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Authors: J. A. White

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BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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B
OOK
O
NE
WEXARI

“Witches spread evil by instructing children in the ways of darkness.”

—
The Path

Leaf 12, Vein 49

T
hough she was only twelve years old, Kara Westfall had known many kinds of darkness. The smothering darkness of a potato sack as it knotted tightly over her head. Watery darkness so absolute she could lose herself in it. The darkness of temptation, blotting her mind with promises of power and revenge. All these darknesses, in their own specific ways, had left their imprint on her soul. They were all different. They were all the same.

She had never known darkness like this before.

After the branches closed behind them, Kara and Taff
were set adrift on an ocean of starless night. All was silent save the muted sound of horse's hooves against the soft surface of the Thickety.

Kara clung tightly to Shadowdancer's mane and closed her eyes, trusting the mare to guide them. She could do little else.

“They tried to kill us,” Taff whispered in her ear. His breath was warm and came in quick, needy gasps; the air here was thin and strange. “Why didn't Father stop them?”

“That
thing
is not our father.”

Kara felt his body tremble against her back.

“Our father is gone,” she continued. “Grace used her Last Spell to change him. He is Timoth Clen now.”


The
Timoth Clen? From the stories?”

Growing up they had been taught the legends. The Mighty Clen. Vanquisher of witches. Creator of the One True Path.

“Yes,” Kara said.

“But that doesn't make any sense.”


Magic
doesn't make any sense.”

“Not that part. The part about Timoth Clen. Even if he was Father—even if he was
anyone
—he would never hurt us. He's
good
!”

“Maybe to some,” she acknowledged. “Not to witches.”

Kara thought she heard a sound in the darkness but it was only Taff shifting into a better position on Shadowdancer's back.

“Is Father dead? Dead forever? Or just gone?”

“I don't know.”

“You'll bring him back.”

“Taff.”

“I've seen what you can do. You're a witch. A
good
witch. You'll cast a spell and fix this.”

The hope in his voice was a dagger driven deep in her heart.

“My spellbook is gone,” Kara said. “And even if I had it, I couldn't use it. It's not safe. You saw what happened to Grace.”

“You're different.”

“Not different enough.”

“But there has to be something we can—”

“I'm not a witch anymore.”

“But—”

“Shh,” Kara said. “Let's just ride for a while.”

Taff linked his hands around her waist and rested his head between her shoulder blades. “I hate magic,” he murmured.

They journeyed deeper into the darkness of the Thickety. Kara wondered if they would ever see the light of day again.

When Taff began to snore, Kara smiled at her brother's ability to fall asleep and stroked the back of his hand, the skin as soft as chicken feathers. Although she would wish the boy to safety if she could, Kara was grateful for his presence.

The Thickety was no place to be alone.

Looking to either side she tried to distinguish any kind
of outline against the utter blackness. Some landmark, some hint of shape or form. Some
. . . something
. But in every direction stretched nothing but absolute darkness.

If this were the other part of the Thickety
, she thought, remembering her first visit
, the webspinners might light a path to guide us. I could call them here, if I could still use magic
. But she couldn't, not anymore, and she felt its absence as keenly as a lost friend.

A light mist began to fall, tingling her cheeks. At least she wasn't cold. Though it was nearly winter in De'Noran, the temperature here was more like the sticky warmth of summer just after a thunderstorm. Sweat rolled down Kara's forehead and matted her clothes to her back.

The warmth, and Shadowdancer's steady cadence, allowed her mind to drift to the events preceding their flight to the Thickety.
Grace, dragged down into the impossible abyss of the grimoire. Lucas's face growing smaller as his ship disappeared into the distance. Rocks and pebbles buzzing past her head, the savage hatred of the villagers she had saved
.

And over it all, words spoken in her mind with the timbre of rustling leaves:
Your power cannot be bound in a book. You are not like the others, Kara Westfall
.

She awoke.

For a single, terrifying moment she was certain that Taff had fallen from the horse. Then the fog of sleep dissipated and Kara felt his comforting weight against her back.

This relief was short-lived, however, once she realized how difficult it was to breathe.

Kara's chest burned as she tried to suck stubborn air into her lungs, but she was limited to short, meager breaths, as though she were pulling air not from the outside world but the tiny opening of a reed whistle. Taff, who had been the picture of health since the Jabenhook rescued him from the brink of death, sounded even worse.

“Taff,” Kara whispered, and even this tiny exhalation of air was difficult for her oxygen-deprived body. “Taff,” she repeated. “You need . . . Wake up.”

“I'm hungry,” her brother muttered, still drowsy. But then he jolted upright in panic. “Can't . . . breathe.”

“Shh,” Kara said. “Shh. Don't talk. Save.”

Although she couldn't see Taff nod in the darkness, Kara knew he understood. His heart, which had been pounding like a drum, settled into a less frantic rhythm.

“Air,” Kara said. “Wrong.”

