Den of WolvesBy: Juliet Marillier
He’s curled in a ball, shivering, under a piercing white moon. He’d forgotten how bright the moon was, how its light could go right through a man, cold in his bones, searching out what was hidden deep. Go away, he breathes, arms up over his head, knees to his chest, trying to be invisible. Leave me alone. But the light seeks him out, finding a way through the high canopy of the beeches, through the rough blanket of bracken and fern he’s scrambled together, through the rags of his clothing, right inside him. Into his mind, tangling his thoughts. Into his heart, probing his wounds. It’s been so long. How long has it been? How long has he been away?
An owl cries, eerie, hollow. In the undergrowth, something screams. Something dies. Stop, he whispers. Don’t. But nobody’s listening. His words fall into the quiet of the night forest and are lost. He’s lost. The cold moon will kill him before he can find his way. The way back to . . . to . . .
A fragment comes to him, then it’s gone. Another piece, and another. A story . . . but the meaning slips away before he can grasp it. Shivering body. Clattering teeth. A man . . . A man building . . . A man making a house, a strange house . . . He can feel the wood under his hands, his crooked hands . . . Long ago, so long ago . . . Was there a rhyme for the building, a charm, a spell? Crooked hands. Crooked yew. He makes the words with his lips, but there is no sound. Blackthorn, ivy and crooked yew.
He can’t remember much. But what he remembers is enough, for now. Enough to keep his heart beating; enough to keep him breathing through the cold night, until morning. The beech tree will shelter him; she will spread her strong arms over him, shutting out the chill eye of the moon. And when the sun rises and the long night is over, he knows where he will go.
The forest knew everything. News passed on a breath of wind, in the call of an owl, in the small pattern of a squirrel’s paw prints. The trout in the stream learned it. The lark soaring high above saw it. The knowledge was in the hearts of the trees and in the mysterious rustling of their leaves. It was a deep-down wisdom, as solemn as a druid’s prayer.
She never talked about it. Not with Father, not with Aunt Della, not even with Gormán. She’d learned long ago that if she spoke of that great knowledge people thought she was being foolish or fanciful. That didn’t matter. What mattered was saying it to the trees, over and over, so they knew she was their friend and guardian and could hear their slow voices. She spoke to each of them in turn, in a whisper, with her body against the trunk and her cheek pressed to the bark, as if she and the tree shared the same beating heart. Rough oak, smooth willow, furrowed ash, every tree in the wood. I will protect you. I will guard you. I give you my word.
The promise wasn’t foolish or fanciful. It made perfect sense. One day the holding at Wolf Glen would be hers to watch over. Mother was dead. Father would never marry again. There was nobody else to inherit the house, the farm, the forest. All of it, and all the folk who lived and worked there, would be hers to care for, hers to look after.
Father didn’t talk about the future, even now Cara was in her sixteenth year. But she knew he expected her to marry someday and produce an heir. She let herself dream, sometimes, about what might have been if she had not been a girl and the only child. She could have become a master wood carver. She could have spent all day making creatures and chests and chairs with fine decoration, toys for children, platters to hold fruit, spindles and cradles and walking staves with owls on them. Or she could have been a forester like Gormán. Gormán had been her friend since almost before she could walk. He had taught her the properties of different woods. Sometimes she would open up her special storage chest and get out the collection of little animals she’d made over the years. She loved them all, from the rabbit she had crafted from pine at six years old to the owl she’d coaxed not long ago from a well-weathered block of oak. The owl had its wings lifted ready for flight, and when Cara looked at it she imagined spreading wings of her own and flying off over the treetops, wild and free. When she had held each of her little creatures in turn, stroked each, spoken softly to each, she would shut them away in the chest again.