Return To Manitou Island: Part 10
Whose Dreams Are These?
CHARMIAN WAS MILDLY grateful that she didn't have to make the trek to the top of the Island alone, or on foot, for that matter. Reaching Fort Holmes, the highest point of the Island, entailed walking up an incredibly steep hill for what felt like forever. The sky was still dark blue, studded with specks of white; she wasn't sure how Thomas could see his way through the dark, but somehow he did, leading Cloud up the side of the hill, grabbing onto rocks and saplings whenever he could. Cloud stumbled and snorted as he pushed forward, and Charmian felt a twinge of guilt at making the poor creature struggle so hard; but the truth of the matter was she didn't feel comfortable enough setting out on her own.
I lost all my elemental powers that I had when I went back home, she thought glumly. Everything Tal Natha and Moon Wolf and Manabozho taught me. I wasn't able to use it in the real world. I don't think I could even call up a drip of water if I wanted to.
Neither could she sense presences the way she used to...so setting foot out in the dark wasn't a good idea, at least, not alone. She wasn't sure if Thomas was the person she wanted to put her faith in, but at least he hadn't tried anything, yet.
And he was offering a free ride.
Despite the obvious advantages she had, she stared silently ahead as they went, her thoughts muddled. She had thought that coming back here would be a welcome vacation from the real world...maybe a GeeBee or a manitou might cause a little trouble, but that was easily taken care of. Instead she'd found...all of this...and even more confusion...it rather put a damper on enjoying the place again.
She felt a little bit like conversing with Thomas, but couldn't think of anything interesting to talk about; so the entire ride passed without a word being said.
By the time they finally struggled to the top she was about ready to get off of Cloud and push him up herself; but Thomas managed on his own, and she dismounted only once they were on level ground. They stood and dusted themselves off and looked around them. The dark mound of Fort Holmes rose ahead, a simple hollowed-out hill of earth with a wooden doorway in the far side and logs protruding from the top edge. Thomas glanced at Charmian as she made her way for it.
"You need something from here?" he asked, following.
"Kind of," Charmian said. "I know somebody who lives near here, and I have to talk with him."
Thomas looked puzzled. "Somebody lives up here?"
Charmian gasped and ducked when something large and dark swept directly over her head, making a hissing sound as it went. Under her arm she saw Thomas do the same thing, craning his neck for a better look when the creature soared up into the air again like some giant divebombing bat. It arced and came back down at them--a noise from ahead made her duck just in time as a second joined the first, the wind from its wings buffeting her against the ground.
Thomas got to his feet and held out his hand as if getting ready to try to punch one of them when it next descended. Charmian squinted to better see the two creatures and could barely make out a flash of red and green. Her eyes widened and she stood as well, waving her arms.
"Wait, Thomas! I know them!"
"Huh--?" Thomas managed to get out, but her yell distracted him from trying to attack. It also drew the attention of the two flying shapes, and they descended once more, though not in an attack gesture. Instead they spread their wings wide and landed on their hind legs, standing upright to loom over the two. Cloud shied a bit but Thomas kept hold of his reins. The two creatures showed no interest in the horse, but looked at Charmian and blinked their red-and-green eyes.
"Demons," Thomas stammered. Charmian's reaction was different. She grinned and went toward them, holding out her arms and pressing one hand to both muzzles when they bent forward to sniff at her. She rubbed the velvety fur as she glanced from one to the other, smiling at Thomas over her shoulder.
"It's okay!" she laughed. "I remember when these two were born!"
Thomas's brow furrowed, but he untensed. Charmian laughed again when Dakh Natha and Sikt Natha nuzzled at her face like two puppies greeting an old friend. They snuffled at her ears and neck, catching her scent and wagging their long snake tails.
Thomas just stood off behind her and stared. After a moment he shrugged and his mouth twitched. "She talks with demons, too. Why am I not surprised."
"These are the children of Tal Natha," Charmian murmured between licks from the two demons. "They live nearby."
"Tal Natha?" Thomas blinked, then came forward. "You know the Dreamspinner? Personally?"
