Her song changed slightly, and shadows flitted around the clearing. Jack could not quite work out what they were—animals, he thought, though they moved just too fast for him to focus on them. He would track one shape, see it disappear just when he thought he had it centered, and then another would tease the extremes of his vision. He blinked hard a few times and looked again, but the shapes were still only that—suggestions of creatures.
He could smell them and hear them, and perhaps they were as amazed at Lesya as he.
Jack frowned, thinking back to moments before when the forest had been closing in on him, crushing him, herding him in a particular direction…but this was nothing like that. There was no malevolence here, only reverence for whatever Lesya held within her. That was something else, Jack thought, and he looked back over his shoulder into the motionless forest behind him.
When he turned back to the clearing, he saw, past Lesya and in the shadows of the facing trees, something gray.
“Oh!” Jack cried out, because he thought it was a wolf.
Lesya turned around. Her singing stopped. The forest became only a forest again; movement ceased, shapes stilled into shadows, and growth and decline followed their own imperceptible timescale once more. The gray shape vanished.
And for the space of a heartbeat, Lesya’s face looked blank and hard.
“There’s something in the forest,” Jack said, because he had no idea how to even begin asking about what she had been doing.
Lesya walked to Jack, touched his face, and looked over his shoulder into the forest behind him. She sighed.
“Come with me,” she said. “It’s time I told you some things.”
“About you? About the forest trying to kill me?”
Did Lesya smile? Jack wasn’t sure, but if she did, it was an expression he did not like. He had never seen a hint of mockery in her eyes until now.
“If he wanted to kill, he would have killed,” she said. “I need to tell you about my father.” She headed across the clearing without once glancing back, and Jack could only follow.
As they walked, Lesya talked. Jack listened in amazement, but also with some relief. Incredible though what she told him was, at least it went some way toward explaining what had been happening to him these last few weeks. Magic, he thought again, but it was something much older than that.
“My father is Leshii, an ancient Forest Lord, and he has lived in these forests for three hundred years. He came in the minds and hearts of Russian explorers, and he had a comfortable home here until the land slowly killed them. Hunger, the cold, violence, the local tribes—within three years of coming here, the explorers were all dead. But my father remained, because he had found a paradise. He claimed these forests as his own, protecting them, nurturing, enjoying places where the touch of man was rare.”
Lesya and Jack paused by a stream, and she jumped across to the opposite bank. He went to follow…and paused.
“It’s too far,” he said, trying to picture just how she had leaped. He frowned, because the memory was hazy.
Lesya smiled across at him, then pointed down. “There are three stepping stones for you to use,” she said, and Jack started across. Even before he had reached her, Lesya was talking again.
“So far from home, my father was weak. The tribes here did not know him by the right name; their belief in other spirits, and their denial of him, was weakening him year by year. Summer would come, and he would dry out to almost nothing. And then winter, and darkness, and he would grow strong again in the haunted minds of men and women. He disliked preying on their fears, but that was his only way to grow. And he paid them back by protecting their herds, and warning them when harsh winters were closing in.”
“So it was he who tried to kill me?” Jack asked. He had seen magic and witnessed things that he could barely believe, but he was still far away from believing this. Yet the question did not feel foolish, and Lesya’s answer was sobering.
“My father is mad, now, after so long here,” she said without turning to look at him. “And I sense that with you and me, he is jealous. It’s only lucky that he is so weakened by time and disbelief.”
“So if I believe, will it strengthen him?”
Lesya stopped then and turned to him, her face grim. Yet her eyes still sparkled. I could love her, he thought unexpectedly, and he held his breath, waiting for the trees to close in and crush the love from him.
“You must let me worry about my father,” she said. She came close, touching Jack’s face and looking at her bloodied fingertip. “I’ll protect you.”
“And you?” Jack asked. “What about you? If he’s your father, then…?” He frowned, shook his head. What does that make you? he thought, but he did not say that. She was too beautiful to question.
“I had a human mother,” she said. “A long time ago, when Father was still strong and could appear as a man, he met an Indian woman lost in the hills, took her in, cared for her. He knew that the time would come when their disbelief wore him down, and perhaps he thought that taking a human wife would avert that.” She shrugged. “She died giving birth to me.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said, and Lesya smiled sadly.
She turned and headed away again, and minutes later they emerged into the cabin clearing.
For a second, Jack felt dizzy. He leaned against a tree and looked past Lesya at the cabin. This is all too much, he thought. Living buildings, forest gods, and Lesya…Lesya, my love, what was she doing back there in the clearing? He feared her then, and realized that part of his confusion always had been fear. She was something he could never understand completely, and her beauty—and, perhaps, the idea that they could love—was clouding his mind.
“Of any human, it’s you who can understand,” Lesya said, as if in response to his thoughts. “There are so many wonders!”
She fell to her knees, leaned forward, and placed her hands on the earth, smiling up at Jack.
And then Lesya was an arctic fox, loping across the clearing and disappearing behind the cabin.
“Lesya?” he said, looking around for her, unable to believe what he had seen. His acceptance of a touch of magic was being challenged every moment by things even more unbelievable.
A caribou emerged from behind the cabin, trotting across to Jack, dodging the many bright flower beds dotted around the clearing. It paused before him and snorted, smelling of cinnamon and the wild. He blinked…
…and Lesya was there again. She was breathing hard, as if she had been running. Her simple dress still sprouted fur in several places. Every inch of her smile included him, and was for him. He closed his eyes, but that could not shut out such terrifying wonders.
He closed his eyes, but that could not shut out such terrifying wonders.
“Jack, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said.
Jack opened his eyes again, and it was still Lesya standing before him, the incredible, beautiful woman who he knew it would be so easy to love. “Really?” he asked, because he could not help doubting.
