Authors: Clint Talbert
Tags: #clint talbert, #druids, #ecology, #fiction, #green man, #pollution, #speculative fiction, #YA Fantasy, #YA fiction, #young adult, #Book of Taliesin
Half-wild dragons snapped and grumbled at their would-be jockeys as the novice riders tried to prepare a chase. Eaglewing sliced through one rider, then dodged the ungrateful snap from the dragon. Eaglewing used his mind to call out to the beast, promising her freedom if she would fly him from there. The dragon called to the rest of her horde and flapped her leathery wings as Eaglewing scrambled onto her back. In three wing beats, the desperate shots of archers fell short of their target, and a rampage of seven dragons flew from the wall in a triangular wedge.
Brother, where are you?
I'll be at southern cliffs of Hasa soon.
How is Mayflure?
How are the others?
Good and good. We are in the village of Anasatin
“Let's play that I flew the dragon to you.” Jeremy ran through the dense trails on the left side of the pond, Daniel at his side. He came to the village quickly.
“Let's say that the Midnight Wizard met us here when you landed.”
“Okay, but I'm kneeling next to Mayflure. She's barely conscious.”
“Eaglewing,” the old wizard said, bowing his head. He knelt next to Mayflure, extending his hands.
“Midnight, will she be all right?”
For a long moment, the old wizard did not answer. When his eyes focused, he spoke. “I will take her back with me using the cloth. She has some broken bones, she's half starved, but she'll be all right.” His smile was not reassuring. Eaglewing clasped her hand. The old wizard glanced from him to his brother. “What did the two of you find?”
“I think they were trying to raise the eight demons to open the portal; Dan'kir's curse.”
The old wizard scratched his chin, coaxing at the scraggly white beard that grew there. “Not even Kronshar himself could control that portal. He knows that. I think they sought merely to raise one of the demons to discover the whereabouts of the Stones. If they were to open the portal, they would need more than four selurks.”
“Do the Elders still doubt that he is after the Stones?”
The wizard scratched his beard and eyed the warrior. “The Elders are angry. Best you stay away from Hrad'din for a while.”
“We did what was right,” Eaglewing said.
“It is a fine line you walk between doing what is right and treason. Be careful.”
“But we rescued these people, and Mayflure.”
The old wizard said nothing for a moment. “We need to find the Stones. Take my dragon, go to the library of Tarakyn. Try to determine where the remaining Stones are. I'm afraid we're already out of time. I'll speak to the Elders for you.”
Eaglewing stared at Mayflure, trying to hold her eyes, but they remained unfocused. He kissed her forehead and got to his feet, following his brother.
“Don't worry about her, she'll be okay.”
She and the Midnight Wizard disappeared, leaving only a warm, sulfurous wind behind.
Jeremy and Daniel fell silent, wandering side by side into the darker part of the wood, each trying to conjure the image of the great city of Tarakyn and its library. Jeremy grabbed Daniel's shoulder.
“What is it, Eaglewing?” Daniel said.
“No.” Jeremy shook his head, then pointed with the stick that served as his sword. A nylon cord ran across the trail, just inches above the ground.
“Who put that there?”
“Remember? I told you the other day; I found Loren and Roland back here cutting this trail and they warned me to stay off it.”
Daniel nodded, remembering the name Jeremy had given it. “Faker. So, they weren't faking, huh? Do you think there are more traps out here?”
Jeremy shrugged, unsheathing his Rambo survival knife and chopping the cord in half. “But if there are, we should take them out. Somebody could get hurt.”
Daniel nodded. His voice dropped unnecessarily. “Let's see what else is here.”
Eyes swiveling down, left, right, up, down, they picked their way from leaf to leaf across the gray mud. Anything could be a trap, so they moved as though everything was. Jeremy held his knife before him in two hands, like a short sword. Daniel held his staff cocked in both hands. He would reach out and poke at a pile of leaves tentative, investigating. The Midnight Wizard would have approved.
