The younger deer balked, and paid for it. Logan heard the wolves snarl and then a thud as the deer hit the ground. The older deer tried to pitch itself to the right and run off the trail. Logan came up on his broad side, just as the deer changed its footing to jump a rise. Logan jumped next and slashed his knife twice into its right leg before he had to fall back. The creature groaned horribly. It retreated, crying out as its hoof came down to the ground. Rugh let out a bark to warn Logan to get out of the way. The young hunter was barely off the deer when Rugh lunged. The wolf's teeth sank deeply into the deer's right hindquarter. It stumbled, struggling to turn while the wolf's teeth were dragged deeper into the meat. Logan tucked his legs and hurdled Chika as the other wolf came in behind Rugh, took the deer's throat and the hunt came to an end.
The wolves began to eat the deer. The young ones snapped at each other to keep away while they ate. Their elders were more patient, and usually a look was enough to make the young wolves shy away. Logan forced himself to breathe. A visceral part of him growled with the wolves. Senses of smell, sight and touch that had intensified during the hunt were still aching for release. The wolves hunted for food, as they always did; he hunted with them to hone his instincts. He had done so for the past five years.
As his blood settled down, Logan took stock of himself and the forest. Logan couldn't see the sun through the thick layers of leaf and branch overhead. The steamy heat that he had endured for most of the day had grown damp. That, and the deepening of the shade, told him it was late. A needling pain and trickle of blood running down his arm made him realize that his hand was bleeding. Rugh must have nipped him when he charged in. He looked at Rugh out of the corner of his eye. The wolf snapped at Domark, one of the young wolves, to get away from where he was eating. Domark tucked his head down and moved off.
It had been a very, very full day. Logan bandaged his hand, then began to apply ointment to some nicks on his arms. Rough-and-tumble wouldn't begin to describe how he looked. The odd twig and leaf were still sticking in his hair. Under his clothes and inside his shoes, the crunchy feeling of grit was working its way in. Logan had small dings and scrapes over every given spot on his body, most of which didn't do more than redden the flesh, but some, that he treated now, that would be wiser to take care of. He reminded himself that he might even have to bathe when he got home to clean out those wounds completely. Logan let out a sigh, and finally admitted to himself that he was tired.
In time, the wolves finished eating and they started back to the den. The wolves maintained a trot, just barely faster than his walk, that Logan thought they did on purpose. He had to pick up into a jog once in a while to keep with them. Rugh growled as he came close. Logan grinned. They had a sort of joke between them over who was the better wolf. Logan narrowed his eyes and gave him a deeper, guttural sound in reply. The wolf respectfully moved a step away and they continued walking.
Chika was the oldest and largest. Logan had first met him when he was eleven years old, still well under his father's wing and wide-eyed at anything he saw in the forest. Chika remained one mother of an impressive sight: darker than charred wood, with white paws and a splotch of white on his nose. The front of his and all the other wolves' bodies was stained with blood where they hadn't cleaned it off yet. A piece of Chika's right ear was missing, and Logan knew where to look for a tiny indentation near his shoulder that another wolf had taken from him. His scars took nothing away from him. They only magnified the sense of will and spirit that radiated from him. The corner of Logan's mouth turned up as he thought, Sometimes he reminds me of father when he's in a really bad mood.
Rugh was the second-oldest, and had joined their pack last year. Rugh was colored with dark gray waves. He was younger than Chika, a little stronger, but he didn't have the pack leader's decisive nature. Why he was alone remained a mystery. Logan guessed that Rugh's mate had been killed, which would also explain why he was in no hurry to find a new one.
There were two other males in the pack. Domark and Tumark, Chika's sons, walked in front to clear the path for the other wolves. They looked like smaller versions of their father, though only one of them had a white stripe on his nose.
Chika's mate, Aga, was dark, slate gray. She walked at Chika's shoulder. Both of them walked behind Logan, as the senior members of the pack.
Logan's father, Dellard Wolfmark, waved to him as the group approached the den. Logan gave him a smile and held up his bow in a gesture of greeting. Wolfmark looked a little less messy than Logan thought he himself did, and didn't have any bandages on. The bag tied to his father's harness looked more full than it did when he left with the wolves. His father probably had bagged a pheasant or hare while they were off hunting deer.
"How did it go?" his father asked. He tossed Logan his staff. Logan caught it with his free hand and made a pumping gesture, like he used for drawing the bow. "How many did you bring down?"
Logan frowned. "How did you know?"
Wolfmark nodded towards him. "Blood on your shirt, for one, and that bandage on your hand. The other is that I talked to Chika before you left, and he told me what he was going to have you do. Chika's father took me on a chase just like it. It's to teach the young ones how to act in an ambush."
Logan slung his bow around his body for carrying, so that he would have at least one arm free on the way home. He grinned. "Two. They left them about a mile that way."
Wolfmark bent down and lowered his head as the wolves approached, while keeping his eyes just slightly lowered. This was the way they greeted each other. Chika nudged his head against Wolfmark's. Still pressed to him, he followed his head to nudge his neck and rest of his body. This acknowledged Wolfmark as a member of his pack. The wolf had known him since his first days in the world outside the den, and the bonds between them ran deep.
