Marissa sputtered through the working song that some of the other girls were trying to teach her. Her grasp of the Woodland tongue was growing, but it was hard to keep up when they kept changing tones and worse, harmonizing. She formed some of the words phonetically, catching smiles of approval for it from the others. She might have pronounced them properly, but Marissa didn't have the slightest idea what she was saying.
She dumped another bucket of water into the wash tub. It wasn't full yet. She sighed, walking back to the stream to fill it again. The bucket's thin cord handle bit into her hands. She couldn't carry it to her side without being lopsided, and she couldn't carry it in her arms without griming up her dress. Her legs were already dirty from splashing water and mud and that was bad enough, but she guessed that Jon would have more than words with her if she ruined her dress. Another girl, named Kara, rolled her eyes in mock frustration as she walked past her with another bucket. Marissa couldn't help smiling.
There were four girls by the creek altogether. The others were all friends of Kara's. Marissa had met the girl through Thaisa -- mother Cliniessen, she reminded herself again -- since Kara's mother was a friend of hers. The first thing that had struck her about Kara was her blond hair. Most Woodlanders' hair was dark red or brown. Kara's mother said she was born during a rainstorm, and the rain had washed it all away until only the lightness was left. But her eyes were still as dark as could be.
Marissa had met one of them, named Alise, while the girl had been talking to Laik. Alise was seventeen, with long, chestnut-brown hair and eyes to match. Another girl was married to the someone who made beautiful designs for leather. Marissa couldn't wait until she remembered all these people by name. The second girl's dark brown eyes and soft features made her the only one of Southern descent who wasn't related to Jon. While the rest of them were unwed, Alise and the other girl reminded Marissa, in the back of her head, that they were all of marrying age. That in mind, having Jon as her guardian led to all kinds of awful thoughts.
Marissa gave up on the bucket, put it down and splashed her face with water from the creek. It didn't smell or taste muddy, the way she thought it would. Any dirt in the tub was probably the clothes' fault, not the water's. She welcomed the refreshing change from the heat. Marissa wondered if there was a swimming hole somewhere near town, or if the Woodlanders ever went swimming.
She splashed more water on her face, then in her hair, spreading it through. She'd already taken off the kerchief and left it under a spreading tree near the path back to town, where the rest of the girls had taken refuge for a few minutes from the sun. The water dribbled down her neck and face, and felt so-o-o good after lugging laundry.
"You sure don't act like a missionary's daughter," the Southlander said. Marissa fluttered her dripping eyelashes at her. "I'm shocked." She stood up, trying to work out some of the kinks before filling the bucket up again.
Kara tossed a piece of something called a cleaning stone into the tub they were using. It was white and chalky, but dissolved in the water. The Woodlanders used it to clean the creek water before they washed their clothes in it. No doubt it was another little trick the Listeners gave their people. Kara had told her earlier not to drink water that was purified that way. Not that she needed the advice. The cleaning stones gave the water a rusty, flat smell that she didn't like.
"You're lucky," the second girl said. "So far, I mean. He hasn't gotten started on you about boys yet." Marissa tried to puff the hair out of her eyes, remembered it was too wet to puff, then swept it back with her hand. She gathered some water and heaved up the bucket again. She winced at the usual tearing the handle gave the skin of her hands. "I'm surprised he let you out without Jenna after what Logan did." "Did what?"
"At the chapel."
"Oh." Marissa dumped the bucket into the tub, almost splashing Kara as she lurched it over the top. "Sorry." She looked over at the girl, and explained, "He didn't. Th -- mother Cliniessen sent me over, while the good missionary was in morning prayer."
Kara wiped at the sweat on the side of her face. "Jenna's all right, but she'd be better if father Cliniessen didn't keep her on such a short leash."
"What are you going to do when you see him?" Alise asked.
"I don't know. I don't think they do, either."
"Logan's not that different from the other boys," Kara added. "He's a little quiet unless he's had some brandy."
"I just wish he'd loosen up a little," Marissa said.
"What do you mean?" Andi asked. Andi Thorensen. That was the Southlander's name.