Charmian nodded. "Sure. The last time I came here, he's the one who called me."
Realization came to Thomas's face. "You must be the one everyone spoke of, then. I heard stories growing up about a mainlander who came to the Island a long time ago, but this is the only way some people treated them, like stories."
Charmian snorted. "Go figure that they'd forget everything I did!" She pulled back and wiped at her wet face. "The last time I was here, Tal Natha called me to help fight Ocryana--you've heard of her, right?"
Thomas nodded. "Only no one likes to speak her name. They call her She-Who-Moves-Like-The-Wind."
"Well...yeah, that's one of her names. Anyway, the Island wouldn't even be here right now if it wasn't for me." She checked herself, and added, "And everybody else who helped me." She turned back to the demons. "Does Tal Natha know I'm here?"
We did not know you are here, the female, Sikt, replied, and the trace of puzzlement in her voice gave Charmian a chill. Dakh and Sikt were two of the most rational, levelheaded, unemotional beings she knew, so to hear such a tone gave her pause. She tried to shake it off and reached back to straighten her pack on her shoulders.
"Can you guys take me down to Tal Natha's place? I'm not sure I could make the jump on my own just now!" She paused and then looked over her shoulder at Thomas, who still stood behind her with Cloud. "Oh...um, I think I'm set now," she said, feeling a bit awkward. "Thanks a lot for the ride. I really appreciated it."
Thomas tilted his head. "You're sure you don't need a ride back? To...wherever you came from?"
"I might be here for a while; I'm not sure how long. I have to talk to somebody about something."
"The Dreamspinner, right?" Charmian's ears went a little red and Thomas smiled. "I can wait here, if you want."
"I couldn't ask you to do that..."
"It's all right, I offered it first. So you don't have to ask."
Charmian blinked, then smiled. "Thanks," she said; it was the only thing she could think of. Thomas nodded and held onto Cloud's reins as she made her way to the bluff's edge at the other side of Fort Holmes, the two demons following. She peered over the edge at the trees far below, and felt a twinge of acrophobia before taking a breath and jumping. She heard Thomas let out a yell of surprise, but Dakh and Sikt followed, their claws grabbing hold of the neck of her shirt as she descended. She shut her eyes to avoid the blur of scenery passing by as she knew it would do nothing but make her dizzy; a brief moment later and her feet touched ground, the pressure on her neck vanishing, and she opened her eyes to see a cave entrance looming before her, leaves and roots framing the hole. She stood on a rock ledge just outside it, the space just big enough to support herself and the two Ocryxes still behind her. "I don't think I'll ever get used to that," she murmured, before walking inside.
Instead of growing darker, as it was night outside, once entering the cave her surroundings grew slightly brighter. She had to duck her head a few times in the small tunnel; Dakh and Sikt remained outside guarding the entrance. Flickering lights appeared ahead and her heartbeat picked up. It had been so long since she'd last been here; she could barely wait to see Tal Natha and Red Bird again.
Tal Natha, the son of Ocryana, had been the one who had called her to Manitou Island in the first place, through her dreams. She hadn't believed he was real, until awakening to find a clawmark he had left across her belly as proof. Although large and threatening looking, with coal black fur and the typical Ocryx wolf face and horns and spreading wings, he was actually quite gentle for his species, and even had a human for a mate. Well...half human, Charmian reminded herself. Red Bird was half Ocryx herself, though one could not tell this by looking at her. She lived up to her name, being shy and birdlike with strange red hair, but Charmian now knew better than to underestimate her. When angered she knew that the woman could transform into a demon just as terrifying as any Ocryx could be.
All of this flitted through Charmian's head in an instant as she made her way through the tunnel, coming out into a small hollowed-out room, its floor covered with furs and various crystals lighting it up in different colors. One particularly large crystal was nestled at the far side of the room, and it was near here that Tal Natha and Red Bird were sitting. They both looked up as she entered, and she swore she had never seen their eyes grow so big.