Enviously, Logan watched Chika and his father talk back and forth. His father used words the way he would talk with anyone, and the wolf made growls and murmuring sounds, also moving around more than he usually would. They relied on each others' body language to pick up nuances. Chika was saying something pretty authoritative. The wolf stood high, and most of his sounds were gruff. His eyes looked into his father's, if slightly offset. Direct stares were challenges. "He says you did well," Wolfmark translated. "He also says that you're quieter now than you used to be."
Logan nodded his head deferentially to Chika. His father tapped Logan's feet with his staff. "Come on, now. Your mother'll be waiting for us."
Logan gave Rugh a scratch on his neck before they left. The wolf growled playfully and bit down on Logan's hand in a gesture of friendship. Logan tugged back. The wolf let go and returned to the rest of them. Wolfmark looked over his shoulder as they started home. "You two are like brothers."
Logan grinned and bit his lip to hold in the comment, Well, you and mother didn't arrange one for me. It would've been rude. "We get along. I think sometimes he doesn't feel like he fits in, but I treat him like I would Chika or Aga. He likes that." Logan checked his hand. Unfortunately, Rugh took the injured one to bite on. There were indentations in the bandage from his teeth. Logan held his staff crosswise in front of his body, wedging it with his arm, and used his right hand to rub at the marks. "He's getting more enthusiastic. Next time he's going to cut me."
"I doubt that, lad."
Logan did, too. His father added that he wanted to take a look at his hand when they were back at their house.
The hunters took an easy, loping run through the forest on their way back. There was no path. They strayed near and far, dodging trees and switching leads at random. They had to. Trees and shrubs interlocked their roots and branches with each other in some places, and some of the older trees were too wide to see around. The sun was almost down by the time they returned.
The smells of cooking pheasant and forest greens, mixed with hearth smoke, reached them as they approached their house. Supper was halfway along. Logan's mother knew the ins and outs of their journeys into the forest by heart, and she could time when to finish supper down to the setting of food on the table as they walked in the door if she had a mind to.
They lived in a burrow that was dug into the side of a small hill, to keep them as close as possible to the earth. It was necessary for Logan's training and his father's way of life. The entrance was covered with a deerskin that was held in place with wooden pins on the inside. They treated the outside of it with a foul-smelling paste called shie to keep animals away. Logan pulled the deerskin aside and held it open for his father as they came in.
His mother, Alene, looked up from the hearth. The soft glow of the fire put shadows into the crinkles next to her eyes and highlighted one or two gray strands among the raven-black of her hair. "My men have come home," she said, and his father gave her a careful, light kiss to keep from getting too much paint on her face. She noticed the bandage on Logan's hand and added, "You don't try too hard to be careful out there, do you?"
In his support, his father added, "He's actually doing better than he did before. Even Chika thought so."
Logan gave her a wink. The answer to her question was no, but she didn't like it when he told her that. He often gave her cause to fuss from the company he kept and his misadventures with his father in the Deep Wood. "I just have to get cleaned off."
"Take your time and get them cleaned out as well as you have to so they'll heal properly. We should be ready to sit down for supper by the time you're done."
They both unslung their gear, leaving their staves against the wall and putting down their harnesses underneath them. His father waved him over. Logan held up his hand without being told, and didn't fidget as Wolfmark unwrapped the bandage. They'd done this before. Wolfmark held his hand by the fingers, turning it over gingerly as he examined it. His expression told Logan that he'd been lucky. "You wrapped it pretty well. There's not much else I can do to heal it, not that it really needs." He traced his fingers along the muscle behind Logan's little finger. They made eye contact, and there was no need to say that if Rugh had gone about a quarter-inch to the left, he would have torn into the muscle.
Logan gathered some clothes from the loft where he slept and went outside to wash himself. There was a creek that ran near the house. The wound was little more than a scratch, really, but Logan took the effort to make sure he got all the dirt out of his body. He even brought soap. It was an invention he despised, since it left as much smell as it took away and felt like he was rubbing himself with sand.
Logan winced as he entered the water. As refreshing as it was after chasing deer and keeping up with wolves, it felt like there were dozens of little cuts on his body and all of them were stinging. He washed the short pants he'd worn while hunting first, since he would use them again when they went into the Wood tomorrow. Then he took care of himself. He and his father both knew that the wolves weren't rabid, so Logan didn't need to suffer through the incantations and medicines against that. They were a long, repetitive series of verses that Logan had dreaded to learn out of sheer boredom. His father told him that was nothing compared to how awful the medicine that went along with it tasted.
Afterwards he treated his cuts again and rebandaged his hand, then put the clothes that he brought outside with him. His heart sank as he thought about going back into the house. There was a long list of chores and things to take care of tonight. He and his father were going into the Deep Wood tomorrow for more intense training. It would last a few days, and his father made it a point to hold up their end in taking care of the house. That would make it harder to see his friends tonight. He had to leave later than usual, and he couldn't stay as late as he wanted to.
Sneaking out was an adventurous chore that Logan went through to keep seeing his friends on a regular basis. Living in the Wood made it harder to see them. He had to sneak because his mother didn't like the company that her son kept. Logan had a creative selection of friends. He also had a tendency to get into scraps with some of the lads in the clan's village. Logan's solution to his mother's concerns was to meet his friends by campfires in the middle of the night, and she wholly disapproved of that. It didn't stop him. Logan didn't get to see them very often as it was, and it was a risk he thought was worth taking.