"He's got a streak of Jon in him." There was a sudden silence. Marissa looked around at the faces of the other girls. "It's just a little streak. He seems religious about being nejamen."
One of the girls looked away. The rest seemed impressed, dumbfounded, or something in-between. Marissa handed Kara some of the last of the clothes. She shrugged. She still didn't know how far she could go throwing around words like nejamen or Jon's first name. Where she was from, Listeners were as rare as the red tints in her hair seemed to be up here.
"Well, he is," Marissa added.
A few of the girls laughed uneasily. Marissa scrubbed some of the clothes against the washboard, grateful that her hands were already used to it.
"What else did Sarina say about him?"
"You'll never get him to come in from the forest," Andi said. Some of the other girls agreed. "Sooner or later he'll always go back to it."
"Bet Sarina didn't like that."
"No," Alise said, smiling. "She used to tease him about it. Once she even wouldn't talk to him because he brought it up."
Marissa smiled. That was something she would do. She handed the clothes she'd scrubbed to Kara. She rinsed them through a tub of clean water, then another girl hung them up. "I don't know. I think Logan could stand a different kind of wildness in his life."
Kara slowed down in her rinsing. When Marissa looked at her, she picked it up again more vigorously. The other girls acted like she'd dropped another house on them. "What did I do now?" she whispered.
"Jon," Kara explained. Her voice was low. "They're afraid of how he's going to take it if he finally catches you." Marissa stared at her. Kara thought for a moment. She looked away, towards where the creek ran away from town. "If he ever gets to be too much -- up here, we all take care of each other."
Alise turned white. "Kara!"
"She should know!"
"I should know what?"
Alise threw her hands down and stamped over to another side of the clearing. Kara bit her lip guiltily. She continued, "If your parents aren't fit to raise you, you can leave them. It's just our way. Another family has to accept you if you're not of Age."
"Who says when I'm old enough?"
"The clan," Alise said. "Everyone. And if you're wrong, then it sticks to you."
Kara looked at her. "I'm sorry, Alise."
"Don't bother." She walked farther up the creek.
Marissa looked at Kara. She looked back the way Alise had gone. "Alise married without her father's permission. She left her family's house so she could marry him."
"I wasn't of Age yet," Alise interjected. She squeezed water from a skirt, then handed it to one of the other girls to hang up. "A lot of people in the clan didn't think I was old enough to make a decision like that. You'd be of Age if you were part of the clan, but Jon still makes you live in his house. I'm not sure which way people would go."
Marissa ran a hand through her hair. She felt uncomfortable enough without asking why she was so eager to get married, so she didn't push it further. She'd known girls back home who did it from being pregnant. Maybe she thought she was and panicked. "I'll keep you in mind, Kara," she said. She looked at her. "I wouldn't have thought you people would take a grudge like that so long."
"They don't," Andi said. "It's not like the way families rival each other back home." Marissa knew about those. Grudges that would last for decades, ugly glances between families handed down from one generation to the next.
"For us it's like turning your back on someone you count on," Kara explained. "If you leave, you're saying you can't count on them. If you're wrong, you're considered reckless. Your second name becomes 'the Fool,' and it's very, very hard to take away."
Marissa looked at both of them. The whole thing was proud, petty, and she would have laughed at it if anyone had told her about it back home.
Jon straightened his waistcoat. He would have asked Thaisa how he looked, but not in front of the children. Jenna and Stefan needed a father they could look up to, not one who needed advice on how to dress from his wife. It felt straight. For a moment he thought yearningly of mirrors and buttons, things back home that helped you keep yourself in order. His family was going to have supper with the family of Ian and Karin Blackfeather, the parents of Laik the Wild. They'd made the offer the day after Logan made the scene in front of the chapel. He took it as a peace offering. They made no mention of the incident, and final responsibility lay with the Wolfmark household, but it wasn't unusual for families to intercede on behalf of their friends and closer relatives in the clan. They were a rather nice family, and it would have been rude to say no.
