Sixteen-year-old Marni lives with her Gramps in a one-room shack, cultivating a magnificent flower garden that attracts villagers and noblemen alike. Only the invasive blue dragon flowers in her garden belie Marni’s secret: She is the niece of the king and the daughter of a dragon. When events force Marni to claim her rightful place as princess in her uncle’s court, King Roderick eyes the dragon-born girl with suspicion, blaming her for the enchanted, rapidly encroaching woods that are destroying his kingdom. Will the king kill Marni, as he did her mother, or will Marni get her revenge first? A rich, compelling fantasy for the wild at heart.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Rebecca Hahn grew up in Iowa, attended college in Minnesota, and then moved to New York City, where she worked in book publishing and wrote her debut novel, A Creature of Moonlight. She now lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the winter cold, the wide sky, and many whispering trees.
Read an Excerpt
All summer long the villagers have been talking of the woods.
Even those living many hills away can see it: their crops are disappearing; their land is shrinking by the day. We hear story after story. One evening a well will be standing untouched, a good twenty feet from the shade, and when the farmer’s daughter goes to draw water in the morning, there will be nothing left but a pile of stones and a new tree or three growing out of the rubble. And all along beside it, the woods stretch on and on, where no woods were the night before.
In years gone past, this happened now and again: a goatherd would complain of his flock’s favorite hill being eaten by shadows and trunks, or a shed alongside the trees would rust overnight and be crawling with vines in the morning. But just as often, an old fence was uncovered by the woods as they retreated, or a long-lost watering hole suddenly appeared again, where it hadn’t been for near fifty years. The woods come and they go, like the sun, like the wind, like the seasons. It isn’t something to fret about, not in a fearful way. The farmers have always complained of it, but they’ve never talked of it as they are talking now of this advance.
This year, the trees do not go; they only come, on and on, and rumors from all over our land say the same. They are folding in around us.
It terrifies the villagers something fierce. When they come to bring our supplies or to buy some flowers, they mutter about it with my Gramps. I see them shaking their heads, twisting their caps in their hands. Gramps tells them it’s nothing to worry about, that the trees will take themselves back again, just as they always do.
They listen to him. When he talks, it’s as if they forget the state of his legs and see only the calm on his face, hear only the slow, measured way he has with words. They leave more peaceful than they were when they came. They leave less worried about the creeping trees.
When they’ve gone, though, I see my Gramps sigh. I see him look sideways at me where I’m leaning against the porch rail, as if I won’t notice that way. As if I don’t already know he frets more than he’d ever let on. There’s no one like my Gramps for fretting. Any sickness going around, any rumor of bandits—I see those eyebrows drawing in tight. He’ll not talk about it, maybe, but he worries, more and more the less he can do.
Well, and this time, could be there’s something to it. Since I was small, since we lived here and made ourselves the flower people to keep from getting our heads chopped off, Gramps has warned me not to wander into the trees that push up right against our place—out back, beyond the flowers and paths and bushes, over the low stone wall that rings around our garden. But out here, living so close, it would be near impossible not to follow my curiosity over that wall, and I’ve had years to be curious. My Gramps doesn’t realize—I only go when he’s not looking—how well I’ve always known our woods.
There’s not much Gramps could do to stop me, stuck as he is in his chair, needing me for every little thing. Oh, he could yell, and if I didn’t come running, he could get himself up with his cane and wobble out the back, and if I wasn’t there, he could tear me down something wretched when he saw me returning. But I don’t go so far that I can’t hear my Gramps’s voice. Not just because I’m avoiding trouble. Not just because I don’t want to scare him, neither, though those are both good reasons. What if something were to happen to Gramps and I wasn’t there to pick him off the floor or run for help? or what if the king decided that today was the day he’d stop tolerating those flower people, and he sent some men and horses down, and I wasn’t there to scream and scratch until they killed me for my Gramps?
So Gramps doesn’t know how often I go to the woods.
There are all the things you would think of living there: rabbits and squirrels and hedgehogs and, late in the evening, bats. The trees are spaced out like they must want to be. Nobody comes to chop them down. Nobody stops them from spreading apart or smothering each other or dropping their needles just as they please, in patterns and swirls and such. I wouldn’t half mind being one of those trees. I reckon it’s a peaceful life, with nothing but the birds, the wind, and the sun for your company.
