I should have seen Bren for what he was right away.
I watched the red-gold glint rise over the crest of Lenape Mountain - a tiny point of flame growing larger against the snowline - and at first thought it was the sun. But I knew I was facing west. I was good with direction.
I squinted as the spark morphed into a figure, still on fire and moving fast down the slope. As it got closer, I heard the hard scrawl of a board against the untouched groom, registered the yellow jacket of a resort employee, saw the broad, relaxed shoulders and sleepy stance of a male rider, copper hair flying as he carved a fast, tight scallop into the snow. The sun was just now turning the sky to ash, paling the moon, extinguishing the stars. But it had not quite risen, except to light the rider.
He hit a swell about two-thirds of the way down and I heard his board spring off the snow as he coasted into the air. He seemed to hang there, his gloved hand gripping the board between his feet, his hair streaming out against the hill, and I had just enough time to wonder how a person could fall asleep in the sky like that before he stomped down and took what was left of his run at such high speed that I couldn’t make out another detail until he plowed the back edge of his board into the snow.
He rocked back and forth a little to plant himself, then put his hands on his hips, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes. After a minute, he dropped his head and spit.
“Ech.” I said. He glanced up. I stiffened. He was far enough away so I could pretend I was staring straight ahead and see him from the corner of my eye. He didn’t move, just stood there with his fists pressed into his hips and stared. I noticed now that his hair was shorter than I thought, and darker. It swung across his face in razor wedges and was the deep, rusty bark of a cinnamon stick.
Stop looking at me, I thought, and closed my eyes, the way little kids do thinking it’s going to make them invisible. But when I opened them, he was still staring, so I huffed out an annoyed white cloud, took too big a gulp of my coffee, and burned the roof of my mouth. When I parted my lips to suck in some cooling air, I choked instead and felt a dribble down my chin. I had to lean over the deck railing to spit out the rest. I wiped my mouth with my sleeve and watched the coffee melt little grooves into the ice below.
I heard him chuckle, the sound deep and sarcastic enough to make me want to throw my full cup at him, but by the time I mustered the courage to raise my head, he had already stepped out of his board and was carrying it away. Laughing.
I stormed back across the deck in a ridiculous lurch, my stomps jerky and small to avoid slippage, one hand fisted and pumping, the other gingerly balancing my coffee, my jaw half open to cool my burnt mouth. Sydney, the night manager, was bent and gathering her things behind the desk when I stumbled in, a spill of red ringlets tumbling down her narrow back the only glimpse I got of her as I bristled past.
My mother was in the shower when I returned to our room. I opened the bathroom door and called to her through the steam.
“You’re going to be late. Sydney’s already packing up.”
“Thanks. Be right out.” Her voice was different lately. Sing-songy, as if her wedding ring had been strangling her vocal cords.
In reality, it didn’t matter if she was late. Since we lived in the hotel she was never really off-duty, but I wanted her to come out and get ready, drink her coffee, distract me from my humiliation. Moving over Christmas break meant I would have nothing to do until I started school, so I found myself following her around, helping her with paperwork, taking her calls. She didn’t seem to mind, liked to keep me close to her lately, but I was annoyed with my own neediness.
I sat on the counter and watched her stroll back and forth between her bedroom and our little kitchenette. She had traded her track clothes and sneakers for suits and heels and was growing her hair out, but she still moved and chatted like a soccer mom. Ironic, since the last time I played soccer was the sixth grade. By the time I hit high school, I think they were actually considering euthanizing me for my lack of athletic ability.
I wasn’t as talkative as I’d anticipated, so I didn’t go downstairs with her when she left. Instead, I poured another cup of coffee and stared out our picture window overlooking the mountain, the snow now a harsh dazzle of jewels. But there were no more traces of red.
On my third solo search of the mountain, I found him.
