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Return To Manitou Island: Part 13
Misses & Hits
STICK-IN-THE-DIRT GAVE CHARMIAN a curious look as she sat down in the dust before him, her head drooping. He knelt on the rock and they sat in silence for a moment.
"What do you mean, you've already run into Snow Bear?" he said.
Charmian sighed. "It's a long story..." It actually wasn't, but she didn't feel like describing her embarrassing run-in with the older medicine man earlier. "He's the only other wabano you know about?"
Stick-In-The-Dirt shrugged, then nodded. "People do not usually go about announcing they are wabanos. I'm not even certain about him. Are you all right? You don't look well."
"I'm fine...just not having a very good day."
"The day hasn't started yet."
"I know." Charmian grimaced.
"When is the last time you slept? Or ate?" He stood and started poking around at some pouches nestled against the rock wall.
"I had a nice long nap earlier this morning...after somebody clunked me in the head." The medicine man gave her a startled look. "And then I had some hot soup," she added, feeling rather silly.
"He hit you in the head, and then gave you soup?" Stick-In-The-Dirt looked confused.
"No, no...somebody hit me in the head...I passed out...then I woke up and somebody else gave me soup. Thomas...his name was Thomas Leeds. Maybe you know him? Though I'm not sure if you would."
Stick-In-The-Dirt's face grew cautious, then he turned back to his pouches. "I don't know the townspeople very well. I try not to go down there often."
"I guess I understand...I was kind of weirded out when I saw what it's like down there now, too. It's hard to believe all of that's changed so much." She accepted some dried meat that he handed her and gnawed on it a little. "Of course, it's only been nine months where I came from..."
"Monsieur LaCroix has tried to explain how it works differently in our two places," Stick-In-The-Dirt said, straightening out the pouches. "When last you were here he said a year on the Island lasted but a day where you had come from. I suppose that things go more slowly on the mainland..."
He turned around and trailed off in midsentence. Charmian's head had slumped to the side, her piece of jerky lying on the ground, and she was almost snoring. Stick-In-The-Dirt stared at her for a few moments before sighing and picking up a blanket. He stooped and draped it around her to shield her from the cool wind coming off Lake Huron, then stood up straight and rubbed at his neck.
"I suppose a nap gained from a knock to the head is not good enough," he mused, then went back to his own side to sit down again as he had before. He stayed and watched her for the rest of the night.
Light began to peek over the edge of the mound at Fort Holmes. The sun just barely glimmered above the lake as the gray horse and his owner crunched their way up to the top of the hill, both arriving somewhat winded but no worse for wear. Thomas led Cloud over to the fort and stationed the horse next to its side, then climbed atop the wall and peered around himself. Aside from the chirping of early songbirds everything was silent.
Thomas's brow furrowed. He turned to look out over the woods on the opposite side of the hill, but could see only trees. What hints of trail he could see through the leaves were empty except for the occasional squirrel or chipmunk skittering about. The same held for the way he'd just come up, and no demons came flying from the east side of the bluff.
He stared into the trees until the image burned patterns on his retinas, then blinked several times to clear his head. He descended from the fort and walked around it a few times, craning his neck in each direction, but still saw nothing. When he reached Cloud for the second time the horse gave a low neigh, as if to nudge him. Thomas stopped his circuit and placed his hand against the horse's muzzle.
"Well, boy," he said, and shrugged. "I suppose we've been stood up."
Cloud neighed again in apparent agreement.
Thomas waited a moment more, then sighed and picked up Cloud's reins. He turned the horse about and headed back toward the slope they had ascended, but cast one more look over his shoulder as they made their way over the edge again.
"Strange girl," he murmured, before the fort disappeared from sight.
He never said a word about bringing you to the Island...
Red Bird's words echoed in Charmian's head. She blinked her eyes and saw the young woman staring at her in an odd manner that Charmian had never quite seen before. She frowned and tried to speak, but nothing came out of her mouth.
Red Bird raised her hand and shook a finger. "He never said a WORD about bringing you to the Island! Yet you came here anyway! Couldn't you take the hint...?"
Charmian wanted to say she was sorry--for what, she wasn't sure--but instant confusion set in. This wasn't the Red Bird she knew. At least...Red Bird hadn't acted like this, the last time they'd met. She'd seemed happy to see her...hadn't she? Or had she been merely faking it...?
Before she could get her voice to work, a shadow appeared beside Red Bird, and Tal Natha emerged. I thought you would understand, he said, and gave her a reproachful look. When you didn't receive any dreams. Didn't you understand? YOU WEREN'T WANTED HERE.
