The Light-Bearer's Daughter (5 page)

BOOK: The Light-Bearer's Daughter
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ana hurried along the trail through the woods, ducking under the overhanging branches and jumping over roots and rocks. To her right, a burbling stream bordered the road, half hidden by thickets of hazel and ash. To her left, the ground sheered upward, covered with trees and a dense undergrowth of fern. The call of a wood pigeon echoed over the treetops. The air was pungent with the scent of wild garlic. She stopped for a moment to glare at writing gouged into the silver-gray trunk of a birch. How would people like it if trees carved names on
their
skin?
Oak loves holly. Rowan was here
. When she rested her hand against the scars, she startled a treecreeper. The tiny bird scrabbled up the trunk like a little brown mouse, but not before issuing a
tssst
to express its annoyance.

“Sorry,” she called softly. “Didn’t see you!”

Leaving the trail behind, Dana climbed the slope, pushing her way through bracken and fern, avoiding the prickly patches of holly and bramble. She didn’t see the green tent until she was almost on top of it. Low snores rumbled from inside; someone catching up on lost sleep after a stint of night duty. She checked the branches overhead. Like the tent, the tree houses could be camouflaged; she might be missing them.

Setting out again, she was surprised to hear a twig snap behind her.

“Hello?” she said, looking around.

Was someone following her? The strange man from the camp? Or maybe it was an animal. Though they were rarely seen in daylight, foxes and badgers lived in the glen. The woods seemed suddenly ominous, pressing against her. She shivered. For a moment she considered going back.
Don’t be silly. There’s nothing to be afraid of
.

As Dana continued upward, she spotted a rope ladder hanging down the trunk of a tall beech. Craning her neck, she spied the tree house above her, resting in the branches like a great disheveled bird. It was built of wooden pallets and covered with blue sheets of waterproof plastic that crackled in the breeze.

“Anyone home?” she called.

No answer.

She didn’t think twice about going up. A safety rope dangled alongside the ladder. Tying it around her waist, she started to climb. Looking down made her dizzy, but she also felt exhilarated. She had never gone this high before.

When she finally reached the tree house, she found it crude and rather shabby. There were two musty sleeping bags on dank pieces of carpet, some books and papers, and candles in glass jars. Nonetheless, it was exciting to be there. When the wind blew, the house swayed with the branches. Dana remembered a book her father had read to her,
The Tree That Sat Down
. She had always wanted to sleep in a hammock— like the girl in the story—strung high in the treetops, under the stars.

She gazed out over the forest canopy. Below her curved the road and the ribbon of stream. The sound of the cars and the water was muted, like the fall of soft rain. Smoke from the campfire wisped through the trees. Wouldn’t Gabe have a fit if he could see her!

A flash of light caught her eye. On the slope above her. One of the eco-warriors signaling with a mirror? There it was again! A burst of gold. Not a mirror. Too big, too bright. As if the sun were caught in a net of branches. But the sun was overhead. She had just decided to go and investigate when she spotted something else nearer to her. Something or someone moving through the trees. She couldn’t make out the shape as it was hunched and half crawling, as if trying to hide. It was coming toward her. One of the tree-house dwellers? But why so sneaky? Dana was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense that she wasn’t safe.

The fear of being cornered sent her into a panic. Without thinking, she threw herself onto the ladder and forgot to grab hold of the safety rope. In her haste, she lost her balance and her foot slipped. The ladder swung. The world spun around her. With a cry, she clutched the rungs till the ladder steadied. Then she hurried down.

She had just reached the bottom when someone broke from the trees. Murta, Big Bob’s right-hand man. Dana was immediately wary. He had always given her the creeps; the way he stared at her chest when no one was looking. A chill ran through her. The campsite seemed suddenly far away. Gabe’s constant warnings raced through her mind.
Stand strong. Stare them straight in the eye. Make it obvious you’ll fight. They don’t like that. If attacked, go for the groin. Or the eyes, if he gets that near. Punch, kick, bite, whatever you need to do. Yell as loud as you can. Shout “fire.” People respond to that
.