The magic of the dark part of the forest walked up Jeremy's nape on spider legs, each fuzzy touch a shimmering line from his scalp to his toenails. Daniel nodded toward another line of nylon that crossed the trail ahead. A hasty disturbance of leaves attempted to cover something on the far side of the rope; obviously Loren and Roland had not finished this trap yet. Jeremy nodded and crept to it. He raised the knife and brought it down in a quick chop.
Jeremy glanced up as his swing finished the cord, startled by the outburst. A young tree lashed across the trail, suddenly freed. Daniel ducked, lost his balance, and fell. The branches crashed into Jeremy's chest, sending him whirling backward into a bank of pine needles and mud.
“Are you all right?” Daniel stood, trying to dust the clay off his pants.
“Yeah.” Jeremy's hand massaged his shoulder. “How did they have that tied?”
“I don't know. I looked up and realized that the cord did all this crazy stuff over there around that tree, and didn't know what would happen once you cut it.”
Jeremy laughed. “I guess we found out.”
“I guess so.”
Jeremy watched the sun cast multicolored shadows across the floor from the stained glass windows of the church's sacristy. He was waiting for Father Pat and the second acolyte; he'd already donned his robe and wooden cross. Tomorrow would be another day of school. His bruises hadn't quite faded from his last run-in with Travis on the playground.
Father Pat swept into the room, flinging a vestment over his head. “Good morning, Jeremy!”
Jeremy forced a smile. “Good morning, Father.”
Father stopped, head cocked. “What is it?”
Jeremy looked down. “Nothing.”
Father crossed the room, laid a hand on Jeremy's shoulder. “Nothing?”
“It's just Travis,” Jeremy sighed. “I can avoid him in Twin Hills, but I can't hide from him at school. And I have school tomorrow.”
“Let me tell you a secret,” Father Pat said, settling into the chair next to Jeremy. “Boys like Travis are the way they are because something very basic is amiss in their life. If you can stand up to him in a way that lets you connect with that boy deep inside of Travis, then you will no longer have to fear him.”
“I don't understand.”
“What does his father do?”
“He works at the refinery like everyone else.”
“I don't know. I've never seen her.”
“Maybe Travis's parents are no longer together. Perhaps that is what makes him decide to act as a bully. Think on how you can connect with the scared boy deep inside of Travis. Think on how you can forgive him. Okay?”
Jeremy frowned. This hardly made any sense. “I guess so.”
Father patted Jeremy's shoulder. “All right then, come on. We have a job to do, and I think you're the only acolyte today.” Father took the bronze cross from its stand and walked out of the sacristy. Jeremy's mind buzzed; he was going to serve alone! When they stepped to the base of the center aisle, there was hardly time for a breath before Mr. Leblanc nodded at them and the music began. Jeremy stepped off, shoulders squared.
Song rose into the swooping, curved buttresses. They came to the altar, genuflected, and climbed the three wide steps. Father began with his usual greetings, then read the first prayers from the giant Bible that Jeremy held open. Afterward, Jeremy carried the great Bible to the altar, easing it onto its wooden stand to await the Petition and the Eucharist after the Readings.
Mass carried on in its somber, slow pace, as it had for two thousand years and would for another two thousand. A lecturer read the two passages from the Old and New Testament, Father read the gospel and gave his sermon. Jeremy's mind wandered out into the ether, thinking about the wiles of Kronshar and what it would be like to see in both the Shadow World and the real world at the same time. The entire congregation chanted the Nicene Creed as he and Father led them. Jeremy mentally prepared for the next steps. Now he would have to act, especially since he was the only one up there.
