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Authors: J. A. White

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BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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“Why aren't you using magic to fight them?” Mary asked.

“I'm done with magic.”

“Hmm,” said Mary. “I wonder, though. Is magic done with you?”

The pack leader growled and two new wolves stepped forward to face Kara, the petals of their eyes opening and closing.

“They're not going to kill you,” Mary said. “But they are going to tear the muscles from your legs and drag you back to their master. Unless you start acting like a proper witch and stop them, that is.”

Kara thought of the Forest Demon waiting for her at the end of the bridge. He would enfold her in his impossibly long cloak and thrust a seed down her throat, changing her into something else altogether.

The thought of using magic again frightened her. The thought of becoming one of Sordyr's minions frightened her more.

“I don't have a grimoire,” Kara said.

“So? You are
wexari
.”

“What's a—”

“Lesson later,” Mary said. “For now, just cast.”

“I—”

“Just. Cast.”

Kara closed her eyes.

Focusing on the branchwolf directly in front of her, she thought:
Stop this
.
Leave us alone
. When she opened her eyes the branchwolf was a few steps closer, having rudely ignored her feeble attempt to enchant it. She tried to remember a spell from the grimoire—any spell—but the words that had once come so easily to her were now nothing more than a jumble. She could recall some individual sounds but the order of them was well beyond her.

The wolf continued to approach.

Kara grunted with frustration. Without the grimoire, casting a spell was impossible, like trying to read without using words.

“I can't,” Kara said.

“Not yet,” said Mary. “But I felt something. Something
weak and insignificant and pathetic, like a kitten trying to topple a mountain.” The old woman sighed and dropped the sack to her feet. “I guess it's up to me this time.”

Humming under her breath, Mary pulled the sack open and shifted through its contents, seemingly unperturbed by their current predicament. Kara thought the branchwolves would use this opportunity to attack, but instead they backed away, eyeing the old woman cautiously.

They're scared
, Kara thought.
Of Mary . . . or whatever's in that sack
.

Finally, Mary withdrew a battered glass lantern. It was set into a cracked and faded red and blue wooden base. Mary blew away its shroud of dust and placed the lantern carefully on the ground.

“You're going to fight them with
that
?” Taff asked.

“What did you expect?”

“I don't know. A sword or something.”

Mary shooed him away. “Bah. Boys and their swords.”

She removed a paper shade from her sack. Several
elaborate shapes had been cut into the material, though Kara could not determine their identity in the dim light.

Lucas told me about these lanterns
, she thought.
They spin and project images onto the wall, matching the shapes cut into the shade. A bauble of the World, far too magical for De'Noran
.

Mary placed the shade over the lantern.

“Don't worry,” she said, taking a few steps backward. “This will take care of them. Watch.”

The branchwolves stopped, waited. Then, their confidence growing, edged closer. The one nearest to Kara bared its teeth, revealing a mouthful of razor-sharp thorns and a tongue speckled with black fungus.

Taff turned to Mary. “You're just crazy, aren't you? You're just a crazy old lady with a sack full of junk.” He shook his head in exasperation. “Figures.”

Facing the wolves, Taff tried to raise his giant stick into attack position but could barely lift it off the ground. He looked about as threatening as a boy toasting marshmallows.

“Wait!” Mary exclaimed, producing a key from the folds of her cloak. “I always forget this part.” With surprising speed, she inserted the key into the base and cranked it three times.

The lantern began to turn.

Kara heard a whooshing sound. Looking up, she watched wisps of early evening sunlight slip between small gaps in the treetops. These threads of light gathered together in swirling whirlpools that rocketed straight through the slight opening at the top of the lantern. The lantern revolved faster, spinning like a top now, sucking more and more light into it.

Behind the lantern's shade a small flame flickered to life, revealing what had been cut into the paper. Kara gasped. The lantern began to spin even faster, just a blur of fiery motion now, and against the sky a dragon of light appeared, a larger version of the shape in the shade. Flickering in and out of existence, it bore down on the branchwolves with a hideous roar. The bridge became a
cacophony of piteous whines as the creatures fled, quite a few slipping over the side.

Moments later the dragon dissipated with a puff of white smoke. The lantern shook away any unused sunlight like a dog after a bath and then came to a creaking halt.

“Still want your sword?” Mary asked Taff.

She slid the lantern into her sack and knotted it tight.

T
hey followed Mary along a narrow path lined with foul-smelling weeds and irises whose petals looked disturbingly like skin. Kara thought she saw the branches of one tree bend closer to the ground, as though to snatch her away, but it could have been her imagination. It was hard to tell anymore.

“Your lantern,” said Kara. “I've never seen such magic.”

“You haven't lived long.”

“In the stories you use a grimoire.”

Mary Kettle winced at the word as though Kara had struck her.

“My spellbook was involved in the lantern's making. But now it's just a tool, like everything else in here.” She shook the contents of the sack. “Almost anyone can use them. No magic required.”

“What else is in there?” Taff asked.

“Toys.”

His expression brightened.

“What kind of toys?”

“Enchanted toys.”

“What kind of—”

“Shh,” whispered Mary. “In this part of the forest, there's a terrible monster that feeds on little boys who ask annoying questions. We don't want to awaken it.”

“I know that's not true,” Taff said, but he remained silent until they reached Mary Kettle's encampment, little more than a fire pit and lean-to built from some rotting pieces of ashwood.

