzle as the horse ate. He waved at her and she wandered over to join him, rubbing at her eyes.

Maybe I didn't dream anything at all...maybe it's just me. I did start hallucinating last night...

"So," Thomas said when she reached him. "Receive any interesting visions?"

Charmian's mouth twitched. "Tal Natha said dreams and visions are two different things. You don't get visions while you sleep, everybody knows that."

He laughed. "Well, at least you know that. I didn't until now."

Charmian opened her mouth, then closed it, thinking. "I didn't know it either until just yesterday," she admitted, puzzled that she hadn't realized that sooner. Thomas tapped her shoulder to draw her out of her distraction and nodded at the other side of the camp.

"I think maybe that has something to do with you."

"Huh?" Charmian turned to look. Just beyond the furthest of the wigwams, beyond even the lodge of the elders, she saw some of the men busily erecting something at the edge of the woods. It looked like another wigwam, though its shape was different. From the look of it they'd been at it for a while now, and one of the elders was supervising. He turned his head to look directly at them and Charmian quickly turned away, hoping he hadn't noticed her stare.

"They've been working on it all morning," Thomas said. "White Deer said they build one of those, every time they're seeking a new 'initiate.' Is that the thing you were seeking a vision for?"

Charmian nodded. "I think so...the Mide Lodge. I don't quite know how it all works. I was hoping maybe a vision would help me figure it out, but they didn't give me much notice to prepare. I'm supposed to meet with them to--" She gasped and jerked upright. "Tonight! At nightfall! That should be around eight or nine...I can't believe I slept through half the day already!" She pulled at her hair. "I don't even have a vision or anything to talk about--all Stick said is that I just show up there. What am I supposed to tell them?"

"They're the ones who invited you, aren't they?" Thomas asked. "So maybe you already have everything you need?"

Charmian shook her head abruptly. "He said Silver Eagle Feather is a member. Silver Eagle Feather! And even SHE had to ask to be admitted! If somebody as powerful as she is had to ask to be let in, then I don't stand a chance." An awful thought struck her, and her face grew dismal. "What if they only invited me just to make a joke out of Stick? He told me about the trouble he had becoming a medicine man--what if this is all just a prank on him?"

"For some reason they don't strike me as the joking kind," Thomas said, and she had to look at the elders gathering around the construction of the lodge. It was true, she didn't get that feeling from them either; but still, she'd seen stranger things happen.

"I think maybe you're worrying a little too much," Thomas added. "If you qualify, then you're a lot more powerful than you thought. If you don't qualify, then at least you don't have to worry about all that trouble. This whole thing seems to have you all on edge lately. Perhaps it's best if you don't get in--though that's only a thought."

Charmian chewed on her lip as she stared at the construction, and fiddled with the corner of her vest. "Maybe..." she murmured, earning a surprised look from Thomas. She turned back to him.

"I'm going to walk around the woods for a little while. I have to think a bit."

"Well, you won't walk around so long that you start hallucinating again, will you?"

Charmian rolled her eyes and pushed him away. "Get over that! Somebody sees some leaves walking around and you hold it against them forever."

Thomas laughed. "I thought maybe you just saw some spots or something, not walking greenery. Maybe you've been here too long." He took the basket away from Cloud as the horse finished eating. "Actually I've been drafted into doing some chores by White Deer..."

"She drafted you?"

"Asked would probably be the better word, though you know how the women around here seem to be, all they do is think something and then the men are doing it without knowing."

Charmian thought suddenly of Little Dove and Crooked Creek and started laughing. "Careful or you'll end up marrying her, too. I don't know how Stick would take that at all." She dimmed a little bit, then said, "You're sure you'll be okay...?"

He waved at her in mock impatience. "Go on, do your woods thing. I know how much you need to think. I'm always around for you to brush off whenever you like."

Charmian smiled awkwardly, then turned and walked away. Mani followed her so silently that she was only aware of his presence because she knew he would be there. As they went off into the trees she put her hand on his shoulder, and pondered the evening ahead.

* * * * *

The communal fire at the middle of the camp kept the area well lit enough that Charmian could make her way back without tripping over anything. The place was busier now despite the lateness of the hour; the sun having set not that long ago, she had to guess it was around nine PM or slightly after. When she noticed how many of the people stared at her as she went past she realized she must be the reason for all the activity, and was glad for the color of the fire, as it hid the color rising in her face.

Mani sensed her unease and stopped at the mouth of the path leading from the camp, leaving her to continue on her own. She turned her head once to see him staring back at her, and he whistled as if to wish her good luck. She wished he could come along, too.

Neither Stick-In-The-Dirt nor White Deer had told her how she was to approach the newly erected lodge which stood not too far from its larger cousin. She fiddled with the cowrie shell around her neck as she paused in the clearing and pondered what to do.

