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Authors: J. A. White

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BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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Only you
.

“I'm sorry, I truly am, but I need to get my brother
to safety. There must be someone else—”

Only you
.

“He's too strong! He'll kill me! Or change me!”

The eyes rotated again. Faster. Insistent.

Only you. Good witch. End suffering. Save us
.

Kill Sordyr
.

Kill Sordyr
.

T
hey trudged onward. For the first two days the landscape didn't change, though with every strong breeze the trees whispered so dolefully that Kara had to resist the urge to sit down on the forest floor and give up altogether. On the third day the ground became marshy and unstable, sucking eagerly at their boots. The air hung in dank and noxious plumes. Mary taught them how to grind certain yellow weeds into a paste and smear them along the interior of a handkerchief. This absorbed the foulness of the air, by nightfall turning the paste a tarry black.

They didn't talk much during their journey; making progress through the harsh landscape required all their energy. Mary's unpredictable age posed difficulties as well. After two days as an eleven-year-old she went back to being an old woman, and they were forced to move at a slower pace. The following day, however, she was a vivacious nineteen and had to slow down for
them
.

As Kara walked, she practiced.

Reaching out with her mind, she listened for the hidden sounds of the Thickety that only she could hear. It was difficult at first—since the creatures' needs were often identical, they tended to blend together like voices in a crowd—but gradually Kara trained herself to distinguish one voice from another. The gruff
FEED
of the fat, boar-like creatures that frequently tottered across their path, for example, was quite different from the skittish
FEED
of the winged slugs that slipped away at the slightest noise. Kara grew to recognize the timbre of each voice, and by the end of the third day she could quickly pinpoint
an individual creature in the swarm of sounds.

She began to hear other, more complex thoughts as well. A mother
HOPING
her new hatchling would be safe. A lone creature, cocooned in spirals of web, anxious to be
FREE
. A thirsty branch bug
WISHING
for rain.

Unfortunately, even the happiest sounds were tarnished by darkness. The animals lived their life in fear of Sordyr. He had polluted their forest with evil and transformed many of their friends and family into snapping things more plant than animal. Safety was a dream long forgotten.

There's nothing I can do to help them
, Kara told herself again and again.
Even if I didn't have to keep Taff safe, I'll never be powerful enough to fight Sordyr
.

She knew she was right, but it did not make her feel any better.

On the fifth day, as they finally left the swamp and entered a new section of the forest, Kara focused her attention on a creature she had never seen before, a spiky
ball covered in tongues and eyes that ran onto her outstretched hand.

“Ew,” said Taff.

Kara said, “Don't be cruel. I think she's cute.”

“You think all these things are cute.”

Kara reached out with her mind, anticipating the usual thoughts:
FEED, SLEEP, NEST . . .

It wasn't any of those. Kara dropped the creature to the ground.

“What is it?” Taff asked, grabbing his sister's arm.

“It . . . No, I must have just imagined it.”

“Imagined what?”

Kara watched the tiny creature slip beneath the undergrowth.

“It talked to me,” she said.

“What did it say?”

“‘Help us.'” She mumbled the words, not wanting them to be true. “It said, ‘Help us.'”

That night, Kara awoke to someone pinching her shoulder.

“Wake up,
wexari
,” Mary Kettle said. “You've listened enough. It's time to cast a proper spell.”

Kara shook Taff awake, then dressed quickly beneath nighttime trees glowing with pinpoints of yellow-red, as though the sun itself had been impaled on the branches above them and bled onto the leaves. They packed their meager belongings, and from her sack Mary retrieved a lopsided ball stitched together with animal skin. She tossed it to Taff. He looked at Kara for guidance, unsure of what to do next.

“Well, it's not going to work if you just stand there,” Mary said. “You're a boy. It's a ball. Use that clever mind of yours and figure out what to do.”

Taff tossed the ball into the air, and it began to glow faintly. Giggling, he tossed it again and again until it was as bright as a torch.

“Thank you,” said Mary, taking the ball from his hands. “Let's go.”

Though it flickered erratically and sometimes went out for entire minutes at a time, the glowing ball was a welcome beacon of light as they passed beneath trees bristling with hidden life. Sets of eyes in twos and threes watched them between parted leaves. A snake that was little more than a forked tongue slithered over Kara's boots, while above them a many-clawed creature, thin as a flapjack, stretched tightly across the limbs of several trees.

In time they came to a small clearing.

Knee-high grass just a few shades darker than wheat rustled in the gentle breeze. Past the clearing Kara heard the rushing of a waterfall. She stepped forward, intending to investigate, but Mary gripped her arm.

“Wait,” said Mary. She picked a few blades of grass, rolled them into a ball, and sucked it eagerly. “It won't be long now.” She found a stump to rest on. Taff plucked a blade of grass and took a hesitant taste before tossing it to the ground. He looked at Mary with newfound admiration, impressed by her ability to ingest disgusting things.

“The thing to remember about magic,” Mary said, “is that it's a talent, no different from being a painter, or singer, or teller of tales. They are witches, all, creating something that was not previously in the world.”

“There's a big difference between singing a song and casting a spell,” Kara said.

“Is there? A talespinner, for a time, will take his audience and transport them to a different place. A good singer as well. And a sculptor uses her craft to reflect reality as she sees it.” Mary spat out a huge wad of gunk and replaced it with some fresh grass; her tongue was beginning to turn yellow. “When you use magic, you are simply changing what's real to what you want it to be.”

