I picked dried leaves from the ground, and then frowned at the tree. The lowest branch was at least two feet over my head. If I wanted that magic herb, I’d have to climb the monster towering in front of me, and I hadn’t climbed a tree since I’d fallen out of one when I was seven years old and cracked my head. I’d needed fourteen stitches. Cramming the leaves into my shirt, I stretched on my toes and grabbed the nearest branch.
My hands slipped, and I fell back onto my butt with a grunt. I glared at the tree as if it had chucked me to the ground on purpose.
The bird sat on a branch. “I haven’t got all day.”
I grabbed the branch again. Bracing my legs against the trunk I walked up the side. Hooking one leg over the branch I swung myself upward. Leaves leaked from my top and drifted to the ground. Crap, I hoped I’d have enough now.
My arms trembled while I hauled myself up. Panting, I hugged the branch and leaned my cheek against the bark.
The bird perched next to my face. “If you’re afraid, just say so and I’ll be on my way.”
“I’m not scared.” I tightened my legs and reached for the next branch. The scaly bark scraped my skin, and a nail bent back when I grabbed it. “Ow.” I stuck the finger in my mouth and tried to suck out the sting.
“Are you quitting?” the bird asked.
“Shut the hell up.”
A breeze stroked my forehead. I tilted my head back and squinted.
“Score.” Straddling the branch and clasping my feet together in case I keeled over, I pulled leaves from my shirt and shoved them into the hole.
Tuggin’s voice shot from below. “What is this foolishness?”
I started and one butt cheek slid off the branch. I hugged the tree when I looked down…I hadn’t realized I’d climbed so high.
“You got eyes, don’t you? I’m stuffing this woodpecker hole with leaves.” My sarcasm might have had more impact if I didn’t have my face flattened against the trunk.
“Come down. Now.”
I wanted to, but my muscles had frozen. “Give me a minute.”
I unglued my arms from the trunk and grabbed the branch above me. I moved downward, one branch at a time, testing each one with my foot, trying not to look down…looking down was bad, going down was bad, but falling down would be worse.
Tuggin’s voice slid into my thoughts, like a tongue gliding over lips. My focus slipped, then my control, then my grip. I scrambled to catch a branch, bonked my head, and toppled backwards. My back slammed into the ground, the impact forcing a loud hoof out of my lungs.
Tuggin dropped to the ground next to me. “Are you injured?”
I tried grabbing a breath. Failed. “No. Just. Wind. Knocked out…of me.”
He leaned over me. “Are you certain?”
Boy was I certain, certain that I was going to pass out. Not pass out because I’d konked my head; I was going to pass out because Tuggin’s breath skimmed my face and I lay in a state of whiffing hyperventilation because he smelled so damn good, like a warm beach. My nerves tingled, my stomach muscles squeezed. Gasping, I pushed him away and struggled into a sitting position.
Rubbing the back of my head, I mumbled, “I’m fine.”
“Why would you do something so absurd?”
“The bird told me to.” I got to my feet and picked at a sliver in my hand.
“That is absurd.” Tuggin crossed his arms over his chest. “Where is this bird?”
I pointed. “He’s right over…” I searched the empty tree, my arm dropping to my side. “He was right there, and he told me to fill the nest with leaves and he’d bring me something.”
“That is absurd,” Tuggin repeated, with a smirky twist to his lips. “Birds do not speak.”
On retrospect, it did seem kind of absurd. The dumb bird had lied to me, and now I looked psycho. “Could this day get any worse?” I muttered, just as something warm splat against my head. “Oh!”
Heat spread across my face. “A bird just pooped on my head, didn’t it?”
“Really freaking great.” Plucking a wide leaf off the tree, I used it to clean my hair.
A shriek pulled Tuggin’s gaze away from me. The plumed bird swooped down, carrying something in its beak, and I stretched out my free hand.
“Told you,” I said, feeling vindicated.
“Show me,” Tuggin demanded.
I opened my fingers and revealed a twig covered with small, five-pointed green leaves.
“It is but a twig. Of what significance is this?”
