|Main story folder & table of contents: "Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 12: Standing Ground"
CHARMIAN, DRAKE, AND the others glanced down toward the trees as a new racket commenced. Drake actually started to creep back behind Charmian when she slapped his arm and moved away. Whatever it was, it couldn't be any worse than anything else they'd had to deal with today.
Still, she kept her hands fisted and her feet ready to flee, in case one of those antlered monstrosities appeared yet again. She'd seen what they could do to a creature as big as X; they could make mincemeat out of her.
The crashing noises grew closer and louder until a form emerged from the treeline and...Charmian could have sworn there was a collective letting out of breath. It was a human who stepped out, and not a native; he was well dressed, if somewhat archaically, in a brown suit and hat, and as soon as he saw them, his eyes grew big and he waved a hand at them.
"OH!" he shouted. "There you are, stay put, right there, I'm coming up right now!"
The others watched as he hurried forward. Tal Natha cocked his head and frowned just slightly, a look of canine puzzlement. The well-dressed man made it partway up the incline before tripping on a rock and falling forward, right on his face with a loud "Oof!" A small case he'd been carrying fell to the grass and popped open, papers flying everywhere.
Silver Eagle Feather smiled and Red Bird tried not to giggle. Drake goggled. Charmian had to hide her grin; she had sudden visions of Drake almost falling flat on the pavement back home.
The man quickly pushed himself up, dusting himself off and gathering the papers as best he could with a little cough. "Sorry about that--stupid Island--I swear this place is set up to murder me sometimes--" Stuffing the papers in the case haphazardly, he continued up the slope, now extending a hand their way, babbling in a slight English accent. "Good to see you, good to see you, I was starting to think I was hearing things but it looks like I was right after all, I hope the day finds you well and none of you are in any serious trouble, as that just means more--"
He froze, suddenly noticing Tal Natha staring back at him. His face, already too pale, went even paler. His eyes grew to the size of marbles and he started stammering. "Huh--huh--huh--"
Another halloo came from the woods, but just the smallest rustling sound. Another man came out from the trees and looked up at them. This one was also white, but not dressed so well as the first; he seemed to be all in leather and furs, a rifle slung over one shoulder, and he didn't make so much noise or trip when he came their way. On his way up the slope he took the other man's arm and pulled him along, smiling up at the others.
"Bonjour," he said.
Silver Eagle Feather's smile was just as wide as his. "Hello, Francois. You have good timing."
"Actually, it was Alexander this time. He heard all the racket even before I did. I must be distracted today." He tipped his fur hat at the others. "Good day, Miss Red Bird, Lord Dreamspinner, and you two--?"
"This is Charmian and Drake," Silver Eagle Feather said. "They come from the mainland."
"Ah. My kind." He finally reached them and took Charmian's hand. She almost expected him to kiss it, but he bowed his head instead, tipping his hat again. "I hope you find the Island as pleasant as I do."
"Sort of." Despite her hesitation Charmian couldn't help smiling.
"Are you Francois, the one they keep telling us about?" Drake cut in.
The man looked at him with a bit of surprise, then smiled again. "Why, yes, I suppose I am. Francois LaCroix, at your service. What's this? You've all been talking about me without my knowledge? Only good things, I hope?"
"Don't worry, they've heard nothing but compliments about you." Silver Eagle Feather this time. She nodded briefly at the other man, who still stood gaping at Tal Natha so much so that the demon fidgeted. "I hope your friend is all right...we may need his help."
"Oh, don't mind poor Marcott...even after all this time he's never managed to quite get used to the place, and you know how the sight of an Ocryx or some other will set him off...but what's this also, you're in need of some assistance? We heard a frightful racket but it seems to have passed on...oh."
He'd finally craned his neck to look behind them, noticing X lying on the ground, gasping brokenly. "It seems as if you've had a bit of trouble," he murmured, his look changing to one of concern.
More than a bit. The other man--Marcott, Francois had called him--jumped back and quailed when the bigger Ocryx spoke. First we had to deal with the GeeBees, then with some manitous...X has been badly hurt. I was about to take him to Old Mother Manitou but I don't wish to leave these others here alone. Especially not these two, as they're new to the Island. Silver Eagle Feather trusts you two, would you mind escorting them in the direction of Sugar Loaf until I'm able to return?