The hail had turned the whole world silver, and the raceway had been closed for a week because of the freeze. I skidded down on the back edge of my board and shimmied over to where he sat on a rock amidst a white stand of trees. In his black leather jacket, Loki looked like a crack in a sheet of ice. He didn't glance up as I approached, and it gave me the chance to really look at him. I let my eyes linger on his hair - a little longer now - hanging in his eyes, pushed behind one ear, jagging over the collar of his jacket. His face was scruffed with shimmering, honey blond stubble, his shoulders and chest more muscular than I remembered. Bren told me once that the way they felt, the way they saw themselves, determined their forms.
I took a few steps forward and stood in his peripheral vision, watched him stare at the snow. After a while, his hand found its way into Fen's ruff. Fen dropped his muzzle onto Loki's boots - black combats that could never have clicked into skis - and closed his eyes.
"You're here." I said.
He took a long drag on the cigarette trapped between his thumb and forefinger, blew the smoke upward, and watched as it thinned out into the canopy.
"Are there cigarettes in Asgard?"
He laughed out another puff of smoke. "What do you think?"
"They're not good for you."
He let his eyes slide toward me without turning his head. A smirk curled the corners of his mouth. "Am I unaware of some cancer that plagues immortals?"
Stupid. "It's bad for the people around you."
"So am I," he said. But he crushed out the cigarette on a rock near his feet, held it up to me, and slipped it into his pocket. "Gods you're high maintenance."
I moved to fold my arms across my chest, realized it would look pouty, and dropped them. There was no getting around this. I couldn’t leave with nothing but small talk.
"Are they looking for you?"
He eyed me sideways again.
"The…elders. Do they know you're here?"
"Of course they do."
I needed more than this.
"The battle can't happen without me." He said.
"It can’t happen without Frey either. But they haven't stormed the mountain."
"It's different now."
I watched him stroke the fur on Fen's neck. Something about these last words made me want to change course.
"We've been looking for you. We've been to your condo, to Ringsaker. Everywhere."
"Did you bring torches and pitchforks?"
Fen sighed. It was a snorty growl that made him sound like an ordinary dog.
"It wasn't like that." I said.
"Really?" He turned on me. "Is that what he told you? That he was just going to see if I wanted to take a ride? Grab a latte?"
"Stop talking to me like I'm an idiot." This time I did fold my arms. I started to pace and looked up past the frozen canopy for some direction. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet.
"You’re a teenaged girl with a hyper-crush on a god you know next to nothing about. You’re not just an idiot. You’re dangerous."
I marched toward him, my boots crunching on the snow, and looked down into his face. He ignored me. I was still afraid, standing this close to him. It was a trace of the fear I had felt the first night I met him, when I looked into his churning eyes and saw what I still thought of as Hell. My anger backed off and let a little common sense through.
"I'm not a threat to you." I said.
He looked up at me. His eyes were green and gold now, but darker than mine. "I said you were dangerous, and you are. This thing with him…Bren," he waved a patronizing hand at the name, "you have no idea what you’re doing. If you were smart you'd walk away." He looked back into the trees lining the run. "You can start now."
I opened my mouth. Closed it. Maybe I really was an idiot, to think that he and I were beyond this. His scatting of me like I was some cat at his screen door.
"Well if I feed you," he said, "you'll never leave."
I hated him watching my thoughts, but it wasn't a fight I could win.
"I need to know what's going on. In Asgard. Bren doesn’t want anyone to tap in. He thinks it might provoke the elders. And he's afraid for his mother."
Loki laughed. "And you're sure I have? Tapped in?"
"He said you'd want to know where you stand."
"And if Bren says it, it must be true."
"Is it? Do you know what's happening there? Are they planning something?"
"What do you think?"
"Why do you keep asking me that?" Anger rose in me again, tightening my chest. "How the hell am I supposed to know? I'm not an Asgardian. I don't know anything about any of this."
He stood, slowly, and stepped toward me. When he was too close, he peered down into my face. My heart hammered so fast I couldn't have counted the beats. It took everything I had to hold his gaze.
"Know then thyself, presume not god to scan."
"Alexander Pope." He said.
"Why do you quote humans if you think we're all stupid? There are no poets in Asgard?"
"Stupid is as stupid does." When I didn’t answer, he said, "Forest Gump."