Supper consisted of cooked pheasant, vegetable stew and seeded bread that his mother had made. They drank water and a brandy made of nuts, berries and other odds and ends from the forest. The rest of the night was full. Logan and his father replaced a weakening support to the roof and cleaned out a pile of gunked-up ash from the chimney, in addition to a host of other, smaller things that needed fixing or doing. Logan was patient. Stalking through brush and trail had taught him that some things only took as much time as they did, and couldn't be hurried.
He blew away wood shavings from the lines he had just carved on his bow, then gave his handiwork a closer look. He had gotten about two fingers-length from the bow's grip, on the top and bottom. Approvingly, he looked over the job he'd done. It wouldn't win him any cheers or breathless admiration from the other hunters in the clan, but it was worth giving himself a nod.
He put aside the carving knife and the bow so that he could give his hands the good, deep massage that they deserved. They felt like stone. His mother looked at him sympathetically. "I was wondering when you'd finally give yourself a rest."
"It was almost done. I couldn't just stop when I was that close."
She shook her head. "You're too much like your father."
Logan tilted his head to one side and sat back in his chair. He touched the end of his bow to the bottom of the tablecloth that she had piled around her lap. She had been mending a tear on it. They exchanged a look, his a knowing gaze of victory, hers a wan shake of the head. The unspoken message was that he wasn't the only one who was working a little deeper into the night than he had to.
"You're right, Logan. You're always right."
He shrugged. It wasn't his fault if it was true. Logan rapped the end of the bow on the floor, scattering the shavings and knocking off some wood dust. He stifled a yawn as soft footsteps treaded the ground outside. He relaxed as he recognized his father's walk.
Logan was accustomed to seeing his father's face painted with streaks of green, brown and black, and moving in a blur. The calmer feeling of being at home made Logan notice the details: tall, powerfully built, but not bearish. Logan had his height but not his strength, and wouldn't for a few years to come. Both of them had a light-footed walk belied agility and speed. Logan had his eyes, too: large, dark blue, arresting, the kind that would look tranquil even when he was as far from it as he could be. Wolfmark had a compact, square-jawed face and a strong chin, making his goatee look like shaved, black stone.
Wolfmark nodded towards the bow. "How's it coming?"
Logan handed it to him. Wolfmark took the bow and studied it. He gave both sides of the grip a close look, then traced the lines with his thumb to feel how thick they were. Consistency was important. "This is good. So's this." He pointed toward the top. "Did you get tired around here?"
"I started at the grip and worked my way up each time."
"That's my fault. I shouldn't have had you practicing your shots today. That's why they knotted up so soon." His father handed the bow back to him. Wolfmark looked at him, then indicated the pile of wood chips and shavings by his son's feet. "Don't forget to clean that up."
Logan looked away sardonically. He bent over to toss them into the hearth as his father sat down on a low stool. The last pheasant hung next to it, to be dressed for supper tomorrow night. His mother would be eating it alone. They would be about a quarter-day's run from home, and wouldn't be sharing it with her. They would be farther away the day after that. He looked at his father as he tossed the last chips into what remained of the night's fire. "Were you able to tell anything?"
"I felt a storm coming in from the north. It'll roll over us in four days at the most."
"How big?" his mother asked.
"Big enough to break this heat. It'll definitely shake things up a little." He looked at her and added, "For us, I mean. Things should be fine around here." He turned back to Logan. "Get some rest now. We'll be starting before dawn." Logan stood, and exchanged a look with him. He caught the touch of a smirk in his father's face, and a tightness in his shoulders, as if he'd just thought of something funny. Logan looked at his mother. Her eyes were fixed on the ends of her needles as they knit together the tear in the cloth. If there was a joke going on, no one was telling him. He climbed toward the loft where he slept.
"Do I get a kiss goodnight?" his mother asked. Logan rolled his eyes. "Don't give me that look. Do you think you're too old to kiss your mother?"
He gave her a peck on the cheek and started back up. "Sometimes I wish I had an older brother so I wouldn't be the only who got picked on," he said.
"Oh, get to bed."
Logan wished them both goodnight and boosted himself up. He wanted to be able to do it without a stool. Given a running start or a good, solid jump he could make it, though his parents didn't know that. The callused palms of his hands kept him from tearing them on the rock that formed the edge of the space.
Logan made a gagging expression as he climbed all the way into the loft. One disadvantage to living in a burrow was that it trapped the heat a little too well, and even the night mists couldn't cool it off fast enough in the summer. The loft had originally been used for storage, but he and his father had dug more room into it so that he could sleep there once he'd come of Age. The air was stifling in his personal, cramped quarters, and it also smelled a little, but he'd insisted on someplace for himself. He'd written a few messages of petty philosophy on the wall or the floor now and then: Let's just call her lint, a joke that had gone around among his friends; Don't write on the floor, written on the wall, and vice-versa.
He shuffled over on his hands and knees to where he slept. There was a pile of empty sacks near the top of his sleeping mat that he'd used to prop up his head the night before. Sleeping on them had flattened them into a thin sandwich of cloth that wouldn't be much more comfortable than a brick. He shoved them away without a mind to where they landed. His mat needed to be cleaned again, he noticed.
His father put out the hearth and his parents both went to bed. Logan quickly peeled off his clothes and settled down. It would at least make the wait more bearable. His eyes adjusted to the dying light almost immediately. From here he could see the entrance, the darkened hearth, and the end of his parents' bed. A set of deer antlers, from his first kill, hung on the left-hand wall. Logan dug his knuckles into the ground a little harder to break up the monotony of waiting. The trick was to listen for his mother to start snoring, then to wait until they were both asleep.