It’s peaceful visiting them, wandering this way and that through their silent trunks, humming and thinking my own thoughts.
There are other things there, too, things you wouldn’t expect.
There’s a laugh behind a tree when nobody’s around to make it. A flash of red from branch to branch, like a spark from a fire, but nothing’s burning. A woman dressed in green, sitting alone on a log and knitting something out of nothing, out of leaves and grass and berries, out of sunshine. She looks up, and she has no eyes. Where her eyes should be there are lights like tiny suns, and she’s smiling, but I don’t know how, because she doesn’t have a mouth like anyone else’s, not that I can see. There’s just a mist all around her head, and those burning eyes looking right at me.
I don’t stop to talk to things like that. I used to, once, before I knew any better. Back then I used to play with the little people hidden under the bushes and make my own crafts next to the lady on the log as she knit and sang to me, and I’d fly away sometimes, though never very far, with great winged things that held me in their arms. I was always wary of straying too far from Gramps, even when I was small.
It was only gradually that I grew frightened of the woods folk. The laugh turned, bit by bit, from cheerful to menacing; the spark changed from beautiful to dangerous. I’d see the little ones eyeing me with something other than playfulness. I’d see the lady’s clever fingers tensing as we knit, and I’d wonder just when she’d decide to grab my wrist, to take me away with her.
So I stopped listening, and I stopped looking. It’s been many years now since I followed whenever the voices called from the woods. I no longer talk back to birds with people’s faces, or watch as misty creatures dart through the brooks.
But when I slip out into the trees this summer, I hear the voices singing more, and I see the lights flickering here and there, yellow and blue and green, always just at the corners of my eyes, tempting me away.
I dare not go out when the sun is low in the sky. Then I’m like to forget, almost, who I am, and that I ever had a Gramps, and that the little people tugging at my skirt hem are not my people, and are not to be trusted, even though they bear the sweetest, most innocent faces in the world.
Yet I don’t stop going completely, neither. When Gramps is sleeping the sun away, or when I’ve worked so hard at digging out weeds and pruning back bushes and hauling water to and from the well that I can’t stand one minute more, or when I get to thinking on things just so, I hop over our garden wall and go walking out there, breathing in the pine and the damp, dark places of the forest.
It’s a dangerous pastime, I know, but I can’t help myself. There’s a thing that draws me to the woods, even more than the peacefulness I find there. It’s a humming deep at the bottom of my mind. It’s a thrill that tingles, even when I’m only taking one step and then another, even when the woods folk are nowhere to be seen.
The villagers will tell you it’s not just the creatures of the woods that require wariness. It’s not just the obvious: the lights and the voices and the speaking owls, the faces in the branches.
It’s the trees themselves.
There’s something there, they’ll say, whispering through the leaves, sleeping in the trunks. There’s something that seeps through the spongy ground but never shows itself in any way you would recognize. If you walk enough in these woods, they say, you’ll start to understand its language. The wind through the trees will murmur secret things to you, and you’ll be pulled by them, step by step by step, out of the human realm. You’ll be drawn to the shadows, toward the soft flashes of moonlight through the branches, into the hidden holes and tricky marshes.
The villagers won’t let their children go into the woods, not even to the very closest edge, not even when the wind is silent and the sun shines full through the trees. It’s an insidious thing, they say, the soul of these woods. It will rock you and soothe you until you’ve nothing left but trust and belief and naivety. It will fold itself into you, and you will never know it’s there, not until you’re ten nights out and there’s not a thing that can bring you back again.
It’s the girls that the woods take most often. Girls about my age, in fact, near grown but not yet settling themselves down to a husband and a family. There were one or two from round about our place when I was growing who walked from their homes one day and never came back.
The latest was a girl with dark curls, just old enough to be catching the eyes of the boys, and she was the closest thing to a friend I ever had.
That was just this spring, when she disappeared. She was my age, and she wasn’t shy none. She’d talk up my Gramps; he used to smile more when she was about the place. She’d talk up the village boys, too, the ones she used to play chase with but now were chasing her, and eyeing her as if she wasn’t the same girl they’d spent their summers playing pranks with, as if she wasn’t as close to them as their own sisters.
