Woodland hunters kept their clothes to a minimum when they were in the Wood in summer. They wore shoes, but clothes snagged on branches and rocks, and could hold a smell for days. Wolfmark and Logan wore breeches that gathered at the knees and were tied at the waist. The fit and gathers kept them from restricting movement or sagging. Neither of them wore shirts today, since they would only slow them down and make their harnesses chafe from the moisture of their sweat. The harnesses were unique. Wolfmark's own invention, they were made of a thumbnail-thick rope of woven, wrapped threads of tree bark. Each was treated with a stinking mixture of herbs and resin that made them almost impossible to tear without a blade. Hunters typically carried their gear in bags, but Wolfmark had never liked tiring his arms unnecessarily. The harnesses allowed them to carry everything they needed on their backs, kept their hands free, and provided them with two pouches on each strap for faster acces to whatever they needed. Wolfmark used his to carry food in the winter and extra healing herbs in the summer. Their quivers and a single blanket were tied to the cross-straps in the back. Add a bow across the body and a staff in hand, and they had everything they could need.
They were almost ready to leave. Wolfmark held Logan's face still with his left hand as two fingers of his right hand drew a winding streak of black across his nose, continuing the one he'd already begun in his son's hairline. "Never seem to have enough loam," he said to himself, dipping his fingers in the bowl of pigments. It was shortly before dawn, and the fresh air promised a good day. They'd finished painting their hands long ago. It was almost a ritual to end with the last stripe of black across the face, but Logan knew that it wasn't. If it had been anything more than habit, Wolfmark would have already told him so, told him why, and explained how it related to all his other lessons.
"Did you meet your friends last night?" Wolfmark asked.
Logan nearly opened his eyes. "How did you know?"
"It's the only time you go to bed when I tell you to." He smiled, since his son's eyes were still closed. Actually, the lad had been skittish and eager all day yesterday. He'd been itching to go.
"You didn't tell mother, did you?"
Wolfmark looked at him, painting a little more thoughtfully. Did he hear something nervous in that? "Of course not," he chuckled. He tried to make the last of the paint reach all the way down Logan's neck.
"They told me to say hello for them."
They. Probably Laik and one of the other hunters. "Um-hmm," he murmured. "Anything new?"
"Laik's father made some more of his brandy for us."
Wolfmark winced at the thought of that stuff going down his son's throat. "I can't believe you still put up with that stuff."
"Mother can't brew anything but tea. Do we have a choice?"
He chuckled again, and again, Logan's shoulders tightened. Wolfmark could see the muscles twitching. Even if Logan had been wearing a shirt, Wolfmark could have sensed the anxiety coming off him. Logan was very bothered about something, and his son wasn't the type to tie himself up in knots. He lifted his hands hands off Logan's head and neck. When Logan opened his eyes, he said, "Tell me what's wrong."
Logan managed a smile. "Is it that easy to see?"
"Don't worry about that. Just tell me what it is." He folded his arms. "Slowly. Was it something at the fire last night?"
He shook his head. "No. Not with Laik, no. Well, not..." He stopped himself. He was still stumbling, and didn't like it, which just made it worse. "Last night, when I came back, I mean, on my way back..." Logan stopped. He unslung his pack and leaned on his staff. Wolfmark leaned his knee on a fallen log, and waited for his son to begin. He hadn't seen Logan this beside himself since that girl moved away.
"I was coming back from the campfire. Everything was all right, for most of the way, but just after I crossed the stream I felt something." He finally looked at him, and Wolfmark straightened as he saw the expression in Logan's eyes. "I could have sworn someone was trying to kill me. Like when we saw the poachers, that first time. But I couldn't see or hear anybody." Wolfmark nodded for him to continue. Calmly, Logan told him how he'd come upon his mother in the trees on the far side of the hill. When he finished, Wolfmark looked away. He remembered something he would have rather forgotten.
"You couldn't recognize the words she used?" Wolfmark asked.
"Some, but they didn't sound the way we say them. It sounded more like singing to the fire."
"Did you sense anything coming from the flames?"
"Anything like the way a river feels when you stand in it, or when the wind blows through you when you're meditating?"
Logan thought for a moment. "No. Nothing like that."
His father looked away again. If the forest felt it, she certainly wasn't just cooking. But more to the point, why hadn't he felt anything? He'd slept well last night. Given the heat, perhaps too well. His jaw set. He could feel the paint tighten against his skin. Wolfmark sighed, and said, "Show me where it was."
As they walked up the hill, Wolfmark relived a memory that he'd thought he'd put away for good. Another summer, another storm coming. When they were first married, he'd known that Alene had learned a little of this and that about the Path from her parents. She had told him that much, and shown him. Charms, cures for little illnesses, songs to ease pregnancy, plus some more exotic things. Sort of a Listener in the home rather than the forest. That was common. But there was more that she hadn't told him. He'd been on his way home, a deer over his shoulders, when suddenly an emotion that felt like bloody murder screamed through the forest. He remembered grabbing at his throat for a noose that wasn't there. He'd dropped the deer where he stood and bolted the rest of the way home. He'd charged into the house, knife in hand, shouting his wife's name and half-expecting to see the return of the plague. What he'd seen was worse. Alene had been sitting in front of the fireplace, chuckling to herself. Her face had been a mask of drunken amusement. Her hands, dress, and the floor were all bloody, and the stink of pain swelled into him from the hearth. She finally regained her senses after an afternoon's worth of care. She told him it had been a simple little ritual, and she had just gone too far. Never again, she'd promised. I'm sorry if I frightened you. Thank the earth Logan wasn't here.
