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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/773160-Part-22--The-Grand-Tour
Rated: 13+ · Serial · Fantasy · #773160
Charmian takes Thomas on a tour of the Island, with rather startling results...
Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island
Previous chapter: "Part 21: Pep Talks



PART TWENTY-TWO:
The Grand Tour


CHARMIAN'S EYES WENT wide when White Deer barely bothered to suppress a snicker. The trail ahead of them was no longer empty; a horse was coming down it, its owner leading it by the reins and walking alongside. Thomas spotted them and raised his hand, smiling and waving.

White Deer made a funny giggling sound. Charmian felt her ears burning; she stepped lightly on the woman's foot, nearly making her drop her basket. "Cut it out!"

"Like you haven't even noticed him yet," White Deer sniggered. "A long knife, a boy and about your age? Little Dove told me about how you mooned over Monsieur Justin the last time you were here, but he was too old for you--"

Charmian whirled on her, mouth hanging open. "SHE TOLD YOU THAT?!"

"Only because Justin must have told her first--"

"Oh my GOD!!" Charmian dropped to the ground, putting her arms over her head as White Deer started laughing. "Make it go away make it go away make it go away!!"

The sound of Cloud's hooves clopping against the earth came up close and she felt a shadow fall across her, then heard Thomas's puzzled voice--"Charmian? Are you all right?"

"She will be," White Deer said. "She just needs to--AAH!"

Charmian pinched White Deer's foot as hard as she could. White Deer did drop her basket now, hopping a little bit away from her and rubbing at her ankle. She gave Charmian the dirtiest look possible; Charmian finally lifted her head, grimacing and brushing dust off herself. She turned her head to see the newcomers; Cloud flared his nostrils, while Thomas furrowed his brow.

"Are you sure you're all right?" he echoed himself.

Charmian forced a smile which must have looked completely fake, based on their reactions--even Cloud snorted and tossed his head. "Yeah...I'm fine. Just...tripped on a root or something."

"You were standing still when I saw you..."

"Delayed response," Charmian said. "Um...I was so tired I forgot to fall."

Thomas blinked, staring at her as if she were insane. Then he started laughing--but it took Charmian a moment to realize he wasn't laughing at her, but rather at what she'd said. She let out her breath and untensed, feeling a little stupid, but at least not as humiliated as she could be. White Deer saw the change in her stance and started to grin again before Charmian shot her an evil look to shut her up.

"You're actually quite funny," Thomas said, after managing to get his laughter under control. Charmian blushed and rubbed at the back of her neck.

"Thanks...I think."

"I didn't mean any offense," Thomas replied, wiping his eyes and smiling at her. "Actually I came looking for you to see if you were in any mood to keep your promise today."

"Promise?" Charmian's mind went blank. She cursed it, as of course she had been just about ready to start searching it before it blanked out.

Thomas's mouth twitched. "Don't tell me you forgot. A tour, remember? You promised to show me around the Island whenever you had the chance. Well...? Is now a good time?"

Charmian opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Inside her head a panicked voice squeaked, I DID forget!! How could I forget that? I don't even know where he wants to go! I'm not a tour guide! STUPID STUPID STUPID--!!

She felt something grasp her wrist and before she knew it White Deer was leading her forward.

"Now is a good time," she said. "She's not busy doing anything right now...are you?"

She halted and put Charmian's hand in Thomas's. Charmian's ears felt like they would burn off, they grew so hot. Thomas merely smiled again and put her hand on Cloud's reins instead and the horse snorted, snapping her out of her haze. She managed to get in one last glare at White Deer, infuriated by the smug look the woman gave her, before Thomas stepped aside and gestured at the horse's back.

"Would you like to ride?"

"Huh--? Oh! No thank you!" Charmian hastily pressed the reins back into his hand. "I'm--I'm not too good with horses. I'm better with manitous, actually." The look on Thomas's face started to grow odd and she hastened to add, "But I think I'm best on my own feet."

"You're certain you won't go tripping again?" Thomas said in a voice which told her he'd seen straight through her lie. She cringed inwardly, but felt a bit of relief that at least he didn't call her on it. She let out a too-high laugh which made him flinch and waved at the air dismissively.