It’s not the easiest thing to keep friends when you live a good thirty-minute walk from the nearest village—nor when you’re as close as we are to the woods. But Annel didn’t care none about those things. The other village girls stayed close to home, but even young as a sprout, Annel would run across the fields and come stamping up to our front door, bursting in as we ate our breakfast maybe, or swinging right around to the garden, where I’d be at work. She didn’t look like a farmer’s daughter—she looked like a lady from the court, with that figure and that face—but she wore her skirts hitched up as often as not, and she threw herself down in the dirt alongside me as I pruned and planted.
Not that her parents approved, quite, but Annel had five brothers also running wild, and for one stray daughter to be off visiting the flower girl and her grandfather—who still spoke soft and sweet like the castle folk—there were worse things in the world.
When Annel came by our place, it was as if the sun had come down to visit. She’d go running with me out in the meadows, picking wildflowers, imagining shapes in the clouds in the sky. We’d talk things over, too: what it’d be like to fly up high with the birds; where we’d like to go when we grew up—across the mountains to the northern sea, or so far south, the winter would never come. Annel was always full of places she’d like to go. I think that was why she so loved our place—it was the closest she could get to another country, my Gramps and my world. Well, and I reckon I listened better than most of the village girls. How could I not? She’d paint such pictures with her words, of endless hills of sand, of bitter plains of snow.
Annel was good at that—making you see things with her words. Often as not, she’d stay clear through dinner, until the dark was creeping into the corners of the hut, and she’d curl up on our old wool rug next to me, her face all shining in the firelight. We’d have taken in a chair from the porch for Gramps. He’d sit straight as always, but with a softness in his face, as if he’d forgotten for the moment the pain in his legs, his fretful thoughts. And Annel would tell us stories, Gramps and me, and he would listen quietly, scarce moving, and I would eat them up like a river eats stones, rushing, gobbling every passing word, slipping on from tale to tale to tale.
Sometimes the stories she’d tell would get to be too much for my Gramps. A woman who got herself lost and never came back. A child without a mother, wandering far and wide, screaming so insistently that the earth opened up and swallowed it whole just to give it some rest. Then we would hear the chair scraping and the cane jolting against the floor, and Annel would stop talking until he’d gone out to the porch and sat down on the steps. She’d continue softer after that and stop her story soon as she could.
But she always kept on until the end. She knew, as I knew, that you don’t stop a story half done. You keep on going, through heartbreak and pain and fear, and times there is a happy ending, and times there isn’t. Don’t matter. You don’t cut a flower half through and then wait and watch as it slowly shrivels to death. And you don’t stop a story before you reach the end.
Came a time as Annel got older that her parents stopped forgetting her. Came a time she only visited us once a week, and then once a month, and then not for months and months, and then we heard she’d gotten herself engaged to a wheelwright and would be married the next spring.
She visited me once that fall, just last year, and she watched as I turned the dirt over in our garden, readying the ground for the winter. I was listening to the flower bulbs settling into the earth, tucking themselves in for a long sleep. I was humming them a tune of warm dreams, dark waterfalls, green, hidden things. I’ve always been good with the flowers, just as I’ve always been good at listening to the trees and seeing the creatures that lurk in the secret spaces between their trunks.
For a bit, I let Annel stand there silent, unmoving as I worked. If she wanted to speak to me, she would. Could be I was angry with her some without realizing it. Even knowing it was none her fault, could be I blamed her for the lonely taste of those months.
“Funny,” she said finally, when I’d reached the end of a row and she was still back in the middle of the garden, watching my shovel with a twisted puzzle on her face. “Funny, isn’t it, how things can go and change all about you, and you can grow up tall and fill out your dress, and still there’s something won’t ever change inside unless you take it up by the roots and hurl it away as hard as you can? I imagine it’s not this way for everyone. Is it, Marni?”
The crickets had silenced themselves for the summer; the frogs were sleeping deep in their lakes. A whippoorwill whistled close by in the woods, the only one speaking, the only one still awake. “No, I don’t reckon it is that way for everyone,” I said. I didn’t know completely what she meant, but nothing was for Annel as it was for everyone.
