Return To Manitou Island: Part 6
The Watchers & The Watched
HE WALKED ALONG the winding path leading to the large tree at the end, rubbing at the back of his neck as he did so. He sighed. It had been a long time since there had been such activity in the outer world, so he wasn't used to traveling back and forth so much between there and here.
He looked up at the tree as he went and found that the sight of it calmed him a little bit. Still, he slowed his step to take the time to be better prepared for when he reached its top.
The tree was wide enough around to house several lodges of large size. He could put both his arms around it and not hope to even reach the curve of the trunk. He could have climbed up through the many branches and knobs that led to the top, but he chose to fly up instead, his wings spreading and fluttering, lifting him up among the leaves.
The leaves were not green like those of one of the trees in the outer world. Neither was the trunk brown. Instead they were shimmering iridescent white and shifting shades of blue, respectively. There was always a soft wind blowing so the leaves rustled and sparkled in the sunlight or moonlight, whatever time of day it was. The color of the leaves shifted the closer they got to the trunk of the tree, where they changed to jet black sparked with white glittering specks. Whereas the leaves toward the outer edges looked like opal, those toward the middle looked like onyx, or like the night sky.
As such it was dark in here when he alighted upon the biggest branch which led to an opening in the tree. Tiny crystals which flickered like firelight hung suspended here and there so he wouldn't lose his way, not that he would even if he couldn't see. A path had been well worn on the top side of the branch by now.
He shifted his wings so they folded back into place and made his way toward the entrance, a pensive look on his face. He had little to go on at the moment except feelings, but...feelings usually didn't make him so uneasy.
He passed through a darkened passageway lit with the same dangling firecrystals until coming to the large inner room nestled into the trunk of the giant tree. He walked until he reached the middle of the room and then halted. The floor was worn naturally until it formed a very slight concave. Larger multicolored cabochons protruded from the walls, and crystals dangled from the ceiling. There was another opening at the other side of the room, overlooking the land below. A tall woman clad in white, her long, loose hair the same color streaked with sky blue, stood here, looking outside. Her wings were folded behind her back.
"Tell me your news, Niskigwun," she said without turning around.
Niskigwun bowed respectfully, although she couldn't see.
"There is still much activity among the humans, Grandmother. The Shadow Wolves are still roaming about unchecked."
"It is not as if the Islanders can defeat them."
Niskigwun flushed a little and lowered his gaze to the floor. "They have been attacking again...just today they nearly caught a mainlander who has come to the Island."
"Mainlander?" Surprise entered the woman's voice and she turned her head just slightly, so Niskigwun could see one sapphire eye. He nodded.
"Yes, Grandmother. A young girl. I believe she has been here before."
"The manitous spoke of a young girl who helped them defeat the demoness." The woman's voice grew thoughtful before she turned away again. "Could she have returned...?"
"I believe they are the same girl, Grandmother. Not many mainlanders can return to the Island once they've gone."
"Yet this number only grows lately." Her wings shifted and settled. "If another has come, it means only trouble."
"But..." Niskigwun's brow furrowed. "The Wolves, Grandmother. They attack only the Islanders. Not those who've come from the mainland, unless...well..."
She turned her head slightly again.
"...unless the Island has claimed them as its own."
A pause. Her wings lifted a bit, the light glinting off of them.
"You believe this girl is now one of us?"
"No, Grandmother." Niskigwun shook his head hastily. "Not one of us. But an Islander. The Wolves attack only them. As if they seek them out."
"And this girl, they sought out immediately?"
"Yes, Grandmother; exactly. As if they had been waiting for her."
"I see." She turned away once more and Niskigwun let out his breath. He tensed again when she spoke.
"What I said still holds, Niskigwun. What you have told me only leads me to believe there is greater danger than I thought. Keep your eye upon the gateway."
"It is broken, Grandmother. No one can pass through."
"I realize this, but keep watch on it anyway. These Islanders are strange folk. And now I fear something even stranger may be after them. This girl only complicates matters."