After a moment, he turned and started toward the trees. Fen followed. With every step he took my desperation thickened, became sticky in my mouth, weakened my legs. I watched the line of his footprints growing longer in the snow, and finally blurted the last thought that came to me.
"It was his mother."
He stopped mid-stride, Fen pulling up beside him. His back rose and fell a few times with his breath and then he half turned, glanced over his shoulder and raised a brow.
"It was his mother. Forest Gump's mother said 'stupid is as stupid does.' He was quoting her."
The moment froze, the hail the only evidence that clocks, everywhere, were still ticking, and then he spun and strode toward me. Again, too close, his eyes heavy on mine.
"The elders will come," he said. "They will do whatever they have to do. Hunt us all down. They will never let this stand." He paused, and then went on. "Sif was detained as soon as Thor was caught plotting to lure your friends across the bridge, but he confessed to everything and convinced them that Sif was innocent of any knowledge of it. She has been released, but they are watching her closely. And they will not hesitate to use her to get to the others." Another pause. "Like I used you."
These last words were a stab. The hail pummeled my head and shoulders, growing heavier by the second. I had practically begged him to stay, risked everything for him that day on Bifrost. Now, I couldn’t remember why.
"Go away, Jenna." He said.
My focus returned, but he was already disappearing through the evergreens. The last thing I saw was the gray flick of Fen's tail as they vanished into the shadows.
I slipped the chain off my neck and pressed the ring into my palm, panting back the agony long enough to create an image in my mind. I held the thought for a few seconds, feeling the ring heat in my hand, then released my breath and let the necklace drop. The swelling was growing worse, the pain pulsing red lightning through my body, but not even a minute passed before Loki slid through a stand of trees and pulled up beside me, spraying a sheet of snow across my legs.
"What the hell is this?" He said.
I hadn’t seen him since the night Bren left, except as part of our little vision circles. I didn’t know which one of us was avoiding the other, but I wasn't surprised to be greeted this way now.
"I screwed up." I said, my voice strained. "I can’t call them. They won’t let me come out here alone again."
"Why not?" He asked with mock wonder.
I gave him a hard look. "Can you save your sarcasm for base? Please." This last word cracked in my throat.
He stepped out of his skis, hunkered down and reached toward me. I winced and he drew back, then laid his hand on my boot, his face still. After a long pause, he said, "there's a small hairline fracture."
"It's broken?" Panic hit me fast. It was almost a relief from the throbbing.
"They'll probably treat it like a sprain. It will be fine in a few weeks."
"No," I said, sounding like a cranky kid. "My mother can’t know I've hurt myself up here."
"So tell her you did it on the way back from Frieda's."
"She won’t believe it. And neither will a doctor." I felt angry tears well in my eyes and didn’t care.
He watched me, motionless, for a long time. Then he stood up and began to pace. His jeans and jacket were blacker than the night, turning him to a sharp shadow in motion. When he scrubbed his hand through his hair, it occurred to me that he was struggling.
"You know a way out of this?" I asked him. He ignored me, his hand still buried in his pale locks.
"Loki…I'm hurting here."
"I don’t know." He shook his head at the snow.
"What?" My glassy tone caused him to glance up. He walked back and hunkered down beside me again.
"I don't know," he whispered, staring at my ankle. I let him consider. Whatever it was, I knew pushing him would provoke an argument, and I didn’t have the pain threshold for that. Finally, he raised his eyes to mine.
"I may be able to fix it."
"Healing is a Jotun thing. But some have more skill with it than others. I've only done it once before."
Hope welled inside me. "Do it."
"It's not as simple as that. Even if I pull it off, there could be side effects."
"Like what?" I didn’t really care. I wanted both the pain and my predicament gone.
"They're different for everybody. One Viking could hear his healer's voice from worlds away. I don't know how long it lasted. And there was a warrior some Jotun probably had money on who picked up the power of sight when he was healed. He saw remote events in his head, but he couldn’t control it. It drove him mad."