“It’s some kind of ma…” I stopped. He was probably a thief as well as a kidnapper. This magic twig might be the key to escaping him and getting back to Earth. I finished lamely, “Herb.”
Tuggin grunted then turned to stuff the canteens into his pack. I tossed the poopy leaf and searched my shirt. The stupid clothes didn’t have any pockets, so I jammed the herb into my bra. Without a word Tuggin pointed to my pack. I slipped it on and limped into the woods.
The next morning, I was awake before Tuggin. He looked cute when he slept—you’d never know he was a knife-wielding kidnapper. Not to mention that he’d tied me to a tree, again. The rope around my wrist burned, but I held still, not liking numb fingers.
Tuggin rose from his bed, his hair tussled in a sexy-gotta-be-kissed way. He ambled into the woods then casually returned, as if I wasn’t there, as if I wasn’t tied to a tree, and as if I wasn’t getting more freaking annoyed by the nano-second.
I refused to let him think he was getting to me. I said in a sing-song voice, “About time you woke up, Sleepy Head.”
Something flashed across his face. I thought it was surprise, but the look vanished so fast I wasn’t positive. He untied me, and I stretched. At least the perv didn’t watch me when I went to the bathroom.
“Why do you not wear your shoes?” he asked when I returned. This time the look on his face was pretty easy to read: disapproval.
The night before, when I’d taken off my shoes, I’d discovered that the blisters had popped. Shoes weren’t an option. “I’ve never been a big fan of shoes.”
Shaking his head, he dug into his backpack and gave me bread and cheese. After we ate our breakfast, I rubbed my teeth with some mint leaves from my pack, and then rinsed my face with water from my canteen. Then I slowly packed.
Tuggin waited with his arms crossed. Finally, knowing I couldn’t stall any longer, I nudged one foot into my shoe. I tried to hold back the wince, but it slipped out.
“What is wrong?”
“Nothing.” I hadn’t meant to snap, but I’d just pulled on the other shoe and it stung like hell. I slipped on my backpack and shuffled forward.
“Sit,” Tuggin ordered.
Tuggin grabbed my arm.
“Let g…” His face, just inches away, stole my breath and my heart went numb-nuts crazy pounding. I gaped at him, trying to remember what I’d been about to say.
He pushed me onto a fallen tree. Kneeling, he slid my shoes off my feet. I tried to ignore the tingle that ran from my toes to my belly when his fingers touched my skin. I had to remind myself that despite his hall god looks, he was a knife-wielding kidnapper.
His lips tightened. “Why did you not speak of this?”
“Like you’d care.”
His hands were surprisingly gentle while his gaze swiveled between my feet and the shoes, his brows knit together.
“Too big,” I said.
“Jahme.” Tuggin yanked something out of his backpack.
“Hey, is that your shirt?” I asked.
Instead of answering, he used his teeth to tear it into strips. He tied cloth around my heels, then folded two pieces and shoved them into the toes of my shoes. He worked quickly, efficiently, and without looking at me. When he finished, he sat back on his heels while I tested a couple of steps.
“These shoes are really comfortable now that they fit.”
“What are they made of?” I asked.
He jerked his chin toward the woods, and I moved off with a much lighter step.
We kept up a silent routine of walking, stopping for breaks, more walking, and camping at night with me tied to one of the ever-present trees. I followed the routine like a robot, and actually welcomed the wicked tiring hikes because I was too tired at night to put any energy into crying—marathon hikes, no bed, no shower. I was in Hell.
Tuggin was a master at the silent treatment, which gave me plenty of time to think about Ian and Elana hooking up, which meant my stomach had plenty of time to churn and my teeth to clench.
I did have one distraction from those thoughts, mainly how dirty I felt. We always camped near streams, but I only washed my face and hands—I refused to bathe because Tuggin always watched like a perv. I’d changed into my spare clothes two days ago then tried to stay downwind of Tuggin as much as possible. I was guiltily conscious of the fact that I was wearing his extra shirt around my feet.
“We shall stop for the day.”
I kicked off my shoes and unwrapped the shirt-bandages; the blisters had healed. Wind whipped my hair around my face. I pinched my collar around my neck at the sudden chill, and then chased the bandages across the clearing.