Logan could almost pick out what they were saying to each other. He thought they were talking about what they needed to trade next time they went into the clan's village. He turned over on his side and covered one ear to listen better. A belt...cloth for a new dress...yeah, they were talking about going into the village.
His eyelids grew heavier. Logan massaged his hands again, then rubbed his knuckles on the mat to stay awake, concentrating on the grainy feeling rather than the time. He also checked where he'd taken off his clothes, feeling through the dark to make sure. He sighed. They certainly took longer to fall asleep in the summer.
After a while, Logan heard the familiar, gnawing sound of his mother's snoring. He rolled over and pulled his pants back on, very carefully, then put on the loose buckskin shirt. He began to sing, without actually saying the words, a little song about chasing girls. He was using it to count the time. Woodlanders had some use for numbers, but not much. The roof pushed against his back as he sat up and tied his shoes. Last, he strapped his hunting knife to his leg and made certain that the catch across the top was fastened. Once he'd been caught when it came out from being dragged over the edge of the loft. Bang! It had hit the floor. His father hadn't moved, but Logan had heard him say, "Tomorrow we'll do a little climbing, if you've got that much energy. Go back to bed."
About five minutes had passed by the end of the fourth verse of the song. Logan stopped singing. He slid his legs down to the floor, disdaining the stool and thanking the fates that he'd grown tall. He let go of the edge of the loft with one arm and settled his weight onto the boards. Logan breathed in even time, whispering different kinds of verses as he exhaled and letting the air lift his body up. His lips formed the words; he spoke no louder. A drop of sweat trickled down onto the side of his face. Logan paid special attention to sliding across the floor, since his parents' bed was within a jump of where he stood. Even if he hadn't been able to see, trial and error had given him a good sense of where the floor creaked, where he would bump into things, and where he could walk more easily.
The air felt much less oppressive outside, and he took a good, long breath as he replaced the deerskin. This was home territory. The night mist had already risen to thin, waist-deep tendrils of clutching gray fog. He walked down the hill, sinking into his steps and breathing deeply, to settling into the ground the way he had settled into the floor in the main room.
Logan reached into a pouch at his belt and took out a greasy, colorless ball about the size of his thumbnail. He broke it in half, put the rest back and got a good layer of it on his fingertips. He smeared it into his eyes. It burned at first, then cooled away as it mixed with his tears. Logan blinked until he could see again. He whispered a different set of verses now, ones that spoke of owls, the moon, and hunters of the night. Drinking in as much light as they could from the sliver of moon overhead, his eyes began to pick up the dim outlines of tree trunks. He walked towards the forest. The outlines crispened. He could discern the texture of the bark, at least a little. Logan shuddered as he whispered the words a fourth time. An uncomfortable swelling sensation pressed against his temples; he would feel it less once he started running. He could see the trees clearly now. The incantation made them look like they were covered with a skin of bluish ice.
Logan began to run through the forest. The darting shrubs and trunks blurred into a rugged, shiny tunnel of woods closing in on his sides, with dirt under his feet and the mottled darkness of the leaves clustering overhead. The seeing verse was a handy little thing that worked better when you were under a full moon or walking through light woods than charging down a path. It was better than nothing. Logan repeated the verse as he ran, whenever the path grew dense with foliage or he had to step more carefully. The shapes of the trees twisted when he turned his head to look one way or another, and more distant boles seemed to shimmer and fade out.
Without thinking about it, Logan took a trio of sharper, pronounced steps and kicked himself into the air. He saw a blur of foam pass underneath him, and heard the distinctive rush of the creek that he had bathed in earlier. He gasped in midair, stumbled as he landed, and clipped a tiny splash of water against his shins as he came down. The shock of landing bolted up through his ankles. Logan bit back swear words as his concentration began to unravel. The image before his eyes flickered like a reflection in water. Things that his concentration helped him to ignore came to the front of his mind: he noticed sweat running down his body, and the jostling around had shifted the knife so that it jabbed him in the leg. Logan jerked it back into a more comfortable spot.
He grit his teeth. His feet had only thumped the bank of the creek, but it might as well have been falling pottery if his father had been listening. He waited for the gruff voice that would call him back to the house. Part of him was breathing amazed gasps at how he had jumped the creek. Though he'd crossed it often enough over the years, the ethereal way he was trying to see left him a little disoriented. It felt as if his body had known when to jump and acted on its own.
Nothing happened. The muscles in Logan's legs felt bunched and taut as he stood up. He must have heard. Logan looked back down the path, and finally decided that if he was going, he might as well be a man and get on with it. He began to jog down the path, letting himself come back to speed as he was ready.
Logan neared the clearing. The sounds of his feet thudding the ground returned to him, and his breathing became more distinct as he let go of the incantation.
There was only one person sitting by the fire. As he walked into the light the sitter looked up, shaking his long, red-brown hair back over his shoulder. The flames cast odd shadows over Laik's face. His parents sometimes called him a sprite for the way he always found himself in the middle of trouble. The reddish shadows made him look the way sprites were supposed to, with pointed ears and chin, and sharp lines to his cheekbones. "Well," Laik said. "Glad to see our local witch was able to make it this time."