What--? What do you mean--? Charmian tried to cry, but still nothing came out. Red Bird and Tal Natha both scowled at her; and though Red Bird began to recede into the background, Tal Natha only came closer, baring his teeth and flaring his wings in a manner that made her take several steps back, her heart crowding up into her throat. He wasn't normally a violent demon...but she'd seen what he could do, when he got angry enough...
You're not wanted here! How many times must I tell you? I was only polite when I told you you were welcome to return because I wanted you to leave. It was your sort that brought this kind of trouble on us in the first place! Look at the town, what they've done to our Island! If you were to return in another ten years, we would all be gone by then! I did not send you any dreams because you're not wanted here! YOU'RE NOT WANTED HERE!
HERE still echoed in Charmian's head as she dragged her eyes open, unable even to snap herself awake. A crack of greenish light filtered in over her face, and, confused, she blinked a few times. Weird twisted shapes of rock emerged before her. A little off to the side, a tiny raccoon danced circles around a turtle, a stylized otter watching the scene.
Charmian gasped and sat up. Stick-In-The-Dirt jerked out of his trance and blinked as well, lifting his head as if to ask what was wrong. Charmian grabbed up her pack and slung it haphazardly over her shoulder, scrabbling up the rockside.
The medicine man dropped to his hands and knees. "What is it?"
"I was supposed to meet somebody!" Charmian cried, clambering up the rock and back toward the bluff. She wasn't certain how she even did it, but she managed to reach the top, albeit only after suffering lots of scratches to her arms and legs. She was running even before she had time to fully gain her balance, and stumbled off in the direction of Fort Holmes.
I can't believe I slept through the morning! How could I even be that tired?
She reached the great hill in what must have been record time, tromping up the side as quickly as she could, though stumbling and sliding down more often than she ascended. By the time she got to the top she was even more scratched up, panting and sweaty to boot, and shaking with exhaustion. She stumbled toward the mound of the fort and finally forced herself to stop before she could gasp up a lung, putting her hands on her knees and bending forward to suck in great breaths. In the dust below she spotted fresh hoofprints, and shoeprints to match them. She lifted her head and saw that they went all around the fort several times before returning to their original spot, then turning and leaving in the same direction she'd come from. Her heart sank.
"I missed him," she exclaimed in disbelief. She stood up straight, wincing at a pain in her side, and followed the tracks around the fort until she reached their point of origin, then wandered to the edge of the hill and stared out over the Island as if hoping to see their owner. All she saw was the great woods below, and a rough trail leading off into the far distance.
Charmian collapsed into a heap. "I can't believe I MISSED him!" she yelled, and fell backwards so she lay sprawled upon the ground. "What is WRONG with me?"
Did I miss him on purpose--? a little niggling voice suggested. Maybe I just didn't WANT to be here on time...?
Shut up! That's stupid!
Still...I HAVE been sleeping a lot lately...and I did brush him off, and then stood him up...
SHUT UP! KNOCK IT OFF!
Charmian grated her teeth and ground her knuckles against her head in an effort to still the annoying voice. As such she almost missed the slight rustling sound that came from the direction of the fort. With a gasp she sat up and glanced over her shoulder.
"Thomas?" she called, hopefully.
She thought she saw something dart out of view behind the other side of the fort--why would Thomas hide from her?--but couldn't be sure. She got to her feet and jogged around the hill, staggering a bit from weakness--and she could have sworn she heard another rustling sound from ahead, yet all that awaited over there was more trees. There was no trace of Thomas or Cloud anywhere.
It couldn't be possible to hide a horse that quickly. Besides...why would he want to?
Charmian groaned in frustration and leaned on her knees again. There was nothing she could do now but...continue what she'd been doing earlier. What had she been doing? She wasn't sure, but she knew she still had to locate this Snow Bear, wherever he was, if he was even in the area. She had no idea where to start looking. She supposed that was as good a clue as any.
"This place is eight miles around the lakeshore," she said, and sighed. "I guess I can handle covering the entire thing..."
With this disheartening thought in mind, Charmian sighed once more and started on the way back down from the hill. The going was easier, at least, but no less frustrating.
Now that it was morning--she guessed the time to be around nine or ten--she had plenty of time to explore. As the east side of the Island was the one most populated, she decided she stood a better chance of finding a hermit or a recluse on the west side, where the Ocryxes and GeeBees tended to dwell. So she trekked further away from Arch Rock and in the direction of Devil's Kitchen and Devil's Lake, hoping against hope that her instincts were right.
Several times she tried to cast out her mental net, but each time came up short. She had no clue what Snow Bear's power would feel like even if she did sense him, though it had been worth a shot.
She lost some time looking back over her shoulder repeatedly, as the rustling noises seemed to follow her wherever she went. They were bothersome, but at least no Wolves came leaping out at her.
This last thought made her pick up her pace somewhat.