Logan stood off to the side, pointing out telltale marks in the dirt and brush where he'd crawled toward the fire. Wolfmark could feel something about the area as he entered it. A sense of presence, like looking at someone and almost remembering the person's name. He didn't ask much as they looked around, except to specify where Logan had been, where Alene had been, and what exactly she'd been doing.
Alene hadn't done much to disguise what happened. Between the trees he found a rough, shallow pit of newly-dug dirt. When he brushed it aside, he found ashes. His hands tingled as he sifted through them. There were no pheasant's gizzards left. Logan found bits of burned wood around the edge of the area, where he said she'd tossed them.
Wolfmark stood. He'd hoped it would never come to this. "I think I'll have to talk with her before we go," he told him. "Give me some time in the house."
"I'll practice something," Logan offered. Wolfmark nodded. He didn't see his son's expression as Logan looked at him, just as he started through the trees.
Alene looked up in surprise from her mending as he came back inside. "I thought I heard someone coming. Forget something?" she asked cheerfully. When he didn't answer, she gave a closer look to his face. The paint must have made it harder to tell how stolid his mood had become. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"Did you go to sleep last night, after we went to bed?"
"Of course I did."
"Did you sleep through the whole night?"
She frowned. "Why? I mean, yes. It was a little hot, but I fell asleep after a while. What are you on about?"
He breathed a strong, frustrated breath. Sweat was starting to gather around his temples. "If you fell asleep, then who was it Logan saw by a fire last night?"
Alene's face fell. Her eyes dropped to the floor, and she started rubbing her forehead. It was her I-can't-believe-I-was-wrong expression. Wolfmark unslung his gear. He dragged over one of the chairs to lean on. He didn't want to sit, but he didn't like the idea of standing over her like a judge, either.
In a low, somber voice, he added, "He showed me where it was. I found the ashes. Tell me what you were doing."
"Dellard, it's not what you think."
If it hadn't been, she would have said what she really was doing. He knew her. "You told me you'd never do it again!" he snapped.
"It's not that." Her voice grew more firm. "Will you listen?"
Dellard stared at her. He wanted to believe that she was telling the truth.
"It's the first week of summer," she explained. "The first storm is coming up. You and I can both feel that." He folded his arms, nodding slightly for her continue. "I wanted to tap a little into the change that's going on in the weather."
"What for?" It was a simple question. He knew that she might be telling the truth. Tapping into the change was something Listeners did to get a better idea of what kind of season it was going to be. But even if her timing was right, the way she did it was all wrong. If what she'd been doing was just part of the Path that was different from his, that wouldn't explain Logan's fear.
On cue, she faltered again. His expression hardened. He knew it! Wolfmark leaned forward. His hands rested on the back of the chair, gripping the edge tightly, and his legs were almost set in a fighting stance. "What does fire singing and cutting up a kill have to do with that?"
Alene's eyes narrowed. "Don't talk to me that way."
"How do you want me to talk to you? That's two lies, Alene! Logan was nearly scared out of his hide. As I remember, so was I, when I saw you."
Her expression clouded over. Alene started to talk, but everything seemed to be coming at once. "It wasn't like it was then. Then I had a choice." Her voice was low. She wrung her hands around each other. "I couldn't help it. The pheasant was fresh, that storm's coming, and it's going to be a big one, too. I just couldn't help it." She searched his face for sympathy. "I was stronger before I had Logan. I wanted to feel like that again."
Wolfmark closed his eyes, turning away from her. "You just don't understand!" she cried.
"That's right!" he shot back. "I don't understand. I don't understand how you could lie to me. I don't understand this need to feel strong. I don't Listen to feel strong. Logan doesn't. Do you have any idea how he felt after seeing you like that?" Concern settled into her face. Words couldn't say how glad he was for that. "I still haven't been able to explain it to him."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean any harm." Alene held her sides. She was having trouble raising her eyes to him. "Dellard -- what if I can't help it again, and he sees me, again? Sooner or later he's going to want to know what I was doing."
"I'm going to show him when we're in the Wood, but when we come back, I want you to talk to him, and explain it to him. I want you to show him, step by step, what you were doing."
Alene looked shocked. "Why? What for?"
"Would you rather I leave him afraid of you?"
She thought about it, and finally nodded. Wolfmark sat down in the chair across from her. "I love you," he said, taking her hands. "I don't want to be hard, but it's him I'm concerned for. His training is almost finished. He's beginning to really, really understand what's inside him. It's a very sensitive time."
"I know." She shrugged. "It was easier to sneak than to find something else." A wan smile glimmered on her face. "He must be better at it than me." She leaned over and kissed him lightly, getting paint on her face. "You'd better go. He's still waiting for you."
They walked outside together. Logan was near the trees. He relaxed, walking much more casually when he saw her smiling. "Are we ready now?" Logan called.
"We're ready," Wolfmark replied. He turned to Alene. Her smile seemed genuine. "I have to go. We'll see you soon." He held her tightly, smelling her hair, and for that moment all his doubts left him.
