Fire at the Dawn of Night
Also available in ePub format.
The maple leaf was brown and gold, resting upon a single patch of flared green grass around which were swirls spun of purple, violet, and red grasses as if the land had been painted in pastel shades. Before the leaf and with her legs folded beneath her, Cynthia sat with her hands clenched and resting upon her knees, and her eyes were only for the solitary leaf. Away from her and between two swirls of the grass, Martin waited, and his head was perched awkwardly upon one upraised knee. He could feel the touch of her thoughts, filling the space around them, as her awareness fumbled with the leaf and brushed against his skin. With only the traces of a breeze to support it, the air was warm with the scent of rosebuds and cinnamon. The leaf wobbled as if caught in a tug-of-war between the breeze, trying to sweep it into the sky, and the hooked tails of the long grass, anchoring it to the earth. Cynthia let loose a scream of frustration and rage like a roar, arching her back and tossing her head, with her raven black hair streaming over her shoulders and around her face. Her head fell into her hands as Martin felt her awareness collapse back into herself, and her shoulders shook with the fierceness of her sobs.
"It's okay," he said, rising from his knee and moving to her side. "You're doing fine. You're dealing with this much better than I did."
"How can you say that?" Cynthia said from between her fingers. "I'm doing horribly."
"No, you're doing wonderfully." He tried to smile as he placed his hand tenderly against her shoulder, but with the warmth of her awareness having withdrawn, the breeze felt chill against his skin. "The tears are natural. Your mind is simply boggling at the thought of using the power. But at least, you know it's possible. When I went through this, I didn't know if anything would work. I didn't have anyone to sit at my side and tell me how I was doing."
"How? How did you deal with it?"
The smile faded, twitching at the corners of his mouth, and the hand lifted slowly from her shoulder.
"Well, I broke things. Which is why you are working with the leaf. Your control must be delicate enough not to crush it."
"But I haven't done anything! I can't even crush the leaf! I'd have better luck trying to smash it with my fist!"
"It's okay. It's okay." He moved to sit behind her and to rub her shoulders, allowing a comforting warmth to seep into her back and soothe her rampaging strength. "The hardest part is believing you can do it."
Cynthia rolled her head slowly from side to side under the kneading of his fingers, and he could feel the rush of her broken breath beneath his fingers as it tried to settle back into her rhythm.
"How did I let you talk me into this?"
"You asked me, remember?" His hands became still against her back, lightly touching the earthy red silk of her shirt.
"Oh, don't stop."
"You wanted control of the power, remember? You wanted to be able to fight the Umberaught."
"I remember." She stretched backward as his fingers, moving in tiny circles, pressed into her back. "But it never occurred to me that I would be spending my time trying not to crush leaves."
"When the Umberaught finds a shard of darkness to fester in. A shadow of doubt in your armor. You need control of the power to drive it out. Learning that control takes patience and a willingness to scream your head off every once in a while."
"Well, I have the screaming part down."
"That you do. And try not to worry. When you can lift the leaf, the screaming will pass."
She took his hand between her fingers and pulled it around her waist, so that she was enveloped by his arm. Martin lowered his face to the back of her head and drank deep of the scent of her hair and the cinnamon breeze. Cynthia brushed a hand across his arm, leaving warmth in the passage of her touch, and turned her head, so that his lips could touch the side of her face. He loosened his hold, allowing her to turn in his arms and sit against him with her legs crossed behind his back. Closing his eyes, he felt her cheek brushing against his own and her lips bringing a rush of warmth to his face with the touch of each kiss. Her heart was a beat that reverberated through his body, and his awareness spread outward to caress her skin. As the warmth of the breeze began to flow around them, he felt the touch of her own thoughts reaching out to meet him. His breath was a wave that flowed from his toes and swelled through his chest and face with a fire that set his skin to blaze. The awareness spread out around him, fraying the air, and the grass quivered like water for flavors of the breeze.
He shoved with his hands, throwing her and tumbling backward. He lay sprawled on the earth, shaking so that the taste of cinnamon would be still. Raising his eyes from the crook of his arm, he saw Cynthia with her hands over her open mouth as if she would gnaw through her fingers. The hands slid in fits and stops down her arms to rest against her knees while her wild eyes rushed over his skin. He did not move under her gaze with the cool earth and dampness of the grass against his chest to ease the charcoal of his breath. Her face slid forward as if she were biting through any words she might speak, and her eyes fell with raven hair sliding to cover her face. She stood, turning from him, with her hands hidden to refasten the clasps of her shirt and walked from him, following the curve of the land.
After the sound of her feet brushing against the grass had faded, Martin slid his hands between his chest and the earth to raise his head from the ground. He looked over the splattering of green grass as if a ball of paint had been dropped from the sky over the swirls of red and violet. At the center of the green where they had been, the maple leaf had stretched and grown like a sapling, lifting its single leaf toward the sky. He crawled on hands and knees to the brown and gold growing thing, twisted it around his fingers, and pulled. The leaf came free of the earth trailing a spider's web of roots, clinging to clumps of the dusty red clay.
He rose to his feet, crushing the tender leaf, and his fingers became sticky and damp. Down the curve of the hill from where he stood, Cynthia knelt next to a stream and was rubbing her hands over her face and through her hair. He watched, unwilling to move, as she cupped her hands together and held water to cascade over her face and around her open mouth. The falling water soaked her clothes, and the shirt much like the color of the red earth clung damply against her skin. He turned away from her color beneath the silk and away from the shape of her revealed by the flowing water for the packs they had left down from where she knelt beside the stream.
From his pack, he took a small yellow stone that contained liquid fire and prepared wood from among the branches that had been left beside the packs. He drew a spark from the rock to set the fire to light, and for a time, he watched the flames dancing among the branches with the moist leaf held in his fist suspended above the fire. Flames leapt for the maple leaf, trying to caress it with their touch, and then Martin released his fist, allowing his fingers to spread wide. The leaf fell, trailing fragments of roots and bits of red clay, into the waiting flames. He watched the maple leaf writhe and curl inward upon itself until it was consumed by the fire and there was only the wraith of brown and gold to be lifted away by the breeze.
He left his hand above the flames until his fingers were dry and then carefully returned the small yellow rock, containing liquid fire, to its place in his pack. He found Cynthia watching him as he turned from his pack with her hair lying rumpled against her shoulders. She stepped tenderly around the fire and with awkward fingers reached for his hand, which was still sticky from the touch of the leaf. Her hand was cool and made him realize how the heat of the flames had almost burned his fingers, and then her arms were around his shoulders with the dampness of her shirt seeping into his clothes. The breath rushed from him in a wave that left him shaken, and the thought he might collapse, sending them both tumbling to the ground, silenced him. For a moment, he brought his hands together behind her with his fingers touching ever so lightly against the silk of her shirt but only for a moment.
Her lips, touching his shoulder, were nothing but the wisps of a kiss as she stepped back with their hands lingering together before she turned to the fire. Martin took strips of sweetwillow and wildeleaf from their packs and brought it to the fire where he could prepare it and sat across from where she held clumps of the red shirt away from her damp skin so that it would dry more quickly. By the time the food was finished, the sun hovered low over the horizon, and there was nothing else to do but spread their blankets on opposing sides of the fire and tend to the morning.