"Of course not, of course not. Anything to help a friend. We'll keep a very good eye on them."
"Excuse me," Charmian cut in, holding up one hand as if trying to be called on in school. Everyone turned to look at her and she felt like blushing but fought it off. "Um...I know this is my first time here and all...but it seems like it'd take forever for us to get to Sugar Loaf, at least, from here. I mean, according to the guidebook it's completely on the other side of the Island...right?"
I never claimed the walk would be short, Tal Natha said. I can bring X to the rock, then come back and retrieve each of you.
"Yeah, but...well...you can't carry all of us at once, can you? I mean, it was going to take both you and X to bring all of us there...but now you've got the four of us, plus X...I mean, that would take a lot of trips and a lot of time."
"The girl makes a good point!" The first man--Marcott--this time. He was practically hiding behind Francois now. "What say we let the--er--the demons make their way to the rock, while we find someplace more hospitable...say, closer to town."
"Town?" Drake echoed, baffled. Francois waved it off.
"He means back to our 'own' kind. The area where the Dupries family lives." He looked up at the sky and actually sniffed, then looked back toward the woods. "Well...it is a good point...it would be an awful lot of trouble for you to put yourself to, Lord Dreamspinner."
It is no trouble for me. It's imperative that I get X there as quickly as possible though.
"I'll tell you what, you go on ahead and do just that. But don't worry yourself coming back to pick us up, we'll make it there just fine. You can stay and make sure your brother is tended to properly, eh?"
Drake's face fell. "But what about--"
Francois turned around and cupped his hands to his mouth, letting out a strange, high-pitched sound, half whine, half whistle. Both Charmian and Drake--not to mention Marcott--went white on hearing it. It sounded too much like the eerie singsong noise the manitous had been letting out before they'd attacked.
Marcott bounded up to the top of the slope and ducked behind Silver Eagle Feather. "FRANC! Do you really believe that's necessary?"
Francois pooh-poohed him. "You worry too much. We'll get there a lot faster now. I tell you, you must give yourself indigestion daily with how much you fret over everything."
"That would be your fault! I have quite enough to worry about without you contributing to it, thank you very much!"
He let out a squeak and ducked behind Silver Eagle Feather again when rustling noises started up in the woods all around them--followed by the eerie singsong of the manitous.
Drake gasped and pulled a Marcott, disappearing behind Charmian. Charmian herself tolerated it only because she'd gone too numb to move. Tal Natha's ears flattened and his eyes narrowed but he said nothing. Within seconds, small blue lights started appearing down among the trees once again, peering up at the group, the dark forms behind them suddenly motionless.
Drake started whimpering. Red Bird held onto Silver Eagle Feather's arm, gaze moving from one creature to the next.
Francois merely waved down at them, whistled, then let out another weird sound, something low and garbled. From off to the left one of the creatures responded; Francois motioned to the others with him, and the manitous emerged from the woods, coming up the slope toward them.
"AAAAAKKKKK!!" Drake shrieked, diving behind X and using the demon's wing to hide himself.
Charmian stood her ground, but only because her feet refused to move. One of the manitous--a large gray one--came directly toward her, small blue eyes focused on hers. It towered over her, then bent down so its snout was directly in her face. Charmian's eyes stared wide and panicked as the beast snuffled at her, nostrils flaring.
Two more--a brown one and a black one--approached and did the same, then moved on to the others. They repeated the procedure with everyone in the group, as if they were hounds acquainting themselves with a scent. When they approached Tal Natha he bristled and growled so they backed away with what, to Charmian, looked like respect. They finally stooped over X himself, noses poking at him--and at Drake, who whined and tried to curl in on himself--and showed an especial amount of interest in his wound. One of them started to lick it when Tal Natha stepped forward with a snarl, shooing them away.
Francois looked up at the sky again. "Well, we should make it to Sugar Loaf not that very long after you do. It looks as if he's lost a lot of blood, you may want to start off immediately."
