Charmian and Francois head to town...but what is this that awaits them there...?
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 6: The Watchers & The Watched"
To The City
LET ME SEE into your dreams...
Charmian frowned, her eyes shut. The voice was unfamiliar, yet she felt she should know it, somehow. It sounded as if it were far away, but she was afraid to open her eyes lest she see who it was...why should that frighten her?
You dream of the Island...interesting. It occupies even your sleeping thoughts...
Charmian turned over onto her side in an effort to shut the voice out. Go away. You're annoying me.
How did you come to be here...?
She felt it now! Something, somebody, was probing her thoughts. She gasped and tried to block them out, but they were stronger than she was, much stronger. She sensed amusement aimed at her futile efforts, and this just infuriated her. She ground her teeth but it did little good aside from expressing her frustration.
I see...the dreamcatcher brought you. Very interesting.
Charmian ground her teeth even harder. Let...GO...of me...!
My curiosity bothers you, Mainlander? She gasped again and her eyes popped open just in time to see the reddish-lit walls of a cave rising up before her, and a shadow cast upon them--but the shadow had glowing eyes. They narrowed just slightly, and she knew that the figure behind them was smiling.
Very well. I'll let you go now...
She sucked in a breath to feel whatever it had been let go of her mind, and herself slipping back into her body. The cave walls and the shadow and the glowing eyes all vanished, darkness replacing them. But that eerie, familiar-yet-unfamiliar voice still rang clearly in her head as it went...
* * * * *
Charmian bolted upright with a loud gasp, her chest heaving. She blinked to see not cave walls, not darkness, but instead the dimly lit interior of a wooden cabin before her.
That's right. Francois's place.
She let out her breath in a gust and looked around. All was as it had been left the night before; she slept in a bed that had been made upon a wooden bench, surrounded by furs and blankets. The smell of leather was thick in the air, and in the large bed across the room she could see Crooked Creek still sleeping with the covers pulled up to her nose. The pale light filtering in through the covered windows told her that it must be morning. Francois was absent.
Charmian relaxed. She wiped a hand across her brow, immediately feeling foolish about letting a mere dream get to her so much. That was all it could have been, after all...
She frowned a little bit though when she remembered how things worked on the Island. Tal Natha, the Dreamspinner, was the one who sent dreams to everyone...why would he send her something like that? For all she knew, he wasn't aware of her return yet; at least, he hadn't come looking for her. He might know of her presence through her thoughts, but she could think of no logical reason why he would send her a dream like that without any explanation.
Is he trying to tell me something? Why couldn't he have been a bit more straightforward about it...?
With a sigh she pushed off the thick covers and put her feet on the floor. She was grateful for the heavy rugs that adorned the place; even though it seemed to be early summer here, the mornings were still cool on occasion, and she couldn't stand the thought of walking around on a freezing floor this early in the day.
Still, she found she had to hiss and hop a little bit across a bare part of floor to reach the wash basin in the corner of the room. She had slept in her clothes as she'd brought no changes with her, but that didn't bother her much. It was her mussed hair that bothered her; she dipped her hands in the metal bowl sitting there and ran them through her hair with a shiver. For a brief second the anxious feeling from the dream came back to her, and she peered over her shoulder, but once more nothing was to be found except the sleeping Crooked Creek. She sighed and chided herself and went back to what she'd been doing.
I sure am jumpy today. I think I need to get out of here.
She shook her head and a few droplets of water sprayed onto the shelf. Turning toward the bench, she picked up her backpack, made certain it was clasped shut tightly enough, and headed out the door.
Francois was in the yard, loading his horse. He turned to see Charmian coming down the steps and smiled at her.
"Sleep well, ma chère?"
"Pretty well. Are you getting ready to go to town?"
"I will be done any moment. You yourself are prepared already?"
"Yeah, I only have my backpack..." Charmian slipped it over her shoulders and yawned. "I guess I'm ready as soon as you are."
Francois finished tightening a strap and gestured at the horse. "You wish to ride? Or walk?"
"I can walk, thanks. I think I probably need the exercise by now!"
He smiled again. "Very well. Let us go, then."
Charmian easily fell into step beside Francois as he and the horse made their way out of the yard and back onto the trail. She took a breath of cool morning air and sighed. It would likely get very hot before the day was through. For once she enjoyed waking up so early, even if the cause of her awakening hadn't been a pleasant one.
"Francois? What all's changed since I've been gone?" She decided that talking was more interesting than just walking. "Every time I meet somebody I find something else that's different. It's almost like I took a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong Island."