"Don't worry, I'm awake now. REALLY awake." She made a rude gesture behind her back at White Deer, not knowing or caring if she knew what it meant or not.

Thomas beamed. "Great! Then we can start off right now." He pulled Cloud to the side and gestured at the path he'd just come up. Charmian looked at it, then back at him.

"Right now?" she echoed.

He nodded. "Since you're not busy." He tilted his head. "You don't want to go right now...?"

"No! I mean--yeah! Um--now's fine!" Charmian grinned and knew she must look like a total maniac. She started off down the trail at a brisk pace, waving at him over her shoulder. "Come on! We can go back this way--and...um...we should come out on the east shore! Easy as that!"

And she promptly tripped and fell on her face.

White Deer gasped, then started crowing with laughter. Thomas's eyes widened. He let go of the horse's reins and jogged to Charmian's side just as she started pushing herself up onto hands and knees. She spat out a crumpled leaf and rubbed the earth from her face, feeling a stinging both in her knees and in her eyes.

Great, all I need to do now is get caught walking around naked in public, and then my humiliation will be complete.

"Charmian?" Thomas leaned down and took her arm, helping her to her feet. She continued dusting herself off just so she wouldn't have to look at him, but he took hold of her chin and tilted her head up. His brow furrowed.

"What?" Charmian asked as her vision blurred. "Do I have something caught between my teeth, too?"

"What? No." Thomas shook his head. "I was just seeing if you were all right. That looked as if it hurt."

Charmian chewed on the inside of her mouth, fighting back the tears, before realizing he wasn't joking. He really did sound concerned. Somehow that just made her feel even worse. She dropped her head and kept dusting at her clothes. "I'm fine...I've had worse." She turned in a small half circle to face the trail again. "This way leads to a path leading to the east shore...we can go that way." She started walking again, surreptitiously wiping at her eyes with dirty fingers and leaving smudges of dust across her face. It was a moment before she heard Thomas and Cloud start to follow; he gave her a moment or two to gather herself together before catching up, and she secretly thanked him for that.

"So," she said as they walked, trying to think of anything to break the awkward silence. "You've lived here all your life and you really haven't seen all the Island?"

"There's so much of it, and some parts that the people just don't wish to go to, that I can't help but feel I've missed an awful lot," Thomas said.

"What have you seen?"

He fell into pace beside her and shrugged. "Probably the obvious parts. Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf, Skull Cave. And I've walked past the Devil's Kitchen but didn't bother to spend too much time there."

Charmian felt her mouth twitch. "That's probably a good idea...there's this loudmouth named Augwak who lives there and based on how he acts toward me, I'd hate to think how he'd act toward you."

"Why don't you tell him off, then?"

"Oh, I do. A lot. But it's better to just leave him alone or he might...eat off my arm. Or something." When Thomas again gave her an odd look she added, "He's a GeeBee. Um....they're these, things..."

"A GeeBee?" His look changed to one of disbelief. "You mean you've spoken with them? Actually talked with them?"

"Talked, well, yeah, if you can call tossing around insults talking...they aren't great for conversation, obviously."

"Aren't you afraid of being hurt?"

Charmian shrugged this time, feeling slightly pleased that he seemed so awed by her indifference. "Not really. I mean, at first I was, but once you learn how to handle them, they're just these big bags of wind..."

Thomas started laughing. Charmian's ears grew warm, but she didn't feel embarrassed. I made him LAUGH! she thought feverishly. He's actually LAUGHING! And not AT me!

She touched a finger to her teeth just to make sure there was nothing caught between them.

"So you've seen Sugar Loaf and Arch Rock and everything," she said. "But is that it? You just saw them?"

His laughter died down and he gave her a puzzled look. "Yes, that's all...what do you mean? There's more one can do?"

Charmian nodded. "Uh-huh. Wow. You're really missing a lot." She waved and picked up her pace. "Come on. We'll skip the shore for now...I want to show you Arch Rock."

"I've seen it before."

"Not all of it. C'mon, I'll show you what I mean, if I can."