“But that's not possible.”

“For most. But have you never looked at something extraordinary—a stained-glass window, a beautiful gown—and wondered, ‘How did they
do
that?' Possibility is not universal, Kara. It's a matter of
ability
.” Leaning forward, Mary held the glowing ball between them, her
features almost pretty in the soft light. “Believe you have the power to change the world, and you will. Forget the Forest Demon. Doubt is your greatest enemy right now.”

Something darted through the grass. Taff withdrew his wooden sword.

“Put that thing away, boy. You'll be doing your sister a grave disservice if you scare the grettins away before we even start.”

“What's a grettin?” Kara asked.

“Little creatures that come out here every night to eat the grass. They're as harmless as mice. That's not the best part, though. Wait.”

They waited. There seemed to be a dozen creatures moving through the grass now—two dozen. And then, muffled by the stalks, came a high-pitched, melodious sound.

“They're singing!” exclaimed Kara.

The chirping rose and fell in perfect time to the wind's rustling, the creaking of the branches, the
song's beauty only intensified by its contrast to their grim surroundings.

Kara looked over at Mary. Her eyes were closed, and an expression that was almost peaceful had settled over her features.

“What do they look like?” Taff asked, stretching across the ground on his elbows.

Mary shrugged. “I've never seen one. Grettins have the misfortune of being a tasty treat for predators, so they're understandably skittish. If I were to take a single step toward the grass, they would all run off.” She opened her eyes and turned to Kara. “But if you were to use your magic, I think we might get a different result.”

“I'm not so sure about that,” Kara said, wringing her hands. “Hearing these creatures is one thing. Making them do my bidding . . .”

“You've done it before,” said Mary.

“With the grimoire!”

“The spellbook allowed you to cast spells more easily,
I'll grant you that. But nothing has changed. You are
wexari
. A true witch.” Mary gestured toward the clearing. “Now go out there and prove it.”

Kara took a dazed step forward, the first blades of stiff yellow grass scratching her knee, before a question occurred to her. She looked back over her shoulder, taking a moment to brush long strands of black hair from her eyes.

“You said a witch was like an artist, creating something that wasn't there before. But I just communicate with animals. What am I creating?”

Mary clapped her hands together. “Well done,
wexari
. You're asking the right question
. Or close enough, at any rate. A better question would be, ‘What do I
need
to create?'”

“That doesn't help.”

“Nor should it. Asking the right question isn't enough. You have to ask it at the right time.”

“How will I—” Kara started, but Taff cut her off.

“They won't hurt her, will they?” he asked.

“Of course not,” Mary said. “Kara, if you truly intend to face Imogen, you need to master your powers, but I would never put you in a situation where you might get hurt—not yet, at least. Then again . . .”

Mary withdrew a curved dagger from a sheath hanging from her side and handed it to Kara.

“Probably best to be cautious. This is the Thickety, after all.”

With hesitant footsteps Kara entered the clearing. At first the grass rustled as startled creatures fled her approach, but Kara moved slowly toward the center of the field, humming a song her mother had taught her, and the creatures returned. She sat down and crossed her legs, the blades of grass rising over her head and obscuring everything but the treetops. It was like sinking into a secret world.

You've called animals to you before
, she thought.
You can do it again
.

“Come here,” Kara whispered. “I won't hurt you.”

Her words were anchored by doubt.

What if Mary is wrong? What if I'm not special after all?

“You get one yet?” Taff asked after only a few minutes had passed. Mary shushed him.

In the following hour Kara asked, commanded, cajoled, and begged the creatures to come to her, with no result. Kara could hear the true voices of many grettins, but even these were vague, no more than brief snatches of
SING
and
HIDE
peeking out from beneath the telltale sounds of the night.

She had begun to nod off when the grettins' song rose in intensity. Now, however, it bore a slightly mocking quality, as though it knew what Kara was trying to do and found it amusing. The grettins were playing with her in their fashion, and for a few moments she forgot all about magic in light of this strange and wonderful animal.

You want to come to me, don't you? You're curious . . . but you're afraid it might be a trick. How can I prove that I won't harm you? If you were a person I would just use words, but you're an animal. Human words mean nothing to you. We need
a different kind of connection
.

(
Ask the right question at the right time. . . .
)

What connects two things?

“A bridge,” Kara said.

She closed her eyes and imagined a simple wooden bridge that began in her mind and stretched out toward the voices of the grettins.
I offer this connection between us
, she thought, hoping that they could understand the words.
You can trust me
. In her mind Kara felt the grettins get closer, like indecisive dogs sniffing a path, and braced herself for whatever might happen next.

They refused to cross.

Something's not right
, Kara realized.
I need to make a link between us—I'm sure of it!—but I'm not giving them a good enough reason to trust me. How can I prove I mean them no harm?

The answer came in a flash of insight, as though the canopy had suddenly peeled open and let in the afternoon sun.

Real bridges are built from wood or stone because that makes
them safe—but that's only true in the physical world. A mind-bridge needs to be built from a different sort of material altogether, one that makes these creatures feel safe in their minds, just like wood makes people feel safe in reality
.

Kara remembered the times in her life when she had felt the safest. Falling asleep on the porch and waking in Father's strong arms as he carried her to bed. Walking through the aisles of the general store with Mother's hand in hers. Like a mason baking bricks, Kara transformed these memories into building material and then used them to form a mind-bridge constructed from feelings of warmth and safety.

BOOK: The Whispering Trees
10.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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