“Help me!” he shouted, but the forest stole his voice.
“I thought you were the one,” she said.
“I thought there was love!”
“I don’t belong here in this place; I can touch the wild but—”
“I showed you things,” Lesya said, and her voice grew gentle again. She came closer, walking in that way that had always enraptured him, hair flowing, head tilted slightly to one side. “I gave you a part of myself, a gift of magic I will never be able to regain. I showed you things I’ve never shown anyone else before.”
“I know who else you’re talking about,” Jack said. And he wished he hadn’t.
“Leshii!” Lesya growled, and the trees around them shivered, the ground shook, and the air itself seemed to draw away in fear.
Jack gasped, struggling to draw a breath as she approached him. Her hands were clawed before her, and the usual pinkness beneath her nails had turned a pale green.
He closed his eyes, saw Eliza and Shepard again, and his mother, and he knew that if he died, she would try to talk to him through one of her terrible séances. And confused by panic and terror—both emotions heightened to a point Jack believed no man should be able to bear—the fear hung heavy with him that his mother would succeed.
And then a roar, and a sound like the earth breaking, and it was Lesya’s startled cry that made him open his eyes again.
At first he could not understand what he was seeing. There was a blur of motion, shapes darting this way and that, and the first thing he sought was Lesya. She was not where she had been standing, so he looked left and right, following the other flashes of greenish motion.
Lesya was being driven back. Trees sprouted, fell, and died in seconds, as if he were seeing their whole immense life spans speeded up to an unimaginable degree. And with each new growth between him and Lesya, she was pushed back farther.
“Father!” she shouted, and then she started screaming in an old, forgotten language that Jack had never heard before. And though the words made no sense, the way they were delivered was familiar to him—she was pleading and threatening, pleading and threatening, following that pattern over and over as Leshii pushed her away.
A man emerged from behind Jack and knelt by his side. He was impossibly tall and thin; he had living, waving grass as a beard; and his thick vine hair hung down almost to the ground. The skin of his hands was worn bark. He was the forest come to life.
“You saw,” he said, reaching for the creepers around Jack’s legs.
“Leshii,” Jack breathed, almost breathless.
“Leave,” the man said. The creepers disintegrated beneath his touch.
“What about Lesya?”
The Lord of the Forest blinked, and in that expression Jack saw how much it pained him to appear like this. “Leave,” he said again. Jack nodded his thanks and left.
Once again as he ran, chaos erupted. He kept his eyes on the ground before him and resisted the temptation to let his senses wander, because he needed all his wits now. The fight continued behind him, but it never sounded any farther away.
He could have been running for minutes, or maybe an hour, but every second of that flight through the forest was haunting and unreal. All the animals had fled way ahead of him now, so the only sounds were his footfalls through the mulch and mud of last year’s leaves, and the crushing, thumping, cracking sounds pursuing him. He listened carefully, waiting to see if they came any closer….
And without warning, the forest ended, and he stumbled out onto a grassy slope heading up toward a low hillside.
Jack gasped in surprise. “I thought I was in there forever,” he whispered. Behind him, the sounds of pursuit quietened, and all was silent. Is she gone? Now that I’m out, has she accepted my escape and gone back to that lonely cabin?
He turned, looking back at the dark forest that seemed to halt so suddenly. And then Lesya appeared before him, manifesting from the trees and shaking a few errant leaves from her hair.
“I’m truly sorry,” he said.
She laughed. She stepped out from beneath the trees and onto the grassland, her smell preceding her, befuddling Jack’s senses. And then she shrugged herself down into a cougar and pounced.
Something flowed past him and struck the leaping cat. Other shapes streaked in from left and right, and Jack thought, Wolves! They growled and grunted, flitting back and forth, and then he realized what they were doing—herding Lesya, in her cougar form, back toward the forest. She lashed out at one, dragging it down, disemboweling it with one snap of her jaws and jerk of her head.
His wolf was there then, nuzzling at his hand and trying to pull him away.
“I don’t know how much more I can take,” Jack said, and the animal pulled until he turned around and started walking again.
