Three days in the Wood came and went, and his father's calm almost
reassured Logan that everything was all right. He couldn't stick it in,
though. He kept leaping back to the memory of seeing his mother by that
fire, and that look on her face. He kept his misgivings quiet, dealing with
the more present problems of learning new skills and invocations.
It didn't help. A day after their lesson on the plateau, he lost his concentration during an exercise with Chika's sons. The goal had been to keep both of them at bay, either with sweeps of his staff or by evading their lunges. One of the cubs kept leaping inside his guard. Another day they were practicing forms, the dances that Listeners and hunters used to learn and refine fighting techniques. He had enough wind to get through Deer, the longest form, but couldn't get the snap that he wanted for the darting speed and viciousness of Weasel and Shrew. It wasn't anything to get bent out of shape over; Weasel and Shrew were two of the most difficult forms. The snap was getting tied up somewhere between that day and that night after the campfire. His father noticed -- Logan could tell -- but said nothing.
Before dawn on the fourth day his father headed back to the burrow. Once Logan had his bearings he made his way for Kenton, to see Laik and, he hoped, Marissa.
Kenton was short for Halkienton, the place of clan Halkien. About two hundred of Logan's cousins and more distant relations lived here. Second names were used to distinguish the families from each other. His father used Wolfmark because of the wolf's paw symbol that he used to mark his place in the forest; Laik's father was second-named Blackfeather because he had a superstitious preference for crow feathers in his arrows. Laik himself was called "the Wild" because of the reputation that he'd already earned in the clan. He would be referred to as "father Laik" politely, since "father the Wild" didn't work. His mother's second name used to be "the Bold," but wives assumed their husbands' second names when they married. Logan hadn't really earned himself a name yet, truth be told, and felt a little embarrassed to be called "Wolfmark-Son" when he had to introduce himself formally.
He had never counted, but guessed that there were about forty or so houses in the village. The largest by far was Jon Cliniessen's. It occupied two houses built into one another, one of which was his chapel. Most of the other houses were families with children, and the rest were divided among the unmarried men and women, and couples who were married in the Spring festival just gone by. All were made of logs, and just slightly dug into the earth to keep out drafts. Some had windows, and all of them had both front and back entrances. Hunting traditions made getting trapped inside your den the antithesis of Woodland sensibility. Logan once noticed how ironic it was that the Listener's house, of all the houses in clan Halkien, didn't have an easy escape route. The hearth chimney was one way, if you didn't mind smashing through the earth at the top to do it.
A short run from end to end, the village was circular, with the homes huddled around each other and an open space in the middle. A low palisade of logs smeared with the gunk that they used on the burrow's entrance kept animals from wandering in, though Logan thought that any self-respecting animal wouldn't be caught dead in such a noisy, open place. Even with the trees towering all around the village, Logan felt exposed. The creak and rattle of doors ached in his ears. The Wood was going to seem empty, vast, and ear-ringingly silent once he left the village.
Logan didn't expect to see anyone he knew besides Laik. The Woodlanders lived off the forest, and all the able-bodied hunters would be scouting after food by now. The women would either be at home watching a herd of children or gathering the nuts, berries, herbs and roots that grew wild in the forest. Laik was only home because they had arranged it at the campfire.
Eyes began settling on him the moment he walked onto the main path. Even without the staff, everyone would recognize the Listener's son. Logan had grown accustomed to it. He garnered as much notice and deference as any of the clan elders. He greeted a few people as he walked down the path among the homes. He knew all of the them and was more or less friendly to everyone.
Logan's eyes widened in shock as he saw someone he didn't know, with the eyes and the softer face of a Southlander. He was a big one, too, and was working on a thatch at the missionary's house. The lad's eyes met his. Logan nodded, and was about to give him a cheerful tip of his staff when the lad -- the bear froze where he stood, eyes burning in dark, certain hate. Logan looked away. As he passed the house, his ears were too keen to miss the epithet witch under the lad's breath.
What in all of green earth was that for? Logan thought of the steely, needle-piercing point that those eyes had as they looked at him. He remembered when Sarina's father had first called him a witch. His walk became more relaxed as some things became clearer, and he understood. It had to have something to do with Marissa. Was she supposed to marry him or something?
He caught the odor of a smoldering fistal roll before he walked past the front of Laik's home. It was a common flower whose stem leaves could be used for healing. The leaves had mildly hallucinogenic properties when smoked. Logan found him re-stringing his bow, humming and murmuring what words he knew to a song as he did. The ember was barely the size of a thumbnail now, but Laik still smoked it. He tossed him a salute as he saw Logan. "You look a little scruffed-up," he said. "Been wrestling with cougars again?"
Logan almost laughed. They both knew he'd never wrestled a cougar in his life, but Laik didn't know how close he was to the truth. "Just wolves," he said, and Laik chuckled. "What's been happening here?"
"In five days? Not much." Laik returned to his bow. He offered him a drag on the roll, but Logan declined. That was something they'd done so often that it was almost ritual. Logan noticed that his eyes were a little unfocused, slightly bloodshot and he was speaking more slowly than he usually did. He sucked a little on the roll. "How about you?" he asked, the pasty white smoke drifting out of his mouth.
Logan paused. How to phrase it? "Did you ever have a bad feeling, about your parents, or someone you knew?"
Laik stared at him. His voice was hoarse when he spoke. "What? Am I acting funny?"
