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Return To Manitou Island: Part 9
Knight In Shining Armor
CONSCIOUSNESS SLIPPED BACK to Charmian for the briefest second, though she had no clue she was even unconscious. Her eyes opened just a sliver to see a dark shape looming over her...all that her foggy mind could pick up was that it held a long stick or staff, and its head was adorned with some sort of animal skull. The hollowed sockets stared down at her blindly. It lifted the staff, but then a voice cut into Charmian's thoughts, stilling its motion.
Don't kill her yet. She may be useful later on. You've done your part for now...any normal human would be dead after that blow. Let her be...
The skull-masked figure lowered the stick. Charmian's eyes fluttered shut again, and again the blackness moved in...
A headache. This was what slowly dragged Charmian back toward consciousness, and she grimaced and brought up a hand to feel the side of her head. It was tender and sore where...whatever that had been...had hit her, and she wondered if she had a concussion. It wouldn't be good to have a concussion in the middle of--
That's right, she was on the Island.
She opened her eyes, blinking and wincing. She frowned in confusion when large dark eyes met her own, then something let out a low snorting noise. It took her a moment to recognize the features of a horse standing not too far away, its nostrils flaring. It wasn't Francois's horse; instead of being bay, this one was a dirty grayish color, its mane dark. It stared at her and she stared back before hearing the crackling noise of a fire, and turning her head to look the other way.
Her head hurt too much for her to even jump when a shadow moved toward her, crouching down at her side. She rubbed at her eyes when it spoke.
"I guess so," Charmian murmured, still rubbing at her head. She lifted it a bit when the figure handed her a bowl. She accepted it and stared blankly down at its contents.
"Here, drink this. It might help your head a little, or at least your stomach."
Charmian obeyed and sipped at what tasted like regular old chicken soup. On a place like Manitou Island, she found it odd to find something so mundane, so had to look up again to get a glance at her rescuer. She was surprised to see that it wasn't a native or a voyageur, like she'd expected, but someone who looked as if he could have come from the mainland as she did. His clothing was out of date, but she was sure he could have passed for one of her own kind, with only a few puzzled looks. He had sandy blond hair that parted in the middle and fell down a little to frame his face, and pale blue eyes. He smiled at her as she drank the soup, taking mental notes on his appearance. He stood up and went to poke at the fire before she could tell herself to stop staring.
"You must have hit your head hard," he said. Only now did she realize he was speaking with a British accent. "You didn't wake up the whole time Cloud carried you here."
Charmian gave him a questioning look, and he nodded behind her. She peered back to see the horse munching on a clump of grass. She turned once more to the young man and rubbed at her head.
"Or someone hit it for me," she said, before realizing she had no clear memory of what had actually happened. She frowned and puzzled over it, but all that came to mind was the flash of something white, and a voice saying...something. She bit her lip in concentration, but nothing came back to her so she sighed.
Now he was the one to give her a puzzled look as he returned with another bowl and sat down beside her. Charmian pushed herself up--she had been resting against what seemed to be Cloud's saddle--and swirled the soup in her bowl while he sipped at his.
"Who would want to hit you in the head?" he asked.
"Well...not too many people, I like to hope, but I'm sure I got a few of them mad..."
He smiled. "You? Get people mad enough to kill you? You don't look like the type."
Charmian blinked, then felt her whole face flush red. She put the bowl to her mouth quickly in the hopes of hiding it, but heard him laugh just the same.
"I'm sorry, it looks like I embarrassed you."
"That's okay," Charmian said. "The fire's a little warm." She pushed off the saddleblanket that had been covering her legs as if to prove her point. He smiled once more but let her win the point without argument, for which she was grateful. He set his bowl down and stood.
"If that's so, I'll try to dampen it a little. Sorry about that."
"That's okay," Charmian said again. She mentally punched herself for not being more talkative. "Um...I know your horse's name, but I don't know yours," she said. Well, it was better than nothing.
"Oh." He stood up with a surprised look. "That was rude. I'm sorry." He came toward her and held out his hand in a formal gesture that she knew was meant to be silly. "Thomas Leeds," he said, and she couldn't help grinning as she shook his hand.
"Charmian," she replied.