He still seemed perplexed, but followed. They turned onto another trail leading slightly more inland than before and the trees grew thicker as they headed up a slope. Although the trail was rough the going was rather quick, as they both knew the way; so it was not too long before they emerged in the small grassy clearing that faced the great hollow in the side of the bluff, the stone arch spanning over it. Thomas slowed his step to look it over as Charmian stepped up to the side of the drop, peering downward. Cloud snorted and lowered his head to graze when Thomas joined her.

"Well..." He gestured at the rock. "What do you have to show me that I haven't seen before?"

"I'm not sure if you'll be able to see them, so I'll try calling them out first..." She ignored his furrowed brow, scanning the underside of the rock and the bluff below. She fell silent for a few moments until all that could be heard was the song of birds and the wind blowing in the trees. Thomas knelt down beside her and they both looked under the rock.

A great while passed. Thomas fidgeted and murmured, "What..."

"There!" Charmian pointed. "Right over...there. Hanging from the underside of the rock...do you see it?"

Thomas frowned and squinted. "What am I looking for?"

"It's really faint right now, but maybe it'll get stronger in a minute. They're here all the time, but they're a little shy of people."

"What..."

"Right there. On that sticking-out part. See it...?"

Thomas looked ready to tell her she was crazy, when he blinked and looked again. Charmian smiled when his mouth slowly fell open. A faint, glowing white shape faded into view on the underside of the rock, at first vague and amorphous, but then gradually gaining form. Charmian and Thomas watched in silence as a halfling spirit emerged, clinging upside-down to the rock like a bat, its arms and legs long and bony and its head large and smooth like that of a GeeBee, but with fur lining its pointed ears and faint wings shimmering from its back. It hung and gazed at them with large blank eyes, its head tilted as if slightly curious to see them.

It was a moment before Thomas could even speak. "...What is that thing?" he whispered.

"A lost soul," Charmian said. "But I like to call them halfling spirits...they're what happens when spirits get lost on the journey over Arch Rock, into the Spirit Land. He looks like he's part GeeBee, maybe part manitou...and whatever Chepi is..." She pointed. "See over there? They're all over if you look for them, but this is where they like to hang out. Probably because it's the last place they knew before they died, who knows."

Thomas stared. Another pale form faded into view hanging from the other side of the arch, and then another sitting atop it, each of them slightly different. He sucked in a breath when white shapes began appearing all over and around the rock, and gasped when one slowly emerged just above him, hanging upside-down from some invisible perch. Charmian smiled and put her hand on his arm before he could jerk away.

"Don't worry, they're harmless. They just hang around. That's all."

Thomas just stared at the halfling hovering over his head. After a moment he tentatively reached up one hand and tried to touch it. His fingers passed right through, but he shivered and pulled his hand back.

"It's like...touching fog, or something. Are they ghosts?"

"Sort of. They're the ones who didn't make it across, but they don't seem too unhappy, so you don't have to be afraid of them."

Thomas let out his breath. "You must be used to them, if seeing ghosts pop up all around you doesn't faze you in the least." He gave her a strange look. "If this is what hangs out here, then what about the other places? Sugar Loaf--? Skull Cave--? Don't tell me the whole Island is filled with these things?"

Charmian smiled again. "I can't say if it isn't...but no, actually it's something else I want to show you at Sugar Loaf. If she'll let me."

"She...?" Thomas stood up, putting a hand to his head. "Never mind, you lead the way. I'll just let you show me for yourself."

Charmian gestured at him and started back up the trail. "You might want to ride your horse after all...because this might take a while."

* * * * *


Procuring permission to enter Sugar Loaf Rock was a little more difficult than convincing the halfling spirits to show themselves, though Charmian managed it. Luckily for her X'aaru and Khiieta happened to be there, and they wheedled Old Mother Manitou, the keeper of the rock, into opening the door of the formation and letting them in. Thomas could do nothing but stare at the walls and ceiling in amazement. Numerous roots and sticks held up bags and pouches of unknown substances, a fire burned in a hollowed-out space off to the side, and other spaces led to other rooms within the vast structure of stone. Charmian chatted amiably with the old woman while Thomas wandered around the different rooms, the two Ocryxes sniffing along after him. Old Mother Manitou kept casting him suspicious looks as he examined the insides of the rock.