Logan tossed him a short salute, then walked over and grasped his hand. "Sorry I'm late. My parents were getting things ready for going into the village."
"Nothing to care about. I only got here a short time ago myself." He peered at Logan over the flames as his friend sat down. "Unless I'm drunk enough to miss my guess, you look exhausted."
Logan took his usual place under a tree and leaned back against it. "It just looks that way," he explained. He looked into Laik's eyes. "You're not drunk."
"I could've sworn I was."
Logan grinned. His friend was a lovable idiot. They had been brothers in everything but blood for all their young lives. Laik was the rogue of their clan. He treated the nejamen's son with irreverence, flirted shamelessly with the unmarried girls, and took risks that no one in their right mind would dare. There are unofficial parts to a young man's upbringing that only another young man can teach him, and Laik had taken the role to heart. What he lacked in responsibility, and there was a lot of lack, he made up for in common sense that was beyond his years. Logan wasn't surprised that Laik didn't ask about his hand. His friend would ignore it if it didn't seem to bother him.
Logan's nostrils caught the thin trace of a smell on the breeze that didn't quite belong. It was like smoke, but sweeter, like pine needles. He looked around carefully, then noticed that Laik wasn't sitting in his usual place. "Who else is coming?" Logan asked.
Laik frowned. "What makes you say that?"
"You usually sit over here," Logan said, gesturing to his right. What was that smell--Logan thought it was--incense?
Yes, that was it. There was a missionary in the village from the lands past Wood's End who always smelled that way. In good wind and settled mind, he could pick up the scent a mile away. The missionary's second home, his ca-pel--Woodlanders couldn't say chapel--usually reeked of it. Logan frowned. There was no way Laik would have spending time in Jon's chapel. "Who else is here?"
Laik's looked back over his right shoulder and raised his voice. "He knows! You can come out now!" Unmindful footsteps cracked the branches and kicked over stones behind Laik. "My friend, this is Marissa. She arrived in the village a few days ago, and I thought she might enjoy a little hospitality." Logan drew his eyes to the girl who walked out from the shadows. His eyes widened.
Marissa moved fluidly, gracefully, like someone more inclined to dancing or a stroll than hard, sweaty work. She didn't notice that her skirt was close enough to catch on the fire, or if she did, she didn't care. Marissa was a Southlander, like the missionary. Her eyes would almost reach his shoulders, and they were a lustrous shade of nearly black brown. They had the flicker of the wisdom that Laik's seemed to have. He followed the line of her nose to her lips, from her lips to her neck. Her rounded cheekbones and chin had the mirthful hint of a smile. Marissa's hair was brown, lighter than his, and wispy compared to the thicker hair he was accustomed to. There were scattered strands of red in there that spiced it up. It was brushed away from her face, letting him see the delicate curve of her ears.
The kerchief that the missionary's daughter and wife always wore dangled from her hand. That explained the incense. "You're Logan," she said, sitting down in Laik's usual place. She spoke passable Woodlander. Given her looks, Logan didn't mind ignoring it.
"Did he tell you that?" Logan asked.
"You're the mystic, not her," Laik said. "How else did she know?"
Logan tossed a stone at him. "Don't be a pain," he replied. He looked at Marissa, then asked Laik, "Did you bring it?"
"Never forget it." Laik produced a short, wooden flask of his father's brandy from behind his back and tossed it over to him. All Woodlanders made brandy as a social drink, but Laik's father made it with a stronger taste, and usually a better kick.
Logan asked, "Slug, Marissa?"
"Guests always first," Laik added.
She cocked her head, and yes, a mirthful smile appeared. Logan also had the impression that not only was she an experienced drinker, but she might be a challenge to drink under. There was a mischievous look in her eyes: we're smarter than we look, but don't tell anyone. That way we can get away with more. That kind of look. Marissa took the flask, squinting after the first gulp. But she swallowed more, and then handed the bottle back to Laik. She shuddered. Wisps of hair fell into her face and around her neck. "Fire and brimstone, Laik. That stuff's near lethal," she grated. She brushed her hair back and dabbed at little tears brought out from the pain in her throat.
"What's it made of this time?" Logan asked.
"Believe it or not, rose petals."
"Tastes more like he used the thorns," Marissa replied. Logan chuckled. She did have spirit. "It's got a nicer bite to it than Jon's prayer wine, though."
Logan remembered the kerchief. "You aren't one of his daughters or something, are you?"
Marissa rolled her eyes. "Please." She pressed her fingers into her cheeks to imitate dimples, then tossed up her hand in disgust. The kerchief waved in the air. "I wish I could burn this. My father's a merchant in a town called Lyall, about a day's walk from Wood's End. Jon is his brother. He sent me here to Jon's house to become a good, holy little lady."
Holy. Some of the Southlanders in Kenton had tried to explain it to him once or twice, and Logan had never quite picked it up. They said it was like being totally free of corruption, totally clean. It was a nice idea, but Logan couldn't remember ever being totally clean in his life. He spent most of his days getting covered with dirt in the Wood.
"We'll have to do something about that," Laik said.
Marissa added, to Logan, "He's already told me to stay away from you."
Logan's expression turned sour. It was starting all over again. "Really?" Laik ventured. "From our little--"
"Laik!" Logan snapped. His friend politely shut his mouth. Logan held out his hand for the flask. She gave it to him, and still looking at him, she continued, "Cold, unfeeling..."
