The ferrets had been the first to discover the Gift, when they stretched their long bodies to reach the sap off of the trees to mix it with their nimble paws – berries and melted spring water and tiny gruff mutterings. The word of the ferrets’ discovery had sent a ripple across the small-footed tribes of the Murai like a shiver across fur, and over moons and seasons and revolutions nearly all of the inhabitants of Blue Hollow had learned their own clever tricks: chants for abundant berries, conjurings to shield naked and whimpering young from prying noses, strange spells for lighting a nest through the bitter dark of a winter’s night.
The forest became so thick with Gift-conjuring that it hung off of branches next to the vibrant moss. In the autumn, when the air was most alive, it dripped from whiskers and clung to ears like a fine mist of sap. One could always tell that they wandered through the territory of strong conjurers when the underbrush was punctuated by soft, whiskered sneezing during the morning hours, when conjuring was most often done.
It was not yet autumn when Tam woke and felt the air alive with Something else – Something strange and new. He couldn’t feel its edges or smell the shape of it, but it had woken him so suddenly that he had squeaked and rolled off of his sleeping pile, leaving him with an odd crackle in the back of his mind and at the edge of his vision as he stared through the dimness of his nest. Tam pushed himself up from the floor and looked around at the dark hollow. Everything still in its place – the rush-scattered floor clean and undisturbed, the sloping dirt walls and ceiling of his home dark and unmoving.
And yet – he rose to his paws and stretched, eyes still darting from his sleeping nook to the small patch of light of his window-hole to the walnut shell stuffed with ewe’s wool that served as his favorite chair. Nothing, not even a light breeze to stir the loose feathers he used to line his bed. And yet – there had been a Something here. He had felt its presence as surely as if it had crawled into his reed hollow and watched him sleeping.
Tam twitched his nose and shook his head, letting his ears flap against his cheeks gently before scrubbing his face and whiskers vigorously. He was turning senile. Wasn’t this what his mother had warned him about, when he decided to accept the Mark? A mouse can spend too much time in the Between and forget how to come back again. He starts imagining things. Tam knew many of the Way preferred the Between to the waking world, and as they grew older retreated further into the Gift, chasing more secrets, more power. In a way, Tam was grateful he had no choice – that he couldn’t follow them. Even in the days when he was proudest of the sap stain dotted between his ears, the thing that made him nervous was the secrets. And how powerful those secrets had become.
Tam took one final swipe at his whiskers, briefly feeling the bald spot between his ears, and looked down at his paw. In the dim light he almost couldn’t see the long, twisting scar that ran up his right front leg and disappeared underneath his chin.
His nostrils flared and he shook his head again, creeping away from the warm softness of his sleeping nook and shuffling to one of the slits of daylight in the reed walls. It was not quite dawn. He had overslept.
Tam reached down to the top of a shelf under the window slit, not really looking but letting his small-clawed fingers scrabble across the various shells, nut casings, and wood bits until it felt the shape of the acorn shell he was looking for. He gripped it to his chest and began to make his way up the tunnel toward the weak daylight that filtered from the meadow and down through the curving path to the warm earthy smells of his home. His slow, scratching footsteps echoed like moths against the tightly packed earth, fluttering out towards the morning, disappearing to nothing.
Tam paused just shy of the mouth of his tunnel, tense and alert. His ears had just come upright to listen for members of Tuloc’s crowd when he snorted at himself and let his shoulders drop. He had been more rattled by the Something than he had thought – he had nothing to fear from the owls since he had first been Marked.
With an annoyed grumble, Tam heaved himself out of the tunnel and into the dim morning, listening intently. Of course, he didn’t swagger about when the sun was still asleep – most of the Marked were prudent enough not to flaunt their Gift right under the owl’s beaks, but it had been many years since the members of the Murai scuttled away in fear at the ominous sound of their former masters’ voices.
Tam tried to imagine what it must have been like before the Awakening. Before the spread of the Gift. The legends said that when the Awakening began, the owls had objected. It was their right, they insisted, that this Gift be shared with them. They had, after all, lordship over the tribes of the Murai. When the Murai refused, the owls’ insistence had become a demand. But the ruled had learned much more of the Gift than the owls had realized. And the owls could not conjure – their wings and talons left them tremendously inept. The resistance was so fierce that the owls and the Murai finally resolved into an unsteady truce: the small-footed wise enough to keep their arrogance at bay, the owls bitter about their shortcomings.