He laughed. As if the man didn't act funny enough already. "No, not you."
Laik's stare became more intent. "No," he said, breathing out smoke through his nose. "If it was me, you would've spoken to my father."
"Or yours, right." He took another slow drag on the roll. His eyes settled on a space a few inches away from him as he thought about it. He gave Logan one last chance to take a puff from the roll; Logan declined. Laik punctuated the end of his mental deliberation with a casual flick that scattered the remaining embers. "So it must be one of your parents," he observed. "Because if someone was acting weird here, I'd know about it."
Logan nodded. "I don't know much. Just, something I saw. Not an argument." Which wasn't exactly true, but he didn't feel like bringing it up anymore.
"She's not smoking this stuff, is she?"
Logan laughed again. "No, I don't think so."
"Well, that's good. At least you don't have to worry about that." His gaze drifted into space. Either he was thinking or he was drifting, and it could be either one. You couldn't tell with EM>fistal. "I don't know what to tell you. I mean, if my parents were acting strange, I'd just stay around this house for a while. It's not that easy for you.
"But I'll tell you one thing," Laik continued. "If your parents are getting strange, I would watch myself, and I mean every step I took. You're walking a finer thread than I do with mine, understand?"
Logan wasn't sure about that. Laik knew what he was talking about, but that seemed a little too much. "My father doesn't seem to think it's serious," Logan added.
"Do you?" Laik asked. Logan nodded again. "That's enough. You know a bad spot when you see it, right? Keep your eyes open, and whatever else you nejamen people do. Your father's trusted your mother for years. He's used to it. You might be a little wiser."
Laik finished stringing his bow, and they went inside the house. Laik's house was officially Logan's, too. Unmarried men usually lived together in groups of three or four, but Logan was Laik's first, best friend, and he lived in the Wood. Laik had the house to himself, but Logan still had a bed and few things of his own on the other side of the room from its resident. A pipe, a gift from Laik's father, hung on the wall to his right, and the wings of a falcon were pegged to the wall to his left. Laik had tried to net that one and nearly had his eyes clawed out. A ring of flowers was sitting on Laik's bed. "Who's that from?" Logan asked.
"I don't know. They were in front of my door this morning."
Another admirer. Logan had been told about how large the towns were once you left Wood's End, and he had to wonder how far his friend's randy inclinations would take him in a town where it was too big to know everyone.
A small jug of brandy had been left on the table in anticipation of his arrival. Logan found that this was freshly-made, and about strong enough to erode his mug. "Who in green earth is that mountain who's working on Jon's roof?" he asked.
"His name's Rolf. He brought her here on the path to Woods' End. I wondered if he'd go back after the storm came through, but he's stayed on. I think he's one of Jon's faithful."
Laik butchered the last word, since it wasn't Woodland. Logan wondered why people didn't all just speak the same language. As for Rolf, Laik could have done Logan a whole lot more good if he'd warned him a few nights ago. "He's got to be. He even called me a witch." Laik snorted back a laugh. "I'm glad you like it! He's twice my size. That's a lot harder to shake off than Jon's bad wishes."
"Be glad he's not a Woodlander. At least you don't have a whole clan to fight off."
"The question is, how are we going to get around him?"
"Holy Preserver, show mercy upon this beautiful gathering, meek, gathered in supplication that they might join at your table, and share the blessings of your harvest -- "
Jon's chapel was barely as large his own house, with no proper sacristy or separate room for the holy relics and wines. Jon had learned to make do. The altar space was a simple, covered table, and it left only enough room for a handful of Light's children to stand comfortably.
Marissa stood with her head bowed, alongside the missionary's wife Thaisa. His daughter was at home, and his little boy Stefan assisted at the altar. Marissa smiled at him. He reminded her of a kid that she used to watch out for back home. She bit her lip as Jon's voice boomed again, and lowered her face a little more. Marissa had never seen services more ardently performed. Jon Cliniessen seemed convinced that his very word and thought touched the souls of thousands.
She glanced at the congregation, what there was of it, and returned her gaze to the altar. Jon might have imagined thousands, but only two of them stood in the chapel. In a town as small as Kenton, how many people did he expect to come? Both were old and wrinkled, perhaps a man and his wife who were curious about the people from the other side of Wood's End. The Southlanders in town wouldn't come to services until Sunday, the first day of the week. They had work to do too.
Marissa thought of growing gray and bent from years of bearing her faith. It disgusted her. She'd rather spend her life muddy, behind a plow. Her thoughts drifted to less religious things, and settled on blue-eyed, wary-looking Logan, not for the first time since their meeting in the forest.
Jon was about to get into Holy Intentions, which was the part she hated the most. His eyes were ablaze. She remembered the first time she saw him. Bald, she'd thought, and he's going to take it out on me. There was still more than enough hair on the sides of his head, but the top had thinned down to strands. Then his voice. Jon had the booming voice of a man who had learned too much in his lifetime, and felt convinced that the world needed to know just what was what and how right he was for knowing it.
"We pray for your protection against corruption."
"Amen," everyone said, except Marissa.
"We pray for your protection against weakness."
"Amen." Marissa could feel Thaisa looking at her. Mother Cliniessen, she corrected herself. Elders used first names with each other. Even though she could hold her own when she spoke the Woodland tongue, there were some conventions that she still didn't have pegged down. She used Jon's first name when he wasn't within reach of her, since it was disrespectful.
"We pray for your guidance away from the ways of the unholy."
