His parents looked up as Logan walked into their home. "Great earth. What happened to you?" his mother asked.
"Fight?" his father suggested. He leaned forward in his chair but didn't get up.
Logan nodded. "I won, though."
"Won," his mother snorted. "You're a mess." His father didn't get up because they only would have gotten in each other's way. Logan rigidly went to sit down at the table where his father sat, keeping her only in the corner of his eye. She took his head in her hands, trying to get a better look at his bruises and cuts. "Move over here, closer to the hearth. Dellard, find a healing bag."
Logan shook his head, or tried to, with his mother holding it in place. "Don't bother. We already did that at the Blackfeathers'."
"We can do a little more than Laik's parents." Wolfmark looked at Logan's mother. "Are there any more raspberries in the jars?"
She nodded and told him where, then turned back to her son. "You mean it was worse?"
Logan smirked wanly. "For me or for him?"
His mother stared at him levelly. "You." She didn't think this was as funny as he seemed to. Logan had an annoying tendency to look on scrapes and cuts, even wounds, as badges of honor. That he managed to drum up a fight in a village as sleepy as Kenton irked her even more. "Who was it this time? Marek? Someone else have eyes on that girl?"
"Close," Logan admitted.
She shook her head, whispering silent oaths to herself. "It's always someone, though."
"I feel like a prize horse," Logan snapped. He shook his head out of his mother's hands again. "Want to check my teeth?"
His father took a bag out from a chest on the other side of the room. The bag was stuffed with salt, herbs, stones and other things. They made them to help heal small cuts. He dunked it in a bucket of water, wrung it out and handed it to him. Logan winced, squeezing drops of seepage from the bag into the cut on his jaw. It stung. He murmured healing phrases that spoke of Spring and rebirth. Nothing happened. He still felt too upset to make it work. Logan sighed. "Thunder and lightning, but it was stupid."
His father asked, "Care to tell us about it? Just for something to talk about?"
"There's not much to tell, really. I like her, she likes me, and I'm still going to see her. Rolf's there to make sure I don't." He didn't get into specifics on the rest. Rolf was watching Marissa, Rolf saw them, Rolf wanted a fight, Logan and Rolf bruised each other up.
His father was mashing some raspberries in a bowl, whispering as he did. He also mixed in some herbs that Logan couldn't see. He handed it to Logan with a spoon. "Eat this. You'll feel better."
He took the bowl, and his mother stepped back so that he could eat. He swished around the contents of the bowl, then sampled it. He nearly spat it back out. The stuff seemed to clump around his tongue, like eating freshly cooked brain. He winced, fighting down revulsion in his stomach. He swallowed with an effort. "That tasted like year-old gruel."
His father grinned. "I've never heard anyone put it that way. I just know it tastes bad."
His mother took over the bag he'd been using and dabbed at his nose. "How's this going to help?" Logan asked shoveling another spoonful almost right down his throat.
"It'll help the bag work better," she answered. "Hold still."
"Can't you do that between bites?"
She stepped back, holding the bag like women held fancy handkerchiefs. Taut, frustrated. This wasn't going to be just another skinned knee she could work on without protest. He sniffed violently, his eyes widening. He could breathe. "How did you do that?"
"It's not finished. I'll get back to it when you're done eating."
Logan smirked. They were even. He quickly shoveled a few more spoonfuls down his gullet, trying not to taste the thick, lumpy porridge that used to be raspberries. He liked porridge, and he liked raspberries, but he'd never been able to develop a taste for brains. Anything tastes delicious when you're starving, his father often told him. Somehow he couldn't connect the idea that what looked and smelled like mashed red fruit now tasted slithery.
Wolfmark looked away from his son. He shook his head. Logan lowered his eyes with angry thoughts of Rolf and good father Jon crossing his mind. His mother dabbed at his nose again. Her eyes held his for a moment, and he realized that she probably had a pretty good idea of what he was thinking. Low eyes, taut shoulders, it was as good as screaming it with her only two feet away. She gave him a smile, and a conspiratorial wink. I won't tell if you won't, she was thinking.