He left, calling to Logan about which trail he wanted to run out to the Deep Wood. Alene waved back at them from the burrow's entrance. She then turned, when they were gone, biting her lip. She went over to the bed and took out a willow-woven box from underneath. There were a few little things here that she'd kept after her mother died. A pin or two, her favorite scarf. She pushed hard in one corner and the bottom nudged out. Inside was a wrapped-up old shawl. It was gray, tattered and faded with age. Her parents had given it to her when she finished learning her Way, when the legacy passed on. Wrapped inside the shawl were a deck of cards, strung beads and several stones.
"You can't just forbid things like they're toadstools," she said aloud. She would use the cards first. They were little more than thin tablets of wood, wearing soft with age. People sometimes decorated their homes with them. These were different. She put the shawl off to the side, then knelt on the floor and laid seven cards in an arc before her, face down.
"Dellard." She turned over the Hunter, and sighed in relief. Nothing new there. Still wary, still a guardian and provider. He still trusted her, and wouldn't be spying on her for the cards or whatever else.
"Logan." The card portrayed an anachronism, a Woodland warrior, dressed in leather armor and brandishing his sword overhead in a gesture of victory. The Champion. That was strange. The Champion meant success, overcoming odds. Alene tightened her jaw a little. It could mean anything from a bashing in the village to a fight for his life. What did it mean? She smiled, though. A little victory in the family was always a good thing.
"Logan," she tried again. Alene's spine went rigid. This card, however, was not a good thing. It was called the Two Faces. It showed a man standing back to back with himself, but each side was the antithesis of the other. One side was night, the other day; one face was smiling, the other frowning; one held his hand out in a gesture of peace, the other concealed a dagger. It meant deception, playing at trust to learn more. She thought sourly that Dellard was probably to blame for that. Logan was watching her warily, and watching his own hide.
"Me." The Wolf.
Alene frowned. That didn't make sense at all. Wolves represented a number of things, but she couldn't imagine which applied to her. Cunning? Loyalty? She stared at the imprint in the card, the exaggerated mouth in the howl. Alene thought for a moment, then turned away from the cards. You didn't check the last two; that wasn't how it worked. She put the stones into her hand. Alene shook them, whispering rapidly, then tossed them onto the floor.
Only two of them had their faces turned up. They weren't very talky today. The dice were covered with symbols from some of the games that children played. A blade, a shield, thunder, the sun, and the moon. The moon and the blade faced up. Now what sense did that make?
She frowned, sitting back. The moon meant night, hidden things, and the blade meant violence. Something about revenge? The blade and the sun would have signified more open conflict. Given Logan's first reading, the Champion, that would have made sense. But revenge? She shook her head. Revenge for what? What was going on that someone would want to avenge? She sighed, putting the dice back into the shawl. The cards were still spread out before her. Two Faces, she thought. She had better do something about that. She looked at Logan's cards again, then took back all seven and put the deck away.
The last two cards had been a Love heart, and the Traitor.
The fundamental purpose of all Listeners was to become one with the rhythm of Nature itself. Logan was near the end of training that had occupied his life since he turned ten, and would probably come to an end sometime after he turned twenty. All things in time, and nothing before its time; it might take until he was twenty-one or more. Listeners understood that Nature had no sense of urgency. Logan could be an impatient, presumptuous bastard, and he knew it, but even he understood that to really Listen meant understanding his self. Though he didn't like them, he would be the first to point out the gaps in his ability that were yet to be filled.
Training began with games and little walks with his father. See that worm? Look at how it eats the leaves. What's going to eat the worm? It moved up to tree climbing, then hunting, then tracking, and on and on, sometimes in ways that he couldn't quite follow. Chasing girls and drinking with his friends became part of what he would learn.
How, Logan? his father had asked. What do they have to do with the forest? I don't know. It just seems to make sense. And his father had smiled and clapped him on the shoulder.
As training progressed, the games became steadily more vicious. Logan could hear a raccoon walking in the branches above him. He lay face-down along the length of one of the lower branches, one of the few that was thick enough to support his weight. The 'coon snorted like a boar piglet, and it was walking along the length of the branch looking for some bugs that might be hiding under the leaves. It probably didn't even know he was there. Logan wished he could say as much about his father. Wolfmark moved through the shrubs and greenery at the bottom of the tree. Logan had given him a good chase, but the other hunter knew he was close. He probably smelled him. The whisking sound of grass came up from the ground as Wolfmark walked closer to the tree, and the 'coon grunted in anger at being disturbed. Logan fixed one eye on him and held up his left hand in a short, quiet order to shut up. The 'coon decided not to bother with either of them and moved higher into the tree.
Though he couldn't see it, Logan could feel that the sun was going down. The air felt cooler. His bow, quiver and harness were hanging somewhere in the upper branches, along a branch that the 'coon or any other curious animal couldn't have reached. That had happened before. Logan's face was pressed hard enough against the bark to leave red, lined impressions on it. His staff was cradled alongside his body, under his ankle and the fold of his shoulder to keep it from falling. His hunting knife, which he wouldn't use anyway, was strapped to his leg and too low to reach. One of his eyes was closed. The other was opened to a slit. He could barely see movement at the bottom of the tree that could only be his father. An animal that size would've made more noise, and wouldn't have been as persistent.
This particular game went like this. One of them hid somewhere in the forest, and the other went to root him out. If the finder tagged the hider, he won. If the hider tagged the finder, the finder had to beat him in a fight or else he lost. Logan and his father had spent the last quarter of the day playing it, after they had run out here from the burrow.
