Pale Cloud Giants sailed westward, their bellies gilded with the hues of morning. Against the sere blue winter sky, they seemed to be huge animals fleeing the newborn glare cast by Grandfather Day Maker’s face.
Silver Sparrow glanced at them, and followed their lead, heading west. The cool air carried the scents of wet earth and frozen bark. He inhaled deeply as he tramped up the frosty trail through the forest.
Huge hickory trees towered above him, their bare limbs stark. Among the branches birds flitted and sang, creating a pleasant serenade. When he reached the top of the hill, he turned to look back at the black tracery of shadows painting the forest. The filigree wavered, rushing toward him when the wind blew, then flying away before he could reach out to touch it. His knees shook badly. He’d seen fifty-three winters, and felt each one this morning. Long white hair swayed around his owlish face as he braced his feet to keep standing. Three days of fasting and praying had weakened his body, but his souls floated in euphoria, like bits of cattail down sailing on a warm autumn breeze. He started to turn back to the trail, but movement caught his eye. He squinted. Something blue flashed through the trees.
Sparrow stood quietly, waiting.
A man emerged. He wore a pack on his back, beneath his cape, and it made him look like a hunchback. Their people made a variety of winter garments: capes, heavy coats, short jackets. Each person had their own preferences.
“Oh, no,” Sparrow whispered to himself. “Blessed ancestors, not today. Not when I so desperately need to be alone.”
Tall Blue climbed the hill. His waist-length black hair gleamed with each step. The blue designs painted around the hem of his buckskin cape flashed as he walked through the streaks of sunlight. Twenty-seven winters old, he had a long straight nose and wide mouth. He also had a reputation for valor. No doubt the reason he’d been chosen for this task.
“I am seeking a vision!” Sparrow shouted at the top of his lungs, startling the birds into silence. “I don’t care what’s happened, Blue!”
Sparrow turned and forced his rubbery legs to carry him down the trail and across a meadow, hoping to outdistance the young man dogging his steps. Voles and mice leaped through the grass at the sound of his moccasins, scurrying for cover.
Sparrow shook his head in disgust. He hadn’t the strength to engage in a lengthy conversation about anything. This had to be Dust Moon’s doing. She was forever trying to sabotage his vision quests. The worst part was, as matron of Earth Thunderer Village, she had the right.
“Elder?” Tall Blue called in a deep apologetic voice. “Wait. Please?”
Sparrow pushed his legs harder, crunching over frozen leaves.
“Go home, Blue!”
Tall Blue spread his arms, as if helpless to comply.
Legs wobbling, Sparrow went to a fallen log and slumped down atop it, yelling, “The Spirits are watching you, Tall Blue. Do you know this? They are watching and saying, ‘Look at that young war leader annoying his elders. What shall we do with him?’”
Tall Blue smiled. Sparrow had said similar words to him many times when Tall Blue had been a gangly growing boy.
“I am not here of my own choice, Elder. You must know this.”
“Yes, of course. But for the sake of your great-grandmother’s ghost, Blue, you also know I need to be alone! Why did you allow Dust Moon to bully you into coming?”
“Patron Buffalo Skull also asked me to speak with you, Elder.”
A pinecone rested on the log a short distance away. Sparrow picked it up and threw it at the war leader. Tall Blue dodged the cone, gave Sparrow an indignant look, and continued walking.
He stopped ten paces in front of Sparrow. “Forgive me, Elder. I really do carry important news from our clan leaders.”
Sparrow folded his arms. “But mostly from Dust Moon, correct? What happened? Did she discover a boil and wishes me to come and Dance over it?”
Embarrassed by the lightness with which Sparrow took their clan matron’s wishes, Tall Blue lowered his gaze and blinked at the ground. “A passing Trader stopped and told us some terrible things.”
Sparrow heaved a breath, but didn’t answer. It was always something.
Tall Blue shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I know this is a distraction, Elder, but I must speak with you.”