“Is my Da looking for me?” she demanded. “I’m on my way back.”

“No, no,” said Murta, licking his lips nervously. He managed a weak smile. “I thought you might like to see a tree house. Maybe this one?”

“I’ve already seen it,” she said coldly.
As if I’d go anywhere with you
.

“There are other ones you could see,” he said, stepping closer.

She backed away instinctively and bumped into the tree behind her. He appeared to be huge, blocking her path. She kept staring at his fingers, stained yellow with nicotine.

Then she heard it, high up in the air. A stream of music so sweet it brought tears to her eyes.

“Gabe?”

It sounded like his flute, the silver one. A surge of relief flooded through her. He liked to practice in the woods.

Murta looked around quickly. The swift change in his features gave her a shock: the hatred that burned there.

She didn’t stop to wonder. The instant he was distracted, Dana made a run for it.

She headed for the camp, but in her panic lost her bearings. Behind her she could hear Murta crashing through the underbrush. He was breathing heavily. Smoker’s lungs. She scrabbled higher up the slope to make it harder for him.

And all the time the silvery notes danced through the air, leading her onward.

The way itself grew more treacherous. She had to fight against the tall bracken; the smell of bruised greenery was suffocating. There was no time to maneuver around briars or brambles, and she was scraped and stung. Her sense of direction was skewed. She had no idea where she was. Then a gust of wind rolled down the mountainside, making the leaves on the ground swirl around her. Startled, she saw little faces in the eddy: narrow eyes and wide mouths and brown crinkled skin. She blinked. They were gone.

The sight had brought her to a halt. And the music had also stopped.

She was almost at the top of the ridge, in the farthest reaches of the glen. A great oak tree stood before her, far taller than any she had ever seen. A ladder of twined ivy hung down its trunk, and above was a tree house impossibly high in the branches. Even from that distance, she could see it was different from the other one. This had a natural grace and form, as if it grew from the tree itself.

Dana’s skin tingled. She could hardly breathe. More than anything else, she wanted to get up there. Fear and daring battled inside her. Could she climb that high? What if Murta caught her there? There were no sounds of pursuit behind her, only a soft whisper in the leaves above.

Follow the greenway
.

Grasping the ladder, Dana hurried upward before she could change her mind. Clusters of oak leaves brushed against her as she climbed higher and higher. Though she tried not to look down, she couldn’t help but see the valley unfurl below her. The forest canopy was like a carpet of curly kale. In the distance, to the east, rolled the smooth lawns of a golf course, and beyond them, the blue glimmer of the Irish Sea. She felt light-headed. Her hands trembled as she gripped the next rung. There was no safety rope. Shouldn’t she go back?

She continued on.

At last she reached the crown of the oak to find the loveliest tree house imaginable. Slender branches wove together to form a green dome stippled with primroses, bluebells, and pink and white foxgloves. The windows were openings like big round eyes. A natural arch made the door. Dana lowered her head to enter. The interior was dappled with a gentle green light. The scent of wildflowers tinted the air. The whole structure rocked gently, like a boat on the waves.

Magical.

But no more magical than the person who waited inside.

A young woman of startling beauty sat cross-legged by a low wooden table. Her gown was of green silk threaded with silver. White blossoms wreathed her long fair hair. Her skin seemed to shimmer with a trace of gold.

Was she a hippie girl, Dana wondered, an English traveler like Billie? But the label didn’t fit. There was something too … queenly … about her. An eccentric aristocrat perhaps? There were plenty of those involved in the cause. Some of them lived in the big house above the glen. Dana was suddenly conscious of her own appearance. Her clothes were soiled from climbing the ridge and she was covered with scratches. Mumbling apologies, she started to back out the door.

The Lady smiled.

“Fáilte romhat,”
she said, beckoning Dana to join her.