It left him to join the fray. Jack watched for a moment, seeing Lesya shimmer briefly back into her human form, her expression one of complete surprise as she stared at his wolfen guide and protector. The last time he saw her was when she flexed back into a cougar again, and her grin changed to a roar as she entered into battle once more.
Jack ran and ran. He had no idea where he was finding the energy, but he did not question it. He aimed south and west, not really knowing whether that was the right way to go, but every step in that direction took him closer to home. The more he ran, the more important that seemed to him.
He felt that perhaps he had betrayed home with his weeks in the cabin with Lesya. Already that time was starting to feel like a dream, but he had the cuts and bruises to prove otherwise. The landscape around him was familiar in its ruggedness, and yet none of it seemed touched, or corrupted, by Lesya’s influence. It was only now that he was away from her forest that he realized her hold on it had been almost visible. It was not anything so obvious as a color, or a sheen, or the way the shadows fell, but he relished the fact that he was in the true, untouched wild once again. There was more than enough magic in nature for him.
Eventually he could run no more. Halfway across a wide plain he sat in the long grass far away from any trees, then fell onto his back. Looking up at the sky, he tried to project himself as Lesya had shown him, probing outward with his senses, seeking his wolf. He expected it not to work—perhaps it had been her influence all along—but then he heard a growl, smelled matted pelt, and felt the heat of blood on his stomach and legs.
“No,” Jack whispered. He sat up and looked north, back the way he had come. No.
He had never believed that the creature following and protecting him would be susceptible to injury. But injured it was, and he could feel the haze of its pain with every beat of his own heart. Perhaps it took an unnatural thing like Lesya to hurt something made of smoke.
The temptation to turn back was immense, but that would serve no good. However badly injured, the wolf had fought for him. He could not pay it back by throwing away his freedom.
Exhausted, cold, hungry, aching from his wounds, and feeling worse than he had just after the Wendigo attack several weeks before, Jack headed into the wilderness once again.
A RETURN TO THE SCENE
MEN AND WOMEN by the thousands had been lured north by the promise of gold, but the potential for sudden and extraordinary wealth had been only one factor in Jack’s decision to journey to the Yukon. He craved adventure, and it sang a song he knew he would never be able to resist. Yet what truly fired Jack London’s imagination was the test. He had perceived his journey as a great challenge, and yearned to pit himself against this harsh, forbidding land. He had come north with every intention of mastering the wild.
Now a question plagued his every step: Did merely surviving make him the master of the wilderness? His journey from Dyea to Dawson had been a triumph of will, with the threat of death lurking around every corner, but now he looked back upon those months of hardship and hunger with fond longing. From the moment of his arrival in Dawson City, when he’d run afoul of the men who would enslave him and his friends, he had begun to learn more about the wild than the frozen winter on the Yukon River had ever taught him.
Gold prospectors died in the wilderness by the dozens, never to be heard of again. The Wendigo had slaughtered slaver and slave alike in William’s camp by the river. More than a dozen men had been seduced into the intimacy of Lesya’s private forest and now endured a living hell among the trees. Yet Jack London had survived them all.
And he wondered why.
His route was mostly forested, with a few stretches of undulating grass plain here and there. When he reached a deep ravine cut through the forest by a roaring stream, he started the descent without hesitation. The walls were uneven, treacherous, and overgrown with brambles and other trailing plants, yet Jack climbed down with a confidence he had rarely felt before in such a situation. At one point the wall of foliage to his left erupted as a goshawk burst out, fanning him with its wings as it took flight, majestic and wondrous. He paused only for a moment; if it had so chosen, the bird could have tumbled him from this low cliff.
At the bottom, wading across the foaming stream, he felt himself being watched. It was a gaze he had not felt before, and he turned slowly to see who or what had him in its regard this time.
It was a black bear. Thirty feet away up the stream, front paws parting the water, it stared at him, motionless and calm. The only movements he saw were its nostrils flexing and contracting as it took his measure.