He smiled again in return. "I would say I'm charmed to meet you, but it might be taken as a pun."
Charmian laughed. "I'm only surprised nobody's actually used that one yet." She used the handshake as an excuse to stand up, as she felt self-conscious lying on the ground; she dusted herself off but still had to be careful to maintain her balance, as the blow had left her head reeling. She gingerly felt at the bruise growing on her right temple. They didn't have refrigerators here, so she wondered where she could find some ice.
"I don't think I've ever seen you before," Thomas said. "Do you live here? Maybe on the other side of the Island?"
Charmian shook her head. "No; I'm from the mainland. This is my second time here."
"It's a long story..." Charmian winced at the thought of telling him everything. Yep, I stopped by for a spell, fought me an evil demon, and headed back home in time for my algebra test!
"You seem to know your way around pretty well for just a second-time visitor, if you were walking around the woods by yourself," Thomas continued. He stomped on the edge of the fire and it fizzled out; Charmian was puzzled that his boot didn't catch on fire, but shrugged it off.
"Yeah, I know...I spent a pretty long time here the last time...but it wasn't that long where I came from. You know how things on the mainland work, right?"
"Actually, not much." Thomas looked up at her. "I was born here. I've never seen the mainland."
"Oh! I'm sorry. I guess I assumed too much." Charmian mentally slapped herself again. "That's right, time works funny here...where I was I was gone only like nine months, but ten years passed here, and you're obviously older than ten years, so even though that doesn't make sense I guess it does, in Island terms..."
Thomas started laughing. "You do know your way around here. My mistake. I just had yet to meet a mainlander who's so at home on the Island. Most try to leave after a short while."
Charmian grinned. "I actually came back because the mainland's gotten boring," she said, as if it were something to be proud of. Thomas smiled at her and finished with the fire, poking a few stray embers into place with his foot. He stepped back from it and dusted his hands.
"Well, I guess that's a good reason to come back. I hope you don't mind that I carried you here, since I have no clue where you live; I thought it might provide shelter in case it rains or some such..."
Charmian turned to look to the side and nearly jumped back. She did gasp and take a startled step, not expecting the black cavernous pit that spread before her.
"Cave of the Woods," she blurted out without thinking.
Thomas nodded, giving her a curious look. "You were pretty close to it as it was; is there something wrong? I could take you elsewhere if you want..."
"No, that's...that's okay." Charmian bit the inside of her mouth and put a hand to her chest to try to calm her thumping heart. "This is where I was headed anyway." She took a few steps toward the cave and leaned forward to peer inside the low crevasse, wishing her eyesight were better. All she could see was stone and leaves and soil. She strained her eyes to try to see anything other than that, such as a light, or a tunnel, but from what she could tell, the rock met the ground and there ended.
Thomas moved to stand beside her, also peering inside. "What is it?" he asked softly when nothing happened.
Charmian blushed and stood up, rubbing at her neck. "Nothing," she murmured. "I just used to know somebody who lived here." She turned away from the cave, barely concealing a sigh. Apparently, things did change even if there was nobody left there to change them.
Thomas frowned. "Someone lived in there?" he inquired, giving the cave a dubious look. "It seems a bit cramped for living quarters."
"Well...it was a little less cramped, back then..." Charmian searched around before finding her pack beside Cloud's saddle and slipping it over her shoulders. Thomas cocked his head as he came her way.
"You're leaving already? Are you sure?"
"Yeah..." Charmian touched the bruise again. "I think I can manage. It looks like the Shadow Wolves aren't the worst of my worries."
Thomas's expression changed. "You've seen the Shadow Wolves?" he asked in an awed voice. Charmian blinked but nodded.
"Yeah...a couple of them. They weren't very friendly."
"They only go after Islanders." Thomas approached again but didn't take his eyes off her as he picked up Cloud's saddle. "Why would they go after you?"
"I'm not sure." Only after Islanders? Charmian frowned to herself. If he's right, why WOULD they attack me? Maybe he's wrong?
Or maybe...someone's trying to tell me something...?
"On the other hand," Charmian said hesitantly, "maybe it's not so smart to go off by myself...do you think maybe you could...I don't know, escort me or something? Just until I get where I'm going? I hate asking, but..."