Marissa looked at the Woodlanders again. Their lips moved, though she couldn't tell whether or not they'd actually responded. Mother Cliniessen took her arm, and Marissa whispered, "Amen." She swallowed.
"We pray for the conversion of the uncounted people of the world, that they could see your light through us."
Bloody ironic, Marissa thought, but mother Cliniessen squeezed her arm gently, and she said, "Amen."
Jon gave the benediction to the people, laying his hands on their heads as they approached the altar. Then he turned and did the same to his family, starting with her. "May the Light shine upon you." She was allowed to raise her head now. Jon held her gaze with his. The forbidding set of his forehead expressed a conviction that she would be cleansed of her sins and unruliness soon enough. Marissa's face was bereft of emotion. She didn't care, she wasn't impressed, and she just wanted to get on with the day. Jon only frightened her when he could reach her.
When he finished, everyone walked to the front of the chapel to shut its doors until the sunset prayers would be said.
Logan was standing outside, hands clasped in front of him. She looked to Jon in time to see his eyes blaze up like Light's cleansing wrath. "I wanted to wish everyone a good day," Logan said cheerfully. He glanced at Marissa. Was he out of his mind?
Jon pushed Marissa back with one hand and pushed Logan away from the chapel with the other. Other Woodlanders who were walking between the houses noticed, but none intervened. She wondered if there was some understood code for how fathers dealt with courting sons. "Can I help you, sir?" Jon asked.
Marissa stared at Logan. She didn't want to see Jon yelling at one of her new friends, but the hunter seemed calm. Logan crossed his arms and balanced his weight from one leg to the other. Did he know about Rolf yet?
Jon was angrier than he was letting on. The veins on the back of his dome were beginning to stand out. "If you wish to convert and mend your ways I'd be more than happy to help you." He leaned closer. "Otherwise, stay away. I won't have your turning my foster-daughter's faith with your base ways. And if you come near her, ever, I'll see to it that you're pigeon feed before the day is out." Marissa could barely keep up with him. Jon spoke rapid, fluent and flawless Woodlander after his years of living up here. Words like faith and base ways were spoken in her own language, since they didn't translate easily into Logan's. The upshot of it was more than clear from his tone of voice.
Logan sighed. He glanced at Marissa again and backed away, tossing a salute to Jon's wife and the others. Marissa kept from smiling. The lad certainly had more steel to his belly than she'd given him credit for.
Jon didn't move until Logan had finally turned away. He faced Marissa. "He doesn't care for you. Worse than an infidel, he's a witch. He loves trees and wolves. He doesn't know how to care for you."
"I didn't -- "
Jon silenced her. "Good. Don't." He paused, thinking. Then he looked to his wife. "Thaisa, take her home. She can do the clothes while we clean the chapel."
"I was supposed to gather food for supper."
Jon glared at her. Already he'd lectured her about her impudence and presumption. Tautly, he responded, "I'd rather you stayed in the house today. I don't want any chance of that witch's brood talking to you."
Thaisa took her shoulder and led her back to the house. Jon stared after them. Marissa could feel it. Then she heard him leading his own little brood back into the chapel, and the weight eased away from her.
Jon pushed his fingers through the roots of his hair. Saints preserve her if she can't even fold clothes properly, he thought. He added the mess to the list of things that Marissa would have to improve. The list was getting awfully long. A distracted part of him noticed that his hair seemed even thinner this morning. Marissa would surely bring him to lose more.
"Marissa!" The missionary looked through the clothes basket despondently, then tossed them back into a jumbled pile. It was a mite better than he'd found it, he noticed.
He frowned. "Marissa!" he bellowed. "Where are you?"
The door to the back banged open. Huffing and grimacing more than she had to, Marissa carried in another basket like the first. "I'm here," she moaned.
"I've already told you not to kick the door open, girl."
She looked at him, a half-smile forming on her face. "I can't do two things at once. Did you want me to leave the laundry outside?" She smiled at him coquettishly.
Jon grabbed her wrist and dragged her back over to the door. Marissa grimaced but didn't protest. She'd already learned that it only made him angrier. He yanked the back door open and stabbed his finger at the ground. "You put the basket down there, and open the door with your hands. Not your foot." She hid her face under wisps of her hair. "Do you understand me?"
She nodded. He squeezed her arm tightly, just enough to teach the child. "Do you?" he repeated more quietly.
"Yes," she said.
"Good." He let go. She rubbed where he'd held her with her other hand. Jon led her back to the baskets. "Didn't your mother show you how to fold clothes?"
"Do you mean mother Cliniessen?"
Marissa sounded confused, not sarcastic. Jon answered, quietly again, "In this house, I and mother Cliniessen take the place of your parents. Your father told you that when you came here."
"I remember. I'm sorry I forgot."
Jon didn't reply. He wondered if she was toying with him. "I understand." Putting his hand onto the bundles of clothes, he said, "You'll have to fold all these over again. They'll be wrinkled like this, and we have to look our best for services. The townspeople don't want a raggedy-looking missionary."
Her shoulders sagged a little, but she nodded. Jon put his hand on her shoulder. "That's a good girl."
Jon walked back to his desk, trying to remember why he came home before noon. Something to tell Marissa? That, and something else. He looked over his things, hoping something would prod his memory. The inkwell, his quill...the list of things to trade that he'd written for Thaisa. "Your mother will need your help to prepare our supper. Make sure you're done with all the laundry by the time she comes back so we aren't eating late tonight."