"Are we ready?" he asked. Thaisa nodded yes. She was just finishing with helping Stef tie his shoes, and Jenna stood off to the side with her hands folded. His fist tightened. Looking at his family reminded Jon that Rolf wouldn't be going with them. He had originally wanted to have the lad remain here to keep an eye on Marissa, to make sure that she wasn't seeing Logan or anyone else in secret. Thaisa had been adamant, however. In his wife's words, Marissa didn't feel comfortable talking or breathing in a way that wasn't blissful and blessed by Light as it was, and she didn't need to have a watchdog checking up on her.
Thaisa had also been upset that Marissa couldn't go with them tonight. On that count, Jon had remained firm. Marissa had been willful with both of her foster parents, and she had to learn that people didn't like to be treated that way. This was better than whipping her. Jon had reluctantly compromised by giving Rolf permission to join a gathering -- more truthfully, a round of drinking -- with some of the friends he'd made in the village, and not requiring him to check on her.
Marissa said the words in the evening services this time, to give mother Cliniessen a rest. It was the least she could do. The woman treated her fairly, which was more than she could say for the woman's husband. They had gone to get dressed for supper with the Blackfeathers shortly after that. It was later now. The faithful, three of them this time, had left the chapel two hours ago. Marissa blinked as she swept under the altar. It stirred up dried mud and dust that she kept coughing on, and the whole thing was making her hands and face feel gritty. She stood, wiping at the dryness on her forehead. "You'd better show up, Listener," she murmured.
Neither hide nor hair of either hunter all day. If they'd forgotten, she decided she'd thump both of them. With the broom -- she held it up as if to swing it. Something had to make up for the day she was having. Jon had taught her prayers that morning. She could recite them backwards now if she wanted to, and she passed the time trying to fiddle with the words and make them more fun. Add that she had to clean the entire chapel now, and that made her hours by the creek the highlight of her day.
At least Rolf wouldn't be getting in the way if Logan ever did show up. If Jon had tagged Rolf to her, she would have been bitchy and closedmouthed until even Jon sent her away. More than likely, he would beat her, and then she'd have the reason she needed to leave his house for one of the other families.
Marissa coughed on another cloud of dust. She put the broom down and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. What had she ever done to bring this on herself?
Someone cleared his throat. Standing just inside the doorway was Logan. "You look about as happy as a penned raccoon," he said brightly.
She leaned on the broom. "All right then, mister shadow, what do you and Laik have in mind?"
He closed the door and walked inside. "First of all, we go someplace else." "How do you do that?"
He frowned. "What?"
"Move so quietly. This floor's as creaky as my grandfather's joints." She leaned on it to demonstrate. Logan winced at the sudden, obnoxious noise.
"I tread a little lighter when I'm near Jon," he said. He walked over to where she was standing, and this time she could hear his footsteps. Still no creaking, though. When he was closer he held up his wrist, turning it over. The drawstring to her blouse was tied there. "Care to tell me what this is for?"
"Back home, we exchange things with each other. Sort of to let people know that you're taken by someone else." Logan smiled. He seemed to like the idea. He pulled out the string that tied the collar of his shirt, and she laughed as he tied it around her wrist. "Where are we going?" she asked.
"Outside." He held out his hand. "Come on."
The warm air was decidedly fresher, less wooden than it was in the chapel, even in the heaviness of the summer. Dusk had fallen while she was inside. The town looked quiet. Everyone was probably inside with their families. They walked out of the village, past Laik's house and into the woods. They were heading for the creek. "I've been there already," Marissa said.
In the near dark it was hard to tell, but she thought he was smiling. "Not like I'm going to show it to you." He led her down another path from the main one. It was barely even a path, too small for her to have noticed it that morning. Marissa gripped his fingers more tightly as they walked into the darkest part of the path. She liked being with the hunters, but the forest still bothered her. She didn't like hearing something cry out and not having the slightest idea what it looked like, or whether or not it found people tasty.
"We're almost there. Duck your head, that's it."
They stepped out onto a hilltop that was a good walking distance from where she and the rest of the girls were that morning. The ground dropped away here into a gently rolling area of light trees. The Wood continued after that, an impenetrable, forbidding wall of trees that were bound together in the dark.