Martin watched the sun set in a blaze of burning light and then watched the moonrise and the stars as they drifted across the sky and Cynthia as she slept curled among her blankets. He woke several times during the night to see to the needs of the fire, but there was always the light of the moon and the drifting stars. He woke one final time to watch the sunrise, leaving the sky bloody, and the scent of gold chased the stars from the morning light. The changing colors rolled over the sweep and sway of the land and brightened the swirls and designs of the different grasses. Scattered far and wide as if someone had thrown the seeds to the wind, a solitary bush or a slender tree stood over the shades of grass. Standing with his back to the morning sun, Martin studied his shadow, which appeared stretched thin and elongated against the grass as if it was crawling desperately away from him trying to escape.
"What do you see?"
"Oh. Well, I was just thinking." He half-turned to face where she sat with her blankets laying in a disheveled mess around her. "I was thinking we should find the others today."
"So soon? I thought we weren't going to meet them for a few more days."
"Neither of us have been much for counting time recently. Look. The others have been following the traditional swell toward Woodsorrow; that's over there. If we continue to follow this rise, we'll cut across their path."
Cynthia brushed a hand roughly through her hair as she pulled herself from among her blankets and walked to stand next to him.
"We both heard the same directions, didn't we? How can you tell all of this?
"Well, I've been this way before."
"Before anyone started following me. Which feels like such a long time ago. Maybe I should have counted the days."
For a moment, she leaned against his side so that their shoulders were resting together with the swirls of the breeze around them tasting like half-melted white chocolate and rosebuds.
"It hasn't been any time at all." Cynthia turned from the land before them and walked back toward her blankets. "Still, I wish I had you more to myself. We can't work with the others all around us."
Martin looked far across the land to where he imagined the others would have risen with the morning light, and they would fill the morning with the sounds of their voices. They could strip the rustle of the breeze among the tall grasses from the morning air, and they would talk and laugh and joke amongst themselves without the slightest regard to what they disturbed.
"Maybe we don't have to go back," he said as he turned away from the sound of the imagined gathering.
"This is our best chance to be rid of them. You want to see the forest? We could set off on our own and be free."
"Oh, no, Martin, you can't abandon them. They need you. That's why we follow you. We all need you."
"It was bad enough when I only had to look after three of you. I didn't ask for so many people."
"You never turned any of us away, either." She knelt next to the remnants of the fire, turning her face away from him, and began to fold her blankets. "Would you abandon Grail?"
"We're the closest thing to a family she's got."
He stumbled toward her with the hooks of the grass clawing at his feet and trying to make him fall, and he stopped to begin folding his own blankets. After they were folded into the packs, there was water to be gathered from the stream and warmed over the rekindled life of the fire, and there was morningberry to be held over the rising steam where it would soften and could then be eaten while still warm. What was left of the water was used to smother the fire, and then there was little to do but shoulder their packs and begin walking away from the stream and toward Woodsorrow.
The sun followed them as it climbed through the morning's sky, and they walked from one swell of the land to the next. They stepped over the swirling patterns that the different colors of the grass formed across the land and rested where the colors converged in spirals that gave the illusion of pulling everything into the ground. It was not until late that afternoon with the sun hovering before them and their shadows stretched out behind them that they crossed one rise and Martin saw the others. There were nine of them, walking between two wide swells of the land, accompanied by the occasional tree standing almost as if it was a signpost marking the path.
"Hey!" Cynthia shouted down at them with her hands cupped around the word. "How long have you been walking in circles?"
The others stopped, looking this way and that, and then one hand was pointed in her direction and then another and another. The breeze was still and dry where Martin and Cynthia stood with the sound of laughter lifted to them by the upraised hands. Cynthia turned her arms wide to the sky as she threw back her head with a laugh, and then she was running down the curve of the hill toward them. Martin was a step behind her with his pack striking his back with each step he took in her wake. The others seemed to part and swirl around her as she reached them, and then Robert, Jeff, Rachel, David, Hannah, and Vicki were around her.
"The bitch and master return!"
"Did he teach you to strike a fire with a withering glance?"
"How about from the inside?"
"Discover any new positions?"
"Levitation must be good for something."
"Did you show him your backward flip?"
"Well!" Cynthia held her hands out flat to temper the frantic swish and swirl of their voices. "Let's just say we both learned a thing or two!"
They laughed with a sound that violently shook the air and struck Martin like the blows of a cold iron hammer. Felix and Tim were around the others as well, and the wind seemed boxed in and stale with no place to grow or carry the scent of cinnamon and rosebuds. With a simple shrug of her shoulders, Cynthia let her pack fall to the ground, and then her arms were wrapped around Jeff. Martin tried to look away from where Jeff and Cynthia were locked together at the very center of the swirling mass of people and among the voices that hammered and burned.
"Where's the tent?" Cynthia shouted with a gasped breath after breaking her mouth on Jeff's lips.
"You never satisfied?"
"If we strike the tent, we might as well camp here!"
"It's too early for that!"
All of their voices suddenly seemed very far away as if the cage and walls were small and lifted away by the stale and dry breeze. They were a blur that he could not tell one from the other, and it amazed him that he could possibly have remembered all of their names. The girl standing at his side and looking up into his eyes brought him back to where the others were moving away from him and to where Cynthia was arguing for an hour of privacy.
"You've grown again, haven't you?" he said, and his words seemed to fill a silence as if no one else had ever spoken. "Every time I turn around, I'm convinced you've grown another inch."
"You're always saying that."
"Well, I always think it's true."
"Did everything go well?"
"You mean Cynthia's learning? She's doing very well and handling everything much better than I could have hoped for. In another six months, she may even have useful control of her power."
"If you invited me along, you wouldn't have to guess if I had grown."
Martin looked at the girl who could be no more than eleven or twelve if he had ever bothered counting the days. She was tall for her age but like a twig as if the slightest touch would break her into so many pieces. The face was slender and intense and driven by the shadows that had devoured her family and framed with dirty blonde hair that was pulled back into a braid down her back but made him think of another driven spirit.
"Oh, no, Grail, you're so young," he said and could do little more than whisper. "You don't realize what you're asking."
"Yes, I do."
"But you're teaching Cynthia!"
"She." And as he spoke, he noticed Vicki standing behind Grail. "Has earned the right."
"How? What do I have to do? What they laugh about?"
"Grail, please," Vicki said and touched a hand to the girl's arm. "Martin and Cyn' have known each other for a very long time. From Cynthia. From their arguing, I think the power and the learning are very complicated. Martin can only teach one person at a time."
"And I'm just a child."
"Not just a child. If you knew Martin and Cynthia for even as long as I have, you would know."
The girl defiant and maybe not so young stood with her fists held tight at her sides, and eyes that were dark but did not shine.
"Do you dream?" Martin asked, and Grail turned her head ever so slightly to one side. "Vicki? Does she still wake in the night, screaming?"
