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Authors: J. A. White

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BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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With renewed curiosity, the grettins milled closer.

“Come,” Kara whispered. “You are welcome.”

She felt a small tug in her head and gasped softly.

Her invitation had been accepted.

The grass parted, and a creature with large amber eyes peered out at her. Its body was long and pliable, like a ferret's, with rust-colored fur and a bushy tail.

“There you are,” Kara said.

She held her hand low to the ground and waited. After hesitating for a moment, more out of pride than concern for its safety, the grettin sniffed Kara's fingers, then hopped onto her hand. The tiny animal was heavier than it looked, but not so heavy that Kara couldn't lift it with ease until it was level with her eyes.

“Hello, my friend,” Kara said.

The grettin chirped.

From all around her now, they came. Kara felt the creatures slip beneath her legs and over her shoulders and up her arms. She laughed as their tiny paws tickled her skin.

“What's going on?” Taff shouted. And then, hurt accusation in his voice: “Are you
having fun without me
?”

The grettins climbed off Kara and began gathering together at her feet, a growing mass of shifting bodies that ballooned to her height before suddenly shrinking and reshaping, the bodies falling into one another, combining, until a creature the size of a pony stood before her, its face withered and wise and old.

“All of you,” Kara said. “You're all part of the same creature.”

She stroked the grettin's back, marveling at the lumps sliding beneath its skin like a sack of marbles. From the back of its hind leg protruded a bushy tail that had gotten confused during the transformation.

Kara rose to her feet and waved to Mary and her brother, dim shapes in the approaching darkness of morning.

“You have to come and see!” she called. “It's wonderful!”

“Are you sure that's a good idea?” Mary asked, holding Taff back. “I don't want to scare it off.”

Kara bent down so she was eye level with the grettin, and scratched behind its ears.

“Is that all right with you?” she asked, and because the creature was on Kara's side of the mind-bridge she knew it understood. “Can my friends come and see how pretty you—”

A low growl rumbled in the base of the creature's
throat. Kara took a step backward, thinking that she had completely misjudged the situation.
This is a trap
, she thought, snatching her hand back while she still had all her fingers.
It's going to attack me!

But then she found the grettin's gentle eyes and saw that it held no malice in its heart, for her or any other creature. The growling was meant as a warning, and as Kara realized this, the growl changed into something different, something her mind could latch on to and understand.

Sledgeworm come! Teethsome! Rungofast! Now!

But it was too late.

The ground quaked as a monster thudded to the earth. It had no legs, but instead balanced itself on arms corded with thick, reptilian muscle. The skin of its squirming torso was concealed beneath a garden of moss and fungus.

Blighted
, Kara thought.

The sledgeworm bent forward, lifting its maggot-like
body into the air to balance its body weight, and Kara found herself staring into vermillion eyes rank with madness.

“Run, Kara! Run!” Taff exclaimed.

The sledgeworm opened its mouth, revealing a gruesome combination of fangs and thorns. A vine shot from the place a tongue should have been and whipped around the grettin, holding the flailing animal in place.

Through the grettin's half-closed eyes Kara saw a look of somber acceptance.

It is time
, she heard it say.
Fate for such as I
.

“NO!” Kara shouted.

Even later, Kara would be hard-pressed to explain what had happened. The best way she could put it was that the grettin was on her side of the mind-bridge, and because of that it had to listen to her. Kara didn't give it a choice.

“Escape!” she shouted.

The grettin exploded, no longer one creature but
hundreds, slipping between the sledgeworm's teeth and into the night, the monster snapping at its prey but unable to catch something so small and fleet.

“Yes!” Kara shouted. “Run!”

She thought she might have heard a chorus of chirps in the distance, coalescing into one last message.

Thank you
.

Kara's triumph, however, was short-lived.

The sledgeworm turned its full attention to her. It was too stupid to truly comprehend what had just happened, but seemed to be aware, in a very basic way, that this small human had somehow stolen its breakfast. Heart galloping in her chest, Kara backed slowly away. Her instinct was to turn and run as fast as she could, but she fought it, afraid the sudden motion would spur the monster to attack.

Kara felt a hand flat against her upper back.

“Magic,
wexari
,” Mary whispered in her ear. “Control it. Make it yours.”

The sledgeworm took another giant arm-step forward. Something stringy and uneaten dangled from its lower gums.

Kara reached out with her mind, feeling for the creature, but whereas the grettin was like a fond memory eager to be recalled, the sledgeworm was a moment better left forgotten: the snap of a broken bone, a sleepless night burning with fever, her mother's face looking away in disappointment.

“I can't,” Kara said. “I found what the grettin wanted and made a sort of connection with it, but there's nothing I share with this monster.”