The evening sky was breathtaking. The drop-off from the creek left a wider patch of sky open, with no branches or leaves at all to mar their view. It wasn't much different from the view from inside the village, but she never had a chance to just look at them when she was there. The stars were alive. There was enough light to see Logan clearly, and she knew that he could tell how enthralled she was.
"You don't look at stars much, do you?" he asked.
He shrugged a little. "Sometimes. I see them almost every night when I'm in the Wood with my father, but I still feel my heart pounding when I look into them. Sometimes I think I can almost hear them."
Logan walked a little ways towards the trees again, checked his bearings, then found what he was looking for. There was a pack sitting on the village side of one of the trees. He opened it and dragged out a blanket. "Courtesy of Laik," he explained. He spread it out and gestured for her to sit. Marissa sat down, took off her kerchief and undid the knots in her hair. Logan smiled as she shook them out. He sat close to her and looked at the stars. "What do you think?"
She nudged his knee with her own. "You know what I think." They took in the view for a while. Marissa thought of how little they knew about each other. She wouldn't care anyway -- she was reckless and she knew it -- and in any event, she doubted that any of the other hunters would be much better. This one had guts, and there was also something going on behind those eyes other than where the next hunt was going to be.
"Did you ever sit here with Sarina?" she asked.
"A few times. She was afraid to walk away from the village at night."
"When did you see her?"
Logan thought for a moment. "Two campfires with Laik -- three times here. I saw her the most when the clan was celebrating after First Gathering. That's the first day of the month," he added. He looked at her. "I don't think I can be as open with you. We have to be careful."
"Give it time, lad. We'll think of something."
Logan put his arm around her. Marissa could feel the muscle in his body and legs. He made her think of a young, fast horse. He'd probably make a good soldier back home. It was hard to imagine Logan bearing a spear or wearing armor, but he had the mettle for it. She wondered if he'd ever even seen horses. Marissa rested her head on his shoulder, and decided she'd ask him some other time.
After a time, he asked softly, "What about you? Is there someone who misses you back in the South?"
Marissa smiled. He had such a hopeful sound to his voice that she almost wanted to laugh or tell a joke and lighten the air. There had been one or two that were good lads to be friends with, but none that she'd felt were in love with her. At least, none that let her know about it. "No."
"Do you ever think about going back?"
"I think I'm going to be stuck up here with Jon for a long while yet." She pulled up her knee and wrapped her hands around it. "My father's not the kind that gives in, and neither is Jon. I can't see going back until somebody does. I do miss wine, though. Tambourines, guitars, and houses with stairs and painted walls." Marissa leaned against him and looked into his eyes. There was an unspoken thought that was communicated to him: Would you go there with me, if that day came?
Logan's arm dropped away. He kept it behind her, against her back, but his hand was on the ground now. The idea of going there seemed chilling. "I can go running through a forest with less than moonlight to see by. I've wrestled with wolves and climbed cliffs and trees that would probably scare the timbers off anyone you've ever known. But I don't know if I could leave the forest."
Marissa nudged his shoulder with hers. "I know what you mean." Better than anyone, she knew how it felt to get dragged off to where she didn't want to go.
The evening passed. The Cliniessen family enjoyed themselves in the company of the Blackfeathers; the greatest surprise was that Laik showed up, for which Jon became decidedly uncomfortable. Laik's very presence was a bad influence on his children. Jon was reassured by knowing that if the lad was where he could see him, he and Logan couldn't be causing trouble somewhere else.
Marissa wasn't in the house when they returned. Rolf was still drinking at Lagget's house; they could hear the singing from four houses over. Jenna bit her lip slightly as she thought of her foster sister still working in the chapel, probably making doubly sure that she got up all the dust or cleaning the shelves a second time, or something else just as unpleasant. Her father's arm twistings could be harsh and Jenna knew that it could take you twice as long to do a job that you really didn't want to do. Cleaning their second home was Jenna's least favorite chore, and she knew how Marissa was suffering.