"No. It has been some time since that last nightmare. You remember?"
"No nightmares? No more dreams of suffocating darkness? No more promises in the middle of the night?"
Grail flung her arms out, and Vicki jerked her hand back as if she had been stung.
"I never dream."
"You should," he said. "It is good that the Umberaught no longer haunts your sleep, but you can't live in fear of your dreaming."
Her eyes were still dark but wavered in their hardness and their hold upon his gaze.
"That can be your first learning. Let your fancies wander and free your sleep to dream."
"Do you dream?" Vicki asked.
The air congealed around Vicki in a thick pattern of molasses as he looked long and unwaveringly upon her. As the moment dragged, the smile dipped on her face, and she took half a step backward.
"You think there is only one reasoning?"
"No." And the word was more of a motion of her head than of a sound.
"Grail." It was Cynthia who spoke, moving like a fresh breeze as she walked, and then dropped to one knee before the girl. "Have you kept these fools on the path to Woodsorrow?"
"Yes," Grail said with an offhand smile. "I remember the directions."
"If it wasn't for her, we would have been in circles." Vicki stood to Cynthia's side.
"All kidding aside, we should press on until nightfall. I think you should blaze trail." Cynthia grabbed Martin's arm. "And hold on to this one. Make him teach you some more stories or something."
"If I thought such a thing were possible, I would think you drive her harder than I do," Martin said.
"Know the paths, and you can lead others," she said to Grail. "Know the stories, and we'll have more than one Storyteller. I just want you to always have something to bargain with."
Cynthia brushed the wrinkles from the shoulder of Grail's shirt before she rose and turned to Martin's ear.
"Something to bargain with beside her body," she said with words that only he could hear.
"You worry so."
"Grail is not me."
Cynthia turned with no sound to the motion and walked to where her pack lay alone and neglected upon the grass. Around her, the others were moving, and packs that had been so easily dropped were returned to shoulders and backs. She held them back until she had motioned for Grail to take point where she could find the path with Martin at her side and the others following her.
"Woodsorrow," Martin said after they had walked for a time.
"Woodsorrow, yes," Grail said and then was quiet for a moment. "Rhiana wept for the love she had lost, and each teardrop fell from the sky to take root in the ground. Each drop was a seed that cracked the cold, hard, stone, yielding soft earth where the roots could run deep and thrive. In time, the trees grew in such numbers that standing among them you could not see the sky. All green and soft earth and fresh smells and the wind through the trees was laughter."
Her voice trailed away to a whisper, and Martin with his voice filled with the rush of the branches in the wind could do nothing but stay at her side.
"Is it really all green?"
His body quivered with the taste of fire racing along his back, and he placed his hands across his shoulders to pull himself out of the wind and stand at her side.
"No," he whispered and imagined green leaves and branches that were brown or gray as the stone. "It's hard to describe. It is the forest."
"You've seen it? So many trees?"
"Do you fear it?"
"What!" Again he faltered in his step and watched her eyes hard upon him but questioning. "No." He felt the hands across his shoulders and with a grin ran the fingers down his arms and held his hands together. "The forest holds many memories for me. The trees were young when I was old and old while I was still young. It's hard to describe."
"But Woodsorrow is not the forest?"
"Will you take me there?"
"Someday, I promise. But what of Rhiana? What does her story tell us?"
Grail was silent, and her eyes fled over the land before them.
"It tells us more of Woodsorrow than of Rhiana. The stories. I've noticed they provide names and reasoning."
"If I know all the stories, will I know the land?"
"If I ever know all the stories, I'll let you know."
"Our good friend here has been wandering the land for longer than I have known him! If he ever reached the end of it or learned all the stories, the world would end. That is why we follow him. While he sleeps, we run on ahead and build more for him to find."
This time they did stop and turn to look back at Jeff as he spoke, and then Martin let loose a cry like laughter.
"For which, I am eternally grateful. Remind me to fetch you a bone."
The others stood around and behind Jeff with a grin or a smile stretched across every face, and the breeze drifted with the sounds of muffled giggles and laughter.
"We don't learn the stories; we make them. But please, Martin. I prefer a little meat on my bones." He held his hands cupped before his chest. "Tits."
"Hey!" Cynthia shoved at Robert, Vicki, and Hannah to form a space around her and Jeff and held her hands before her chest. "What are these?"
"Not big enough."
Martin heard someone make a noise as if Jeff should fear for his life as Cynthia stood before him with her hands on her hips. He felt the smile in her manor and could see the grin that she could not drive from her face.
"That's just because you don't know what to do with a bone."
"Shove it up your ass!"
"That's the idea!"
"Children," Martin said, and then he could feel everyone looking at him.
From the half-circle around Jeff and Cynthia, their light and laughter, which had been held on the breeze, drifted and died to the grass as if the sound could no longer be supported by the wind. The breath rushed from his lungs with a tiny explosion that burst from his lips, and without words, he simply looked to them.
"Right," Cynthia said, shaking her head sadly from side to side. "Martin's right. We should press on."
The others began to move and went through the motions of readjusting straps and shouldering their packs, but Martin continued to watch Cynthia who would not look at him. It was only after she took three paces and then looked to see that he had not moved that he finally turned to walk at Grail's side.
"What about Rhiana?" he asked her after a long moment had passed. "Do you know why she grieved?"
"She lost," Grail said. "Her heart was broken."
"She grieved for the love she had lost. There is more to the story I should tell you. Sometime."
He looked to the swells of the land around them and of the partial rise that they were climbing and to the swirls of yellow and green and purple grasses around them. They were next to a tree that was tall and green and the branches were of a deep red and brown like the earth.
"But not now. I remember this place." He swept his arm toward the tree and then around to take it all in. "But not now."
Just for a moment, there was the scent of the tree and a mustiness that reminded him of what it felt like to be surrounded by them, and he remembered the sound. The sound was of the breeze rustling among the branches and leaves far overhead and all around him, and then the only sound around him was of the brushing of the others feet as they trampled down the grass. They left the tree far behind them and kept to the path that Grail followed across the shape of the land.
It was not until the sun hovered before them low in the afternoon sky that they stopped where the land was flat and a number of trees grew intertwined together. There were several tents to be pitched, a fire to be tended to, and food to be prepared. Cynthia and Jeff disappeared, and Martin left the others to climb a shallow rise and watch the sun on the horizon. Far off at the edge of sight, the sun settled over an ocean of trees as if the only purpose of every branch was to support the burning light. The sky took the color of red and gold flames and brought his glimpse of the forest alive as if all the trees were ablaze. The night settled slowly, enveloping the flames, and Martin thought that he could feel the wisps of burning pine.
