Despite everything he now knew, Henry felt no more informed than he did the first time he stepped foot in Tortus Bay. Every answer led to another ten questions, and nobody would speak to him with authority. All he got were rumors, stories, conjecture, and ritual. He would have been mad, but he’d seen the magic work regardless.
He considered that for a moment, and decided that he was still mad. Ugly purple bruises lined his fingers, his shoulder wound looked no better despite days of soothing ointment, and streaks of pain still occasionally seared across his body along the shadows of the welts the wolves left. The pain was a constant dull throbbing. He grumbled it about it all the way across the village that afternoon, and into the heavy canopy of the surrounding trees.
There, he quickly found the huddled mass of the Tortus Bay Hiking and Wilderness Appreciation Society. They were a conspicuous lot, with their festive shirts, cameras, and binoculars. Like a flock of stranded tourists. Already a few of them were looking around nervously, even though they were hardly ten paces into the woods.
Niles peeled himself away from the group and waved at him as he approached. “You’re here!”
Henry reminded himself of all the sleuthy and incredibly legitimate reasons he had to be joining the hiking society on their trek that day, despite the ache in his shoulder and hands, but he was saved from having to speak by the abrupt appearance of Lucy Brihte. She was the same whispery, aloof presence as he remembered, speaking more to the horizon of trees than to any of her congregated club-mates. “Is that everyone now?” she asked. “Are we free to move forward?”
“Yes.” Niles looked down at his feet.
“Today, our only goal is to explore. The paths through these storied woods have been eroded by time and disuse, and they need our attention. As we walk, try to listen to the earth. The animals. Keep yourself open to it. Take your pictures. Document your birds. Together we will rediscover the heartstrings that our forebears birthed here.”
Lucy was more herself in the company of trees. No more cogent, perhaps, but passion and confidence came through in her voice regardless. She led the group forward into the light undergrowth, following the faded grooves of an old wagon path, and Henry filed in at the back of the ranks.
Inevitably, Niles dropped back to walk beside him. He was dressed for the occasion, in a pair of lime green shorts and a v-neck that showed a glimpse of smooth skin with a prominent clavicle. “I’m glad you decided to come on the hike.”
Henry kept his head pointed forward. The TBHWAS made slow progress along their chosen path, due to the tendency for half of them to stop and take pictures of moss, and for the other half to then admonish the photographers for scaring away the birds. “I didn’t follow along with Lucy,” he said. “What are we supposed to be doing out here?”
“Supposedly there are tons of hiking paths around here. There used to be other villages in the vicinity, you know, and folk would walk back and forth between them. But a lot of those paths are gone, all of their signage lost. If there was ever any signage to begin with. So we’re trying to determine where our resources are best spent, in terms of resuscitating some of that.”
“Oh. Why didn’t she just say so?”
“She has her own way of things.”
Lucy turned and halted the group as soon as they were out of eyesight of the edge of the woods. Tod, the corpulent man who spoke with Henry at the last meeting about birds, clutched his binoculars to his chest with white-knuckle intensity. “Remember to pay close attention to the heart of the wilderness,” she said. “We will follow the path which calls out to us most clearly.”
“I think Tod might have a heart attack,” Henry whispered. “Haven’t you guys done this before?”
Niles stifled a laugh. “Not really. The club used to be for talking about local environmental concerns, until Lucy took an interest in it. Now we’re trying to be more active.”
“But you’re all scared of wolves.”
“Is that unreasonable?” The group set off again, at a comfortable crawl. Niles and Henry kept pace behind them, walking in silence for a time. “If you came here for the woods, I can leave you alone.”
Henry was surprised how easy it was to talk with him—and annoyed, because he was still supposed to be mad. “Kara mentioned something about an old graveyard around here.”
“That’s right. The only one we have. Is that what you want to see?”
He pulled up short. “Would that be possible?”
“Officially speaking, I’m the group cartographer.” Niles tapped a bulge in the pocket of his shorts. “It’s up to me to map out what we see, and help Lucy with the ultimate decision about which paths are worth our investment.”
“Is there an ‘unofficially speaking?’”
He shrugged. “I think we can get away with a little excursion.”
They slowed their pace even further, distancing themselves from the rest of the pack. “You know the way?”
“They didn’t make me the cartographer for nothing.”
In due time the colorful mob of the TBHWAS trailed out of eyesight, and Niles took them off in the other direction. They picked their way through sparse shrubbery, forgoing the path to make better time. Birdsongs and the skittering of squirrels filled the void of idle chatter and shuttering cameras. “Lucy’s really into the heart of the forest.”
