Even now, as he wandered along a trail that seemed to have been laid out just for him, the trees aligned on either side like the entryway to a grand estate, he shivered at the memory of the slaughter in camp that night. The screams of the men echoed in his head, and he could not erase the sight of the Wendigo, half invisible in the moonlight and the dark, snatching them up and pulling them apart to get at their insides.
If he could have considered it just an animal, that would have been easier. But he had seen it close up, had watched it mirror his own image and step through the shadows, and nothing of mere flesh and blood could have done that. No, the Wendigo was something more. It was a cursed thing, a legend, born of some hideous magic.
A shiver went through Jack and he paused. The breeze still felt warm, but he looked around the woods to find that somehow his trail had led him into deep shadow, where the canopy of the trees grew thick overhead. He glanced about until he saw a splash of bright sunlight and set off toward it, conscious of the general direction of the cabin.
For nearly ten minutes he pushed other thoughts from his head and just walked. His boots snapped twigs, and sometimes the ground was soft underfoot, though there had been no rain since he had first woken in Lesya’s cabin. A stand of white birches gleamed in the sun, many of the trees stripped of leaves despite the time of year. They were not dead trees, but they did not flourish the way most of the forest did, and they had none of the vibrancy of the few apple and pear trees in the garden behind Lesya’s home.
Jack wondered if she could save them. Only a fool would have denied the influence she had on things around her, the way the flowers and plants flourished. Even Jack had thrived in her care, returning to vigorous health, though he believed his own recovery had much more to do with her cooking than with whatever magic could keep the wood of her cabin alive.
“Get her out of your head,” he said aloud.
The wind through the leaves seemed to answer back.
Accepting magic had not come easily, especially to someone who still bore an emotional burden from the spiritualism his mother indulged in. The things she had claimed to believe had brought death and the dead near to him and his home, and they had frightened and confused him. He remembered a gas lamp, and his mother’s chanting voice as she called upon her own spirit guide and invited other, darker things to visit them in their kitchen.
One rainy evening, the lamp lay in bright shards on the kitchen floor. The roses on its shade had been as vivid in color as the flowers in Lesya’s garden. Jack had not touched the lamp, yet it had moved, and his mother had blamed him. She had punished him.
Spiritualism filled him with contempt. He hated the theatrics that went along with it, and the arrogance of those who claimed to practice it. Magic seemed only a hair’s breadth from the kind of spiritual chicanery his mother had indulged in, defrauding widows and distraught daughters of their money, and so he had always dismissed it with the same casual disdain.
Since he had first learned of the wide world as a small boy, he had yearned to explore its mysteries, to visit exotic ports and secret chambers, to dare its oceans and peaks. Now he had been forced to accept the existence of an even wider world. There were forces at work around him that had nothing to do with science but might equally be a part of nature. For he could not think of Lesya’s witchery as anything but natural. She certainly considered it as such, did not even seem to understand the word magic.
With a smile, he sat down amid the dying birch trees and leaned against the trunk of the sturdiest. Opening the book, he delved into Dumas’s Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. Though this sort of melodrama did not usually appeal to him, Jack had read the book in English several years before. He thought he remembered enough of the story that he’d be able to decipher this text, even with the little French he knew.
The attempt failed miserably. Though he concentrated, scanning pages for words he recognized and trying to translate the sentences around them from context and memory, it soon became evident that today would not be the day he taught himself French.
After twenty minutes or so of this fruitless labor, he lost patience entirely and rose. The sun had reached its apex, and Jack relished the warmth. The nights were still cold, and he would never wish to be in the Yukon during winter again. But he did not mind the spring.
Book in hand, he glanced once in the direction he had come and immediately decided to forge onward. If the book would not provide distraction, then he would have to explore beyond its pages. Perhaps he would come to the outer edge of the forest and be able to get some bearing on his position. Surely they could not be more than five miles or so from the river camp where he had panned for gold with his fellow captives?
The thought brought Merritt to mind, sullying Jack’s mood.