When he turned from the sounds and the smells, he felt the land rustle beneath his feet as if the grass wanted to be the sky, and the hand he brushed across his face wiped away the moist dew like tears. Around the fire there was liarscake and sweetwillow and crystal water that had been prepared, but Martin would not touch the sour tinted honey wine that even Grail drank easily. He looked around the fire and the tents and the assemblage of trees as if there was no one there beyond Grail and Vicki. Rachel and Hannah had given up the food to dance with David and without him, and Robert and Felix were still around the fire. Tim was nowhere to be seen maybe among the trees but even that was to be expected after a meal. The tents were set in a half-circle about the fire as if they were to mark the directions with the trees as the path they might follow. The few trees were together and entwined like lovers or a dance where the partners were expected to embrace without touching. The moon and the stars were far overhead, and the fire crackled and shook and danced as if it wanted to be as bright as the sky.
There was laughter, and then Cynthia was there as if she had always been at the edge of the fire. She was near at hand and bright with flavor and tickling Grail, and the child was on her side and feigning to push Cynthia away and squealing with the sound of it. And Vicki was laughing at Grail's side, and then her fingers were racing over the child as well. When they both sat back, laughing so hard that they could not continue, Grail could not stop giggling even though the touch was gone. And her sides shook, raking air, as if each breath would be her last, and she was so bright to look upon it was a wonder that she did not burst into flame.
With her breath falling into a deep rhythm that he could hear from where he sat, Grail cocked her head, and noticing him, her grin carried light to compete with the fire. She yelped when Cynthia brought her hands back down, but Cynthia did not hold her as she noticed who Grail was looking at. The three of them turned toward him, chuckling conspiratorially to each other, with Grail curled like a tiger about to pounce.
Martin could feel the shift in the breeze directed at him and how it flowed over his shoulders and down his back, and trying to quiet the grin overpowering his face, he raised one knee to his chest as if he would push off against the ground to get away from them. Grail roared as she leapt at him with her fingers stretched and curled like so many claws, and the fire of her charge struck, almost knocking him over, before she actually crashed into him. Sitting on him, she stretched her fingers down to make the world scream, but he contained it all by striking first so that all she could do was squeal, holding her arms tight at her sides to hinder the touch of his fingers. Vicki and Cynthia each grabbed an arm so that he couldn't tickle her, but all Grail could do was place her hands on his chest and try to find her breath.
With her hands placed flat against him, he could do nothing but listen to the rush of her breath and to the fierceness of the life flowing through her veins. He pulled half-heartedly against Vicki and Cynthia, twisting to pitch the child off, and felt only a tightening of their grip on his hands. Grail kept her balance throughout and then crawled sideways to curl against him with an ear placed against his chest to listen to his heart. Vicki freed his hand so that he could cradle the child with his arm, and he thought about how frail and like a sapling she was. When the thrush of her wind subsided and became drowsy, he could not help but remember on that one day how there had been blood in her hair.
Grail reluctantly crawled to her feet, and with Vicki at her side, she almost staggered to where the crystal water and honey wine were still open. She was tall and so much like a sapling, needing to be cared for and looked after, and he began to wonder if she was even as young as he thought she was. With his hand still entwined with Cynthia, they watched Grail and Vicki drink from the honey wine. He didn't know if she could still be called a child with blood in her hair and a family he had not been able to save from the flowing darkness. With her family gone and no one to protect her, she would have had nothing to bargain with for food or shelter, and a Cat was the only shelter that would have taken her in exchange for her body.
He looked to Cynthia who returned his gaze but could find no words as he remembered where she had been sheltered before they met. The embrace of their hands was hard and on any other occasion he would have cried with the pain of it but not with their eyes unflinching and locked together. Cynthia kissed him with a flood of warmth that made it hard to breathe, and then as one, they looked to where Grail and Vicki were shaking blankets before stretching them on the ground. They rose and walked arm in arm to where Grail and Vicki were to help Grail with her blankets and then to tuck her into them and wish her peaceful dreams. After Cynthia had a chance to eat what Jeff had left her of the liarscake, what little preparations there were to tend to the morning were done, and then they began to wander to their own blankets and tents. Grail always slept near the fire and not far from Martin, and he never bothered keeping track of who shared what tent with whom and when or even if anyone else slept near the fire. After checking on Grail one final time, he curled himself in his own blankets and tried to settle into their warmth.
A scream bit the night. In that instant, Martin was awake and throwing his blankets so that they settled around his knees. Grail was around the fire and too far for an arm's reach but close enough at hand, and his thoughts caressed her, feeling her curled like a feather in a dream among her blankets. The cold and the dark had not struck into her heart, but even without a hollow to fester in, a shadow could still pull substance out of the wind. He felt the fire with the embers of its warmth close at hand and coaxed it into more of a dance. Rachel was there and curled near the fire, and Robert was there with his arm all but around her. There was no breeze, and the trees were quiet and peaceful and did not flinch from the presence of the dark. Even if the shadows and darkness had not grown, there could still be raiders about, and his awareness flowed outward to envelope the tents. The fabric of one tent eased under his touch to sense that there was only Vicki and David inside. After all, he had met Jeffery and George as they had guarded a caravan that he had once walked with. George had left them so long ago that he could not even remember the last time they had spoken or the last time he had even thought about him. As for Jeffery, he could not feel Jeff among the trees or around the campfire but found him in one of the tents with Hannah with Cynthia.
Flames seared up the back of his neck and into his mind. Trapped by the thrush of Cynthia's breath, his awareness snapped taut in the wind, trying to pull away from the three intertwined in the tent. The fire burned at the inside of his chest, racing down his spine to flare between his hips, and bulged at his eyes as if flames would arc from around his vision. The world stretched in the shock of his touch and wanted to bend and twist and fly like the wind and howl with the rage of sixty million souls crying out in pain and fear and struck silent. Sounds that would never exist again, reverberating through Cynthia and finding an echo in Hannah or Jeff, bit at the back of his nose and the inside of his skull and between his teeth and wanted to be free. The very pit of his stomach twisted inward upon itself, and the scream was his given vent and given rage and filling everything. There was no world beneath him and no sky above him and only the rush of the wind all around him, bringing with it the twist and swirl of what everything wanted to be.
The pain struck his shoulder and shoved his arm into his side and focused his awareness around the solidness of it. He pulled his touch out of the clouds and the moon and the stars and into his convulsing form. Lungs labored air past jaws, striking wild sounds into the sky, and he could do nothing but tremble in a body that felt only sticky, warm, and damp. As the night air began to seep in, thought returned, screaming, and the boundaries of his form grew more solid.
The grass was beneath his side; and his arm hurt, and his chest ached with the pain of it. The clothing felt harsh encompassing him as if a complete layer of skin had been torn away and left tender and raw. He opened his eyes to the light of the moon and the glow of the stars, and there was no trace of the campfire or the tents or the trees or Grail. Everything spun wildly as he jerked bolt upright and searched for anything by the moon's gentle light. At the edge of sight and so far away that it was little more than a dot, he recognized the spark of light given off by their campfire. The child was safe and probably still asleep and curled among her blankets, and the others were all content. Hannah and Jeff and Cynthia were there in a tent and awake and holding each other so close that they had almost been one person, and it was Cynthia who had been unable to contain that cry.
