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Return To Manitou Island: Part 15

Into The Crooked Tree

CHARMIAN SCREAMED AND fell, her fingers slipping from the roots of the crooked tree when a wooden staff smacked across them. Her eyes widened and as she toppled backwards she finally got a good look at her assailant--and was briefly surprised to see it was in fact a little old woman, albeit a quite angry-looking little old woman. She lifted and shook her staff as Charmian fell.

Panic set in, but hardly had a chance to grow--for Charmian's back thumped against something solid, preventing her from tumbling head over heels. Instead, she felt herself being pushed forward, and the old woman's eyes grew this time as Charmian moved closer.

"Are you crazy?" a voice behind Charmian snapped. She felt relief flood through her when she recognized it as Manabozho's. "What are you trying to do, kill her?"

The old woman scowled when Charmian's feet settled upon the nearest root. "What of it? When some silly girl tries to molest my tree, what do you expect me to do, allow it?"

"MOLEST?" Charmian yelled. "Do you have any idea what that means where I come from?"

"What should I care where you come from!" the old woman barked in return.

Manabozho appeared beside Charmian, helping her regain her balance. He gave the old woman a look just as dirty as her own. "You SHOULD care! This isn't some girl, I'll have you know. This is the mainlander. The one I told you about!"

The old woman blinked a few times in surprise, then squinted at Charmian even harder. "You mean this little scrap? She's the one all that babble was about?"

"Yes, she is. She fought the demons, remember. Including Ocryana."

His hand moved away from Charmian's back and she stood up on her own. "And I won," she said, giving the old woman a defiant look. Manabozho nodded as if in agreement, and Charmian added, "It was easy, too."

The old woman's nostrils flared and she thumped the butt of the stick against the tree. "Well, why didn't she say so sooner! It would have saved me an awful lot of trouble! Now people will be thinking I go about randomly rapping any visitors on the head!"

"You got that reputation because you DO!" Manabozho retorted, waving his arms. The old woman appeared to have lost interest in him by now, however, and Charmian gasped when she reached out and seized her by the wrist, pulling her upward and forward, toward a doorway that appeared out of nowhere in the trunk of the tree.

"Well, I'm not making many friends just letting you stand out here; come on, come inside before that starts to swell up too much. And you, Manabozho, wipe off your feet before you come in."

Manabozho scowled. Charmian tried grappling at the edge of the doorway but ended up being sucked inside anyway. There was a brief moment of darkness as she supposed they were passing through a sort of tunnel into the tree, then it opened up into a wide room with a high ceiling from which vines dangled. Charmian's arm was let go, only for it to be seized again by a creeping tendril of ivy. She let out a tiny shriek and tried to pull back, but the vines caught hold of her and dragged her past the middle of the room. The old woman stood stirring in a pot as if nothing odd was even happening.

Manabozho stepped into the room with a sulky look. The vines pulled Charmian up over a chair carved out of the inside of the trunk and deposited her in it with a thump, then withdrew into the walls and ceiling with a slithering hiss. The old woman waved her hand at the air and more vines appeared, dropping a bowl into her palm. She stirred the pot and ladled something into it.

"Didn't I tell you to wipe your feet?" She turned on Manabozho and frowned. "Tracking in dirt, as always! And what did you do all day? Not even a squirrel on your belt. What am I supposed to put in this for taste?"

Manabozho grimaced. "I'm not a hunter!"

"What sort of boy are you? Not a hunter! What good is that!" She snapped her fingers and again the vines appeared, this time with the skinned and dressed bodies of four squirrels. Charmian gawked as they ended up in the pot, which the old woman stirred and then tasted from. She turned to Charmian and approached, making a face and pinching Charmian's arm and earning a yelp.

"Look at this! You're scrawny! And he expects you to fight whatever-it-is-this-time? Go on, eat this." The vines reached out and grabbed the bowl, jamming it against Charmian's mouth so she had no choice but to swallow its contents or choke. She gulped hastily, expecting to burn her throat, but found that the soup was tolerably warm. Still she ended up sputtering toward the end, and had to pull her mouth away, coughing. She hoped not to offend the old woman, who seemed rather unstable, but she had turned away from Charmian by now anyway and was again laying into Manabozho, who stood at the side of the room as if expecting to be sent to the corner with a white cone on his head.

"No squirrels! 'I'm not a hunter,' you say! You'd better start hunting then! What good are you if you don't even know how to hunt..."

"I KNOW how," Manabozho said between gritted teeth. "I just have more important things to do, is all. Like teach her how to fend for herself!"