“Really.” She came forward, her exotic, mysterious smell carried with her, and kissed him softly on the lips.
I believe you, he tried to say, but he could not speak. She had taken his breath away.
She led him back to the cabin and inside, making him lie on the bed while she treated his many cuts and abrasions.
“I lost your book,” he said, realizing that he had dropped the Dumas novel during his flight through the forest.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’ve read it many times.”
“Where did you—?” Jack began, but she placed her fingers across his lips as she had that first time.
“Hush, Jack. Lie back, be still, and let me tend these wounds. My father has many ways and wiles. He did not trap you this time, but where his spirit wanders, he controls those places completely. The largest tree to the smallest creature. I have to make sure he didn’t plant infection in you.”
“Fungal spores, fly larvae, poisonous plant extracts, rancid fluids from dead things…the forest is full of dangers.” She smiled slightly, softly, as if thinking some private thought.
“I can wash…,” he began, but trailed off. She was using a soft, damp cloth soaked in some thick, warm fluid, and wherever she touched his skin, it tingled and warmed. It was a pleasant experience, and it felt cleansing. Even his cuts did not hurt so much when she touched them.
So he closed his eyes and let her clean his wounds, using the opportunity to think about everything that had happened. The thoughts swirled through his mind, different images flashing in and out, and there were so many wonders that it was impossible to focus on one thing. The terror he had felt surrounded by those trees, the blind panic that had led him to begin climbing, the rustling and whispering that had sounded so much like the forest conspiring to kill…all these were countered by the wonders he had seen in that clearing, and the things Lesya had told him. As amazing and unbelievable as her story had been, it was really the only explanation of what was happening to him that he could accept.
“What were you doing in the clearing?” he asked.
“Communing with the forest. I have many of my father’s talents, and as a half human I also have needs.”
“This cabin, the garden. My father does not eat, but I must.”
“I saw you…the fox. The caribou.”
“Another gift from Leshii. He can imitate the images of wild animals and plants. But I’m flesh and blood, as well as spirit and breeze, and so I am able to transform, to become them.”
“It sounds incredible.”
“It’s very lonely.” She looked away and sighed, as if sorry she had gone so far.
I’m here, Jack wanted to say, but he could not. How could he really comfort a creature like Lesya? She looked so human, yet she was something far different, and however alluring her person, however beautiful her smile, she was not a woman. What are you? he wanted to ask, but again, he could not say that out loud. He had no wish to hurt her feelings.
My wolf, he thought, and for a moment his heart leaped. Was it possible that this wondrous woman had been with him all that time in the wild? But he closed his eyes, certain that was not the case. The wolf had been something that Lesya was not, and vice versa. He would have known. Lying there, he breathed in her scent, and it was like nothing he had smelled before.
“I can show you,” she said softly.
“Show me what?” He opened his eyes, reveling in the sight of her once again.
A slow smile grew on her face. “Yes,” she said, nodding. “Yes, I can show you!” She clasped his hands and pulled him from the bed. “Outside, Jack! Come with me.” And she turned and rushed to the door.
Jack swayed where he stood, dizzied. But her sudden enthusiasm was catching, and he felt invigorated once more. “What are you going to show me, Lesya?”
She stood in the open doorway, the sun throwing her shadow back into the cabin. Jack imagined that shadow flexing and changing: a bear, a fox, a snake.
“I’ll show you how to answer when the wild calls.” And then she was gone from the doorway, back out into the open.
As Jack followed, Lesya’s laughter drew him on. She took him to sit below the apple tree, and he smelled the blossom that was impossible here in the Yukon.
“This is the call of the coyote,” Lesya said, and the sound that came from her mouth could have issued from no human throat. Jack drew back a little, unsettled. But when Lesya stopped and tilted her head, listening as an answering call came in from far away, he could not help smiling.
“Now you try,” she said.
“Why not? Here, I’ll help.” She sidled up close to him, touching his throat with her left hand, his chest with her right. “The call starts here, in the chest. Bring it up through your throat, turn your head…like this…let it flow out rather than shouting. Try.”
Jack tried, and Lesya’s hands pushed at his chest, drew up to his neck and throat, turned his head, and stroked across his Adam’s apple. He felt something give way within him, as though a door had opened, and then a stirring…an awakening. Whatever magic Lesya had, Jack had the inescapable suspicion that she had placed a small piece of it deep within him.
She continued to caress his throat as though guiding and drawing the call up out of him, and he opened his mouth to release it. The result was a poor imitation of the call she had produced, but Jack still opened his eyes wide in surprise.
“Try to think of yourself as a coyote,” she said. “Let the call come from deep inside, rising naturally, not pulled out. And don’t be shy.”
“Shy?” Jack said, scoffing. The last thing he’d ever been was shy. But Lesya raised one eyebrow, and he found himself blushing.
“Self-conscious,” she said. “Feel free and natural, not watched. It’s only me, after all.”
He smiled, nodded, and tried again. Lesya’s hands and fingers did their work, but this time he felt them as movements of his own flesh and skin, not someone else’s. And the call that he uttered was answered by that distant coyote.
“Did I…did I speak coyote?” Jack asked, staggered.
“You did,” Lesya said, laughing. “Do you want me to teach you the language of birds?”
That afternoon, and for the next couple of days, Lesya showed him incredible things.
Jack’s facility for learning had always been immense. A reader almost since before he could talk, during his short life he had consumed countless books, both factual and fiction. He was a sponge for information, soaking it up wherever he could get it, but his true intelligence rose from applying that information. His mind was not just a repository of knowledge but a factory in which that knowledge could be sorted and combined. He was hungry for learning, and in all the months he had spent in the Yukon so far, this time with Lesya sated that hunger more than any other he could remember.