His mother shifted her attention to his bruised abdomen. She winced. Yeah, he got me pretty good there. His father wasn't smiling, but his tone didn't reprove him for fighting. He looked at him more thoughtfully. "I doubt you'll get any more trouble from him for a while. His kind might be splinter-picking bastards, but they're fair splinter-picking bastards." "How do you mean, his kind?"
"Oh." Logan thought he meant Southlanders. Marissa certainly wasn't a splinter-picking bitch. He dabbed a little more intently on the bruise. Logan tried the invocation again, and this time, he felt it work. A clumpy, nauseated feeling left his stomach. He breathed more easily.
His mother looked up. "Do I still need to take care of this spot?" Logan nodded. She held it for a little while longer. Logan looked away and moved his healing bag to the side of his head. No, he agreed, thinking of her wink. His father wouldn't approve. Bloody thoughts weren't good for a Listener.
"It's too bad she can't make her way out here. I'd like to meet her." Logan glanced at his father. Wolfmark shrugged, grinning offhandedly. "I would. Any girl with the guts to sneak a secret like this around father Cliniessen is worth making acquaintance with."
"It's not going to stay a secret any more," Logan said to himself. The only way his father would meet Marissa was if they went into Kenton and she wasn't being watchdogged by her sister or anyone else. His mother sat back, and just as she did, he sneezed. Logan blinked. His nose felt almost perfect now. It felt tingly inside, like it did in the winter, but nothing hurt.
She nodded approvingly. "All you'll need now is a good night's sleep." She looked over his scars and bruises. "As for meeting this girl, just watch yourself. There are other girls." Logan stiffened a little. "I already know what you think of her."
As much as she enjoyed needling her way under Jon's skin, Alene didn't like seeing her son coming home like a rag doll, needing mends and patching up. She felt her husband breathing next to her, and let out a long breath of her own. Her dislike for the good missionary was turning into cold hate. There was no rage to it at all. This was a decision, made after years of bickering and pettiness. She had never been able to tolerate impotency of action. That was how she raised her son. It was part of the reason why she married Dellard. He did things. He made things happen. Alene had never expected such an untenably deep well of understanding to go along with it, and now it was keeping Logan from his just retaliation. Logan wanted to get Jon back with something that would stick to him like filth on his vestments. She had seen that in his eyes.
Alene sighed. She chafed at having to practice in secret, but it was either that or give it up entirely. In a way, it was good that Logan spent as much time with the villagers as he did. It kept him from spying on her, and Dellard really didn't keep an eye out the way his son did. He didn't want to believe that anything really was going on.
As she had done that night by the fire, Alene slid out of bed. Normally she would have moved outside, into a place where she could at least see by moonlight, but a certain young lad's instincts were too sharp for her liking. The only reason why she took the risk at all was that the medicines that were working in him would keep him from sensing what she was doing. She would have to whisper as she spoke the words, and keep herself faced away from them. She took out the cards again.
"Logan." She could barely see the card's face, but she had used them enough to know them by their individual wears and tears. This one was The Minstrel, since it had a loose, fraying corner. She guessed that had something to do with the girl. Minstrels were wooing romantics at heart. "Dellard." The Protector. She frowned. Protecting whom? From what? "Dellard," she repeated. The Fall. She stared at the card, not in shock but mystified. The card portrayed a man falling from a great height. Falling to your death was a form of honorable execution in the Wood country. A death sentence was a death sentence, but there was honor in being permitted to take your own life and having the courage to carry it out. Usually the card meant guilt; condemnation, fault, doom. Failure, but with honor. It certainly wasn't daisies in the morning.
"M--" she stopped. Alene wasn't sure if she wanted to know what lay in her future. Her fingers suspended over the third card. "Jon," she decided, and chose the card. The Hound. Hunters sometimes used them to chase down animals or sniff them out. Dellard, naturally, didn't need to. Pursuit. Capture.
Alene sighed. The cards weren't being very helpful tonight.
