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Manitou Island: Part 64
The Ugly Truth
CHARMIAN STARED AT Justin. She was certain Tal Natha did the same; she'd practically jumped into his lap when Justin had shouted as he had. His fists unclenched and he let out his breath, the look on his face telling her that he wished he hadn't said what he did. She let go of Tal Natha's arm--which she just realized she'd been clutching--and took a step away from the demon.
"What's not happening?" She paused. "What are you talking about?"
Justin sighed and looked at the ground. He still seemed angry, but not with her. "You've seen it already. The bruise around her eye."
"And the cuts on her arms?"
"It's happened before?"
"Several times. She always makes an excuse." He shrugged ruefully. "Who am I to make her tell me what's going on? If she tells me she fell picking berries, or fishing, or climbing, or gathering mushrooms, can I really make her change her story?"
Charmian relented a little bit. "So that's what she keeps telling you? That she fell?"
"Every time it happens. Like I said, I can't make her change her story unless she wishes to. Every time I just healed whatever new injury she'd gained...a bruise, or a cut, or a fracture...and she would not speak of it again."
"But you didn't heal her today. Yesterday."
The angry look returned to his eyes. His fingers clenched a little bit. "No. I...I refused to, when she showed up. I told her she would have to be truthful with me, or I wouldn't help her." He shut his eyes. "She left. She would rather go on like this, than just tell me the truth? She knows I would do anything for her that I can. Why doesn't she trust me?"
Charmian bit the inside of her mouth as hard as she could without breaking the skin. Justin's words felt like something sharp poking through her chest, the way Ocryana's horn had gone straight through Tal Natha. She struggled out of the feeling and tried to keep her mind clear.
"You asked her? She didn't tell you?"
"She only said that she fell. When I told her I didn't believe her she left. I haven't seen her since. And now you tell me she has fresh cuts on her arms." He sighed. "I should have helped her...why did I turn her away like that? She probably needs me now more than ever, and even I will have nothing to do with her. If she'd bled to death it would be on my hands."
"She didn't bleed to death, that's the thing. I got her back to Sugar Loaf so she should be okay." Justin lifted his head and looked at her hopefully. "But that still doesn't answer where she keeps getting hurt like this. Or who does it. Don't you have any idea?"
Another sigh. He bent to retrieve his gun. "If I did, I would have been the first to go see this...person." His nose wrinkled. "If they can be called thus. You have to believe me, Charmian, when I say I don't like to hurt anyone." His grip tightened on the gun. "But the first time she came to me with a bruise on her face, that was exactly what I wanted to do to whoever did that to her."
"First things first," Charmian said. "We have to figure out who it is. From what I know she doesn't really know very many people that well."
"This is true. She told me she has no tribe. That her father is gone. The way she spoke, I gather there was only her mother and then myself." He snorted. "A lot of good I did."
Tal Natha stood up. Do you know where she lives?
Charmian turned to him. "She said she lived near these caves...not too far from where Ocryana lives. I tried to tell her it wasn't very safe there, but she wouldn't leave."
The demon's ear flicked. Not far from Ocryana? You have spoken with her mother?
"No, I didn't go back with her. Every time I see her she's wandering around someplace."
Justin shook his head. "She always comes to me first. She never tells me of what she does, unless it's to say she was doing some trivial thing. She seems...she seems to prefer that she come to my house, rather than I go with her."
Tal Natha frowned but said nothing. He turned away and looked off into the woods, sniffing the air.
"You said you had her back at Sugar Loaf," Justin said. "Do you think Old Mother Manitou would mind terribly? If I showed up? I want to make certain she's all right..."
"She's okay," Charmian said. She rubbed her hands together and shivered. "I don't think anything can piss off OMM more than she already has been."
Justin seemed mildly confused, yet nodded. Tal Natha's tail swished through the air and he turned back the way they'd come.
We'd best all go back. There's little night left as it is.
"Yeah...oh..." Charmian took a step forward and stopped. "I was actually...supposed to take Red Bird somewhere today." The demon looked at her with one ear cocked. "It's kind of hard to explain. But I promised I would show her something."
When you spoke with her last night? Where did you wish to go?
"To Crack-in-the-Island. Mani could take her there. Pakwa could carry me."
He stared at her for a moment more and she wondered if he was thinking over how she hadn't offered for him to come along. Her cheeks flushed, but he only turned away again.
You and she can go over this as soon as we are back. We'd best return before more trouble arises.
The other two silently agreed and they made their way back to Sugar Loaf.
Again X'aaru--and now Drake--were at the entrance when they arrived, both of them pacing in circles. X'aaru looked relieved to see her back but Drake looked annoyed.
"Really, Charm," he said when she ascended the slope behind Tal Natha, "I think you are trying to ditch me! When am I gonna have some fun around here?"
Charmian grimaced. "The next time some monster decides to take a swing at my head or something, I'll call you."
He rolled his eyes but stepped out of the way. Justin came in behind her and glanced around before spotting Shadow Water by the fire, Old Mother Manitou still wrapping her arms in leather and moss. The woman looked up and saw him and her eyes grew. Red Bird stood in the doorway at the back of the room, and her eyes did the same. Charmian couldn't get over how alike they looked.