“You mean nothing you
want
to share.”

The sledgeworm went after Mary then, turning its body with surprising speed and knocking her to the ground. Kara ran to help her but the monster blocked her path. It swung an arm and Kara ducked, feeling the hiss of air as its claw passed just over its head.

Suddenly the sledgeworm collapsed.

“I got it!” Taff shouted, wooden sword in hand.

Kara saw what had happened. When the sledgeworm put all its weight on one arm to attack her, Taff struck it with his sword. The blow hadn't been enough to hurt it, but the timing had caused the monster to lose its balance, buying her precious seconds.

Taff had already helped Mary to her feet, the two of them running toward the shelter of the trees now. Kara, thinking the sledgeworm would follow her, ran in the opposite direction.

Except it followed her brother instead, furious at the little human wielding the biting stick.

“Get back here!” Kara screamed. “Leave him alone!”

She picked up a rock and threw it at the sledgeworm, striking its body. The monster, only a few steps away from Taff now, ignored her.

Build a bridge! Now!

Reaching into her mind, she thought about Simon—not the guilt she felt for killing him but the pure joy she
had taken in the act, under the spell of the grimoire but ignoring that now, enjoying his screams as her children bit into him, the pleasure of the kill . . .

. . . and transformed that rush of feeling into a mind-bridge that she followed straight to the sledgeworm. Her passage into its mind, however, was blocked by a solid wall of hate. She concentrated harder, pushing the wall, but it was as hard as stone. Unlike the grettin, the sledgeworm did not know the meaning of trust. It would never come to her. If Kara wanted to stop it, she would have to make her own entrance into its mind.

Taff screamed.

Holding her head between her hands, Kara lashed out with her mind and struck the wall as hard as she could.

The sledgeworm wailed in pain and fire blossomed in Kara's head. Her nose
popped
. Something wet and sticky dribbled onto her lips. The creature faced her, uncertain, but then Kara saw its arms tense as it prepared to charge.

She closed her eyes and struck the wall again. It was
easier this this time, though no less painful.

The sledgeworm flew backward as though caught in a sudden gust of wind.

Withdrawing Mary's dagger, Kara approached the monster. It lay coiled on the ground, struggling to regain its balance. Despite everything that had happened, Kara felt pity for the creature. It had only been hungry, nothing more.

She held its gaze, remembering a moment of blinding fear (
Grace has Taff; where has she taken him?
) and used that to find the monster, feeling what it was feeling right now.

I won't hurt you again
, Kara told it.
As long as you leave this second
.

With a weak hiss the sledgeworm righted itself and sprang into the treetops.

Taff watched it go, then turned to his sister with something like awe in his eyes.

“What did you do?” he asked.

“Magic,” Kara replied, and collapsed.

B
OOK
T
WO
IMOGEN

“In time, those who use magic become monsters.
This is the fate no witch can escape.”

—The Path

Leaf 182, Line 45

S
he slept for two days.

During this time she was visited by another dream of her father. It started like the first one: Father in the field, folding seeds into the soil and standing back to wait as though they might actually sprout there and then.

They did.

Green shoots stretched to the sky, flattening into stalks as husks of corn blossomed before her eyes, the whole process insanely fast but Father tapping his foot impatiently nevertheless. In just a few moments a cornfield
surrounded him. Picking a husk from the nearest stalk, Father peeled the corn in that peculiar way he had, from the bottom up, revealing a perfect ear that would have fetched at least a brown at market.

He took a small bite of the corn and chewed it thoughtfully. Behind him, the first stalk began to wither and die.

The thrumbeetle danced over and under Kara's hand, its antennae tickling her fingers.

“I had another dream of Father last night,” Kara said.

“Was he in the field again?” Mary asked. She was young today, younger even than Taff, her auburn hair braided into twin pigtails.

“Yes. Except this time the cornstalks around him died. What does that mean?”

“It might not mean anything,” said Mary.

Kara, however, had caught the look of trepidation that crossed Mary's face. “But it might,” said Kara. “What do you know?”

Mary sighed. “I think it means that your father is still alive. Your real father, that is. What you're seeing is where he's being kept right now while Timoth Clen occupies his body.”

“A field?” Kara asked.

“What could be better? To your father, it's just another day of work, over and over again. A brilliant spell, really. Cold, but brilliant. He's in a prison, but thinks he's just living his real life.”

Kara brightened. “Then I can bring him back! It's not too late! I'll have to find a way to get him a message and let him know that he needs to escape—”

“No!” Mary exclaimed. “You'll do no such thing.”

BOOK: The Whispering Trees
11.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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