She looked at the third card again. "Laik," she said quickly and turned it over. The Fox. Wily, cunning. That was nothing new.
Alene looked at the last two cards. She wasn't supposed to turn them over, as a matter of tradition. If she did turn them over, they would reveal the future, but she wouldn't be able to predict for whom or what. Alene turned them over. They were another Fall, and the Wolf.
Alene sighed. How very helpful that was.
She put the cards away, then sat down on the bed. That she said Jon's name rather than her own was supposed to mean that the card hadn't been meant for her in the first place. Not that she wasn't being wily and cunning herself, with hiding her arts from Dellard and all. It surprised her how far a little dabbling could go. The cards were right more often than not. And she'd learned most of that herself. There was a way for such things, especially when you gave it the right touch.
Morning came, and Alene made her trip into the village again. Alene walked around the carts again, mindfully avoiding the tattooed merchant with prayer beads. Caren pointed out this and that, clucking like a hen and oblivious that Alene wasn't listening. Her eyes were looking for Jon today, not spices and wines.
Alene shifted her basket from one arm to the other, wringing out the cramps that it had been giving her arm. She swept her gaze up and down the street. Maybe he was avoiding her, hiding behind the shutters to his house or his wife's skirts. Where was he? Just a few words were all she wanted. Maybe even a hint about what was to come.
"I'm sorry, dear. What was that?" Caren was holding up a little doll, tiny bits of glass for eyes, its face and clothes embroidered in surprising detail. "Oh," she said dismissively. "It's charming." Alene looked around again. "Have you seen the missionary today?" Caren's cheer at finding the doll melted from her face. She put it back down, hesitating over what to say. Alene smiled kindly. "I know what you're thinking, Caren. It's nothing worth worrying over."
"It was that lad Rolf who started it, not Jon."
The good woman just didn't want to see any more trouble in the village, didn't she? It'd keep the merchants and their dolls away, bad for business and all. Alene's smile took a slightly deceptive cast, which she covered by nodding. "I know. I didn't have anything bad in mind this time." She sighed, looking around. Not that her imagination didn't fly on wings of creative fancy. A rat in one of his prayer books, a little jack-o'lantern at his door. A sinister thing to keep him on his toes.
She spied a young girl of about sixteen who looked furtively away. The white kerchief told her that she was one of Jon's daughters. Tall, with her father's golden hair and her mother's strong figure. "Jenna?" The girl looked up as if she'd been jabbed in the ribs. Another Southern girl nearby, who Alene hadn't seen before, looked up but didn't say anything. She must have been Marissa. "Yes. What can I do for you, mother Wolfmark?" Jenna asked. Marissa's eyes widened then.
Alene straightened. Jenna talked like her father, probably from reading that book of his so much. Some maturity showed through, and that was probably Thaisa's doing. "I was wondering if we might see your father here today."
Jenna shook her head. "No. That's why we're doing the shopping today." She looked nervously at some of the fruits she'd gathered. "Is there anything I can help you with?" Jenna's hair fell in front of her eyes, hiding her face. It was probably the idea. She brushed the strands back and tried, bravely, to look her in the eyes.
Alene stepped closer to her. "Tell father Cliniessen that I'm sorry to hear about the tussle between Rolf and my son." She gave her the same smile that she'd given Caren. Jenna bit her lip, nodding, and Alene detected the faintest tremble in her face. "Thank you, dear." She nodded again. Alene pat her arm and walked away, not looking at Marissa. Jenna didn't let her breath out until she was far away.
Caren stared at her. Alene raised an eyebrow questioningly, but noticed that she'd attracted some others' attention, too. Good. The more the merrier.
"Did you have to?" Caren asked. "She's such a sweet girl."
"Jon wasn't here," she said, her voice husky. "I was considerate. If she's frightened of me then that's a shame, but it's nothing I can help." As she looked at Caren, Alene caught a flicker of what she'd seen in Jenna's eyes.
