The cool morning air burned Tessa’s throat. Wyvern never offered to slow down for her, but then again, she never actually fell behind. She panted for breath as she trotted after him under the dancing, waving branches of trees full of bright green leaves, bleeding the golden light of the rising sun through the cracks in the canopy.
Tessa pulled in a breath and skipped over a root. “Wyvern…”
She wore the breeches and tunic he had sewn for her and he always tied her flowing locks of auburn hair with a length of string, so that her long pony-tail waved behind her like a tail. She had to practically run in her little animal-skin boots to keep pace with his long strides. He peered down at her from beneath bushy grey eyebrows. His face was framed by long, tangled grey hair and a long beard that cascaded down his chest. He wore his heavy hooded cloak and carried a tall, twisted walking stick.
“What does a robin look like?” she asked, keeping her eyes on the mulch underfoot to keep from tripping.
“A robin is a red-chested bird,” he said. His voice rumbled softly on the air, like a distant peal of thunder.
“The boy said that the first person to see a robin was the first person to see spring,” Tessa said, an unspoken question in her voice.
“The boy?” Wyvern repeated.
“From Out There,” she reminded him. “The one who wasn’t afraid of me.”
She had told him of the boy more than once. She didn’t even know his name, but he was the only one from her village who had not called her a witch. She wasn’t a witch. She’d told them: she just heard voices sometimes. But they hadn’t listened.
That was before she ran away. She no longer called the place “my village.” Everything beyond the woods was just “Out There.”
“Is it true?” she pressed. “That to see a robin first is to see spring come?”
Wyvern laughed at her childishness. She adored his laugh. It was a booming, powerful, happy sound that made her want to laugh right along with him.
“Of course not,” he chuckled, “That’s an old myth. The trees tell us when spring has come.”
“The trees?” Tessa had to jump over tree roots that Wyvern barely lifted his feet to avoid.
“The trees.” He nodded, almost solemn.
“They talk to us?” She remembered frowning, feeling afraid. What could the trees want to say to me?
“To some of us.” Wyvern smiled. “But to hear them speak, you have to want to listen.” He said the words like a secret.
Suddenly, she wanted to hear them — more than she’d ever wanted anything. “I want to listen,” she said in earnest.
He laughed again, which made her smile. “All in good time, Tessa.”
For a year, Wyvern taught Tessa about the trees’ voices. She listened for them every day, even as autumn faded to winter and they lost their leaves and the soft rustle of the woods grew dull and brittle with cold. She stepped into her eighth winter, bright-eyed and determined to be worthy of the trees, only to storm back to the cabin she and Wyvern shared every night when it grew too cold. Her fingers, nose, and cheeks would be tingly and the rest of her numb before she’d scurry back, weary and disappointed.
Wyvern always asked the same question. “No whispers today?”
Tessa would just shake her head.
“Maybe you’ll hear them tomorrow,” he’d say. And then he’d fall back asleep in his big, worn chair in front of the fire, and Tessa would crawl into the little bed behind the curtain at the back of the hut and be asleep as soon as the warmth reached back into her bones.
By the time the snow melted away and the trees stopped creaking and groaning like old bones, and they flowered and turned green with life again, Tessa was sure that she would never hear them speak. She wasn’t chosen. But it was warm out and Wyvern didn’t seem worried that she was ignoring her other lessons, so she wandered out to her usual spot in a clearing away from the hut where she couldn’t be disturbed. She flopped onto her back on the wide stump in the middle of the clearing, cold and damp with morning dew, and stared up into the canopy glowing with early light.
For a while, she closed her eyes like Wyvern had suggested. She tried to think of nothing but the air and the wind through the trees and push and pull of her own breath. But try as she might, nothing helped, and she only got more frustrated.
Finally, Tessa opened her eyes and sat up. She curled her legs under her and glared at the trees around her before she noticed the little bird hopping around the edge of the clearing. It sang a clear, high trill and she almost shooed it away before she noticed the red colour of its chest.
If the trees wouldn’t deign to speak to her, then the sight of a robin would have to be good enough: spring had come. Winter was over. This was a season of newness and growth. Wyvern always said that it was the best season for learning new things.
The robin hopped along the ground for a while and then flapped its wings and fluttered up onto Tessa’s stump. It was wide enough around that the bird was still too far away for her to reach. Tessa watched it peck and scratch at the old wood, poking around for seeds or bugs. She liked the way the little creature twitched and jerked as if every movement was in preparation to take flight.
She remembered the snack she’d stowed away in her jacket pocket and fished it out — a leftover biscuit from breakfast. Wyvern always made them plain, but Tessa liked to add nuts or cheese to hers. She pulled off a small, bite-sized piece and crumbled it over the centre of the stump before putting the rest of the biscuit away.
The robin tilted its head as though it watched her.
Tessa raised her eyebrows. “Don’t be greedy. You’re much smaller ‘n me. I need more of it than you do — go on.” She waved her fingers at the small mound of crumbs and then set her hands in her lap and waited.
And after a few breaths, the robin flitted forwards. It pecked at the crumbs timidly at first and then seemed to gather its courage.
Tessa spoke to the bird softly. This wasn’t strange for her. She often spoke to the animals around her, especially when Wyvern wasn’t around, but often enough when he was nearby that he didn’t question it. She’d made friends with a rabbit, and a fox she suspected was actually two different foxes that only showed their faces when the weather got cold and it was harder to find food. But she’d never tried talking with birds before. They always flew away so fast.
The robin, despite its urgency, seemed to take its time pecking at the crumbs and picking up every last piece of the biscuit she had left for it. And even after it had finished, it settled on the edge of the stump and stayed there for a while.
Tessa was just getting sore and resigning herself to change positions — and risk scaring the bird away — when she heard it.
Not so much a voice, but a breathy whisper. And somehow, she didn’t seem to hear the sound with her ears. Rather, it was in her head, like her own thoughts, only in a different tone. Her gaze locked onto the robin and she froze, unable to move or look away for fear that she would never hear it again.
But there it was, less of a thought and more of a feeling. She sensed the robin and its tiny, beating heart. The way it twitched and moved, the way the air felt against the sensitive fringes of its feathers. Somehow as she watched it, she became convinced that the robin felt safe near her. And grateful. It was grateful to her for the crumbs. But—oh, it had to go soon.
And no sooner had Tessa thought it than the robin spread its wings and flapped into the air, away from the stump and through the trees to the sky above. Her sense of the creature grew more and more distant until she couldn’t feel it anymore, but in its place…
Tessa took in a deep, full breath and her eyes fluttered closed, but it was still there. The trees’ voices were all around her. They caressed her skin and danced at the edges of her mind like forest spirits, whispering of the little mouse in the hole in the ground there, or the fox still sleeping outside of the clearing. Birds flew through her awareness, not as sounds, but as little bursts of warmth in her mind, and through it all the trees whispers were like the sound of leaves rustling together in a gentle wind.
She could hear it all. She could hear everything. The trees told her about the ground and the puddles and the lingering dew; about the branches leaning over the path that led back to the hut; of the old, grey-haired man lumbering around the hut, looking once again for his misplaced axe.
Distantly, Tessa was aware that she was smiling. But she didn’t break concentration even for a moment. The trees were telling her every secret that lay in the forest, and she didn’t want to miss a thing.