“No,” she said softly, but the breeze flipped it round and brought it my way. “No, some don’t care about the tearing. Some replant whatever’s going to work in the new soil. You do that with your flowers, don’t you? Whatever works, whatever’s going to survive, that’s what you plant.”
“I guess that’s true,” I said. “Whatever’s suited for the amount of sun and shade we get back here.”
“Not everything’s suited, though.”
“What if—what if, Marni, you’re so in love with a flower you can’t bear to rip it up? What if you couldn’t smile if you didn’t see it growing in your garden?”
“There’s no such flower,” I said. “Or there’s only the dragon flower, which won’t go no matter how many times I try to chase it out. And that’s the one I hate, the one I wish would disappear.” “The dragon flower,” said Annel , “Which won’t go no matter how you try to kill it.”
“Can’t make my garden without that flower.”
She nodded. The dusk was growing now. “Was a time,” she said, “I didn’t think of nothing but running down from home to here, and back again when I felt the urge.”
“When you’re married,” I said, “You come get a flower for your table every day.”
“Can I, Marni?” She laughed a bit. “Can I have a dragon flower?”
“Every day,” I promised her.
Then she moved, finally, coming down the row, and she hugged me, dirt and sweat and all. The whippoorwill had stopped. Only the wind through the woods rushed out toward us, flicked leaf bits in our hair. “Thanks, Marni,” she said. “I’ll remember.” She pulled back, still holding my arms. “My mother sent me down to tell you about the wedding, but I guess you know all there is by this point. I’m to invite you—you and your Gramps.”
“We’ll come,” I said.
“Well, then.” She smiled at me, though it wasn’t much more than a flash of gray in the draining light. “Well, then, I’ll see you again for the wedding in the spring.”
Only there was no wedding. As soon as the pale green tips of the dragon flower stems were poking out of the rich brown earth, even before the springtime thunderstorms had rolled off to the south, my friend took herself to the woods. They searched for her round about the villages, thinking she might have run off with this or that farmer boy. They came to our hut, even, stood with their caps in their hands, but you could feel the suspicion dripping from them, those men. You could see them remembering how often their Annel had come running down the path to us, and it wasn’t any other girl who felt the need to do that, and it wasn’t any other girl—well, not for a few years past anyway—but it was hardly anyone else who disappeared like this. And there I was, as clear as could be, my mother’s daughter, telling them I hadn’t seen Annel since winter fell, but still, they all knew, you could see. They knew that those visits with me had something to do with this.
They didn’t say it straight out, though, or dare to threaten me or any such, not with Gramps sitting right next to me. They glared, and asked their questions, and went away after I’d answered them. I stayed clear of the woods for weeks after that, as my Gramps never left me out of his sight. After a time they stopped looking, and Annel became just another story, another girl who had grown up to be swallowed by the woods. And just like all those other girls, she hasn’t ever come back.
There’s a reason we plant our flowers at the back of the hut, away from the road, as close to the woods as we can get without actually growing them in the shade of the trees. Something in the flowers likes something in the woods; or something in the woods, could be, some growing, magic thing, likes the flowers, and those nearest the trees are the happiest.
We’ve the best there are. You won’t find purple lilies like ours for sale in the city center. There aren’t nasturtiums as vibrant and long-lasting as ours clinging to the windowsills in the villages. There’s something here, I think, and maybe something too in the way I care for them, that makes them grow brighter and stronger than anywhere else.
Well, and no one else has dragon flowers, do they?
In the middle of our garden, there’s a patch of them. You can’t reach them on the paths. You have to edge through rose thorns or tiptoe betwixt lupine stalks until you reach their bed. We never planted them. But there they grow, no matter what I do—and used to be I tried, and Gramps tried, to rid ourselves of them. They always came back, and nothing else would grow where they had.
We gave it up, but Gramps still mutters about them now and again because dragon flowers are just the sort of thing he’d rather not have near.
There are stories about dragon flowers. Stories that tie them to the woods and to the thing that mothers frighten their children with, that gives the flowers their name—the dragon, of course.
