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Authors: J. A. White

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BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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Mary sat by the fire pit, stoking the flames. Kara yawned into her hand, her eyelids suddenly heavy.

“Tired?” Mary asked.

Kara nodded. “How about you?”

“I'm always tired. I just don't like to sleep. Bad
dreams.” She watched the dwindling flames with haunted eyes. “With the things I've done, I suppose that's a small price to pay.”

With the things I've done . . .

Kara swallowed hard. Given how much the old woman had helped them, it was easy to forget that she was
Mary Kettle
. Kara had heard all the stories, especially during Shadow Festival. The children of her village had even made up a rhyme:
“Run and hide, run and hide/Mary's coming to take you inside/Her black kettle knows your name/You will never be the same
.

“Stories are just stories,” Kara said. “People used to speak ill of me all the time. Doesn't make it true.”

“Sometimes lies do grow in the telling,” Mary said. Then she leaned forward, her gray eyes flickering in the firelight. “But in my particular case, everything you've heard is true. Every unimaginable horror happened just the way the talespinners say. It's important you know that, Kara Westfall.”

Despite the warmth of the fire, Kara's body had
suddenly grown cold. It took her a few moments to gather the courage to speak again.

“But if you're truly as evil as people claim,” she said, her voice cracking, “then why are you helping us?”

Mary chewed her lower lip. “Chances at redemption do not come so often in the Thickety. I might not get another. You need me to survive, but I need you as well. I know it's far too late for me to balance the scales completely, but maybe if I can counter all the evil I've done, just a little bit, I can find some sort of . . .” The old woman paused, shaking her head. “What are you, fourteen?”

“Twelve.”

“Tall for your age.”

“I've been told.”

“In any case, far too young to understand all this.”

A series of images flashed through Kara's mind.
Simon Loder's face, bloated by stings. Grace's crystal-blue eyes as she falls into the grimoire's abyss
.

“I understand just fine,” Kara said.

Mary Kettle opened her mouth as though to disagree, but then met Kara's dark eyes and nodded. Reaching into a side pocket she withdrew a clear vial and poured its contents into the flames, which flashed silver for a moment before bursting into a pure, warming light.

Kara yawned, mesmerized by the flickering flame, a sanctuary in the encroaching darkness.

“It'll burn through the night now,” Mary said. “Just so you know, I might not be here come morning. At least, not this me.”

Before Kara could ask what she meant, sleep took her.

Kara was not a dreamer by nature, but when she did dream, it was often of her mother. Images, mostly: Mother scrubbing Kara's nails clean after a day gathering herbs in the Fringe; Mother packing a poultice in a calf's wounded nose while whispering a song in the animal's ear. Or just Mother's face, Kara trying to hold the features in her head, fighting against the day when she
could no longer remember what Helena Westfall looked like at all.

Tonight, however, Kara did not dream of Mother.

She dreamed of Father.

He was walking through a field she had never seen, the soil already tilled and ready for seeding. His beard was neatly trimmed, and on his head he wore the black hat he used to favor when Mother was alive. By the way he carried himself Kara knew that this was her real father and not Timoth Clen, and she longed to run into his arms and drink in the farmer smells of dirt and coffee.

Father scooped up a handful of earth, then let it run through his fingers, watching it carefully as it fell to the ground. Stroking his beard he pulled a black pouch from his inside pocket and shook it in his hands. It rattled.

The dream ended.

Kara awoke to the sounds of swordplay.

The rain had stopped but little remained of the hazy
green glow; the canopy leaves, having used up their stored light, needed to be replenished by the sun's rays before they could be effective again. In the meantime, Mary had encircled their camp with a dozen blazing torches.

“I got you that time!” Taff shouted. “I'm getting better!”

“Oh yes,” said a girl's voice. “I bow before your masterful skill.”

It took Kara's eyes a few moments to adjust to the light, but once they did she saw Taff and a girl about eleven years of age. They were fighting with wooden swords, the girl's sharp gray eyes tracking Taff's every move. He swung his sword and she slid out of the way with feline grace.

“Almost hit you!” Taff exclaimed.

The girl turned to Kara. “Note the use of the word ‘almost,'” she said. “Important distinction, don't you think?”

There was something familiar about this girl, Kara thought, especially in the eyes, as flat and expressionless
as stone. And then she remembered the words spoken to her before she fell asleep:
I might not be here come morning. At least, not this me
.

It couldn't be. . . .

The girl dodged another one of Taff's blows, dancing past him with ease and smacking him on the bottom.

“Hey!” Taff exclaimed, his ears turning red.

“Would you rather I hit your sword arm? Perhaps knock some skill into it?”

Grunting with exertion, Taff turned and swung the wooden sword wildly. He was growing frustrated now, and it was making him careless.

“Keep your feet balanced,” the girl said, dodging every blow, “and your arms raised. You look tired.”

“I am tired!”

“Fine. Just don't show it. Perception is all.”

Taff brought the sword down, and instead of dodging the blow, the girl met it with her own weapon. The clack of wood reverberated throughout the forest. Branches
shook as a flock of tri-winged birds spiraled into the sky.

With a shout of pain Taff dropped the sword. He rubbed his left elbow, his arm hanging loosely by his side.

“Is this your pathetic way of yielding?” the girl asked.

“I think that's enough,” Kara said. “You're going to get hurt.”

Taff rolled his eyes. “We're having fun, Kara.”

“Yes,” said the girl. “You did well. Considering.”

“Considering what?” Taff asked.

“Just considering.”

The girl knelt by the bucket and ladled water into a cup. She handed it to Taff.