“I welcome thee to my forest fane.”

Her voice was musical, silvery.

Not a hippie, Dana decided, but definitely eccentric. Both the Irish and the English sounded odd.

With the same breathless excitement she had felt before climbing the tree, Dana sat down on a mat of soft moss.

“Eat and drink with me,” said the Lady.

A little feast was laid out on crystal dishes. There were bowls of luscious wild berries and roasted hazelnuts, tall glasses of a dark purple wine, and elegant seedcakes dripping with honey.

The moment she sampled the fare, Dana wanted more. Never had nuts tasted so rich and nutty, while the berries burst on her tongue with tart zest. As for the little honeyed cakes, they tasted like sunlight dusted with sugar. She was about to cram another one into her mouth when she stopped. A tiny alarm had sounded in the back of her mind. Some warning about not eating? Her hand dropped into her lap. Her eyelids felt heavy. The alarm in her mind was louder now, urging her to leave, but she was reluctant to do so.

“We are in need of thy help,” the Lady said.

Dana’s thoughts were muzzy. It took some effort before she could speak.

“Da and me … we’re doing … he’s …”

The Lady shook her head.

“You alone, dear heart. The
Ard Rí
needs you to be his messenger.”


Ard Rí?
… High King? What—?”

The Lady’s gaze was steady. Where had Dana seen eyes that blue before?

“Do you not know who we are?” the Lady asked her.

Dana was bewildered. She felt as if something was pressing against her so that she could hardly breathe.

“Aren’t you … one of … the tree people?”

The Lady nodded gravely.

“That is one of our names: the Tree People.”

A shiver ran up Dana’s spine. She sensed the capital letters and the huge significance that lurked behind them. Now the Lady was saying even more baffling things.

“I am of the Tree People behind the tree people. We inspire their work. The destruction of the forest is the beginning of the end of our world.”

Dana was growing more nervous by the minute. This was more than eccentric; it was weird and kind of scary. Were drugs involved? She wanted to leave but couldn’t move. Something in the food? She opened her mouth to scream for help, but found herself yawning instead. Her eyelids felt heavy and began to close.

Watching her keenly, the Lady grew upset.

“Thou art
fairy-struck
, Dana! Do not be spellbound! Come, we have need of thee!”

Some part of Dana wanted to please the Lady, especially after she had given her such nice things to eat. But it was too difficult. Her eyes had closed to shut out the impossible, and she was drifting away into the safe harbors of sleep.

The Lady buried her face in her hands.

“Lost to me are human ways and speech! I cannot gain her trust nor secure her assurances. I have failed the Summer Land!”

The tears and laments didn’t wake Dana, but the sudden transformation that followed did.

“Omigod! You’re only a kid! How could I possibly send you on a dangerous mission? It’s worse than abduction!”

Dana’s eyes sprang open. The North American accent was like a cold splash of water. What was going on? She rubbed her eyes. Everything was different. Though the young woman was still pretty, she had lost her
glamour
. The golden sheen was gone from her skin, and the startling blue eyes were now hazel-green. Her blond hair was in knots, strewn with daisies and leaves. Instead of a shining gown, she wore faded jeans and a grimy T-shirt. She looked very like a hippie, and a scruffy one at that.

Dana was stunned.

“Who are you?”

“I … I’m not sure.”

The voice was the biggest shock. The silvery tone had disappeared to be replaced with an accent that was clearly recognizable, as it was so like her father’s.

“You’re not even Irish!”

The older girl, little more than a teenager, looked as surprised as Dana.

“I … I was … I don’t … I’m kinda new to … This has never happened before!” She regarded her clothes with dismay. “Maybe I was so freaked out about not getting through to you that I returned to my former self. You see we … They … You’re really needed, Dana. Big-time. Something evil has entered the Mountain Kingdom. We’ve got to get a message to the Tánaiste. You’re the only way we can reach him.”

BOOK: The Light-Bearer's Daughter
11.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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