He came to me in the rain, as the first maple leaves were surrendering their green. Beyond the path where I waited, their veins burned orange and red beneath a steel-gray sky, and their branches hissed restlessly as they reached for the falling water. To the other side of the path, the Wall's ivy and hawthorn sighed more quietly as moisture rolled down their yet-green leaves and soaked into their roots. After five months learning the ways of my summoning magic from Karin, I saw without trying the dark shadows within both Wall and trees that were their spirit and life.
More raindrops beaded on my oiled leather cloak. It was Karin who'd heard Matthew's approach as we patrolled the Wall together and who, with a small smile, left me to meet him alone. I couldn't hear Matthew, not over the steady patter of rain, one of many small reminders that, strong though my magic might be, I was human and Karin was not.
Thunder rumbled. A gray wolf rounded a bend in the path, fur soaked and legs streaked with mud. The wolf—Matthew—saw me as I saw him, and he broke into a lope. The shadows within him were as clear as those within the plants, boy and wolf so deeply entwined that I couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. My heart pounded, as if my own shadow, the one shadow I could not see, were trying to push its way past skin and bone to reach him.
I knelt in the mud to draw Matthew into my arms. A wet tongue licked my face as I buried my hands—the right living flesh, the left unmoving stone—in his fur. I breathed the scent of wet wolf and muddy boy, and my contented sigh echoed Matthew's own. Rain trickled beneath my cloak. I didn't care. I wanted to stay here, holding him, forever.
“You came,” I said when we drew apart at last. He'd traveled alone, and he'd traveled as a wolf, and unlike the last time he'd done these things, he truly was all right.
I saw a dead oak leaf stuck in his fur. Gray, not brown like most dead leaves, it shivered in my hand when I plucked it free, crumbling to dust and leaving behind a lacework of pale veins. Cold whispered against my fingers. I smelled something stale, like a room closed up too long, and then the veins, too, gave way to dust.
Matthew sniffed the dust on my skin, looked up at me through his quiet wolf's eyes. I saw concern there, but whatever this crumbling leaf meant, it was something that needed words and so would have to wait.
“Mom's all right?” I asked him instead.
Matthew nodded his shaggy head. That question, at least, had a simple answer.
He followed me back to the Wall, where I thrust my good hand into the greenery. It knew me now; branches parted, leaving an open space for us to walk through. I moved my hand to Matthew's back, and together we walked into town. My stone hand weighed me down, but after living with it for five months, I adjusted my balance without thinking.
By the time we reached Allie's house, where I'd been staying, the wind had picked up, turning the corn too wild to harvest and forcing everyone in from the fields. Matthew trotted upstairs to find some clothes, while Allie put water on the fire and her father, Samuel, wrapped a thread of scavenged copper wire around a metal core. The closer and more evenly the coils lay, the better the motor he was trying to build would run. A purple stone glowed on the arm of the couch, casting its cold light on his work.
I was sprinkling tea leaves into empty mugs when I heard Matthew descend the stairs. I turned as he crossed the room, his fair hair tied back in a damp ponytail, the faded cotton shirt he'd found in Samuel's room stretching across his shoulders, his feet, still specked with mud, bare beneath deerskin pants. My heart started pounding all over again.
“Hey, Liza.” Shadows of wolf and boy remained tangled within him, and a stray drop of rainwater trickled down his face. I reached out to brush it away, and then we were holding each other once more, my lips brushing his, his hands making their way into my rain-tangled hair.
Allie cleared her throat beside us. “Can I hug you, too? Or does only Liza get to do that now?”
Matthew and I laughed as we drew apart, and Allie wrapped her arms around him. I saw her shadow and Samuel's as clearly as Matthew's, only there were no animal shapes within them.
“You've gotten taller,” Matthew told her.
“Like a beanstalk, Dad says.” As usual, Allie's red hair was escaping its braid. “Which makes no sense, because beanstalks grow in all directions, plus they try to strangle you if you wait too long to harvest them.”
“Just add it to your list of weird things adults say.” Samuel set his spool down on his chair to give Matthew a hug of his own.
The front door opened, and Karin joined us. Her silver eyes didn't focus on any of us—she'd lost her sight soon after my hand had been turned to stone—but she crossed the room easily enough, her steps silent as all faerie folk's were, her clear braided hair falling down her back. Her shadow was clear to me, too; there was no difference between faerie shadows and human ones. “And are you well, Matthew?” she asked.
Matthew hesitated. Like everyone with magic, he couldn't say anything that wasn't true; if he wasn't all right, he couldn't pretend he was. “I'm okay,” he said at last, as if it were something he'd had to think about, but that on thinking, he'd found true. I reached for his hand and squeezed it, hard.
The water was boiling over. Allie hurried to the hearth to grab the teapot and pour the water into mugs.
“The leaf,” I said to Matthew as we moved toward couch and chairs.
“What leaf?” Karin moved to sit cross-legged on the floor.
Samuel returned to his chair, Matthew and I to the couch. Allie shoved mugs into each of our hands, then returned with one of her own. She looked at the space beside Matthew and me, raised her eyebrows, and sprawled out on the floor beside Karin.
“Wait,” Karin said. “First, tell me, Matthew. How are Tara and Kaylen?”
“They're fine,” Matthew said, not hesitating this time. Tara was my mother, and Kaylen—or Caleb—was Karin's brother.
“And the baby?” Green ivy poked out from beneath Karin's sleeve. Only a plant speaker could wear living plants safely.
“Also fine.” Matthew sipped his tea. “Caleb thinks she'll arrive early. Less than a month. I'm to tell you both that if you want to be there for her birth, you should come soon. Within a couple weeks.”
“A girl, then,” I said. I had a sister once. But that seemed long ago, and this child had little to do with that one.
“I get to come, too.” Allie glanced at Samuel, who once hadn't been willing to let his daughter anywhere beyond the Wall. “Dad agreed. Healing without a watcher is dangerous at any time, and, well, we all know how far Caleb will go to save Liza's mom.” Caleb's magic was for healing, and Allie was his student, just as I was Karin's student, though my magic wasn't as close to hers. “If there are two healers there, Caleb won't be tempted to push too hard, even if something goes—but nothing will go wrong. You know that, right, Liza?”
The tea burned my tongue. No one ever knew nothing would go wrong, not for certain.
“We will hold with all going well,” Karin said, as if she could read my silence. The ivy crept down her arm to wrap around her fingers. “Now, what is this leaf that concerns you?”
“Not just a leaf.” Matthew rubbed at the scar around his wrist as he held his mug. “I saw . . . there were places, in the forest, that didn't smell right. Where things had gone all musty and wrong. A leaf I nosed at fell apart at my touch. Other leaves—it was mostly leaves. But also a sapling whose branches were crumbling away on one side, leaving a pile of gray dust.” He swallowed hard. “And a pair of empty boots, as far apart as a man might stand, filled with the same dust.”
Allie rubbed her arms. “That's too, too creepy.”
Samuel frowned into his untouched mug. I edged closer to Matthew, remembering a shivering leaf, a whisper of cold. “There was a leaf in his fur. It crumbled when I picked it up.”
Karin set her tea quietly aside. “Give me your hand, Liza.”
The gray leaf hadn't hurt me, not that I could tell. But I put down my mug to set my hand in Karin's. She drew it to her face and held it there with a listening look I'd come to know well. “I smell it still.” She let my hand go. I no longer smelled anything, but I couldn't smell as well as Karin, either.
“I do not know what this means.” Karin stroked a green ivy leaf. “All I know is that I've caught this scent only once before: in Faerie, right after the War.”