Authors: Sarah Prineas
To Greg van Eekhout.
All the bunnies in this book, both alive and dead, are for you.
Stupid, stupid messenger who should have known better than to accept a ride from a black horse with a wild mane and flame-bright yellow eyes. The horse galloped up and down hills, through a cold river and a patch of brambles, ending at a swamp, where he bucked the messenger off.
The horse shook his head and spat something from his mouth, and the air around him blurred and a boy with black hair and yellow eyes caught the shifter-bone he'd spat out and shoved it into the pocket of his ragged shorts. Picking his way through the mud and cattails, the boy crouched at the side of the messenger.
“Cursed puck,” the messenger groaned, and struggled onto his knees. He was tall and willowy and had greeny-blond hair, rough brown skin, and long fingers. He'd been sent from the
, the court of the High Ones.
“Just stay down,” the boy said, and shoved him back into the mud. Then he reached into the messenger's leather pouch and pulled out a letter. The paper was only a little damp at the edges. Cracking the wax seal that held the letter closed, he read it.
Hmm. A message for Lady Gwynnefar. Fer, that was.
The boy got to his feet and trudged out of the muddy swamp to dry land, where he paused to think about what he was going to do. He could throw the letter away. That'd cause some trouble. Or he could give it back to the messenger to deliver. What he should do was give it to his brother pucks to see what they would make of it. More trouble, to be sure. OrÂ .Â .Â .
Or he could take the letter and its trouble to the Lady Gwynnefar himself.
The girl named Fer pulled back the string of her bow, sighted down the arrow, and released it.
Not quite a bullseye, but almost. Fer shrugged her shoulders, feeling the tiredness in her muscles from an hour of archery practice. Time to stop. It was getting too dark, anyway, and Grand-Jane would have dinner ready soon.
After collecting her arrows from the targetâand the one arrow that had gone past the target and was stuck in a clump of weedsâFer went to sit on the back steps of her grandma's house, and gazed up at the half-moon. The sky was the deep blue, electric color that meant the sun was gone and night was coming soon. As she watched the moon, Fer felt like she could practically see it walking across the sky as time rushed past.
In the Summerlands, on the other side of the Way and far from this human world, time passed much more slowly. There, spring was just ending. The forests would be bursting with new leaves, wildflowers, ferns, and mushrooms; the moss would be cool and dark underfoot.
A creak from the kitchen door, and Fer's grandma came down the steps. She wore a cardigan against the chill of the early autumn night. Grand-Jane came to sit beside her. Fer leaned, and Grand-Jane put her arm around Fer's shoulders. They sat in silence for a while.
Then, “I know,” Grand-Jane said.
Fer blinked. “You know what?”
“You're thinking about the other land.”
Fer nodded. She was the Lady of the land on the other side of the Wayâthe Summerlandsâand even though she wasn't entirely sure, yet, what being a Lady meant, she did know that she was supposed to be there, not here in the human world. “I have to go back,” she said quietly.
Grand-Jane sighed. In the moonlight, her graying hair shone, making her look like a queen with a silver crown. “Yes, I know.”
“Why don't you come with me?” Fer asked.
Grand-Jane shook her head. “Look at this place, Jennifer.”
What? Fer had lived here almost her whole life. There wasn't anything new to see.
When Fer didn't move, Grand-Jane got up from the steps and pulled Fer to her feet, then took her by the shoulders and turned her to look out at the fields beyond the house. The beehives at the edge of the yard glowed white under the moonlight. Past that was the lavender field, which they'd spent the last few days harvesting, cutting the stalks of purple flowers under the rich, late-September sunlight. Past Grand-Jane's land were more farms, rolling out to a flat horizon under a darkening sky.
The land here had once been wild, and not even that long ago. Just over a hundred years before, it had been prairies full of wildflowers and grasses and buzzing insects, with patches of oak woodlands, and streams winding their way to the river. Lightning-lit wildfires would race through the dry prairie, leaving it blackened, and in the spring new green would sprout up.
Now this land was all tame. It had been shaped into farms that were like giant factories for growing corn and soybeans, acres and acres of fields laid out in careful squares and rectangles. The rich dirt was stained with insecticide and herbicide and chemical fertilizers. Just the smell of it made Fer feel itchy.
How could Grand-Jane want to live
“This is my home,” Grand-Jane said. “This is where I belong.”
Fer shrugged out of her grandmother's grip. “Well, it's not where I belong.”