"Father," she asked quietly. She waited until her father looked at her before continuing; it was presumptuous to talk behind his back. "May I go help Marissa finish cleaning? I know that it's for her to do, but I think she could use the help."
Her father thought about it. There was a glance between him and her mother, and he said, "Go ahead. Don't be too long. If she's really feeling tired you can both come back."
Jenna smiled. "Thank you, father." He gave little charity, and was firm more often than fair. Her mother took his hand as she went to get a broom and some water.
Jenna winced under the weight of the bucket dangling from her hand. It wasn't all that heavy, but she didn't like lugging it around that way. The village and the forest were silent, except for the singing that still came out of Lagget's. Theirs was a rowdy bunch, and it was no wonder Rolf got along with them so well. Jenna thought he was a boor. She hoped her father sent him back to the Southlands soon.
There weren't any sweeping noises coming from the chapel. When she went inside, she only saw Marissa's broom lying against the altar. Jenna put her broom and water down. Marissa certainly wasn't too bright if she thought she could get away with seeing Logan like this for long. She resisted the dutiful impulse to go tell her parents. Jenna hadn't been whipped in a long time, but she could still remember the sting of it on her back. If her mother resisted on Marissa's behalf, father might relent and allow her to do it, but that would be all. He wouldn't accept running off without letting her know just how displeased he was. Jenna bit her lip. Marissa wasn't a rowdy like Rolf, and she didn't deserve to be treated like one. She walked around to where Marissa had left off, and began sweeping.
A little while later she heard voices outside, and then the front door opened. She kept sweeping as Marissa walked in. "I'm almost finished," she said. "You can get the other side of the foyer, if you'd like." Marissa didn't move. Jenna stood up and looked at her. "Are you just going to stand there?"
"Does father Cl -- does father know?"
She shook her head and returned to the dust. There certainly was a lot of it. Marissa had done a good job with the rest of the chapel. "It's better he doesn't. Father's very careful when it comes to his children." She added, "You should be just as careful about yourself."
Marissa began sweeping where she'd told her. "You mean I shouldn't see Logan?"
Jenna brushed back some hair that clung to her forehead, but didn't stand up. "Not that. Even if he's not one of the faithful, I'd still take him for a boyfriend before most of the other boys. I mean you should mind what could have happened tonight, if father had walked in here instead of me." She glanced up. Marissa looked away, brushing a stubborn spot near her feet. The whisking sound of the brooms on the floor hissed off the rafters, and the mustiness of the dirt wrinkled her nose.
"Thank you," Marissa said.
Jenna smiled, continuing to sweep.
Rolf staggered as he walked outside. He couldn't tell very much of what one of the hunters had just said. Lagget, that was his name, Lagget Stone Thrower or something. The one who'd invited him. The joke was bawdy, and he could tell that much by the hand gestures and the way the others had laughed. One thing that he'd learned over the past week was that the Woodies made drinks with a harder kick to them than Southern wine. He couldn't get drunk the way he could back home, since he lived with the missionary and all, but this wasn't the first round of brandies that he'd shared with some of the hunters. Jon even encouraged him to do that. It was good to show the heathens that they all had some things in common. If it brought some of them into the Light, so much the better.
Clan life wasn't as bad as he thought it would be. He was no hunter, but he was strong and he could fix things, so he spent every day working as the extra set of hands in town. Roofs needed to be shored up, furniture needed fixing, and so on. He was on pretty good terms with the harder-drinking lads, and he was more or less accepted in the clan. The only thing not to like was that there wasn't as much call for carpentry as there was back home. Here he was, surrounded by some of the healthiest wood he'd ever seen, and all of it untouchable because the Woodies didn't need any new chairs. The only carpentry they traded was the fine-carved stuff, and he wasn't as good at that. Some of the others were teaching him.
