Return To Manitou Island: Part 68
Pride & Prejudice
CHARMIAN, WABASSO, PEEPAUKAWISS, and Marten stared up at the giant figure which emerged from near the fire, its eyes glinting blue and its voice booming off the cave walls.
"YOU did this."
They all gawked up at it with eyes as wide as saucers. Charmian blinked, feeling all the blood drain from her face. "Beg pardon?" she managed to ask in the tiniest voice possible.
In response the figure's eyes narrowed even further. The fire flared up again to illuminate the entire cavern, and she saw that the giant was in fact a man, his face the color of night. It took her another moment to realize that the rest of him was red--and that the feathers on his head had been stained black as well. Now that she thought of it, stain was exactly what it looked like, as if something had just exploded in his face.
The exploding flower she and Wabasso had faced not too long ago suddenly popped into her mind, and she blinked again.
She noticed now also that his stare was fixed not on her but on Peepaukawiss, who was hovering just behind her.
"I assume that YOU did this," the giant man growled again, his face growing positively ugly.
Puka's mouth quivered and he looked just about ready to cry. Then it opened wide.
He fell to the ground, rolling around and clutching his sides. The others all stared at him, newcomers and bear people alike. Charmian furrowed her brow, glancing back up at the giant man, whose scowl was steadily growing darker. Her eyes widened when she saw the bear claw necklace he wore, and the bear tattoo on his chest, and the bear fur upon his clothing--not to mention the fact that not too far into the cave, she now saw a quiver lying on the ground, and the base of the giant fireworks display was vanishing right into it. She sucked in a breath.
He didn't hear her over Puka's howling. Instead he ground his teeth and stomped forward, reaching down to clamp his hand over the feathers and streamers decorating Puka's clothes. Puka yelped when the big man dragged him to his feet, holding him up by the front of his outfit so his feet dangled over the floor. The other three's eyes widened.
The big man put his face right in Puka's. "I swore that the next time you tried such a thing on me, I WOULD KILL YOU!"
Puka gave a terrified grin and started waving his hands. "BROTHER! It was just a teeny little joke, is all--I meant absolutely no harm by it, you must know this--"
"You have HUMILIATED me in front of my own people!" Mudjikawiss drew a knife as long as Charmian's forearm from his belt and everybody started chattering at once, hers and Marten's and Wabasso's jaws dropping. He waved it in Puka's face and Puka turned an odd shade of green. "You had better hope they have a better sense of humor on the Spirit Road, for that is EXACTLY where you are going--!"
Charmian took an abrupt step forward, flinging out her hand. "WAIT A MINUTE--!!" she yelled, at the same time that Wabasso also took a step forward, clenching his fists.
Mudjikawiss froze with the tip of the knife pointed right at Puka's throat, and turned his head to the side, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. Puka's head rolled back and he let out a weak whimper as he went limp in the big man's grasp, and Mudjikawiss's eyes grew even wider when he at last saw Charmian and Wabasso.
His brow furrowed. "Wabasso?" he exclaimed.
Wabasso let out his breath and nodded, offering a slight relieved smile.
Mudjikawiss just stared at him for a moment. Then a scowl came to his face and he let Puka drop to the floor in a muddled heap. Charmian and Wabasso frowned in confusion when he stalked right past them, toward the cave mouth.
"If you two are here, then that means HE is here!"
They turned about to watch him stop at the cave entrance, glaring from side to side. "He who--?" Charmian asked Wabasso; Mudjikawiss whirled around again and stomped right back, passing them on his way to the fire this time.
"The RUNT! Manabozho!"
"Runt--?" Charmian echoed, baffled. Wabasso stepped toward his elder brother as Marten futilely tugged on Puka's arm. "He isn't here," she said. "In fact he's--"
"He's the reason why we came," Wabasso filled in. They both gasped and jumped when Mudjikawiss's head snapped around to give them a malevolent glare. He picked up his quiver.
"I thought as much. The stupid little Rabbit can never keep his mangy hide out of trouble! And so crying to Big Brother he always goes! He hasn't a spine anywhere in his entire body, and I am hardly going to fill in for one NOW!"
Charmian blinked, mouth slowly falling open in disbelief. Puka at last managed to drag himself to his feet, cringing and dusting himself off, sorting his feathers; she started walking toward Mudjikawiss, and both younger brothers' stares immediately focused on her as she did so. She stopped several feet away.
"He's your brother!" she exclaimed. "And he's hardly a runt!"