Niskigwun nodded and bowed his head again. "Yes, Grandmother." He stood and turned, making his way back toward the passageway. Only when he had reached the end of this, leading back out to the branch, did he remember that he had not told her about the feeling he'd had...but after their talk, he decided it was best this was so. With another sigh he spread his wings and drifted down to the ground.
Charmian halted in her steps, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling. She slowly turned and looked over her shoulder, her eyes scanning the woods, alighting on a particular spot up among the trees even though nothing was there. She frowned.
Beside her, Shadow Water stopped. She looked up as well.
"What is it?"
Charmian's brow furrowed. She continued to search the trees and ground for a moment more, but there was nothing to be seen.
I could have sworn somebody was there...
"Nothing," she finally said, though her voice was uncertain. She turned back and continued walking. "I just thought I heard something..."
Shadow Water seemed to accept her explanation, though she looked over her shoulder every so often. They went on in silence for a time, although Charmian wasn't even sure by now where they were going.
"I keep feeling," she said after a while, "like I should apologize to you or something."
Shadow Water blinked. "To me?" she said, sounding surprised. "Why?"
"I'm not sure, actually." Charmian blushed a little and smiled. "But I must've done something once that warranted an apology."
Shadow Water looked down at the trail. "I feel like I should be the one apologizing to you," she said softly.
"I know that what you did last time wasn't your fault," Charmian replied. "Ocryana made you do all that stuff."
"She never controlled me. What I did I did on my own." She seemed to be growing smaller, drawing in on herself as she spoke, and Charmian felt a pang of guilt. "I know I attacked you many times..."
"It's okay," Charmian said, a bit quickly. "Even if she wasn't controlling you, she did trick you...she told you to do things for her...and of course you would want to do them. People are supposed to love their mothers. Mothers are supposed to love their children, too. Not use them to do things like that."
Shadow Water lifted her gaze again. Charmian was relieved to see that her shame seemed to have lessened a little bit. "You sound as if you speak from experience."
"Not really...fortunately...but I did get to see it for myself." Now she looked down at the trail. "That's it...that's why I feel like I should apologize. I am the one who had to lock Ocryana up again...even if she didn't care about you the way she was supposed to, she was your mother."
Shadow Water turned away again. "You were only thinking of the Island," she murmured, and Charmian could think of no reply, so she gave none.
Eventually Charmian recognized that they were coming closer to the part of the Island where she had last seen X'aaru and Khiieta, and the two demons appeared, trotting toward them.
"We missed you at the camp!" X'aaru said. "Mother said you hadn't been there...I'm not sure if she believed me when I said you were here. I thought maybe we should come back here in case you returned...did you get to stop by there?"
Charmian nodded. "Sorry for all the crossed signals; I guess I have yet to figure out good timing!"
"Oh, that's all right...I probably should have waited longer. I'm sorry."
As he talked some more, apologizing profusely, from the corner of her eye Charmian saw Khiieta approach Shadow Water. She felt like warning her to stay back, as for the most part Ocryxes didn't get along well together, but had to bite her tongue; things had obviously changed here, why did she still expect violence from the woman? Still, she was surprised when Khiieta started wagging her tail and pressed her muzzle against Shadow Water's hand. She was even more surprised when Shadow Water's pensive expression melted a little bit, and she put her arms around Khiieta's neck, hugging her close. She couldn't help but stare at the two as X'aaru continued talking to her, or rather at her. She blinked a few times to realize she'd zoned out, though she still couldn't stop staring.
"...thought that maybe it's not in such a good area," X'aaru was saying, "since...well...she used to live not far from here...but you did lock her up again...so it should be safe. It's a lot bigger than it looks, too! It goes way back underground. I'm not used to living in caves...unless you'd count Sugar Loaf Rock as a cave...and I wouldn't...but maybe if we line it with something, like grass, it'll feel more like home..."
"Um..." Charmian's brow furrowed. She shook her head to snap out of her daze and gestured at Shadow Water and Khiieta, giving X'aaru a confused look. The other two looked back as if puzzled. X'aaru followed her gesture, then turned to her again, cocking his head.