I barely registered these things, the pain making everything else in creation trivial. "I don’t care. I'll risk it."
Loki shook his head again, still deliberating.
"Just do it." It was as loud and harsh as I had ever been with him, but he looked at me with perfect stillness.
"You don’t understand how much pain and trouble I'm in." I shouted.
He held my gaze for a moment, then raised a brow. The things he had been through in Asgard were unspeakable.
"I'm sorry, I'm just…"
He grasped my shoulders and peered into my face. His eyes swirled like lazy pools on the edge of a stream, but held their hue. At once I began to feel calmer, more focused. The pain was still there, but I was hovering above it. My breathing slowed.
I heard him tell me to keep still. I felt the pressure of his hands against my ankle…felt heat radiate up my legs and spread through the rest of my body…felt thousands of tiny shocks spark through my bones. His eyes never left mine. I don’t know how long the moment lasted, but I knew when it was done. The electricity, the warmth, even the intensity in his eyes drew back, and the pain was gone.
He let go of me, hooked my necklace out of the snow with two fingers, and held it in front of my face. I bowed my head and let him slip it around my neck.
"Thank you." I said. Now that I was healed, I noticed the strangeness of being alone with him. As his ghostly stare unsettled me, the memory of the first night I met him crept into my head.
"Where's Fen?" I asked.
"Snoring in my living room with his paws in the air." He said. Then, "I'll ride with you to base. Lest you hurl yourself into a tree or brook."
I hissed as I grabbed for my board. He rose, snapped into his skis, and waited for me.
Riding behind Loki was easy. His turns were quick and sharp, and he loved to kick up glittering curls of spray that served to mark my way. No matter how many times I had to slow to navigate a sudden steep or a patch of rough terrain, he remained close, as though we were connected by a rope that may slacken, but never snap.
We reached base and rode our momentum to the hotel. I glanced at him as I freed myself from my board and slid it into the rack.
"What I said up there, about you not understanding…"
He kicked off his skis and grabbed them up, then turned to me.
"I didn’t mean it." I said.
He stared. It was stupid to think he might let me off easy.
"So…" I trailed off.
"No." He said. "You’re right. I mean, I've never sprained my ankle. It must have been horrible for you."
I waited for the flicker of humor in his face, and then rolled my eyes. "You said it was a fracture."
"Still a break."
"It would've healed on its own."
"I would've been limping for weeks. What would have been the point of that?"
He held my gaze for a long time. Green had streaked into the blue in his eyes and at just that moment, flecks of gold began to glint through.
"That's a good question." He said.
As I watched him turn and walk back toward the condos, I thought about those last words. They were more than he had ever given me.
I heard my own scream, sat bolt upright in the darkness and whipped my head around, the shadows of my bedroom slowly taking form in the gloom. A bead of sweat trickled down my beating temple and I swiped at it, panting. I shook my head against the last shreds of images falling away in my mind…an inferno blazing in the trees…Fen's teeth ripping into flesh…the slice of a blade drawing a current of blood down Gerd's shirt, the white lace brightening to red.
In the next moment Bren was there. He gripped my arms and searched my face, then pulled me into him. I closed my eyes against his chest, waited for his heartbeat to break through the ringing in my ears. I knew my mother had heard me, knew Bren had pushed her gently back into sleep. The past few weeks had been filled with nights like this. Once the shock of what happened in Asgard had worn off, the horror had set in and taken hold, weaving itself into the minutes and hours of my days until nothing I saw or did or dreamed was separate from it.
It took a long time for my pulse to fall in with Bren's. When it did, my lids grew heavy, rose and fell as I absorbed his quiet warmth, and finally closed. I felt him ease me back onto my pillow, felt him settle in beside me, felt his arms close around me and bury me in darkness.
He was always gone the next morning, but the bed was always still warm where he had been. I knew he waited until my mother turned off the water in her shower before he snuck out, because my first moments were filled with the sounds of the hairdryer and the scent of jasmine soap. But the loneliness that usually settled around me was lifted today on the breath of a new thought. It was Saturday. The last one before finals and the summer beyond. And Bren and I were going hiking.