On Kara's first journey into the Thickety, the air had been fine—better than De'Noran, actually.
But that was two hours south of here. Maybe the air is different in this part of the Thickety. Maybe it's not meant for people
. If that were the case, what should they do? She had no idea how many hours they had traveled. At the rate they were losing oxygen, turning back might be futile. Besides, even if she
wanted
to go back, she didn't know which way to turn. The darkness devoured all sense of direction.

She heard a sickly rumble and realized it was Shadowdancer's heaving chest, desperate for air.
How far has she carried us like this?
Kara thought, patting the mare's
flank, longing to speak reassuring words but unwilling to spare the oxygen. Instead she slid off Shadowdancer's back to lighten her load.

The moment Kara's feet touched the surface, she knew that this section of the Thickety was even stranger than she thought.

The ground was moving.

This slow, steady motion had been easily masked when they were riding Shadowdancer, but there was no doubt about it now. Kara felt the ground and found that it was not dirt at all but something ridged and slippery and as smooth as skin. It tickled her fingertips as it passed, like a lily pad floating along a rolling stream.

Impenetrable darkness. Moving ground. Mist
.

Kara remembered what Mother had taught her about certain Fringe weeds, and in her mind an impossible thought began to form—though surely she would have to reconsider the meaning of the word “impossible” in a forest capable of blotting out the sun.

If we're even in the forest at all
.

She pulled Taff off the horse, her chest aching with the effort.

“Come,” she said. “Hold hands. Don't . . . let go.” She guided him through the darkness, Shadowdancer close behind.

“The ground,” Taff said. “Do you feel—”

“Yes.”

“What is this place?”

Kara longed to explain, but there wasn't enough time.

“Trap,” she said.

The ground pulled them in a certain direction—she couldn't have even guessed which one—but Kara led Taff perpendicular to the moving surface. Each step was exhausting, like walking through water. No matter how deeply she inhaled, only a trickle of air wisped through her lips.

But when their progress was impeded by a wall-like structure, Kara's spirits lifted.
I was right!
she thought,
and then chided herself for such overconfidence. They weren't out of this yet.

She put her ear to the wall's slippery surface and heard the muffled patter of raindrops outside.

“Help,” Kara told Taff. She took him by the hands and guided them over the fleshy wall. “Feel . . . gap. Dig . . . fingers into it.”

Taff squeezed his sister's hand to acknowledge that he understood.

They traced the wall with their fingertips, inspecting the slightly moist surface for openings. The search would have been more efficient if they parted ways, but Kara wouldn't risk sending Taff off on his own. Besides, she wasn't even sure this was going to work.
Just because I saw Mother do it in the Fringe doesn't mean anything here
. Kara ran her fingers across a particularly smooth patch and found her hand continuing to travel downward. It took a few moments for her to realize that she had fallen to the ground. She lay there, her breathing raspy and
quiet, wondering why she wasn't getting to her feet. All she could do was listen to Taff's footsteps vanish into the darkness.

He thinks I'm still beside him, but he's all alone
.

The world spun.

Taff screamed something in the distance, but though she heard the words Kara could not make out their meaning. She tried to take a breath so she could call out his name, but her lungs had finally closed up completely and the first wave of true panic hit her.

And then the ground dropped and Kara was sliding backward down a sudden slope. Cold rain pounded her face, and air, sweet air, filled her lungs. She heard Taff scream with exuberance. Turning her head she watched him tumble down what appeared to be a shiny green mountain, his hands held aloft as though this were some sort of festival ride.

A few moments later Kara was rolling across the soft soil of the Thickety. It was black and granular and nothing
like the fertile soil of De'Noran, but it was still dirt and she had never been happier to feel it. Her breathing came free and easy.

High above, black treetops coiled together and swallowed the vast majority of late-afternoon sunlight, but errant beams speared the forest floor, providing Kara with just enough light to observe her surroundings.

Their former prison hung overhead, suspended by ocher vines. It resembled the type of Fringe weed Mother called a
tulinet
, except you could hold those in your hand and this was large enough to hold hundreds of people, its massive weight distributed among a perfect circle of trees. Black petals fitted together at its center, giving it a dome-like appearance similar to the frame-skirts some girls favored during Shadow Festival. The petal that had provided their escape route retracted into place like a giant tongue.

“What is it?” Taff asked. He stroked Shadowdancer, who looked quite put off by her sudden tumble but was otherwise uninjured.

“A gritchenlock, of course,” said a female voice behind them.

Kara and Taff turned to face her.

The woman was as tall as Kara, which was very tall indeed, and wore a tattered cloak that had been patched together from different sources. Her hair was cut as short as a man's and stuck out in jagged clumps. Based on her dry, wrinkled skin and slightly stooped back, Kara put her at just north of seventy, but there was an ageless quality to her flinty eyes that spoke of lost kingdoms and forgotten lands.

Over her left shoulder drooped a simple rawhide sack. Whenever the woman moved, it rattled mysteriously, as though filled with marbles or shards of broken glass.

“Drink,” the woman said, nodding to a nearby creek.

“Is it safe?” Kara asked.

The woman's eyes narrowed with amusement.

BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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ads

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