Thomas's smile returned. "No worry," he said, walking over to Cloud and untying him from a tree. "I'd be happy to." He took Cloud by the reins and brought the horse forward and Charmian smiled once more.
Charmian made sure her pack was secured properly and that she hadn't dropped anything while Thomas saddled the horse, Cloud flicking his tail absently as he did so. She stepped forward and was surprised when Thomas held out his hand to her. He patted Cloud's shoulder.
"Would you prefer to ride? That bump on your head might affect your balance, you know, and some of these trails are no place to trip."
Charmian felt her ears grow warm again but nodded. "All right." She approached Cloud and put her foot in the stirrup; Thomas took her hand to steady her on her way up, as it had been a while since she'd ridden anything, and she was grateful for the assistance.
Except--the moment Thomas's fingers touched hers, an icy jolt coursed through her body, the resulting shiver going unnoticed only because she was still occupied in climbing atop the horse. When he let go of her the chill subsided, though she could still feel its effects, numbing her fingers and toes. She sat atop Cloud while Thomas gathered the rest of his belongings and rubbed her arms as if a cold wind had brushed past her.
What was that?
Thomas returned with his jacket slung over his shoulder and smiled up at her. "Are you ready?"
Charmian forced a smile and nodded. He took Cloud's reins and turned the horse about, leading him away from the cave and back toward the trail. Thomas didn't offer any conversation as they went, but she was grateful for this too, as the incidents of this day had left her temporarily without words. It had grown much darker since she'd last been awake, so when she looked up through the tree branches the patches of sky she saw here and there were dim blue, rather than bright and sunny.
I must've been out quite a while...
She touched the bruise on her temple, and pondered over its cause as they went, Cloud's head bobbing. She'd only been here two days so far, and already somebody wanted her dead? Or did they? If they'd wanted her dead, they could have easily done the job...and something gave her the feeling that dead was not the way they wanted her after all...
That voice...what was it saying? I know there was a voice...but it wasn't talking to me...what does all of this mean? If that was a dream, then why would Tal Natha send it to me? He hasn't even come to say hello to me yet; why would he be sending me such weird dreams?
She bit her lip harder as she thought over all this, but it still made no sense. Tal Natha was not one to play mind games, especially with her. Not only could she not figure out why he would send her such odd visions, but she couldn't understand why he hadn't appeared to welcome her arrival. As the Dreamspinner, he should know she was there...he knew the dreams of everyone, and she'd certainly had at least one or two so far! It was uncharacteristically rude of him to have not so much as said hi yet...where was he, anyway?
Is it just me or is NOTHING making much sense here anymore?
Cloud tossed his head, breaking her concentration a little bit. She glanced down at the ground as they went and caught sight of a random boulder lying just off the path, mostly obscured by weeds, with just a hint of stone white peering through the grass. And then suddenly a clear image shot through her mind like a bolt of electricity.
Stone white--bone white.
Bone. A skull.
A wolf skull!
Charmian unconsciously grasped Cloud's reins, making the horse snort and halt. Thomas looked up at her in puzzlement. Charmian's face had gone almost as white as the rock.
"Charmian?" He turned around to face her, then glanced at the path ahead, in the direction she was staring, as if expecting something. "What is it?"
"A wolf skull," Charmian whispered. Her grip tightened on Cloud's reins. "The guy who attacked me was wearing a wolf skull."
Thomas frowned but said nothing. Charmian looked down at him apprehensively.
"I think I'd prefer to go to Fort Holmes. I know it's kind of far away, but it's important."
Thomas stared at her for a moment but then nodded. He took Cloud by the harness again and turned him about, seeking an alternate trail. Charmian sat back and tried to relax, but for some reason her rattled nerves wouldn't let her. Why should she find a wolf skull so unnerving? It didn't necessarily mean that this person was connected to the Shadow Wolves, did it?
Thomas had told her the Shadow Wolves only attacked Islanders...so what did all of this mean? Why were they so interested in her...and was this person with the staff controlling them?
If he's controlling them ...then who's controlling him?
No answers to any of her questions were forthcoming. She could only wrap her arms around herself and sit silently in the saddle as they made their way for the highest point on the Island.