"So you're dragging in more of your kind now, eh?" she muttered when he disappeared into a back room. "Seems kind of nosy. And didn't even know that I live here! What sort of buffoons are you making friends with, girl, that don't even know who lives in what rock or cave around here?"

"His name's Thomas," Charmian said. "And he's not stupid, really. He just hasn't looked around a lot yet. That's why I'm showing him the place...sorry if I came at a bad time or anything."

"Eh..." The old woman waved a hand at the air. "Just be careful if you take him out to the Crack. Spirits know what he'll go poking into down there!"

For some reason this thought gave Charmian pause. She thought of the vast Gemfields which lay hidden beneath Crack-in-the-Island, and for the first time wondered if she should hold anything back on her tour.

Thomas finished making his circuit of the rock and came back into the room with wide eyes. "I can't believe this place!" he exclaimed. "It's so vast. And so comfortable looking, too! One wouldn't expect it from looking at a rock, but it looks to be a very decent home. And it's remarkably well hidden, also." He turned to Old Mother Manitou. "You must be exquisitely clever to have pulled off such a disguise for so long, Old Mother Manitou. I don't know how you do it, but it's amazing."

Charmian's jaw dropped when Old Mother Manitou actually blushed. "Oh, it's nothing," she said, waving again. "Hardly anything. Just some old medicine I use...keeps the important stuff hidden from annoying townsfolk..."

"I'm sorry if we bothered you today, but I greatly appreciate seeing the inside of your home. You've been most generous."

Old Mother Manitou put her hands to her face and GIGGLED. Charmian felt like passing out from shock. "Oh, you charming boy! It wasn't a bother at all! Come again any time you like. I'll even show you where I grow my herbs if you wish!"

"We have to get going now," Charmian cut in, grasping Thomas's arm and forcing a smile before things could get any weirder. "Thanks for letting us stop in, Old Mother Manitou. Thomas, you go out and get Cloud ready; I'll be right along."

Thomas nodded and turned, but not before bowing toward the old woman. She giggled again and Charmian wanted to gag. She said goodbye to the two demons, only to feel Old Mother Manitou tug on her arm just as she turned away. The manitou leaned toward her and muttered under her breath, one hand cupped to her mouth.

"Best keep that one, girl. At least he doesn't go around calling me 'OMM' like that OTHER boyfriend of yours!"

"BOYFRIEND?" Charmian yelled, so loudly it echoed off the ceiling. X'aaru's and Khiieta's ears flicked back; Charmian's face grew so hot she was almost certain a coal had jumped out of the fire and landed on her head. It twisted up and she clenched her fists before spitting in a venomous whisper, "Drake is not my boyfriend! AND NEITHER IS THOMAS!!" She whirled away before hearing the woman's response, and stormed out of the rock before she could feel the urge to start tearing the walls apart, no matter what they were made of.

Thomas stood outside beside Cloud. "What was that all about?" he inquired; she had no idea how much he'd heard, but didn't ask him lest she find out too much. She gritted her teeth and waved at him to follow her when she took another trail.

"Nothing important. Really. Let's keep going! Before we lose the daylight!"

"Um...Charmian..." Thomas sounded reluctant to correct her. "It's only morning."

She hardly heard him, though, as she was walking so fast that the wind whistled past her ears. If she didn't work off the rage right now she felt like she would explode.

The NERVE of some people...!

Thomas hurried to catch up with her, and she hated the nervous way in which he eyed her. She sighed; he seemed to understand the sound, and merely said, "So, where do we go to next on our tour?"

"Inland toward Fort Holmes and Skull Cave is probably best from here," she said. "You already met Dakh and Sikt Natha there, from what I can remember..."

Thomas nodded. "You said that they were friendly...so I suppose I believe you."

"They're only around to keep an eye on things. Red Bird lives up there too. I should introduce you to her; she's nice. I don't know if Tal Natha will be there, but after that we can make our way over to the west side, and then head south and make our way back around here...in a circle, kind of. What I can't show you..."

"Can't?" He tilted his head curiously.

