After much agonizing, Charmian finally takes a running leap...
|Main story folder & table of contents: "Return To Manitou Island"
Previous chapter: "Part 25: No Return Policy"
Leap Of Faith
CHARMIAN HELD UP her arm and three sets of eyes peered at it curiously. X'aaru and Khiieta stared in awe while Old Mother Manitou made a noise and turned away toward the firepit.
"So that's where you've been spending your time, eh? With that old coot who lives in the cave?"
Charmian lowered her arm, though the demons still sniffed at it. "He's kind of not there right now," she said, not certain how else to put it. "He sort of disappeared on me while we were talking."
"Eh, that's wabanos for you. A weird lot. I think you're better off away from there anyway. Couldn't've been a good medicine he used on your arm and foot. Their sort is irritating, always taking without asking..."
"That's kind of one reason why I came back here." Charmian rubbed at where the cut had been before as X'aaru and Khiieta lost interest. "I was hoping that, since you're a manitou yourself, you might know something about the Wolves."
"You've already stopped by here for information, remember, girl? If I had it to give, believe me, I'd give it." The old woman turned around and came back with two bowls of soup which she thrust out at Thomas and Charmian. Charmian accepted hers with the thought, Don't they eat anything other than soup around here? "Blasted Wolves, running about and making the place bad for the rest of us...just isn't right..." She turned away again, muttering to herself and poking at some stray objects hanging from the walls.
"Well...that's just it." Charmian took a sip so as not to be rude, even though she wasn't hungry. "I met up with Mani's tribe--" she waved at the manitou, who was stretched out beside the entrance, asleep "--and when they had the chance to go after the Wolves, they would only fight them off. I asked why they wouldn't kill them and they told me they didn't want to kill them."
"Eh--?" Old Mother Manitou turned back, her already wrinkled brow furrowing. "They said that?" she asked, in apparent disbelief.
Charmian nodded. "And I just remembered something Snow Bear told me before--he said the Island didn't want the Wolves dead, either."
"The ISLAND doesn't want them dead--? That's a wabano for you! Speaking for the Island! As if he knows what it's thinking!" Old Mother Manitou waved at the air in an irritated gesture. "I wouldn't put too much stock in what he says..."
"But it wasn't just him, it was Mani and the other manitous..."
"Eh, they haven't been around nearly as long as I have, trust me. The moment one of those Wolves pokes his head in here, he'll be having to dig his nose out of the ground, that's how hard I'll whack his skull."
Mani finally lifted his head and gave an indignant whistle. Charmian looked at him, then at Old Mother Manitou, and shrugged at the look the old woman gave her. Old Mother Manitou scowled and waved again.
"You're just a calf! You don't know anything!"
Mani's hackles rose and he whistled again. Thomas raised an eyebrow but Charmian shook her head at him--she could tell the manitou wasn't being threatening, was simply stating his mind. Old Mother Manitou stalked over to him and put her hands on her hips and whistled back. The two of them whistled back and forth at each other for a moment or two while the other four watched in puzzlement.
"Any idea what's being said...?" Thomas whispered.
Charmian frowned and shook her head. "I think they're speaking a different dialect or something--I can only get a word here and there."
"You mean there are different dialects of whistling--?"
Old Mother Manitou stood straight when Mani snorted, and tapped her foot. She glanced at Charmian and her mouth twitched.
"Well, apparently there's news going about, and I am the last to hear. Some manitou you are! Thank you for nothing!" She rapped Mani between the ears, and Charmian winced and clamped her hands over her head.
"Sorry about that, but it had to be done." She waved at Mani now before turning away. "Well, apparently you're right--they don't want to kill 'em--he says the Island told them not to. As for why the Island hasn't told ME any of this, I have no idea!"
"Well, some things have been going funny lately," Charmian admitted, still rubbing her head. "Maybe that's one of them? Anyway, he was even talking with the Wolves, but I couldn't understand any of it. The same as I didn't get what you two were just saying."
Old Mother Manitou paused and peered at her oddly. Charmian stared back until the look began to annoy her. "What? Why are you staring at me--?"
"You said you didn't get any of that?"
"No, of course not. You two could've tried talking in something I understand."
Old Mother Manitou's look grew even odder. "I thought you knew manitou-speak. The trapper taught you! Didn't he?"
Charmian's brow furrowed. "Francois--? Of course he did! But that was regular manitou talk, not what you were just using--"
"I hate to tell you this, girl, but that was 'regular manitou talk'--there is no other kind. He just told me about talking with that Wolf, too--and he wasn't speaking anything different then, either." She frowned and came forward, pressing her hand against Charmian's forehead. "You're sure you're not catching a bit of something...?"
