Authors: Clint Talbert
Tags: #clint talbert, #druids, #ecology, #fiction, #green man, #pollution, #speculative fiction, #YA Fantasy, #YA fiction, #young adult, #Book of Taliesin
Barking Rain Press
NOTE: If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events described herein are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
The Last Stand of Daronwy
Copyright Â© 2013 Clint Talbert (www.clinttalbert.com)
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.
Edited by Miranda Rabuck (www.mirandarabuck.com)
Cover artwork by Michael Leadingham (www.michaelleadingham.com)
Barking Rain Press
PO Box 822674
Vancouver, WA 98682 USA
ISBN print: 1-935460-56-0
ISBN eBook: 1-935460-57-9
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013936587
First Edition: May 2013
Printed in the United States of America
9 7 8 1 9 3 5 4 6 0 5 7 2
To Aaron, Krissy, and all the trees
Py pren a vo mwy
Na get Daronwy?
What tree is greater
Than he, Daronwy?
Book of Taliesin
Also from Clint Talbert
When the Villain Comes Home
Coming Soon from Clint Talbert
Part 1: Winter
Daronwy's senses stalked the boy among the discarded detritus of eighty years of human lifeâcracked plastic cap guns, dry-rotted tires, brown glass bottles whose labels wore away decades ago. The boy stopped at a murdered tree, fingering the wood chips in his hand. He shook his head, looked up and down the empty trail, then crushed the chips into his palm, curling his fingers into a fist.
The boy's anger mirrored Daronwy's. The great oak and his grove had covered these scars, reclaiming by bud and twig every injustice done to them. Daronwy had encouraged their hatred, blending together a dark magic with their weariness of wanton destruction. Water turned black, shadows turned blacker. When the sun's rays slanted west, no human dared remain beneath their boughsâuntil now.
There had always been legends of human ears that could hear tree-songs on the breeze, stories of human lungs that could inhale every shade of green on a leaf. In Daronwy's long seasons, he had only felt such a being once. However, this new boy, this miniscule sapling, was drawn to the magic. Should they pull this boy into the warm shadows of their boughs and teach him the truth of the wind so that he might tell his people and save what remained of their forest? Whirlwinds of song buffeted Daronwy's branches. The others did not believe the boy was worthy.
Watching the boy's anguish at the amputated tree, Daronwy disagreed. The great oak sang the boy's name on the wind: Zhak-im-eya, one who hears. Among the boy's kind, he was called Jeremiah.
A cold wind howled through the branches with a ghost's voice. Jeremy shivered inside his blue jean jacket. It had sounded like a distant wolf. Jeremy couldn't stop his hands from shaking and fumbled with his buttons. Unseen eyes pricked his skin, eternally watching. Vines hung from the trees, wove through the underbrush and shrugged closer to the trail, walling him in.
Could that noise on the wind be important? The hair on the back of his neck stood. After all, he had seen
. It had been weeks ago, at the beginning of Christmas break. He'd been walking back here, stalking some big animal he could hear and feel but not see, and when he'd looked through the matted vines, he'd seen a structure. Stones, columns, like a castle, or part of one. A windâa wind like this oneâhad blown, and it had disappeared.
Maybe he was close to it again. Jeremy stepped flat-footed, squishing his way through the gray mud in the center of the trail. He peered into the dark shadows of the trees beneath the plaited canopy, hoping to see some sign, some indication of the other world he'd glimpsed.
A menacing sigh escaped from a thing with no lips. Its icy breath condensed against the back of Jeremy's neck, folding him forward like marsh grass before a hurricane. Something was stalking him, matching his steps. Jeremy froze, left foot hanging in midstep. Whatever was behind him did not anticipate this, and the splash it made in the sucking mud echoed along the trail. Jeremy half turned. He craned his neck as much as he dared, trying not to shift his weight as he peered along the empty trail through tangled vines that wove among branches of half-dead trees. On all sides, shadows disappeared into a deep thicket carpeted with generations of dead leaves and quicksand. There was no one there. Faint smells of light, sweet crude oil and fainter wisps of ocean salt hung on the now still air like mildewed rags. Blood thudded in his ears, drowning all other sound.