Charmian's throat stuck. There wasn't a word of explanation as for what was going on. Tal Natha looked upwards as well, then down at X, then back at Francois before stooping to carefully pick up his brother. The wounded demon's head rolled back over Tal Natha's arm, eyes glazed and tongue lolling as if dead. He looked incredibly heavy, yet Tal Natha appeared to have no trouble picking him up.
He gave Francois a suspicious look. "I trust you for right now. If all of you don't arrive at Sugar Loaf within an hour of my arrival, I'll come to search for you. If anything happens, it's on your head."
Francois nodded. "Reasonable enough. I accept any responsibility for what may happen. I assure you you have no need to worry though." He turned back to the others, smiled and waved his hand while Tal Natha pushed off and rose slowly, wings pounding the air. "Well, we'd best follow, if I'm to keep my head. Who goes first?"
Charmian and Drake--who'd been left crouching on the ground after losing his "shelter"--stared back at him, baffled. After a moment Red Bird broke away from Silver Eagle Feather, wringing her hands, and approached a smaller cream-colored manitou which stood off to the side. She bit her lip and held out her hand, making eye contact with it. Charmian watched as the manitou appeared to size her up, then blinked back at her, snuffling her hand and then tipping its head. A moment later it was enveloped in light--Charmian gasped and shielded her eyes--and when the light began to fade it was no longer a manitou that stood there, but a large cream-colored deer with mooselike antlers and blue eyes. It bent down on one knee and Red Bird climbed up on its back.
"Huh?" Drake said. The large gray manitou that had first approached her came up close to Charmian again, blinking down at her and letting out a low grumbling sound. She stared up at it, confused beyond belief. When it saw she apparently didn't understand it, it cocked its head, murmured again, and then backed away and burst into light the way the first one had. When Charmian opened her eyes, a gray deer stood there.
It bent one knee, tipping its head at her and whistling.
"Go on," Francois said from behind her. When she looked at him he nodded at it. "Go on, he won't hurt you. These aren't the manitous from Devil's Lake. These ones live among themselves. I've come to know many of them. They have tribes just like the natives do. They'll take us to Sugar Loaf, if you'll let them."
Charmian turned to look at the remaining manitous again. A brownish-red one went to Silver Eagle Feather and let out the same noise the gray one had; when she nodded it too transformed. It knelt and she pulled herself up on its back as if it were a horse.
"Wow!" This from Drake. He immediately stood, face lighting up, and pointed at the black manitou as if it were a puppy in a pet store. "I want that one!"
Charmian grated her teeth. Nevertheless, the manitou moved toward Drake as if summoned, and it went through the same procedure the other ones had. The brown one went to Francois and a darker gray one went to Marcott, who looked ready to pass out.
Charmian looked once more at the gray manitou kneeling in front of her. Well...best not to seem rude. She'd ridden a horse but once before, and that didn't even count as it was at the fair; so she took her time climbing atop it, slipping a few times and pulling at its fur. Thankfully the creature was patient and waited until she sat awkwardly atop it; when it whistled and tipped its head back she took hold of its antlers to brace herself. The other manitous stood and gathered into a group, Francois's in the lead. He smiled at the others over his shoulder.
"Got a good hold of their horns? Good, they can move pretty quickly. You most likely won't fall off, they're very careful, but it's best to hold on just in case."
"F-fast?" Drake stammered, losing faith again. Before any of them had chance for second thoughts, though, the manitous had leapt forward, clearing the slope all the way to the bottom in one jump. The only thing Charmian could hear besides the whistling of wind in her ears was Marcott screaming, and all she could keep thinking was how much he made her think of Drake.
Oh my God. TWO of them!!
She'd thought the ride would give her plenty to think about, and plenty of time to think about it. The manitous, however, moved even more quickly than she'd thought they could. They leapt nimbly over roots and rocks, high in the air like deer, pouncing from hill to hill, skitting around trees, ducking under branches. And though she felt she had to hold on in order to avoid being swept off by the wind, not once did Charmian feel any rough jolts or jars such as she knew she'd feel on a horse. The creatures' hooves hardly seemed to meet the ground; it was as if they traveled upon air.