He looked around the village, taking a breather before he walked back to Jon's house. He'd get a speech about being careful with liquor that wasn't prayer wine, but that wouldn't matter. The air felt a little tingly. Drink was supposed to warm people up. Was their brandy different, or was it already turning cool up here? Rolf hoped he wouldn't be here long enough to find out how cold it got. He was helping his father and his faith, but he was also exiled to the Wood country as long as Marissa refused to be a good woman like she should. He didn't care whether or not she saw that lad that Jon told him to watch out for. He'd have a go at her himself if she wasn't such a bitch. But the more they did see of each other, the longer he would be stuck here, and Rolf wasn't going to put up with that.
He frowned. Were those voices? There were loud voices coming back from the circle of hunters in Lagget's house, but these were quieter, and they weren't muffled. Rolf wondered if maybe Woodie brandy made you hear things. It wouldn't be the weirdest thing he'd seen here yet; that was either Jon and some of his relics or the hunters when they painted themselves up to look like leaves and branches before they went hunting. Anyway, he wouldn't be surprised if he heard voices, but he just wanted to make sure that it was someone else before he went back and wrung Lagget's neck to find out what he spiked his drink with. One good thing about being the strongest lad his age in the village was that he wouldn't need to speak their language to get his point across.
He saw two people coming out of the trees about halfway to the other end of town. A girl and a lad, walking slow. Rolf backed up into the shadows. He might get to see something. They kept walking, and his stare turned into an even deeper frown than before as they walked towards Jon's chapel. Since when did the Woodies go pray at this time of night?
They held hands, kissed each other, then the girl went inside. The girl's long hair kept him from figuring out who she was, but he saw the lad's face clearly as he turned towards his end of town.
Rolf moved farther back into the shadows and moved towards the northern path.
Logan felt someone's eyes as he walked out of the village. He wasn't sure where it was coming from, but he felt them as if they brushed against his body. He slowed down. He cursed his luck for being upwind. Logan's ears pricked at a set of careful footsteps in the trees ahead of him. He drew his knife. "Step onto the path."
The leaves blocked most of the light coming down from the stars and the moon. Logan couldn't see this person's face, but he picked out the edge of a body against the shadows. He was built like an oak tree. Or a bear. "What do you think you're going to do with that knife, pippin?" the form asked. He spoke in Marissa's language, of which Logan knew precious little. He picked up the words for knife and doing, and didn't have the slightest idea what pippin was supposed to mean. Rolf's tone told him more than enough.
Rolf was drunk. Logan couldn't smell his breath -- he was upwind -- but he weaved a little to the sides as he walked towards him. Logan sheathed his knife; Rolf wasn't armed. "What do you want?" Logan asked. He spread his legs just a little more to distribute the weight. He knew exactly what this bear wanted.
"I saw you. Stay away from her."
He was close enough now to smell the brandy. It was bad stuff at that, probably Lagget's. He knew that it wouldn't do any good, but there was one thing he could still try if he didn't want to go home with bruises to tend to. Logan didn't take his eyes off him. Gazes locked, he said, "Thank you," and started to walk past him.
Rolf shoved him. Well, that wasn't going to work. "Are you too good to talk to me?" Rolf demanded. "Why don't you talk to me?" Rolf was close enough to breathe on him, and the smell made Logan's eyes twitch.
Like a wolf, Logan believed that there wasn't any point to posturing once the fight began. Like very few people, Logan understood that fighting began before the first punch was thrown.
His knuckles rammed Rolf's solar plexus like a launching arrow. Rolf stumbled to the ground, gasping. Logan stepped back. He murmured a phrase that he'd never had to use much, except against the wolves and his father during training. The woods dissolved a moving gray and brown blur. Rolf and the path cut into sharp focus. Logan could have counted the beads of sweat on Rolf's temples.
Rolf was shoving himself to his feet. The bear shook his head. He wheezed painfully, and his lips were curled back in wounded rage. Logan couldn't decide whether or not to slam him again while he was down. It was the smart thing to do -- Rolf certainly would do it -- but he couldn't be sure how well Marissa would take it if he beat one of her kinsmen to a pulp.