The gifts were presented and Jeremy took the water and the wine to the half-hidden shelf at the far left of the altar. He put them there and pushed through the hidden door into the back room. It was a long room, built into the edge of the church, serving as both a storeroom and a conference room. The floor was green tile, left over from before Father Pat's remodeling. There was a sink with a special drain where they poured the leftover blessed wine so that it could drain straight to the earth. There was a statue of Mary in the center of a long table with papers scattered about and folding chairs seated around it. Behind the table were cabinets stuffed with fake flowers and decorations for different celebrations. Jeremy glanced around for a moment before finding the trigger candle lighter on a nearby table. He took it, stepped out, and stopped.
His next task was to light the candles in their hammered bronze stands on either side of the altar's table. Beeswax candles, slender and white, topped with gold weights to ensure they would burn down straight. The tops of the stands were level with Jeremy's eyes and the candles were usually not much higher. But these were new. They towered four feet above the stands, almost as tall as Jeremy's dad.
He took a breath and walked across the altar, wondering how he would reach them. Standing on the tips of his toes, he held the very end of the trigger lighter and stretched his right arm as far as it would go, teetering there. Careful not to fall into the pedestal and send it clattering to the floor and mindful of the taboo of touching the altar, he hung there like a graceless ballerina straining for flight.
He clicked the trigger on the flame and its yellow tongue licked the gold weight atop the candle. Just another inch.
Almost there. Stretch. His shoulder jammed into his ear, his toes wailed. His balance swayed. One. More. Inch.
His hands shook too much for the flame to find the wick. He fell forward. Twisting to miss the candleholder, he reached his left hand toward the altar, hoping to break his fall.
Strong hands caught him under his arms, sweeping him into the air. Jeremy gasped. The lighter slipped out of his right hand but he caught it with his left.
“Light it,” whispered Father.
They walked to the second candle and Father picked him up again. Father walked behind the altar to begin the Blessing of the Gifts and the Petition. How did Father pick him up? He was old. Jeremy realized he was staring at the priest, shook his head, and fell into the rhythm of the Mass, quickly fetching the carafe of wine, the chalice, and the bowl of water. He was too shocked to thank him.
Mass plodded on as though nothing had happened. The gifts were blessed, Communion served. During Communion, Jeremy knelt on the altar steps and stared at the dancing flames of the candles. How had Father lifted him? He was an old man, certainly older than Pawpaw. He reminded himself to say some prayers and did so, asking God to help him become a better person, and asking God to help him find a way out of the world and into some place better with adventure, some place where he would not be too small to make a difference.
Back in the sacristy, Jeremy laid the Bible on its stand. “Thank you, Father Pat. I couldn't reach those candles.”
He laughed. “Don't worry about it. Thank
, my child.”
Someone stepped in to talk to Father and Jeremy slipped out to the cloakroom where he could hang his robe and wooden cross for the next acolyte. He found his family waiting for him. As they left the church, his mom grabbed his arm and leaned down, whispering into his ear, “Why did you make Father Pat pick you up? You're too heavy for him.”
“Mom, I didn't ask him to. He just did.”
“You shouldn't have done it. You should have just left the candles unlit.”
Jeremy sighed. Looking toward the eastern edge of Twin Hills, he could see the dark line of the trees that started just on the other side of the baseball fields across the street from the church. He said nothing else, though his mom and dad kept talking. He climbed into the car and wished hard that he could find a way into the heart of the woods, into the skin-prickling darkness that lit his nerves on fire. There was a doorway there. He knew it. If he could find it, he could leave the world behind like the children in
The Chronicles of Narnia
books, only he would never come back.
Jeremy suffered through lunch, counting the seconds until he could switch his stiff slacks and starched shirt for stained jeans and a T-shirt. Once he was excused, Jeremy took his air rifle and marched across the street into Twin Hills. What else could he have done? The candles had to be lit, and Father Pat didn't seem to be hurt from picking him up. Why were his parents angry about it? Why was everyone always so angry? But the moment his feet left the pavement of Nevada Street, a silken peacefulness settled on his shoulders and he forgot about the incident.