"I assure you it's the same Island, ma chère. But you are right that things have changed. I assume you have met the Shadow Wolves already."
Charmian blinked. "How did you know?"
He nodded at her bandaged arm. She'd forgotten about it. "Oh. Actually that's from Augwak...his little way of welcoming me back." She smiled wryly. "But I did run into a couple of Wolves...Shadow Water fought them off. I'm guessing they're not a very pleasant addition..."
"For the most part they leave the mainlanders alone. I must admit I'm a little surprised that they came after you, but then again..."
"Shadow Water said they've killed a few people." Charmian's anxiety returned. "Is that true?"
"From what I hear, yes. They were not always so hostile. There were those who thought they were sent by the manitous, until they began attacking."
"Sent by the manitous?" Charmian frowned to herself. That would mean they were supernatural. Are they?
She wasn't aware how long she was lost in thought, but it must have been a while, for when she next looked up the path was opening up before them. She could hear activity in the distance and her spirits lifted a little. She preferred the wilds of the Island to the town, but it had been a long time...
She hurried forward a bit, as she'd begun to lag behind Francois and his horse; as they crested a rise in the path, now road, she prepared herself for the oddity of seeing a rough little town plopped down on the shore of the Island.
That wasn't quite what she saw when they reached the top.
Charmian froze in her steps, which was good, as otherwise she probably would have tumbled down the road head over heels. Her eyes goggled at the sight of what was no longer a tiny town, but a bustling settlement, a small city even, where only four rows of quaint houses had been before. It now extended forward and back by several rows--and what had once been a bumpy dirt trail was now a wide earthen street, traversed by horse carriages, horses, and pedestrians in fancy dress, leathers, and furs.
"Holy crap," was all Charmian could say.
Francois and his horse slowed to let her take in the sight. When she had stood there a good long while, he finally reached out and pushed lightly on her back, making her stagger forward. Her footsteps fell into place and the two of them made their way down the path toward the busy town.
Charmian's eyes roved all over the crowds; her last time here, the few mainlanders who had settled along the shore had been a closed and suspicious group, and their presence would have been immediately noticed. Now, however, no one passed them a second glance, unless nodding or saying hello to Francois, who seemed to be well known. Hardly anyone even looked at Charmian. She wondered if it would have been any different had X'aaru or Khiieta been with her.
"What happened?" she asked, moving to the side to avoid a large group of men laden with furs and a smaller group of chattering women in fancy dresses.
"Not very long after you left," Francois said. "More mainlanders began to find ways to come to the Island. Many came by accident, but unlike before, many decided to stay. Some came on purpose and have remained ever since. They trap, hunt, raise families, and make a living here."
Charmian chewed on her lip as they made their way down the street. "I think I liked it better before," she murmured. The sight of all the new shops and stores and houses along the road disappointed her somewhat. She dreaded the thought of them encroaching on the woods further up the slope...
"It has changed greatly," Francois commiserated. "I remember the first time I set foot here. The Islanders had never even heard of our kind."
I think they've heard of us a little too much, by now... Charmian sighed to herself.
A small commotion off to the right drew her attention, and she glanced over her shoulder when somebody started shouting in a French accent.
"Hurry up! Stupid! You wish for me to wait all day for you? I have half a mind to whip you like a mule and THEN perhaps you'd not go so slowly!"
Charmian blinked. A man dressed similar to Francois, only shorter and stockier in build and somewhat unkempt, came stomping up the other side of the street. She was surprised to see what appeared to be a pile of packages and furs following him of its own volition. Only after another moment or two did she finally notice the mound had legs, and then she just barely spotted a face in the middle of the pile. A native followed the trapper, so burdened with goods that he was nearly invisible in the midst of them. Charmian sensed a disaster waiting to happen, and could only cringe when it did, the native tripping over a rut in the street and lurching forward, spilling the packages and furs all over in the mud. The trapper halted and turned around, peppering him with invective as the native scrabbled to retrieve the packages before they could be trampled by some oncoming horses.
"STUPID FOOL! Can you not watch where you're going?! Every day is worse than the last with you! Hurry and pick those all up before they're lost! And if any of my furs are the least bit stained, I'll take the loss out of YOUR hide!"
Charmian frowned, her eyes darkening. The native managed to retrieve all of the goods and staggered after the trapper again, somewhat more disorderly than before. Francois had already moved on up the street without her, ignoring the ruckus, so she had to hurry to catch up.
"What a jerk," she muttered as she trotted up beside him. She had no idea who either of the men was, but the unwarranted namecalling had piqued her anger.