Lesya! he thought, but only for a moment. This was not her; he was way beyond her influence now. He tried to prepare himself, readying to give himself a bear’s voice, a bear’s mind, and he shivered at the task. But then the bear turned and walked away along the ravine, and Jack watched until it disappeared around a fold of protruding cliff.
As he moved on and started climbing the opposite wall—handholds found his hands, firm rock carried him upward—he found himself feeling lonely. It was not the company of men he wished for, nor even after Lesya the company of a woman. But the thing that had been with him for so long on his journey…that shade, that protector…Jack London missed his wolf.
All of his life, he had rejected his mother’s spiritualism. To believe, even for a moment, that she could communicate with the dead would have crippled him with terror. Had he believed in her antics as a boy, considered her anything but a charlatan, he would have been haunted every waking moment.
Yet now he knew magic to be real, knew there were spirits in the ether, and not all of them were human. He knew that a curse could create a monster and damn a man to unthinkable suffering, for such had been the fate of the Wendigo. And he finally believed that his mother could talk to the dead.
Jack’s spirit guide had been his companion and protector since he had set foot upon the Chilkoot Trail. Now he worried for the wolf. In helping him escape Lesya, it had been wounded. How that was possible he did not know, but he had felt it happen, and he worried about what that might mean, and whether it would ever appear to him again.
And what of the wolf? What was it, truly? Did it originate within him, or without? Either way, perhaps it explained the wanderlust inside him. Perhaps he would always be lured into the wild places of the world.
He had eluded the Wendigo and learned to speak in the voices of animals. He had loved a madwoman who was half myth and had taken some of her magic into himself—some of the secret language of the wilderness. His travels had changed him, so a part of him now would always be wild. But if he had been so fundamentally altered, did his survival mean that he had mastered the wild? Or had it mastered him?
Jack wasn’t sure it mattered anymore.
Guilt drove him on. Lesya had entranced him, and Jack had allowed many weeks to pass by. With the fate of his mother’s home hanging in the balance, and with his family likely agonizing over what had happened to him, he had walked hand in hand through the forest and eaten the fruits of the wood witch’s secret garden.
Now he marched east, guided by the sun, determined not to let anything stand in his way. The night of the Wendigo’s attack, he had fled west from the camp by the river, but he had collapsed and fallen unconscious in a gully, only to come around some time and distance later, with no way of knowing how far Lesya had carried him.
It can’t have been that far, he thought as he hiked across rugged terrain. The Wendigo tracked me there.
In truth, he had no idea what either Lesya or the Wendigo might be capable of. The wood witch might have whisked him a hundred miles, and the monster still caught up, but Jack had to rely upon his instincts now. And his instincts told him that Lesya’s forest had not been that far from where he had fallen, otherwise she would never have found him.
At last Jack came to a place he thought he recognized: surely this was the gully he’d fallen into while fleeing the Wendigo. After descending into and climbing from the gully, he fell into a steady rhythm. The forest was thicker here, the hills shorter but more rugged, and he had to concentrate to make his way safely and without going off course. He saw many animals, all of them watching him pass. Most of them should not even have been seen—even in this wilderness, the wildlife was learning to be wary of man.
After several hours he gauged he had walked eight miles or more. As tired as he was, Lesya had fed him well in the previous weeks, and now his body tapped into the reserve of strength that nourishment had provided. Gone were the symptoms of scurvy and starvation, and yet somehow he had still been whittled down to the hardened core of himself, the niceties of home stripped away.
Late in the afternoon, he saw the silver ripple of a river through the trees far ahead and redoubled his efforts. When at last he reached the riverbank, he knelt to quench his thirst. Jack splashed water on his face, and with the scraggle of whiskers he had accumulated, it felt like the face of a stranger.
It was his first real pause since fleeing Lesya, and it was only now he realized that he had left without supplies. He had no food, no weapon with which to hunt, not even a flint to start a fire. Jack had his boots and the clothes on his back, but no jacket to throw over himself when the night turned cold. And yet he knew if he needed to catch a rabbit, he would find a way. If he closed his eyes a moment, he could feel rabbits close by, and other animals as well, and he felt confident he could lure dinner if it came to that.