Daronwy created a path of energy, knowing Jeremiah's heart would lead him toward it, communicating in a language unconscious to the boy's mind. The gun hung in his right hand, carried like an afterthought, not a weapon. Jeremiah ducked through the small trail that led from the pond to the clearing and stood at the upheaval of Daronwy's roots. He always did this, stopped and stood, as though listening for the invitation that he could not possibly hear nor suspect. Daronwy bent energy, creating a rift, and the boy flowed into it the way water flows between rocks, choosing the path that has been made for it. He climbed onto Daronwy's trunk, bent forward and walking with a careful hand against the old bark. Near the top, where branches still stretched for the sun, Jeremiah sat, putting his back against them so that he could turn his eyes skyward. The gun lay across his lap. A wild hurricane of thoughts circled his seed-sized mind.
Daronwy coaxed a breeze to rustle its scent through the air, herding it beneath the boughs of the brethren. Jeremiah inhaled the wind all the way into the bottom of his lungs, letting it out slowly, letting his mind dip into the unending conversation of air and breath and life, as naturally as though he had been born one of the brethren.
A ragged scream abraded the edge of the tree's energy. He recognized Travis' unique blend of self-hatred and anger and could see him. Travis' stepmother held him fast by the arm and hit him twice on the head with a belt. He twisted and stumbled out of her grip. She yelled at him, brandishing the belt overhead. He edged toward the door. Looking from it to her, he pushed through and sprinted across the street toward the line of shadows where she could not follow.
, Daronwy thought. Unlike Jeremiah, Travis could not hear the songs of the trees, and only the greatest desperation would allow him to touch this plane.
Travis bolted to the dawn side of the pond, climbing the sadistic charade of a ladder that the last generation of saplings had nailed to one of the slender pines. Sitting on a platform, holding his throbbing head in his hands, the wild, desperate magic evaporated from him. Daronwy redoubled his tranquil breeze, pushing it up to Travis on his high perch. Though he could not understand it, he could feel it as a comforting breath against his tears. Perhaps it would be enough.
“The only mercy the human animal has from the Creator is the ephemeral flicker of its own life. Would you dare imagine what the Earth would be like if they lived a thousand seasons?” That dour meditation was offered into Daronwy's spiral of thought by a nearby pine that stood nearly as ancient as the oak.
“Best not to think of it now,” Daronwy admonished. “Best to maintain the peace of this energy and give solace where solace is due.”
Yet, the question's subtle disruption was enough. Jeremiah left the oak, wandering aimlessly through the forest, troubled by a thought he could not define or translateâthe thought from the pine, tickling the edges of his mind. He walked to the pine grove and found himself standing beneath the very tree where Travis sat, high above.
Jeremiah stared at the pond, rallying his mind to discern the thought, trying to ascertain what the question was. The two trees both bent their trunks toward him, interested to see how much this sapling could translate, how much he could understand of the Song. Travis watched him as well, holding a green pinecone in his fist. Travis released the cone. The trees watched it fall, choosing to let these things take their course; they gave the wind its power, allowing it to do what it willed. But it also chose not to act.
The unopened cone cracked into Jeremiah's skull. He swooned for a second, bracing his hand against the Club Tree, as he called it. Travis slithered back to the center of his platform, hand clapped over his mouth to contain his exclamation. Jeremiah stared up at the canopy a long moment, then, holding his head, staggered toward home.
Eyes filling with unwanted, unnecessary tears, Jeremy careened through the trails he had mapped. His vision swam. Blood ran down his cheek and into his shirt collar. His feet crashed into one another. He righted himself for a few steps, then they tangled like puppet strings and he stumbled into the dirt. He kept thinking about putting one hand on his head, but he kept finding that hand swinging next to his side. Surprised, he'd clamp it back atop his head where he felt the blood oozing through his hair. Something moved to his right, breaking sticks with its weight. Jeremy swiveled around, swinging the gun into his sticky hands. The world swam with that swift movement and fresh blood tickled his right ear.