"Ch-Charmian!" Red Bird stammered in surprise, and immediately jumped up, running at her. She flung her arms around Charmian before the teenager could do the same and they both jumped up and down and laughed with glee. Over Red Bird's shoulder, Charmian could see Tal Natha rise to his feet, his brow furrowing in confusion. He approached them slowly, the fur on his hackles prickling a bit, and Charmian had to pull away from Red Bird to wipe her eyes and smile at him.
"It's me, Tal Natha!" she exclaimed, spreading her arms and grinning. "You mean you don't even remember me by now?"
"You were gone for so long!" Red Bird cried. "I was starting to think that maybe--that maybe you didn't want to come back, and..."
"I said I'd come back, didn't I? I'm sorry it took me so long, but I hope the wait was worth it!"
Red Bird wiped at her eyes as well, sniffling and stammering; Charmian looked again at Tal Natha, who stopped in front of her, his expression still uncertain.
Charmian? he said hesitantly, through her mind. He looked her up and down, then flared his nostrils; she could tell he picked up her scent, but rather than satisfy him this only seemed to confuse him all the more. How did you come here?
"Not even a hello?" Charmian smiled to show she was only joking. "I was getting kind of tired of waiting for you to show up and let me through, so I used this!" She pulled off her pack and dug around in it, pulling out the dreamcatcher. Tal Natha and Red Bird both craned their necks at it at the same time.
"A dreamcatcher?" Red Bird took the hoop and turned it this way and that. Tal Natha frowned, then looked to Charmian again.
You used this to reach the Island?
Charmian nodded. "Mm-hm. All I had to do was hang it up and let the moon shine through it. It let me out near Arch Rock!" She took the hoop and went to a root protruding from the wall at the far side of the room. "I think it'd probably be safer here instead of in my pack; so I hope you don't mind if I just hang it up here for a while. I don't know how long I'm going to be staying, but I hope it's at least as long as last time!"
Charmian... She turned to see Tal Natha coming toward her. His expression hadn't changed any from before. He stopped nearby, glanced up at the dreamcatcher, then down at her again. How did you use this to come here?
"I just told you, Tal Natha. All I did was hang it up and the moon shone on it. This cave appeared in my room, and I went right through it. That was it."
But this should not have happened. The demon's brow furrowed. It could not have worked this way.
"It did," Charmian insisted. She paused, and slowly brought her hand down, still holding the dreamcatcher. "Wait a minute...you mean you weren't expecting me? You really didn't know I was here?"
Tal Natha's ears folded back. Charmian turned toward the two of them and frowned. "Dakh and Sikt said they didn't sense that I was here," she said. "You mean that you couldn't, either?"
No. I did not sense you. Tal Natha sat down but looked no less perplexed.
"But...I had this dream the other morning," Charmian said. "I was kind of wondering why you didn't just stop by and say hello if you were going to send me a dream, but I thought maybe you wanted me to come here and find you first..."
"A dream--?" Red Bird said, but Tal Natha interrupted her.
I did not send it.
Charmian's earlier cheer--or what remained of it--faltered, and she stared at Tal Natha in disbelief.
"You...you didn't send it?" she echoed. "Then...who did?"
"Are you sure it was a dream?" Red Bird asked.
Charmian's brow furrowed and she looked at the floor, rubbing her neck. "Well...it felt like one. I guess I can't know for sure, but..."
I did not know you were upon the Island until now, Tal Natha said. How long have you been here?
"About two days! And you really had no idea?"
Tal Natha shook his head. Charmian wasn't comforted at all that he seemed as bewildered as she was.
No. I sensed you not a bit. Everyone else, but not you. And I did not send you any dreams.
"Aren't you the only one who can send dreams on the Island?"
Yes. Tal Natha's gaze lowered to the ground. At least, I thought I was...
"I guess it could be only one of two things, then," Charmian said. "Either that wasn't really a dream I had, or...somebody else knows how to control dreams, now." She bit her lip.
Tal Natha stood and headed back into the cave, wings drooping. I do not know which possibility I dislike more.
Red Bird wrung her hands as she followed Charmian to stand beside the demon. "Do you think--maybe--it's her again?" she asked in a quavery voice. Charmian shook her head adamantly.