The hunters chimed in, "A godless pagan." Marissa laughed. Logan explained, "I've heard it all before." He took a swig and winced as the stuff hit his throat. Needles. Porcupine quills. That and a dozen other colorful descriptions popped into mind. He squinted his eyes, forcing himself to take it all in. When he opened his eyes again, the fire looked brighter and he could see everyone else a little more clearly. A warm feeling flowed through his arms and legs. "Powerful stuff," he said. Logan took another drink. It was easier this time, but then his throat was probably numb. "Got to watch those rose petals," he said, handing the bottle to Laik. He looked at her. "Jon's a sod. He'll barely even look at me. He'll roast you alive for leaving your home, not to mention being here with us."
"Master Laik was very persuasive," she said. Marissa tossed her head, raising her chin just so. She gestured for Logan to hand her the flask. She took a swig, then squinted and coughed hard. At least she was human; that first slug she'd taken had left him wondering. She cradled the flask against her chest.
"You're crazy," he finally said.
Marissa closed her eyes slowly and tilted her head, letting her hair fall down a little onto her face. Thank you, the gesture replied. The light from the fire painted her face and neck pleasing hues of amber and shadow.
"Where did you learn our language?" Logan asked.
"There were a few Woodlanders who I grew up with. They spoke my language and yours. I got more practice helping my father to haggle with Woodlanders who came to Lyall." There was a moment of silence, then she asked, "Laik says you're a witch. Is that true?"
Laik snickered. His adopted older brother liked to cause trouble, didn't he? "No," he stated. Marissa drew her breath a little at his anger. It wasn't that Logan minded being called that. The word was from Marissa's native language, and he really didn't know what it meant. Logan disliked it more because Laik was a relentless needler. Witch sounded like the word aiitcha in their language--squirrel. That was what Laik had been about to say when Logan cut him off. My friend the squirrel. Gather any nuts today? Your tail's looking better. Laik always used it with a half-cocked grin or an elbow jab to remind him that he didn't mean it, which was a good thing for him.
Logan noticed Marissa's discomfort. "Sorry. There's a joke in there." More patiently, he explained, "There was a family in the village, second name of Ariessen. They were Southern. They had a daughter named Sarina, who I was friends with, and her father thought I was bending her--" He stammered as he tried to find the word. "Faith. Bending her faith. He told her I was a witch."
"They all returned to your land after the first thaw," Laik added.
Marissa frowned. "That sounds a little harsh."
"Not for them," Laik continued. He gestured towards Logan. "Not for what he is. Her family and Jon's came here to spread their ways, not to become Woodlanders. This lad is Woodland ways incarnate."
Logan sat back against the tree. "The proper word's nejamen," he said. "That's in an older part of our tongue. It means Listener. It's not like we hear things that aren't already there. We kind of keep ourselves wild."
"That's why we're friends," Laik said. Marissa didn't seem to understand. She took a sip from the flask and handed it over to Laik, and he added, "Why don't you show her?"
"That's how the whole mess with Jon started," Logan said. Things had gotten complicated over Sarina after he showed her something that he could do with fire. Sarina had been impressed enough to tell her father, which had been the beginning of the end. He said to Marissa, "Only if you ask me to."
"I'm not afraid," she said. "I won't tell. I just want to know what it is about you that Jon is so afraid of."
Logan shuffled closer to the fire. Laik sat up. "You're in for a treat," he said to Marissa.
Logan came to his knees, squatting back, with his torso leaning towards the little blaze. His knees were just inches from catching on sparks. Marissa watched attentively. Logan passed his hands over the fire. "You can see the light here. Feel the heat, listen to it spit. I can't feel anything else now, either. But if I Listen, if I settle down and try to feel it in here," he tapped his fist against his chest, "I can feel something else."
Logan closed his eyes to slits. There was a more detailed explanation of what he was about to do, but he understood it only through sensation and familiarity. Part of Listening enabled him to coax movements in the ebb and flow of the forest that his deeper senses could touch. It was like playing with a current when you were under water, holding your hands like a tube, or making the water slide through you fingers.
He crisscrossed his hands over the fire, slowly, moving them back and forth through the wisps of flame. A feathery tickle ran over his palms. Logan sucked in the heated air. He drifted his thoughts in pools of heat, washing out from the fire. Almost without thinking, he began to whisper a stream of verses that spoke of sunset and resting. With every move back and forth the flames retreated into the pile of twigs and leaves.
By the fifth time he repeated the gesture, the flames had swallowed themselves into the wood. No smoke rose from the pile. It still would have felt warm if they touched it, but not enough to start burning again. His eyes opened. Just a touch, on the corners of his mouth, he allowed himself a smile. By the gentle moonlight he could see the expectation in Laik's eyes, the wonder in Marissa's.
"Not bad," she breathed.
"It's not done yet," he heard Laik say.
Logan passed his hand over the pile again. He drew his fingers across the twigs, and a low fire followed them like trails in sand. He opened and closed his fingers to spread the fire and light it fully.
He breathed in relief as he finally let go. There was a dull ache in the base of his neck. He felt cold. He smiled and dropped back against the tree again to give himself a rest. He looked at Laik. "Now, I'm tired," he said. As the fire grew their faces became distinct in the glow. Laik was nodding mute but beaming approval. Marissa looked breathless.