"Teach? Teach her?" The old woman looked Charmian up and down, then turned back to him. "She may be a little scrap but to me it looks like she can take care of herself."

Charmian blinked. "Thanks," she said, without thinking.

Manabozho glared at her. "You stay out of this!"

"I can butt in if I want! She WAS talking about me, remember?"

"See?" the old woman added. "Can take care of herself. Here, try some of this." The vines descended and dropped something that vaguely resembled a cherry or a small apple into her hands. Charmian touched it and found it was covered with some gooey substance which made her face twitch, but she put it up to her mouth just the same. She bit into it and found out that it was an apple after all, seemingly coated with maple syrup. Her eyes widened.

"Wow. This is good!"

The old woman gave Manabozho a superior look. "You see? She has taste, too." She waved her hand and a small pile of the coated apples fell into Charmian's lap; although she wasn't very hungry, she felt she had to eat them in order to keep the woman appeased, and started popping them in her mouth two at a time, crunching as quickly as she could. "At the very least you could show me some appreciation for all the hard work I do. But no, all you can do is track in mud, bring no squirrels, and laze about all day 'teaching' people who hardly need to be taught..."

Manabozho pulled at the feathers on his head. "You don't even LIKE squirrel soup!!"

"Stop yelling when you're in my tree! I've told you not to do that, haven't I?" She hobbled over to him and grasped him by the feathers now, pulling him over toward the side of the room. Charmian continued crunching the apples as they made their way, Manabozho yelping the entire time until the woman pushed him down into another seat. When she turned her back he stuck out his tongue, and then an apple fell from the ceiling and knocked him on the head.

"Remember the tree has eyes, and they look out for me," the old woman said when Manabozho grumbled and rubbed the sore spot. Charmian finished eating her apples and licked at her fingers. "Would you like some more of those, dear?"

"No thank you, ma'am," Charmian said hastily.

"'Ma'am'?" Manabozho scowled at her. "Oh, you're good."

Charmian glared back. "Better than you."

The old woman turned around once more and came toward her, clapping her hands together. "Oh, she's a sweet little one! I completely underestimated you, dearie. You must forgive Manabozho. He can be a dullard at times, especially when he feels bested. I can tell which of the two of you is better at this moment."

Charmian flushed. Manabozho yelled, "Hey!" and jumped up, only for a torrent of little apples to spill down over him, pelting his head and shoulders and arms until he collapsed. Charmian tried to ignore his cries of pain and annoyance and gave the best smile she could manage. The old woman cooed and pinched her cheek.

"Such a darling!"

"I'm sorry I trespassed on your tree, ma'am. I didn't know it belonged to you..."

"Oh, that's all right. I thought perhaps you were going to carve a name in it or something; you wouldn't believe how many have tried that, in the past. Got so I had to use some medicine so they can't find it too easily anymore. Of course, I couldn't use all the medicine I could, else the idiot wouldn't be able to find it, himself..." She cast a dark look at Manabozho, who was just now extricating himself from the pile of apples with one of the most furious looks Charmian had ever seen on his face. Charmian ignored him and sat forward in her seat.

"I was told that a manitou lived here. I'm guessing that would be you...?"

The old woman laughed. "Oh, it's been a long time since I was called a 'manitou,' but I suppose the name fits...albeit somewhat awkwardly..."

"So you're the owner of the tree? This is a crooked tree?"

"Well...I might call it 'my' tree, but I wouldn't say I own it...no one can own a tree...and yes, this is not only a crooked tree, it's the Crooked Tree. Crooked trees are not 'a dime a dozen,' as some of your people say."

Charmian felt a bit of relief come over her. At least one part of this day had ended up properly. "Could I ask your name?" she said. "I'd feel rude just calling you anything..."

The old woman gaped at her with wide eyes, and Charmian feared she'd said something wrong. However, when she raised her stick, it was Manabozho's head it came down over this time, and he let out a startled cry when she started thwacking him soundly, making him lose his balance and fall back into the scattered apples.

"You never even told her about me?!" she squawked, punctuating each sentence with a thunk. "I let you stay here and you never even mentioned me? You never said ONE WORD about your poor old grandmother?!"

Charmian blinked. "Grandmother--?" She looked at Manabozho in confusion. "You have a grandmother?"

"Everyone has a grandmother!" Manabozho snapped, rubbing his bruised head. "Though some are better than oth--"

THUNK. The old woman hit him one more time, catching his fingers. He hissed and waved his hand, sticking them in his mouth and giving her a venomous look. The old woman reached out to pat Charmian's hand.