"I locked her up beneath Crack-in-the-Island. Nobody can let her out. Nathalit...Nathalit saw to that." She trailed off as she remembered the odd spirit that lived down within the Island, the one who had set all of these events in motion in the first place. "So it can't be Ocryana."
The few shreds of her dream drifted back to consciousness, and she pondered what they could mean. She knew it had been a male talking...not Ocryana. If this person in her dream had anything to do with it...but why would he be sending her hints? And who was he? Only Tal Natha had that power...
She decided not to bring any of this up with Tal Natha. The Ocryx seemed upset enough as it was, and it was rare that she saw him so upset. Red Bird knelt down beside him and placed a hand against his shoulder as he lay down upon the furs, curling his tail around him and looking lost. Charmian surreptitiously put the dreamcatcher away, then forced herself to smile and stood as straight as she could, making her voice sound more confident than she really felt.
"Well, hey...it's not that big a deal. We'll just look into it and figure it out like we did last time. If I can face Ocryana, I can probably face whatever this is, too."
Things have changed since you were last here, Tal Natha said. I fear it may not be as simple as you think.
"That's what we thought the last time, isn't it?" Charmian waved. "Don't worry! I just need to get settled in a bit and then we'll get it all straightened out. You'll see."
Tal Natha said nothing this time, only stared off into space. Red Bird cast Charmian a sympathetic look, and rose to accompany her when she went out toward the cave entrance. They walked out onto the ledge together, Lake Huron sparkling in the distance.
"I'm sorry he's not in the best mood at the moment," Red Bird murmured. "I think he really is surprised to see you here. He's telling the truth; he never said a word about bringing you to the Island."
Never one word? This thought jolted through Charmian's head before she could control it; she bit her tongue to avoid thinking further thoughts along those lines, lest her confidence begin to waver even more. Instead she smiled again. "I understand. I was kind of surprised myself, at first. Maybe traveling through the dreamcatcher has some weird side effects we don't know about yet?"
Red Bird looked hopeful. "Maybe that's it." A crease formed in her brow. "You aren't going to try to find whoever cast this dream right now, are you? Won't you stay here for the night?"
"I'd like to...but I have somebody waiting. I'll come back as soon as I can. I haven't even said hello to everybody here yet...man...and I thought I'd have the time to take it easy this time around!" She hugged Red Bird and Red Bird hugged her back. Charmian walked over toward the two demons still waiting on the ledge. "Tell Tal Natha not to worry too much. I know he's having trouble believing me, so maybe you can do a better job of convincing him. I really think it's something I can take care of."
Red Bird nodded. "I believe you can!" she exclaimed, and waved as Charmian climbed atop Dakh Natha's back, the demon flapping his wings and rising into the air. "Be careful! And do please come back soon!"
"I will!" Charmian yelled back. Red Bird and Sikt Natha disappeared from sight as trees and cliffside enveloped them, and Charmian turned to face forward to see Thomas and Cloud still awaiting her outside Fort Holmes. Cloud tossed his head and fidgeted, and Thomas held a hand up to his eyes, staring at the ascending Ocryx as if he expected to get eaten, but they held their ground when Dakh descended again, Charmian sliding off his back. She pressed a hand to his muzzle before running toward Thomas again. "Bye, Dakh! Keep an eye on Red Bird!"
Dakh didn't respond aside from rising into the air again and turning around. Charmian reached Thomas as the demon vanished from sight. She brushed a few stray hairs back from her face and smiled at Thomas's confused expression.
"So who else do you know?" he asked.
"Oh. Well, I've met Ocryx and Mitchi Manitou, but I can't say I know them very well. I can say I know Augwak, but the pleasure's all his."
Thomas blinked. Charmian laughed and reached for Cloud's reins, but her earlier thought from Tal Natha's cave came back to her, nagging in the back of her head.
He never said a word about bringing you to the Island.
Never one word...?
"Um..." Charmian let the reins slip from her hand and slowly turned to Thomas, rubbing at the back of her neck. "On the other hand...would you mind too much if I found my own way back? I need some time to think about things."
Thomas frowned. "I hope I didn't say anything wrong..."