The first blow fell at two thirty on a thick August afternoon. It pierced the world with a violent crack and sent a mighty current of thunder rumbling through the ground beneath me. I didn’t stumble. I guess I'd been waiting for it.
I was fishing a small kid out of the water at the bottom of the slide I was working, and felt his arm slacken in my grip. I looked down, saw his pale, freckled face go blank and his gaze lose focus. He calmly straightened up, and as soon as I let him go he waded out of the pool and began to meander around with the other dumbstruck guests.
A second kid - an older girl - shot out of the slide and plowed into my legs, catching me off guard. I staggered, righted myself, and quickly helped her to her feet, but she, too, was slow and blank-faced as she made her way out. I scanned the park, taking in the slackened jaws, the dead eyes, the aimless movements of new zombies ambling beneath the beating sun. Their consciousness had been cut...that meant something worse was com -
- waves began to rush around my thighs and before I could take a step, a tempest of water wrapped around me, churning up over my head until I was deaf and blind. I gasped, my lungs bucking, the pressure tearing at me as if I were caught in the undertow of a rogue wave, and then I was quickly released, first my legs, then my torso and arms, and finally my head as the cyclone spun up into the sky above me. I lurched forward, braced my hands on my knees, coughed out in a gush and heaved in a few shaky breaths. Then I wiped at my eyes and blinked around at the forest of cyclones wavering in the air above the pools, the slides, the rapids and the tubing river, the streams on the mountain and the pond beyond the lodge. They began to strain toward each other, spinning and elongating until their tops finally joined at a central point, forming a liquid star, the arms stretching out over the park in every direction. It hovered there for a moment, and then the star itself began to spin, picking up speed, the sound like crashing surf, the air kicking up around me and whipping wet strands of hair back from my face. It became a massive, blurry disk, cracking and snapping as it spun, and as I watched the edges sharpen and grow transparent, I realized it was freezing. The rotation began to slow and the star tilted, descended, hit the ground at the foot of Lenape Mountain on its edge and became a wheel, bouncing a few times as it picked up momentum and cut up through the trees with purpose, mowing a dark, straight line toward the crest. A moment later, I jerked bolt upright at the sound of an earsplitting crash. The giant blade had found its target. A geyser of ice exploded out of the woods near the summit, spreading into the sky. Hail showered the park. I shivered as tiny, cold shards collected in my hair and across my bare shoulders.
I'd been sure Bren would draw first blood…but it was Loki.
The rattle of cicadas is the symphonic pulse of high summer, but to me, it was an incantation. The conjuring of fall. Behold, they sang, the sun god is dying, but he will sleep in the soil and return stronger and more powerful. The leaves will weep and fall on his grave, the trees will drop their fruit on his altar, the ground will chill to preserve his flesh and the skies will weave a downy blanket to protect him until the gentle call of the goddess opens his eyes again. He will rise in flames at her summons, and the world will ignite once more.
I understood why paganism frightened so many. When gods dwelt in the very fabric of the earth, it was easy to get singed by their fire.
The strains of Loki's Gibson wound through the open windows of the suite as I filled my small backpack. He played on the lodge deck sometimes while the guests sipped their drinks and tried to tear their eyes away from him once in a while to gaze out over the early autumn sparks on the hill. I paused for a moment with my water bottle in my hand to identify the tune. It was #1 Crush by Garbage. Impossible. Where in the hell did he find that? I'd thought I was the only one in the world who knew that song, the only one who loved it, and now I was hearing it barestrung, as if he'd taken possession of it and stripped off the varnish to let the rich, dark grain breathe.
I dropped the bottle into my pack and went to my bedroom to get Sif's compact from my night table. I'd developed a habit of taking it with me whenever I left the immediate vicinity of the hotel, even if it was just to hike up the hill to meet Bren after a shift. Once the water park had closed, my mother and I agreed that I shouldn't take another job until I settled into school, picked a college, generally got my life in order, but Bren and the others had immediately rolled their positions into the resort's fall activities. It was harder for Mr. Neil to get employees once the schools opened, and they had been picking up a lot of the slack.