And after a short time Francois yelled something and she looked up to see something far above them, above the trees--it must have been Tal Natha on his way to Sugar Loaf. They'd caught up with him. He moved slightly faster than they did, so for the rest of the trip they trailed behind him, but kept him always in sight. Then--
They hit a dropoff and the manitous leapt into open air. Charmian made the mistake of looking below her and saw the treetops far, far below. This must be close to what, in the guidebook, had been called Lookout Point. Within sight of Sugar Loaf--but maddeningly steep!!
Drake and Marcott kept up a good steady chorus of screams.
Just as Charmian had opened her mouth to scream in return--whether out of fear or just to yell "SHUT UP!!" she wasn't sure--she felt the first jolt she had on the whole ride and with a gasp realized--
They were already there.
Tal Natha had landed several yards away from them, still carrying X in his arms. Sugar Loaf rose before them--a tall imposing stack of breccia roughly in the shape of a cone, a worn dirt path rising up to the side of it. It was rough and pitted all over with holes, small shrubs and saplings growing from its sides and top. Charmian nearly fell over looking up at it; the manitou she was riding whistled to get her attention, and she found out she practically had herself wrapped around its antlers.
"Oh--sorry," she got out, letting go and easing herself off. The others followed suit--except for Drake, who had to be pried off, clinging to his manitou like a bramble--and gathered in front of the rock.
The manitous started whistling at Francois and he turned to them, holding up a hand.
"Thank you, friends. I believe that's all we need of you right now." He added something in the strange singsong manitou language, at which they returned to their original form. They stayed, however, hovering around the group; one, in a soft, fluty voice, said something to Francois. He looked a bit surprised, then shrugged and nodded, and turned back to the rock.
"What did he say?" Charmian asked.
"She said that they would like to stay here for now. They're worried about the Ocryx. They want to make certain he recovers."
Charmian peered at the manitous. They stared back with those strange blue eyes. They looked exactly the same as the creatures that had attacked them from the lake; she couldn't make out one bit of difference between them. Nevertheless, they acted without any malice, and apparently were concerned about X; as the group moved toward the rock the manitous followed at a distance, stopping and resting not too far away only when Tal Natha ducked his head and disappeared into a hole in the far side of the rock.
The others followed. They had to watch their heads as the opening wasn't very large, and the roof was sharp and jagged all over. Marcott actually forgot to duck and hit his head with a thunk; Drake, watching him, started laughing, only to trip. Charmian looked ahead of herself again. She could barely stand to watch the two.
From ahead of them, seemingly far away, came an old woman's voice--"Who's there?"
"Me, Mother Manitou." Tal Natha stopped. "I need your assistance most greatly. May we come in?"
"Assistance--?" A shadow appeared, evidently saw X, and then hurriedly shooed them inside. "Yes, yes, of course, of course. Bring him in, bring him in, quickly."
They moved ahead and came into a large cavern carved out of the rock. Charmian and Drake gaped up at the ceiling with awe. The room itself was cut out in the shape of a dome, pitted just as much as the rock was on the outside. Torches and lamps lit the interior yellow, the smoke escaping through some hidden opening far above. Sand covered the floor. There were no crystals as in Tal Natha's cave, but the room was full of blankets and trinkets and pieces of leather and pouches, all scattered, folded, stacked, or hanging wherever there was space. Charmian started when she noticed a large bat hanging from a branch stuck in the wall, but all it did was look at her. She was so caught up in examining the room that it was only when Tal Natha leaned forward to set down X that she remembered to take a look at Old Mother Manitou herself.
Once again, it wasn't what she'd expected...after seeing so many other manitous and how alike they were, she found it difficult to believe that this person was one of their kind. The person who'd let them in was an old woman, just slightly stooped, face lined and worn like the rock and white hair back in a braid; the only things about her that seemed strange were the small horns she wore on her head, and the blue sheen to her eyes, which looked too young for her face. She finished waving Tal Natha her way and bent over X to examine him, gnarled fingers gently squeezing his muscles, then poking at his wound. When X sucked in a gasp of pain she looked relieved.