"Well..." Charmian paused. "There's just a few places it'd probably be better not to bother with. Like Devil's Lake...and I'm pretty sure you already know Devil's Kitchen. There's this funky rock I just discovered not that long ago, though--you weren't too far from it--and Crack-in-the-Island, and Cave of the Woods..."

"I already know these; so you're saying they have special things behind them, too?"

Charmian nodded and her mouth twitched. "How many times are you going to ask me that? Even after seeing those halflings you don't believe me?"

"Rather I think I'm hesitant to believe, if that's the least of it," Thomas said; she had to look at him to tell he was only joking, and he started laughing. "Well, it seems that whenever you're around, wolves and demons and things start attacking...you fault me for being anxious?"

"Funny, I was about to say the same thing about you," Charmian returned, which made him laugh even harder. She blushed again, but at least most of the irritation she'd felt at Sugar Loaf was gone. She waved at him. "Come on, this way's best. You might even see a manitou or something along the way."

"I can hardly wait to see what those look like," Thomas said, following her into the woods.

"Well, kind of like really big deer..."

"I should have known you'd know that already...you're certain you're not an Islander...?"

* * * * *


One yellow eye twitched in amusement and the watcher tilted his head, resting it upon one hand. He gave a faint smile.

"I think it's about time you went up there again and stirred her up just a little," he said. Something bone white caught a glint of firelight behind him and he waved his hand. "Only this time, aim a little closer...and use more weapons." With another wave, a set of knives, a bow and arrows, and spears appeared. "You don't even have to carry them all, and they'll replenish themselves. Just to keep her on her feet." His smile grew when a hand reached out to grasp the weapons and then retreated, and he continued staring at the flickering image of the two walking across the Island.

"Prepare yourself, Mainlander; here comes your next little test."

* * * * *


Walking across and around the Island took longer than Charmian had anticipated, but it didn't matter. This was only because of all the things she had to show Thomas which he hadn't even known existed before. She was a little saddened at first that he and the other townspeople apparently couldn't see half of the things living around them...then wondered if she shouldn't be relieved that they couldn't, based on how they would react. Perhaps ignorance was sometimes a good thing, at least as far as the Island was concerned.

Still, either Thomas was unusually perceptive and just hadn't noticed it before, or the Island liked him--Charmian preferred to think it was the latter--with how easily he started seeing things once she pointed them out. Once, when she paused in midstep and pointed at a tree, he had stood there, dumbfounded, before she called on the manitou standing just behind it to step out into the open. Whether it was Thomas simply not having been able to see it before, or the manitou making itself more visible, she didn't know; but as soon as it crept out from behind the tree he had stared at it with wide eyes and his jaw hanging. A moment later the little clearing was full of the creatures, peering at the two humans with their large dark eyes, whistling at each other and bobbing their heads. She'd had to explain to him that they were talking, and that sometimes they sang as well. When he asked to hear that she had to shake her head quickly.

"No, I don't think that would be a good idea...trust me," she said in response to his questioning look, "you can live without hearing it."

The rest of the time they walked along the trail, every so often a manitou would step out ahead of them and go walking past, or would peer out of the undergrowth at them, or emerge from the body of a tree or rock. Charmian simply ignored them when they paid her no attention, and greeted them when they whistled or looked at her; all Thomas could do was jump back in surprise every time one appeared, and stare at them as they walked past. She wondered how long it would take him to get used to the fact that the Island was teeming with much more than he'd ever thought possible.

They took the long wide road to Cave of the Woods and Crack-in-the-Island, but at these two locations Charmian found her words running dry. Thomas asked questions and she had to make up or deny knowledge of any answers...though she crawled back into the cave, she found its floor met its ceiling in the back, leaving barely any space to even lie flat, and told him it was nothing more than a cave. And even though they both walked down into Crack-in-the-Island and examined the huge fissure, she told him that was all it was, a giant crack, sharing a quaint legend about the place which she had read in a Mackinac Island guidebook back home, but not hinting at what else the crevice concealed.

She didn't bother telling him of the one who had once called Cave of the Woods his home so long ago, nor of what lay beyond a hidden entrance deep down in the Crack...the first person was by now long gone, and the location deep beneath the earth, she sometimes wondered if it had even existed at all.

She hated keeping things from him, but felt it was for the best, considering.