Breathe. Relax. Listen. His father could feel the tension in the air if he held his breath. He would know. Twice in the past, Logan had been caught for doing that. His father had been searching nearby and suddenly looked right at him. The last time that happened, he'd been fourteen years old. Logan had learned that lesson well.
Wolfmark leaned close to the ground. His face was inches from it. Logan thought he'd been careful enough not to leave tracks. With a sixth sense, Logan could feel him move from the base of the tree to the bole itself. No trail there, either, but his father wouldn't give up with only one dead end. He'd had to blunder through two false trails just to get this far, and they made this little trick look easy. After a trackless approach to this part of the forest, all that Logan had done to reach this hiding place was climb another tree and shinny through to this one where the branches intertwined.
Move, you blind bastard. Keep moving. Logan could hear the blood pounding in his ears.
Logan could hear him whispering, and finally cut himself the slack to bite the inside of his lip. All tactics were fair, Listening included, and that left no point in waiting. His father was about to find him. Logan whispered verses of his own to silence his movements. In one motion, he wrapped his left arm around the tree limb, took his staff in his other hand, and let his body fall. The hooking action of his arm swung him feet first right into the stooped, intently concentrating figure of his father. Logan's teeth flashed as his father's eyes widened in shock just before Logan kicked him in the chest. Tag! Logan landed poorly, but so did his father, and they were both facing each other with leveled staves by the time they regained their feet.
Neither hesitated. Wolfmark waded into him with a series of lunges and cuts to the head and sides. He was trying to corner him against the tree. Logan hissed with each block that he struck against the flurrying, dancing staff, refusing to budge anywhere but backwards or to his left. A stream of rhythmic, arcane verse poured from the lips of both hunters as they clashed again. Logan didn't know what his father was doing, but he was reaching out with his senses to feel the land around him. If he was going to spend his time going backwards he had better know where he could and couldn't put his feet down.
Not that he intended to backpedal all day. A shoulder set, a hip swing, a pinpoint glance of his father's eyes all told Logan where the next open spot would be. Wolfmark could read him just as well. Logan switched his verses to a more deliberate, staccato cluster of bitten-off words as he came in with a succession of hooks to his father's legs and jabs high to his face.
"Not bad," Wolfmark said.
Logan kept coming. His father wasn't playing with him, but it didn't change that his comment nudged Logan's concentration by just that much. Wolfmark got in a cut to Logan's side that he just barely managed to block, and that gave him time to set up the next series of attacks. Logan was ready. Time to back up again.
Wolfmark came in from both sides, going left, then right, and mixing up his approaches. Logan didn't bother looking for a pattern. It wouldn't be where he could see it. The strikes became more intense now. Logan could feel his blood burning hotter. He was supposed to be learning from these fights, and he did, but he couldn't deny how high the fight kicked him up.
Logan could feel something familiar as Wolfmark came at him. One, one-two, one, one, one-two-three. Logan dodged under one of the large one cuts that came at his head. His own counters and lunges broke up the pattern and made it harder to pick up, but Logan could feel it like a drumbeat. A jab to the belly came in, then his father charged with a cyclone of four spinning, whirling attacks. Ah.
Logan came around to his right in a move called the Dove. He made soft, rapid jabs to the sides, keeping his own balance light and bending with his father's counters. Dove was meant to set up an attack, not as an attack in itself. His father countered and struck, countered and struck, not really getting off a full-blown shift in the fight, but keeping a fist of oak coming at Logan at any given time.
On his father's fourth counter, Logan ducked sideways under a cut that would have been easier to block. Wolfmark should have whipped the staff over end and clocked him while Logan's crouch kept him pinned, but instead he kept his momentum and spun into a more guarded position.
Wise. He knows I'm inside his rhythm, Logan caught the glimpse of a smile on his father's face. His father was right. Logan had been prepared to roll under the strike and take out his father's legs. Logan went after him. The staves nearly cracked as the hunters clashed again. Logan spat incantations with every blow, calling upon the wood to hold firm. More dimly than even his keen eyes could have seen, the carvings at either end of his staff glowed. Logan charged in a series of weaving lunges that forced his father to retreat left, right, left-right-duck, left --
-- Wolfmark sensed something behind him
-- He rolled down to avoid backing into a tree stump; Logan somersaulted over his body to get behind him and came to his feet to Wolfmark's right. It was a perfect jump, but his father made it to his feet first. Logan was just getting his bearings rightside-up when Wolfmark reached over and tagged his son in the abdomen.
Both hunters froze like wooden statues at the moment it happened. Logan had seen a whirling blur of green, brown, and sky blue, then he was rightside-up and he felt a punch in his belly. He stared at the end of his father's staff. He could hear his father's rhythmic, sweat-laced breathing, like his own.
"Well done -- "
Disbelief became recognition; he had lost. Logan swore. He'd done everything right and still lost. He threw down his staff and growled, "I'm never going to beat you."
"You have before," Wolfmark reminded him.
"Not in this game."
"You had me. You showed off. Until then I was looking at some of the best fighting I've ever seen," Wolfmark said. His face was red and sweaty. He let out a gasp, then laughed hard. "I'm getting too old for this." Logan gave his father a baleful look. He didn't like having someone laugh when he was angry, but his father's cackle was infectious. Now he felt dumb. He kicked up a good-sized cloud of dirt and went to pick up his staff.
"Come on, lad," his father said. "You got excited. If this hadn't been a game you might not have done it. You left two of the most confusing trails that I've ever had the mishap to follow, and you nearly took my head off twice when we were fighting."