Many shades grimmer, he set off to what he gauged to be east. Things moved in the undergrowth and in the branches overhead, animals darting to and fro to escape his path. But as he walked, the journey became more difficult. Exposed roots and stones jutted from the uneven ground and the trees grew closer together, so that he found himself ducking beneath branches, scratching himself many times, and tripping more than once.
He managed not to fall, but the forest had grown so thick that it seemed nearly impassable. Realizing that it would be illogical to continue—especially since he took the density of the woods as an indication that he had been walking deeper into the forest instead of toward its edges—Jack shifted direction. Yet fewer than ten minutes later, he ran into a similar obstruction. The way had been clearer, paths easily made among the trees, but soon he found himself in the thick of the forest again.
Once more he shivered, but this time a creeping suspicion accompanied the chill that ran through him. He glanced around but saw only the shade thrown by branches and the dappling of golden light where the sun shone through.
He had come into the forest alone, but now he had company, and now that he had become aware of it, Jack could not understand how he had missed it before. Of late he had thought little of the wolf. It had aided him when he was in peril, and these days with Lesya had presented only heart-quickening joy and contentment. Yet he had wondered what had become of his spirit guide, the animal that had breathed new life into him when he lay dying in the winter snow, and had given him a rapport with the wild that he would never otherwise have found. Why had he not seen it? If he closed his eyes at night, sometimes he thought he could hear the lonesome howl of a wolf far, far off. But then the fire would lull him to sleep, or Lesya would brush her lips against his in a soft kiss, and the wolf would be forgotten.
This, though, was not the wolf. Nor was it the Wendigo. But Jack knew it. He had felt the presence before, in the woods that day when Lesya had kissed him for the first time. He had sensed the intensity of its attention upon him—its menace—and the small hairs on the back of his neck had bristled. He had understood with utter clarity that it did not want him there.
He peered into shadows, searched the trees for the source of the threat, but saw nothing. Frustrated, he turned north and walked until the woods thinned, picking up his pace, tapping the book against his thigh. He still felt its attention upon him, the weight of its displeasure, but he would not be frightened off by something he could not see.
Again he turned east, and after several minutes found his way blocked by the clustering of trees. Nodding, frustration growing, he backed away from the tangled branches, staring at the bases of those trees. The roots grew on top of one another, twining like vines or lovers’ hands.
“All right. If that’s the way it must—”
He backed into a tree, the sharp edge of a broken branch poking his back. Jack spun around to find that the forest had filled in behind him. Impossibly, there were trees there that had not been there before, giant old-growth wood, thick branches blocking his way.
And now a little tremor of true fear was seeded in his heart.
He turned around several times. Protecting his face, ducking his head, he pushed between two trees, twisting through an opening. Branches seemed to twine together but he forged ahead, jerking left and right, hearing the snap of wood. A branch whipped out, scratching his forehead and drawing blood. Others jabbed his sides and whacked his shins, but Jack drove forward, bullish and determined. Through the trees ahead he caught a glimpse of the woods he had left behind, an ordinary forest with sun streaming through the branches above and plenty of room to move.
But the trees he passed only grew closer together, their limbs thicker and stronger, until at last they forced him to a stop. Without an ax or a saw, he could not hope to proceed any farther.
“Why are you doing this?” he shouted, as though expecting the forest to answer. He heard only the rustle of leaves and the song of birds in reply.
Then he tried to turn but felt the press of a knotted branch against his back. Heart beginning to race, he twisted around, scratched by every movement, and found that the wood had caught him. Trees grew so close around him now that their branches had created a cage, thick limbs barring his way, pressing against his arms and legs, his back and ribs, so tightly that he had nowhere to go.
Jack tilted his head back and saw a glimmer of sun through the dark canopy above, and he realized there remained one avenue open to him. If he wanted to see his way back to the cabin—or perhaps make out exactly what the trees were trying to prevent him from seeing—he would have to climb.