"That's okay," Charmian murmured, looking over what the old manitou had done so far. The moss was stained dark already, and she picked it off with a sigh and started to replace it. "Justin'll take care of it."
Old Mother Manitou just snorted and stood up, gathering up the bloody moss. "Fine, fine. Con an old woman into doing your work for you, then get some young buck to take all the credit. Typical..."
She hobbled away and Charmian waved Justin forward. He clutched his gun a little too tightly; she could tell from the look on his face that he wasn't certain if he should even be here. He glanced at Tal Natha, as if expecting him to intervene as he had before, but the demon seemed to have lost interest in him. He wandered to the back of the room and touched his nose to Red Bird's before disappearing into the tunnel. Red Bird stayed where she was and stared at Justin for a moment before following.
"She shows," Justin murmured. Charmian looked up at him before realizing what he meant.
"Oh. Yeah, she does. They said it's supposed to come in late spring or early summer."
"The winter is going to be long." Justin sighed and turned back to Shadow Water, walking over to her and setting the gun down on Old Mother Manitou's vacated stool. Charmian decided not to stare too long when he took her arms and pressed his hands to the wounds, a pained look crossing Shadow Water's face. She went over to the corner and sat down on the furs, leaning back against X'aaru, who had settled in again. Drake sat down on a ledge on the wall beside them. Not too far away lay Mani, who was asleep by now with one eye half open, and Pakwa hung from the ceiling with both eyes closed.
"So did you find out what happened?" Drake whispered.
Charmian shrugged one shoulder. "She said she fell. I don't buy it."
Drake made a face. "How do you fall and cut your arms all up like that and get a black eye, too?"
"That's why I don't buy it." She fell silent for a moment; Justin had healed Shadow Water's arms, and now he placed his hand to her bruised cheek. "They look like defensive marks."
"The cuts." Charmian held her arms up in front of herself, shielding her face, then brought them down again to fall in her lap. X'aaru yawned. She made a slashing gesture at the air. "Whoosh. Whoosh. Like that."
"Somebody cut up her arms when she held 'em up, you mean?"
"Maybe...maybe they hit her, and gave her the black eye, and when she held up her arms they cut them open. I've been watching too much crime TV." She rubbed one eye. "It doesn't answer who did it, or why they wanted to hit her in the first place. I can't think of anybody on the Island who would want to do that."
"Ocryx? Or Mitchi?"
"No...not Ocryx. He...I don't know...likes women too much. I don't see him hurting any of them. Even when I pissed him off he just barely managed to keep himself from doing any damage." She winced when she remembered the enraged demon pinning her to the wall, yet refraining from hurting her. "It's not his style anyway. Too vicious."
"Mitchi sounds like he'd fit."
"Maybe, but even he doesn't seem that cruel. Of course he hasn't been in his right head lately...I'm thinking, maybe that weird hybrid thingie, or that female Ocryx."
"What about Ocryana?"
"Well...she did try to have her own son killed...twice...and she did steal Augwak's spirit right after he helped her..." She sighed and rubbed both of her eyes this time. "Right now I don't put a single thing past her. I bet she could've started the Great Chicago Fire if she felt like it."
"Wasn't it a cow that did that...?"
Justin took his hand away from Shadow Water's face and said something to her in a voice too low for the teenagers to hear. Shadow Water shook her head and he said something else, a bit louder, but still not loud enough.
"Drat," Charmian muttered, "I wish I had a hearing aid."
"She wants to go back home," X'aaru murmured, eyes drifting shut. "He doesn't want her to. Too dangerous..."
"Well, he's right. How can she even think of going out there alone?" Charmian stood up just as Shadow Water did, and then Justin and Drake as well, the former protesting.
"It's cold. And it may start to snow soon," he said. "And whatever did this is still out there!"
"I fell," Shadow Water said lamely.
"Hells you did. I won't stand by and watch you let yourself be maimed to death."
"I have to go see to my mother. I...I worry about her, in this weather." She glanced at Charmian and Drake, as if afraid they would follow, all the while creeping slowly toward the doorway. Justin took her arm and she flinched away. He looked surprised, then hurt. She evidently caught the expression, for the same look entered her eyes. She touched his arm, gingerly, before pulling away again.
"I...I have to go home. I'll come by after daylight."
She disappeared out the door, leaving Justin staring after her. He sighed and picked up his gun and followed, though not in the same direction, she knew. Drake frowned and his mouth twisted.
"He sees something in her...?"
Charmian sighed and turned away. "It's their business, I guess, unless she gets hurt again. Maybe it's easier to leave it alone, but I can't do that here. Oh, man." She ground her knuckles against her forehead. "I was supposed to talk to Red Bird!"
"She's probably still awake."
"But she's with Tal Natha. I don't want to bother them. Jeez my memory sucks today." She gave another sigh and sat down on the stool, poking at a stray bit of moss. She tossed it into the fire and it crackled. "Well, I may as well ask. You wanna come? I was supposed to take her to Crack-in-the-Island when it gets light."