Puka hurried forward and nudged her behind him, clamping a hand over her mouth when she started to protest. "She means--er--'Bozho's not here, not with us, at the moment...so you needn't worry about him, Big Brother...we only came so we could..."
"Pester me YOURSELVES!" Mudjikawiss roared, and slammed the quiver down into the fire. Sparks flew every which way, making them jerk back; the bear people began filtering away, toward the cave entrance. Wabasso snatched up their belongings which they'd left behind, pressing the pinecone into Charmian's pocket and the necklace into Marten's hand as he hid his flute. Charmian watched them move away uneasily, but her attention was immediately drawn back when Puka let go of her arm; a glance upward showed her that Mudjikawiss had grabbed hold of him again and was practically snarling in his face.
"All of your damned PRANKS!" he bellowed. Then he glared at Wabasso. "And your stupid MUSIC! Neither of you has any idea how long I walked just to get AWAY from each of you! And now you follow me back here to my own HOME? And speak to me of that pathetic RABBIT? His only purpose in life is to make YOU two look better! How far west must I keep going before I'm RID of all of you--?"
He let Puka drop once again. Puka rolled past Charmian before uncurling himself a little, all his feathers quivering. Charmian barely even saw him. She stared at Mudjikawiss with her mouth hanging open; her fingers slowly curled in toward her palms, and she started walking toward him again, even as the other three goggled at her as if she were mad.
She halted just behind Mudjikawiss, clenching her fists. "THEY'RE YOUR BROTHERS!" she screamed. "YOU COULD SHOW AT LEAST A LITTLE RESPECT!!"
She heard the collective sound of everyone behind her sucking in their breath and edging backward. Mudjikawiss's shoulders tightened, then he turned very slowly to peer over his shoulder at her. She met his eyes with a furious glare of her own, though she rapidly lost her composure when his face twisted up in a look of disbelief and disgust, and his next words left her absolutely speechless.
"What is THIS thing--?"
Charmian's jaw had never sunk so low, nor had her eyes ever grown any wider. Puka slid his fingers up toward his mouth and started gnawing on his nails; Wabasso stood as still as a statue, Marten perched on his shoulder, both of them mute.
Charmian felt her fingernails start digging into her palms, hard enough to sting, yet the feeling hardly registered. The blood rushed up into her face and she felt her ears burning, sparks practically shooting out from her head. Her tensed arms started shaking.
"Wh-what did you just say...?"
Mudjikawiss just wrinkled his nose. "You drag a girl along with you--? What, your party was not sniveling enough without one?" He turned fully around and put his hands on his hips, leaning down over her. "Go run off to a safer camp! It's never pleasant to see little girls torn apart by bears!" He stood and turned away from her again, as if dismissing her completely. "And I hardly have time to be babysitting children now, of all things..."
Puka's, Wabasso's, and Marten's eyes looked ready to fall out of their heads. They crowded into a tight little group, staring at Charmian now. The look on her face was indescribable. Her lips curled back and her teeth showed, looking ready to snap loose from her jaws.
"I think Lox was less scary!" Marten cried, and hopped to Puka's shoulder and buried himself under his feathers.
"WHAT did you just call me--?!" Charmian hissed between gritted teeth; then when Mudjikawiss didn't even bother to look at her, she clenched her eyes shut and screamed as loudly as she could at the ceiling. "I'M NOT A LITTLE GIRL! AND I'VE FACED BEARS BEFORE AND LIVED BOTH TIMES! YOU'RE HARDLY ANY DIFFERENT! I LED YOUR BROTHERS HERE, I CAME TO ASK FOR YOUR HELP, AND I THINK MANABOZHO'S WAY MORE POWERFUL THAN YOU EVER WILL BE!!"
The other three--plus most of the bear people--chattered with terror and cringed toward the cave wall. As soon as the last word escaped Charmian's mouth Mudjikawiss's head at last whirled around, his own teeth bared, and his eyes flashed brilliant blue. Charmian had enough time to remember how Manabozho had looked outside Glooskap's cave, when she'd mentioned his brothers, before the big man stormed toward her and clamped his hand around her neck. His hand was large enough that it encircled her neck with ease, and he lifted her up into the air, squeezing the breath in her throat but not choking her. Charmian's first instinct was to start kicking and panicking, though the words little girl--the same words Ocryana had used on her, in the same disparaging tone, so many times before--flashed again in her head, and she forced herself not to fight, instead glaring back into his eyes as hatefully as she could. The two of them stayed like this, shooting daggers at each other, while the others quailed and trembled.