Still, it was best not to dawdle in half-daylight. Tam gathered some dew into his acorn, sipped from a drop or two himself, then ducked his head into the gathered mist on a large blade of grass and scrubbed his whiskers. He turned to look toward the sky, fur sticking out every which way, and felt a jolt of urgency. If he did not leave soon, he would be late – and that would not do. Not today.
He hurried back down his tunnel and resisted the urge to shiver in the cool morning air. Once back in his nest, Tam set about packing. He filled a skin with his gathered water, and pulled two kernels of corn from his pantry. These had come from an especially sweet ear of corn from the farm across the road. It had taken a whole day to travel there through the Marsh and back, and he had been saving the kernels for a special occasion. He was hoping he might have had a reason to eat them before now, that he could celebrate his return to conjuring, his name cleared. But the proceedings had dragged on for moons. No such special occasion had come.
With a sigh, Tam set the corn and the skin into a woven rush pack and turned to the little table next to his walnut chair. His paw hesitated above his tools – he had been made to promise not to conjure for a full season. Tam stood frozen for a dozen heartbeats, thinking. He turned his head to the side, as if not watching himself would make it less of a violation, and wrapped his tools into their satchel. He tucked this into the rush pack and closed the top flap quickly, before he could change his mind.
The journey to the Meeting Tree took nearly half the day. It might have taken Tam less time if he hadn’t traveled far to the edges of Marsh and skirted around it to edge of the forest, avoiding the grass runs and tunnels of his former tribe. He tramped through old, abandoned runs instead, ducking and hopping his way through collapsed reed walls and overgrown scrub. It was better this way, not to see his siblings, or his ailing mother. His former mate would not be there, of course. She would be at the Meeting Tree to watch the trial, though he had begged her not to come. He couldn’t bear the thought of seeing her disappointed face all over again, a mask of confusion and despair.
It was mid-morning by the time he gained the cool darkness of the edge of the forest. Here, a chill mist had settled on everything from the night before. He could feel the prickly, sticky sensation of the Gift hanging in invisible tendrils, looped around branches and trunks. Tam sniffed at the shapeless form of the conjuring hanging in the air and knew that a tribe of weasels must be nearby. They were the cleverest with traps and mischief, so Tam watched the ground carefully as he stepped. He was concentrating so fiercely that he did not even notice the footsteps behind him until a voice shattered the silence of the early morning.
“Dawn-break to you, Tam!” Though the voice was familiar, Tam jumped anyway. He looked over his shoulder to see a white, sinuous blur bounding up to meet him.
“Pico, you furry log.”
The albino ferret straightened and gave him a toothy grin. “I’ve been waiting for an hour at least – you’re getting old, Tam.”
“And you’re getting hard of hearing,” Tam said. He twitched his whiskers and adjusted the pack over his shoulders. “I distinctly remember not telling you I was coming into the forest today.” He turned away from his friend and started off again, winding through the scrub and clambering over tree roots.
The ferret dropped onto his front paws again and began loping alongside through the sticky underbrush. “It’s not a secret – d’you really think the Council was going to keep something like this quiet?”
Tam could feel his ears burning. “No, I suppose not. That would be giving them too much credit.” He lifted a whippy branch away from his face and held it for Pico to duck under before letting it go.
The ferret grunted and bared his teeth. “You know them – love a good example, they do. Besides, couldn’t have you walking up there alone.”
Tam took a grudging look at the white ears that bobbed up and down beside him. “I was hoping to keep you out of it, truth be told.” He heard a snort and saw Pico’s ears flick back.
“Being Cursed and un-Markable has its advantages, eh? Can’t conjure worth a pine needle, and you’re worried about besmirching my good name? ‘Fraid you’ll have to do better than Murai-wide disgrace if you’re looking to get rid of me.”