"You two know each other?" Charmian asked.
Khiieta cocked her head also--almost a mirror reflection of X'aaru--then a wide grin spread across her face and her tongue lolled out. "Of course! At least I hope we do!"
"Oh." X'aaru looked sheepish. "I thought I told you when you asked me. I guess I didn't. Khiieta and Shadow Water are related. Khiieta is Shadow Water's--"
"Daughter?" This popped out of Charmian's mouth before she even knew she was saying it. She clapped her hands to her mouth, appalled--but it suddenly made a lot more sense. Shadow Water's puzzlement faded a little and she gave a small smile.
"Yes," she said, and stroked Khiieta's nose. "She was born not too long after you left...but already she is close to X'aaru's age. They've been planning to den together."
Charmian lowered her hands. "So...you and Ocryx..." She trailed off. All events now seemed to be measured in terms of her last time here...back then, following Ocryana's last, particularly brutal beating of Shadow Water, Ocryx, the demon of the lake--and Ocryana's former mate--had appeared as if out of nowhere, and had taken Shadow Water's battered body away with him. Charmian had seen her only once afterwards, right as she was leaving the Island to head home...but they hadn't spoken. She'd wondered what Ocryx would want with the daughter of his enemy, though she'd had her suspicions...that hadn't meant she'd thought they were right, but apparently they were.
Shadow Water left the unfinished question dangling. She looked at Khiieta and continued running her hand along the top of her muzzle.
"I live beneath Devil's Lake now," she said quietly. Khiieta's snake tail wagged and she tilted her head so Shadow Water could scratch behind her ear.
"Oh..." Charmian nodded to herself. I guess that does explain it all... She shook herself out of it again and forced a smile; it wasn't that she wasn't happy for them, only that she still couldn't quite believe it. Ocryx? Settling down and starting a family? Yes, she'd been gone too long... "Congratulations, I suppose...though I've been saying that so many times today it's starting to feel kind of trite."
"Thank you!" Khiieta said, apparently thinking the comment had been meant for her. She moved back toward the cave in the ground and paced around it in a circle. "Do you think it'll be a good place, Mother? I don't want it to get too cold and drafty, but I don't want it all stale and hot either..."
The other two started drifting toward the cave, so Charmian made sure to follow. "How did Ocryx take it?" she asked, then clarified, "Um...when he found out you two want to live together. Last I knew he was pretty territorial, especially about you and Tal Natha, X..."
"Oh," X'aaru said. "It wasn't me who told him..."
"Khiieta did," Shadow Water said. "And then I did. He was a little...tense after she told him, so I had to list everything good about it...and convince him it was for the best...I do not think it was because of X'aaru, but because he was losing his daughter. He's been very close to his daughters..."
"Mother," Khiieta whined. "You're embarrassing me. Father took it well, I know he did. He said not a word against it!"
"Neither did he say a word for it, at first..."
"I know he said nothing, but that's just the way he is. He nodded at me! It took a moment, true, but he did...he didn't look very happy...but I think he's grown used to it...I am grown and wish for pups, so I shouldn't clutter his caves anymore..."
"You do not clutter!" X'aaru insisted. Charmian's smile became genuine as they started to bicker, and their arguments became so silly that she had to laugh. When they heard this they all looked at her in surprise. She waved her hands.
"Sorry...it's just that you two sound like you're together already. I'm glad you have only little things to worry about, I just hope you don't overdo it so soon!"
"Overdo?" the demons both chorused; then, "We will not overdo it!" "We're not arguing--just talking!" "We are already together, see?" "I think she meant are we mates yet? If that's so, then not exactly..." "What do you mean? Of course we are already together!" "You misunderstand me..."
Charmian grinned and turned to Shadow Water. "SW, I was supposed to give you something but I keep forgetting it." Shadow Water gave her another puzzled look. "I'm not sure if I'll even be able to get around to it today...it looks like evening's coming on. I'm going to see if I can track down anyone else I haven't said hello to yet. If anybody asks where I've gone, could you tell them...oh...maybe that I went to Francois's place? I think I'll stop by there next and see if he's in since it can't be too far."
