2.25: Treetop Confessional

“I’m not a wolf,” Henry said, “I promise.” He was looking up at Clair’s face, hidden amidst a great mass of branches and leaves in the canopy overhead. It was tough to distinguish details, but he thought she was still scowling at him.

“If that’s true,” she said, “then tell me something to prove it. Tell me something that a wolf would never know.”

He scratched the back of his neck. “The safe internal temperature for chicken is one hundred and sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit.”

“One of these wolves could know that.”

“Then I’m afraid they’re as smart as me. What are you doing up there?”

She definitely scowled, now. “Staying away from tricksters.”

“I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

“Have you? Okay, come on up then.” Her face disappeared.

He considered the tree standing before him. “I don’t know if I can. I haven’t climbed a tree since I was a kid. Not to mention the bum shoulder.”

Clair’s face reappeared. “That’s exactly what a wolf would say!”

“A wolf would tell you that it can’t climb because it has a bad shoulder?”

“It would tell me whatever I needed to hear, to make me come down to the ground,” she said, and was gone again.

Henry called to her several times, to no avail. Finally he sized himself up against the trunk. It was a gnarled old thing. Thick strips of bark peeled away like strips of cloth from a sweater. He set his feet against them. If he could climb a lighthouse in his condition, then he could certainly climb a tree.

It was a slow and painstaking process. He pushed himself up with his legs, using his good arm to keep balance. Five feet off the ground one of his holds fell away, the bark sloughing from the tree like blistered skin, and he swung like a rock climber—but wrapped his thighs around the trunk to stabilize himself, preventing a fall. Once he reached the branches it became easier. He had only to hoist himself from one seat to another, steadily rising into the sky. It smelled like cold, fresh air, and the coming of a placid night.

Clair watched him the entire way, the expression on her face gradually transforming from disbelief to skepticism to wonder. When finally he hauled himself onto the wide branch upon which she sat, she wrapped him in a tight hug. Her smell was overwhelming. It was like an expired egg-salad sandwich which had been dunked in a vat of hair grease and left in the sun for a week. He held his breath, and narrowly managed not to gag. “I can’t believe it’s really you,” she said. “I can’t believe you found me. I can’t believe it was you who found me. How did you find me?”

She released him, and he drew the leather swatch from his pocket. It was inert, now, for having been joined with its pair. She marveled at the symbol burned onto its face. “How did you know?”

“Kara.”

“Of course. That was supposed to be a secret.”

“She didn’t tell me who gave you the tattoo. Nobody knows.”

Clair smiled at him. With her suspicions gone, a warmness emanated from the woman that sat at odds with the rough state of her body. Her clothes were torn and dirited. Shallow cuts and bruises ran up and down the length of her arms and legs. Her hair was a matted bunch, and she had clearly lost a great deal of weight. That was nowhere more apparent than in the tendons straining against her emaciated neck. “The secret doesn’t matter anymore. Marjorie Gauthe gave me the tattoo.”

“Gauthe,” he said, “as in…”

“As in, the daughter of the mayor. We were friends growing up. That was how I learned about magic. No, even those who grew up in the village don’t get told. Marjorie was just bad at keeping secrets. Back then, I was certain that it was the difference between what I was and what I wanted to be. Magic. The Gauthes and the Brihtes both knew about it. Used it. That had to be why they were the wealthy families.”

Henry dug out the last of his jerky while she talked. “Was it not?”

“No,” she said, gratefully accepting and then immediately gnawing on the dried meat. “But when we got older I made her promise to help me get some, or I would tell everyone how bad she was at keeping secrets. I don’t know where she learned the pattern. I guess you already know that Teresa and Kara don’t recognize it. Some hidden Gauthe family trick.”

“Did it work?”

“Was I not floating outside of your window last month?” She swallowed the last bite of the jerky. “I’m sorry about that, by the way. Secrets have weight in Tortus Bay. We all feel compelled to keep them—even if simply telling the truth would save someone a great deal of pain.”

Night fell rapidly around them, stealing the color out of the sky and the warmth out of the air. “There aren’t going to be any secrets much longer,” he said. “I’m starting a newspaper for the village. Everything is going to come out.”

Clair gave him a wild look. “Is that right?”

“The first issue went out the other day.”

She whistled. “Then I’m impressed. It must sound like madness to you, if you can’t feel it for yourself, but telling people certain truths about Tortus Bay is hard. The village wants to protect its secrets as much as any of its people do.”

“I’m sure you did what you could,” he said, “that first night we met. But I wish you could have done more. I wish I would have asked more, afterwards, but I thought—well, I thought you had something to do with Mathas Bernard’s death.”