The base of the Meeting Tree was bustling when they arrived. Voles, mice, hares, and a few weary raccoons and porcupines finishing their final duties of the morning weaved through each other in nearly indiscernible tracks this way and that around the massive trunk of the ancient pine. Tam ignored the blatant stares at the bald patch in the fur between his ears as best he could, resisting the urge to cover the place where his Mark used to be with his paw. He and Pico shouldered their way through the streams of creatures, nearing the entrance of the Tree nestled in a cascade of weathered roots where a line of Murai were pouring out, and another line was hurrying in.
Pico and Tam joined the line to enter the gaping entrance, ducking under thick roots until the air around them grew earthy and the light faded enough for the strange glow of the Gift-lit hallways to reach them as they approached the main gateway.
There was a crowd at the entrance that sloped sharply upward to begin the spiral up the trunk of the Meeting Tree, and Tam was so busy avoiding the porcupine that had ended up next to them that he nearly missed the impressive sight as they passed under the threshold. Vaulted ribs carved intricately with ancient designs soared above them, curving the interior of the trunks into soaring buttresses over their heads. Ghostly sconces illuminated the passage, lit by some of the most talented light conjurers – those that had a particular gifting for lighting dark places like the Meeting Tree.
Tam couldn’t help but shiver at the cold blue of the Gift-light, even as it shimmered every few inches on the hewn walls of the main thoroughfare, held in place by nothing but a few prettily carved sticks. The rosy sunrise and the fresh air of his little rush-covered home was already feeling like a distant memory. He suddenly wanted very much to be back in his walnut-shell chair, nestled in the ewe’s wool. Tam shook his head again, and he could see Pico studying him out of the corner of his eye. The ferret’s white fur glowed in the blue light.
The crowd of creatures thinned as they made their way upward, winding around and around the massive trunk. Many ducked into rooms towards the core of the ancient tree that led off the main pathway, spilling little puddles of more conjured light into the passage until the grass curtain or the pine branch covering the opening had fallen across the doorway again.
Finally, Tam and Pico were the only ones still climbing upward. It had become quiet in the passage, and Tam could think of nothing to say to break the silence. He remembered what it had been like the last time he had made this climb, and his stomach clenched. It had been a full season ago, and still it knotted his throat as if it had happened yesterday. His heart was beating wildly by the time they finally arrived in front of the large arched doorway, flanked on either side by bright purple balls of shifting, swirling light. The door was covered with a wide rush curtain, whose strands had been stained a deep burgundy with blackberries many revolutions ago. It was exactly as Tam remembered. The familiarity didn’t make him feel better.
He turned to look at Pico, opened his mouth, then closed it. Pico gave him a lopsided grin, which made him look sinister and dangerous in the dim light, purple Gift-light glinting off of his teeth.
“You know they wouldn’t take too kindly to me joining you in there.”
Tam couldn’t think of anything to say, and instead made a movement like a half-shrug. Pico snorted good-naturedly. “It’s alright. I’ll be out here waiting when it’s over.”
Tam nodded, gripping the rush pack’s straps and swallowing. Pico nudged him, then stepped back to lean against the tree’s sloping hallway. “Go on – over before you know it.”
Tam turned to face the rush curtain, took a deep breath, and ducked through the doorway.
The hollowed-out core of the great pine was not dim like the hallway, but instead nearly reverberated with warm, white-lavender rays emanating from dollops of swirling, sparkling Gift-light overhead. Slowly-shifting globes shone mid-air between the ears of those in the large room and its endless, black ceiling, so the Hall appeared to be filled with stars caught and frozen on their way to the floor. The effect made it seem as if it were night and day in the Hall at the same time, and Tam had to resist the familiar urge to shake his head and blink at the disorienting light.
He stepped fully into the room and listened to the rumbling mutter that skittered across the gathered creatures. Most turned to peer at him, blinking with curiosity, fear, or contempt. Tam knew that the mice, voles, rabbits, and smattering of ferrets gathered at the back near the door were merely spectators; those who would pass judgement sat on a high shelf at the front of the room, almost level with the Gift-stars.
The Marked Council gazed down at him from their ledge, faces not quite distorted but somehow changed by the dyed patterns sweeping across noses and down paws. Tam glanced at his own fur and tried to remember exactly what shape and color his patterns had been. He did remember that he had been very fond of them – he had designed his Marks himself. Now, none of the deep blue remained – the last of it had faded before the full moon.