Martin shrunk against the ground so that his eyebrows were touching the roots of the grass, and the land was chill against his skin and the moon and the stars. He curled sideways so that he could look to where the moon did shine against the land, and he looked to the sweep of the hills and how the grass swirled gently even without a breeze. There was the fire so very far away with all of those people who would think nothing of the turn of a leaf and only crush it beneath an unnoticed foot. The night was quiet and free of the sound and the smell of them with no fire and no tents and no mingled laughter that bit and burned. The sky was vast and dotted with moonlight clouds, and the stars sparkled, quivering with the possibilities. Without a tent or blankets and without a pack or even any liarscake and without an extra shirt to wrap against the cold, he crawled to his unsteady feet and turned away from the fire for the light of the moon. He paused without having counted his steps to look back to where the fire still pulsed in its flickering light like a star that had fallen to the ground. His arms were wrapped tightly around his shoulders with the breath running raggedly through his chest and smelled of the crystal wind and morning after the first snow. He remembered the sound they would make as the morning took them and turned back to the open land and the brush of the grass in the breeze.
"Behold the mighty storyteller! Martin Shadowsfriend! Fleeing from his devoted children like a coward in the night!"
The land twisted to the side as if the words had caused everything to swirl sharply around, and Martin spun with a motion that did not want to be still to face her. The woman stood at the crest of the flat land with her arms to the sky as if she would worship him but chose not to. She was so thin and so very tall like the branch of a tree deprived of leaves, and the shirt that draped around her seemed to glow of its own tie-died colors.
"You have no right to judge me, Willow."
"Every right! I have every right to judge you! You traitor!"
"To what? Everything they took from me. Followed me. Let them learn to fend for themselves. I owe them nothing!"
"Your devoted children? This is about the war!"
Martin snapped his voice around a reply that was little more than a cry, and he stood as if he would tumble back to the grass.
"How long ago did you say that to me?" he asked. "Should I have counted the months? Was it near this very spot as I wandered out of the forest? You taught me all I knew of this." He looked to the vastness of the sky with its stars and clouds and to the land all around them with the swirls of the grass that in the light were all the colors of her shirt. "Place."
"You must never forget your place."
"My place? What do you know of my place?"
"Your duty is to the war."
In that moment, he could not help but laugh with the sound of it beating at his chest, and he looked to the moon and to the swirling stars.
"A war you're not trying to win," he said. "You show me where the Umberaught is only so I can drive out the infestation. This must stop!"
"Shadowsfriend!" Willow brought her arms down with her fists striking hard against her sides. "You would let the darkness take all!"
"No. The Umberaught is only as strong as we make it. Light will always cast more shadows someplace else. We must use more craft than that."
"Did I not tell you this? If I acted directly, it would overwhelm the land. That is why you hunt from town to town, always hunting, but you have freed it into the light!"
"To what effect?"
"Effect? You no longer seek to burn it with fire. You would comfort blackness. You make them fight. The people you're supposed to be protecting and you make them fight! You would teach that. Cat."
The sneer that turned at the corner of her mouth cut through him, and Willow brought her hands up to run through her unkempt and dusty blond hair. Shaking her head, she lowered her hands to press them tightly against her sides and moved them slowly down.
"It will never work. She was never pure. The power requires that or the darkness will consume you. That Cat has tasted everyone except for the girl and you."
Martin bit back the musty smell of Cynthia with Jeff and Hannah and felt them pressed tightly against his chest. He felt Cynthia's awareness as it had seeped awkwardly out to touch everything around her and to begin the game with the leaf. Looking away from the Willow Spirit that stood before him, he turned his gaze to the flickering spark that was the light of the campfire.
"No." He brought a hand to his face to grip over his mouth and tried to hold himself still. "The power doesn't require such a sacrifice. You do."
Willow threw back her head and laughed with a sound that almost beat him to his knees.
"She would consume you!" Willow screamed, throwing her face at him with her hair swirling wildly, and tightened a fist before her chest. "You know this here. That is why even though she tempts you, wants to take you inside her, you can't do it. When you first met. When she witnessed you drive the Shadowlight from her sanctuary, she spread her legs for you. And you didn't even notice."
"Remember what you are, Martin." Willow held a hand out as if she would reach him, and her voice was little more than a whisper. "You will never be one of them. Your place is to protect them. Remember that. Listen to me, Martin, I'm trying to save you. You cannot teach Cyn' your innocence."
"You bitch! You don't care!" His whole body shook with a sound like a laugh, and he covered his face with his hands and wiped at the warmth flowing down his cheeks and smearing his face with tears. "It's all for the war! You don't care about anything except your fucking war!"
"I care about you."
"Liar!" The word smashed against the back of his throat, burning everything in its path, and he almost choked in its wake. "You never cared about me! Only what I could do for your little war!"
"No, Martin, don't you understand how much I need you? You're the only one with the power to fight the Shadowlight."
"Which is never enough! When will it ever be enough!"
"You have the power! It flows in your veins like blood! But you never use it! Why! You have the might to cleanse the darkness from the world!"
The word rose in his chest and branched outward, swirling upward and around him, almost lifting him from his feet. The sweeping patterns in the design of the blue, purple, violet, and green colors of the grass stretched out beneath his feet and over the curve and tilt of the land. Willow held a hand before her eyes, and the back of her fingers was pale with the colors of her shirt reflecting dully the shades of the grass. The rumpled and unkempt hair that fell across her face seemed dusty almost as if her hair had been brushed with dirt.
"I'll show you power!"
Each word was a scream that rose from his chest to tower far overhead, and then he brought them down, smashing her into the ground. The world split, sending spirals of earth and red clay into space and tearing chunks of grass trailing roots along with it. The swell of land bubbled and flowed outward like water with a scream that tore at the wind and arched across his back. Her awareness rose from the ground like a bubble that popped with an explosion that threw droplets of red clay everywhere. The force of the wind, spinning with a roar all around him, struck down and into the wall of her awareness, striking brilliant peals of light and flashes of thunder between them. The wind screamed as it twisted and congealed like taffy, squeezing a flood of water out of the air. The world was slick and gave underfoot, and the colors battered at his eye, tasting like licorice, salt water, and chalk. Stars trembled, flickering to hide behind the moon, while the clouds grew pastry wings and began to soar through the sky.
The Willow Spirit stretched thin and elongated under his grasp, and the bores that funneled through her back felt the pull of each vertebrae as it tried desperately to cling to its neighbors. Arms leached out to hold like branches of a tree, needing leaves, growing them, and a pinprick scraped against him with the solidness of a rock and the taste of cold steel. Flailing out at the rock at the stone which was nothing more than a pebble, awareness entangled in roots like hair and flashed at the surface, removing a layer like rice paper, disintegrating between his fingers into a million filaments to be blown away by the wind. Striking out with fingers spread wide against the shape of the world lying on its side, he beat down, climbing upward away from the red earth.