Marissa turned to protest, then turned back before Jon saw. It was nearly noon already, and folding the blankets again would only make it harder to finish the rest of her chores. The pain in her arm reminded her that Jon probably wouldn't be happy about it in any event. She turned back to the clothes, biting her lip. She would have to do the best she could and put up with his reproofs later.
Jon picked up his small copy of the Word, and some candles. "I have to go bless mother Thorensen's youngest. The child's ill. It'll take a while, but I should be back around mid-afternoon." He wrapped the holy book in a fur cover; no doubt it was blessed. When she didn't reply, he looked up and asked, "All right?"
Jon left the house, closing the door gently but firmly behind him. Marissa waited until she heard him calling to someone farther away. She let her breath out, sighing freely. She dragged out a chair from the table and sat down. The townspeople wouldn't give a spit over whether he looked raggedy or not. She just knew that she wasn't happy. She felt imprisoned, exiled, and worst of all, she felt she was losing to Jon. He could be all holy brimstone all day long. She couldn't tell him to stuff himself all day long because her arm hurt too much when she tried.
She chewed on her lip some more. The kerchief was too snug on the crown of her hair. She wanted to take it off, but didn't for fear that she'd undo the ties in her hair and rankle Jon further. She remember the night by the campfire, what she'd said about burning it, and bitterly tossed around the idea that maybe that it was just easier to say some things than to do them. A missionary's wife and daughters had to wear the damned thing, and she had already firmly decided that she would never, ever be a missionary's wife. Marissa brushed at the rusty wisps of her hair that dangled out from under the kerchief, awkwardly trying to push them back inside. She felt homesick.
The back door creaked. Marissa jumped to her feet. Jon must have come back -- but it was the back door that was open. Laik leaned inside the door. She frowned. "What is it?" she whispered. He pointed towards the front door. Marissa grinned impishly, shaking her head. "Nobody's around. Rolf's out gathering wood."
He closed the door quietly, careful to kick the dirt from his shoes back outside. "Can you keep a secret?"
"What are you doing here?"
Marissa had completely forgotten about the clothes. "Tell me one."
"Logan wants to see you again, this coming Waterday."
Marissa stared at him. "Are you telling me that he showed up at the chapel just to get me alone?" Laik grinned. That clever little bastard! She tapped her fingers on the edge of the table. Waterday was in two days; their calendar and hers were identical except for the holidays, and she knew that she wasn't mixing up the names. "All right. I'll be cleaning the chapel." She tore a piece from the long drawstrings of her blouse. "Give him this."
Laik grinned again. "I'll make sure he gets it."
"Wait! How am I supposed to meet him?"
"Trust us, m'lady." He ducked out the back door and disappeared through the high grass at the edge of the woods.
Marissa turned back to the clothes, smiling for the first time since the night by the campfire. Maybe there was hope after all. She folded one of Jon's shirts, holding it up pridefully to the light. "Now isn't this better," she said, mimicking the missionary's haughty baritone.
The Southlanders had been coming into the Wood for many generations. The traders had come first, traveling from clan to clan and hawking their goods to the people. They brought grapes and other fruits from the Southlands, fine clothes and other things that couldn't be found in the Wood. Few traveled alone, since there were thieves in the Wood as well as hunters. Three traders were in Kenton the morning after Laik spoke to Marissa, when Alene went into the village.
Alene remembered a time when she had enjoyed being in the village. That had been before the plague had come to the Wood. There were more people then, more of her friends, and more likable families of Southlanders to soften Jon's impact on the clan. She and the missionary had what could gently be called a longstanding disagreement. The real word was feud, though it was too personal to be of any great substance in the clan.
There were two religions in the Wood country. Her people, the Woodlanders, believed in communion with the forest and respect for its living strength. The Southlanders lived in towns, with walls made of cut logs and hewn stone, and believed in purity of thoughts and actions. Their ideal was called the Light. Her mother had felt that their traditions would be soiled from the coming of the outsiders. She also had considered them rude and self-righteous, unfit for her courtesy. Alene had managed to learn a little give and take about it, until she'd seen the way Jon treated his children. Seen and not heard. Bow their heads and follow, and beatings if they would raise their eyes too soon.
It wasn't her place to tell him how to raise them. That wasn't their way. Time and time again she argued that his children weren't independent like theirs, that they wouldn't think to defy him. Words passed, and suffice it to say that a taint had grown to the way traders who came to trade with clan Halkien looked at her. It had spread to others in the clan, who didn't like trouble. Don't cross the Listener's wife, they said. Alene was vengeful, they said. Fiery.
Her thoughts broke away from old grudges as she entered the herbalist's house. All the Halkiens had their own pet hobbies; hers was her secret, Logan's was drawing, and Kevin the Red's was keeping herbs that were difficult to find in the forest. The flowery, tangy smells were a pleasant distraction. Alene greeted the herbalist's wife and gave her a light hug. Caren had always been fascinated by the Listener's wife, and more especially by her taste in herbs. Alene also found her to be a fountain of the local gossip, and it was a good way to find out some of the things that Logan wouldn't tell her himself.
"It's good to see you, Alene. What would you care for today?"
"A little rosemary, some cloves. You wouldn't have any fresh wolfsbane, would you?" She caught Kevin's wide eyes as she asked that.
"You'd find better bushes in the forest. You're not having trouble with wolves, are you?"