"What were those words you were saying?" Marissa asked.
Logan wiped his forehead with the heel of his palm. "Uh," he managed, embarrassingly. "It helps me think. Sort of a prayer, but you're not praying to anyone. It helps me to think the right way, so that I can do it." He shrugged amiably to finish answering Marissa's question. It really was the best answer he could give.
Laik leaned over the rising fire. He shook back his hair to let the heat wash into his face. The dim light from the fire cast his face in bloody shades of crimson and scarlet. Something about it bothered Logan. He pulled his knees closer to his chest, then put them back the way they were. He became conscious of the tight pull of the strap that bound his hunting knife to his leg, and the pressing of its grip against the top of his thigh. The whirring sound of the crickets and the sour, harsh popping of the flames haunted the clearing. Marissa asked Laik for the brandy. Laik handed it to her and moved back from the fire. His face was thrown back into softer shades of red, but the bad feeling didn't go away.
Logan tilted his head back until it rested against the tree behind him. He closed his eyes, feigning a little liquor-induced restfulness, and let himself feel what was happening more deeply. He wandered through memories of bad feelings, the ones that people would rather forget: being lost, a scolding from his mother, fights with other children.
When he was little, there had been nights when he would lay in bed on his stomach. He had been afraid to turn over because he thought there would be something standing there. On some of those nights he forced himself to turn over anyway. Then he would lay there, staring at the entrance to the burrow, afraid that it was really outside. He would gather up his blankets over his neck so that it couldn't strangle him after he fell asleep.
A new thought melted into the forefront of his mind. He could almost see another face painted in shades of blood. Close...near. He could almost hear a grunting sound. And there was real blood staining the ground. Logan's breath began to catch in his throat.
He breathed deeply and opened his eyes again. Coming back up to the real world jarred him a little. Marissa looked over at him, and by Laik's expression, his eyes had never left him from the moment he'd tilted his head back. The silence was awkward.
"Are you all right?" Laik asked.
Logan wanted to say yes, but it came out, "I think so." He shook his head. "Maybe it's the brandy. It must be throwing me around up here."
Laik shrugged. He finished off the flask. He shook it upside-down, trying to coerce the last few drops from the bottom. Nothing. He slipped it back into the pouch tied to his belt.
The three of them stood up. Logan started tossing dirt on top of the fire, making wild shadows dance over Laik and Marissa as the embers suffocated and went out. The moonlight was still bright enough for him to see their faces once it went out completely. "Are you sure you can make it back to the village?" he asked. He glanced at Marissa. He wasn't concerned about Laik. His friend could find his way and besides, he wasn't as good-looking.
"We'll be fine. It's an easy trail." He stepped over and clasped Logan's hand firmly. "You tell the wolves we said hello."
Logan grinned. "That I will."
As they unclasped hands, Marissa walked over to Logan, standing close to him. Among his people it would have been a forward thing to do, but Logan found that didn't mind at all. She smiled. "It was very good to meet you, Logan." He realized that she'd taken his hand. He couldn't think of anything to say, but at the same time, knew he'd only make a fool of himself if he did. He just smiled back and nodded. Hers widened in reply. She caressed his hand before letting go.
Laik waved to Logan as she started down the path ahead of him. He raised an eyebrow, glancing towards her, and then left the clearing too. Logan didn't move for the first few seconds after they'd walked out of sight. The brandy, and his remembered loneliness over Sarina, had told him he'd settle for any random girl with an appealing figure, but there was more to how he felt now than that.
He swallowed. It was time to go.
The forest grew quieter as Logan neared the burrow. His ears pricked at it as he slowed down to cross the stream he'd leaped over on the way out. That familiar, uncomfortable feeling, the one that he felt by the fire was crawling down his back again. He'd hoped that it was just something like bad brandy or fatigue, or a wild imagination, but there were no funny shadows here to make him feel uneasy. The forest was still, with a low mist hugging the ground, and that was as it should be. A feeling like dead weight sank into his abdomen; Logan's hand went to his knife. Something is wrong.
Close by, he heard the call of a screech owl that lived near their house. Its wings whispered, and there was a rustle in the ground. Logan's body went rigid in anticipation of the sound he knew would come next. A mouse screamed. He winced painfully at the sound of its bones crunching under its beak. His heart pounded.
The haze that the brandy left over his senses had worn almost completely away during his run. His discipline allowed him to sort through what was left of it. The dead weight feeling sank deeper. It wasn't just him. Fear was all around him. Logan could taste the chilling lightness of it in the air. Nothing moved. Nothing breathed.
He moved off the path, slowing his walk to feel his way through a scattering of brush. He crouched and disappeared into the foliage. The giddy rush of fear and elation that he felt when he hunted with the wolves was rising inside him. Mistakes, he thought. Try to find mistakes. Whoever was out here, and he was already sure there was someone else, probably wasn't as good at hunting as he was. Certainly not at night.
Logan reached the bottom of the burrow's hill. No voices, no flattened grass, though there was hardly any light to tell by. The outline to the entrance of the burrow was dark. Logan moved closer. Still no sounds in the forest. Logan shuffled through the low grass to the side of the hill, pressing himself closer to the entrance. He poked the deerskin cloth aside with his knife. Nothing. The main room was dark. He couldn't hear any snoring, but his mother only did that when she first fell asleep. He could barely see the outlines of the furniture and the fireplace. A feeling tugged at him to look around and make sure he was alone.