"Good for me."
Wolfmark put his hands on his hips. Logan knew the tone of voice that was coming next. His father wasn't going to argue how well he'd done if he didn't want to believe it himself. "Like it or not, you were beaten because of a mistake that young Listeners make. You'll learn."
Logan gave him a halfhearted nod. Maybe that was true, but he didn't like losing.
His father had a small fire going by the time he climbed back down from retrieving his gear. Logan went to get more kindling and wood to burn. They didn't need it for supper. They hadn't done any hunting today, besides each other, and that meant they were settling for dried venison and water to eat. Logan made up for it for both of them by bringing along some raspberries that he'd gathered yesterday while they weren't stalking deer. They spent the end of the day singing, talking or exchanging jokes to each other, and turned in just after the sun went down.
Logan unrolled his blanket and settled in. The gathering darkness around their fire reminded him of last night. By this time yesterday, he was well into carving on his bow. Things looked all right this morning, when they left, but any halfwit could have heard them snapping at each other. Logan's ears were getting more sensitive than his father knew. Mother followed some strange kind of Path that no one had bothered to tell him about. Father had known, and was worried now that it might touch him.
"Did she tell you what she was doing?"
He heard his father rolling over. Logan sat up on his elbow. Neither of them had said a word about it since they started off. By the look of it, it seemed his father had hoped it wouldn't come up until some other time. "I knew what she was doing," he said. "She's done it before."
Logan smirked uncomfortably. So he already knew about it, and hadn't told him. That bothered him, but there were bigger bothers than that in his mind. Those involved knives and maniacal-looking mothers. "Why was I so afraid?" he asked. "What was it?"
Wolfmark looked away. This was the first time Logan could remember that his father hadn't understood something, or known what was going on. Logan found that to be an unsettling omen. "There are some things that Listeners learn only after they've mastered the Path. There's a discipline, a ritual that taps into your feelings. We call it shirha." Logan frowned. Shirha was old Woodlander for storm, but it had other connotations -- storming rage, storming fury, downpour of despair. "We call it shirha because that's what it can do, to you, or to those around you.
"Have you ever stared rock-still into the eyes of a rattler, even when he's over a jump away from you? Or when you haven't seen someone in so long that you just hug the stuffings out of them, and it seems like you could do it forever?" Logan nodded again. "That's where you'll find the shirha."
"Have you ever tapped it?"
"Sometimes. I usually don't have to. The last time I did, you were dying from the plague." He looked into space for a moment, remembering. "Hope I don't have to do that again, not for another few lifetimes." Logan found himself looking at his father's hands. They were pulling tightly at each other. The ground they were treading was a little uneven for both of their tastes. "Why didn't you tell me?" Logan asked. His father smiled. "Not from fear," he assured him. "You've actually been learning it all your life. Shirha come out of being able to focus and use your feelings. The only danger is that they swing the way your feelings do. If you're afraid, it turns on you. I'm not so sure your control is up to snuff yet."
Logan's eyebrows narrowed. "Ouch."
His father shrugged. He continued, "Your deepest feelings are what create the shirha. Nothing else. Imagine if your deepest weakness took hold of you and wouldn't let go. You bent to its will. Imagine it was fear. You'd kill every threat you could reach, suspect anyone, of anything. You remember the campfire stories about people who called names like rage, hate, and bitterness. It's said that their bloodlust wasn't exaggerated by much." "What if your weakness was love?"
"Love isn't a weakness. The shirha I'd first teach you to call would be from feelings like that."
Silence. Finally, Logan asked, "What about mother?"
Wolfmark looked at him the way he would sometimes look into the deepest night sky. He was weighing what he should or shouldn't tell him, and he wasn't taking it lightly. "I really don't know. Your mother's a wild one -- I think why you get along so well with Laik -- but I never thought she was rash. She says she lost a lot of strength after she bore you." Logan rolled his eyes -- oh, great, it's my fault, he thought -- and Wolfmark chuckled. "Take heart, lad. She's the only one who knows for sure. And no matter what it looked like, it could've been something completely different, couldn't it? It might be that you were feeling everything she put into it. She's not as strong as she used to be."
Logan doubted that, but he didn't have much else to go on. He waited for his father to finish. He only roll ed back down. "Don't worry. Your mother knows what she's doing." Logan didn't move at first. He was accustomed to having his father wrap up his lessons into a compact image, or an example, something in the forest that he could relate to. This was something that even he didn't seem to understand. Was he lying to him? Was there more he wasn't telling him? Logan swallowed tightly as he reminded himself that while most of what the Listeners knew came from inside, there was still much that didn't, and he wouldn't get all the answers he wanted just by meditating or thinking about it.
As he lay back down himself, he tossed the idea around inside his head. She certainly seemed to know what she was doing by that fire. She probably could've taught the butchers up in clan Trianel a thing or two. He also knew he didn't want to meet her on a darkened path with that expression on her face. He sighed, rolling over and opening his eyes. The stars gleamed at him, and he thought of Marissa.
A ghostly sound reached the camp. Logan relaxed. It was a natural, familiar sound, a wolf pack's chorus. He could pick out at least three voices -- Chika, Rugh -- the third sounded like Aga's. The young wolves' voices were too similar to pick out from each other. He Listened to try to understand the words.
