“Move yourself closer to the forge fire if your blood is so thin,” he said. “I’ll not have you dropping good tools like that.”
“Yes, sir,” the cub said dutifully, though she only moved her stool a fraction. The singe marks on her wool coat spoke of the times she’d done that before and gotten too close. Frowning, Stone Path went back to his own work, engraving patterns in the metal of the sword on the table before him. It was tedious work but it consumed him, making sure each glyph and symbol were properly fashioned. This would be a klaive if he had anything to say about it. And as Master of the Rites for this Sept, he certainly did.
The door to the small barn swung open and shut just as quickly, though two people managed to squeeze in before the rush of cold did. They brought not only the draft but a boundless enthusiasm. Stone Path’s expression twisted and he did his best to ignore the newcomers. That proved impossible.
“Evening, Ben!” The broad-shouldered woman in heavy skirts swooshed her way across the hardpack floor, past Stone Path who ignored her, and over to the forge and the cub. “Evening, Rebecca, what is it you’re working on there?”
The cub set down the awl and held up the carving for display on the palms of her hands. A bird, still mostly rough in outline, was starting to take shape. She had begun on the feathers of one wing and what she’d done so far looked enough like feathers that Stone Path didn’t think it would be a complete waste of time.
“It’s for a fetish, Den Parent,” Rebecca said, responding with a smile before glancing back toward Stone Path. “At least I hope it will be worthy of it.”
“I’m sure it will be,” came the reassuring response from the Den Parent.
“Sun’s not set yet, Compass Rose,” Stone Path noted, and he didn’t need to look up from his work to know that the Den Parent was rolling her eyes. He did have to look up as the light from the lantern was blotted out by the second visitor.
“And what are you working on, Uncle?” The thin, scruffy young man was entirely too cheerful and Stone Path sat up and scowled at him.
“Nothing, now that I can’t see it. Don’t you have somewhere to be, Hellion? Some other sept member to prank or jest upon?”
“Not at the moment.” He looked over the blade and gave a soft sigh. “It is such fine work, Uncle.” Seeing that his praise earned him no softening, the Fool flashed a grin. “Come on, there’s a fine soup on in the Waystation and we’re talking about what all to do for Solstice tomorrow.”
“Solstice.” If it was possible for Stone Path’s voice to get more flat, he managed. “Do… for Solstice? We work, same as each other day. We battle or we prepare for battle. Same as each other day.”
“I thought we’d bring some of the fabrics from our stores down to the village.” Compass Rose gave Rebecca a wink before moving to stand next to Hellion. Which only blocked more of his lantern light. “It’s been an especially cold winter. Erik says it is because of what happened at Krakatoa. The darkness, and the cold. It will be especially bitter this year.”
“You would take Sept resources to give to the humans?” Stone Path shook his head.
“Yes,” the Den Parent said gently. “And I was hoping you had some coal you’d be willing to part with.” She and Hellion both started at the sharp laugh.
“I’ve no interest in helping the survival of the humans. If they’ve a wish for coal they can fetch it themselves. Or tear down that ugly mill and use the lumber for firewood. If they don’t survive the winter that is of no consequence to us, and a betterment to Gaia.”
Compass Rose seethed a little at that, but then she would given her Tribe. She spent as much time back and forth on the rail lines as she did teaching Rebecca.
“At least come to the Solstice feast.” Hellion tried to save the conversation. “We’ve got all the kinfolk coming and there will be games of skill and cunning.”
“Games of skill? And the kinfolk?” Stone Path brightened a little, and Hellion gestured broadly.
“Yes, and music I’m sure.”
Standing, Stone Path moved the lantern on its hanger to be over his work, and said quite firmly. “I would sooner dine in Malfeas than put up with your useless diversions. Now, since you’ve managed to distract me with this nonsense long enough that it’s sunset, take your cub and get gone.”
Deflated but not looking too surprised about it, Hellion headed back for the door. Compass Rose gestured to Rebecca but the cub already had her tools set away and her carving set on its felt.
“One of these days I’ll get you to a feast, Uncle,” Hellion pledged.