She sensed herself coming closer to the west side of the Island when the scattered, irritating signatures of the GeeBees entered her net, and kept herself below the trees and out of view of the sky as much as she could. She avoided Devil's Lake as well, even though she felt its inhabitant, Ocryx, wouldn't be so inclined to bother her as his former mate had been. This grew increasingly difficult as the trees thinned and paths grew wider, so she had to come up with some creative ways of keeping herself hidden. She tried crouching as she scrabbled through a patch of brush, and so nearly ended up knocking herself out again when she ran headfirst into a large rock. Instead of going unconscious, she merely yelped in pain and surprise, jumping back and grabbing at her skull.
"Damn it!! Who put that there?!" She clenched her teeth and gave the rock a furious look, tears squeezing from her eyes, but they widened as soon as she found she had to look up...and up...and up some more. This was no boulder she'd just run into...
Standing before Charmian, rising crookedly into the sky, stood a tall shelf of rock, its top vanishing from her view. Charmian took a step or two back in confusion, looking it over. It wasn't imaginary; at least, the pain in her head told her it wasn't. She'd been so intent on her sneaking that she'd almost missed it...however that was possible.
"A rock formation," she said, stupidly; then, "I don't remember this being here before!"
She spoke almost as if the mere act of finding the rock offended her; her last time here, she'd spent so much time combing the Island, how could she have overlooked something so obvious? Still, she tried to reassure herself...she hadn't covered this end of the Island as thoroughly as the rest, if only because of the nuisances who lived nearby. This justification seemed solid enough, and she let out her breath, approaching the tall stack of rock again and rapping it with her knuckles. She wandered around it a few times, looking up and down. When she reached her original spot, she shrugged.
"May as well make some use of it, then."
Without further ado, she grabbed hold of one of the notches in the rock's side, and hoisted herself up. It was rough going, as she'd never been very good at rockclimbing, but with much patience--and a few very close calls--she made her way slowly to the top.
Up here, the surface was relatively flat and easy to stand upon; fortunately for Charmian, who decided to lie down for a moment instead. She had just enough time to catch her breath when faint cackling sounds made her ears prick, and she sat up. She scrambled toward the edge and lowered herself over it, ducking her head down and peering skywards. Far off, she could make out a few GeeBees spinning and twirling in the air; she tensed, expecting them to catch her scent and come zooming her way, but they whooshed out over the trees instead, vanishing from view. Charmian waited another moment or two before letting out her breath, and climbing back atop the rock. She swiped a dirty hand across her forehead.
"I think I need some tranquilizers."
With a shaky sigh, she turned around, absently scanning the woods as she did so. Up here, the view was much the same as it was from any other high point on the Island; she began to feel the bitter sting of disappointment--there wasn't even a wigwam in sight, where could Snow Bear live, anyway?--before something peeking out of the trees made her catch herself, and she looked twice, frowning in puzzlement. There wasn't anything there but trees. What had been so interesting...?
Charmian's eyes grew as soon as she saw what, exactly, it was. It was another tree...but it was much different from all those around it.
She peered harder. This tree stood taller than the rest, and resided in its own little clearing atop a small rise. From its needles she could tell it was a conifer of some kind, though it didn't bear the familiar shape of a Christmas tree. What was oddest, however, and what had drawn her attention in the first place, was its trunk.
Charmian frowned, baffled, at the gnarled brown trunk which grew first upwards in a more or less vertical direction from the ground, before taking an abrupt ninety-degree turn and shooting out sideways, then up straight again, as if some weird strongman had come out and bent it at unnatural angles just to prove a bet that it could be done. The only thing was, it couldn't have been done; at least, not without killing the tree. Yet it stood there in full bloom, its needles whispering, despite the odd squared-off monstrosity which was its trunk.
Charmian simply stood atop the rock tower and stared at the odd tree in silence. Everything she'd ever learned in basic biology told her that what she was looking at was impossible, but there it was.
She finally decided to go down and check it out. Perhaps the wabano lived there? It would explain a few things...
Charmian went back to the edge of the rock once more and lowered herself over the edge. She started climbing down the side as carefully as before, yet when she had only a third of the way to go her foot slipped and she went tumbling with a yelp. She was fortunate that it was her body and limbs that took the brunt of the impact on the way down, yet when she hit the ground, of course, it was her head that thunked against the earth. She lay there in a daze for several moments before the sunlight pounding down on her started to bring her back to her senses. That, and the agony that lanced through every part of her.
She grimaced and lifted her head, then let it drop again.
Maybe I should just lie here until help comes.
She stayed silent for several moments, then called, weakly, "Helllllp." She'd thought it would come out as a yell, but it wasn't even loud enough to stir the birds in the nearby trees. The grass rustled around her and she sighed.
I knew this was going to be a bad day.