"Just asking. Do you have any?"
"Only the dried herbs. The hunters never remember to bring extra unless you ask them to."
Alene waved her off. "It doesn't matter. I'm sure I have some lying around the house." She looked back towards the bunches that were lying around the room. Caren's was one of the houses that had windows, to keep the redolent smells from overpowering. "Just the others, then." Alene traded them for a necklace of pretty stones. "Are you ready to go?"
"Almost." Caren tied the herbs together and put them into Alene's basket. "I'll be getting some things from the traders, Kevin," she told her husband. They linked arms and walked back into the street.
"Logan's certainly been stirring things up," Caren chirped.
Alene's arm tightened a little. "My Logan? What do you mean?"
Caren looked a little bothered. She apparently thought Logan had told her. "He had the missionary shouting at him in front of his chapel yesterday. Some of us were wondering if it would finally come to blows."
Alene thought of the Champion card. Something as simplistic as a spat with the missionary couldn't be enough to draw that. If Logan had given him a real dressing-down, it might, but not if Jon did all the shouting. "What for? What did he do?"
Caren shrugged. "I don't know. I heard Jon say something to him about his foster-daughter. She was there. They didn't look at each other in any kind of way, if you follow. But she is a pretty girl, and she might be lonely." Caren told her how Marissa had arrived with Rolf, and how she was helping in the chapel services. She shrugged again. "Some say she's here for him to unshrew. I think he's more like to make it worse. She has a little red hair in that brown, so I've seen, and you know that type!"
"I wish I could've seen that last set of cards," Alene muttered.
The merchants were a mangy-looking group. Alene thought of Logan and his father after a short, vigorous day on their trails. More Logan than his father, because her son didn't seem to care how filthy he got. The first was peddling jewelry. He was short and baby-faced, with both arms smeared with tattoos. Alene gave a set of prayer beads a close eye, giving thought to how much she'd have to haggle the man down. The strings that she hid in the bedroom had the aura and tone from years of meditation and use, imprinted from her use and her mother's. These were nothing but dead wood. Still, she wondered if she could make do.
"I'll trade you this belt for the beads," she offered the merchant.
She looked up when he didn't answer. The man was sorting through some furs he'd bought from Laik's father, acting as if he hadn't heard her. Alene stared at him. "Are you selling or aren't you?"
Laik's father stood near her, on the other side of the circle of wagons. He frowned in a fussing gesture. "I think you've got a customer," he told the man.
The merchant glowered at him, then turned to her. "The belt and another like it," he said curtly.
Alene's face reddened. If being ignored irked her, then charity from Laik's father only made it worse, but this was an insult. She shook them at him in her fist. Her jaw hung open, until she finally cried, "For these?!" They were only wood, and second-rate workmanship at that. The balding scavenger crossed his arms.
"I'm sure one of the other merchants would offer you a better price." He looked past her. "If you'll excuse me." He smiled, leaning over his wares. "Yes sir. What pleases your eye this day?" It was one of the hunters' sons, a handful of carved bowls under his arm. Laik's father opened his mouth to say something.
Alene set her jaw. Her chest tightened, and then the outrage finally burned through. She held the string of beads in both hands and demanded, "What price now?" She snapped the string in two and dropped it to the ground. Caren stared at her. The merchant was aghast. Alene smiled stingingly, picked up another and broke it too.
The merchant was positively rabid. The hunter's son caught him, as did Laik's father. He sputtered oaths in his own language. The traders were bursting their stitches with laughter. Caren protested, pulling at her arm and entreating her to stop. Alene grabbed another string and broke it in front of his face.
"I'll whip your hide from here to the woods!!" he shouted. Alene laughed. The man's veins were popping out of his head. Anger like that couldn't be healthy, which, she decided, was all the better. She walked behind Laik's father and picked up all three strings, with what beads hadn't been scattered.
"One belt, for all three."
The man raged, but the others wouldn't let go. "Come on," one of the other merchants told him. He struggled again, and was gripped harder. "You won't get anything for those beads anywhere else!" The man calmed down, relaxing in their grasp. He nodded. Laik's father turned to Alene. She handed him the belt and exchanged poisonous looks with the merchant as he received his goods. She looked at the strings. Trinkets, only, but she could make them into something useful.
"You're mad," Caren told her.
Alene shook her head. "He's the mad one. They weren't worth that belt, let alone two." She looked into her basket ruefully. "There's no way I'll be filling this up today, though." The other merchants wouldn't want to do business with her. No fabrics this week. No wine, except for whatever they were able to brew in the village. Sometimes Caren's husband tried to make it as a hobby, the way Laik's father made strange kinds of brandy.
"That was charity," someone said.
Alene looked up. Jon Cliniessen stood by the wine merchant, a jug tucked under his arm. He walked directly to her and sneered, "What use could you possibly have for prayer beads?"
She rattled them in the palm of her hand, cocked him a knowing glance. Jon's jaw set rigidly. Witchcraft, the glance told him, even though she knew nothing of the sort. Not by her own reckoning. Not that it mattered, either. If it frustrated Jon, she was happy.
His expression was menacing. "Under my faith..."
"We're not," she replied, shouldering her basket. Alene decided she'd done enough fencing for a morning. "Come on, Caren."
"All evil comes under Light in time," he told her. Alene turned her back and walked away from him. Jon was the sort who'd gladly quote chapter and verse for days rather than be silenced in an argument.