“Get gone,” Stone Path replied. And with a rush of chill air they were, leaving him to work another few hours until even his hands grew too stiff to work without making errors. Growling at the inconvenience, he took the lantern down and locked the barn up. The ground was hard and the sky starless. There had been a haze all summer and autumn and it seemed the winter would be no different. Stone Path cared little about the cold. It was always cold in winter and people always complained. They complained about the heat as well. People complained entirely too much for his liking.
Coming to his own cabin was as familiar as breathing. He knew where to step around roots and rocks. He knew to take the secondary path because a bear had settled in a nearby cave and it was best not to disturb them. He knew when his foot would set on the stone step that marked the edge of his front porch. And though he could not see it, he knew where the initials carved into that stone would be. His own, and that of the previous Master of the Rite, dead and gone these seven years.
Perhaps it was thinking of Four Winds that brought the memory to hand, of Stone Path walking through the door and finding his teacher waiting with some new project or information or lesson. So vivid was the memory that it took Stone Path a moment to realize that it was not precisely a memory. As he shut the door to the one room cabin, he stared at the figure pacing slowly along the open area between the fireplace and bed. With a careful motion, Stone Path put the lantern down. He could see Four Winds as if the room were in daylight. Every feature of the old man’s face stood out, though being transparent made him look even more gaunt than he had in life.
The spirit – for what Master of the Rite would not recognize a spirit – stopped and peered at him.
“Finally. Finally. Yes, good.” And he let out a thin laugh that made all the hair stand up on Stone Path’s body. “I am here and you are here.”
“Are you here?” Stone Path took a deep breath and moved to the wood stove, pushing at the banked coals inside until they stirred, adding a precise bit of wood to it to catch. “We did your Gathering. You should be in your homelands or spun back out by now.”
“You doubt your senses?” The spirit seemed put out.
“Senses can be fooled. Fooled… yes I would not put it past Hellion to do some measure of a prank to get back at me.” Stirring the congealed stew in its pot atop the stove, he scoffed. “Childish tricks for a childish mind. Or I am asleep in the forge still. You are not my ancestor, what reason would you have to manifest here?”
Four Winds let out a howl then, of such violence and Rage that the walls shivered and the flames in the wood stove rose up through the seams. The lantern flared, guttered, died. When the howl faded, the fire did as well, leaving Stone Path to stare at the spirit as the only source of light in the place.
“What do you want here?”
Four Winds stood still, eyes wide and focused on Stone Path. But he seemed to have an atmosphere all his own, his long thin hair and clothes moving as if he were in a unsettled wind or floating underwater. When he moved finally, Stone Path could see the wounds under his open shirt. So many more than the man had earned in life. Like battle scars, but open and oozing pale light.
“I come with a warning, Stone Path. That you do not suffer in death the way that I do. You see each injury upon me? I carry one for each life I turned aside from saving.”
“What? How can that be? You saved countless Garou and kinfolk in your time. Our Sept would have been long since dead if not for you.”
“The Garou. The kinfolk. Yes. But those are not the only lives Gaia entrusted us with. Action… inaction…” Four Winds let out another painful howl, though this one only made Stone Path shudder. “I see upon your soul the same wounds. Though for you, Stone Path, there is barely an inch of flesh not rent.”
“I have done nothing but devote my life to this Sept,” Stone Path said quietly, flickers of anger in his voice. “Every waking moment. My every breath. Is that not enough?”
“There is still a chance for you. I can feel the cold coming, dark and heavy. Before that, you will be guided by three other spirits. Listen to them, as I did not. Do not join me in madness.” Another thin laugh that became a howl, and with a shiver of air Four Winds dissipated into motes of light. Whatever strength he had to manifest was gone.
Stone Path stood for a moment, drawing slow deep breaths. “Madness. Madness indeed. I will find your spirit again, Four Winds, and tend to your deranged nature.” Shaking off the unsettled feeling, he relit the wood stove and lantern and went about his evening routine, already considering what might be left to do on the sword waiting in the forge.