The world stretched thin and ready to tear asunder and pull and scream with the shock and rage of it, and the sound of life flayed alive into a sticky goo that melted into everything, changing everything. The sky congealed with the twisted light of stars, dripping blood, with the land around him like sand and chalky white, and he kicked once more. The foot struck her in the chest at the base of her ribs, and she curled her arms even more tightly around her waist and coughed blood as if she were vomiting a soft tender thing. His foot was already back, striking forward, when he saw Willow bent and twisted almost double on the ash before him. There were only shreds of tie-died shirt clinging to her form that would never be enough to cover the cracks and the scars and the streaks of blood. Not noticing anything or even sensing him, Willow lay broken and crippled against her side and was unable to scream or cry out or make even the faintest sound. There was very little hair left around her face, and whole patches of skin lay exposed with the few tendrils of hair smeared with blood.
With the scream already burning in his throat, Martin fell backward and away from her to see what had once been the gentle sweep and sway of a green land turned pale and torn with spires of earth clinging like stalagmites reaching for the sky. Another step put wind between his awareness and the center of carnage and destruction, and he turned to see how the broken land stretched out around him with fragments of earth and broken sky twisted together. The scream took him away from it all as each foot struck the ground sending him flailing through the air, and then there was open land before him with its swirling patterns of the shades of the grass. The world flew around him and away from the shattered rock and broken land, and everything was contained in the shriek of his passage.
Everything gave way beneath his foot and before his eye until the world grew up around him in twisted life and dark growth, and the light of the moon and that of the stars was gone, dripping him into sticky darkness. He twisted over something with the shades swirling around him and slid with his side flush with the dew over the uneven ground. Crashing through brush, he came to rest against the gnarled roots of the land, and the quite and the coolness of it touched against him. The wave of his scream crested and began to subside with his chest trying to squeeze into his lungs and his throat tasting of blood with the sound of it. Then his mouth was full of what had once been sweetwillow, liarscake, and crystal water, and he spat and almost choked on the blood. It was all there, spreading in a puddle before him and gushing from between his teeth with a roar that was gagged. Shaking so hard he almost slipped into the blood, he pulled back and away, falling onto his side and trying to crawl away.
Between his fingers, he felt the tenderness of the moist earth and the mustiness of its smell and reached until he could feel the rough surface and the bark of a tree. He collapsed against its side, sinking into the edge of the earth, and closed his eyes, trading one blackness for another. He was submerged into the darkness with the roots of the tree all around him and sank without thought until he was blinded by light. Flailing out with the fierceness of it burning into his awareness, he had crushed Willow without a thought, and the shield of her power had shattered under him. The tendrils of her strength had thrashed about, and he had pulled them together and scattered them to nothingness. Without a thought and without control, the wind had been spun between his fingers into a shape that he had struck down at her. Martin gripped the roots with the pain screaming through him and the light in his mind until he fell once more with neither light nor darkness.
It was the sound of the breeze rustling quietly among the leaves and the branches of the trees that woke him and made him open his eyes. All around him were the reds and browns and golds of the trunks and the branches of the trees, and there were the faded greens and sharp colors of the leaves. There was no evenness to the ground with the roots pushed this way and that to dig into the earth, and the ground was covered with brush and plants in all of the deep colors of the earth and the rain. He drank deep of the scent of the wind, filling his awareness with the forest, and he cried with the life of it, adding his tears to the dew.
There was no sky to be seen only the enveloping growth of the trees with all of their intermingled branches and leaves, and there was no sun to be seen with the light defused between the trees casting everything into eternal twilight. He almost did not notice when the mustiness of the air grew dark until there was no light and only the hush of the forest at night all around him, and when he rose, he did not need to see the life of the forest to walk unhindered between the trees. At a cold and gray rock where the land dropped, he stopped, snuggling against the roots, to wait for the growth of the light.
Before him in the bowl of the earth and surround by the trees was the edge of a lake that reflected nothing but the canopy of leaves. With the growth of the light, the shadows and all the shades of gray gave way to the diffused blendings of color. He shrugged as if he would pull at a shirt if he had been wearing clothes and then leapt, flowing for the water. Everything swirled around him with a shock of cold and a splash, and he dove deep with each hand pulling him through the water. Spinning down and finding no rock and no end, he turned, reaching upward, and broke the surface, drinking air with a sound that filled the dome of the trees. He swam for the edge, climbing slowly from the water, and stretched until his branches mingled with the leaves and his roots embraced the deep earth.
Shivering, he found the scattered light had given way to the dark, and he gathered up the dry wood and dead branches at his feet to pile carefully on top of the rock. With the slightest touch from his outstretched awareness, flames took the wood until the branches were engulfed by fire. The flames lifted upward, perching upon the pinnacles of the branches and casting pale smoke to the canopy of trees, and scattered the dome with a reddish light. He watched the fire, letting the sound and warmth of the light burn into his skin, and the flames spun and laughed like so many dancers. He stretched one hand out with his fingers spread wide over the flames to tease the dancers to leap between his fingers, and then he cupped his hand over the fire, casting a shadow into the red and burning light.
The darkness spun into the shadow behind his hand as if all the winds of the earth were flocking through a point into the other side of the sky. He watched the swirling of blackness darken and congeal like maple poured over snow and drew his hand back to his side as the shadow no longer needed his focus. The mass flowed and undulated like a living thing in time and motion to the antics of the flames and the flickering light. Feelers like tentacles streaked out from the center of the shadow to taste of the branches overhead and the stone beneath their feet and of the cold lake water. It settled under its own weight to the ground, pulsing with dark fluid shapes shifting over its surface until he noticed that it was folded over legs that were so think with fat that it looked as if the skin would burst. He recognized that it was a swollen and bloated mockery of human flesh that oozed and wept, and the head was a lopsided abomination with crooked eyes and hair like strands taken from a whip.
He stretched his hand back out over the fire toward the thing sitting across from him, and it raised a maul of a fist with no grace to the motion as if a blunt club was all the arm was good for. When their fingers met, he could feel the broken and rough skin and the talons it had for fingernails and even this slight touch sliced his fingers and threatened to reduce his hand to ribbons of flesh. Trying to draw his hand away, the fist constricted around his wrist, spilling a rain of blood into the fire, and cold struck up his arm from the touch. He cried out with the pain of the fist sliding against his hand slick with blood and piercing his flesh. The mass of shadow fell over the fire, filling everything with the stench of burning flesh, and wouldn't release his arm, which was numb to the shoulder with cold. Tumbling backward with the scream rising in his throat, he dragged the darkness across the fire where it collapsed onto his legs, crushing his feet, and cold raced up from his toes.
He kicked out at the fire, shoving with his mind, and sent it flying out over the lake in a shower of sparks and burning wood. Fragments of branches seemed almost to sail through the air with flaming dancers clinging desperately to their perch before finally diving gracefully into the depths of the lake. He rubbed at his skin and stamped his feet, trying to get a feeling and a sense of warmth to return to his body. With his hand held before his face, it was only with a flush of warmth streaking down his arm that he was able to staunch the flow of blood, and he looked at the scars, remembering the grotesque fingers that had gripped him.