I listened for another moment as I zipped the compact into a tiny outer pocket of my pack, then went into the kitchen to grab a bag of chips from the cabinet. I deliberated between barbeque, my favorite, and salt and vinegar, Bren's, and ended up taking pretzels. I slung the pack over one shoulder, screwed my feet into my hikers by the door, and headed out.
The day was bright and the sky was the kind of deep blue that was less a color and more a cool, boundless breath. I let it pull me in, but couldn’t help myself in the end, stopped at the top of the deck stairs and looked toward the lodge. He was perched on the stool they always left there for him, his back to the mountain, his attention on the strings. No cigarette. September was more of a sweet, couples time at Yew Dales, the women subtler in their fascination, the men a little better at projecting casual security. But all that polite restraint was wasted on Loki, burned up before it reached him like a dry leaf falling on a campfire.
He lifted his eyes to me as I started down the stairs and I stopped again, mid descent, my hand feeling for the rail and grabbing on, an involuntary reflex meant, I supposed, to maintain my orientation. As soon as our gazes connected, every head turned in my direction and I hurried on, just catching his grin before I turned away. I hated when he did that, for more reasons than I could put into words. As I trudged across the grass and up the main run, keeping to the craggy tree line along the edge, I heard him drag the last notes of Crush into the first of Don’t Fear the Reaper. Slow, painfully slow, but unmistakable.
"Jeeze," I huffed. When Pete, our bar manager, had suggested he play some seasonal stuff, I doubted this was what he'd had in mind.
I tried not to make eye contact with the people whizzing by overhead on the zipline as I hiked, eventually veering into the woods to avoid them altogether. They liked to wave and shout ecstatic greetings, and sometimes I played along, but today I just wanted to get to the top and meet Bren at the booth, pull him away from all this buzz and drop over the far side of the mountain to our ledge, where his motionless silence seemed more natural. We'd all learned to live with his frequent retreats, his turning inward, his focus on something none of us could see and his utter stonewalling of any question or concern, but tolerance was not the same as adjustment, and the eerie tension often caused us to bristle. For the others, this meant a chance to scatter, shake off and carry on, but I found I couldn’t leave his side, held on ever more tightly, in fact. A castaway clinging to a barrel.
As I crested the last swell, he stepped into my path. I jumped and sucked in a breath.
"Sorry." He gave me a sheepish grin.
"Did you get off early?"
"Right on time." He kissed me, slid the pack from my shoulders and set it down at his feet. Then he peeled off his staff windbreaker and stuffed it inside.
"How was work?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Same. Nice day. Very excited people."
"Yeah, I know I always love a good hurl through the air."
His expression sobered, but he kept the smile. When he started to reach for the backpack, I stopped him, pulled him closer to me. He kissed me again, and then again, until we gave in to each other and forgot everything else. I sank into his warmth, sighed when I felt his hand slide across my back, felt his heart quicken. An elated scream rose to crescendo and faded down the hill. As we drew apart, I entwined my fingers with his.
"I wish you’d just stay with me like this," I said.
"I'm always with you."
"Not like this. Not always."
His eyes flicked to the ground, back up to me. "I'm sorry. I know it’s been strange."
"Why can’t you talk to me about it?"
He shook his head. "There aren’t words. It’s not like that. I just…need to figure things out."
"Maybe I can help you."
"You are helping me." He tugged at my hand. "Come on. Our ledge awaits."
He picked up the backpack and tossed it onto his shoulder.
"I'm not done with this," I said, letting him pull me along.
He laughed. "You wouldn’t be you if you were."
We cleared the woods and crossed the summit, trailing along an overgrown deer path on the far side of the ridge until it dropped onto the rocky plateau we had claimed as our secret spot. We sat on the ledge and looked out over the vast green landscape, splashed here and there with a burst of red or yellow, orange the furious flush of wood coals. Soon, it would go up like a flash, throw off a violent rage of color, and settle into dust and bare bones, leaving the evergreens to witness and wait.