"You can call me Nokomis, dear. Manabozho, he will not be calling me anything for quite a while."

"Nokomis," Charmian echoed. "That's your name?"

The old woman laughed. "No, this merely means 'grandmother' among us. But you're as welcome to call me that as anyone. Even more so, in some cases." Another glare at Manabozho.

Charmian let out her breath. Well, she supposed it was better that the old woman was the relative of a friend, with how hostile she could be. "I wondered if I could ask you some things about the Island. If you know about them, that is."

"About the Island? Well, I've lived here much of my life, since long before your kind came, so I suppose I could answer some questions." She brushed some creeping vines away from one of the carved seats and sat down as the tendrils crept back up the wall. "I suppose you want to ask about the Shadow Wolves."

Charmian started. "How did you--?"

Nokomis waved. "It just seemed like the logical thing for somebody to ask about, is all...if you wish to know where it was they came from, I'm afraid I can't tell you. Nobody seems to know that for certain. I can tell you that they are both of and not of the Island."

Charmian stared at her for a moment. "Um..." she finally started. "...What do you mean?"

Nokomis shrugged and picked up a basket of nuts seated on the floor. "Just as I said," she replied, beginning to break the shells one by one. "They themselves have not always been here, but there is something about the Island that draws them. They attack only Islanders, for one thing."

"But they attacked me."

Nokomis shrugged again. "So you are an Islander."

Charmian's brow furrowed. "I am...?"

"She babbles sometimes," Manabozho muttered. "Doesn't know what she's talking about." A vine reached down and slapped him and he yelped.

"Don't listen to him," Nokomis said. "I know enough about this Island to know what belongs here and what doesn't. And as much as I want to say those Wolves don't belong here, I can't say it with certainty. They would not be thriving if they were not meant to be here."

Charmian rubbed at her head. "I don't think this is helping me much..."

"Well, find out who's commanding them, and then you'll find your answers."

"I'm afraid I don't know who that is, either. And I'm running out of places to ask."

"Poor dear." Nokomis reached out and patted her hand. "Truly, if I knew more, I'd tell you. I know how it can feel to have a useless source of information." And she tossed a nutshell at Manabozho's head.

"You're not useless," Charmian hastened to say. "At least now maybe I can narrow things down a little...and try looking somewhere else...maybe somebody else knows something." She racked her brain but had no clue what to do next; if a manitou didn't know what she should be looking for, then who would?

"Well, you know where you are welcome to come if you need it," Nokomis replied matter-of-factly. She dug in a pouch sitting beside her and pulled something out, handing it across to Charmian. Charmian took it and looked at it. It was a tiny piece of carved wood, made to resemble a pinecone. "Keep this by you and if you wish to find the Crooked Tree--indeed any enchanted tree--then this should point the way. You needn't climb up atop that rock again just to fall down the side if you want to come here."

Charmian rubbed the little charm between her fingers. "Thanks," she said, and put it in her pocket. "For the food, too. You make really good soup and candies."

A large smile cracked Nokomis's face in half. "Thank you, dear! You're a very well-mannered child. More so than others I know." Another nutshell hit Manabozho in the head; he simply scowled and tolerated it this time.

Charmian got to her feet and Manabozho did the same. "Thanks for letting me in," she said. "I'm still sorry I upset your tree." She glanced toward the doorway. "Do I just walk back out and then...?"

"Once you cross the hollow you'll be back in the woods as you knew them before. Your friend should be waiting for you. I'm sorry the tree frightened her so, but then again, that's rather the purpose of the medicine I use; can't have too many people snooping around here all the time."

Charmian nodded and turned to the entrance. "I understand that. Thanks again, and bye."

She headed for the entrance, Manabozho at her elbow and very nearly crowding her out. "Would you watch it?" she whispered. "I don't think those nuts can reach you over here."

"You don't know how well she throws, then. Hurry it up! I only came in here because I knew YOU would need my protection!"

"Protection! You're deluded. I don't know what Shadow Water was so worried about. She was convinced there were weird spirits or Michinimakinong or something here, whatever that is..."

"That reminds me!" Nokomis spoke up from behind them, making Charmian turn back. Nokomis lightly clapped her gnarled hands together. "You want to look for someone who knows the Island well to ask your questions of...I think you could not go wrong if you asked one of the spirits of the Island. They know it more so than anyone, even I."

"Spirits?" Charmian said, mildly confused. "If you mean manitous, then I..."