With effort, he pulled himself out of the past and began his journey toward the front of the hall. Most of the creatures made some room for him (but not much), while others simply forced him to squeeze around them, blinking at his muttered apology without expression. Tam’s heart pounded in his chest and he wondered who might be able to hear it as he slithered past. He tried not to look too hard at the faces of those gathered, fearing that he might meet Una’s eyes somewhere in the crowd. He knew that she was here. She would have come.
Tam finally arrived at the base of the ledge and stood, in the suddenly empty space at the front of the Hall, with his paws at his side, rush pack heavy on his back. He stared at the base of the ledge and waited for the Council to speak. He wouldn’t look up at them – he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
It was Mortimer who spoke first – Tam recognized the self-satisfied, booming voice. “I believe we can proceed.” The chattering and murmurs in the Hall faded to silence, and Tam heard the rustling of many bodies settling onto the carved floor. His heart jumped to the general vicinity of his mouth and it felt as if something had tightened around his throat. To distract himself, he chanced a glance up at the ledge and saw Mortimer lean forward, his imperious, angular face thrown into sharper relief from the orbs floating near his head.
“Tam of the North Marsh, you have been summoned to appear before the Council of the Marked to inquire about the events of one season prior, on the evening of the full moon of the Green Leaf.”
We all know why I’m here, Morty, Tam wanted to say. You all know what you brought me here for.
“We have gathered the evidence and witness for your case, and now we require your testimony to decide on a final ruling.” Mortimer leaned forward a little more, and Tam couldn’t help wishing he would overbalance and fall from the ledge. “You have been in compliance with your probation, I trust?
Tam could feel his tools sitting heavily in his rush pack. “Yes, I have,” he said, more quietly than he had meant to.
“We shall consider this in the verdict.”
Get on with it, will you? Tam twitched his whiskers. A hare sitting near the far right of the ledge apparently felt the same, and abruptly raised his voice before Mortimer had finished speaking. “The council must ask you what happened that evening. Please begin.”
Tam took a deep breath. He had been preparing to recount this story for days. But he still hesitated, swallowing, before saying “I had been out for a last water-gathering. It was getting dark, but the sun hadn’t fully set.” The specters of that night crowded him as he went on, and it was almost easier to recount that night as it swam before his eyes. “Tuloc’s gang were still—” Tam swallowed and said “at large,” though he also wanted to say “alive.” Both would have been true. “Two of them swooped down and caught me by my feet.” Tam put his paws together and held them up, as if it would illustrate how the Owls had bound his paws and his feet so that he wouldn’t be able to conjure. Tam realized how silly it must look, and dropped his paws again. “They took me to their outpost, down in the South Valley, and brought me to Tuloc.” Tam shivered to remember the gripping talons, the tumble from their grasp and the cruel, guttural laughter of the owl leader.
“Did you resist?” A Marked ferret narrowed his eyes at Tam. “What did you when you arrived at the South Valley?”
“Well, I was pinned. I tried to slip free—”
“Did you not use the Gift?”
“No, I—” Tam hesitated. “I couldn’t without hurting them.” Tam remembered feeling the anger and fear in his chest. He remembered feeling the Gift there, too, growing dangerously like a hot little sun, desperate to flash outward when summoned. He had not needed paws for that kind of conjuring. The Council knew this. The Council had invented it.
A ripple of guffaws swept through the Hall. Tam could see Mortimer smirk at the ferret and the hare purse his lips tightly. He felt the fur on the back of his neck bristling. “I didn’t tell them anything, even when they gave me these.” He held out his scarred paws and glared up at the Council’s ledge. “Tuloc asked for the secrets of the Gift. Seems he’d been getting sick of the way you’ve been parading around.” Tam heard another surge of snorts, but found that he didn’t much care. “He said that if I didn’t help his people learn the Gift, they’d find a way to…get it out of me.” He failed at resisting a shudder over these last words and looked down at the carved wood beneath his feet, trying hard not to think of Tuloc’s face, the bright yellow orbs, and the pressure of the talons against his neck.
“And how did you respond to this demand, Tam?” Mortimer said with significance.
“I told them nothing.”
“Nothing,” Mortimer repeated.