Francois glanced at the two who had been left behind them by now, then turned back to face the front. "That is Gautier," he said. "He drinks a bit much. You would probably do best to avoid him."
"You don't have to remind me." Charmian had only just seen the man and already she felt like slapping him.
She now noticed a large low building on their left, and it was toward this that they were heading. She craned her neck to read the sign hanging atop it. FUR COMPANY. She puzzled over why it didn't have a more specific name--there had to be more than one fur company, right?--but didn't have much of a chance to think about it, as Francois was already unloading the horse, and before long they were headed inside the doors.
If she'd thought the street was busy, then this place was pure pandemonium. At least it was an organized pandemonium, she supposed, as even more trappers and traders and ladies and natives moved about, sometimes sidestepping each other, sometimes not. The smell of leather and hide was thick in the air, as was the smell of something sweet which Charmian couldn't recognize; she had to keep craning her neck again as she appeared to be the shortest person in the room. The talking was worse than anything in one of her high school classes without the teacher present, and even though the Island had a way of transcending language boundaries, she could still catch snippets of different tongues here and there, the most prevalent being French; she didn't recognize the others, though she assumed most must be native. Everyone seemed to be either haggling or arguing or...haggling some more. A group of women stood over by one of the windows, laughing and chattering, and Charmian flushed and turned away when she realized by their dress what their profession must be.
She found that Francois had moved somewhat away from her, toward a long counter at the back of the large room, so decided to keep her place until he was done. She noticed now that Gautier and the other native had entered, and tried to keep track of them, but the place was just too hectic. She kept an eye on the general area of the doors and waited impatiently. After a while she saw the native appear again, and vanish outside; but Gautier wasn't with him. She turned back to the counter and nudged her way through to Francois, who was speaking with a man on the other side. The man glanced down at Charmian and she was surprised he even took any notice of her.
"Aha!" he exclaimed, and smiled. "I see you brought a young friend. And what's your name, Miss?"
"Charmian," Charmian said. For some reason she felt like disappearing through the floor.
"Charmian? I'm guessing you are from the mainland. Anyone who comes as a guest of Francois is truly lucky!"
Charmian tugged on Francois's sleeve before he could say anything else. "I'm going to step outside for a bit," she said. "It's a little bit...busy in here right now. Do you mind?"
Francois shook his head. "Go right ahead. I'll try to be along shortly. You know your way about the town, surely?"
Charmian nodded. "Yeah...I won't go too far though. See you in a while."
With this she turned and nudged her way back toward the doors, not bothering to be half as polite as she'd been before; at least it got the job done, and the people moved out of her way a bit quicker. The garish women in the corner looked at her and laughed as she went out the doors, and she flushed bright red, letting them slam shut behind her. Once outside she took a deep breath and let it out--although stinking of mud and horse manure, it felt like fresh air compared to that inside.
Then she spotted the native man again, disappearing around the side of the building, and stood upright, watching him go. Now that he wasn't burdened down with so many packages, she could tell he must be in his late twenties or early thirties, lean in build, with long black hair on one side of his head and none on the other, some sort of stiff animal-hair ornament attached at the top. Charmian realized she wanted to speak with him, and hurried to the side of the building, only to find him gone and a dank alleyway stretching down toward the main street and lakeshore lying before her. Part of some other building just behind the Fur Company blocked her view of Lake Huron, and the direction of the sunlight cast the alley into shadow. She ground her teeth.
Out of ALL the places in the world to have a deep dark alley, this place just HAD to have one, too?
"With my luck I'll probably step in a puddle and fall into another dimension," she grumbled, and stepped into the shadows. "Hello?" she called. "Mister...funny...native guy?"
Well...I can't really call him "stupid fool," can I?
Charmian stopped just beyond the edge of the sunlight and squinted, but still couldn't see anything. She thought maybe she spotted a flicker of movement down closer to the main street, but couldn't be sure. It couldn't hurt to find out, she decided, and so trudged forward, keeping her eyes fixed on the bit of light ahead.
Before she could reach it, something suddenly clamped around her chest and dragged her to the side, something else--a hand?--clamping over her mouth so the only noise she could let out was a startled murmur. She felt her heels drag against the ground, and then somebody laughed.
"What do we have here? A little girl? And a pretty one, too! Look at that red hair!"
"Maybe you should have stayed with your caretaker, ma chère," another voice sneered, and harsh laughter rang in her ears, making them sting.
Well, she thought as she was dragged further back into the alley and away from the safety of the street, maybe it CAN hurt to find out!
"Part 8: The Mad Huron"
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