“Rest for a bit,” she said. “Sordyr will have to travel days before finding a place he can cross. He needs earth, the Forest Demon does, two feet planted in the ground
at all times. He cannot cross stone, as you know, nor can he cross water. He cannot ride a horse.”

“Why?” Taff asked, but Mary swatted the question away like a troublesome fly.

“The important thing is that Sordyr does not travel quickly—our one and only advantage.” She paused, biting her knuckle in consideration. “He'll try to cut us off at Brille, I wager.”

“What's Brille?” asked Taff.

“A village.”

“There are villages in the Thickety?”

Mary smiled but did not meet his eyes.

“Of sorts,” she said.

After checking Taff for wounds, Kara lifted the bottom of her dress to examine the place on her calf where the branchwolf had bitten her. The fabric was matted to her skin with dried blood, but the wound was not deep. It would heal. Her pale-green dress, however, was another story. It had been the finest dress she ever owned, a
surprise from her father three days before his coronation as fen'de.

Now it was torn and tattered beyond repair.

Was it really from Father?
she wondered.
Or was he already Timoth Clen, even then?

“It's brighter now than it was during the day,” Taff said. Kara looked up at the canopy. Just an hour ago she could have glimpsed a hint of sunlight through the net of branches—not much, but enough to remind her that it was daytime in the world outside. Now only night peeked between the gaps of the canopy, and while this should have plunged the Thickety into an even deeper darkness, their surroundings had actually become
brighter
, courtesy of a new, green-tinged light that hazed around them.

“One of the quirks of the Thickety,” said Mary. She hung a small cauldron over the fire pit. “If you look up at the treetops there, you'll see that most of the light comes from the leaves themselves. During the day they suck up the sunlight. At night they set it free.”

“Day is night and night is day,” Kara said. “Everything's backward here.”

Mary said, “That's one way of looking at it.”

While Mary reheated some stew left at the bottom of the cauldron, Taff went to gather water from a shallow brook bubbling nearby. Kara warned him to stay within sight, and he mumbled his assent.

Finally she was alone with the witch.

There were so many questions Kara wanted to ask.
Are the stories about you true? Do you know why Sordyr is so intent on capturing me? What do the other things in your sack do?
But feeling a warm weariness settle into her body, Kara decided—for now—to ask the only question that really mattered, the one that couldn't wait: “How do I get my brother out of this place?”

Mary stirred the cauldron, her eyes closed. Kara would have thought her asleep were it not for the steady motion of the wooden ladle.

“You cannot leave the way you came,” she finally said. “Sordyr will not allow it.”

“There must be other ways.”

Mary Kettle's ancient head rose and fell a single time.

“I know of only one path that leads out of the Thickety,” she said. “There is even a ship there, I've heard tell. A relic from an ill-fated journey of exploration.”

“Is it far?” Kara asked.

The old woman fixed her with a disappointed look.

“If you're going to survive this place, child, you need to ask the right questions.”

“The path,” Kara said after a moment's thought. “Why does Sordyr allow it to remain open?”

“But it's not open, not truly. Just closed in a different fashion. See, there's a guardian of sorts at the end of the path, and I think it amuses Sordyr to feed her, like a pet. She's called Imogen, or at least she was when she was still human.”

“What is she now?” asked Kara.

“A foul and hungry beast who has lost every trace of humanity.”

“She eats people?”

“In her way.”

Mary stopped stirring and took a sip from the ladle. Her cloak drooped downward and Kara saw the whole of her arm, blue with veins.

“Perhaps we could sneak by her,” Kara suggested.

“Impossible,” Mary said, sprinkling something into the bubbling stew from a pouch inside her cloak. “But if you take the time to learn magic properly, you might be able to bend her to your will. When all is said and done, Imogen is nothing more than a monster now, and it is my understanding that controlling such creatures is your area of expertise.”

“How do you know that?”

The old woman smiled, her eyes glinting with childlike mischief. “I haven't left the Thickety in a long time—a
very
long time indeed—but I have my ways of checking in on the outside world. A nosy old woman needs her entertainment, after all.” Her face grew serious again. “But no
matter where your talents lie, you must learn to use them properly before facing a creature like Imogen. There will be no grimoire to help you win this battle.”

Kara wasn't anxious to use magic again, but if it was the only way to escape this place, she supposed she didn't have a choice.

“Do you think I can really use magic without a spellbook?” she asked.

“Your first lesson's tomorrow. We'll start with something small and go from there. But we must keep moving. Sordyr may have lost a day or two, but he will not rest until he's found you.”

“You are putting yourself at great risk on our behalf. Thank you.”

Mary did not answer but continued to stir the stew, looking up only when Taff returned, dragging a bucketful of water along the ground.

“You aiming to spill more than we drink?” Mary chided him, taking the bucket from his hands.

She ladled the stew into clay bowls and they ate greedily. It was unlike anything Kara had ever tasted, and as she ate, Mary told her of herbs and vegetables that grew only in the Thickety.

“Plus there's some diced dramal in there,” Mary said. “Caught one just yesterday. Most people don't eat them on account of how they smell when you slice them open, but I think those inside parts taste just fine.”

“What's a—” Taff started, but Kara shushed him, telling him it might be better if they didn't know.

After dinner, Kara washed the cookware in the brook. By the time she returned, Taff was fast asleep. She pulled a blanket over her brother and kissed his forehead. He looked older somehow, aged by experience and not years.

BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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