“Drink. The ringing in your arm will pass.” She took a step back, taking stock of him. “You should forget about using a sword. You will never be large enough to wield it.”

“I'm not done growing, you know!”

“If you see the stem of a rose, do you suspect it will turn into an oak tree?” She lifted his arm, ran a hand
along his back. “The thinness of the wrists, the slope of your shoulders. You're not meant for size.” She tilted his chin upward so his eyes met hers. “Besides, you have a gentle heart. Not a good quality if you plan on plunging a blade through a man's chest with any regularity.”

Kara stepped into the conversation.

“You can change your age,” she said.

The girl nodded and picked up Taff's sword. Withdrawing a penknife she carefully whittled away the splinters.

“It's a good sign that you realized it so quickly,” Mary Kettle said. “Such a willingness to embrace the impossible will help you in the days to come. Your brother figured it out right away as well. But saying I can
change
my age is not exactly true. It's nothing I can control. My years are a fickle thing, slipping and sliding as I sleep. Even I don't know how many years younger I'll be when I wake. Or older.”

“How is that possible?” Kara asked.

“A long story,” she said, “best left for another time. We need to start moving.”

She handed the sword to Taff.

“You're fast,” she said. “That's good.”

Taff beamed. “A swordsman needs to be fast.”

“You misunderstand. I meant you could use your speed for running away.”

“I don't want to run! I want to fight!”

“No,” said Mary. “I think you're too smart for that. I see it in your eyes. A blazing intelligence.”

Kara wrapped an arm around Taff's shoulders. “The schoolmistress back in De'Noran said she couldn't teach him fast enough. That he could do with a boatload of books from the World.”

Mary regarded Taff carefully. She might have looked like a child, but there was no mistaking the wisdom in those old eyes.

“Perhaps that can be your weapon, then,” she said.

Taff did not look convinced. “Being smart?” he asked.
“How can I fight with that?”

“If you have to ask, then I was wrong to think it. Feel free to practice your sword work, futile as it may be. But for now we must break camp.”

Taff slid the wooden sword through the belt loop of his mud-stained breeches.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“I will take you to the path that leads out of the Thickety. It is a long journey, but this is good, in a way. You will need the time to train. Only then will you have a chance against Imogen. But first there is another problem of a more pressing nature.”

Mary crouched next to her sack and, after rummaging quickly through its contents, withdrew a simple slingshot. She lowered her voice so that only they could hear.

“We're being watched. Come, children. It's time to go hunting.”

T
hey edged along a rise overlooking the stone bridge from the previous night and wound north through a tangle of black-leaved trees. A thick carpet of moss gentled their footsteps.

“Is it Sordyr?” Taff asked. “Is he the one watching us?”

“Don't be foolish,” Mary said. “It'll be days before he reaches the end of the ravine and is able to cross over. I told you—”

“His feet need to touch the earth at all times,” replied Taff. “I remember. But why?”

“Is the why of it so important?” she asked.

“It is to me!” he exclaimed.

“How strange,” Mary said. “In the Thickety we are simply happy to survive. But I will answer your question. Beneath his feet lies a network of roots that anchor him to the Thickety. They stretch out of the dirt to allow him enough freedom to move but never part his body entirely, for if they did he would wither and die. He is as much a part of the Thickety as these trees you see before us. And, like them, he is a prisoner here and longs to make his escape. After so many years, it is the only thing that matters to him anymore.” She sighed, looking out at the shifting shadows beyond the chasm. “It wasn't always like this, you know. Once the sailors sang songs of this island, its great beauty. But then Sordyr came and the Thickety spread like a sickness from one shore to the other. De'Noran is the only part left untouched.”

“Our village has its own brand of sickness,” Kara said. “Besides, I think you can find beauty anywhere if you
look hard enough. Even here.”

“Perhaps,” Mary said, “but it's a dark, diseased sort of beauty.”

To their left hung a throng of brownish, sagging bracken.
In De'Noran
, Kara thought,
such plants would be a vibrant shade of green
. Here, however, the palette was limited to black and brown and gray and all the hues between. The smells Kara usually associated with the woods of De'Noran—soothing pine, moist earth, the fragrant perfume of blossoming flowers—were nowhere to be found. Instead, decay permeated every breath. The Thickety looked like a forest but lacked its most essential qualities, like a person with a smiling face and all the right words but an empty cavity where the heart should be.

A dark, diseased sort of beauty
.

The bracken rustled.

Lightning fast, Mary turned in the direction of the noise and aimed her slingshot. She waited, the empty pocket pulled taut between two fingers.

“You forgot to load it,” Taff whispered. “I'll get you a stone.”

“I don't need one,” Mary replied.

She swiveled in the direction of a nearby tree and released the pocket. There was a soft whizzing sound, and a branch cracked at its center and fell to the ground.

Mary retrained the slingshot on her original target, ignoring Taff's astonished expression.

“It's magic, isn't it?” he asked.

“That's right.”

A toothy grin lit Taff's face.

“Can I try?”

“No,” Mary said. She turned to Kara and nodded toward the bracken. “Flush it out.”

Kara picked up a long branch and nudged the clump of vegetation. Nothing happened. She heard Mary's slingshot stretch even farther.

“Do it again,” Mary said.

Kara jumped backward as something with five legs
and black mushrooms sprouting from its body exploded out of the undergrowth, wildly gnashing its teeth. Mary trained her weapon on the creature but paused only a moment before lowering it. The animal zipped off into the forest.

BOOK: The Whispering Trees
13.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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