Willow Rising Excerpt

 

Twilight had draped its inky cloak over the wood. Though star lichens clung to tree trunks, illuminating the path, Willow wished she had brought a lantern as it was nearly a half bell-hour walk back to her cottage. A barn owl called, Whoo-whoo-who-whoooo. Portia said barn owls were saying, ‘who cooks for you, who cooks for you all,’ but to her the call sounded like a wolfish-bark. Full moons usually made her feel brave, but under tonight’s eleventh full moon, the Red Hunter’s Moon, Willow felt as if she was the one being hunted.

Chickens, a few sheep and a bear might sustain a Bog Wraith for a year–still, a hungry Bog Wraith wouldn’t be picky. Student, bear, what would it care?

A dark shadow swerved across her path. “Watch out!” roared a male voice as an object thudded down, spraying her with dirt and pine needles. Willow flung out her hand, Blue Faerie light flaring.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN:  Bumps in the Night

 

 “Lower that sparking trigger finger. It’s me, not the Headless Griffin of Hemlock Hall!”

Willow blinked, adjusting to his shadow. “Finch! You scared the tree rings out of me! If you keep dropping on beings that way, someone might clonk you over the head in self-defense.” 

“I’d clonk them first,” Finch said. A thrush sang in the darkening wood: tuh-tuh-tuh eee-oh-lay-oh-eeee, tuh-tuh-tuh ee-oh-lay-oh. Landing on Finch’s shoulder, it puffed its spotted chest, eyes bright, then flew off. Finch said, “Guess he wants to go somewhere safe.”   

Safe?” Willow thrust her hands in her pockets, wishing the thrush had stayed. The gloom its song chased away now came creeping back. “Let’s go, then!”

Finch unslung his pack. “Better to fly, because of the Bog Wraith.” 

“No, nope, no. Don’t want to fly.” She shook her head for emphasis.

“Fine.” Drawing a thin, reddish stick from his belt, he pulled a lantern from his backpack. Saying “Soilleirich fiodh, Illumination wood,” he touched the stick to the lantern wick and it sputtered to life. Her Pai owned a similar stick, called a teintealain branch. She loved dancing among whirling sparklers he conjured with it on summer nights.

 “We need light to keep you from tripping,” he said.  

“Gee, thanks.” The light did help, but the glow made the rest of the forest appear even darker—and the light focused attention on them. There might be wild beasts waiting to pounce . . . she picked up her pace. “Um, glad you’re here. But why?”

“Laurel stopped by the Aviary; said you’d gone to the Sweetbriars. She found ripped pieces of Sir Peregrine’s note about the Bog Wraith at the cottage and was afraid you’d never seen it. I went to Jane’s but you’d already left. You were easy to spot. Lime-green sweater embroidered with leaves and berries, flowery skirt, purple leggings, crocheted hat with a flower on it—no one has more identifiable clothes than you!”

“That’s me, flower girl. One of Master Thorpe’s vultures was tearing up paper at my cottage. Maybe Julius Thorpe has it in for me, but I’m not the only one who lives there.” 

“Why’d he care? You’re the only late sleeper. Bet vultures see in bedroom windows.”

Shivering, she skipped to keep up with his long stride, telling him what Jane Sweetbriar had said. “I bet Julius and the foreign Goblins were the travelers they were looking for.”   

“Flapping Feathers! Makes sense! I doubt Sir Peregrine encouraged foreign Goblins to help him at his shop, though. I bet Julius spread that rumor himself.” The path narrowed. Finch ducked under a branch, holding it so she could pass. “Maybe he wants to get Sir P in trouble. I was there last week with the Squire for bird medicines. Thorpe was all business, greedy sharp, worse than a seagull. Always watching.”

“Finch, speaking of watching, where are the warning canaries you promised?”

“Son of a barn owl! Sorry, I’ll get them soon. None in the Aviary just now.”

Melodic nightingales called through the trees. A mockingbird sang quick up-notes. Willow heard the rising up-down call of the whip-poor-will: whip-oh-oh-oh-we-ill. This was all good, she thought. No Bog Wraith could be near if the birds were singing.

Finch said, “Want to watch stars at the Aviary before going back to your cottage?”

“Sure.” When the path forked, they went north.

“Lot of birds moving south. Not often this loud unless it’s overcast, then they call to stay together. Tonight it’s clear.” He shrugged. “Too far off for me to make out what they’re saying.”  

The further they walked, the quieter the woods became. “Finch, where did the birds go?”

“Don’t know.” He whistled but no birds answered.

Some pines and spruces creaked. Willow strained to listen . . .

“Trees talking to you?” he asked.

 “I’m not sure.”  As they walked, she kept listening, but the trees were quieter than the birds. Then she heard a maple shudder, “Frost.”  White patches appeared. “Finch, Jane said you see frost after a—” He put his hand to her mouth. When she nodded, he removed it.

Aasssshhh. What was that eerie sound? Someone dragging a heavy bag, followed by a sliding. She clamped her hand on Finch’s arm but didn’t need to point. He’d seen it too.

Thirty yards away, mist ghosted over the trees to settle on the path. Then it morphed into a white glowing shape, taller than any tree. A dark mouth rasped, a screeching tunnel of wind . . .

With a shout, Finch hurled his lantern. A bright flash exploded into the mist and a blast of hot air made her jump back.  Curls of smoke wreathed the place where the monster had stood.

Willow stamped her feet to wake them from their pins-and-needles state. Cold air burned her throat. “B-b-b-bog Wraith? I-is it d-dead?”

“Not dead. Bounced away stunned somewhere. It’ll be back.”   

She moaned. “Did you say back?”

Finch flipped out his air-board. “Cinnich do a dha, luath a-nis, bi fior. Grow for two, quick, be true.” The board grew longer than he was tall. Several feet wide, it floated beside him.  He hopped on, pulling her up in front. “Put your feet in the bindings. Think happy things. Keeping your spirit light keeps the board up; like a Lightness spell.”  

She stood, stiff as a cardboard cutout. How could these leather strips keep her on?

“Come on, Willow! You don’t want to be frozen and eaten.”  Though her feet wobbled, she obeyed. He clasped his arms around her, adding,  “I’ll steady you til you get the rhythm.” 

As they skimmed over the path, she closed her eyes. This was worse than her jay ride.

“Wish trees—weren’t so—dense,” Finch huffed. “Can’t get higher until they thin out.” 

Higher?” Willow opened her eyes just as they swerved around another tree. The pie she’d eaten was no longer dormant but about to erupt.

A blast of arctic air snowballed over them. Mist flowed and rose up, forming a white shape. Ice coated the board. Her feet became so numb she couldn’t feel the bindings. The Bog Wraith grew bigger than a Moat Guard, then larger than three Centaurs side by side.

The board glanced off a tree, tilting sharply. “Blast!” Finch leaned right.

Ice made the board slippery. Willow’s foot slid. While trying to force it back in the binding, her other foot released. She toppled off, screaming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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