Stuffing the bandages in my pack, I wondered what had happened to Mom when I’d been kidnapped. Who, besides Tuggin, had been at our house that night? Had she been kidnapped, too? If she had, had she been brought to Eyidora, too? Tuggin interrupted my thoughts by pushing a brown, leathery strip at me.
“What’s this?” I wobbled it back and forth.
“It looks more like a used dog collar.” I wrinkled my nose. “Are you trying to poison me?”
Tuggin pressed his lips together. “It is nourishment, tenya.”
“Why do you keep calling me that? My name’s Haley.”
“I call you little girl.”
“Then do not behave as one.”
Thinking of an expression or two I’d like to use on him, I nibbled the questionable meat in silence. I couldn’t help shuddering at the taste. A gust of wind had me pulling hair out of my face, and I started at a loud crack. A booming thwomp followed, and my heart lurched in my chest.
“You are frightened,” Tuggin said.
“You are not?” I knew by the sound of his voice he didn’t believe me.
I pursed my lips. “Not scared, startled. Big difference.”
Tuggin went back to eating, but not before giving me a you-are-such-a-loser look. The guy really wasn’t doing much for my self-esteem.
I gnawed on my dog collar. After clearing my throat for the hundredth time, I asked, “If no one’s around to hear a tree fall in the woods, do you think it makes any noise?”
Tuggin’s lip curled in a sneer. “That is an absurd question. Does the answer matter?”
“No. It’s like, a philosophical question that’s supposed to make you think.”
“I have not the time for Earth-kin nonsense.” Tuggin watched the woods.
Finishing the last of my so called dinner with a shudder, I held out my wrist and Tuggin did his usual thing with the rope. I snuggled under my blankets and tucked my face behind the stiff cloth. Maybe if I wasn’t so hungry and uncomfortable and achy, I might care what he thought.
The herb, resting inside my bra, poked my chest. I hadn’t seen or felt any power. I had no idea why the dumb bird had lied to me. It obviously didn’t have the power to free me. It certainly didn’t have the power to make Tuggin like me.
What was I thinking? Tuggin was an ass. I was so done with this whole situation. Surely whatever “power” had brought me here didn’t do it just so Tuggin could torment me like a school-yard bully. No god could be so mean. But, as my mind sunk into darkness, I knew that life was, in fact, quite mean, no matter what the gods did.
I bolted upright. I felt strange, as though cold fingers had brushed the inside of my head. Shivering, I peered through the cool dampness swirling around me like an invisible fog, the edges of the trees blurring where they melted into the night.
I lay back down. I’d missed a pine cone in my bed, and now it poked my back. Unable to get comfortable, I flopped onto my side, and my nose pressed against the tree.
“I don’t freaking believe this.”
Now I had to pee. I tossed aside my blanket, flicked my wrist, and the rope fell off. I stared at it for a long moment, and then at Tuggin. The glow of the campfire caressed his sleeping face, and I gazed at the soft lines of his profile. Shaking my head as if waking from a dream, I packed and hurried into the woods, debating whether he ever showed that soft side to anyone. Not that I cared, of course.
I stumbled in the dark, not realizing how inky black the woods were away from the glowing campfire. An animal screeched, disturbing the quiet. I stopped, my heart beat going up a notch.
It screeched again, closer. What was that? The panic rose in my chest, it tightened around my heart, squeezing my lungs so that I had trouble breathing. I searched the dark trees. Something rustle-snuffled behind me.
I whipped around. “Oh!”
An old guy stood behind me with a lantern at his feet oozing orange-yellow light. He wore a rust-colored shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, brown pants with a leather belt squeezing his waist, and shoes that looked like they were made out of wood.
He glared at me with his arms folded across his chest, and a long, gray beard waggled when he barked in a deep voice, “What took ya s’long, girlie?”
I stumbled back. “Excuse me?”
“What took ya s'long? Been followin’ ya fer three days now, trampin’ through da woods, callin’ ya every night. But would ya answer me? No! An’ now I’m further from home than I aim ta be, and me missus is goin’ to be cursin’ me when I git back. Hrmph!”
