"Yes."  Charmian bit the inside of her mouth, noticing the woman's reaction.  "Why?"

Silver Eagle Feather's pace quickened again.  "Nothing...please follow, Tal Natha lives not far from here."

Once again, "not far" promised to be an understatement.  Silver Eagle Feather led them up an incredibly steep slope that seemed to go on forever.  She didn't appear to have much trouble navigating her way to the top, but Drake and Charmian had a horrid time grasping at roots and clumps of weeds in an effort not to fall.  They went on for so long that Charmian felt they'd have to reach the very top of the Island before seeing the other side.

A hand was suddenly thrust in her face, and she grabbed onto it.  Silver Eagle Feather helped the two of them up to where the land leveled off somewhat and gestured for them to follow.  Ahead was an earthen mound, wooden logs poking out of the top in some kind of strange formation.

"Hey!  I saw this thingie in the guidebook!" Drake exclaimed, pulling it out and flipping the pages.  "Fort Holmes.  Highest point on the Island!"

"It sure feels like it," Charmian panted.

"So, this Tal Natha guy lives in the fort?"  Drake frowned and looked up.  "Not much of a fort anyway.  Looks like something you'd find in Ireland."

"Tal Natha does not live in the fort."  Silver Eagle Feather's voice, from the far side of the hill.  "Please follow me, it gets a little difficult over here."

"As if it's been easy this far?" Charmian muttered, but she and Drake did as they were told.

The hill dropped off abruptly at the edge of the clearing.  It wasn't a hill anymore but almost a cliff.  The only thing that prevented it from looking like one was the mass of trees climbing the side, leading far down to the lower parts of the Island.  The trees were in all colors of flame by now, with just a touch of green remaining here and there.  The hillside looked as if it were on fire.

Charmian and Drake stopped abruptly, Drake sucking in his breath with a weird little frightened noise.

Silver Eagle Feather gestured.  "Down here."

"Over the edge?" Charmian blurted, while Drake shook his head wildly, eyes bugging.

"Please, it's not dangerous if you're careful.  I'll help you.  You only need to watch your step."

"I'm...scared...of...heights," Drake stammered.

Charmian sighed and nudged him.  "Come on.  Maybe I'll let you hold onto my hand."

"Not...over...the...cliff!!"

"For God's sake!  We came all this way for a reason, didn't we?  You're the one who was so dang excited earlier on.  If you don't go now, I'll push you over.  Then let's see how safe it is!"

Drake's eyes got as big as marbles.  "Charm, you're a SNOT!!"

"Would you please follow?" Silver Eagle Feather called, sounding exasperated.  When neither Charmian nor Drake answered immediately, she sighed and turned to the edge, walking forward and abruptly dropping out of sight.

"AAAAAWWWWWWWKKKKKKK!!!" Drake shrieked.

"SILVER!!!" Charmian screamed.  Without thinking she ran forward to look over the edge, trying to see what had become of their guide.  She skidded to a halt when she reached it--or at least, tried to.  For the pebbles made her slip further than she'd intended, and when she stomped her foot against the ground in an effort to stop herself a hunk of earth gave way beneath her and she felt herself going over the edge as well.

She had just enough time to squeak and scrabble at the dirt before she went.

"CHARM!!!"  Drake's voice carried over along with her.  "I DIDN'T MEAN IT, YOU'RE NOT A SNOT, COME BACK!!!"

Just like in the movies--everything seemed to go in slow motion.  Charmian felt the sting of gravel against her arms, one of her fingernails snapping as it dug at the loosening earth.  One knee banged against a rocky outcrop and she felt herself turning upside down.  A brief glimpse of Drake's appalled face--the fort behind him--blue sky--faraway water, the lake surrounding the Island, the view she hadn't even had a chance to enjoy on reaching the top--then flaming treetops--then more treetops, branches, coming upwards at her at an alarming rate--

Something snagged her ankle, and at the same time something struck against her back, preventing her neck from snapping from the whiplash.  The breath left her lungs.  The treetops began to grow further and further away.  It was only then that she felt she was being lifted, carried back up through the air, something supporting her just beneath her arms.

She turned upright and the scenery righted itself.  Instead of the "cliff" face, lined with trees, she saw the front of a cave, hidden before now, large rocks lining the opening.  Silver Eagle Feather stood just outside it, looking at her.  She didn't appear to be the least bit surprised by what had happened--whatever that had been.

From the top of the cliff, a forlorn voice:  "Charmiaaaaaaaannnnnnn..."

"I'm all right!" Charmian shouted, more out of frustration that he was acting so childish than out of fear.  Her feet then touched the ground and instead of standing up she fell gently to her knees.  That was when she suddenly realized she hadn't gotten up here on her own.

A rustling sound.  A long, shiny red feather drifted to land in the dust beside her.

Charmian gasped and scrambled to her feet, spinning around and backing away at the same time.  Silver Eagle Feather cast her a puzzled look.  Charmian noticed this only out of the corner of her eye, as she was more focused on what had been standing behind her--what, she assumed, must have broken her fall and carried her back up to the cave ledge.

Green-and-red wolfish eyes stared back at her.  Scarlet wings rustled again, and the creature turned to Silver Eagle Feather and spoke.

"Welcome, Sister.  I see you have brought them to me safely.  Perhaps now they may learn exactly why they are here."

"You've always been one to keep others in the dark," Silver Eagle Feather replied.  "Why do you never clear the matter up to begin with?  It would save us all a lot of trouble in the long run."

"Perhaps.  I had thought of doing so.  But I needed to see them for myself, to be sure.  One can tell only so much from dreams."

"I hope you plan on telling us now?  I know only so much myself.  Even I'm not certain what you're up to this time."

"I need to fetch the boy.  He doesn't appear to be so adventurous as his friend here.  Please excuse me for a moment while I retrieve him."  The creature's red wings spread and flapped, and he rose rapidly from the ledge and out of sight.  A moment later Charmian heard Drake start screaming and winced.

"Don't worry about your friend," Silver Eagle Feather said.  "Tal Natha won't hurt him.  Rather I'm afraid your friend might hurt Tal Natha."

"What, Drake?  No...he's too much of a wimp.  He'll probably pass out first."  Charmian dusted herself, partly out of an effort to calm her rattled nerves.  Those treetops had seemed so close...  "Well...now that we're here...I'm hoping he'll finally clear up this thing about Red Bird?"

"What?" a faint voice came, seemingly from within the cave.  Both Charmian and Silver Eagle Feather turned to look inside, surprised.  Silver Eagle Feather saw first and her shoulders relaxed.  Charmian, however, could only stare, eyes widening at what she saw.

A young girl, barely past adolescence, had come to the mouth of the cave.  She paused just inside, one hand against the rock, one to her breast, peering out like some timid deer.  When she saw Charmian she blinked and shrunk back a little.  Charmian suspected it was her stare that frightened her back into the cave, but refused to break it just the same.  She recognized that face.  That strange red hair.  The girl from the photograph.

Red Bird.

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