She whipped around. Alene was shocked that he'd called her politely. Jon stepped just close enough so that he wouldn't need to raise his voice. "Keep your son away from my foster-daughter." She folded her arms, taking it in with condescending patience. Jon raised his chin. "Whether this is news to you or not, as his parent I believe it's your responsibility."
"Believe me, missionary," she said softly, "If I had known, I'd indeed have forbidden him to visit with any of your daughters. I'd rather he consort with toads."
Jon smiled cynically. "Good day, mother Wolfmark."
Was it true? What was Logan thinking? Spite, over the last girl? Alene shook her head. Logan was too much like his father for that. Again, she wished she could have checked the last two cards.
Caren touched her arm. "I'm sorry he treats you that way."
Alene pat her hand, gently shrugging it off. Caren tried to justify Jon to her almost every time they saw each other, and she always stumbled at the end. It was sweet, mindless generosity, and Alene appreciated it in her, but she hoped it wouldn't rub off.
Alene took a different path to leave the village than she did to arrive. She always did. This one left from the village's sunrise side, and was less used than the other paths. She walked about a hundred yards, turned right, and walked ten paces from the path. Alene entered a small field. She turned a step to the left, and walked about five paces more. There were tied flowers and little gifts for the dead in a sprinkling of places around the green. The land had changed, from runoff, shifting in the land and whatever, but she could find her parents' grave blindfolded. Sleeping Hill was the common burial ground for the clan. A dozen generations were under her feet in unmarked graves, to represent their oneness as Halkiens. For long moments she gazed into the grass. She'd dreamed she could see through it now and then, and talk to them through the earth. She sat down, spreading her fingers in the grass.
"Hello. It's Alene." She smiled. As if it would be anyone else. "I'm all right. Dellard's a little angry lately. Logan found me fire singing, and he told him. I know I should have been more careful. He's upset, but I'm still practicing. You know that." She put her hand back in her lap. It was quiet here. Even creaky, noisy Kenton had grown more silent, now that the day had begun to wane.
"Logan's been seeing a girl in the village. She's Jon's foster-daughter, and she's under his care." Ideas were elbowing one another to come to the light first. Light, she thought ironically. Alene's heart pounded.
Logan was at home when she returned. He was still red-faced and sweaty, shirtless, his hair a swampy-looking patch from whatever he'd been up to today. Water dripped down his hair and soaked his chest from where he'd splashed himself from his waterskin. More incriminating, his harness was tossed onto the kitchen table, and his staff and gear were left where he'd dropped them. "I'm sorry, I'll pick these up."
She clucked and shook her head. "How many times does that make it, that I've had to tell you?"
"About sixty-eight since my last birthday."
Alene looked at him, and his impish, hopeful expression made her forget the awful merchants for a little while. "What were you doing this time?"
"Running, sort of." He swallowed, still catching his breath. "Father left tags around the woods and I had to find them." He took a drink from the waterskin he kept with him -- she couldn't fathom why he didn't just splash himself outside with that -- and continued, "The hard part is that he doesn't leave much of a trail for me to pick up. But that's the whole idea."
"Where's your father now?"
"Getting food. He's probably on his way back home."
Alene nodded thoughtfully. She had time. She put away the new herbs, then asked, "What's this I hear about a girl you've been seeing in Kenton?"
Logan reached for a rag that was left on one of the chairs and began to dry himself off. She noticed a little string bracelet on his wrist that hadn't been there before. "Just a girl. I met her from Laik." He started to take another drink, then asked her, "How did you find out?"
She shrugged innocently. "I don't know. A mother just hears things, now and then." He sat down. Alene smiled to herself. He was trying to size up what was going on. "Jon gives her special attention, doesn't he?" Logan only nodded. Half-impatiently, she asked, "Well, what's she like?"
His eyes came up. Slowly, he began, "She's a little wild. She's not afraid of much."
"Not even Jon." He rubbed the side of his jaw, then folded his hands. Logan's movements were there to give him time, not calm his nerves. Alene knew her son, and he was just like his father. "Not that I think, anyway."
"Is she pretty?"
"Haven't you seen her?" he asked. Alene shook her head. "Why do you want to know?"
"Because I'm your mother, that's why!" Alene didn't care how old he was. She'd never take back-talk from her own son without twitching. Logan set his jaw. She eyed him a little more proudly. Her son had the guts to stand up to his own mother. She inquired again, "Is she pretty or isn't she?"
"Sure, she is." He started to continue, then stopped again.
"What's that for?"
He looked up. "What?"
"You don't usually look away."
Logan sealed his waterskin. He shrugged. "It's not for anything."
"I think there's something you want to tell me." Logan held his silence. He put the waterskin with the rest of his gear. "Another Southern girl," she continued. "Why don't you see any of the clan girls anymore?"
Logan's shoulders sagged. "Wolves' teeth, mother, I'm not abandoning my blood. She's got spirit, that's all."
"I didn't say that. I was just thinking about how daring it is to try seeing her so soon after that business with the other girl."
"You're not mad?"
She smiled. "No. I'm a little more understanding now," she said, wanness stealing into her voice. "After everything that's happened lately, I think I owe that to you."
Logan let out a tense, waiting breath. He brushed the rag in the back of his hair, then scrubbed at his neck. It was probably a breath that he'd held for days. Alene sat more easily, crossing her legs the way she would when they talked by the fire. "So have you seen her much?"