"Oh, no, it wasn't you." Charmian flushed. "I just have to think about...um...these Shadow Wolves and things."
"Are you sure you want to be on your own with them running about?"
"I'll be okay. I don't really plan to walk too far. Just toward the woods a bit...Red Bird offered to let me stay the rest of the night." She cringed inwardly, hating to lie, but it was better than trying to explain.
Thomas paused for a moment, then she was relieved when he took Cloud's reins. "All right," he said, but then waved a finger at her. "You'd better not walk too far with that bump on your head. I'll stop by in the morning and see how you're doing just to make sure."
Charmian's smile reappeared out of nowhere this time; she felt a little silly, but nodded. "Okay!"
"I live in town if you need me. Most of the people know my family's name. You'll try to call if you need me before then?"
"I don't think I'll have to, but yeah, I promise."
Thomas nodded. He grabbed hold of the pommel and pulled himself atop Cloud's back, holding out his hand to Charmian once he was mounted. She grinned and reached up to take it and he shook hers back in what she assumed must be a jokingly formal gesture. Her smile dimmed a bit when the coldness seeped through her again, but she hid her confusion and waved when he turned Cloud about and headed away from Fort Holmes.
"Watch out for yourself!" he called back over his shoulder. Charmian nodded and waved once more. She stood and watched as the horse made his way down the steep slope; when they disappeared from her sight, she climbed atop the fort to make certain they were really gone. It was a few more moments before she felt truly alone, and by then the dark blue of the sky had turned almost to black. She rubbed her chilly arms and walked down into the hollow of the fort and up the other side, down the outside, and toward the woods on the opposite side of the hill.
As she stepped down among the trees she thought over what these woods had meant her last time here. They had been both a peaceful place, a refuge full of secretive but kindly manitous who dwelt in the trees and rocks and springs; and they had also been a hostile place, concealing malevolent demons ready to attack her at any moment. Most of her worst fights with Shadow Water had been fought in woods much like these, and the thought brought a shiver to her, even though Shadow Water seemed not to be so hostile anymore. She was grateful for that one change, at least, although some of the others still took some getting used to.
He never said a word about bringing you to the Island...
Charmian's feeling of confusion grew. She stared at the forest floor, moonlight glimmering on the fresh leaves, as she walked.
So that's why I could never get back here? Why I never had any dreams about the Island? Tal Natha...didn't want me here?
She didn't want to believe that the demon would refuse her admittance to the Island for almost a year--ten years, Island time--especially when he had promised to let her visit again soon at her last departure. But Red Bird was not one to lie...and there was the proof of her own mind. She'd been trying as hard as she could for months just to get back here, and nothing had worked...had that been because Tal Natha had willed it to be that way?
But why would he not want me back here? He said I could come back! He promised I could!
But I never had even one dream about this place...not even a regular one. It was that dreamcatcher that finally brought me through. And he didn't look really happy to see me. Did he change his mind...? Why would he do that...?
She sighed and tried to distract herself from this line of thought before it grew even more troublesome. Instead she focused on Thomas, as she couldn't find anything else to think about. She blushed a little bit again at his farewell offer of help, and wondered if she'd really come across as so defenseless. The last time here, she'd had Drake, true, and Justin had helped her out a few times...but for the most part she'd held her own. Was it different this time? Or was it all in her head?
Or do I WANT to look helpless...?
Charmian grimaced at the thought. She looked over her shoulder, up at the top of the hill, but the fort was beyond sight by now. She turned to face the downward slope again and stuck her hands in her pockets. "Thomas Leeds," she murmured under her breath, and made a face. "With my luck he's probably half Ocryx or something..."
"You certainly have a way of running to the dangerous men, don't you?"
The voice came from somewhere above Charmian's head. She gasped and jumped, twirling around and darting glances up into the treetops. A glimmer appeared upon one of the branches, and she squinted to get a better look at it. A vague human shape emerged, with two feathers sprouting from its head like the ears of a rabbit. Charmian's shoulders relaxed and she approached the tree, her grin returning.
"I was starting to think you'd never show up!"