Shadow Water nodded. "All right. Be careful that you don't cross any Wolves."
"Wolves?" The two Ocryxes instantly stopped fighting and stared at her with wide eyes. "Charmian--you ran into Shadow Wolves?" X'aaru asked, sounding awed.
"Kind of," Charmian said, blushing a bit. She pointed at Shadow Water. "She's the one who took care of them for me, though. If you run into Stick, send him my way. He's the first one I ever met here, after all."
X'aaru nodded vigorously. "I will. Be careful! Those Wolves are awful!"
Charmian's mouth twitched. "I know. I'll keep my eyes open." She turned away and waved, and X'aaru's and Khiieta's excited voices followed her off through the woods once more.
"Goodbye, Charmian! We'll see you later! Take care!"
Walking through the woods was easy enough for Charmian, as she knew almost every trail on the Island by now. Even with what had changed regarding the people, the Island itself was still the same, and she was relieved about that.
Change is okay, I guess. TOO MUCH change is more than I can handle! I wonder what else is different around here...
She sighed as she came within sight of a cabin deep in the woods. This was the home of Francois LaCroix, the French voyageur who had carried Drake and herself home in his canoe. She supposed that she and the trapper were much alike, as he too could move freely from the Island to the mainland of his own time; she smiled as she thought of the dreamcatcher that now made this possible for her, as well. She rather liked being in a select company such as this; it made her feel a little bit more in control of things, for a change.
She sighed when she noticed the angle of the sunlight. Evening was drawing on, and she hadn't even met Stick-In-The-Dirt, or Tal Natha and Red Bird. She missed them so much, by now; it was hard to know that somebody was so close, and yet still so far away. Tal Natha and Red Bird lived upon the highest part of the Island, a very long walk from here.
I can always say hello to them tomorrow, she resolved. It's not like I have a timetable or anything--I can stay here as long as I want this time! And I don't even have to wait for any silly fog when I want to head home! If I ever do!
This settled her guilt a little, and she trudged toward Francois's cabin, suddenly feeling a little tired. She couldn't have been here too long, but she had spent most of her time walking and running around so far.
She heard noises coming from the property before she reached it, and was mildly surprised to see a short, round native woman doing something with furs out in the yard. Charmian didn't know much about trapping so supposed she must be preparing them for trade. She'd never actually seen Francois do anything with furs before, so maybe he would need some help getting it all done.
The woman looked up at Charmian and blinked as she entered the yard. She held some sort of pelt in her hands--Charmian wasn't sure what it was--but that didn't matter, she supposed. She walked around a little ways, glancing about, but nobody else was to be seen. She turned back to the native woman and waved a little.
The woman nodded, but didn't take her eyes off of Charmian. Charmian grew bored of her exploring and went over to meet her. The woman set the pelt down and started wiping her hands against each other with a perplexed look. Charmian smiled, trying not to appear hostile, and the woman relaxed a little.
"I was wondering if Francois was around anywhere," Charmian explained. "Though it doesn't look like he is."
The woman shook her head. "No. He is out checking his traps, like every evening."
"I'm not very surprised...my timing seems to be off today. Do you think he'll be back soon?"
A nod. "Maybe in an hour or so, before it gets dark." She tilted her head. "You know him?"
"Uh-huh," Charmian said. "I met him the last time I was here. My name's Charmian."
The woman's eyes grew wide and she sucked in a breath. "You are the one he spoke of!" she gasped, and before Charmian could react the woman was right in front of her, looking her over as if expecting something unusual. "He told of a girl from the mainland who fought the demon--was it you? Were you the one who locked her away?"
Charmian nodded, feeling somewhat embarrassed now. What did they think of her, that she was some kind of god or something? "Yeah--kind of. I had a little help though--"
This was cut off with a wheeze when the woman threw her arms around Charmian's waist, giving her a bearhug. She was shorter even than Charmian was, but her grip was amazing. Charmian had to struggle just to breathe!