“Always has been,” Niles said. “She used to come walking out here alone, before anyone else was brave enough to join her.”
“She never got eaten.”
As they approached the old graveyard, Emmaline Cass’ ludicrous headstone rose out from the tops of the towering trees like a beacon. “Is she talking about magic?”
“It’s hard to tell. Some people just talk like that. And as someone who stays inside on Festival days, it can be hard to know.” Niles stopped, breathed, and looked Henry in the face for the first time that day. There was anxiety written all over it. “I’m sorry I never told you about the Festival. I’m sorry that I didn’t even try.”
They stood in a sliver of light amidst the shade of the trees. For a moment, all of the various sounds of the surrounding wildlife ceased. “That wasn’t the point.”
Niles took a step toward him, palms upturned. “Then what is it?”
“My god, it’s hard enough as it is. Did you have to erect the false pretense? Did you have to make me wonder if this thing only existed on my side? The first time I saw you, it was through the kitchen window of the Hell on a Shell Bar. I don’t know if you saw me that night, but I was taken with you. Then, off all things, you came to me. But it was to invite me to a hiking club. It was to help you with a piece of murder trivia that you didn’t need help with at all.”
He blushed like a strawberry, blooming from his chest out to his arms and up his neck. “I saw you, that first night.” His voice was quiet. “I shouldn’t have misled you.”
Henry closed the distance between them, and there was a moment of heat. An instant of anticipation so strong that it twisted his stomach. Then their lips briefly brushed, and parted. A second to breathe. And back together again. Something strong uncurled in his core, telling him to push Niles back against one of the trees. They both wanted it. At the same time, something in his chest told him to stop. He broke the kiss, and stepped away.
Niles steadily progressed beyond strawberry, going the color of a dark cherry from the tips of his fingers to the lobes of his ears. He looked down at the ground, and smiled broadly. “I didn’t want to presume.”
“A little bit wouldn’t have hurt anybody.”
The old cemetery turned out to be a relatively small plot of land which had been almost completely overgrown with vines and moss. An ornamental fence ran around the circumference, but it was decrepit with age and would have kept nobody out by itself. The police tape sectioning off the area looked far more imposing. “They’re exhuming Emmaline’s grave,” Henry explained. He and Niles kept to the treeline, despite the fact that the graveyard was currently empty.
“That makes it a crime scene?”
“Maybe. If someone really dug her up.” Approximately a dozen plots comprised the space, their ornamentation ranging in pomp from a simple white cross to the towering plinth of the most famous Cass herself. Up close, it resembled the trunk of a tree—round and gnarled, but constructed of immaculate white marble. Delicate inscriptions ran up the length of the headstone, some meant to be the waves of the wood, and some meant to be words, but it was not always easy to tell the two apart. “It’s beautiful.”
“Pride of the village. Carved by a local, or so the legend goes.”
The inscription of her name was clear enough, but the dates of her birth and death were partially worn away. Beneath that, a quote was rendered illegible by curlicues and decorative twirls. Henry stepped out of the trees, and over the police tape. Something different had caught his eye. “What is that?”
Niles hung back, behind the line. “Where?”
“I’ve seen that before.” Ten feet off the ground on the southern face of the headstone, all of the swirling converged on the image of a many-fingered leaf with one smooth side, and one jagged. “It was in Mathas Bernard’s journal, and a book that one of the Bramble daughters was reading.”
“Aldounis,” Niles said, matter-of-factly.
“The leaf. It’s called Aldounis.”
“Okay, do not pretend that that’s common knowledge.”
He rolled his eyes. “It grows in the forest here. I guess I only know that because I come out here sometimes. Not surprising that you saw it at the Brambles, though; everyone knows they use it in their concoctions. Sort of like aloe, I guess.”
Then it was for healing. “Can we pick a sample?”
“We can do whatever you want.”
Henry returned his attention to the inscriptions, circling the headstone with his neck craned back. Dozens of other images were scattered across the base of the marble, and even more above. Among them he recognized the simple geometric slashes of Kara’s protection charm, and several artful depictions of trees and crashing waves. It was a masterpiece. In the sun it glowed, pools of light catching in the fine grooves. He could have stared at it for hours.
After a time Niles gingerly stepped over the police tape to join him, resting his warm hands on his shoulders. He forgot about his pain.