"I'm fine." Charmian brushed her hand away. "At least my head is. I'm not sure about this Island, though!" She stood up and paced in a circle. "First there's Justin and Little Dove--I told her to tell him I was here, but she forgot or something, I don't know...then there's nobody even knowing I'm HERE until I tell them, including Tal Natha, and he knows where EVERYBODY is...and that weird dream I had, that he didn't even send...then there's that weird thing that happened with Crooked Creek, and I couldn't understand a word she was saying, and neither could Francois, even...then there's the tribal manitous knowing about the Wolves, but you don't know, and you're almost as powerful as manitous get around here...and now add to that the fact that you're telling me I don't understand manitou talk? I understood him just fine when he talked to me. It was a different story with that Wolf and with you!"
Old Mother Manitou just continued staring at her. Then, "You're sure you're not feeling a little bit warm...?"
Charmian threw up her arms with an exasperated "UGH!" and turned for the entrance. Thomas offered Old Mother Manitou an apologetic look as he stood to follow her.
"Maybe you'd better hold your hand to her head," the old woman suggested. "Cool her off a little." This earned her a confused look before the two teenagers exited Sugar Loaf.
"Every single time I go looking for knowledge around here," Charmian groused as they made their way down the slope, "it seems like I just end up even MORE confused!"
"What are you going to do now?"
"I don't know." She slowed until she stopped at the base of the hill, and stared off into the woods. Thomas came up beside her and gave her a questioning look. She glanced down at her hands.
"I'm starting to wonder if I'm even supposed to be here right now."
Thomas frowned. "What do you mean, supposed to...?"
"Something someone told me." She looked up at the trees again, her face pensive. "They suggested maybe the Island thought I was part of it now, and that's why the Shadow Wolves keep coming after me, but not after any of the other mainlanders." She paused. "Before I came here, islands, trees, rocks, I never really thought of them as intelligent things--you know, things that can think and feel?" Thomas nodded to show he understood. "But after coming here, that's all different. I have to keep reminding myself that this whole Island is a big living thing. It's like it thinks things, and feels things, and then acts on them. I thought that maybe, because I got here, that meant I was supposed to be here...but maybe I got it all wrong. Maybe I shouldn't even be here at all. Maybe what the Island's saying is that it wants me to go away."
Thomas stepped around so he stood in front of her. "What makes you say this now?"
"Well...take a look at it all." She waved at nothing in particular. "Tal Natha couldn't sense me here. The Wolves and that guy in the mask are trying to chase me off. And it seems like half the time I can't even understand what people are saying anymore." She bit her lip and fiddled her fingers. "It all looks like one big GO AWAY sign to me. I thought that dreamcatcher was the best thing ever--a way for me to finally come back here--but what if it's just a mistake? Tal Natha never called me here--Red Bird said he never even considered it, even when trouble started. He promised he'd call me, but he didn't. And I never had any dreams about the Island when I was back at home. I thought maybe it was a GOOD thing that the Wolves were coming after me, as it meant I belonged here, but what if the Island's trying to tell me otherwise...? And Tal Natha can't sense me? It's like I don't even exist here. How much more obvious can it get than that?"
She tensed when Thomas put his hands on her shoulders, and had to look up at him when he cocked his head to meet her eyes. "You're here now," he said pointedly. "Isn't that what matters? Not how you got here or if you belong or if you should stay or leave. Doesn't the fact that you got here and you're still here mean anything?" When that didn't seem to convince her he added, "Don't you think that if the Island really wanted you gone, it could've just come up with a more obvious way to say so? Instead of just waffling around like this?"
Charmian blinked. She met his eyes again and then put her hand over his.
"You're right." She glanced at the woods again. "It must be something else then." He let go of her shoulders when she turned away, and they both stared at the trees together. "And as long as I'm here, I guess I should keep trying to figure out what exactly it is..."
"That's the Charmian I know," Thomas said with a smile. She felt her ears go red and had to dig around in her pockets, just to give her hands something to do.
"How well do you know me?" she blurted out. "It's only been a few days."
His smile grew. "I know you well enough to see I've just embarrassed you again, with what your ears are doing."
Now her whole face followed her ears' example and she had to start walking quickly, just to give her legs something to do. Thomas hurried to fetch Cloud as Mani appeared in the entrance, picking his way down the slope to join them. "And so now what?" he called out as he jogged to catch up with her, her pace was so fast.
"Something else I thought of," Charmian said, still walking briskly. "Right after I changed that Wolf. It was the eyes that got me."
"You mentioned this. But what did it mean?"
"I wasn't too sure then; all I knew was it meant something changed." She lifted her head as if searching the treetops for answers. "But now I think I understand why I noticed it so much. His eyes were yellow to start out with. After he changed, they were blue."
