I woke to whispering silence.
Dead leaves murmured hidden secrets. Trees hissed in the chill air, whirling ghostly vapors across my face. I thought about the old man and how I’d gotten scared and made the dumb-ass decision not to escape when I had the chance, and anxiety danced along my spine. The lone, haunting wail of a mourning dove caught my funky mood.
My stomach churned and my head felt woozy. I hoped I wasn’t coming down with a cold, or maybe there was a weird plant or tree that I was allergic to.
I sat up and checked the woods, just to make sure that crazy man wasn’t watching me. Tuggin was nowhere to be seen. Perfect. I’d just grab my stuff and jet. I moved to get up, and was jerked to a halt by the rope. I stared at it. Damn, did I only dream that I’d gotten free? It had seemed so real.
My mouth was still hanging open when Tuggin appeared from the trees and untied me. I rubbed my wrist and gaped between the rope and the woods then gasped when he traced my cheek with his finger.
“What has occurred here?” he asked.
I touched the welt on my cheek. “Must have rolled against the tree in my sleep.”
It had been a dream, but my face was scratched from that branch, as if it had happened, but that was numb nuts crazy. Tuggin squinted, so I widened my eyes to look innocent.
Tuggin stiffened then leaned close to stare into my eyes. My heart fluttered like a butterfly trying to escape a net, and my legs came close to buckling. I hate the kidnapper, I told myself. I do, I do.
“What have you done?”
I had no clue what he meant, but knowing Tuggin, I’d probably done something to piss him off. Like breathe. “Um, nothing?”
“Your eyes are dilated.” He searched me in that way that made me feel as though I was naked, and warmth trickled down my legs. “What have you ingested?”
I glared at him. “I don’t do drugs.”
“And they are ringed with brown specs.”
“Are you color blind? They’re gray.”
“They have changed.”
I laugh-snorted. “Yeah, right.”
His gaze traveled my body, and then he turned away with a shrug. “You are odd.”
Jerk, jerk, jerk! He was the loose cannon with the knife and dorky clothes, and he called me a freak? I had to get away from him before he got all huffy and slit my throat for no good reason other than me telling him he was color blind.
Still squinting, he handed me one of those leathery things he called food. I bent the piece of meat and watched it spring straight when I let go. Oh joy. Dog collars for everyone.
What were the chances that Tuggin had some chocolate stashed in his backpack? Maybe Eyidora didn’t have chocolate. Hadn’t I been punished enough? My sigh turned into a coughing fit.
“What is wrong?”
“It’s hard to breathe this clammy air.” I rubbed my grainy eyes.
Tuggin’s gaze swept over the trees. “The air is pure.”
“Yeah, purely suffocating.”
“We should not tarry long.”
The wary concern in his voice got my heart all fluttery, and it dipped in my chest. Trying to get some kind of control over myself, I blurted, “Have you ever heard of global warming?”
“Yeah, like the weather getting warmer and warmer over the whole world.” Sort of like the skin getting warmer and warmer over my whole face while I watched his lips.
“An apt description,” he said.
I could almost smell the niceness in the air. Feeling encouraged, I said, “On Earth people are worried about global warming…”
“Earth-kin are ignorant.”
“Not all Earth-kin.”
Tuggin snorted again.
“Earth-kin care not for their globe.”
“And what have you done to care for your globe?”
I didn’t want to admit that other than recycling cans and plastic, I hadn’t paid too much attention, so I ignored the question. “Anyway, on Eyidora you got someone who wants to turn Eyidora into a desert, sort of like the whole global warming thing. Do you think that’s a coincidence?”
Tuggin slowly rose. “How have you come by this knowledge?”
One hand clenched, the other settled on his knife handle. I’d thought his emotions were limited to boredom and contempt. Not anymore. I dropped my dog collar and stepped back.
“Speak!” Tuggin demanded.
“I don’t know.”
“Who are you, Haley Allaire of Sabina?” Tuggin whispered, stepping closer.
His gaze was relentless. His lips were no longer moving, but his words drilled into my brain, softly, seductively, warming the inside of my head until all I wanted to do was to answer his question: Who are you?
Reeling from the dizziness, I stumbled back, my heel catching a tree root.
“Gah!” I fell and bit my lip, then scooted back against the tree. Good news: the spinning in my head had stopped. Bad news: Tuggin looked pissed.
“Jahme.” The word slid out of his mouth on a breath of air. “I forbid you to speak of this again.”
My mouth shut with a clap. “You’re not the boss of me.”
“I have no time for Earth-kin ignorance.” He started packing.
Pushing myself to my feet, I flung my canteen into my pack while anger grew ulcer-like in my chest. He’d officially launched me back into my I-hate-the-kidnapper mode.
For once, Tuggin took off ahead of me. I hesitated then glanced behind me, but I felt so lightheaded I knew I couldn’t outrun him. Coughing, I shouldered my pack and followed. The mist saturated my lungs. It was hard enough breathing the stuff, God only knew what it was doing to my hair.
Tuggin seemed to be walking faster than usual while I panted after him. I wanted to yell at him to slow down, but it seemed I couldn’t talk, walk, and breathe at the same time.
I dropped to my knees and bent over with my hands resting on my thighs. The herb pinched my skin, so I pulled it out of my bra. The air stunk like rotting leaves, and something moved in the branches. It was an effort to lift my head to check it out.
“Look, girls,” crooned a soft voice. “A stranger.”
“Shall we take her?” asked another.
“I don’t know, she doesn’t seem very strong to me.”
While I knelt in the dirt, dark faces appeared in the trees. Brown hair floated as if being tugged by a breeze. Then a bunch of tall ladies circled me, dressed in chestnut colored robes.