Sparrow’s chest tightened. A distraction! Dust Moon must have told him that. Tall Blue would never think of something so ridiculous by himself. For the Earth Thunderer Clan, nothing was more important than seeking guidance from the Spirit World. Including impending warfare…which was surely why Tall Blue had come.
Sparrow closed his eyes, grumbled something unpleasant, then gestured to the log. “Sit down, Blue. What is it?”
Tall Blue sat down beside Sparrow, and his young face turned grim. “It’s the Walksalong Clan, Elder.”
“Of course it is. What’s Jumping Badger done now?”
For five winters, Jumping Badger, the war leader of Walksalong Village, had been terrorizing people for a moon’s walk.
“He attacked Sleeping Mist Village. At most that’s—”
“Three days’ run from here.” Sparrow knotted his fists and shook them at nothing. “And Dust Moon is afraid we will be next. Yes?”
“I don’t know what she expects me to do about it, Blue. Curse them and pray they turn on each other instead of us?”
Earth Thunderer Clan was part of the Turtle Nation. Peaceful hunters and gatherers, the Turtle clans moved their small villages often, following the game, or visiting different root grounds or nut groves. Their distant relatives, the Bear Nation, saw this as a weakness. They’d started openly attacking Turtle villages, pushing the people farther and farther away from the animals and plants they needed to survive, taking the land for themselves.
The Turtle clans had to fight back. Soon. And Sparrow had to give them his best advice. He couldn’t do that until he’d spoken to his Spirit Helper. This was not a matter for human beings. They had done all they could. Only the Spirits could resolve this problem.
Tall Blue’s moccasins crunched the frozen snow at the base of the log. “Elder?” he said. “You have been in the forest for three nights. Has your Spirit Helper appeared?”
The truth had been eating at him. Ordinarily his Helper came to him on the second day of questing. This was the beginning of the fourth day, and he hadn’t even—
“Matron Dust Moon said he probably hadn’t,” Tall Blue glibly informed him. “That’s why she felt it would be all right to disturb your quest.”
Idly, Sparrow wondered what would happen if he marched into Earth Thunderer Village and bashed Dust in the head with a war club.
“So.” Tall Blue slapped his palms on his knees. “I have come to ask you to return to the village. Matron Dust Moon said that right after you’ve given words in council you can return to your quest.”
Sparrow just stared.
Dust had never undertaken a vision quest. She did not know the bitter cold that settled in the soul, or the effect that going without food or water for days had on the body. She could not even imagine the wrenching despair that consumed a Dreamer who feared he might fail.
Sparrow wet his chapped lips. They tasted of dried blood and salty tears. “Do you have any notion what Matron Dust Moon would say if you’d just brought her this message after she’d been praying and fasting for days?”
Tall Blue tilted his head. “I—”
“She’d tell you to go throw yourself off a cliff, which is what I ought to do.”
“Elder,” Tall Blue said in exasperation. “The matron is not as horrible as you suppose.”
“Don’t tell me that.” He narrowed his eyes. “I lived with her for thirty-five winters, Blue. I know the twisted paths her thoughts take.”
Wind Mother whistled above Sparrow, and a shower of snowflakes fell from the trees, glittering, onto his white hair and cape. He feebly brushed at them. “You may tell my former wife that I will be home as soon as I’ve finished my quest. Not before.”
Tall Blue nodded dejectedly. “I will, of course, do as you say, Elder. I just hope she doesn’t come looking for you herself.”
Blue shrugged out of his pack and pulled it onto the log between them. As he loosened the laces and began to dig around inside, the sweet scent of roasted corn rose. “Forgive me, Elder. I’ll leave as soon as I’ve eaten. I’ve been searching for you since early yesterday.”
Sparrow’s belly groaned at the sweet aroma of corn cakes filled with roasted hickory nuts. It occurred to him that the scent was achingly familiar. He lifted a brow. “Dust Moon made those for you, didn’t she?”
“Why, yes, Elder,” Tall Blue said around a bite. “How did you know?”
“Because they’re my favorites, that’s why.” Through gritted teeth, Sparrow said, “I swear she’s the spawn of witches.”