Leaving the rock and the edge of the lake behind him, he wandered among the trees until he sunk exhausted to the tender earth, closing his eyes against the night. The scars burned at his skin, tracing fingers of flame over their length, and he pushed his arm into the ground until it was surrounded by the cool dirt. With a swirling of figures that had given something chase among pillars of concrete and iron and stone, a scream had filled everything and stretched it past breaking. Twisting and bending until they had burst splashing everything with blood, he opened his eyes with a start to find the forest already filtered with light.
Sending roots to tap deep into the ground, he was filled once more with the nourishment of the forest, and then there was nothing to do but look for dry twigs and dead branches to gather from between the trees. The light was already fading and giving way to the dark when he finally returned to the edge of the lake with his bundle of sticks. Spreading them out over the rock, he looked for a long time at his scars before he touched the flame, and then the fire burned, casting its own light against the dark. He drank deep of the smoke and the scents of the burning wood and turned his gaze all around to the trees and the stones and the lake shimmering its reflection of the firelight.
Finally, he pulled at the shadows until they began to flop and gather together in a pile of watery mud that was slowly loosing its shape. It swam before his eyes like melting ice wrapped in a transparent cloth and was slowly draining the light from the heart of the fire. The shape took on contours as if the bloated form was pulled tight over bones, and then there was the flash of a broken figure cast in mocking shadows before him. He gasped a breath between his teeth, sucking air into his lungs, and he clawed at the ground as if he would crawl away from the thing he had made. The shadow had a head, and he held his gaze to the black holes where eyes that never blinked could have been. The figure seemed almost to shrink as if with a change in years to resemble that of a child with blood in her hair who looked so much like the driven spirit that it was only the control of power, which separated them. Darkness flowed outward, shifting and oozing beyond recognition, and formed around a gaping maw with fangs that pulsed and dripped liquid blackness into the fire.
He held his hand out over the dancers spinning and leaping for his fingers and refused to shift his eyes away from the gaze of the thing. Shifting awkwardly as if once started it would not know how to stop, a stump that bore little resemblance to a hand reached across the fire to touch his fingers. A flash of cold struck his hand while shards like stone bit into his skin and sunk into the flesh, and he would not look away from the eyes until he recognized the shadow of Martin the Storyteller in their depths.
He gripped the shadow's hand with the cold and numbness streaking up his arm and felt how his warmth flowed up the arm of the shadow. The grip loosened on his hand as the shadow of Martin tried to pull away, but he wouldn't let go and began to tug against the shadow. They both leaned over the fire with their arms sliding into each other with the cold flowing throughout his body, and as they flowed together so that they were joined at the shoulder, they looked eye to misshapen eye with their heads almost touching. They swirled and melted together above the light of the fire, casting shadows between the trees, until there was only Martin sitting upon the rock before a roaring fire with the lake stretched out before him and the forest standing all around him. With the fire already burning low, he stretched out between the rock and the trees and closed his eyes to the tiring dancers and the flickering light.
The life of the forest pulsed all around him and sent trills to run down his spine, and he slowly pulled himself out of the depths of the ground and the canopy of the trees and into his shape. He slowly stretched so that his arms almost reached into the sky, and then he began wandering through the forest and between the trees. When he glimpsed a flicker of unfiltered light, he turned, throwing his awareness out to the trees and the nourishment snuggled deep in the earth, and pulled clothing out of the willing shapes of the wood. The shirt that he shrugged over his shoulders was cool and the shades of earth tones, and the clasps fastened easily and without protest. After taking a final deep breath of the wind between the trees, he pulled himself back into his form and stepped from the edge of the forest and back onto the red, violet, green, and silver swirling colors of the grass.
He looked to a sky that was dotted with billowing clouds and a sun that rested at her ease far overhead, and he looked over the shape of the land with its swirls of colors to where he knew that Woodsorrow waited for him. Taking one step, he left the forest behind him with all of its myriad smells and sounds, and he took another step and then another and another. Then he was sprinting gently over the sweep of the land, and he lowered his arms, shifting them, until he was galloping over the grass. With the wind in his face and the roar of it in his ears, he raced from one spire and roll of the land to the next, and the thunder of each hoof seemed almost never to touch the ground. He drank deep of the wind, filling his lungs with the scent of cinnamon and pine, and could feel his heart race with the fierceness of the blood flowing through his body. Racing with the sweep and swirl of the land, he flew like the wind until he could not contain it anymore and had to toss his head with a laugh that filled the sky. He knew that he was close to Woodsorrow so he reared up, kicking his forelegs into the air, and his body shifted so that he could stand on two legs with hands that held fingers once more. He pulled one hand over the front of his shirt, checking to make certain that his pants and other clothing had returned, and then he began to walk on two feet for the town.
Woodsorrow was sprawled haphazardly over the course of the land and the gently billowing shifts of low hills. There would be two maybe three houses standing together and separated with each reaching four or more stories for the sky and spreading outward so that each level was wider than the one beneath it. As he walked between the wide spaces that scattered the clusters of houses like children, the people began to take notice and began slowly to wander around him. He could feel the awareness of him spreading quick as wildfire out around and before him as the people looked from windows and doorways and from where they stood between the houses, and they gathered and swirled and swayed around him, always holding a pace back. From nowhere the people parted before her as Grail raced for him, and she flung her arms around him, threatening to squeeze the breath from his body. He sank to one knee so that it was easier to put his arms around her and hold her as tightly as she held onto him.
"Martin?" Cynthia said.
He turned his head enough to notice her standing at his side with Vicki and Hannah nearby, and the others beginning to appear from out of the patterns of the small crowd. Her hands reached awkwardly only to flop at her sides as if she wanted to throw her arms around the two of them but was held back by the breeze. The only sound was the murmur on the breeze that the storyteller had returned to Woodsorrow as Grail tried to tighten her grip around his neck.
"You disappeared so quickly."
The words faded away almost to nothing under his gaze, and then he climbed to his feet with Grail's arms slowly sliding from around his neck. He walked between the scattered houses and the people who watched him until he reached a round stage that had been carved from slender strands of copperwood and faced all the directions of the town. From there, Martin looked back over the faces of the people and to Grail and Cynthia and Jeff and Vicki and Hannah and Robert and Tim.
"Rhiana could feel nothing but the turning of the season," he finally said. "With the rains that flooded the land and the leaves that turned to gold and then fell from their branches. So she flew into the sky above the clouds and beyond the wind until she could ask the sun what was the secret of life. The sun laughed, and she told Rhiana that the secret of life was the wind. To race and to dance with the wind and to feel the world around her in all of its shadows and light and its fire and rain.
"Rhiana couldn't accept this answer and screamed that there must be a reason to live that made the secrets of the willows and the breeze worthwhile. The sun laughed and told her that she must search all the earth before she could ever find such an answer.
"So Rhiana went in search of the moon to ask him what was the secret of life. The moon told her to harvest the sweetwillow and feed the nectar from the fermented grain to her children so that they would always be with her. And that was the secret of life.