He recognized this presence; it was what he'd tracked. He had to be near the crossroads to that magical place. Jeremy made another step, careful to bend the sun-starved weeds beneath his foot so that he did not sink in the mud and make an inadvertent noise. He brought his left foot to his right with a controlled movement. A gray puddle spread before him, covering the trail. Bending his knees, staring at the ancient root on the other side of the puddle, he leapt, landing on the root with a cat's silent grace.
It moved, unseen behind him, and squelched into the soft mud. The sound froze Jeremy's breath in his throat. Whatever it was, it was not something that you found; it was something that found you. Torn between bolting for home and walking up the trail, he stood, squinting through the thicket, trying to divine from the way the vines hung what it was and what it wanted.
Should he confront it? He unsnapped the scabbard of the long Rambo survival knife that hung at his waist and held the blade before him in two hands, facing the solitary line of his own prints in the oily mud. Eyes darting from one side of the trail to the other, Jeremy stepped backwards. He sank to his calf in quicksand. Startled, he tried to pull free, but the sand slurped his foot down, holding it with unseen claws. Jeremy's balance faltered; the ground rushed toward him. He splashed his free foot down on the edge of the muck, dropped his knife, and caught himself with his right hand. Using his thrashing for cover, the thing squelched ever closer. Jeremy glanced at the hungry shadows surrounding him. He snaked his left hand beneath his knee and wrenched at his leg. He couldn't pull free.
A soft step settled into the deadfall as a hackle-raising silence muzzled the thicket. A shadow shifted, obscured by the dry vines, biding its time, gathering its strength. Jeremy scrambled to grab the knife in one hand, holding it above his prone body. He twisted his jeans into a knot and made one last white-knuckled wrench, pushing with his free foot at the same time. The sand released him. He careened sideways. His shoulder slammed into a tree with rotten roots. The tree crashed through the net of vines, whipping the tangled brush into a malicious frenzy. A carrion stench filled the trail as a shadow lunged.
Jeremy bolted. He ran past the mysterious mounds that were riddled with opossum and armadillo holes; he vaulted over the giant clearing of quicksand. Gnarled claws reached out, thorns tugged at his jean jacket. Roots snapped at his feet. His pursuer no longer feigned any silence; it smashed through the underbrush. Jeremy burst from the woods at a full tilt, spinning once his feet reached the pavement. He clutched the knife ahead of him, waiting for the thingâwhatever it wasâto emerge.
The forest stared at him. Nothing moved; no sounds, no smells. Jeremy's breathing began to slow. A soft wind blew, shuddering the tree branches beneath the slate-gray sky. Whatever the icy terror was, it had vanished. Jeremy was still in the same world. He glanced at the houses with their stale, lingering Christmas decorations and sighed, sheathing the knife. If only he had stood his ground, maybe the pursuer would have led him to that other world he'd glimpsed. Or maybe it would be tearing his limbs off right now. Jeremy shivered, trying to rub the goose bumps away. The diffused circle of the sun was nearly overheadâit was almost one o'clock. Daniel would be home from church by now.
Jeremy walked up the cement street, cut across Mira's corner yard, and stole into his driveway. The garage smelled of pine lumber and old leather. His mom's Oldsmobile was parked beneath the peeling paneling of the right wall. The workbench held a grinder, a vice, and scattered carpentry tools amid rusted Folgers coffee cans of screws and nails. He left his shoes between his dad's giant work boots and his sister's fluorescent green jellies and trudged inside.
“Jeremiah Trahan, take off those shoes!” He hadn't even crossed the kitchen yet.
“Oh. Well, then roll up that pant leg. How did you get so muddy?”
“Yes, ma'am.” He bent to roll it. “Can Daniel come over and play?”
“Sure, but we have to be at Mommit's by five for dinner.”
“Okay.” Jeremy walked to the phone that hung on the wall and spun each digit on the rotary. “Hey, you wanna come down and play? Meet you halfway!”
Jeremy unstrapped the knife from his belt and ran to his room, vaulting over the tea party of dolls that an indignant Rosalyn had arrayed through the living room. He ran back through the garage and stopped on his driveway to stare across the street at Twin Hills. The forest's dark shadows remained expressionless; the doorway had undoubtedly closed. He wished he had stood his ground. Jeremy put it out of his mind as he pedaled his bike up the street. Daniel rode from the opposite direction with a girl in tow.
“Hey.” Jeremy's eyes flicked to the girl, a mousey-haired tagalong with pink-rimmed glasses.
“This is my cousin, Claire. She's visiting today, so Mom said I had to bring her.”
Jeremy shrugged. “Hi.”
“Hi!” Claire squeaked.
Jeremy turned his bike around.
“So, what do you want to play?” Daniel asked.
It was a rhetorical question, but a necessary one to begin the spell. It was the same thing they had played since they were five, and as Jeremy answered, imagination melded with their world, shifting everything just so, painting vibrant colors over a drab day. “Let's play that Kronshar has been lying again,” Jeremy said. “He told the warriors that the wizards are causing the border raids, and he told the wizards that the warriors are.”
Daniel's eyes glittered. “But it's actually the Shadows.”
“Right. The Midnight Wizard wants us to investigate. It's nighttime and we're walking the horses through the middle of the valley that separates the warriors and the wizards.”
As they pedaled, the world rippled like a pond spattered by rain. Houses grew upward into sheer stone walls and the soft whir of bike tires against concrete transformed into a clopping equine gait.
“Wait, who's lying about shadows at midnight? What's going on?”
The world fell apart; cliffs shifted back into houses on either side of the street. Daniel turned to Claire. “Kronshar is this evil wizard who's lying to our Council of Elders. We are adepts, which means we're these special people with wings. EagleâJeremy is Eaglewing, he's a warrior, and I'm Lightningbolt, a wizard.”
Claire put one hand on her hip as she rode. “Now wait. This isn't that D&D stuff, is it? âCause you know my brother got in trouble big time for that. Mom says it's”âshe glanced back toward Daniel's house, as if judging if they were in earshotâ“
,” she finished in a whisper.
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “No, this is something we made up. It's not like that at all. If you don't want to playâ¦” Jeremy shrugged.
“Hang on. Can girls be warriors?”
“Yeah, of course.” Daniel smirked toward Jeremy. “She could be Mayflure.”
Jeremy blushed. “No! She can't be Mayflure.”
Daniel laughed, “She's a girl adept whoâ”
“A girl warrior adept. Just one of the people in the game,” Jeremy said, eyes burning holes in Daniel.
“Oh, I'll be her!”
Jeremy rolled his eyes.
Daniel smiled. “Okay. Let's pretend we're riding the horses through the valley that separates the wizard lands from the warrior lands.”
The mundane world transformed once more into the fantasy they had spent years creating. Jeremy imagined himself as Eaglewing: taller, stronger, but still golden-haired. He was clad in mail, a shield strapped to the horse, a sword at his hip. Daniel was his fraternal twin, the wizard Lightningbolt, who wore the loose, dark robes of his class and a leather jerkin over them. A gnarled oak staff protruded from the holster in his saddle. His hair was much darker than his brother's but also long, pulled back in braids. As for Claire, she became the lanky form ofâ¦ Jeremy shook his head. No, she didn't have the natural grace that Mayflure would have. Looking at her now, he couldn't imagine Mira, and he always imagined Mira when he thought of Mayflure.
“I can feel them watching us,” said the wizard.
“Who?” said Claire, scanning the street.
“The wizards,” Daniel snapped, glancing back at her. “The wizards are watching us.”
“Well, I've counted thirty-seven archers on the east wall,” said Eaglewing.
Lightningbolt turned in his saddle. “What? Where?”
“Trust me. They're there.”
“Why don't I see them?”
“How can Iâ”
“Aaaaaaaah!” Mayflure spurred her horse faster, pulling her bow and arrow, and shot.
“What are you doing?” Jeremy pedaled hard to catch up to Claire.
“I'm playing that one of the wizards was going to cast a spell on you so I shot him with my bow and arrow.”
“Claire, the wizards are on our side. You can't shoot them,” said Daniel.
“What about the warriors? Can I shoot one of them?”
“No, they're also on our side. They're just confused about these raids,” said Daniel.
Jeremy nodded. “They are blaming each other, but we know that it's really Kronshar.”
Claire looked from one boy to the other. “Oh. Well, I was just trying to protect you, Eaglewing.” She winked at Jeremy.
Daniel snorted a laugh. “Twin Hills?” He hooked a thumb toward the trees.
Jeremy bit his lip, then shook his head. “Let's go up on the canal. Let me grab our weapons.” Armed with whittled sticks, they left their bikes in Jeremy's yard and ran around Mira's. They came to the tall rise of the flood control canal that snaked through the neighborhood, choked with cattails, tires, and beer cans.