Tam glared up at him.
“You refused to use the Gift against Tuloc’s band and allowed them to detain you so that you could tell them nothing.” More snorts and guffaws.
Now they had gotten down to it.
“I told them nothing.” Tam took a breath. “One of my two guards got lazy and I was able to get my paws free. I…blinded them—temporarily,” Tam felt compelled to add, although this raised another storm of snorting. “And I escaped. I tried climbing down their tree, but fell about halfway down.” Tam shifted his foot, the one that still ached when it was cold. “And I came straight to see the Council.” His teeth ground together. “And you saw fit to take my Mark away until further notice.”
The ferret ignored the jibe. “You practiced mercy on these barbarians.”
Tam felt himself losing his patience. “You all went back and conjured death on them the next day anyway, so what does it matter?” Even saying it made him sick, to think of it: how they had gone before even releasing Tam to start back to his village, how they had done it so quickly that none of Tuloc’s entire tribe had been spared.
Mortimer drew himself up and boomed, “It matters, Tam of North Marsh, because you did not see fit to destroy them when the security of the Murai was called into question.”
Tam wrinkled his nose incredulously. “Aren’t we making the grand assumption that destroying them was the only way?”
“They were the aggressors,” the Marked mouse said, as if he were explaining to a newborn.
“And that entitles us to kill them, does it?” Tam nearly shouted up at them.
The ferret leaned down to look at him. “We do what we must to protect our way of life. We do what we must to maintain the Contract.”
“Don’t you think we’ve gotten just a little drunk with power, Zaheeb?”
“Don’t you think it’s rather suspicious that you came away with your life and left the owls unharmed? Perhaps you struck a deal.” Zaheeb said these last words deliberately, and folded his claws in front of him, settling his unnerving eyes on Tam’s face.
“Perhaps I didn’t,” Tam grit out. “Perhaps it’s as I told you.”
“It is always possible,” the hare began, but Mortimer leaned forward again and put out a paw to stop the hare from continuing.
“It is possible but unlikely, Hira. And it’s not as if we can bring the owls to question.” The soft rumble of laughter following Mortimer’s amused aside made Tam’s paws tremble with anger. He watched the mouse speak to the whole room, addressing the council and the spectators alike. “But you have already proven yourself a danger to this way, Tam. In failing to protect the Gift, you have failed to show your loyalty to your tribe, the Murai, and your teachings. We are responsible for preventing such dangers from harming our Way.” Tam could hear a wave of whispers and mutters rise behind him. “We are responsible for containing such threats.”
Tam felt his stomach drop. It was actually happening.
He knew now that they were never going to clear him. He knew now why they had welcomed such a crowd to this hearing. It didn’t matter how much longer they droned and questioned and dragged this hearing on – and they would. They were going to make an example of him, and it would keep any other Marked with big ideas under control. At the end of all this, they were going to un-Mark him permanently, and there wasn’t anything he would be able to do about it. In the chaos of his realization, through the rushing thoughts, he remembered his tools, sitting quietly at the bottom of his rush bag, and how useless they had suddenly become.
It was only mid-afternoon when the trial was over and Tam and Pico emerged from the Meeting Tree, blinking in the sun filtering through the treetops. The air smelled different, almost singed. Tam only dully noticed – he felt as if he had lived entire lifetimes since his arrival in the morning. Most of the Murai had disappeared to escape the heat of the day or to sleep, and Pico trailed behind him as they had descended the illuminated spiral halls of the Tree, hesitant to ask questions but aware that something was quite wrong.
Tam had let him fidget along in silence, not ready yet to tell him the truth. He wasn’t sure he’d be ready for a long while yet to tell anyone the truth about what happened when the Council had dismissed the general assembly and pulled him in to a dim side room. Where they had conjured things no creature should have the right to know and took away his Gift forever. Tam stumped through the brush, still numb from the abrupt end of the hearing. It was worse than when they had ripped the sap-covered Mark from his forehead, taking the fur along with it. It was worse than being there with all of Tuloc’s owls.
Tam took a numb look at the treetops and noted absently that the sky was filmed over in a haze, the sun glowing like a brass orb. The sunlight that filtered through the treetops was orange and warm. It had happened once before, this misty change. The elder creatures had told the younger that it came from the Man’s inventions that ate up the hillsides and burned the trees away.