They were wishing them a safe journey. Logan felt honored. The howl ran shivers down his spine. He looked towards his father and asked, "Shall we?" "Of course."
He and his father got up and moved to a spot in the clearing where they could see the moon. Logan thought of the howl as the verse he would be speaking, and the wolves he was calling to. Logan closed his eyes. He imagined every detail about Rugh that he could remember. The rough, gray hair. Wildness. Impatience. Powerful and sleek. I am a wolf, Logan thought, the phrase an incantation, and he howled into the night. The sound rattled his skull and inundated his ears. Logan squinted as the howl stung his throat. His mind's eye saw the glimmering stars washed from sight by a fountain of bluish energy. His father joined him with a howl that was just a little more careful in its sound. The harmony was pleasant to listen to, as long as you forgot that they weren't wolves. He ran out of breath, and the howl died. The fading imprint inside Logan's head was a column of scintillating blue light, twisted and spiraling away over the treetops. He opened his eyes, swallowing to relieve the soreness. The tears still wet his face. "Stings, father."
"That's only because you don't do it as much as they do." He sat back down on his blankets. "They'll appreciate that."
"We did a pretty shoddy howl."
"Better than most people could. Can you imagine Chika trying to talk to you in our tongue?" Logan shook his head. "It's only fair, then."
Logan grinned. It was so simple that it was impossible not to. He settled back down to sleep. A subtle tension was gone from his body, and it only took a short time for him to fall asleep.
Morning came. Logan slept well. He remembered a dream, with wolves and his mother. He thought he was there, but then she couldn't hear him when he called. He reminded himself to think about the dreams later. There was too much to do now. When they finished breaking camp, his father said, "The morning's drawn on already. Time we got started."
"Top of the plateau. Something up there I want to show you."
Logan frowned. They were supposed to be running deeper into the Wood today.
"We've been up there before."
"Not on top, we haven't. There's always something you haven't found. You just have to take another way of looking." Wolfmark tapped Logan's feet with his staff. "You're in lead, unless you want me to dribble on with some other wisdom."
Logan tried to guess what his father was thinking. His father's worry was gone, but he had that flicker of a grin that told Logan he had something special in mind. "Am I going to call the shirha?" Logan asked.
"You'll see. No point in worrying, if the time isn't come yet."
His father kept secrets like the dead when he wanted to. "Shut up and start moving?"
Wolfmark grinned. "Please."
They took their ease through the forest this time. His father preferred to run, but it wasn't far to the plateau, and the climb would be enough to tire them. Logan had the feeling that whatever his father had planned would give him enough work to round out the day.
"Try to clear yourself on the way up," his father told him. "Feel the forest." The muscles in his legs were already giving subtle protest against the change in grade from flat to incline. That, on top of everything that had been going on over the past two days, made it hard to feel anything but a jumble of tension and fear.
Wolfmark began singing a climbing song used by the Listeners. Logan sighed, and joined in halfheartedly. His father had used this song to calm his son's emotions for as long as he'd been learning the Path, and he felt embarrassed that he was resorting to it. His voice still broke on the high notes, too. His voice was almost finished changing, but the nuances of it still eluded him.
Still, he thought languidly, it does work, even if I sound like a crow. The words were more musical than just talking, and the song lended an ease to the rhythms of their legs and the forest around them. He knew that the breeze really wasn't rising when they sang in chorus, that his father just had a better feeling for it. He knew that the larks that called in the trees weren't really answering their refrains. But it seemed that way, and it made him feel good.
"Father?" Logan asked between verses.
"Did you love anyone before mother?"
Wolfmark chuckled. "I think you're getting ahead of yourself, whoever she is."
"I didn't say that."
"No, of course not. Her name was Celine. She was the first girl I ever fell in with. Maybe the deepest. I was a lot younger then."
"What happened to her?"
"I wasn't ready to marry. I still hadn't learned enough of the Path to give her all my time. Celine was fiery, like your mother. She wouldn't wait. Time came when she married a hunter in clan Chielag. We lost touch after that."
Logan wondered if Marissa would return south if she had the choice. All things considered, he would, if he were in her shoes. Living in the Wood wasn't easy. Her missionary stepfather could be worse. That'd break things up pretty fast. Of course, she might stay after all if she had a good reason to -- there was a certain Logan Wolfmark-Son who could give her that.
"Who is she?"
"I met her last night. New girl, just came to Kenton."
"Is she pretty?"
Logan thought about that. That glimmer of wisdom in her eyes, and her willfulness, and the way she moved. His heart raced. "I think so."
His father didn't reply, and they kept walking up the plateau. The woods thinned into patches of trees as the ground became more rocky. He felt bare as a tree in autumn whenever they passed into open ground.
As they neared the top of the plateau, his father touched his shoulder. "I'll take lead now," he said. Wolfmark moved ahead of him, taking a path that led them away from the top.
Logan didn't ask where they were going; his father didn't like to mention destinations when they were practicing the Path. As he saw it, you rarely had the fortune of knowing the outcome of whichever path you took. This was a way of growing used to that, and growing used to adapting to however the destination finally came out. In a funny way, it made sense.
"Careful. The rocks are loose." They skirted along the top of an overhang that tumbled down into a fall of rocks. Roots stuck out from the ground into empty air in several places. Logan was careful to let his weight down evenly, and slide rather than walk to keep himself steady. The tempo of their breathing could have set time for music. In. Out. In. Out. In. The hard part was to act rather than think, especially when the edge of the path was barely a foot from the edge of his shoes. To keep himself from being distracted, Logan tried looking at the middle of his father's back. The muscles were relaxed, except in the base of his back. His father was standing straight up. Wonderful, Logan thought. We're both antsy.