Was I dreaming again? What were they? Witches? Fairies? The closer they came, the heavier the air felt. That rotten smell filled my head. I tried to get back to my feet, run away, but I couldn’t move. I needed Tuggin.
“Not tall enough.”
“And she’s thin.”
“Too thin, and too weak. Our trees need strength.”
“What shall we do with her then? Surely we cannot let her go.”
“No, not now that she has seen us. It would never do.”
I tried to swing my head to follow the voices, but my neck had frozen like petrified wood.
“She’s like a willow. Can she be a willow?”
“Yes, yes. A nice, tall, slender willow.”
No way was I morphing into a tree. I struggled against the invisible roots holding me to the ground, but I couldn’t even twitch my finger. I wanted to yell at them, but my voice wouldn’t work either.
“Look how she kneels before us.”
“I believe she is quite frozen with fear.”
Their laughter grated like rattling branches. The creatures were mean, like the mean hall goddesses from my high school. Flashes of anger seared my chest. The herb pressed into my palm and my fingers tingled. I took a deep breath and pushed as hard as I could. “Not weak.”
My heartbeat thrummed like a base drum in my ears. I swung my gaze across the tree creatures’ faces, all staring at me with open mouths. Then they all started shouting.
“She understands us?”
“And she speaks!”
“How can this be?”
One creature said, “Child, what is your name?”
The thick air was suffocating. I didn’t have the energy to fight it, or to talk; I wanted to sleep. They could do whatever the hell they wanted, I didn’t care anymore.
Startled by both the shout and the herb jabbing hot jolts of pain through my fingers, I croaked, “Haley Ro…Allaire.”
“Allaire…Allaire,” the tall one murmured. “A strong name, indeed.”
“She does not look well-built to me,” interrupted one of the others.
I knelt like some kind of tree-worshipper. My necklace dangled away from my chest, slipped out of my shirt, and swung free.
“What have you there?”
A thin arm reached for my necklace. No! I couldn’t let them steal it, but I couldn’t move to stop them. I panted shuddering breaths and glared. There was a scratchy noise when they backed away.
“She has a stone!”
“Where have you come by that, child?” the tall one barked. “Speak!”
“Mom.” I fought the over-powering urge to sleep, even with the herb stinging my fingers. I wondered why I was fighting. It was easier to give in.
“She is a thief.”
“Am not,” I whispered.
My thoughts became heavy, wooden. I wished they’d leave me alone so I could sleep.
The tall creature spoke. “Your voice is strong among the trees, Haley Allaire.”
Big whoop. My lids slid closed, and I surrendered to a shadowy sea of leaves. A distant voice said, “The Sisters have reached a consensus. The Sisters release you.”
I knelt in the dirt, gripping the herb so tightly the woody stem dug into my palm. Tuggin sat against a tree, his head in his hands. I stayed still for a minute, watching my necklace swinging back and forth. When I was sure I could get my legs to function without doing a major face-plant, I hobbled to my feet.
Tuggin jumped up. “Haley.”
Relief inflated his voice. Not a caring kind of relief because he liked me, but the kind of relief a babysitter would feel because the kid he’s watching didn’t drop dead.
“What happened? The air was heavy, and I couldn’t breathe. Did I pass out?”
“Net. You watched the trees.”
“Did you see those bitchy women?”
His gaze swept the treetops, coming to rest on my face. “Dryads, guardians of the forests, are female spirits. I am male and have no place in their domain.” He cocked his head. “Once they claim you, there is no return, yet here you stand before me. Why?”
I flexed my fingers, opening my palm.
“Tell me,” Tuggin said, staring at the herb, “of what significance is this twig?”
“I told you. I don’t know.”
“Explain what has occurred,” he ordered. “Now.”
“Did they speak?”
He leveled that hard-eyed glare at me again. My thoughts scattered like dandelion seeds in the wind. “Well…maybe. I don’t know.”
Tuggin sneered. “Are all Earth-kin so ignorant?”
I tried to stop the pout, but wasn’t quick enough. Why did a look from Tuggin turn me into some kind of boobless bimbo? He didn’t know about the herb’s power, and I didn’t trust him not to steal it.
“Maybe they wanted to punish me by making me put up with you,” I said.
“It would appear the dryads have left me to my burden.” Tuggin shouldered his pack, ordering, “Follow me.”
It was almost dark by the time we broke out of the forest and tramped across a field of tall grass. Thunder echoed close by, and the ground shook. On the horizon gray clouds clung to the darkening sky. I groaned when it started raining. My wet clothes stuck to my skin, my shoes belched with every step, and my backpack felt like a satellite dish on my back.
Tuggin halted, and I stopped next to him. Blinking against the rain, I could just see the toes of my shoes near the edge of a drop off. I took a quick step back; even though I couldn’t see how high we were, I could feel it. A river tumbling to my right raced over the edge and crashed into the darkness below.
Tuggin pointed to a narrow path snaking downward. A few scrubby dwarf trees rooted along the edge, leaning as though tempted to take the suicidal plunge.
“No way,” I said.
“You will walk down this path, or I will tie you and carry you.”
I squeezed my lips together. Tuggin’s cheek did the twitchy thing as he strode toward me.
“Fine,” I said.
Squaring my shoulders, I started down, pressing my hand against the rock wall for support. God, it was raining hard; I couldn’t see a freaking thing. I hit something, a rock maybe. My feet shot out from under me and I landed on my knees. Swearing at Tuggin, I grabbed my knees and rolled to my side.
“Gah!”The ground disappeared beneath me.