"Rhiana liked this answer very much and thanked the moon for his wisdom. So she flew back to the earth and gathered the seeds from the dew of the clouds to plant her sweetwillow. She made her bowl deep in the folds of the land where the flowing of the rainwater would never drown her crop. Between the mountains, she drew a shield of silk to protect the young sweetwillow from the harshness of the wind and the burning sun.
"When the sweetwillow grew, turning gold, Rhiana harvested each blade carefully in turn and set about grinding the grain so that the nectar would run. She gathered it up so tenderly, placing each drop of golden nectar into a wooden sphere, which she would roll from hill to hill while the nectar fermented. Finally, she gave the wood to her children who ate the spheres each one in turn, but they did not thank her. Within days of taking the nourishment, all of her children were dead.
"Not understanding what had gone wrong, Rhiana flew back to the moon and screamed that he had lied to her for the sweetwillow had not saved her children who had fallen to the earth turning everything into merciless stone and cold rock. The moon asked her if she had not cared for the sweetwillow. If she had tended the blades and let them touch the soft earth? If she had let them drink of the rainwater that would flood the land? If the cold wind had not played among the strands and the sun had not dried the water so they did not drown?
"Rhiana shook her fists, and she cried for the life that she had lost with her secrets. Each separate and individual tear reached the cold stone and harsh ground where her children had died, and each drop of each tear burrowed into the ground to take root like a seed. Each tear grew and pushed at the rock until the harsh stone gave way, and each and every tree blossomed into the sky. They stretched and grew and intertwined among each other until their branches covered the sky.
"The forest grew. It grew with the sun and the wind and the thunder and the rain and the sky. They had roots to dig deep into the earth to hold it in place, and they had branches to reach up and touch the sky, holding the stars in space.
"Rhiana saw this, and she flew among the branches of the trees. And she alighted to a spot in the forest's heart to grow branches and feathers and wings of her own and became the mother of the trees. If you journey from Woodsorrow and find the one tree at the heart of all the wood and if you ask her what is the secret of life, she will tell you. It's the wind."
Martin looked to the people assembled all around him, and the only sound was the voice of one child that was full of tears. Slowly the people began to stir, and then there was a great commotion as some ran for blankets and fire and wood. Others began to gather the foods, and there were bundles of liarscake, sweetwillow, and goldenrod. The fires were lit between the blankets and the swarms of people, and the air was filled with laughter and dancing and people running here and there.
Martin sat with his back to the stage with Grail, Jeff, Robert, Vicki, Cynthia, and David. Graceberry cordial was brought for all of them in sun carved flasks, and there was also Richwood to be eaten as well as Greenfeather, Blackseed, and Moistbread that had been dipped in honey. He watched the others with Rachel and Hannah and Felix running from here to there and from blanket to blanket, and he took little of the food himself, drinking only the red tea.
The people moved and swam and buzzed before him, and he smiled to himself with the sound of their laughter and screams of delight. When the food had all but disappeared and the blankets were moved so that there were great spaces where the people could dance or sing, Martin was the only one who noticed when the sun vanished beyond the horizon and the moon as he quickly followed her from sight, and the light was cast by the many fires to twinkle with the stars. With time, the people did start to grow tired, and the crowd assembled around and about him began to thin as the people wandered off to their various houses and homes.
Martin let his thoughts wander out across the great open land between the houses of Woodsorrow and felt the people as they prepared for the morning. He could feel the few around him who had journeyed with him, and he could feel when they began to notice what the dancing and the laughter had hidden. With the passage of the people back to their homes, shapes of shadows and darkness could be seen to continue the dance, and the silence was their laughter. He could feel the wind grow brittle around him as the thoughts of Cynthia, Jeff, Robert, and Grail, and all of the others began to focus around the shadow forms.
The air began to fill with the thickness that could be gathered before the striking of a great storm, and the shadows turned fangs and claws toward them while the dance became more brutal. Martin raised one hand to quiet and temper the shaking of their breath, and as Felix, Cynthia, Robert, and Grail began to subside, the motions of the dancers grew more gentle and graceful until the field was full of their motion. Finally, the dance stopped, and all of the assembled shades and shadows turned to look to where Martin sat before the copperwood stage. He rose slowly, taking his time with the motion, and then he bowed deeply to all of those assembled before him. Then each in their turn, the shadows of the people began to disperse into the wind until there was nothing left except for the flickering of the firelight and the people who had journeyed with him to Woodsorrow.
The only sound to fill all the world was the flicker and laughter of the fires as they sank deep in their beds, and then there was the sound of Grail unable to contain sleep for much longer. It was not until after Grail had one final opportunity to sling her arms around Martin almost dragging him to the ground with the weight of her sleep that Vicki, Robert, and Tim were able to carry the child off to her bed. As the others began to wander, Cynthia took Martin's hands with her own and tried to pull him gently after Grail and her escort.
"Come with me," Cynthia said with her hands squeezing playfully around his fingers.
Martin only smiled as he turned his head ever so slightly from side to side, and then he twisted his fingers so that she could not keep her grip on his hands. When she wouldn't move or turn to follow the others, he touched a hand to her shoulder so that she would look to the house where they were now carrying Grail.
"You don't need me," he whispered and then swatted her on the rear to propel her after the others.
She moved reluctantly at first with many a backward glance to where he stood alone before the stage and between the gleaming fires and then quickened her pace to the others, linking arms with Hannah before they disappeared between the houses. Martin walked among the blankets and watched the dozing fires, and then choosing a spot at the center of where the dance had been, he curled himself in a blanket, sinking roots into the depths of the earth and stretching branches for the stars far overhead. The wheel of the sky turned in the night with only the twinkling of the stars to mark its rotation, and the breeze played gently through the sky. With the first flash of the sun that sent the stars slowly to their rest, he reached his arms out, pulling in his branches and lifting his roots from the ground. He stood among the remains of the dance with a blanket draped over his shoulders, and as the light grew, he noticed Cynthia sitting on the very edge of the stage. Letting the blanket tumble to the grass, he checked to be certain that he was shrouded with clothing and then walked to where she sat on the stage.
"How long have you been there?"
"I don't know," she said so quietly that he felt the words more clearly in his mind than he heard them on the breeze.
He stretched his hands out to her, pulling her from the stage, and she draped her arms around him, holding him fiercely to her chest. The breath rushed quickly in her lungs, and he could feel the edge of her awareness reaching out and trying to caress him. He opened the center of his awareness, allowing her to fall into his thoughts, and she stood trembling with her mind racing and her blood coursing through her body. With a hand held to her back and the fingers touching the base of her neck, he pulled back enough so that she was held in his arms.
"When we look into the darkness, we must be prepared for what will look back. The reason we look into the darkness is because we are looking for ourselves."
Cynthia held his gaze with a lowering of her head that required her to look up into his eyes, and he could feel the touch of her thoughts pulling away from him. He slowly pulled free from her arms with their hands lingering together and with their fingers intertwined together, and then he turned away from the stage to walk among the blankets and the old fires and between the homes and the houses where the people still slept. With the light of the sun at his back, he did not need to turn or to look in-order to know that Cynthia had climbed to the center of the copperwood stage so that she could watch his passage from Woodsorrow.