"You're the one who saved the Island, then!" the woman exclaimed.
"K-kind--of," Charmian wheezed. She gripped the woman's arms and started prying on them. "Okay...you're welcome...it's okay...!"
The woman finally let go, but of her own volition, and beamed up at her with brimming eyes. "He told me about what you did," she said. "When the sky changed colors, you were fighting the demon! You are so full of courage!"
Charmian tried not to wince. "Really--I did have some help." She hugged her aching ribs, but the woman must have misinterpreted the gesture as she gasped and clapped her hands together.
"Are you hungry? You must be hungry if you came all the way from the mainland!"
"Actually I didn't really come all that far, but I am a little h--"
"Please, will you come in? I'll prepare some food for you. I would love if you would come in!"
Charmian frowned in puzzlement but obeyed. The woman hurried toward the door of the cabin and opened it, waving at Charmian to follow. Charmian made her way up the steps and went inside, and it looked much as it had the last time she had been here.
"At least some things don't change," she murmured, looking at the traps and furs lining the walls. The native woman went over to the fire and poked at something in a pot, ladling it into a bowl. Charmian sat down at the rough table in the middle of the room.
"What's your name?" she asked.
The woman turned toward her with the bowl, and looked a little sheepish. She came to the table and set the bowl down in front of Charmian along with a wooden spoon.
"Crooked Creek," she said softly.
"Crooked Creek?" Charmian smiled. "That's not a bad name."
Crooked Creek gave a shy smile and sat down opposite her. She put the spoon in Charmian's soup and nudged the bowl forward so Charmian picked it up and started eating. "What is this, anyway?"
Charmian stopped with the spoon in midair. She gave it an odd look, then shrugged and continued eating.
"Well, I guess I don't mind eating small furry woodland creatures, as long as they're cooked properly..."
Crooked Creek really smiled this time, and her eyes almost disappeared. Charmian nearly choked laughing, and had to wipe her mouth. Crooked Creek stood.
"Would you like some bread, too?"
"Thanks, that would be nice. I feel like I haven't eaten in ages!"
"There's plenty of it, so when you're finished you can have more!"
She went to cut a loaf of bread and Charmian chewed on a tough piece of meat. "What do you do here?" she asked between bites. "Besides cook and tend to the furs?"
"Well, that is mainly what I do, but I also wash things...clean the house...try to keep things tidy...and sometimes, I help to skin the animals."
"Wow. Francois has you do a lot, doesn't he?"
Crooked Creek smiled again. Charmian found herself liking the strange woman after all. "It's not too much. I did a lot back at home, before."
"Oh. So you stay here, too?"
Crooked Creek's amusement seemed to turn into mild confusion, but she shrugged a little and set the bread in front of Charmian. "Well...yes," she said as she sat down. "This is normally what one does..."
"Oh." Charmian shut her eyes and put a hand to her head. "Hold on, let me guess...you and Francois are married...right?"
Crooked Creek smiled and nodded. Charmian felt like kicking herself but forced another smile instead. "Wow. This is starting to feel like my eighth-grade dance...everybody's paired off except for me."
Crooked Creek frowned. "Dance...?"
"Never mind...it's a mainland thing." She dropped her hand and tried to look cheerful, taking the bread and dunking it into the stew. "So you and Francois are together, huh? How long have you lived here?"
"Not very long compared to some others...only about twelve moons so far. Is the bread good?"
Charmian nodded and swallowed. "It is, thanks. How exactly did you and Francois meet, anyway?"
Crooked Creek smiled widely. "It was a joke."
"Huh...? You mean you're not married?"
"No, we are. But it was because of a joke. My friends...well, they laughed that I hadn't found a husband yet, and they joked that I should try to get the trapper as a husband. And so I came by and cleaned his house and cooked him dinner and I have yet to leave."
Charmian nearly spat up the soup. "Does anybody get married normally around here?" she choked as she started laughing. "I don't know who's worse, you or Little Dove!"