Logan sighted the arrow and fired. He swung his bow in the air angrily. The arrow was errant by more than a stride to the right. The deer bolted. Laik jumped to his feet, sighted his bow, but the deer was already long gone. Logan's shoulders dropped and he swore, mimicking the angry hiss of a cottonmouth snake. It wasn't missing so much as the way he missed. Even if his aim had been dead-on, he couldn't have hit it. All the intangibles were gone. Control, breathing, nothing stuck, and they were all more important than hitting in the first place. He likened himself to the idea of Rolf trying to dance in poise.
"Still smarting from that fight?" Laik asked. He nodded. "Put down the bow." Logan looked at him. He walked over and took the bow from his adopted younger brother's hands. "Let's do something to get your mind off this." He put it down, unslung a bag that he carried from his shoulder and started going through it.
Logan didn't look at him. He didn't want to get his mind off it. He fervently hoped that he wasn't going to ask him to drink or smoke a fistal roll.
"Your ribs still bothering you?" Laik asked.
And yes, Laik tossed him a roll. Then he said something that Logan didn't expect. "Unwrap it, take out the leaves and chew on the ones that are still in one piece. It'll help deaden the pain."
Logan already knew that. With the proper incantations it would work even better. "I thought you only used them the other way."
Laik grinned. "The other way works better. Your father told me how to use them your way once while we were all hunting." He kept looking through his bag. It wasn't that he carried much, but what he carried was rolled together as tight as he could make it, to minimize the space. Woodland hunters practiced packing their gear as a skill in itself.
Logan did what Laik said. "I'll say this much for Rolf. He's got one living right arm. It's too bad he hasn't put it to better use."
"He's probably wondering how a squirrel like yourself managed to beat him." He clapped him on the shoulder. Logan wasn't in the mood for squirrel jokes, but the idea of one fending off a bear was a fairly close way of putting what fighting that monster had been like. He had to admit that it was a decent little accomplishment. "Yeah," Laik affirmed, looking at his friend's expression. "You know he is."
Finally, he found what he was looking for. Laik tossed a small pouch into the air. Logan thought he heard the rustle of beads. He tossed the pouch over to Logan. Beads, all right. He could feel them. It was like the kind jugglers sometimes used. "What are you doing with his?" Logan asked. Laik took out another one from his pack, tossing it and catching it again with the same hand. Logan examined the one he was holding. No, nothing unusual about it. The other one hit him, not hard, in the face, and Logan dropped them both.
"Is that a hint?" Logan asked.
Laik gestured to them. "Pick them up, laddieboy. Let's play catch."
He tossed it back to him. "We still have to get something for supper tonight."
"With the two best hunters in the clan? Don't think it'll be a problem." Laik tossed it back.
Logan stepped back to give a longer throw. "We're just playing?" Logan asked, and Laik nodded. Logan threw it back, trying to relax and let himself go. For a while they volleyed them back and forth without a word. This was the kind of thing that his father would do, usually with a lesson attached. Logan took to it well. Finally, he gave up and just said, "I don't even know what to think. I want to see her, but I can't say I like the idea of getting knocked around again." He caught a return throw and lobbed it back immediately.
"We knocked around with people before she came here," Laik replied, tossing it back to him. "What's new about it?"
"It's when--," Logan stopped, faltering, and gave the bag a good hard throw, grunting as it left his hand. "It'd be easier if I didn't have to be sneaky about it."
"From Jon or from Rolf?" Pitch.
Catch. Logan stopped in mid-throw. He didn't know. Last night he'd been angry and frustrated enough over sneaking around to consider calling Jon out at the next Gathering of the clan. If the clan sided with him, Marissa could see him and Jon couldn't send Rolf after him anymore.
Catch. Pitch. "You're thinking again," Laik said. "Don't do it so much."
Alene took another route on the way back home, one that she knew would take her away from the hunting trails that Logan and Dellard frequently took. She needed time to think. The path was one of the more beautiful areas of the forest, if you could really say that, with mossy rocks and a sprinkling of blossoms here and there. The sun filtered down in soft green light through the leaves, and the shade left the summer humidity surprisingly refreshing.