Mudjikawiss's eyes flared sapphire. "You should learn to watch your tongue, little brat!" he growled.
Charmian dug her fingers into his arm, scowling. "And you should learn to do your homework! While you hang out in this big comfy cave your runt brother is out trying to save Manitou Island by HIMSELF! That hardly strikes me as being cowardly!"
Mudjikawiss let out a great snort. "Let him protect his little piece of rock! He is probably the reason it's in trouble in the first place! As if I care about that mudhole? I am GLAD I left it! You came here to ask me for help? Then you wasted your time. Go on back to your little speck of land and fight your little girl battle there. There is hardly room for children HERE!"
"I'm NOT a LITTLE GIRL!" Charmian yelled, infuriated. And unable to think of anything else to say, she shrieked, "AT LEAST HE'S FIGHTING REAL ENEMIES AND NOT THREATENING LITTLE GIRLS!"
Puka's eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed atop Marten.
Charmian let out a choking sound, almost immediately regretting her words when Mudjikawiss's fingers dug into her neck. His eyes flared as blue as Mitchi Manitou's and she could have sworn that he was an incarnation of the lake spirit himself, and she tensed up, ready to have her head torn off, or bashed against the wall, or something--when the blue glow began to die down, leaving his eyes their normal black color, and his grip loosened again. He scowled at her, and she held his stare; then he lowered her to the ground, and let go. Charmian's hands crept up to rub at her sore neck; she continued glaring at him, though his own expression didn't seem nearly so threatening anymore. He stood up straight to tower over her and snorted, and...she thought she saw a trace of amusement there, though she couldn't be sure.
"You are braver than he is, at least," he muttered, making her blink. He turned his shoulder to her and she crumpled in on herself, letting out her breath and shaking like a leaf; when he turned around again she quickly drew herself up and glared at him again as if nothing had happened. Only Wabasso and Marten and the bear people saw the change.
Mudjikawiss scowled down at her. "I will not dishonor myself by killing a girl," he said. "Even a mouthy one who likely deserves it. You've earned your reprieve for your tongue, but you've also worn out your welcome. All three of you--plus that...thing--" he waved vaguely at Marten, who balked and then hissed "--are to leave my camp immediately, and never come back. You wasted all our time coming here."
"Wh-what about me?" Puka murmured meekly as Wabasso helped him to his feet.
Mudjikawiss's lip curled back. "You're lucky the little brat has such a mouth on her, else I would skin you alive right HERE! As it is, if you are not all gone before sunset, I will have four new hides adorning my wall!"
"So we're back to threats again?" Charmian snapped. Wabasso and Puka both flailed their arms and then clamped their hands over her mouth, trying to restrain her as she struggled. She managed to push their hands away and shout at Mudjikawiss as he walked back toward the sputtering fire. "I thought you were more HONORABLE than that. That's why I wasted my time coming here--to ask you to help your own brother. Your own family is too beneath you--?"
Mudjikawiss snarled. "That little RUNT is HARDLY MY BROTHER! The same with THESE two!"
"You have the same mother and father! Every single one of you, whether you like it or not!"
The big man waved his hand savagely at the fire, and it flared up immediately, making Charmian cringe. Well, it was obvious what his element was. She pried herself loose from the others' grasp and stalked forward, clenching her fists. "Do not speak to me of that weakling!" he snarled. "The only TRUE family I have is the West Wind! HE is the one whom I fight for, not some piddling little Rabbits and a Grasshopper, nor some wench who could not even stand to bear such a runt without passing to the Spirit Road!"
"What about NOKO?" Charmian shouted back. And Mudjikawiss finally blinked. She could tell he'd forgotten about his grandmother; before he could speak, she continued. "I don't care if it means nothing to you that your mother died, or that your dad ran out and left her alone, or even if you think your brothers are all weaklings. I DO care if they're doing everything they can to protect something they care about, while you just twiddle your thumbs, and still claim that YOU'RE the strongest one! If you're going to hide out here with Daddy then you could at least ACT the part and admit you're a COWARD!"
Mudjikawiss's eyes flared blue again and he drew his knife. Wabasso and Puka looked ready to melt into jelly.
"What did I just tell you about your tongue?" Mudjikawiss growled.
Charmian stuck it out at him. "Go ahead! Cutting tongues off of little girls is way more honorable than fighting evil spirits!"
"'BOZHO NEVER FOUGHT ANYTHING DANGEROUS IN HIS ENTIRE LIFE! DO NOT TALK TO ME AS IF HE IS SOME SORT OF HERO!!"