"Feel your way around the path. Hug yourself to it, rather than walking." Logan breathed deeply, trying to imagine himself as a tree or a boulder on the plateau. The wind was at their backs, which helped. Then it whipped and settled in a strange way that almost left a taste in his mouth.
Carefully, he raised his eyes to the sky. The morning blue had turned to a color that was more the texture of a lake. The freshness of the air filled in his lungs, rather than the heaviness of the past several days. He suddenly remembered. Four days at the outside, his father had said -- and weather was fickle as a tease. "Is that the storm?"
"It should be here any moment." His father's tone, and his cadence, didn't change measure. Logan's eyes widened. And they were climbing the edge of a rock fall?! "Are you afraid?" he asked.
"Good. We'll begin soon."
Logan never would have denied that his father had an edge to him, but this was reaching. "What's that supposed to mean?"
His father didn't answer. Sometimes the whole point of the lesson had to do with working with anger, or fear, or confusion. Fear wasn't anything new. How you dealt with it was the key. Logan usually tried to disconnect himself from it, to keep it from paralyzing him. The wind whipped up and fell again, like a man trying to breathe through a sickness in his body. How much longer until they left the path?
Feel the plateau.
The sun passed in and out of the clouds. Logan felt it was a dark, ominous sign of the storm's power. He could already feel it. Didn't his father? The leaves in the trees hissed angrily against the wind. In the distance below them a tree hawk took flight, crying out in alarm.
Small chunks of rock underneath the path gave way. The rattle of their fall echoed off the face of the plateau, like throwing stones down the chimney of a cave. The stones underneath Logan's feet wobbled, then shifted down. He gasped and barely kept his head as he slid to a stronger edge on the path.
Logan sank farther into himself. He shut out the questions he wanted to ask. They'd feed his fear, and that would get him killed. Where were they going? Why hadn't they taken a safer path around the plateau? Why weren't they taking shelter from the storm? As he settled in, his movements became more fluid. He'd trust his father to take him where he had to go.
The storm was almost on top of them. Drizzle drops pecked at his shoulders and dotted his face. The animals had already run off to nestle themselves in someplace safe. That was what Logan wanted to do. There wasn't any thunder yet, but it would be coming. The thrill of a summer storm carried a more sarcastic bite when you were in the middle of it. Logan sighed uneasily.
His father's head cocked at the sound. "You'll learn better than that today." "Better than what?"
Wolfmark stopped. He looked around, probably to get their bearings. He had to know that it wasn't a good idea to stand for very long on the path. "This way," he said. He began climbing up to the top of the plateau. It wasn't far, and the grade wasn't very steep. Logan silently thanked whichever spirit was following him today that they were nearly there.
"Better than what?" he asked again, more offhandedly.
His father stopped his climb, looking down at him. He looked more like his mother did by her campfire. "Than to trust me."
The wind whipped up again. Logan's heart seized inside his chest, a cold stone gripped by a dead hand. His father sounded like he meant it. Logan momentarily wondered if he already knew what his mother had been up to, and he was arranging an accident. "What do you mean?"
Wolfmark heaved himself onto the top of the plateau, then lowered his hand for Logan to take. "Come on," he said, smiling. "I won't let go." Do I believe him? A dozen different ideas ran circles around his head, all of them possible, none of them believable. The wind blew up again, spitting rain into his eyes. He heard the first drums of thunder coming over the plateau. "I can make it," he said, working the rest of the way to the top. His father smiled and moved back. Logan scrambled to his feet, away from the edge.
Wolfmark was already walking towards a grove of trees. "We're almost there," he called over his shoulder. "Hurry. We want to get there before the storm does."
Logan jogged up behind him. This was a new path, one he'd never seen before, so he had to keep up. Nearby he could hear a rushing sound behind the branches. Water, or a squall of rain. The grove was nearly black under clouds from the storm. He found himself stepping on branches, tripping on rocks like a Southlander lost outside the walls at Lyall. His father moved like a ghost, slipping through the shadows as if he was one.
They came out near a small creek, barely a trickle, really, about four jumps across by stepping stones. The forest had protected them from most of the storm, but now the rain came in a light, steady fall, soaking their hair to strings that clung to their faces. Logan followed the creek back toward the edge of the plateau. He couldn't see where it came from, but it looked like it ran off the edge of the rock face on the other side of the grove.
"This creek runs all the way down to the Wood." He looked around, then pointed to a wolf paw symbol drawn on one of the boulders nearby. "I haven't been here in a long time. I must've written that when you were ten."
Eight years. Logan thought about how much his father moved up and down this part of the Wood; that was a long time. Wolfmark continued, "There's a spring that bubbles up through the rocks at the very top of the plateau, over that way. It only gets like this when a storm comes in." Logan just nodded. Fascinating, but he still didn't understand what his lesson was.
"Walk into the creek. The middle of it."
Logan stared at it. The water wasn't that deep, but the rain was beginning to swell the banks, making it run faster. Not to mention the lightning. "Is it safe?"