"We'll be riding again before you know it," I said.
Bren's face took on a glow at this. He breathed in, heartily, exhaled on the day.
"You miss it."
He nodded. "But I like your seasons. They happen so fast…they're so distinct. Everything just changes and changes."
"But it’s the same stuff happening over and over again."
"Not really." He gestured vaguely to the valley. "Those trees will all come back bigger and stronger versions of themselves. They'll never be the same."
"But they'll still die. I mean, eventually. So what's the point of it?"
His eyes narrowed as they swept the mountains, blue ghosts in the distance. "That's…that's the question, isn’t it?"
I watched him fall still for a moment as he contemplated, then he turned to me and smiled. "You know, you’re kind of a cynic."
I gave him a wide-eyed look. "A cynic?" I thought about this. About the argument I’d just made for the futility of nature. "I was just, you know, thinking things through."
"Oh. Because it sounded like you were suggesting that death makes everything pointless."
"Depends how you define death."
He had me there. Our concepts of death were as polar as fire and ice, and yet each was so incomplete, so inexplicable, that they might as well have been conceived out of the same ether.
"No one's ever called me a cynic," I said.
"Maybe you weren't one."
"So you’re saying I've changed."
He turned to me and stared, then he pushed his hand into my hair, pulled me toward him. "Is that bad?"
He kissed me before I could answer.
"You know," I said, my lips moving on his, "you've changed too."
"Good," he said. "That's never happened to me before."
I drew back, searched his face. "You want things to change?"
He sighed. "I want to learn. I want to grow. But this…" he took my hand and pressed it to his heart. "What's in here…what I feel for you is never going to change."
I quieted to take in his steady pulse, closed my eyes. I tried to speak and my throat tightened. I swallowed, tried again. "Then why do I feel like things are slipping away?"
"Because you’re scared they will."
I opened my eyes. "They have before."
He wound his arms around me, eased me against him. "Things in your life took a different route than you expected. But it brought you to where you were supposed to be, didn’t it? Here. With me."
I slid my hands up over his chest, his shoulders, drinking in his strength. The breakup of my family had ripped my life apart, but not once since I’d met Bren had I wished for it to be different. Not once had I felt regret. The pain was real, and it probably always would be, but I would have lived it a thousand times if it was the only road to Yew Dales and all I’d found here.
"I wonder how many cycles it took you all to get here," I said.
I felt him sigh again. "Too many."
We watched the shadows shift and stretch as the sun slid into late afternoon. When the breeze began to chill and the distant voices straggling across the summit faded into silence, we sat in the wistful quiet, neither of us wanting to go. This was our time, when the rest of the world hurried away from the threat of dusk and cold and blindness, a moment ablaze with the fiery death throes of the day. When we finally rose and started down the hill, it was only to walk in the fever light, the leaves falling around us like live embers - red, yellow, orange - and smoldering in our path. The sun burned through the trees, winking around the trunks and throwing fans of candlelight across the forest floor. Squirrels rustled in the beams on their agile hunts while birds swooped above them and settled in the branches. They would doze in the peaceful dark of the woods tonight, trusting that the sun would rise again on the other side of the mountain…that all would be tomorrow as it had been today.
Bren pointed as a doe resting in a nearby knoll popped her head up to regard us. I smiled at her and turned to Bren, stopping in my tracks as I watched his expression fall. He pulled the pack off his shoulder, unzipped the small upper pocket and drew out the compact. It was vibrating. As he dropped the pack and opened the lid, I positioned myself behind him to get a better look. At first the mirror was just silver fog, but then it began to flicker with warm light, the rays illuminating our faces. I jumped as the deer bolted from her nest, her white tail swishing a warning, and caught a spark in my peripheral vision. I jerked my head to watch a leaf kindle and catch fire as it fell to the trail. I grabbed Bren and drew close to him, stepping away from the burning leaf, but another dropped nearby, and then another. All through the trees, the drifting leaves were alight as they rocked their way to the ground.
"What's happening?" I asked.