Determined, he managed to lift his right leg and get a foothold on a lower branch. Without a good view of the sun, especially at midday, he had now lost all sense of direction. A view from high up would give him some bearings. And if the spirit of the wood—for he had no doubt he faced some sort of forest deity—would not let him explore as he wished, then he would learn something that way.
Grabbing hold of a thick limb, he hoisted himself up. Branches shook and swayed, but Jack climbed, forcing his way upward, feeling tiny trickles of blood on his skin from a dozen little cuts. Fear nestled in his gut, but he ignored it. He had been fearful on the White Horse Rapids and on the Chilkoot Trail, but had never let that stop him. Only the Wendigo had ever made him run.
“Do your worst,” Jack whispered as he climbed.
The branch under his left foot snapped, and he fell, tumbling through breaking branches that stabbed at him on the way down. He hit the ground with an impact that drove the breath from his lungs. His chest burned for long seconds as he waited for his wind to return, his back stretched across knobby exposed roots.
“Son of a bitch,” he wheezed when he could breathe again.
Brushing off the seat of his pants, holding his right hand over a gash on his left biceps, he rose to his feet and saw that the trees had shifted again. They were still gathered close, but now a single path lay open to him, free of roots or stones or trees, as though the trail had been cleared specifically for his use.
He knew very little about these woods, but it seemed clear that Lesya’s was not the only magic at work here. That sense of menace surrounded him like invisible smoke, and he began to feel claustrophobic. He had lost track of which direction might be east, but it no longer mattered. The forest had thwarted him. Only one path remained.
If he had any hope of returning to Lesya, or ever finding civilization again, he knew he had no choice but to follow.
THE LANGUAGE OF THE LAND
JACK FOUND THE ENERGY to run. It reminded him of his flight through the forest from the Wendigo, but this threat was more sinister and less known. It hid in the shadows beneath trees, under last year’s leaf cover on the forest floor, and behind every trunk. Even when he sensed that the threat was now far behind him, still he ran. He did not once look back. He tried to reason that this was merely because he needed to look ahead, to make sure he did not run into a dip in the ground or the cruelly sharp stake of a snapped tree limb. But the truth was, he was scared of what he would see.
He hoped that he was going in the direction of the cabin, but his usual good sense of direction was blurred and confused. Those trees had aimed him a certain way; but once away from their influence, he changed his route, cutting through a shallow ravine worn by a long-ago stream, then left again, passing a series of five fallen trees tangled like dead lovers. He was confusing himself, but he hoped that he confused whatever had been stalking him more.
And then somewhere to his right, Jack heard singing. It was the strangest, sweetest voice he had ever heard, and haunting at the same time. He thought of wind whistling through hollowed bones. His blood ran cool, yet the voice held no threat.
He found himself walking toward it, unable to avoid its allure. The other way! he thought. I should be going the other way! But the voice drew him on, and it was the words that gave him some comfort, at least. He did not understand them, but they were a language that he had heard Lesya muttering in her sleep. He pushed through a growth of low trees, closing his eyes as one thin branch scraped across his cheek.
Reaching the edge of a clearing, he saw Lesya. He paused, standing still within shadows beneath the trees, and tried to understand what she was doing. To begin with, his mind could not comprehend, and one word whispered inside him: magic magic magic….
Lesya was the center of everything. She stood in the middle of the clearing, arms by her side and head tilted slightly as though listening, and she was as beautiful as he had ever seen her. It was her voice that filled the air. He could not see her face—she was looking away from him—but he knew that while she sang, she smiled.
Jack had heard of snake charmers, though he had never seen the act performed. He’d once seen a man beguile a bull to do his bidding, and Jack himself had learned the subtle art of guiding a dog’s attention. But he had never in his wildest dreams imagined this.
Lesya had the forest in her thrall. All around her, flower blossoms seemed to face her way, and branches seemed to sway with the rhythm of her words. Around her feet, grasses swished, and some daring shoots snaked across the ground to her legs, curling up around her limbs, across her waist, and higher. She looked down at the shoots and they drew back, but slowly.