Charmian spots an odd sight making its way to the Island under cover of night...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 16: Fallen Arches"
THE YELLOW EYES narrowed in mild annoyance as the watcher saw the two shapes making their way along the slope toward the remains of the Fairy Arch. His fingers tapped impatiently against stone.
"This is growing stale." His mouth twitched in the hint of a smile. "I believe it's time to stir the pot just a little..."
He flicked his hand, and an image of the Island appeared in the air, quivering and rippling in the heat. He lifted his hand to trace a trail through the water, leading toward the east side of the Island, not far from Arch Rock. As his sharp nail cut a glowing path through the watery mass that was Lake Huron, a tiny shape appeared, falling into the path as if it were a bead of water slipping into a groove. It followed the path like a bee making its way to a flower, and he smiled.
"That should make this a little more amusing."
He lowered his hand and waved the image of the Island away; it evaporated into mist. He turned his attention back to the two on the slope and leaned his head on his hands to see what they would do next.
"So your gateway is broken, is it," he murmured to himself. "Pity...though for some reason I feel it won't deter you for too long. Still, I think I can manage to keep you busy for a little while longer...after all, how entertaining would this be if you had no more troubles to deal with?" His smile grew. "I have a few more troubles I can hand out before you're done here..."
* * * * *
Charmian and Manabozho stood in silence and stared at the crumbled remains of the Fairy Arch. From the looks of it, it had once been an impressive formation, not quite as big as Arch Rock but similarly formed--an arch seemingly protruding sideways from the bluff side itself, its bottom wide enough to sit in. The bottoms of its sides were still intact, but the great hunk of the top had collapsed around it, pieces of rock lying tumbled down the slope. Grass and weeds and underbrush tangled around it. From the looks of it it had been this way for a long time.
Charmian's shoulders slumped. "I should've known there was a catch," she mumbled.
Manabozho tilted his head, surveying the sight. "Well, if it's collapsed, then its power as a gateway is gone. It's nothing more than a rock now."
"You think I don't know that?" Charmian snapped, then her face lit up. "I know!" She took a step back, being careful to watch where she put her foot so she wouldn't go falling down the bluff. She held up one hand, palm facing the rock, and got a look of concentration. Manabozho stared at her as she said, "Rock!" and then waited.
Nothing happened, except that a soft breeze whispered through the branches above them.
Disappointment flitted across Charmian's face. "Huh? What's the deal?" She looked down at her hand. "What did I do wrong?"
Manabozho rolled his eyes. "The rock is broken," he said, as if it weren't clear.
"I KNOW that. So why won't the manitou listen to me?"
"Didn't you hear what I just said? It's broken. Meaning that the spirit of the rock has either fled or passed away. The rock is dead now. There is no spirit for you to call upon. And since all of your medicine consists of calling upon the manitous, you can't affect the rock."
"Oh." Charmian stared at her hand with a dejected look. "I never really knew that before."
Manabozho shrugged. "There's no wrong in relying upon others for your strength. The only problem is they might not always oblige." He gestured at the Fairy Arch. "Even if a manitou still lived here, who's to say it would have helped you anyway? You saw how they reacted; they don't want mainlanders sniffing about in this area."
"I'm not sniffing about, I'm trying to figure out what's going on." Charmian sighed and started to turn away. "Well, I guess this is a dead end, then. Maybe Nokomis knows some other old story I can ask about."
A cough caught her attention and she turned her head. Manabozho gave her a cross look, then, when she hesitated, coughed again, a bit more loudly.
"What?" Charmian prompted.
His mouth twitched. "Hello! Aren't you forgetting something?"
Charmian's mouth twitched in response. "Like what."
Manabozho let out a gusty sigh and flung up his arms. He responded by turning around to face the rock and holding out his own hands. Charmian stared at him as he stood still; she sucked in a breath when the pieces of rock lying scattered about started to hum and tremble.
She stepped forward to stand beside him. "How come it works for you but not for me?" she demanded.
"I'm part manitou, in case you forgot. I don't have to rely on others to do my bidding all the time, like you do!"
Charmian felt like slapping herself. "That's right! You have sandling powers!" She clambered up the slope a bit to get a better look at the Arch as the hunks of rock below began to levitate. "You can fix it!"