She picked at some of the higher-growing flowers as she walked past them, breathing in their fragrance. Alene walked on, in and out of the sunlight. It was hard to hold on to any bitterness in the beauty of the day. The silence eased things in her mind.
Most of the space in her basket was taken up by cloth that she'd use for a new dress. It wasn't very full. Her accosting of Jenna had spoiled things from that moment on, and she hadn't done as much trading as she'd wanted to. She raised her eyes toward the roof of the forest, gazing at the soft light that faded through the canopy of leaves overhead. The air had a fresher taste today. It was the first sign of the coming autumn.
Her little confrontation with Jenna had certainly taken the wind out of Caren's day. She didn't say much for the rest of the time that they were together, not even 'how does this look' or to haggle with the merchants. Alene sighed. She meant to be crass with Jenna, not her friend, but Caren's silence had only made things worse. They'd parted with a light hug, and Alene hadn't missed how quickly Caren walked back to her house. She plucked a handful of violet leaves from a wildflower patch that overgrew the path. Practicing in secret was tasting more and more flat all the time. It reminded her of that raspberry healing goo they'd given Logan the night before. Yes, it tasted that bad. When she'd been younger she could have done this without thinking, and would have dealt with the consequences later. She smirked. Her thoughts dwelled on it all, and the shade seemed to grow a little darker.
Then there was Dellard.
Alene shook her head roughly, growling like a caged animal. The worst nag in the world was your own conscience, that was certain. She breathed deeply as a light wind blew through the forest, carrying the wet scent of grass, and the cool, tingly smell of trees. She whispered the words to a gathering song that she knew.
There was a particular berry that she needed to gather for her purposes. They didn't keep them at home. They were candy, an aphrodisiac under the proper conditions, but they weren't good for anything other than making yourself dizzy without proper preparation. They were also addictive in the raw form. Animals avoided them entirely. Olienberries would grow in low shrubs in shaded, moist areas. There was one grove within about a mile of the path. On occasion she diverted there just to take in the smell of the leaves. She had made perfume from it once in a while just to prove to Dellard that her way wasn't all bad. These purposes went deeper than that. Alene felt that she was crossing a bridge whose edges she had always tested, always touched, but never passed over. She had lied before, but she had never manipulated anyone like this.
Alene began to sing. The words ebbed into her, slowly at first, then with persistence. She felt warm, a more liquid sensation than the season's humidity. Her gaze turned to the right, off the path. It was this way. She followed the song, slipping through tangles and brush as easily as any hunter. The cold ache of cramps in her arm from carrying the basket slipped under the warmth of the song, and melted away. The sweet, honey smell of the bushes flowed around her. Through a haze, Alene saw the familiar, holly-like leaves of the shrub she'd been looking for. The grass felt cool here. Moss covered the bark on the closest trees.
Alene put down the basket and lowered herself to the ground. Waves of blood pulsed in her ears. She drew out a knife that she'd hidden in her skirt. It was a small one, used for things like this, but she hadn't wanted anyone to know that she was gathering berries at all. The words to another song floated around in the back of her mind. She reached toward the shrub, looking at the immature fruit under the leaves. Oh, if only they were ripe!
No matter. They would serve. Alene closed her eyes. She held the leaves and gently snipped off the berry. She began to sing. The shade in the clearing deepened, and it welcomed her as readily as the sunlight. The sensation of the forest's presence rushed over her. It had the smoky taste of air that burned near a fire.
Her consciousness sank. Alene opened her eyes and kept singing, cutting one berry after another to fall onto her skirt. That part of her was detached now. The trance reminded her of the beloved hearth during winter, when it was snowing and they were still warm inside. Shadows around her began to take substance. Near and far, new voices called her name. Alene, one whispered by her ear. Alene, another whispered far away. The darkness that she sank into was named Jon, and it was her hate.
Alene sank deeper. Without fear, or foolish caution, there would be no limits to how far she could go. She could sink forever if she wished to. Her parents had taught her that. Dellard knew, but he used it only rarely. Logan would learn in time, perhaps sooner, if she could persuade Dellard to let her teach him.