Tall Blue finished his first cake, and started on a second. Crumbs fell down the front of his cape.
Sparrow should have known Dust would do something like this.
Only five nights before she had arrived at his house, and announced that she’d just spoken to a runner who’d told her he’d seen Bear Nation warriors massing—as if preparing for a major attack. Dust had informed Sparrow that, in this time of uncertainty, he ought to strive to be useful: “Go seek a vision. Your people need good advice. Not the sort of pathetic drivel you usually give.”
Sparrow slitted one eye and studied Tall Blue. “She’s trying to shove me into madness, Blue. First she orders me to seek a vision, then she sends you to interrupt my efforts. What’s next? Water hemlock in my food?”
“I am sorry, Elder,” Tall Blue said as he chewed his corn cake. “I knew you would not be happy to see me. I have so often heard you speak of the difficulties of the quest: the hunger, the thirst and loneliness. Are you lonely?”
Sparrow lifted a shoulder noncommittally. He was, of course. Desperately.
Tall Blue finished his cake, let out a satisfied sigh, and pulled the laces closed on his pack. “I’m leaving now, Elder. Are you certain you will not come with me?”
Sparrow stuffed his fists into the pockets of his beautifully painted elkhide coat. Its red spirals and dark green trees gleamed in the branch-filtered sunlight. “If I give in to the temptation, my Helper will be angry. He may never appear to me again.”
Tall Blue slipped the pack straps over his shoulders and shrugged it into position. “Perhaps that’s why he hasn’t come to speak with you yet. He’s already angry with you.”
“Really? What would make you think so?”
“Well, I—I don’t know, of course,” Tall Blue stammered, “but Matron Dust Moon said—”
“Blessed Spirits! If you wish to know something about me, ask me!”
Tall Blue wiped the crumbs from his hands, and watched them drop onto the forest floor. “I should have, Elder. You are right.”
Sparrow shifted to look at Blue. “What did she say?”
Tall Blue gazed at him askance. “Well, Elder, you…you do realize that you’ve wakened the village many times over the past moon, do you not?”
“Your cries have frightened people, Elder. You always sound as if you are in great torment. Matron Dust Moon said your wicked Spirit Helper was probably torturing you again.”
Sparrow squeezed his eyes closed. He often jerked awake at night, drenched in sweat, moaning, and in excruciating pain. He wakened feeling physically exhausted, as if warriors had been beating him with clubs all night. He knew what it meant. It was his Helper’s way of issuing a call. One that Sparrow could not refuse.
Sparrow opened his eyes and squinted at the bare branches over his head. “Not the spawn of witches,” he said. “The spawn of bird droppings, of snake semen, of—”
“Elder.” Tall Blue studied the tight line of Sparrow’s mouth. “Please return with me. If you wish to begin your quest again after the council meeting, you are free to do so.”
In the sudden silence, the chirping of the birds seemed louder, the wind through the bare branches more shrill. The forest smelled rich and pungent this morning.
“Very well.” Tall Blue sighed. “Perhaps you might give me a possible time when your quest will end?”
“I am too terrified to guess.”
“You? Terrified? You are a great holy man. What could frighten you?”
“Well—” Sparrow made an airy gesture. “To begin with, Blue, I’m afraid that I’ll finish my vision quest without seeing a Spirit Helper, and it will prove Matron Dust Moon’s theory that I’m just demented, not a Dreamer. I’m also worried that we might have to go to war soon. And, if you really want to know, I’m very frightened by this pain in my chest.” Sparrow touched the spot between his breasts.
Tall Blue said, “Your heart?”
“I don’t know.”
Blue sat down on the log again, and examined Sparrow more closely. “Does it hurt all the time?”
“Does it hurt now?”
Sparrow shook his head.
Tall Blue murmured, “Have you been witched? Should we call a shaman?”
Sparrow smiled, and his chapped lips broke open. Blood trickled warmly down his chin. “No,” he said as he wiped it away. “I actually think it’s a good thing, that the pain comes from my Spirit Helper.”