He rolled his eyes again as the broken pieces floated up into the air. "That doesn't mean I agree with this stupid idea of yours. Remember, our fairies probably aren't quite the same as your fairies."
"I don't care about that. Nokomis said they might know more about what's going on around here. Hurry it up already! I want to see what's on the other side."
Manabozho grumbled under his breath, but the pieces of broken rock lifted above his head and drifted toward the remains of the Arch. Charmian held onto a root and watched as they lowered and fitted themselves together against the arch walls, melding into one. It was like watching the rock falling apart in reverse, and Charmian held her breath in anticipation as the last tiny pebbles inserted themselves into the remaining cracks and holes. The entire Arch shimmered, then fell still, and Manabozho lowered his hands. He cast a challenging look at Charmian, but she merely climbed back down the slope to stare at the formation in awe.
"Wow," she breathed. "It's even prettier than Arch Rock! It really does look like a gateway!"
Manabozho took a step back. "I already told you I don't think this is the best idea..."
"Even if it isn't, we have to cover all our bases, don't we?"
"Come on, let's at least take a peek inside. Then if it's safe, we go through. Okay?"
He gave a skeptical frown but said nothing. Charmian moved toward the rock on hands and knees, putting her hands on the edge and peering through the opening. The grass and tangled roots of the other side of the slope greeted her. She tilted her head this way and that.
"It looks normal enough, from here..."
"Looks are deceiving. It's what's through it that counts."
Charmian nodded. She took a breath, hesitated, then stretched her neck forward with eyes closed. She slowly put her head through the opening, biting the inside of her mouth as a mild feeling of anxiety surged through her. She shook the feeling off. A warm breeze fanned across her face, carrying the scent of flowers, and she opened her eyes.
They immediately widened when she saw what lay upon the other side.
Charmian gasped and jerked backwards. Manabozho's hand grabbed hold of the back of her vest, dragging her away from the rock just as an arrow came at her face. It embedded itself in the rock just inches from her--then the scene shifted and she was collapsing onto her back on the slope. Manabozho jumped down to crouch near her feet, staring up the slope apprehensively. Charmian looked at the rock but there was no arrow there.
"A light," Manabozho whispered, signaling her to remain quiet. "Up the bluff." He pointed.
Charmian looked upwards. She held her breath when she saw the odd fireball from before, lazily drifting along the top edge of the bluff, back and forth. She tried to scramble to her feet.
"I've seen that thing before!"
"Come on." Manabozho grabbed her wrist and pulled her after him, in the opposite direction. "Best to get away from it as soon as possible."
"But--" Charmian lost her voice as they raced and stumbled down the slope, toward the lakeshore. "But--why are we running away from it?--it doesn't seem dangerous--"
"I already told you some things are deceiving."
"Hold your tongue and hurry up! And quit nagging at me!"
Charmian bit her lip in annoyance and pulled her hand free. She continued down the slope nonetheless, although he got ahead of her and vanished from her sight. When she reached the lakeshore, scratched and panting, she had to stop and put her hands on her knees to regain her breath and couldn't spot him anywhere. She looked back up at the bluff, but the little light was gone.
"I don't...see what the...big deal is...anyway."
She pushed herself upright and wiped a hand across her brow, then commenced dusting off her arms and legs. She picked off a twig and flicked it aside in irritation.
Who's he to tell me to keep away from that thing? At least it's proven to be SOMEWHAT useful...
She lifted her head just in time to make out a tiny speck far out on the water and frowned, her dusting motions slowing. She stared at it for a few moments before noticing it was growing bigger. She squinted and tried to see it better, but for some reason the hairs prickled on the back of her neck and she found herself backing toward the slope again.
What am I scared of? I don't even know what it is yet...
Charmian reached the treeline and pulled herself up into the bushes. When she grasped onto a root she felt the branches slowly close in around her, shielding her from sight, and let out her breath. She must be nervous if even the manitous noticed it.
The dot out on the water became clearer and now she saw it was a canoe approaching the Island. She sighed again, feeling stupid for having been so anxious about such a thing. She could tell now that it was a native paddling the canoe, most likely one of the Islanders who was better at traveling to the mainland than most others were, or maybe a new arrival. She started to get up to greet him but found herself stuck, and not because of the trees. Her knees wouldn't move.
Charmian frowned. She tried willing her legs to move but they refused. She even looked down at them to make sure she wasn't caught on something.
What's wrong with me? Why can't I move?
She tried unbending her knee yet again, without success. A wave of anxiety swept over her, but it wasn't her own. She shivered at the feeling and stopped trying.
They don't want me to move.
She glanced up to see that the canoe had just about reached the shore. The one paddling it pushed himself up and jumped out, landing with a soft splash in the water; he grabbed hold of the front of the boat and pulled it toward the Island, jogging and keeping himself low and close to the ground. Charmian watched as he trotted up into the trees, taking the canoe with him; it slipped into the bushes with a rustling noise and vanished from sight.
Why is he acting like that? It's almost like he's...hiding or something...
Charmian very slowly sat back, allowing the branches and leaves to shield her even more without even thinking about it. She waited another moment or two but the man didn't return. She suddenly felt the strength return to her legs, and almost went running after him, but made herself hesitate.
He came to the east side of the Island...don't most mainlanders come from the south...?
She lifted her head to look up in the direction of Arch Rock, although it was further along the shore, and tried to think of what felt wrong about this. After a few moments of listening she heard the trickling noises of the springs again, and then it hit her.
Quiet. It's always quiet over here...the shadowed side of the Island. The sun rises here, but...nobody is ever down on the beach...they don't like to stay too near the water. Stick-In-The-Dirt is the only one I ever saw down on the shore like that, and that was at the south end...and he's busy now...
There isn't anybody down here to notice this except me...
She shivered, rubbing her suddenly cold arms and turning to ascend the slope. She tried to keep parallel to the path the man had taken, but couldn't be certain how closely she followed his trail. She came up toward more level land and pulled herself atop it, still leaning against trees to avoid falling, then cutting sideways in the direction of Arch Rock. She stopped frequently to listen, but aside from the ever-present trickling noises, she heard little else.
Charmian came out near the giant arch, scratched and panting. Nobody awaited her here; she briefly thought of seeking out Stick-In-The-Dirt, if he was still present down in the crook of the rock, then reconsidered. He'd been busy seeking a vision for Yellow Turtle's passing over; best to leave him alone. Her feet started moving almost without her knowledge, and though she willingly followed them, it took her a while before she understood where she was going. She didn't even have to pay attention to her surroundings and thus ended up on the little trail leading to Francois's cabin without even knowing it, dragging her feet as she went. She felt exhausted now and wasn't certain why.
Charmian pulled herself up the steps when she arrived and struck her hand against the door several times, slumping against the wood and trying to keep her eyes open.
Why am I so tired all of a sudden? Am I really that out of shape...?
A moment or so passed before the great door creaked open and she almost fell inward. Crooked Creek appeared and immediately began fussing over her, grasping her arms and pulling her inside with plenty of exclamations. Charmian allowed the woman to set her down upon the bench and hurry about the cabin, pulling down pots, pans, bags, herbs, bowls, utensils, anything else within reach as if preparing for a dozen guests rather than just one. Charmian tried to suppress a yawn but couldn't, and her mouth opened up so wide her jaws hurt.
"You're all scratches and burrs!" Crooked Creek cried, stoking the languishing fire so it started crackling again. "And bruises upon bruises! You do not take care of yourself! You are already as thin as a stick! You will break in two if you don't eat right, or you might turn into a Wendigo!"
"I tripped," Charmian said lamely. Crooked Creek placed a pot over the fire and commenced dumping all sorts of odd contents into it, giving it a quick stir before poking at the fire again. She then went and gathered up some cloths, dunking them in a bowl of water and bringing them over to the bench, washing off Charmian's face and arms and legs before she could protest.
"If you fail to eat, your body will get thinner while your feet stay the same! No wonder you are always tripping! You look like a rabbit that has been skinned." She pressed a hand to Charmian's forehead, eyes round. "You're red! You were white before!"
Charmian blinked. "Sunburn," she said, and felt her cheek. "I didn't even notice it before...ow."
Crooked Creek clucked her tongue and waddled back to the bowl to refresh the cloths. "This is what happens when you don't eat right...your skin gets all pale and weak, and turns all sorts of colors...!"
"Were any of you guys expecting somebody on the Island?" Charmian asked. Crooked Creek returned and dabbed at her face again, then started drying her off.
"Yeah. I saw somebody arrive not that long ago. I know not many mainlanders come here."
"Well, yeah, but...that's different...I didn't use a canoe."
Crooked Creek's brow furrowed just a little as she started binding the worst of Charmian's cuts and scratches. "A canoe?"
Charmian bit the inside of her mouth. Crooked Creek had not been her first choice of people to tell, but it wasn't as if she could walk out on the poor woman in the middle of things. "Yeah," she said again, forcing herself to keep calm. "He just paddled up out of the east and pulled his canoe ashore and went off into the woods. I thought that--"
"East?" Crooked Creek stood upright, staring Charmian in the eye. Her own eyes were wide again and Charmian wondered what she'd said that was so surprising.
"Yeah," she echoed herself, hesitantly. "That's what I thought was weird...he came to the east side of the Island, not from the Lower Penin...um...not from the mainland."
Crooked Creek started rubbing her hands. "What did he look like?"
"Look like--? He looked...well, he looked like your people...I guess."
"Was he dressed differently?" Crooked Creek waved at her clothing. "Wearing something different, maybe?"
Charmian's brow furrowed. "I...I'm not sure." She bit her lip. "I couldn't really tell...I mean, it all looks the same to me. All I can say is he came from the east and acted like he was trying to hide or something..."
She trailed off when she noticed Crooked Creek going to each of the windows, peering outside before closing the shutters. She frowned when the woman brought the big bolt down over the door, then struggled to push the table in front of it. Charmian took a wet cloth off of her arm and stood.
"Crooked Creek, what..."
Crooked Creek waved at her. "Do you know how to use a weapon?" she asked in a loud whisper. "A bow and arrow, or a gun...?"
"A gun?" Charmian held up her hands. "Wait a minute--what's going on? Why are--"
She gawked when Crooked Creek hurried to the other side of the room and retrieved a large gun almost as long as she was tall. "I don't know how to fire that!!" she exclaimed, so Crooked Creek sat down and started loading it herself while Charmian watched.
"Monsieur Francois taught me how to use it, if I should ever need to. Why should I ever need to use a gun, I ask? Just in case, he says. Just in case of what, I ask? Just in case you need to, he says. Aren't guns for the men, I ask? Women can fire them too, he says. Why a gun, I ask, when I am much better at skinning beaver or cooking supper, and both are already dead so I do not need to shoot them...?"
Charmian fought down a groan and raked her fingers over her face in frustration. Crooked Creek stood and went to the window to peer outside through the shutters, grasping the gun at the ready. She pulled an ax off the wall and glanced at Charmian, holding it up; Charmian held out her hands and the woman tossed it. Charmian caught it, but it immediately dragged her arms down to the floor with a thunk and an "Oof--!" She stood struggling to pull it upright again while Crooked Creek looked outside.
"How--do you even--lift this thing--?" she huffed, dragging the handle upwards.
"Only one people come from the east," Crooked Creek said, as if not even listening. "They came to the mainland before, from what I've heard; they caused all sorts of trouble. They killed off many of our people down there. The crazy one, Walks-On-The-Shore, they killed off some of his people, too, and his people were their people once. They do all sorts of terrible things! And now they come to the Island!"
"Shore's people?" Charmian frowned and gave up on the ax. "He's a Huron..." Her brow furrowed in thought and then she gasped and snapped her fingers. "Iroquois! Is he an Iroquois?"
Crooked Creek gave her a tense look. "This is the name some of your people call them."
"I read about that! The Iroquois didn't get along with the natives of this region...and they turned on the Huron once, too..." She rubbed her head in confusion. "But that was in mainland history...not here. I don't get it. How do you guys know about the Iroquois?"
"We hear stories from people who have come from the mainland. They mostly live in the town. Monsieur Francois has stories also. They did terrible things to his family! They've never come to the Island before, though. I heard they tried, but never made it..."