"HOW WOULD YOU KNOW?" Charmian screamed. "YOU RAN AWAY BEFORE YOU COULD EVER FIND OUT HOW BRAVE HE REALLY IS!!"
CRACK. The bear people all sucked in a collective breath, staring at the cave wall. Wabasso and Puka and Marten did the same, mouths hanging open. Charmian had not moved an inch, which was probably best, considering that the giant knife had missed her face by a mere hair to jam into the cave wall behind her. Its handle still quivered from the force of the impact, and after a second of stunned silence, a slender sliver of red appeared across her cheekbone, a tiny drip of blood starting to ooze from it.
She let her breath out through her nose, afraid that if she opened her mouth she'd end up wailing. Her fists at last unclenched, her fingers ice cold.
Mudjikawiss gave her the most venomous look possible, and then turned away.
Charmian felt her heart start hammering hard in her chest. She felt like both running after him and screaming and hitting him over and over again as hard as she could, as well as screaming and fleeing the cave and rushing up the mountains just to get away from there as soon as she could. Yet something made her choose the stupidest of the options floating around in her head.
"Oh, I get it," she said in a neutral voice, and turned away from the knife to walk back toward the others. "You're too afraid to bother helping."
She saw the terrorized looks carved into Puka's and Wabasso's and Marten's faces, yet ignored them. Behind her, Mudjikawiss slowly turned to face her again, his eyes shimmering blue, and the feathers decorating his head all rose like the hackles of some giant beast.
"What did you say?" he growled in an ugly bass.
"Just what it sounded like," Charmian replied, still in the same neutral voice. She didn't bother looking back at him. "You're too afraid to come along and help us."
The cave floor started booming, and the remaining bear people all scuttled outside as Mudjikawiss stomped around in front of Charmian, cutting her off. Wabasso and Puka looked as if they wanted to do something, yet didn't dare. He leaned over her as if he were the giant and she were Jack, and snarled in her face.
"How...DARE...you say that!"
Charmian met his glare and shrugged nonchalantly. "Why not? It's not like you're doing anything to prove how brave you say you are."
Mudjikawiss's feathers flared and he stood upright, the fire blazing in the cave behind them. "I DO NOT HAVE TO PROVE MY WORTH TO A LITTLE BRAT LIKE YOU!"
She shrugged again, then turned to walk past him. "Then I guess I'll just have to stick with my theory for now." She waved at the other three, who jumped as if she were Mudjikawiss herself. "You guys coming? Manabozho could really use your help."
They blinked. "S-sure," Wabasso managed to force out, taking hold of Puka's arm and drawing him up out of the terrified crouch he'd sunk into. "I--I suppose..."
They started to follow her, albeit very timidly. The booming noise started up again and again Mudjikawiss cut her off before she could set foot outside. This time she made certain her look was tinged with just a trace of annoyance, and crossed her arms.
"Yes?" she said.
He bared his teeth. "You will HARDLY come into my home and insist THESE two fools can do anything to help out a THIRD!"
Charmian lifted one shoulder. "They followed me here. And they're following me back." She paused, then added, "I don't see you lining up to do that."
Mudjikawiss's feathers bristled out in every direction so his head looked almost like a turkey. He clenched his fists so hard that sparks scattered from his fingers, and shot out from his teeth as well. The fire lit him up in red and orange.
"Name ONE challenge nobody can face!" he bellowed. "And I will EASILY face it!" He jerked his hand at the other two so they nearly tripped over each other, Marten hopping around them like a large furry flea. "WITHOUT the least bit of their help!"
"I have one little challenge but I really don't think you can face it," Charmian said.
Mudjikawiss's voice sounded loud enough to crack the stone around them. "I CAN DO ANYTHING YOUR LITTLE MIND MIGHT PUT ME TO! JUST NAME IT!!"
Charmian stood and waited until his voice stopped echoing off the walls, and everybody uncovered their ears. When the cave had at last fallen into silence she crossed her arms again.
"There's this evil spirit that needs to be defeated," she said.
He slashed his arm through the air. "EASILY done!"
"And he's possessed by another evil spirit, who you don't need to take care of, but..."
"I can finish off BOTH of them if need be! Without ANY effort!"
"And the first spirit can only be defeated in one way--"
"I am skilled in ALL techniques of fighting and warfare!" Mudjikawiss roared. "There is NOTHING I cannot do!"
"This spirit can only be defeated if certain people work together--Wabasso...Peepaukawiss...you..." she paused, then added, "...and the runt. Manabozho." When Mudjikawiss's feathers started to settle she tilted her head, keeping her face blank. "So...does that sound like something you can do? Since you're so good at everything, and nothing presents a challenge to you anymore..."