Logan moved up to the top of the hill, whispering another verse to himself every few steps or so to keep himself quiet. As his vision cleared the top, he saw a rust-red glow clinging to the mist about fifty strides from where he stood. Campfire. The hill had kept him from seeing it on his way back. Logan heard a sound that he couldn't quite understand, like the heavy breathing of a bear, or a winded man.
He slinked closer, head low to the ground, choosing the brush and higher grass where he could. The silence was pervasive. Logan felt like he could wake up the whole bloody valley if he was just a little louder. Logan pressed his body against the earth and bellied forward on his hands.
Someone was singing, but the song was discordant, pitching and yawing like a tree's limbs fighting the wind. He could pick out guttural, harsh words, or what sounded like words. Some he recognized, like the ones they used in the verses, but they were spoken in choking grunts that rattled him.
The fire was between a set of trees, too small to call a clearing. Logan hid behind a patch of brush about fifteen strides away. The screening of leaves and branches was too dense for him to see through. There was someone on the other side of the fire, smaller than himself in build. The voice sounded like a woman's. What he could see was obscured by the glare of the fire and the woman's exaggerated movements, swinging her head and her hands. She certainly was doing a lot of moving for someone sitting down.
There was a sick joke in that, and he kicked himself to keep his mind on what he was doing. Logan pressed his face into the dirt and switched the knife to point towards him, hiding it under his palm. The blade was shiny enough to reflect under a campfire's light. He crawled around, following the shape of the brush to where it ended and another began. It was less thick here, but only a Listener would have been able to tell.
His mother sat between the trees. Logan stared at her. All right, so it's my mother, he thought. Like himself, she was wearing the same clothes she'd had on before she went to bed. It looked like they both had snuck out; maybe she was only catnapping when she left.
He tried to stay calm. A small fire, like the one Laik had made, practically sat in her lap. Crimson light from the fire flashed on the edges of one of the preparing knives as she waved it in her hand. The fire illuminated her face dimly when she sat up, like blood when she hung her head down. Like blood, he thought. Now he knew where the bad feelings had come from. He could hear slick, tearing sounds under her chanting. She was slicing at something on the ground. Her skirt was pulled back so that it wouldn't catch on the flames, highlighting her knees and feet in the glow. In-time, she nodded and swung her body with her words. The song's rhythm twisted as the words fell off a refrain. Logan felt sick.
I have to see. I have to see what she's doing.
Logan raised his head just a little. Now he had leaves and branches sticking in his hair, and some of it groped across his face, but he had a better view. She was dressing the pheasant that had hung by the fireplace. Skinning it, slicing out the entrails. But then she tossed the guts of it one by one into the fire, chanting as she did so. Her hands were covered with blood, and her face was stretched taut, lined with the muscles in her cheeks and forehead. Her eyes were fixed into the center of the fire. He realized that she hadn't even been looking at the pheasant or paid attention to her knife strokes as she cleaned it. For all he knew she'd nicked her hands and all that blood was hers.
Logan lowered himself back down. He couldn't believe what he was seeing, or feeling. That mad butcher not ten feet away from him was his mother. He grit his teeth and tightened the muscles in his arms to keep from running in blind terror. Calm down. Settle down.
He couldn't shut them out. The words chanted death. Pain. Blood and suffering. Logan swallowed. The knife handle slipped in the dampness of his palm. The flames were reaching higher as another refrain rose to its climax. They were actually rising with the words. Logan forced himself to stay put. She was about finished cleaning the bird, and he felt a sensation like impending thunder coming out of the fire.
The incantation released itself. The fire disappeared with a sucking pop and a puff of smoke, and his mother collapsed into a heap. The sudden darkness enveloped him. The fear feeling vanished, and he barely kept from gasping as all the muscles in his body relaxed, his shoulders and legs especially. He felt spent. Logan's eyes sparkled behind a shower of colored dots. He was falling asleep, and he ground his fist into the earth to fight it off. He heard the thud of his mother's body against the tree behind her. As much as he wanted to run back to the house, Logan didn't move. He didn't want her to know he was here.
Nearby, he could hear his mother breathing. She was panting slowly, like he did after his run to the campfire with Laik. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness again he could see the silhouette of her head. Sweat glistened on her cheeks. The living silence of the forest returned as he watched to see what she would do next. He heard crickets first, then the chittering sounds of small animals here and there. The shift from the way it had been to how it felt now reminded Logan of clouds receding to admit moonlight.
After a time that felt like the passing of the whole night, his mother regained enough strength to move again. She scattered the remaining embers first. Probably like mine, he thought. Just warm to the touch. She stood and kicked dirt over the rest of it. Logan kept his face down, in case her own eyes were adjusting to the light. He heard her give a full, lazy yawn, then there was only the sound of receding footsteps as she made her way back to the house. She walked through the trees like Marissa had, snapping twigs and letting her feet thud. The annoying snaps kept him on edge.
He heard footsteps on the floor in the main room, and the soft shutting of the deerskin. Logan slid away from the bushes. He couldn't control his breathing. I'm allowed, he thought. I'm scared. He came to all fours, then quickly sat up. He couldn't bloody believe it. He'd had to wait until his parents fell asleep to leave the house, but never to get back in. Logan tried to think straight. His fists clenched until the knuckles were white and the pain burned his fingers.