Do I just go walking in? Or do I have to bow, or walk in backwards, or crawl, or what...? Why didn't anybody even tell me anything?

She sighed and hoped that maybe the reason Stick-In-The-Dirt hadn't told her anything was because there was nothing to know. Steeling herself, she went walking toward the lodge, ignoring the stares and whispers as she went.

To her surprise, she saw something move in the shadows cast by the firelight, to the side of the entrance, and noticed that it was the person with the lynx mask who had given her the birchbark scroll. She paused again and stared at them--uncertain even if it was male or female--when they stepped forward in front of the doorflap, holding out a stick in front of them. Charmian frowned.

"You were the one who invited me here, remember? Unless they have more than one mask like that," she said.

The lynx-masked person didn't move from their spot. Charmian tried holding up the little cowrie shell Yellow Turtle had given her.

"Does this mean anything?"

Still no reaction. She sighed and started fishing around in her pocket, removing the scroll. It was the last thing she could think of. She unrolled it and held it forward as if showing off an ID. "Remember this, then? It said nightfall; I'm not late or anything, am I? 'Nightfall' is kind of a general term..."

The lynx-masked person lifted the stick so it didn't cross in front of them anymore, and stepped aside. Charmian rolled her eyes and walked toward the flap.

"You could've just said that was what you wanted..."

She yelped when the stick swatted lightly across her calves as she bent down to go in the doorway. She cast a dirty look back at the person before crawling in, then froze when she saw the ring of faces all staring at her. It looked as if all of the elders of the tribe, as well as a few younger men--Stick-In-The-Dirt among them--and Silver Eagle Feather, were present, and they were all looking right at her.

Again she was grateful for the center fire, and let the doorflap fall back behind her, standing and fiddling her fingers nervously. "Hi," she said in a tiny voice, offering a very slight wave. Nobody said hello back.

"Mainlander," a voice said, and she lifted her head to see that the elder at the far side of the lodge, opposite her, had spoken. She couldn't tell if she'd ever seen him before or not, and had no idea what his name was; she'd just never paid much attention to the elders before, as she'd had little to do with them. This one made her think somewhat of a cross between Snow Bear and Yellow Turtle, and she found that the resemblance to the latter made her want to relax a little bit. "You have been invited to the Midewiwin on the basis of your medicine skills," he continued. "However, even the most skilled among us must pass the initiation to be accepted. Do you feel that you could pass this test?"

They get right to the point, don't they? Charmian opened her mouth to answer, when the phrase return from the Spirit Land passed through her head, making her freeze again. That was what Red Bird had said she would need to do, in order to pass the initiation. Return from the Spirit Land? She might as well be dead!

She swallowed, finding her voice stuck. Everyone continued staring at her; then she noticed the elder raise an eyebrow and turn his eyes toward Stick-In-The-Dirt. Stick-In-The-Dirt, for his part, dropped his head a little and flushed as if embarrassed. Charmian mentally rebuked herself and managed to find her voice.

"Um...I'm guessing...you're the one in charge here?"

The elder at the far end of the room looked at her again, then tilted his head once. She wished he would smile, just to show he was at least human, and swallowed again.

"I was wondering if I...maybe if I could make a request of the Mide," she said, trying to keep her voice stable.

The elder frowned. She noticed a few of the others glance at each other surreptitiously. Stick-In-The-Dirt stared at her in open puzzlement; she had to keep from looking at him in order not to lose her nerve, and focused on the lead elder instead.

He tilted his head again. "Speak."

Charmian couldn't stop her fingers from fiddling. "I know this is kind of abrupt, but...I didn't really have much time to prepare for coming here, and so I'm not sure if I'm prepared to--prepared for the initiation." She took a breath and tried to stand straighter. "I'd like to ask that, if possible, my initiation might be held at some future time--when I'm more ready." Immediately a buzz of talking started, but she tried to ignore it despite her faltering resolve. "I'm honored that the Mide would choose to invite me," she quickly said, "but I don't feel I'm prepared enough to make a...contribution to the group." Jeez, as if I ever would! "I haven't even had a vision yet, and I think it would be best if I learned more about...things...first. Then if you guy--if the lodge still wants me, I could go through initiation then."

The murmuring continued unabated. Everybody kept looking at her and talking to their neighbors behind their hands. Even Silver Eagle Feather looked puzzled. Stick-In-The-Dirt looked ready to sink through the floor. Charmian chewed on her lip.

I hate that I had to say that, but it was either this or break my promise! There's no way I can join these guys now.

The elder at the far end of the room frowned even more than before. "This is an unusual request," he said.

Charmian nodded quickly. "I realize that--and I'm sorry it's so abrupt, but I thought maybe that--"

She cut herself off when he held up his hand. "This is an unusual request," he said again. "We do not normally receive guests who ask their initiation to be postponed until a more convenient time."