,” Grand-Jane said for the third time. In the rules of the Summerlands, saying something three times made it matter. Grand-Jane knew this, and it meant she understood; she really did know how Fer felt. She added quietly, “I won't try to keep you here, my girl.”
“Thank you.” Fer breathed. She leaned in, and Grand-Jane gave her a hug. Under her feet, she felt the earth turning and the time flowing away, and suddenly, like a sharp tugging at her heart, she knew that she'd been away from the Summerlands for too long. She had to go back.
She had to go
Crouching, Fer rested her fingertips on the cool, smooth surface of the moon-pool that connected the human world to the other land. She felt the tingle of the Way opening, and the half-moon reflected in the water changed, rippling into a nearly full moon.
Fer stood up and took one last look around the darkening clearing, at the flowerless laurel bushes, the moss, the tangled branches. Grand-Jane hadn't been happy about her leaving so suddenly. “At least wait until morning,” she had protested. But Fer couldn't wait any longer. Taking a deep breath, holding tightly to her bow, she jumped into the pool.
Down through the Way she fell, feeling the wind and the pressing darkness, the dizzy thump when she landed on the bank of the pool on the other side. She kept her eyes closed until her head stopped spinning. When she opened her eyes, she saw that the golden, almost-full moon had moved into the sky, and the half-moon, the moon that belonged in Grand-Jane's world, now lay reflected in the pool. She was through. The air felt softer here, the shadows deeper and more mysteriousâand the pull of her connection to the land settled into her bones.
Unlike in the human world, the laurel here was in bloom, the white flowers glowing in the moonlight. A sudden wind sprang up and made the trees around the clearing toss their leafy heads. As Fer climbed to her feet, a tendril of cool breeze wound from her legs to the top of her head, making goose bumps pop up on her arms. She rubbed them down and looked around the dim clearing and into the dark shadows of the forest. Was somebody here? She gripped her bow tightly and got ready to pull an arrow from the quiver on her back. Another breeze wafted past, bringing with it the smell of dirt and fallen leaves.
The branches around the moon-pool rustled. She strained her eyes, trying to peer into the darkness. Suddenly she felt her connection to the landâthe Summerlandsâmore strongly than ever before. It felt like a surge of green sweeping up from her feet to the top of her head, as if the forest itself was on the move, a stirring in the roots. Then all fell quiet, the clearing filling up like a cup with stillness. Fer held her breath, listening. She heard nothing but a humming silence. She blinked. Shadows crowded in. The clearing had been empty, and now she was surrounded byâ
Standing in a circle around the moon-pool were creatures that looked part tree and part stump, gnarled and covered with lichen and moss. Some of them were shorter than she was; others towered overhead like the tallest trees. In the dim light, Fer saw wise old faces watching her from eyes that glimmered like stars reflected in deep water.
These creaturesâwhatever they wereâhad roots that went very, very deep. They were more part of the land than anything she'd ever felt before. And they'd been waiting for her to return.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
The answer came on a breath of wind that brushed past her ears, making her shiver.
We are the deep-forest kin. We have come to swear our oaths to the Lady of the Summerlands
Will you accept our oaths
She hadn't had enough time to think about this. She was the Lady, yes. She knew that because of her bone-deep connection to this land and its people, and because her mother had been the Lady before, until the MÃ³r had killed her.
But the swearing of oaths? That was tricky. Oaths wereâwell, they were part of how these other lands worked.
Our oaths and our rules bind us together
, the MÃ³r had told her once. The MÃ³r had been evil, through and through, but she'd been right about that. Yet oaths felt wrong, too. The MÃ³r had used oaths to bind her people so strongly that she had controlled their every move. Fer wasn't sure about how to be a Lady, but she did know that she didn't want to bind her people like that.
Will you accept our oaths?
the deep-forest ones asked again.
“IâI don't like oaths,” Fer said, stalling.
There was a swaying of branches and a rush of wind that sounded like whispers.
It is the way of the land that we should be bound to the Lady
, they breathed.
Fer shook her head. Her best friend, Rook, had been bound to the MÃ³r by his sworn oaths, and it had meant he'd had no choice but to obey her every order. He'd been forced to do things that he'd hated doing. This just couldn't be right.
Will you accept our oaths?
they asked a third time. Three had power. She had to answer.
“No,” Fer said slowly. “I'm really sorry. I can't.”
Her words hung in the air.
. The deep-forest kin gazed at her, and Fer could feel the weight of their disappointment, as if she'd failed a test.
The deep green feeling faded, and so did the heavy moss and dirt smell in the air. When she looked up again, the clearing around the moon-pool was empty.