"No, not exactly manitous. The manitous are of the Island, but they do not know it as well as some other spirits. What is the word your people use? I know I heard it before...fae? Fairies. That's the word. You should speak with the fairies."

"Fairies?" Charmian's interest perked up now. "I didn't know fairies lived on Manitou Island! Are they little, and do they have wings?"

"Well, wings, yes; some of them, at least. Little? Again, some of them, but not all..."

"Cool!" Charmian turned to Manabozho. "I'd like to see some fairies!"

Manabozho rolled his eyes. "What's so special? They're the same as anything else..."

"Because I've never seen one, is all. I'd like to see one before I have to go." She turned back to Nokomis. "Where can I find them? Do they live where the manitous live? Or someplace special?"

"Well...they used to live all about the Island. But sadly, things have changed since your type began to come. They moved to a different place, where most of us cannot find them, and only a few old ones still know the way."

Charmian's elation died a little bit. "So I won't be able to find them...?"

"Wait just a moment, didn't I tell you a few still know where they are? Once in a while, they come among us, but only certain people can see them. The manitous, for one, as they're so closely related. But the manitous do not like to tell where to find them as they're friends. You'd have not much luck if you were to just go looking in the woods for one on your own. As I said they moved to their own place; it's much like the Island itself, as compared to your home."

"The mainland?"

Nokomis nodded. "You know of how our Island, and your island, exist in the same place..."

"At the same time. Yeah! You mean they live in a place like that? A reflection of Manitou Island?"

"It's not so much a reflection as just another space, which exists here. It's only reachable by one way, which I assume they use to pass between our worlds. You should be looking for the Fairy Arch."

"Fairy Arch...?" Charmian paused and frowned. "Do you mean Arch Rock? Because I passed under there once, and...well...I don't remember seeing fairies..."

"Arch Rock is the gateway to the Spirit Land," Manabozho corrected her. "Don't be foolish! Of course it's not the Fairy Arch. Noko is telling you stories."

"Brat!" Thunk--a candied apple hit him in the head and stuck there. "That's what you get for calling me a liar! The Fairy Arch isn't a story--it exists. I've never seen it, mind you, but I know it's here. You simply have to find that and then you'll find the fairy spirits. I'm positive that's all you have to do. If anyone will know anything about the Shadow Wolves, or anything else that's happening to the Island, it will be them. See if you can find the Arch, and then you should have some answers."

Charmian nodded. "I will! Thanks!" She grabbed Manabozho's wrist and pulled him toward the entrance before he could protest. "Bye, Nokomis!"

They left the tree in such a hurry that the moment they went out the doorway, Charmian had to run down the slope or else risk falling flat on her face. Manabozho wasn't so lucky. His foot slipped beneath a root and he tumbled head over heels down into the hollow, Charmian running past him.

"What's got you so excited anyway?" he groused as he hopped to his feet, pulling stray blades of grass from his hair. "You should know by now that things are never so easy as just asking someone for what you need!"

"I want to see these fairies," Charmian retorted, slowing down on the opposite slope. "Why are you making such a big deal out of it?"

"I believe I know your people's idea of 'fairies.' And I should tell you that our people's idea isn't quite the same as yours."

"So? Nokomis said they had wings. Isn't that close enough? Come on, Shadow Water probably thinks Augwak's got me by now." She turned to trudge up the slope and Manabozho had to follow, letting out an exasperated sigh.

"What do you think you're going to find?" he continued pestering her as they went. "Truly. I've never seen you so set on something unless you knew it was going to be helpful, and there's no way you can know that now. So why the sudden interest?"

Charmian's step slowed a little and the grass swished past them as they walked. "I've just always wanted to see a fairy," she said quietly. "That's all."

"No, it isn't." Manabozho trotted forward to walk beside her, and stuck his face down beside hers. "What is it? Spill. Why is this something so special?"

Charmian finally slowed to a stop and stared at the grassy path ahead of them, leading back toward Chimney Rock. Her fingers fiddled at the edge of her vest and she sighed.

"My...grandma used to tell me stories about fairies when I was little. I believed in them back then. Then...well, when I got into school and all...and got older...I didn't really believe in them anymore. Because adults always tell you, if you believe in these things past a certain age, then you're stupid."

Manabozho frowned. "Stupid? For believing in what exists? I don't understand your people sometimes."