Chimney Rock was a different story, simply because it was so new to her too. She pointed out the Crooked Tree and told her story of having met old Nokomis there earlier; Thomas laughed when she described Manabozho, though she had to wonder what had become of him since she'd last seen him on the east bluff. She then took him walking through the woods and tall grass just to show him how well hidden the tree was; even after a half hour poking around they couldn't find it, and had to turn back. They wandered inland in the direction of Devil's Lake, coming close enough to hear the absence of birdsong in the trees around them, but Charmian stopped before they could go further, telling him about the demon who lived in the lake--the grandfather of the two demons he had met at Fort Holmes before--and the one who kept the Island itself alive with his very life. Despite her warnings Thomas insisted on at least going close enough to see the black water rippling through the trees, then obeyed her requests to turn back, the two of them heading southward through the woods again. They passed into a dense stand of trees which blocked out most of the lowering sunlight, and Charmian rubbed at her eyes with a yawn.

Thomas smiled faintly. "You're that tired already? After only a day? I should have thought you had more in you than that, with all you told about everything...you must know this place like the back of your hand, from the sound of it."

"Actually I'm surprised there's still a few places I've never even seen yet," Charmian admitted. She glanced upward. "Like this part of the woods." He laughed. "Really though, I think it's just lack of sleep...I haven't been sleeping very well lately."

"Well, don't feel bad, because I'm feeling a little groggy myself. You know, now that you've given me the grand tour, perhaps you would feel more comfortable about stopping by my place?"

Charmian blinked. "You're inviting me over?" she asked, then went red at how abruptly the question had come out. Thomas laughed again; she found that she liked the sound, while at the same time she wanted to seep through the ground and vanish.

"Only because you haven't been there yet," he said. "You know the rest of the Island so well, I assumed you should at least stop by for a visit and see it for yourself."

"Oh."

"You sound disappointed--?"

"OH! No! I'm fine!" This time she laughed, though it sounded incredibly hysterical in her ears; if her teeth hadn't already been clenched she would have cringed. "Sorry," she said, waving at her head. "I'm kind of stupid today--"

"Not much sleep, I got it." His smile indulged her. "So is there anything else you haven't told me about this place yet? I won't go home to find any manitous lurking under my bed, will I?"

"Well, I don't think so, unless for some reason one of them decided to take up res..." Charmian trailed off and slowed to a stop, staring off into space. Thomas noticed her state and stopped as well, Cloud snorting behind him. He stared at her for a moment, then furrowed his brow.

"What is it?"

Charmian only continued staring for a moment or two before speaking.

"Somebody's watching us."

Thomas glanced around the woods, then back at her. "How can you tell?"

"I don't know...I just...feel something." Charmian's brow furrowed as well. But how is that? I can sense things sometimes, sure, but I'm not psychic. "It's almost like...they want me to sense them," she said tentatively, and turned in circles, scanning the woods.

Thomas did the same, albeit more slowly. Cloud snorted and pawed the ground, then tossed his head. They both looked at the horse, then into the woods.

"Cloud can sense it too," Thomas said with a pensive look. "But where is it coming from?"

"I don't know..." Charmian rubbed her arms, suddenly feeling cold. "I really don't like the feel of this. If they want me to sense them, it can't be good."

"Perhaps they're just following." Thomas grasped Cloud's reins and started slowly walking, gesturing Charmian to follow while keeping his eyes on the woods.

"You mean you think if we keep going, they'll lose interest?" Charmian didn't really believe it, but supposed it was better than nothing. She started walking beside Cloud, for the first time appreciating the large creature's presence. She reached out to pat his shoulder. "I think I'm starting to get really tired of all these alterca--"

From the corner of her eye, she saw Thomas start, and Cloud reared his head. "Look out!" Thomas yelled, and everything that followed was a mere blur of images. Something whizzed past her outstretched arm; she felt a stinging; then Thomas pushed her, so they both landed on the ground, hard. Charmian shook her head, dazed, only to see something else fly overhead--with a thud it landed several yards away, but from her position she couldn't see it. Thomas apparently could, for he pushed himself up with a tense look. Charmian rolled out from under his arm and lifted her head to follow his stare and her heart thumped in her throat.