But this time the warm light and the haze and the smell brought with it the Something. Tam straightened and picked up his ears. The Something that he had felt this morning was hovering along the edges of his vision as they made their way through the underbrush, just over his shoulder, tailing him behind his little rush pack. Tam chanced a glance at Pico and saw him padding along to his left, seemingly undisturbed by this third presence that had joined them.
With a dull pang in his stomach, Tam remembered the corn he had packed, back when his situation seemed so much more hopeful. Back when he imagined the worst that could happen would be staying on probation. Tam slung the rush bag around to his front and pulled out the kernels, holding one out to Pico and forcing himself to nibble the other. They traveled in silence, weaving through underbrush, hopping over streams, until they came to the edge of the forest. Pico turned to face Tam.
“I can keep you company, if you’d like.” The brows over his pink eyes creased with worry.
Tam smiled in spite of himself. “No, that’s alright, I think I just need to be alone.”
“I’ll be coming to visit bright and early tomorrow,” the ferret said with a hint of a challenge in his voice.
“Couldn’t keep you away if I tried.”
Tam took his long way back home, though the afternoon sun would be right in his eyes. He emerged from the dimness of the forest and blinked at the valley swathed in haze, the distant farm concealed in the not-quite-clouds that had turned the sun red. There was a muffled calm that blanketed the marsh – but behind it, Tam could almost see a strange crackling in the air. It almost reminded him of the sparking and flickers of light that would dance before of his eyes when he could conjure.
Tam shook his head to clear his vision, then zig-zagged through scrubby bushes towards the edge of the Marsh. He had nearly reached the tall grasses when he caught a glimmer of something out of the corner of his eye.
There was a translucent log – something that Man had left behind, hard as rock but clear like water. It was a cylinder, or used to be, before it had broken into jagged edges. The sun shone through it now, and it scattered its scratches in a pattern across the crumpled grasses of the meadow. Tam took a step toward it without even thinking; the Something prodded him to get closer, an urging between a whisper and a push.
Tam crept up to the clear cylinder and inspected it. It smelled sweet and sticky, as if there had been sap or the juice of berries smeared around the inside. Below the jagged edges were scattered leaves, dried from a long, hot season. One of the leaves framed a circular ring of light, where the sun passed through the end of the cylinder.
Instinctively he thought to pull the leaf closer, to let the little circle of light get smaller until it was tiny and bright. It was beautiful, he felt the Something whisper. Tam looked at it for a long moment, marveled at the brightness of it, how it could be illuminated without any Gift-light at all. As he was holding the leaf, it began to emit lazy, translucent whisps that grew into heavier plumes until Tam let go, squeaking as the leaf burst into a bright orange flash of something hot. Like Gift-light that burned.
On the ground, the flash stopped, leaving the leaf with a dark, smoking hole in the center. Tam could see the small sparks glittering at the edge of the hole before they flickered and disappeared. Tam felt his heart beating hard in his chest, could see the sparking and flashes in his vision that were not part of the leaf. The fur on the back of his neck stood up. He felt the Something pulse with excitement, urge him to try it again.
He selected another leaf, held it under the light, and let it burst into an orange flame. This time he held it, staring at the hungry orange light, watching it consume the leaf until he had to drop it before it reached his paws.
Another leaf. And this time the Something did not need to encourage him. He could not even feel the Something nearby anymore – perhaps it had even gone. Tam watched the leaf burn, stared in fascination at the warmth and the flicker and the sway of the thing that ate everything the leaf had been. He wondered how it was possible that he could still have his Gift. How he could still conjure, when the Council had taken it away.
A different Gift, came the whisper of a thought. A new Gift.
Another leaf. And another. Pawfuls of them. Twigs.
Tam practiced his new conjuring until the sun dipped too low, and the sky turned dusty rose, and the wind stirred the rushes of the Marsh. Tam took the last smouldering pile of leaf and dried grass, set it on a little clear shard, and started off through the deepening sunset toward home. He blew gently at this Something that smelled so like the charred air, that felt so like the Gift-light that used to glow in his chest, that felt strangely like coming home.