He blinked a few times, then scowled, lip curling back. "Show me this spirit and I will easily defeat it WITHOUT their help! It will be done!"
Charmian wagged her finger. "It's not just a show of strength. It's a show of skill and intelligence, too."
"I am both skilled AND fairly intelligent!!"
Puka opened his mouth to say something and Wabasso promptly jammed his elbow into his gut, making him wheeze and double over.
"And it's also a show of teamwork," Charmian finished, and that seemed to deflate him just a little. "Meaning, the four of you have to work together, whether or not you feel you can properly take care of it on your own...if you can."
He had been slowly calming down as she spoke, yet these last three words sent him into a fit again. "I EASILY CAN!!" he bellowed. "BRING THOSE OTHER WHELPS ALONG AND I WILL SHOW THEM WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A REAL WARRIOR!!"
Charmian rolled her eyes but shrugged once more. Oh well. I've got him agreeing to take them along, at least. "Okay, fine," she sighed. "You can come along and help out...though if it's too much bother..."
"If it finally proves to your skinny little hide that I am exactly as I say I am, and gets all of you out of my land, then it is NO BOTHER AT ALL!" He turned abruptly about and stormed toward the cave entrance, the bear people moving out of his way. Charmian glanced at the other brothers and Marten, and they meekly followed her from the cave.
Puka crowded up to walk beside her. "I can't believe you talked to him like that!" he whispered. "Even NOKO never talked to him like that--and Noko isn't afraid of anybody!"
"How did you know that would work?" Wabasso whispered, coming up on her other side with Marten on his shoulder. "Because we tried everything to get on his good side long ago, and it never happened."
"He's got to be TEN TIMES BIGGER than you!" Marten cried. "Weren't you scared?"
Charmian's face reddened slightly. "It's just a little reverse psychology," she admitted. "Bad guys are suckers for things like that."
Puka and Wabasso frowned. "But Mudji isn't a bad guy," they both said, and Charmian shrugged.
"Close enough, isn't he?" She let out a shuddery sigh. "I think I had an easier time talking Ocryx into doing things!"
"QUIVER!" Mudjikawiss roared, making them all jump and obey. They blinked in embarrassment when he was tossed a quiver full of arrows from the crowd. "BOW!" he ordered, and a bow appeared from the other side of the crowd. The bear people all watched them as they walked through, and only now did Charmian see that they were not wearing bear-paw gloves and footwear, but they actually had the hands and feet of bears. This fact made her stare at them in return, noting how some had rounded bear ears, some had furry arms, and some even had faces that extended slightly, looking like muzzles. Wabasso made certain to take hold of her by the vest and pull her forward when she threatened to dawdle.
"What is this place, anyway--?" she whispered to him, still scanning the strange people who stood at their sides, watching them silently.
"I do not know. I've never been this far west." He glanced at the crowd as well, then tugged on her vest again. "We'd best not make him wait. You convinced him to come along, but you might want to know..."
Mudjikawiss halted ahead of them and turned around, crossing his arms and glowering so that they stopped. "Note one thing!" he barked at Charmian. "YOU may be the one with the mouth, but so long as I am traveling with your group...so to speak...I will be the one in charge!"
Charmian's jaw dropped. She was just getting ready to protest when the growing blue in his eyes made her hesitate, then something landed on her head, making her yelp and jump.
"WRONG!" Marten yelled, clasping onto Charmian's hair. "So long as we're traveling, I'm the one in charge!"
This time, everyone's jaw dropped. Mudjikawiss's eyes turned blue and he bared his teeth. "What pathetic crumb of your brain gives you that idea?" he growled, his voice grating like tumbling rocks.
Marten puffed up his tail. "Simple! The one that tells me that I know the way out of here, and YOU GUYS don't!"
Puka and Wabasso both looked blank. Charmian was certain that she must look the same way. She saw their eyes shift toward each other just a bit, then back toward her, and then they nodded. She shifted her own eyes toward Mudjikawiss, who was just starting to recover from his shock, and she nodded as well.
"He's right, you know."
Mudjikawiss's feathers started prickling and he clenched his fists, grinding his teeth together and shooting them all an icy blue glare--but then he whirled around on his heel and stormed toward the mountainside. As the bear people remained behind, the other four followed, the argument put off for now.
"Bluffing," Charmian whispered, half to herself, and half to the others as they went. "Bad guys are suckers for that, too."