Thomas looked puzzled. "And this means...?"
"It's the same color as the manitous' eyes." She waved at Mani, whose nostrils flared. Thomas looked back at him. "Every one of them has the same color eyes--even the lake manitous. That's how I first saw them when I came here--all these little blue dots in the woods. That Wolf had the same color eyes."
She had gotten ahead of him again, so Thomas had to jog a few paces to catch up. "So," he panted, "what you're saying..."
"I think there might be some connection between the Shadow Wolves and the manitous." Even as she said it, she felt a twinge of uncertainty, but it was the best theory she could think of. "That might explain why the manitous won't kill them, and why the Island doesn't want them dead--it would be like killing a part of itself."
"But if the Wolves are part of the Island, then why are they attacking Islanders? Doesn't that seem sort of like a conflict to you?"
"Snow Bear suggested they're being controlled by something else. I think that might make sense. When I changed that Wolf, I think he went back to the way he was before--before whatever else this was changed him. Maybe they're all like he is, underneath, but their spirits are dark now. They're like..." She trailed off as an analogy made its way into her head, and her step slowed as she began to realize what the situation made her think of. "...They're like this cancer. The Island turning on itself...eating itself from the inside out." She stayed standing where she was for another moment or two before shaking her head and moving on, though not quite as quickly as before. Thomas and Mani seemed to sense her changed mood, but said nothing of it, only following.
"And so what are you going to do?" Thomas finally asked, after some time had passed.
"Well..." Charmian chewed on her lip again. "Working on the theory that the Wolves aren't bad, just misled...then I'm not sure what to do. I can't kill them off without hurting the Island."
"That example you just made. It's not the Wolves you should be going after anyway, is it?"
Charmian halted now and her eyes widened. "You're right. The Wolves are just the spread of it. Cut out what caused it in the first place, and they go back to normal!" She whirled around and beamed. "You're a genius!" Before she even knew what she was doing she had run toward Thomas and hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. It was only when he gawked back at her that her eyes nearly fell out of her head and she let go, skipping hastily back toward the trees.
"Sorry!!" she exclaimed through a smile that was entirely too fake, before turning and racing off down the trail as fast as she could go. She managed to catch one last glimpse of the other three over her shoulder as she fled; Thomas cast Mani a confused look, and the manitou merely tilted his head in a shrug. That was all she could stand to look at before she turned back ahead, just in time to go flying forward, landing flat on her stomach with a loud "OOF!"
She grimaced and put out her hands to push herself up, when something grabbed her by the arm and tossed her over onto her back. Then that something grabbed her by the collar and yanked her head up, hissing in her face.
"I thought you would NEVER leave him! Do you have any idea what a BAD INFLUENCE he is?! What thoughts he's put in your head? And you, DROOLING all over him like that!! It's a good thing you left when you did else I would've gone over there and pried you away from him MYSELF!"
Charmian's mouth fell open in bewilderment before things started to register. "YOU again!" she snapped, slapping Manabozho's hands away and landing on her elbows. He crouched over her so she had to crawl out from underneath him. "What is the DEAL with you? Always disappearing when I need you most? You just BAILED OUT on me the last time I saw you!"
"So now you admit you NEED me?" Manabozho challenged, following her as she got to her feet and dusted herself off. He hopped and flailed his arms around as he spoke. "It's that Wendigo-boy, isn't it? With the way you were practically hanging off his arm, I thought for sure I'd have to pry you off--!"
Charmian glared at him. "What's your problem with him? I can hang out with Thomas any time I want! Are you--are you jealous?" The thought popped into her head suddenly and her eyes grew. "You're JEALOUS of him, aren't you--?"
"JEALOUS!!" Manabozho's arms flailed all the more. "What have I got to be JEALOUS of?! You simply don't know when enough is enough! Here I've been trying to get in touch with you for ages and all you can do is hang all over HIM!"
"So get in touch with me already! I don't get what your problem is!"
"I can hardly talk to you IN FRONT OF HIM!!" If his arms had flailed any harder surely he would have flown up into the air like a helicopter. "There are some things you just don't understand yet!!"
Charmian snorted. "You're paranoid." She turned away, still dusting at herself, and started walking again. Manabozho sputtered uselessly before following, hopping alongside her with an irritated look.
"What are you doing? Where are you going? What're you thinking?"
"Not that it's any of your business, NOR is it as if you've been helping me any," Charmian groused, "I'm going to go find somebody who CAN help me figure out what's going on around here. Which ISN'T you."
Manabozho's face screwed up in an unpleasant manner. "And so who CAN help you with this--? I'm the best chance you've got, you know!"