Bren looked around, his face stern with concentration as he drove the tiny embers away from us in a wide radius. When he returned his attention to the mirror, it began to flash, the light growing hotter and more erratic. I stepped back and shielded my eyes, squinting as the compact sprang from Bren's hand in a burst of radiation. It landed in the middle of the trail, its mirror facing the path ahead. We watched it strobe, the brilliance taking on hues of auburn and crimson and casting an oblong reflection on the rocky earth. Bren stepped forward, his eyes fixed on the shape, seeing what was happening a moment before I did. The oblong glow was changing, drawing into itself, taking on lines and angles.
"What is this?" I whispered. But before he could answer, the reflection cast into our path sharpened into an inscription…an image that looked like the letter H with a skewed middle bar.
It caught fire and began to burn.
I watched Bren's eyes grow fierce, heard the halt of footfalls. A moment later, Loki stepped around me and walked toward the flaming symbol. They stared at it, the two of them, fire dancing in their eyes. Finally, Loki lifted his dark gaze to Bren.
Logan stood with a thumb hooked into a faded denim pocket, squinting against the glare of the Israeli sun. The dust kicked up from the backhoe clung to his clothes and face, settled thickly in his pale hair. He breathed it in and ran his tongue over his sun-swelled lower lip, then raised a newly cracked beer to his mouth, the glass clinking against his teeth. It was cold and cut through the grit. He gulped half the bottle. The backhoe was slow, but bulldozers were clumsy and imprecise. He would wait.
In the late afternoon, as the sun began to sigh, Logan stared around at the layers of soil surrounding the small site. His gaze locked on a patch of earth just ahead of him and his eyes narrowed. He felt the electricity in his scalp. It spread through his body and quickened his heart.
"Gently." He yelled to the backhoe operator. When the man turned, Logan put his hands out in front of him and made soft, pushing motions toward the ground, then pointed to a high spot in front of the machine. The backhoe began to slow in its narrow trench, winding down to a measured creep and scraping kindly at the red clay with its paw. Logan did not feel time as he watched. Did not register the heat drawing sweat from his neck or the quick dampening of his shirt. He didn't move at all until chunks of stone began to fall away from the half-buried wall of earth, all at once collapsing into a pillar at the threshold of a small, dark entranceway. The backhoe stopped, idled in its tracks as the operator looked over his shoulder. Logan made a twisting motion with two fingers as he walked toward the cab. The man cut the motor.
They stared at the entranceway for a few moments, then Logan tipped his warm beer toward the sun, now as blood orange as the freshly turned clay and sinking.
"The Sabbath." The man said. "Have we finished?"
"Yes. Thank you." Logan extended his hand and the man took it. "Go home."
Logan sat with his flashlight at his side until night came down around him. He stared at the black void of open doorway. Soon, he would be the only person in the world with the answer to a question two millennia old. He craned his head and gazed into the sky open-mouthed, as he had when he was a kid. The stars were memories, thousands… millions of years in the past, tiny lanterns from every era seeking truth in the vast darkness.
He took the last swig of his last beer and tucked the bottle into his leather pack.
It had all come together. Bits of information scattered like pick up sticks throughout biblical and secular history had been lifted off pages, minutely extracted with steady fingers and laid out in a neat path leading to this doorway. He thought of Lauren, of her sense of every hidden signpost, every false lead, of her determination to get him what he wanted. Even now.
The stars were the only visible objects in the night when he finally stood, pulled on his bomber against the chill and approached the tomb. He ducked through the doorway and stood with the world behind him.
He clicked on his flashlight, a cold slice of history in bone and cloth and stone caught in its bright beam. He breathed in deeply, the taste of truth - as it had been two thousand years ago - on his tongue and in his throat. Cold night air rushed in and he shivered, let his lids slide closed and pushed all thought from his mind. He let the air cling to his skin, let the scent of ancient rock and dried spice fill his head, let time collapse around him. Then he opened his eyes and saw. Here was the cave with its long shadows. Here, the preserved remains.
Here was the answer.