"Crack-in-the-Island? You mean that thingie out back of Cave of the Woods? Okay! I'd like to see that!"
"It's not too impressive, believe me," Charmian said, before suddenly remembering everything she'd seen down in the Crack itself. Well...at least, it isn't too impressive on the OUTSIDE!
She didn't bother telling him about it now. That could wait until they actually got there. She lay back against X'aaru and shut her eyes to doze until daylight could come. She'd been so sleep deprived lately, it was a wonder she could still function properly.
Sikt left her alone this time, and an hour or so later when the sounds and movements of everyone else awakened her, she actually felt a little bit better. She got up and rubbed off the chill, grateful for the fire that Silver Eagle Feather had started; Drake was up already, gnawing on a piece of dried meat as if he were a dog with a chew toy. She saw Red Bird was awake also, just barely, sitting in the far corner holding a hand to her mouth as she yawned. Tal Natha wasn't in the room; perhaps he still slept. She found herself wondering how things were between the two of them.
Red Bird lifted her head and blinked at her sleepily a few times before offering a smile. Charmian smiled back; the gesture made her feel a little better, for some reason, though she had no reason to feel bad. She sat down and picked up a piece of dried meat sitting on a wooden pallet next to her, biting into it and trying to tear part of it off in her teeth.
"I wanted to ask you last night but I kept forgetting," she said, her words slurring as the toughness of the meat made the saliva collect in her mouth. "I wanted to take you to Crack-in-the-Island to show you something--but I'm not sure how well you'd make it there..."
Red Bird blinked at her a few more times, but now not from sleepiness. After a moment she smiled again.
"I can still walk. I can even turn into an Ocryx and fly, if I wish to. I'm...not really quite as fit as I was before, if I ever was...but I could go to Crack-in-the-Island. What did you want to show me?"
"You'd have to be there to see it, actually. It's kind of hard to explain but someone asked me if I'd bring you along." The woman looked puzzled but didn't ask. "I was going to ask Drake and X'aaru and Mani to come with us. Maybe Pakwa too. Mani could carry you, I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
"Thank you. That's very thoughtful."
"Would you like to tell Tal Natha...?"
"Oh, he still sleeps. He says he's recovered from what...she did to him..." her eyes clouded over "...but I can tell that he's weaker now. I hope it's only for a little while. That he feels strong again soon. Every time I ask Old Mother Manitou, she tells me not to worry, so maybe she's right."
"I bet she is," Charmian said, more to make her feel better than out of certainty. Red Bird looked hopeful. "We'll let him get his sleep. With Mani and Pakwa it shouldn't take too long to get to the Crack from here."
Pakwa was already awake, still hanging from the ceiling and watching the goings-on below. The manitou had awakened as well and sat looking about the room. Charmian had to nudge X'aaru awake and the demon rolled over with a huge yawn, all of his fangs showing. He promptly set to scratching his ear with his hind leg, and Charmian decided to wait until he was done with that before bothering him further.
Drake wandered toward her, still gnawing on the dried meat. "G'morning Charm."
"Morning...you're all ready to go, right? You don't have to do anything?"
"Nope. All ready." He cocked his head. "You okay? You look like something's bugging you."
Charmian had to keep her face straight. The truth was she thought he might be right. Something had been bothering her since she'd woken up--just a little thing, she knew, like some little detail she'd forgotten that she wanted to discuss with somebody. But she couldn't remember what it was or why it should niggle at her so much.
"No...nothing really big. I'm okay. Red Bird's going to ride Mani. I thought you could go with X and Pakwa could take me."
A shrug. "Okay."
He turned away for X'aaru, twisting the strip of meat in his mouth. Charmian waved at Pakwa and watched him start to drift down to the floor before turning to the entrance, Red Bird and Drake bundling themselves up to accompany her. She racked her brain as she went, trying to think of whatever might be bothering her. The more she thought about it the more frustrating it became. Maybe it would have been better if Sikt or Tal Natha had given her some sort of dreams last night after all. At least then maybe she could have worked it out on her own.
Perhaps it was her mental dredging, or perhaps Sikt decided to finally lend her a hand, but as they walked out of the rock and into the snow, the sun sparkling in the east, she finally remembered what she'd been trying to think of. The only problem was, as it stood alone, she couldn't figure out why it was so bothersome, since it was so prosaic.
The image she saw in her mind was one of Justin. The way she had seen him when she had followed him into the woods, the previous night. He stood in the snow with his gun against his shoulder, shrouded in shadows. He was looking at her, yet she couldn't see his face in the darkness. He stared at her, toward her, a mere silhouette amongst the silent trees. She bit her lip as she tromped down the slope. The memory was so ordinary...she felt she would have forgotten it any other time. She felt something was wrong about it, the way she remembered it...as if it should have been different, somehow. But no amount of digging around in her brain clarified the how.
X'aaru and Drake ran down the slope ahead of her, slipping and sliding, tossing snow at each other. Charmian rather wished she had the heart to join them. Anything to lighten this indescribable mood of hers.
Why is that picture bothering me so much? What's wrong with it? she thought to herself. And why do I feel like I need to figure it out soon...or else?...