Her hands froze next to another berry. The shadows cringed, hissing her name. Her unsaid anger at Dellard reached farther inside her than she had realized. She could imagine him and the missionary in the same thoughtless image of closed-mindedness. It was a compelling vision, and it rocked her. Alene breathed in a long, slow breath to let her concentration settle, and her bitterness began to subside. The buoying sensation rose up. Just to be careful, her descent took a more gentle drift this time. The low, beating rhythm became easier to feel. And while she could barely hear the sounds in the forest, the moist smell of the grove and the freshness of the trees filled her. If an animal had been stalking her, she would have felt it coming through the ground.
The shadows began capering to the song. At crescendo and refrain, she heard them calling her. They welcomed her as they had at first, like a sister in spirithood. Alene remembered her parents again, and a smile curved around her face. Her hands wove through the bush, clipping berries that she wouldn't have seen without twisting around the branches. Her fingers tingled.
Her thoughts drifted from her to Jon, to angry words and a tear of frustration late at night, when Dellard thought she was asleep. They drifted to his impassiveness at seeing the bruises on her son's face. Did he really think it could stop with a fight?
Alene absorbed herself into the song, as she had that night by the fire that had been witnessed by Logan. She had taken precautions this time to ensure his ignorance. There were subtle intonations that she had used that night by the hearth, when they had dreamed of hunting like wolves. There had been no visions of Spring inside her mind. At least, there were many visions of Spring, and the regreening of the trees and forest life was only one. Another was the return of good hunting. If she knew her son, he had been too preoccupied with his anger to sense what was going on.
Alene returned her senses to the fore as the song came to an end. She no longer saw or heard the shadows, though she still felt their closeness to her. Her eyes saw the forest again. Alene lifted her consciousness up one last time, letting down her hands. The area was darker now. She looked around, and saw that the sun had moved behind the thicker layers of branches. She couldn't stay much longer. Alene breathed deeply again, gathering the berries between her hands and unfolding her legs. The tingling from the berries spread into her wrists.
Logan returned home right around sunset, a small boar over his shoulder and in a much better mood. After all, he did kick Rolf around pretty well, even if it was a stupid fight to begin with. Then there was his next meeting with Marissa tomorrow night. That was something to look forward to. His staff thumped the ground cheerfully by his side, and he whistled to himself as he walked up to the burrow.
His mother was inside, putting a cork on a small bottle. "Hello there," she said to him. "Where's your father?"
"He went hunting with the other clan fathers. I spent the day with Laik." He unslung his gear, careful to put it where he was supposed to this time. He went outside to clean the pig, then noticed the bottle again. "What's that?"
"It's a little something I threw together for Marissa."
She made a face at him. "I used to be her age, dear son. I know what girls like."
Logan eyed the bottle curiously. "What is it?"
"It's a perfume." She put a little on her wrist and held it out for him to smell. It reminded him of apricot nectar. Not a bad choice. Sarina had sometimes used something made from honey, and he'd found it a little strong when you were close to it. He took the bottle. "Are you going to be seeing her again soon?" she asked.
"Tomorrow, just a little while at her house. He's still keeping her indoors when she's alone. It should work out pretty well for us."
"I hope she likes it. I just didn't want her to think that the people around here are all bad.
Logan undid the cork and smelled it. He didn't see his mother stiffen when he did. The scent was almost lighter than air, but it was insinuative. It slipped farther inside him every time he tried to catch it. He suddenly, vividly remembered the honey Sarina wore. It didn't seem so bad this time. "Blazes," he said. A warm feeling started to creep up inside him, but he guessed that was the heat. He'd done a lot of running today. "I've never smelled this on you," he observed.
His mother shrugged, a little tensely. "I've never had any reason to. I used to wear it when I was courting your father."
Logan replaced the cork and put the bottle away. He stood. "I have to go clean this pig. Be back soon." He left, closing the door behind him.
Slowly, Alene smiled. She felt very, very pleased.