"It takes an awful lot of work just to get here," Charmian agreed. "I still don't see how Francois does it...wait a minute, family--? What do you mean by--"
Something scuffed at the door, and Crooked Creek gasped and fired the gun. Both she and Charmian ducked to the floor when it let out an explosive noise and blew a hole in the door right above the handle. A puff of smoke filled the air and they both coughed, waving their hands.
"I thought you knew how to fire that thing!!" Charmian snapped.
Crooked Creek looked ready to burst into tears. "I do when I'm not AFRAID!!"
Charmian gritted her teeth and scrambled toward the door on all fours. As she did she heard the scuffling noise again and froze. The two of them stared at the charred wood for a moment or two but no other noises came. Charmian bit her lip and peered at the woman over her shoulder.
"Did you hear that...?"
Crooked Creek nodded, eyes wide. They grew even wider. "Eera-koy!" she exclaimed, mimicking Charmian's pronunciation of the word, and lifted the gun. Charmian hastened to grab the barrel and lower it again.
"I'll go see what it is! You stay here and...hold down the fort...or whatever!"
Crooked Creek nodded reluctantly and ducked down behind the window. Charmian reached up to grab hold of the handle and struggled to pull the heavy door open. It creaked in protest but obeyed; she slipped outside and pulled it shut behind her, surveying the empty yard. There was no sign of anyone having been present. Only now did she realize she'd left the cabin without any sort of weapon on hand.
"Crap," Charmian muttered under her breath, and jumped down from the stoop to press herself against the cabin wall. She inched herself toward the corner, where she could see another ax protruding from a nearby log. With her luck it would be as ponderous as the first, but at least it was something.
A rustling noise came from the trees and she froze again, her fingers twitching at the wood. Glowing specks began appearing all around her as a low growling filled the air. Charmian felt like pulling her hair out.
"Aw, CRAP! Seriously, DON'T YOU GUYS HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO?!"
Dark, coal-colored shapes began emerging from the woods, tongues hanging as if in amusement; "I guess you don't," Charmian answered herself, and crept closer to the ax. "I'm really warning you this time. You pick on someone long enough, and eventually they snap. On the mainland we call it 'going postal.' That doesn't make any sense here, but I'm so about to go postal on you guys! Don't push me!"
That's an empty threat, a voice in her head suddenly said, and the hair on Charmian's neck stood on end. Before she could begin to think of where it had come from, one of the Wolves came running at her. She grabbed the ax handle and yanked on it as hard as she could. It flew loose, and rather than grasp hold of it she guided its flight so it spun through the air straight at the Wolf's head. The Wolf ducked, and the ax head sliced through a sapling instead, toppling it to the ground. Charmian gawked. She'd never seen a wild animal behave like that before.
She rolled to the side just as its paws met the ground where she'd been crouching. A blast ripped through the air and blew open a patch of grass right between the Wolf and herself, causing both of them to jump back. Charmian glared up at the shattered window and shook her fists wildly.
"WATCH WHERE YOU'RE POINTING THAT THING!!"
"I'm sorry!" Crooked Creek's voice shouted back. The barrel pulled back inside, but Charmian decided not to rely on her to reload in record time. Her eyes focused on the Wolf, which shook burnt gunpowder from its nose with an irritated snort and glowered at her balefully, teeth bared.
A memory lit up in Charmian's head, triggered--literally--by the acrid smell of the smoke. She remembered the burnt carcass of the Wolf in the woods, after the strange fireball had attacked it. Sure, she'd tried her elemental powers against the Wolves already, but how hard had she focused on just one...?
"Fire," Charmian muttered, drawing the Wolf's attention. "That's it." She stood up and clenched her fist. "If you want a piece of me so badly, then come and get it, Fido!"
The Wolf got to its own feet, muzzle wrinkling in what seemed to be more of a feral grin than a growl. It let out a rasping snarl and came running at her once again. Charmian's fingertips began to glow as she called upon every bit of fire medicine she could sense--and when the beast launched itself in the air, she flung out her hand, fingers extended.
"I HOPE YOU GET HEARTBURN!"
The Wolf's jaws yawned open. Charmian dug her feet into the ground and with a yell--"FIRE!"--let loose a gigantic fireball directly in its face.
"Part 18: All Bark & No Bite"
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