His father's face hardened. Wolfmark pointed toward the creek with his staff. Logan hid his glare and waded into it. He was afraid, but his father was really getting under his skin now, and he wanted to get this over with. The depth was deceptive. The spring dug an uneven channel through the rock, and he found himself in water up to his knees by the time he reached the middle. The staff helped him keep his balance. He was careful to shove the rocks aside as he walked, so that he wouldn't jam his feet between them. Legs broke that way, and people drowned with the water barely over their heads. Boy, I really pick what to think about, don't I? The icy touch of the water reached around his feet.
His father looked up at the sky. Logan saw a whip-sharp flash over the tops of the trees. Thunder that he could feel in his chest rolled over them.
"Start meditating," Wolfmark said. "This time I don't want you to bury your fear."
Logan stared at him. The shine of the water on his face and the clinging web of his hair made his father look mad. Only his eyes only told Logan that he knew what he was doing. "What should I do?"
Wolfmark ran over to some rocks on the bank, checking the sky again. The wind blew spray into Logan's face. His father seemed to be looking for something, or waiting. "What should I do!" he repeated.
"But don't -- "
Logan swallowed. This wasn't good at all. Every time the spray reached around his body it made his hair stand up, and every time his hair stood up he waited for the bolt that would turn his chest into a charred, black hole. Darkly, he reflected that being struck by lightning had to be one of the most unique ways to die in all creation. Laik would probably like it that way; make sure the people remember how you died.
Logan fixed his staff between a pair of heavy rocks. He settled down into a horse-riding stance, his legs straddled and his body lowered almost down to the water. He felt tiny branches and weeds under the surface tugging and snagging at the hair above his ankle. It soaked through his shoes and mushed the leather against his feet, blackening them with grit he couldn't see. Gooseflesh prickled his chest and arms. Logan exhaled, staring into the trees where the grove edged the creek. Above them he saw the sky, and his hair stood again with fear as a streak of lightning rippled across the grayness.
"What are you afraid of?"
Logan didn't reply. He imagined himself as a boulder, and settled even more heavily into his stance. If his father was going to be this way, then he'd just have to do it right and show him. The feeling of the water coursed through his body. Logan raised his arms over his head, spreading them out as if he felt a glass dome against his hands.
Lightning flashed again, and again. The thunder reverberated in his chest. Logan telescoped his hands in and out. He wanted to jump. He wanted to run. A bolt shattered the sky, like a hammer shattering glass over his head, and the thunder bolted the muscles in his chest. He wanted to scream. "Feel the water!" his father cried.
It ran like deer striding through the trees. It flew like hawks whipping around the top of the Crease. Logan pulled his fists in towards himself, looking to his left. He ignored falling leaves that stuck to his body. The creek ignored the leaves that fell into its path, didn't it? He swung his head around in a circle, came to the left, and locked his eyes onto his father's.
Wolfmark stared into his soul. The moment stretched into eternity. Logan knew he was invoking something, but couldn't hear the words or read his lips through the rain. He held his straight staff up-and-down, grasped at the middle, and was raising it up as high as he could.
Logan's heart thudded against his chest. The corner of his father's mouth turned up. As intense as his father's concentration was, the elder Halkien was sparing a grain of it to let himself smile.
You'll learn better than that today.
Without even thinking, Logan fluidly drew his staff over his shoulder, stabbed it into the creek bed -- his father rammed his own staff into the ground -- and incanted the same words as his father. The words came from nowhere. The sky seemed to darken around them, and a squall of vicious raindrops pelted him blind.
A tremor churned the water. Logan felt the mud shift around his feet, like it was being sucked away and regurgitated by the earth at the same time. He hadn't the slightest idea what the words he'd said had been. Thunder cracked the sky apart. In his terror, Logan also knew that he'd never felt more alive in his life.
The squall passed, and he could see again. The silence made his ears ring. The tattoo of the rain on the creek gave everything a peaceful ambience that he found irresistible. He actually felt calm. Thunder rolled overhead from lightning strokes a few miles away. He felt the bass rumbling in his chest, and found that standing in the open didn't bother him.
His father leaned on his staff, smiling. Logan pulled his out of the ground. The fear, and the power that he'd felt, were slipping away as swiftly as the creek flowed around his legs. He felt dizzy. His next question had all the seriousness that he would've used after Laik had pulled a joke on him. "What in the bloody blazes were you trying to do, kill me?"
"What is it that you love the most, Logan?"
"What?" What kind of a question was that? But at the same time, it was as clear as the morning dew. He loved his father, the forest, the rightness of what being nejamen meant. All of it was the same to him. He couldn't think of a way for one to be without the other two. He couldn't imagine himself without all three.
"What did we do?" Logan asked.
"I tapped into your feelings. Instead of reining them, you rode them. That's what calling the shirha really is."
Logan nodded slowly. He understood. In that instant he had, anyway, but he couldn't hold onto it. He doubted he could do it again if he tried.
Wolfmark continued, "It's not something you always want to do. They're a part of more than just this," and he tapped his hand against chest.
"They're a part of everything."
Just like people were a part of nature. Yes. "Did we make that squall?"
"In a way. When you said the words, you were part of it."
Logan nodded again. A melange of feelings began to surface. Laik was in there. So was his mother. Sarina and Marissa occupied almost the same thought. He closed his eyes to keep the world from spinning and braced himself with his staff.
Strong hands held him up. His father's voice sounded muffled. "Steady, fellow. You've done about all you're going to for today. You've got some pretty strong feelings in there. Let's find some shelter, and I'll tell you about it some more."