That skull-mask guy again!

Charmian and Thomas only stared at him. He had landed on all fours, in a crouch and facing away from them, but now he turned around and picked himself up. He wielded a spear, and a bow and arrows, one of which had landed, quivering, in the ground just inches away from where Charmian had fallen. The three of them stared at each other in dreadful silence for several moments.

"I really wish I knew what this guy wants," Charmian said between gritted teeth.

Skull-Mask drew his spear and leveled it at them. "I believe I know what he wants!" Thomas said, grasping Charmian's arm and pulling her to her feet. Cloud reared but he grabbed the horse's reins before he could bolt, pushing Charmian toward him. She glanced back in confusion.

"What are--"

"Just get on him and go!"

"You think I'm leaving you behind with that guy? You've got another thing coming!"

"Look, I'll catch up--I--" Thomas had to cut himself off, as the man in the mask came dashing at them, spear raised. Charmian's eyes widened when she noticed how he ignored Thomas, coming straight at HER. They both gawked at him--then Cloud bumped into Charmian, sending her sprawling. The horse managed to move to the side just as the spear hit the ground where he and Charmian would have been standing a second before. Skull-Mask skidded to a halt, seeming just as surprised by the motion; Cloud turned around and tossed his head with a sharp whinny, lifting his front hooves off the ground and bringing them down several times in a menacing gesture. Thomas grabbed Charmian's hand again and pushed her up atop the horse's back.

"You yourself said you don't feel like fighting anything today, right?" he exclaimed.

"That doesn't mean I like the idea of YOU fighting them any better!" she snapped in response.

Something whizzed past his ear and thunked into a tree; they both turned their heads to see the handle of a knife protruding from the wood. Knife? Charmian turned and saw that now their assailant was hurling BLADES at them!

"What the hell is he, an arsenal?" she cried, just as Thomas pulled himself up behind her and grabbed Cloud's reins. The horse started off at a dead gallop down the nearest trail.

Charmian cast a quick glance back at their attacker. He still stood in the clearing with his spear in his hand; he lifted his arm to hurl it, and she ducked to the side--just as he adjusted his aim to match her, and threw it. She had only enough time to gasp in surprise--fortunately Cloud veered course at that moment, so the spear whistled off into the woods, and then they were surrounded on all sides by trees and darkness, and all she could hear was hoofbeats and their own breathing.

And her heart still thudding in her chest. She held onto Cloud's mane in one hand, pressing the other to her chest.

How did he know...how did he know I was going to duck that way...?

Cloud galloped for what seemed like a long time, though she knew it couldn't have been too far. As he began to slow she looked up at the sky and noticed how dark it had grown; the sun had obviously already set a while ago, and only a few stray beams of late light managed to filter through the highest branches. Thomas pulled slightly on the reins and Cloud slowed even more until he came to a gradual stop, breath snorting from his nostrils. The two of them sat atop him and listened, but the only other sound to be heard now was distant crickets and the occasional frog.

"Do you suppose we left him behind?" Thomas asked softly.

"No telling," Charmian said. She held onto the pommel as she let herself down from Cloud's back, Thomas following. She looked around the forest, and cast out her mental net, but nothing came back. True, he could be hiding his presence again...but if he had wanted her to know he was there...then why would he hide?

Why would he want me to know he's coming? Doesn't that defeat the purpose...?

"You're bleeding!" She turned her head, sensing the surprise in Thomas's voice. He strode quickly toward her and took her left arm, lifting it up to peer at it more closely in the dimness. Only now did she notice the long cut running straight down the inside of it, almost from elbow to wrist, blood trickling from the wound. Now that she knew it was there, it started throbbing, and she placed her hand over it in a feeble attempt to stop the bleeding.

"He must've nicked it with the spear," she murmured.

"That's considerably more than a 'nick,'" Thomas said. He took her by the hand and led her off the path, toward an uprooted tree stump that lay several yards away. "Come over here and I'll see to it...and we can take a rest as well. I don't quite think you had fighting scheduled on your tour."