“I’m sorry…I didn’t mean…I mean, I didn’t hear…” I glanced around, wondering if this guy was more dangerous than Tuggin. He didn’t look like he had any weapons, unless he chucked one of those hard shoes at my head.
“Oh, ferget it,” he said, picking up his lantern. “C’mon.” He stomped off.
“Yeah, I don’t think so.”
He marched back to me. “I already told ya I bin waitin’ three days. How long ya goin’ ta make me wait, girlie?” He stamped his foot.
Before I could open my mouth to argue the ground shook. I clung to the nearest tree, but the man didn’t seem scared at all. He laughed.
“Oh, toddle rot. Sorry. Los’ me temper fer a minute. I won’ do that again. Don’ worry, the ground’s stable.”
I relaxed my arms but didn’t let go of the tree. I scowled. “Did you do that?”
He cackled, the sound grating against my ears. Two gold front teeth gleamed in the lantern light.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Oh, pardon me,” he said, bowing. I thought he did so a little sarcastically, holding one hand against his stomach, and sweeping the other over the ground. “Me name’s Nomer, at yer service. Now, c’mon.” He strode off.
I stood my ground—until the lantern’s light wobbled off into the trees and it got really dark. Dark wasn’t so hot when you were lost. “Wait,” I called.
Nomer didn’t look back at me, but he called over his shoulder, “Come on, girlie. Git movin’.”
I chewed my lip. The animal screeched from the treetops, maybe waiting to drop down on top of me and snap my neck or bite my throat. I ran to catch up to Nomer, who ducked inside an enormous tree. I hesitated a moment, then stooped to follow him.
He hung his lantern on a wooden knob, and then climbed onto a shaky stool. He waved me to a stool near him. I perched on the edge of the seat, hugged my backpack, and waited.
“So, Haley, ya finally showed up, eh?”
I shifted butt cheeks. He’d already been pretty clear on that point; I hoped he wasn’t going to start yelling at me again.
“Hmm, fifteen years now since ya bin sent away. Tisn’t enough time…yer too young, I’d say, but yer back now, eh?”
Oh. He meant back on Eyidora. Nodding, I gazed around the curious room. The cool, damp air stank like mold and mushrooms. Rows of knobby shelves lined the walls, crammed with tiny animal statues.
“Hey! Ya listenin’ ta me?”
He grinned. “Ya likes me baubles, eh?” He pulled one off the shelf and handed it to me. Winking, he said, “Made it meself, ya know. Hee, hee, hee!”
I studied the beautifully carved butterfly. The dark wood had been polished so smooth it shone. I gasped when its wings fluttered.
“Me inventions,” Nomer said, looking around the room. “Keep meself busy, makin’ me inventions. Did ya get me gift? ‘Course, I had to give ya a little test first, eh? Hee, hee, hee!”
“This rude bird gave me a twig thingy, after it pooped on my head.”
Nomer cackled. “Yep! That’s the one.”
If poop was part of his gift giving process, Nomer could keep his presents. “Why would you give me an herb that has some kind of power?”
“Step carefully around power.” Nomer blinked. “Power can do crazy things to a mind. Even the most noble-minded can have his head turned by power.”
“What’s that twig do anyway?” The butterfly stretched its wings.
“Les’ say it’s jes a little somethin’ ta help ya on yer way.”
“Will it keep Tuggin from finding me? He’s a tool.” I remembered his touch when he’d bandaged my feet, and a warm flush invaded my cheeks. “Most of the time.”
He slapped his knee. “Hee, hee, hee! I say he’s got a right bee in his bonnet, but no, it won’t help ya there.”
The butterfly lifted from my hand, hovered a moment, then soared back to its spot on the shelf. Nomer sat on his stool, still as a gnome statue in a garden, studying me.
“Keep yer stone safe.”
“That thing ‘round yer neck.” He cackled again and tugged on his beard. “Never let anyone take it from ya.”
“Well, hello, of course I’m keeping it. It was a present from my mom.”
“Hmpf. Ya know ‘bout the Eyids, eh?”
“They’re gods around here, right?”