He shook his head. "Jon's a little hard that way. We're trying to get around him."
"You and Laik?" He nodded. "You certainly don't make things easy on yourself." She meant it jokingly, but a jot in the back of her head reminded her of the Two Faces card. Logan was going to watch her every word and deed until his suspicions were relieved, and might take anything she said the wrong way. She amended, "I hope you're careful. Jon's not the kind to take his family lightly."
"We're only going to see each other when we can."
"Has she tried Laik's brandy yet?"
Logan nodded, smiling wryly. "She was impressed." He tossed down the rag, then remembered her and put it back where he found it. Alene suppressed a grin. He dragged his pack off the table and went about putting the rest of his gear away. Not looking up, he added, "Father's back."
Her mouth opened in surprise. She hadn't felt anything different, or heard him. Half a moment later Dellard came in with two hares under his arm. "Any traders?"
"A few. They weren't all bad today." She stood up. Her tired muscles moaned from a long day's walking. She kissed him lightly. The oppressive summer had been more unkind to him than her. Both he and Logan smelled like every step of the miles they'd run that day. "You need a bath."
"You know how far soap carries in a good wind?" Logan jibed.
She looked at her husband intently. "I don't care. If you want to share my bed tonight, you're cleaning up." Dellard shrugged. He put down the hares on the table while he unslung his pack. She continued, "Actually I found out something today. Logan has his eyes on someone."
Logan rolled his eyes. Her voice had the probing touch to it that she used when she looked directly into his eyes, when she wanted an answer now, dear lad. Sometimes she tagged her comment with the word and -- as she waited for him to reply.
Dellard was more accustomed to it. "I know. He told me."
"I told him I'm happy with it."
"That's a surprise."
"It bothers Jon. I think I can live with that for a little while."
"That's funny, love."
"I mean it. If it rankles him -- "
"I'm going to get more wood." The deerskin flapped shut as Logan walked out of the house.
Logan couldn't abide standing there and listening to them muddle over his life like he wasn't in the room. More than that, he also didn't like the arguing and whatever that was going on in his home for the past four days, that he felt was at least partially his fault. His mother was ashamed of what she was doing, but he thought that something worse was going on. That was why they yelled at each other that morning. Now she was getting angry at him for it. The last time anyone got short with him over nothing at all was when Laik took a joke about fistal leaves the wrong way. Given that his mother's shame involved knives, Logan tried not to think about it too much.
They did need more firewood anyway. More would need to be chopped tomorrow, but for now he could just gather a bundle of twigs. The one thing not to like about burning twigs for fire was that they were consumed too quickly, but he liked the straight, hard work of picking up as much wood as he could carry. It took his mind off everything else.
Logan gathered two bundles, each a foot thick and tightly packed. The thick, rare ones were about two inches thick, but most of them were small. Each was bound with rough, thin cord and brought inside to keep it dry for burning. The sky began to redden as he went outside on his way to get a third bundle, and he began thinking about Marissa. He looked at the string, her blouse cord, tied around his wrist. He wished he was more like Laik, with his sometime admirers and normal life. He didn't have problems like this. He was still looking at his wrist when the deerskin flapped open and his father came outside.
"Thinking about her?"
"Really?" his father asked, surprised. "What, then?"
Logan tried to think of something. Training. The wolves. Laik. Anything! But he couldn't think of one that didn't leave him slack-jawed. "I meant yes." He turned around, twisting the bundling cord in his hands. "Why?"
"Nothing. You just looked like it." He pat his son on the shoulder. "Come inside when you're finished. There's something we wanted to show you."
"The last time you said that you attacked me on the plateau," Logan said sarcastically. His father inclined his head. His father inclined his head; that look meant, ha, ha, ha. Right. Wolfmark gestured for Logan to move along.
When Logan brought in the third bundle, his mother sat by the hearth, and his father was sitting crosslegged off to her left. Logan noticed that he'd bathed while he went to get that third bundle. The hares weren't cooking. He'd been able to tell that by the absence of the smell on his way back. His mother's expression was a comforting one, and she held out her hand for him to sit down across from her.
Logan looked at his father. Wolfmark only nodded his assent. He looked at his mother, but she just smiled at him as he sat down. She looked into his eyes. "Do you remember what you saw, that night when I was by the fire? Did your father explain to you what I was doing?"
"No. Not really. He told me about shirha, and I felt it while we were on the plateau. He told me a little about how they could make you feel strong, like you do when you're angry."
"All right." She reached out her hands for his. Logan shuffled back. His mother looked at him with pain in her eyes. She sighed, and moved away too.
His father didn't speak. Logan looked at him, then to his mother. "Isn't someone going to tell me not to be afraid?"
"You feel the way you do. We can't help that."
"I only wanted to hold your hands," his mother said. "I wasn't going to start chanting yet." Logan kept his hands in his lap. He had no intention of cooperating until someone just told him what was going on. Uncomfortably, his mother rubbed her hands on her knees. "It's like what your father said," she began. "I was doing it because I can't Listen the same way you do. I just can't. I didn't learn that way. I'm also not as strong as you. Bearing a child was hard for me."
But what could cutting up a pheasant have to do with Listening? "I heard that from father already. I still -- "
"Logan!" she said sharply. He stiffened, both at her anger and the glare he could feel directed at his mother from his father. Gently, she said, "I'm not finished yet. I know how it felt to you. Your father told me. It wasn't like that in here. You were afraid, and that's what you felt. That took hold of you. Does that make sense?"