The story Annel told most often about the dragon flowers took place in the time before the farms and villages and cities. It was in the time when the woods were everywhere, before we even had a kingdom, when people ran and hid and never dared come out at night for fear of getting snatched away.
In those days, the dragon flew free above the trees. He went where he pleased. He took the people he wanted; in this story they’re girls, always pretty girls who don’t know what’s upon them until he steals them out of a clearing, or from a branch where they’re perched picking nuts, or out of a cold, clear pond where they’re fishing or cooling their feet.
What he does with the girls we don’t know; something awful.
But one girl he took to more than the others, who knows why. He grabbed her as she was picking these pale blue flowers, tiny fragile things, not good for eating, not good for medicine. He asked her what they were for, and she said they were not for anything but holding in her hand and putting round her hair and placing in the window of her parents’ hut.
She was a dimwitted thing, most like. If I were living in the woods, I’d not have time for picking flowers. I’d be running and hiding like the rest, and tearing my teeth on squirrels and gathering food for the winters.
But the dragon must have seen something in this girl because he snatched her away, as he was wont to do with girls he liked. And he must have liked this one even more, because one year later she came wandering home with a baby on her hip, a wellfed belly, and roses in her cheeks. She never married any man of the forest, but stayed with her parents until they died, and round their hut there grew the flowers, the thin, blue, pointless flowers that never did any good. While the girl’s parents lived, she did just fine. The father hunted and the mother cooked meals. But when they were gone, try as she would, this girl couldn’t make ends meet. Her boy was a dreamer, as she’d been, and with even less wits, if that were possible.
Well, and in this story, one way or another, they starve to death, and the dragon never cares enough to take them away again.
That’s why the flowers are called dragon flowers, and that’s why when a girl gets pregnant and won’t name a father, they call the baby a dragon baby.
And that’s why Gramps didn’t want the thin blue flowers in our garden, one reason anyway. We need no more reminding, not of woods nor of dead girls nor of a baby nobody wants.
They sell, though, those dragon flowers, not just to the ladies, who wear them in their hair and twist them for bracelets. The village women buy them, too, when they’ve saved money enough.
That’s the thing about magic, and the thing about the woods—as much as we want to, or are told, or think we should forget them, there’s nothing we can do to stay away. As sure as we dream, as sure as between one breath and the next we look up into the sky as if hoping, really hoping, to see that beat of wings and to feel the claws grasping us, lifting us away from it all—as sure as that, the woods keeps drawing us in.
It’s something to do with freedom, isn’t it? it’s something akin to the way Annel dreamed so hard about all those many places her life could go.
“Marni,” she used to say to me, “Don’t you settle down until you’ve no other choice in the matter. Once you do, there’s nothing left: no running through fields, no laughing with boys, no dancing.”
“Married women dance,” I’d say, squinting up at her through the garden’s sun, or pouring a glass of water out from the well bucket, or as we lay on our backs off in the meadows near the hut.
“Not the way you do before you’re tied down,” she’d say. “Not when you’ve got children and a house and a thousand things to do. Not like you do when you could go any way you want, and no one would stop you, because the whole of your life was still there, still fresh and new.”
Well, and that was what took her, wasn’t it? I think that’s what takes all the girls who disappear. In the stories, they don’t have any choice—they’re snatched away whether they like it or not. But I know my Annel , and she wouldn’t have run if she hadn’t wanted to. I know what it’s like to want anything but what the world has planned for you.
I don’t even have that future to run from, the one every village girl has, and every lady. I don’t dream of a husband. I don’t dream of children.
I dream of my mother walking out of the woods, alive.
I dream of doing what Annel used to plan—taking the king’s road north through the mountains to the other side, to lands untouched by our woods, where no one knows my name. They have human witches and sorcerers in other lands. I could seek one out, a magic user, and ask for a poison so pure, our king would never know it was there until it was too late.
Maybe that’s what I will do when my Gramps is gone, when I’m alone in truth. It makes me feel like a real dragon’s daughter to think such things. It makes me wonder what I might become that day when I’ve nothing to hold me back, when I’ve only the flame in my gut and the beat of my wings to take me through the dark.