"Ah, well..." she said, glancing up at the seven worried faces around her. "Not an Ocryx wound. Manitou?"
Tal Natha nodded. Yes.
"What I thought...he'll live...it must hurt like anything, though." She went over to the side of the room--her walk was almost like a waddle--to retrieve a pouch from the wall, then came back, opening it. "I suspect Mitchi dealt this one...am I right?"
Yes, I believe it was he...
"He has bad medicine in him. Stupid brute. Looks as if he used some of it on poor dear X here. Whatever was X thinking anyway, to get in a scuffle with a manitou? He has more sense than that..."
Tal Natha started to explain the situation while the old woman first washed, then took some substance out of the pouch, rubbing it in the Ocryx's wound; he whined weakly as she did so, and Charmian had to back away and find a place to sit down, as the noise--and the gruesome sight--still unnerved her. She noticed that Red Bird also had moved off to the side of the room to watch from a distance, head resting on her knees; Charmian sat down beside her, letting out a shuddery sigh.
"Well," she said, "at least that's over."
"Yes..." Red Bird agreed, voice soft.
"I really thought he was going to--you know--I really thought that manitou had him for good. I mean, ow, that was awful."
"I knew he wouldn't die...it would take an Ocryx to do that...but even Ocryxes can get hurt, and maybe wounded badly enough to disable them for life..."
Charmian looked at Red Bird out of the corner of her eye. Red Bird stared ahead, eyes on Tal Natha. The demon was leaning over X and watching him anxiously while Old Mother Manitou dressed the wound, chanting under her breath. "If you don't mind me asking...why did you jump out in front of him?"
Red Bird broke her stare to look at her. Charmian nodded at Tal Natha. "When you jumped out in front of him. When the manitou was attacking. Why did you do that? He was right, you know, how could you know it would stop and turn back?"
The girl was silent for a moment, before turning away again. "I didn't know...I only hoped it would. I didn't want it to hurt him."
"To hurt Tal Natha?"
Red Bird nodded. Charmian noticed how she seemed reluctant to take her eyes off the Ocryx, as if afraid he would disappear should she do so. "He keeps trying to protect me...but he can get hurt also...he keeps seeming to forget that, and it always worries me when he does. I don't want him to get hurt, the same way he doesn't wish it to happen to me."
"I guess I understand...but still...throwing yourself in front of him like that...well, it wasn't a very good idea..."
"I know. It was foolish of me. I know I've made him very angry. Despite what he says about me having 'power' he worries about me a lot, and should I do something like that he gets angry with me...I don't know, maybe even he doesn't really believe I have any power, for how he keeps protecting me..."
"Maybe it's like he said, you just haven't realized it yet and you need to be protected until you do, like why he called me here." Charmian shrugged. "Supposedly."
Charmian fell silent for a moment, Red Bird watching, before speaking up again, keeping her voice low so as not to be heard across the room.
"Does he get angry with you, yell at you a lot?"
"What?" A startled look. "Oh--no, no, he doesn't. Why?"
"Well, when he yelled at you earlier...I don't know...I just can't believe how mad he got...he'd scare the crap out of me if he did that all the time..."
"No...he's not like that...like I said, he was just worried about me. That was a stupid thing for me to do. I should have listened to him and kept out of it; I'm sure he could have handled it on his own. I just wasn't thinking right; I was so afraid of him getting hurt, after what that thing did to X, I kept seeing it doing the same thing to him and I couldn't bear the thought of that happening..."
Her voice trailed off. Old Mother Manitou kept up her drone over X's body, waving a fern frond over his wound, the others watching closely. Charmian looked at Tal Natha. The Ocryx stood to the left of the others, slightly apart from them, as if not wishing to be part of the group; yet his concern for his brother kept him nearby. His ears were lowered and the look on his face was worried, preoccupied. He seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, even as his eyes followed all that happened.
Red Bird continued watching him, hands clasped, worry in her own eyes.
Charmian stared at her a moment, then back at Tal Natha. She clasped her own knees to her chest and spoke to Red Bird, a question which did not come out sounding like a question.
"You're in love with him, aren't you."
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