"What about the pheasant?"
His mother stiffened. Either she wanted to avoid that part or he was being a pest. Either way he wanted to know, and didn't care if it made her angry. "That's something else. Something that I really shouldn't have been doing. It's a way to draw strength from the pheasant's juices. It's meant to be used for healing. You're not supposed to use it when no one's sick. Then it's like your friend and those leaves he smokes." She touched his arm. "I want to show it to you, so you know what it was. Can we try now?"
Logan swallowed. Honestly, he didn't like the idea of going any deeper into her mind than he did that night. He felt a lot coming out of that fire, and healing wasn't any of it. But his father was here, and she really seemed to mean well.
Logan took her hands and stared into her eyes. His mother blinked slowly. A heaviness settled over him. Muscles relaxed in his shoulders and arms, flowing down from the top of his body with the patience of changing seasons. Logan settled further into the shared trance. Her eyes were steady, dark and unchanging. He could have seen forever inside them. The room faded until he couldn't see anything besides her eyes. He blinked, and when his eyes opened again, the room wasn't there at all.
Though he couldn't hear, his mother had begun to chant. Wolfmark watched his son carefully. He couldn't sense anything that would have been strong enough to wake him that night.
Inside the trance, Logan's mind floated above the burrow. It was day, not sunset, a brilliant blue sky above him and burgeoning green life below his feet. He felt strange. Logan had been drunk before, and he'd smoked fistal leaves once, but neither of them possessed the same dreamy sensation. His consciousness drifted down close to the top of the hill. He could hear birds, and a misty buzz of insects in the grass. He turned around to look behind him, and his movements were syrupy. He remembered turning around inside a pond where he was swimming. Logan felt peaceful. Abstractly, he told himself that this didn't make sense. If this was shirha, it wasn't anything like what they did on the plateau.
Sweat began to gather on their faces. Alene chanted insistently, in a soft voice that stilled the air inside the house. Logan's lips formed some of the words. In the hearth, the flames began to rise in beats that followed the crescendo of her song.
Logan looked around inside the trance. Turning his head felt more like swiveling the earth under his feet. In the room, his body swayed as he felt vertigo.
Slowly, the view shifted down to forest level, then began to move. He was being guided by his mother now. The view moved faster now, low to the ground, grass and branches clipping the sides of his face. He could feel them. His gaze dipped and rose, turned to face the wind. He was hunting like a wolf.
Breath began to escape through Logan's lips. He was almost saying words. Part of him was trying to join in his mother's song. Wolfmark's stomach began to tighten as Logan's upper lip twitched. He only did that when he was throwing everything he had into what he was doing. It showed his character, but it was the wrong way for a Listener to learn. Muscles in Logan's forehead started to show lines.
Logan felt a sense of rushing, darting power. The trance hunter began to run faster. Logan could feel the breath pumping through the lungs in the burning heat of the chase. Yes. This was the way she wanted the dream to go. He felt strong. Logan remembered watching Chika bring down a deer in one leap last summer, and it had been easily the most violent, incisive, thrilling and horrifying moment he had ever witnessed. He suddenly smelled deer musk, and it smelled like perfume.
A drawn, eerie wolf's howl wanted to escape from his throat. He began to smile at it. The feeling that bubbled up was tickling his chest. He felt almost giddy at the idea of running up and tearing the life out of a deer. He was a wolf. That was his purpose. He would do what his fathers and mothers had done for generations before him in the Wood. The feeling was joy, and he was drunk with it. Logan could hear deer hooves.
He was breaking into a meadow, cool, tall grass rushing past his body. He could see the brown bulges of deer galloping away --
He'd never taken wild joy in killing anything in his life. He enjoyed hunting, and he felt proud after a difficult kill, but this made hunting feel more like singing and throwing your arms around the nearest girl. He wanted it to stop. He wanted it to stop now. With a wrenching effort Logan heaved out a breath and turned to look at the sun. The light pierced his eyes.
They opened their eyes again. Logan teetered; he slumped down. He was sweating all over his body. His eyes were red, and he could still see the muddled blue haze that marked where the sun had blinded his vision. His mother sagged back, shaking her head. "Why did you stop?"
His father knelt down next to both of them. He was asking Logan if he was all right. Awkwardly, he nodded yes. He could only imagine what it would have been like if he'd killed the deer in the dream. He shook off a roaring sound in his ears. "That's not what it was like on the plateau. I didn't feel what I did before."
"What did you see?" she asked him. "What did you feel?" Logan looked at his father. Wolfmark was patient, calm, and it reassured him a little. Logan described what went on during the trance in detail. She nodded. "The song is one of healing. I saw a vision of springtime and growing things, growing back after a long winter. You dreamed about being a hunter."
"That makes sense," Wolfmark said. "Think about it. When you felt fear, you rode through your instincts to run. To fight. The trance was shared, Logan. How you feel about being a hunter was colored by how she felt." Logan looked from one to the other. "Do you see?" Wolfmark asked.
"I...yes. I think so." No he didn't. He didn't hunt like that. No. "I feel drunk. I think I need some air."
Wolfmark helped him to his feet. "Go get yourself cleaned off. It'll clear your head a little more. Are you sure you're all right?"
Logan pushed his father's hands away. He could stand on his own. "I'm fine. It just wasn't what I expected." He walked outside, and the fresh air penetrated the cloud around his head with a stinging cold.