"Hardly!" Charmian glared at him, then jerked her thumb at the side of the steep slope they'd come out upon. Manabozho frowned, then followed the direction she pointed in. They stood near the top of the east bluff, looking down over Lake Huron, and Charmian pointed in the general direction of the mass of rock they had left behind earlier. His frown grew.
"You CAN'T be thinking about THAT thing again--!"
"Damn right I'm thinking about it!" She started walking again, and again he followed as she made her way down the slope. "Your grandmother herself said the Turtle Fairies would know what's going on, and where there's the Fairy Arch, there should be Turtle Fairies."
"You're making a BIG mistake!" Manabozho shouted, nearly tumbling down the bluff as he struggled to keep up.
"And how can I be making any bigger a mistake than I'd make by not doing anything at all? I didn't get through the last time, but it's about time I gave it another try. Whoever shot that arrow at my head can't be waiting there forever."
Manabozho let go of the sapling he'd been holding onto. "Arrow--?" He cast her a bewildered look before screaming and falling out of sight, crashing and thudding down through the trees. Charmian ignored him and continued on her way, reaching the Arch after a few more moments of climbing and crawling and finding it just as they had left it, still intact. She let out her breath, only now realizing she'd been holding it in suspense. Why should the rock be broken again?
Manabozho made all sorts of terrific crashing and rustling noises clambering his way back up the slope, as Charmian looked the rock over from all sides. Whatever had happened before, she had the strong feeling that someone--or something--had been watching her from the other side. There was no other way to explain the arrow that had nearly embedded itself in her head the last time she'd attempted to go through.
Maybe whoever it is couldn't see me out here, but they were definitely on the lookout for me. Is that what they are? A guard? If so, they're probably still there...
But guards get tired after so long, don't they? Unless they switched places with someone...
She chewed on her lip and stared at the rock uneasily. Manabozho finally made it up the slope, gasping and wheezing and covered with scratches. "You're--making--a BIG mistake," he panted again, glowering, but she ignored the warning.
"There's got to be a way I can get through without that guard getting me again," she murmured. An idea struck her then and she nearly slapped herself, it was so obvious; Manabozho frowned as she started scouring the ground around the rock.
"What are you doing now...?" he asked in a suspicious voice.
"Looking for a diversion. It's the oldest trick in the book." She located what she was looking for, and picked up a decent-sized rock from the ground, hefting it in her hand. "But it just might work."
Manabozho made a face, but came forward and peered at it, as if expecting something special. "What are you going to do with that--?"
"Easy." Charmian turned to the Fairy Arch and, cocking her arm back like a baseball pitcher, hurled the rock through the archway. Manabozho's mouth flew open as the rock passed beneath the Arch and vanished from sight, then flailed his arms when Charmian paused just barely, then took a breath and plunged in after it.
"WAIT A MINUTE--!"
Charmian was already in the air, too late to stop. She stretched out her arm and saw her hand disappear before her, before her field of vision wavered like heat flowing over a road in summer; she felt something tug on her backpack, but then everything rippled and swirled, and then she was tumbling head over heels, the world spinning around her. She landed on her head and fell over onto her back with a thud, the breath knocked out of her. She squinched her eyes shut as a wave of pain and dizziness swept over her, and clenched her hands. The first thing she felt was grass between her fingers.
She heard a thud beside her, and then Manabozho's voice, groaning in obvious pain of his own. She finally dared to open her eyes...and found herself staring not up into the canopy of trees that lined the east bluff, but into a hazy mauve sky.
She tilted her head to the side. Grass surrounded her--green and golden and chocolate colored--in a wide field bordered by trees. The only field she knew of on Manitou Island was that not far from Crack-in-the-Island, and that was more toward the western side of the Island. Plus, that field looked nothing like this one, with its little hillocks and swaying multicolored grasses.
The Fairy Realm! I must've made it through!
"That wasn't so bad," she croaked at Manabozho, who still lay dazed beside her. With a smile she put her hands against the ground and started to push herself upright--only to feel something prod at her neck, keeping her down. Her smile froze, then vanished, and she blinked once more. That mauve sky had just been joined by a long, sharp spear...held by a pair of lean but strong arms...behind which hovered the hardest, most unwelcoming eyes she'd ever seen. The dark eyes glittered malevolently and the spear poked her even harder in the throat--she saw another, similar one aimed at Manabozho's neck, as well as perhaps a dozen more, and two dozen more eyes, covering the two of them from every direction, blocking every means of escape. Charmian turned her hands upward now in a feeble gesture of surrender, staring at the group of strange men who surrounded them, weapons drawn and poised should she move so much as an inch.
"Of course, it could always get worse," she admitted.
"Part 27: Follow The Bouncing Pinecone!"
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