"Well, remember that where I come from, things like fairies really don't exist. At least, not where we can see them," she added, seeing his skeptical look. "They don't show themselves, if they're there. Where I'm from you can't just call a manitou out of a tree, for example. You yourself said I'd need a different kind of medicine to do that. Most people where I'm from don't believe in that kind of medicine. When you're little it's okay to believe in things like fairies, but not when you're older." She looked up at the treetops, swaying softly in the evening breeze. "There's always been a part of me that wanted to believe in things like that...but there was never any proof...so I couldn't believe in them."

"Proof?" Manabozho held out his arms to gesture at the woods. "Look all around you. What more proof do you need?"

Charmian shut her eyes. "Before I came here, this wasn't any kind of proof at all. A tree's just a tree. There aren't any Uroona hiding in the rocks, and there aren't any fairies living around arches. Everything just...is. There isn't anything deeper to see. Nothing to look for, really. I tried to, but if you keep doing that then the other kids laugh at you...so I stopped looking. I stopped believing and I told Grandma to stop telling me those stories." She opened her eyes to see stars twinkling now, far overhead. Crickets began singing, far away in the underbrush. "That all changed when I came here. I know this place is a lot different from anywhere else, but at least I know that Grandma wasn't just telling me stories after all." She turned to look at Manabozho. "So yeah, I'm interested in seeing some fairies. Because Grandma was right about one thing, so I want to see if she was right about everything. If she said that there's fairies, then I want to see them for myself."

Manabozho tilted his head with a puzzled look. "You have reason to doubt your grandmother?"

An image of the dreamcatcher flashed in Charmian's head, along with her grandmother's words--You don't have to worry with me gone, Charmian...you have fire in you. I know you'll be fine, someday--and she turned away before he could see the look in her eyes. "Sometimes," she murmured. "Sometimes not."

Manabozho was silent for a moment, until she started walking again. Then he said, "Well, be careful, because bad things can happen when you doubt your grandmother!"

Charmian heard him fall into step behind her, and his comment made her mouth twitch with slight amusement. "So," she said. "What say we look for that Arch now? It's not like we have anything better to do."

Manabozho snorted. "So say you. But I've been bored anyway."

They came toward the end of the grassy trail now and Charmian spotted a shape ahead, waiting for them beside a tree. She could better make out Shadow Water's features the closer they got, and could see the look of worry there. The woman's confusion seemed to grow when she noticed Manabozho behind Charmian. Charmian started to gesture at him, only to see that he no longer stood there...a little brown rabbit hopped along after her instead. She turned back to Shadow Water, whose brow furrowed in puzzlement.

"Um..." Charmian rubbed her neck. "I thought maybe I'd bring him home with me. Can't ever have too many pets. I hope I didn't make you wait too long."

"I would have stayed closer," Shadow Water said, "but I thought I heard a noise."

"That was probably just us. I fell over and it might've been kind of loud."

"No, it was a different noise. It was something like--"

Whoosh! THUNK. Shadow Water's eyes went wide when an arrow embedded itself in the tree beside her. Charmian whirled around, instinctively scanning the woods.

"Where did that come from--?"

"Look out!" Shadow Water bolted forward, grabbing Charmian's arm and yanking her toward the ground. Charmian just barely felt something fly over her head as the two of them landed in the grass, and another arrow whistled off into the open area ahead of them. Charmian's head popped up and she started glancing around.

"What the heck is all that?"

"Somebody's up in the tree--!"

Charmian had just enough time to look up in the same direction which Shadow Water pointed in. She spotted a shadowy shape perched atop a high branch--then it was gone. She heard it hit the ground and tried to locate it again, but couldn't see anything but trees.

Charmian! Off to your side!

Manabozho's voice came just in time for Charmian to grab hold of Shadow Water's wrist and yank her aside, both of them rolling off of the path and into the underbrush. Something else thunked into the tree and she lifted her head to see a tomahawk protruding from where her head would have been mere seconds before.

She sensed a disturbance in the air, and turned to see the same shadowy form as before darting toward them with unnatural speed. She made out the wolf skull mask before anything else, then noticed the glint of a knife in its hand as it came at them.

Charmian gritted her teeth. "Not HIM again!" Still holding Shadow Water's wrist, she jumped to her feet and the two of them dashed out of the woods, toward Chimney Rock. A quick glance told her their pursuer wasn't about to let off now--in fact, if anything, his speed only picked up. Charmian knew that she and Shadow Water could only run so fast and so far before giving out--and it didn't look like this guy was going to give out any time soon!

We just have to reach Chimney Rock, she told herself as they ran, feeling grateful that her companion didn't question the action. She could tell from the look in Shadow Water's eyes, however, that she was thinking the same thing Charmian was thinking.

So okay, say we reach the rock--what do we do THEN?

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