Charmian nearly said, "Sorry," but he didn't give her the chance to. "Frankly," he went on, "I wish more people were so willing to admit their ignorance when seeking admittance to the Midewiwin. Then, perhaps there would not be so many initiates with big egos."

Charmian blinked. Stick-In-The-Dirt did the same. The other elders looked from one to another, then at Charmian, then back at each other and started nodding and murmuring again. Charmian let out her breath. "When do you believe you shall be prepared enough to seek admittance to the Mide Lodge?" the elder in charge said, and Charmian snapped to attention again.

"Um..." She faltered, feeling quite stupid. "I'm not sure."

He raised his eyebrow again, but said, "How long do you plan to stay upon the Island this time?"

"Oh...I'm not sure. A little while. I have some things to do before I can go home."

The elder tilted his head. "Then if you feel ready, and if you still wish, you may seek admittance before you leave the Island." He paused and gave her a look. "If this is acceptable?"

Charmian stood bolt upright. "OH! Yes! That's--um...that's acceptable. Thank you, um...Grandfather." She blushed and bowed her head at the others gathered around the room. "Um...Grandfathers. Grandmothers. Thank you very much."

She halted, uncertain what to do; when the elder nodded and waved his hand she turned and crawled out of the Lodge as quickly as she could, nearly tripping over the lynx-masked person's stick. They still stood outside, and gave her a look as she got to her feet, nervously adjusting her clothing.

"I rescheduled," she said, and walked quickly away from the lodge. She heard a slight commotion, and then running footsteps, behind her, and only slowed down once Stick-In-The-Dirt caught up with her, panting slightly. They stopped beside his wigwam and she had to lean against it before she could fall over. She'd never had much of a problem speaking in public, but for some reason speaking to the Mide Lodge had drained almost everything out of her.

"I cannot believe you did that!" Stick-In-The-Dirt exclaimed.

"I really do mean to try to get in there, Stick," Charmian sighed. "It's just that, now isn't the right time, and they didn't give me much of a chance to prepare or anything--"

"No, no," Stick-In-The-Dirt said, and now she could tell he was excited rather than upset. He waved his hands. "To make a request of the Mide? No one does this! And should they try, it's most certainly not granted! At least not like this. The elders must like you more than you thought!"

Charmian stared at him. LIKE me--? But Stick-In-The-Dirt was already turning in circles, still waving his hands.

"I have to get back to my home--this is quite big news. They will all be talking about you come morning."

"Oh, God," Charmian moaned.

"And you'd best start preparing yourself! Now that you've made a request, you'll be expected to live up to it."

"I will, Stick, I promise." She paused a moment to watch him continue his excited circling, then said, "Stick, you're already home. I'm leaning against it."

"What--?" He stopped, looked at the sign on the blanket hanging beside the doorway, then flushed. "Oh!" He took hold of the doorflap and set one foot inside, then looked back at her. "Will you be staying here tonight, or...?"

"No, that's okay. I've crashed at your place quite enough. I'll do what you said and start getting ready for whenever."

The medicine man's face lit up and he nodded. "Good luck!" he said, then vanished within. Charmian waited a moment or two before she could hear him talking excitedly with White Deer and Morning Star, then sighed again and slowly walked away, back to the trail leading into the woods. Mani still waited for her there. She touched his head when he rose.

"I thought I'd had enough sleep, but after all of that...I feel like I could doze off and stay that way forever!"

Mani gave a sympathetic whistle. She waited until they had wandered out of the range of the firelight and the voices still chattering back in the camp, then rubbed at her eyes.

"Do you know what? I think maybe I should ask Tal Natha to start giving me some more dreams. Because he's really skimping this time around. I can't even remember the last one I had, and if you don't dream regularly enough, you start to get really tired and cranky..."

At first she thought Mani whistled in response, only to realize it was the wind in the trees; it picked up suddenly, and she gasped and halted, clutching her clothes to herself, when it whipped the leaves all around them into a frenzy, spinning them up into the air. She put out her hand and got ready to call up a fireball to toss in Augwak's face when he should appear, only the voice that came seemingly from everywhere around her wasn't Augwak's.

Good evening, Mainlander, it said, in the same menacing yet amused tone she recognized as Chakenapok's. She should've known; it had been a while since he'd said anything. I thought it was about time for another little test.

ANOTHER one--?
Charmian thought, when the wind sucked itself into a funnel on the path ahead, something dropping out of it to land on the ground with a light thud. Charmian swallowed hard when she saw that it was Moon Wolf, balancing on one hand and knee, and he quickly brought up his spear into an attack position, fixing her with a blank yellow stare.

I think this should be quite an amusing test, Chakenapok said, and then laughed.


"Part 42: Reclamation

This item is NOT looking for literary critique. I already understand spelling/grammar, and any style choices I make are my own. Likewise, I am NOT seeking publication, so suggestions on how to make this publishable are not being sought.

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