"Bloody witch!" Rolf hissed. He stepped up once, twice --
He moved faster than Logan ever thought he could. Rolf's fist rammed his chin. There was a blinding white flash, and Logan couldn't be sure his jaw was still part of his head. Rolf stepped up to pummel him again. The sharpness of vision that he'd created was fading in and out. Logan found his feet, locked Rolf's arm when he swung and snapped a punch to his face. Rolf blinked, even more drunkenly than he already was, but then Rolf's left came up too fast again.
Rolf nearly broke his ribs. There was a thud, a bloody spark of pain inside him, and Logan fell away. He couldn't breathe. His lock on Rolf's arm unraveled. Everything seemed to be going sideways. Another verse spilled out urgently. Another punch to the ribs missed. This close and he missed? Logan thought. But Rolf was drunk, and still dazed from the shot to the face that the hunter had given him. Maybe he had double vision and he was going after the wrong one. Logan kicked himself for being too cocky. He should have hammered him when he was on the ground. He might be the Listener's son, but Rolf could break him in half.
Rolf lunged for him and Logan slipped under it. Bugger me, I'm lucky he moves like a bear. Logan kept going and came around back-to-back with him. He slammed downward into Rolf's kidneys with his elbow. Rolf's back arched, the breath breaking out of his chest. He tried to turn around, then the hunter stepped forward and hooked his leg under Rolf's shin. It didn't quite work. Rolf should have gone down at his feet, but Logan pulled up as he nearly ran into a tree on the other side of the path. Their legs tied up and they both tumbled down on top of each other. Logan got the worse of that, with his legs underneath Rolf's body. Rolf's hair and forehead were grinding in the dirt. Logan coughed and spat to get grit out of his teeth.
He grappled with Rolf, trying to keep him from getting enough balance to get back to his feet before Logan did. Rolf was too bulky to get more than glancing blows off his sides. He roared with every punch he threw, hungry for the feeling of flesh and bone giving under his knuckles.
They made it back to their feet. Logan's head suddenly bucked under a punch that he only half-blocked. He tasted blood coming out of his nose. Rolf was prancing step, step, trying to gauge Logan's next move. He's no hunter, Logan thought blearily. But he's fought enough to know when he smells the kill. Dazed, Logan watched Rolf wind up his next punch. Without even thinking, he murmured words and felt his body spinning away. Rolf clipped his jaw but cut mostly air for the third time. Logan winced as he tried to breathe. Rolf held up his fists, goading Logan to come to him. Logan stared at him. He dropped his hands down. "You started this, you come to -- "
Rolf lunged for him. Whispering sharply, Logan ducked away as Rolf's arm cut at his head again. His momentum lurched him over, and Logan snapped his knee into Rolf's abdomen. The tough, meaty sinew and the ribs bent under the impact. Rolf gasped, crumpling one more time.
Logan grabbed his hair. He made sure his fingertips were all touching Rolf's head. He brought his mouth close enough to whisper into his ear, and the bear collapsed like a tired sack. He began to snore, as peacefully as if he'd just finished an honest day's work.
As his senses came back to the real world again, Logan began shaking. The pain in his temple felt like a stone was embedded in his skull. He wiped his nose, and gazed abashedly at the wide red streak on the back of his hand.
A crowd was coming to the edge of the path as Logan trudged back into the village. Logan wasn't surprised. He fought silently, but Rolf made enough noise to wake the village. Babbling hushed into murmurs as Logan swept his eyes through them. He was not in a good mood.
The man he was looking for came to him first. "What happened?" Laik asked.
His ugliest gaze was reserved for the missionary. Jon was coming out from his house. His face reddened when he saw that Marissa was there too. Her kerchief was perched on her head again, though it still didn't suit her. Logan's expression was glowering -- he was never in the best of moods after a fight -- and she looked away. Logan cursed his luck again, and added another reason not to like the missionary. He felt ashamed that Marissa saw him with other people's blood on his knuckles.
"I need help to get Rolf back into the village. He's had too much to drink." Logan wiped the blood from his nose again and looked at the new streak of red on his hand. Marissa was looking at him now that his eyes were down. He couldn't see it, but he could feel it. Logan was more preoccupied with his throbbing lip. Thankfully, he noted that he hadn't lost any teeth.