Tall Blue seemed to relax a little. “I’ve heard that elders often suffer curious pains. My great-grandfather used to wince every time he—”
“I doubt that it’s the same thing, Blue. Did his pain have golden eyes?”
Tall Blue closed his mouth. He didn’t answer for a time. “I don’t think so.”
“My pain has eyes. They sparkle at me in my dreams.”
“How long have you been seeing these eyes?”
“About seven moons.”
A swallow went down Blue’s throat. He seemed to be nerving himself to ask his next question. “Elder, perhaps we should send a runner for Rumbler. I’m certain the False Face Child could tell you if this ‘thing’ is good or bad.”
Rumbler, the dwarf boy who lived two nights to the north in Paint Rock Village, had great Power. He terrified most people, including Sparrow, and Sparrow loved the little boy with all his heart and souls.
“I’m sure Rumbler has more important things to do than worry about an old man’s pains.” To emphasize his point, Sparrow groaned as he stretched his aching back muscles. “Go home now, Blue. I’m having a difficult vision quest. I need to concentrate.”
Tall Blue rose to his feet. “Very well, Elder.”
But the young war leader stood with his brows lowered, peering worriedly at Sparrow.
Sparrow pointed. “Just follow your own footprints in the snow, Blue.”
Blue gave him an irritated look, as though that were not news to him. “I pray your Spirit Helper arrives soon, Elder.”
“So do I.”
Tall Blue nodded, and walked away. Sparrow watched him wade through the frosty meadow grass, toward the trail back to Earth Thunderer Village.
Sparrow braced his shaking arms on his knees. The past three days had taken a greater toll on his strength than he’d thought. He inhaled several deep breaths and let them out slowly while he scanned the forest. The slant of sunlight had changed. Its flaxen veils fell through the trees, glittering and twinkling. Where they struck the ground, it steamed.
Sparrow forced his legs to hold him as he rose, and headed toward the crest of the hill.
Pines flanked the way, their fragrance heavy on the breeze. The trail curved around a boulder, then wove through a tangle of deadfall and onto a flat stone ledge. Sparrow made it to the ledge and bent over to catch his breath. Lungs heaving, he barely heard the change in the timbre of Wind Mother’s voice. It had gone from a faint whimper to a deep-throated growl. When the distant cry of a wolf carried to him, Sparrow turned, his long white hair whipping around his wrinkled face. High-pitched and haunting, the mournful call tingled his spine.
Deadfall cracked behind Sparrow.
He turned, expecting to see Tall Blue again, but only flailing tree limbs met his gaze. Frigid wind napped his collar around his throat.
He heard it again, to his left, twigs snapping beneath heavy feet, closer this time.
Blessed gods, I didn’t lure a cougar, did I? Or a disgruntled moose? He slowly turned around. The brown leaves that clung to the hardwoods fluttered, creating a gorgeous interplay of light and shadow. Maybe it’s just a deer, or…
A new sound reached his ears, low, rhythmic, like the panting of an animal, rushing toward him.
The hair on Sparrow’s neck prickled. He backed away.
The breathing seemed to come from everywhere at once, as though it lived in Wind Mother’s heart.
His gaze darted from one shadow to the next. “There’s nothing there!” he roughly told himself. “Nothing. Look around! You’re just—”
Branches exploded over his head. Sparrow hit the ground on his belly, crawling for cover. When he’d made it into a shelter of tangled limbs, he looked up.
Near the pointed top of the pine, a squirrel sat, working its jaws. Bits of debris floated down. Sparrow struggled to see what the little animal was eating, then a pinecone fell, producing a breathy sound as it tumbled through the air, and cracks when it struck lower limbs.
The forest had gone quiet, the sunlight almost too brilliant to bear. Sparrow wanted to laugh. He rolled to his back, and took a few moments to satisfy his starving lungs. “Blessed gods,” he cried, “I can be such a fool.”
From the air around him, an eerie childish voice whispered, “Yes, you can.”
Sparrow’s blood turned to ice.
Copyright © 1998 by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear