Shadow silence, p.9
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       Shadow Silence, p.9

           Yasmine Galenorn
 

  Ivy blushed. “Well, he comes over for dinner now and then. We have a lot in common, you know. He lost his daughter and I lost my son. You are our granddaughter.” There was a hint of defensiveness in her words, and I realized right then that there was more going on than just a harmless dinner here and there.

  I eyed her, wondering if I should say anything—wanting to tease her—but decided to let them have their privacy for now. “I see.” I didn’t mean to imply anything by my tone of voice, but Oriel and Ellia burst out laughing.

  “You can’t keep much from this one, Ivy. Your granddaughter’s special. Smart as a whip and far more talented than either her grandmother or her great-grandmother.” Oriel chuckled. “And before you say a word, Kerris, yes, you are. You just don’t know the full extent of your abilities yet. I think some aspects will be a long time coming, but you are growing every day. You may not realize it, but you’re far stronger than you were even two months ago.”

  I paused, then hesitantly said, “I wish I felt more secure. Every time I turn around, I realize how much I missed out by Grandma Lila not being able to train me. I had my reasons for leaving, but I stayed away too long.”

  “Perhaps,” Ellia said. “And perhaps not. There’s a reason and rhyme to most things, and my thoughts are that if you returned too soon, you may not have discovered that your parents were both murdered. You may not have been able to lay them to rest. And by unwinding the mystery of their disappearances, you’re now able to heal from the thought that they abandoned you. That will stand you well, as you move into your power.”

  I thought about what she said. It made sense. Being caught up in childhood hurts and old wounds that hadn’t healed—it blinded one to the truth. While it hurt to know they were dead, the knowledge freed me to move on.

  As we wound through the forest, the trees overcrowded the road, especially the maple and birch, whose bare branches wove a lacework canopy over the edges of the road. Here and there, a bough from one of the tall firs had dropped, and Oriel grew silent, focusing on skirting the danger zones. Driving over a large branch could rupture something beneath the SUV, or puncture a tire. There were also small washouts to both sides, where the constant rain had eaten away at the shoulders.

  We passed through Hangman’s Ravine, where the drop-off on either side could prove deadly, should the car spin out of control and tumble over the edge. The road was narrow enough that we could see—far below—Miner’s Creek tumbling along. While white-water season didn’t happen till spring, all the rain we had received over the past few months had engorged the stream, sending it thundering along with whitecaps and muddy water.

  We passed through the ravine and out, and the grade steepened. I had no clue where the Screaming Tree was located, but Oriel, Ellia, and Ivy would know. I made it my business to study the route in case I needed to come back here on my own.

  Fifteen minutes out from Whisper Hollow saw us fully into tall timber country. We passed a sign that read LUPINE VALLEY, and Oriel eased off onto the side road just beyond. The road was gravel, wide enough for one car with a generous shoulder, and led into the forest proper.

  “The Screaming Tree is just beyond Lupine Valley Campground.” Ellia glanced over her shoulder at me. “About a ten-minute walk from the campground’s parking spot.”

  “I don’t remember much about Timber Peak, or even Grandma Lila talking about it.” My grandmother hadn’t been remotely interested in camping, and neither had Duvall, one of the few things they had in common. Grandma had married him to keep the love of her life—Grandpa Aidan—safe. When she snuck away to visit Aidan some years later, she returned pregnant with Tamil, my mother.

  “Your grandmother didn’t like coming out here. She was too tuned in to the energies and it always disturbed her.” Ellia hesitated, then added, “We had a friend in high school . . . his name was Yancy. He was taken by the Gray Man. Lila and I found his body, ripped to shreds, in Lupine Valley. What the creature did to him was . . . it was beyond description. It was savage, worse than any animal would ever inflict. Part of him was gone, bones found in the area had vicious bite marks on them. The Gray Man has an appetite for flesh and blood.”

  I let out a long breath. “Cannibal?”

  “How can it be cannibalism when it’s not your own species? No, but predator, and carnivore. And cruel. The medical examiner verified that Yancy had been eaten while still alive. I’m not sure how he knew, but he was able to figure that out.” Ellia’s voice drifted into silence as she went back to staring out the window.

  As we rumbled along the gravel road, mud puddles began to appear, but Oriel drove the horse of a machine over them. Another ten minutes and we turned again, onto a dirt road by a sign that read LUPINE VALLEY CAMPGROUND. NO HUNTING. Camping spots branched off from the main drive, to both right and left. A few more miles and we swung into a large circular parking lot next to a wide expanse of open grass. Picnic shelters and tables dotted the area, along with restrooms and a playground area.

  “How many people come camping, given the stories about the Gray Man?” It boggled my mind to think that anybody would bring their kids here if they even remotely believed the tales.

  “More than you’d want to think. But they come in groups—there is safety in numbers, you know.” Ivy pointed at one of the picnic tables. “That’s where they found Yancy. I wasn’t with Ellia and your grandma, but I came out here for the memorial.”

  Oriel parked, and we climbed out of the car. I winced as I stretched, my knees glad for the break from sitting down. As I walked over toward the table that Ivy had pointed out, I closed my eyes, trying to tune in to the lay of the land.

  It started with a whisper—just a faint one. I couldn’t quite catch what was being said, but there was something riding the wind, a nuance or secret or some hidden thing. I tried to catch what it was saying, but every time I got close, it slipped away again. The feel, though . . . the feel reminded me of the Shadow Man, and I knew the Ankou were here.

  “I can feel them. The Ankou.” I turned to Ellia. “It’s like the Shadow Man, only there are more of them.”

  When I first returned home, I’d been attacked by one of the Shadow People—creatures that were from the land of the dead. They belonged in the Underworld, and when they ventured into our world, they were dark shades in human form, black silhouettes with neither faces nor features. The Ankou attacked and drained the energy from the living, bringing fear and pain to their victims. Often, they went after children, who were helpless.

  My first encounter with the Shadow Man was in my childhood, when one had attacked me in my bed. But they could—and would—attack anyone. When in their proper place, the Ankou served as soldiers in the service of Arawn, Celtic Lord of the Underworld. But if they escaped their servitude and entered our realm, they roamed at will. Technically members of the Unliving, the Shadow People had stronger powers than most Unliving, because they sourced their power directly from Arawn.

  “The question is, are they serving the dark lord, or were they summoned here to serve . . . another?” Ellia lowered her head, frowning. I knew she was thinking of Magda, her mother.

  “That’s what we’re here to find out,” Oriel said. “Let’s hie ourselves to the Screaming Tree before anything comes out of the woods at us.”

  And so we set off, onto a trail leading into the forest from the back of the campground. All through the ten-minute walk through rain-sodden undergrowth, the silence of the forest seemed to grow. As water dripped with a steady cadence from the boughs above, I fell into the rhythm of the forest, reaching out with every step, trying to fathom the depths of those creatures who made Timber Peak their home.

  CHAPTER 6

  Oriel slowed. She was surprisingly quick and nimble in the forest, and blended in as though she thoroughly belonged here. She led the way, following a path that disappeared after the first couple of minutes, but always seemed to know exa
ctly which direction to turn. We followed, first Ivy, then me, then Ellia behind us. I noticed she had taken off her gloves and was hanging back a few feet away from me. If she fell, she wouldn’t be in danger of touching me. Ellia had been cursed by her mother. Her hands held madness in them—her touch would drive a person into a world of perpetual pain and confusion.

  True to what she had told me, after a ten-minute walk out of Lupine Valley Campground, we broke through the thick tangle into a clearing. In the center sat a tree. Or rather, what remained of the tree. The trunk was still upright, at least forty feet of it, though it was obviously dead, but it wasn’t a widow-maker. It looked like it had been petrified—the bark was almost shiny.

  I wasn’t sure what kind of tree it had been, but it was old and tall—the top of the tree looked like it had at one time been toppled by a lightning strike. About six feet off the ground were three openings, in the guise of a screaming face—two eyes and the mouth. The opening to the “mouth” was jagged and dark, and I had no desire to stick my hand in and find out how far back it went or what might be in there.

  Oriel paused. “The Screaming Tree is dampened. Can you feel the energy?” She glanced around, a suspicious look on her face.

  Ellia and Ivy closed their eyes.

  After a moment, Ivy sighed. “It’s coming from deep within the woods. Dark and almost formless. Whatever it is, it’s disrupting the energy field of the tree. We have to put a stop to it so we can figure out what’s going on.”

  Oriel glanced at me. “You can be the anchor.”

  “Anchor?” Now I was confused.

  “When we do work like this, if we’re out in the woods where there might be danger, we always have an anchor. Someone grounded, not part of the ritual, to keep their eyes open. Like Bryan acts for you—though we won’t rely on you to protect us, just warn us. So don’t be worried about that.” The way she said it almost made me think that they were giving me make-work, to keep me out of trouble, but given that we were in territory known for dangerous spirits, I decided not to be so hasty in my assessment.

  “All right. I’ll sit over here on this log to keep out of the way.” A nurse log near the Screaming Tree was covered with moss. The rain had saturated the moss, but I found a spot where I could peel it away, exposing the wood, and settled down on the damp log. It suddenly occurred to me that our safety would depend on my alertness, and any concerns about being a fourth wheel vanished as I took my post.

  Ivy, Oriel, and Ellia spread out to form a triangle around the tree. Their arms, outstretched, still couldn’t reach around the tall timber but I had a feeling that wasn’t going to matter. They began to back away in unison, one step at a time, until they were about ten steps from the tree on all three sides. A hush settled over the area, the silence broken only by the echo of birds, warning that rain was coming.

  I shivered as the chill settled through my coat. Everything seemed muted and distant. My head suddenly felt full of fog as though I had a cold or was exceptionally tired. Instinctively, I knew that whatever force was causing it was the same thing that was dampening the powers of the Screaming Tree. I shook my head, trying to keep from falling into a trance. I needed to remain alert and aware, rather than giving in to the pull the magic in the forest was exerting.

  Oriel raised one hand, holding it toward the tree, palm facing forward. Ellia took up her violin and put it to her chin. Ivy spread both arms out as though she were waiting for someone to drape coats over them. She lowered her head as Ellia began to play. The notes that reverberated out of her violin were low, almost grating, but I could feel them resonate through the forest, as though they were being absorbed by the trees and plants. I tried to keep my focus from being swept into the magic that the three women were weaving by analyzing what was going on.

  Oriel was generating the energy—I could sense it radiating off her outstretched hand. Ellia was picking it up with her music and moving it around to Ivy, who was taking it in through her own hands and . . . I squinted, trying to figure out what was happening. Then, in a blink, I could see it. Ivy was transmuting the energy; she was feeding it through the trees, through the ferns and ivy and huckleberry. Together, the three of them were saturating the area.

  The fog in my head started to dissipate, rolling back, and I realized then that they were clearing the forest, fighting back whatever magic held the Screaming Tree silent. As Ellia’s playing ramped up, Oriel was sourcing more energy, feeding it to Ellia at a rate so quick that I could almost see the waves ricocheting through the air toward the lament singer. In turn, Ellia caught them up with her bow and violin, turning them toward Ivy, who sent them reeling through the forest. Mesmerized, I watched the interplay, wondering if I’d ever be able to control the magic like they could.

  A sudden noise caught my attention. I jumped as someone brushed past me. I was on my feet in an instant, but then I realized that it was my grandmother standing there. Grandma Lila was watching them work. She glanced over her shoulder at me and smiled, and I once again longed to be able to throw my arms around her and give her a big hug, but it didn’t work that way with spirits. Then, she pointed behind me, a worried look on her face, and I turned.

  There, behind a nearby tree, was something tall and hairy watching us. The moment it saw me looking, it turned and vanished, as if it had never been there. I blinked. Whatever it was had been quick and big. A bear? Maybe. Another thought flirted around the outside of my brain, but I wasn’t ready to entertain it. I started in that direction but Grandma Lila appeared in front of me, shaking her head and pointing back to the fallen log.

  I was about to ask her why she didn’t want me to go look, but then decided I didn’t want to take a chance on disrupting the magic Oriel and the others were weaving. I let out a slow breath, returning to the nurse log. But this time, I quit trying to focus on the energy and, instead, kept my eyes peeled.

  Another five minutes and the silence shattered as the Screaming Tree let out a long, piercing shriek, startling me so much that I lurched backward, almost falling off the log. I caught my balance, steadying myself so that I was sitting upright again.

  Oriel, Ivy, and Ellia lowered their hands. Ellia carried her violin back to the case where it sat on a dry patch of ground beneath one of the cedars. The tree was awake again—I could sense it.

  “It screamed.” I struggled, trying to remember the history of the Screaming Tree.

  “It always does when there’s danger coming to the town, and I hear it,” Oriel said. “That’s why the forest sprite who talked to you was so worried. He knew that I didn’t realize there was magic up here dampening the tree.”

  I hesitantly approached the tree, keeping my hands to myself until I knew whether it was safe to touch it. “How did it get its name? And who . . . how does it know to scream?”

  Ivy joined me. She nodded at the tree. “You can touch it. If you try to hurt it, the tree will scream, but if you approach it with no ill intent, it will allow you to touch its trunk.”

  As I reached out, gently placing my hands on the trunk, Oriel continued.

  “When Whisper Hollow was first founded, the first Heart of the town came out here and left offerings to the forest folk—peace offerings, so to speak. A horrible storm came in off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It rolled over the slopes, toward the town. It was a horrible night, with wind gusts raging past eighty miles per hour. The forest took the brunt of it. The Screaming Tree was fully a hundred and fifty feet high then, and it became the focal point for the lightning to vent its wrath. A jagged fork split the tree, toppling the top two-thirds of it. The offerings had been placed beneath its trunk. Something happened—some magic in the lightning strike or the energy behind the offerings, I’m not sure what, but the tree trunk woke that night. After that, every time the town’s been in danger, the Screaming Tree screams, and I—or whoever the Heart of the town has been—has heard it.”

  “So, the
lightning storm sort of . . . made the tree the town’s sentinel. I wonder if that would have happened without the offerings?” But I knew the answer already. Because the Heart of the town had offered an olive branch to the forest spirits, they—in turn—returned the favor. Another thing struck me. I always knew that Oriel was the Heart of Whisper Hollow but I hadn’t realized it was an official post.

  “So . . . the Heart of the town. How did you end up getting assigned the job?”

  She flashed me a cagey smile. “My dear, we’re born to it. Like you’re born to be a spirit shaman. We travel till we find the town that needs us and then we settle in. I happened to be lucky enough to be born in the town that I was meant to serve.”

  “So there was another Heart before you?”

  “Of course. Ever since the founding of Whisper Hollow, there’s been a Heart. Manae died when I was young, but she knew the day I was born that I would replace her. She taught me about Whisper Hollow from the time I could barely walk. I grew up learning the town’s moods and whims. My father was a member of the Crescent Moon Society, so it was easy. The CMS knew I was destined for this post. They brought me in at a young age, and helped me find my way. Old Manae was quite the woman. She, herself, had been born in Wales.”

  I nodded. There was still so much history I needed to learn, so many of the town customs with which I wasn’t familiar. “There are things watching us.” I told them about the creature I had seen. “I’m not sure if it was a bear or Bigfoot or what.”

  “It could be Sasquatch, though he tends to make his presence known. Bear? Also possible. The Ankou can’t come out in the daylight. I suggest we erect the wards around the area to keep the Screaming Tree from being enchanted again, and then head back to town. We can’t meet with the Crescent Moon Society till Saturday night. There’s just too much chaos in everybody’s life right now due to the holidays, and this isn’t an emergency. Not yet.” Ivy shook her head. “I wish this hadn’t happened right now. It’s not a good omen.”

 
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