“Oh.” She crossed her arms, balancing on the branch with only her legs. “I did.”

Wind whistled through the trees, trailed closely by the rustling of leaves. Henry shivered. “We should talk about this back in the village,” he said. “I came to bring you back.”

She shook her head. “I can’t go back. The wolves would never let me. They started acting strange, the moment I entered the forest. I was just going to camp out for a day or two. But then they were surrounding me, chasing me. At first I thought I was really lucky, to keep getting away unscathed. Then I realized they were shepherding me. I can’t go too deep in the woods. I can’t get too close to the village. I don’t know why they want me here, but here I am.”

“Clair, I don’t think they’re real. I think they’re like the ones we saw in the park. Don’t you remember?”

She continued shaking her head. “When they come in large groups, they are not real. Not entirely. But one or two? Real enough to sink a fang into your calf. And every day that passes, those teeth get sharper. How long until the festival now?”

“We have to try.”

“We don’t. And I will not. The wolves bring me food. They brought me blankets. And I’m safer out here than I would be in the village.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Aren’t you listening? The festival. The wolves are spreading out. They’re surrounding Tortus Bay. Something bad is about to happen.” Clair leaned back, making herself comfortable. “So I’m glad you found me. Believe me, talking to a real human being after a month is a real treat. Ask me whatever you want, and I’ll tell. No more secrets. But once we’re done, I feel like I’ll be safer out here than in there. If you’re smart, you would stay with me.”

Henry chewed on that. Clair was so stick thin and bruised that he thought he would have no trouble at all in throwing her over his shoulder, if he wanted to. But then agaa\in, he only had the one good shoulder. “You had something to do with Mathas’ death?”

“Yes,” she said, as matter-of-fact as if she were discussing the weather. “I wasn’t the one holding the knife, or anything like that. I wasn’t there, when it happened. I told you the truth about the lighthouse. I thought I was the only one who knew how to get in. Then one day, just before you showed up in the village, I went for a look around and found the scene.”

He nodded. “I’ve seen it.”

“Horrible, isn’t it? First thing I wanted to do was scream. Then I really saw it, and I knew that it had to be kept a secret. I’m pretty good at those, if you’re not following along.”

“I don’t understand. You let everyone think his death was an accident.”

“And everything would have been better that way. I never liked Mathas. Anybody who says they did let themselves be bought. He was a mean, nasty old man.”

“Did he do something?”

“Oh no, nothing specific. No, never anything specific. He was too careful for that. But whenever you left a room, you felt his eyes on you. We went to school together. That was years and years of lingering eyes and drool.” She sighed, gazing blankly out at the sky through the leafy canopy. “I hated the Gauthes because Marjorie left me. She used her family’s money to get herself out of Tortus Bay, and she never looked back. I hated the Brihtes because they let Mathas marry into their little club. That’s why I let everyone believe the murder was an accident.”

“Was he really bad enough to deserve that?”

“Someone from the community did it,” she said, “and I’m sure they had their reasons. I’m sure he deserved it. If you’re looking into the truth because you want to punish someone, then you’re going to do more harm than good.”

“I hear that he was taking magic lessons from the Bramble daughters.”

A dark look crossed Clair’s face, briefly making her beaten body look healthy by comparison. “If you want to punish someone,” she repeated, “you’re going to do more harm than good.”

Henry ran a hand through his hair. “I thought finding you was going to be the key to all of this. I don’t know, I guess I built it up in my head. Things aren’t good in the village. Emmaline’s body is missing again. Along with her locket. And Mathas Bernard, or his animated corpse, is up and wandering around. I’ve seen him myself.”

Clair listened intently, that dark look creeping back onto her face. “How is that possible?”

“I don’t know.” 

“I’m sorry if you thought I was going to be able to help. Last I knew, Emmaline and her locket were safe and sound in the park, and Mathas was rotting in his grave.”

“I’m starting to think he never made it into that grave. Or if he did, he got bounced right back out.” He massaged his temples. It felt as though the cold was seeping into his skull. “You’re sure you won’t come back with me?”

“I am. Are you sure you won’t stay here with me?”

He smiled. “You said it yourself: In a few days, these wolves are going to be more than illusions in the dark.”

“And you’ve seen it yourself: In a few days, I’ll be more than helpless.”

Henry positioned himself for the start of a difficult journey back down the trunk of the tree. “Keep your eye out for that locket, will you? And Emmaline and Mathas, while you’re at it. At this rate I think we’re about to have another repeat of the park incident.”

“Then we’ll deal with it like we did back then.”

He started down, then stopped. “Clair?”

“Yes?”

“It was good to see you again.” 

“It was good to see you, too.”

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