“Yep. There’s four of us: Land, Water, Air and Fire.”
“Of course, us. Who’d ya think yer yappin’ to? Anyways, we was always around before we was killed off.”
“Wait a minute. Eyids can die? I thought they…you…were…are…gods.”
“Eyids don’ die, but fer thousands of years we were as physical bodied as you.” He rubbed his belly and looked into the distance, as if fondling a long-forgotten memory. “We walked the globes, same as regular folk. Tis our physical forms that died. We reside in Yamoora now.” At my quizzical look he added, “Heaven, ta ya.”
“Oh, well, that’s nice.” I cringed. That didn’t come out right.
“Now the land tis dry, burnin’. Tis shameful, it is.” Nomer’s face drooped.
“You mean, Eyidora’s got global warming, like Earth?”
Nomer heaved a sigh. “Tis Eyidora that started global warming. Earth’s just blowin’ apart the hole in the atmosphere that was started when we Eyids started fightin’. Earth’s gonna burn and die, ain’t no doubt about it.”
My heart started break dancing in my chest. “It can be stopped, right? I mean, there’s got to be a way to stop it from getting worse.”
“I keep fergittin’. Ya don’t know ‘bout the stones of power.” He pointed at my chest. “Ya got one right there.”
I started, grabbing onto the stool when I almost tipped over. “My necklace is a power stone?”
“Yep. The Eyids liked the idea of being human, liked food and having mates and children.” He thumped his chest. “And we lusted like humans, felt their dark longing for power, and we started fighting. When Sylpha’s mate died she got so angry she killed all our mates.” He paused for a long moment. “We had to stop fighting before we destroyed not only each other but the globe as well. We each put our power in a stone, left the stones with our descendants to guard, and then retired to Yamoora.”
“Well, wow,” I said stupidly.
“Then the stones were stolen. Ya got ta git them back or there won’t ever be harmony on Eyidora.”
“Yep. An Eyid’s descendant wants ta turn Eyidora inta desert, he does, an’ when he does, Earth an’ all the other globes in the chain will burn up with it.” He stuck his pointy nose into my face. “Now, ya listen ta me, girlie. Listen close. He’s looking for the stones, and he’s right shifty.”
Dread slithered in my stomach like a cold, slimy slug. “Who is?”
He ignored my question. “Yer mum’s dead because of the descendants’ plot to steal the stones and wield the power. It can’t happen again.”
I made an awkward little hic-cupping noise. “How do you know Mom’s dead? Can you see Earth?”
“Not her.” Nomer’s eyes gleamed with lantern light. “Yer Eyidoran mum. Yer pop got caught in the plot, too.”
I licked my lips. Was the room spinning, or was it just me?
“It was war. People dyin’, the land dyin’, the globes dyin’. You hafta stop ‘im. You hafta find the stones.”
My stomach rolled, my mouth watered, dizziness attacked my head with the dark stealthiness of a ninja. I held my head between my hands. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Ah, toddle rot. Me time’s up.” Nomer slid off his stool. “Me missus is goin’ ta be waitin’ with a nice hot toddy fer me if I don’ git back too late. If I don’ git goin’ now, she’ll be waitin’ with a fryin’ pan.”
He snapped his fingers and vanished. His cackle followed him into the shadows.
I took a deep breath, another, and another. The sick feeling faded, but my legs felt shaky when I stumbled outside. Without the light from Nomer’s lantern, darkness spread around me like a black stain. Fear circled me, tightening its grip on my chest.
“Nomer!” I yelled.
I ran. Trees grabbed me, yanking my hair, tearing my clothes. I cried out when a branch sliced my cheek. I stopped, panting. Pushing the hair out of my eyes, my knees almost buckled with relief when I saw Tuggin’s campfire, the glow beckoning like a safety net.
When I saw Tuggin, sleeping soundly, my relief was replaced by an urge to kick him. Instead, I dropped to my bed with a grunt. I would probably regret coming back to him, but now I was too tired and shaky and sick to care about anything except feeling safe. I was sure I’d have another chance to escape.Right now, I just needed to sleep. I sank into the dark.