Fortunately, Crooked Creek didn't take offense at the comment. "Little Dove has a white husband also!" she exclaimed. "At least we are married!"
"I guess that counts for something," Charmian admitted. She finished the soup and Crooked Creek stood up.
"You would like more?"
"Actually, I don't want to eat too much..."
"There's no such thing as eating too much!" Crooked Creek seemed appalled by the idea and Charmian had to force herself not to laugh yet again.
"It's okay...maybe I can take some with me when I leave?"
"I'll bundle some up for you!" Crooked Creek set about doing so; Charmian pulled her backpack forward and dug around in it a bit, pulling out a thermos and looking it over, then handing it to the puzzled-looking woman.
"Here. This...uh...well, it keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold where I come from. This can hold soup if you want."
"Really?" Crooked Creek took the container and looked at it uncertainly, but went to the pot anyway and ladled some soup into it. Charmian stood and went over to one of the front windows to look outside. From here she could see one of the trails leading off into the woods, as well as most of the front yard. The shadows cast by the sunlight were growing longer and less distinct as the sun set, and she sighed.
"Kind of wish I would've had the time to at least look up Tal Natha and Red Bird..."
She heard Crooked Creek gasp. "You know one of the demons?" she asked, sounding awed. Charmian shrugged a little without turning away from the window.
"Well...yeah...him and X'aaru...um...the son of Silver Eagle Feather. And Shadow Water. Though I don't know her very well..." Maybe that'll change this time around...
She peered over her shoulder to see Crooked Creek bundling the thermos and some other items into a cloth. "I've never met someone who knew so many demons," she said. "My people..." She paused, then tied the cloth shut. "My people fear them...especially the half ones...it is as if they are neither human, nor demon, yet both. We do not know what to think of them."
Charmian turned around. "They're no different from anybody else," she insisted. "Except that they have a few...well, powers that other people don't have, but aside from that, they're pretty normal." She stopped herself just short of saying, "Some of my best friends happen to be demons!"
Crooked Creek looked awed now. "Really?"
Charmian nodded. "Why should they be much different?" She turned to look out the window and saw a lone figure approaching from the woods. Her face lit up and she ran for the door.
"Francois is coming!"
She opened the door before Crooked Creek had a chance to respond, jumping down the steps and rushing off down the path. Francois LaCroix noticed her and slowed his step, several trapped animals hanging from one hand, the other carrying the traps slung over his back. He seemed surprised to see her, and Charmian gave a huge grin as she threw her arms around him.
"Charmian?" She pulled back and he smiled down at her as well. Charmian felt her eyes stinging but didn't care by now. "How did you get here?"
Charmian sniffed and pulled her pack forward to dig around in it again. She pulled out her dreamcatcher and held it up to him with a grin. Francois set the traps and his catch down on the ground and took it, looking it over with some puzzlement.
Charmian nodded. "Uh-huh! My grandma gave it to me! I couldn't really believe it either at first, but it's what got me here!"
Francois's brow furrowed. He tilted the hoop and peered at it from the other side as if expecting to see something there. "I've never heard of this way of getting to the Island," he murmured.
"I guess nobody ever thought to try it before. It kind of happened on accident." Charmian took the hoop back and replaced it in her backpack. "Crooked Creek made me something to eat...I was kind of hoping I'd get to see you today! I've been saying hi to everybody I can find!" Her smile faded a little. "I was also hoping I could go to town and maybe say hi to Marcott if he's still here, but it's getting kind of late..."
Francois smiled and picked up the catch and traps. "Do not worry, ma chère. If you have no problem with sleeping over here the night, I can take you to the town first thing in the morning as I have to go there myself. Does this sound good?"
Charmian's smile promptly returned. "Yeah!" she exclaimed, and followed him back to the cabin. "I can't wait to see what's changed and what's the same down there!"
"Trust me, ma chère...by now there is more that is changed than what is the same," Francois replied. But Charmian was too excited to take much note of his words, and had already started planning the day out in her head.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, for her, she had no clue yet how difficult it is to make plans for the unexpected.