"It just seems to follow me wherever I go," Charmian admitted, sitting down in the little hollow created by the roots. She drew her legs under her as Thomas pulled off his jacket and took a knife from his pocket, cutting into the material. He handed Charmian a piece of the lining to wipe her arm and hands clean, soaking up the blood, then cut out a longer piece, taking the blood-soaked one from her and wrapping the fresh one around her wound. Charmian shook a little bit, though she wasn't sure why; it wasn't as if she'd never seen blood before, especially not here, but for some reason the amount of it this time got to her. She hadn't even noticed the wound until now; how could she be bleeding so badly, without knowing?

Thomas finished tying the cloth and took the soiled one with him, standing up and digging in Cloud's saddlebag. "You'd think that with all the stuff I carry around I would carry a first-aid kit, don't you?" he said over his shoulder, pulling out a bowl.

Charmian managed a smile. "Don't worry, I brought along a ton of stuff too and even I forgot the first-aid kit."

"I think I hear a stream nearby. You stay here and I'll bring back some water to wash that off properly." He stopped to pick up his jacket and draped it over her. Charmian hadn't noticed she was shivering, either, until now, and blushed a little bit at the gesture. Thomas stepped off further into the woods and she sighed, huddling under the roots and holding the bandage to her arm.

Well, I think the tour went pretty okay. Aside from the ending there. But it's not like that's anything new.

She sighed again and looked at the ground, seeing the patterns made by the dead leaves scattered over the earth. She felt surprised to realize she had actually enjoyed herself that day. What had seemed like it would be a chore had turned out to be not so bad, after all. She further realized that Thomas was the only one, besides her grandmother, to have ever listened to her tell so much about the Island. She felt a pang thinking of her grandmother again, but it had felt good simply talking about the place to someone who was honestly interested in listening.

That's why I enjoyed it so much. How often do people ever really listen anymore?

She picked at the edge of the wrapping and looked upwards at the pattern of the tree branches against the sky instead. If she listened carefully enough she could hear the stream trickling in the distance as well, only one of many that were fed by the numerous underground springs dotting the Island. This place was likely surrounded by manitous, but rather than frighten her the thought comforted her. It was better to not feel so alone.

Speaking of alone...what's taking him so long?

Charmian craned her neck to peer in the direction Thomas had wandered off in. The stream still made its noises, but that was all she could hear. She strained her ears and couldn't even hear a twig snap. Any other time that would have been just fine, but now...surely it couldn't be taking that long just to get a bowl of water.

Unless something's tying him up...figuratively or literally...

This thought sent all sorts of unpleasant images through her mind. Charmian grasped onto a root and pulled herself to her feet. If some sort of weird creature was busy stringing Thomas up, or knocking him out, or eating him, or...whatever...then she'd never live it down if she just sat like a lump and let it happen. Cradling her arm in front of her, she tromped off after him, letting the sound of the water guide her and hoping he hadn't walked off too far.

"Thomas?" she called softly, not wishing to arouse the curiosity of anything else that might be in the area. She told herself to expect Shadow Wolves at any moment, as it had been a while since she'd seen one--it was just like them to jump in at the stupidest moment.

"Thomas...?" she called again as the stream finally came into view. It was a mere glint of light in the darkness, and she frowned to find Thomas not there. Anxiety began to seep up into her chest before she noticed a figure standing a bit upstream--or downstream, she couldn't be sure--off to her right. She could tell it was Thomas, as he still held the bowl up in front of him. Relief replaced the anxiety, and she jogged toward him, waving her good arm. "Thomas! I was getting worried..."

Thomas's head jerked up and he blinked at her in surprise. Charmian came to a halt and her voice died in her throat when she saw the look on his face. He'd been holding the bowl as if drinking some water from it, which she'd assumed he was doing...when she now noticed that he still held the strip of cloth she'd used to clean up her arm, dangling from his other hand. It was crimped, as if it had been wadded up and squeezed out...and though Thomas still held the bowl up before his face, even in the dim light she could tell it was not water he'd been drinking, unless water had suddenly acquired a much darker color, judging by the almost black smudges around his mouth.

Charmian felt all her limbs go numb as she stood and stared at the blood running down Thomas's face. Her blood.


Continue:

"Part 23: Blood Ties



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