|Publisher:||Great Plains Publications|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
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Ma raised me alone under the reaching shadows of Old Fenlen Forest, at the end of the civilized world. It was her and me in our small log house, and the mule trying to sneak into our vegetable patch.
We weren't always alone. When I was very small, my smiling, whistling father was with us. The three of us rode in a pony cart and we sold horn spoons and copper pots and spools of ribbons and fine-toothed combs and beauty ointments all down the old stone roads that start at Gersa's capital of Terth and fan out like a star. Our fortune was made on the lesser cart tracks that connect the high roads like the uneven lines of a spider's web.
Pa told us that west was best because he loved riding into the sunset. But one day, we changed directions and started riding east, squinting, towards the rising dawn. The old roads brought us through all the towns, villages and hamlets in East Gersa, until tall grass started forcing itself between the paving stones that tumbled into the ditches. A day after the last village, the gently sloping road petered out at the edge of the forest.
There were no more people we could sell to in this direction, but my father said we couldn't go back up the road. I no longer remember what reason he gave. But the next morning the dusty grey pony was gone, and my father with it. Ma and I waited for him to come back, to hitch up the pony again and take us in a new direction. After three days, our food ran out. We never kept sacks of flour and oats or loops of sausage like people do in houses because we were used to trading for our food. But you cannot eat ribbons and combs, and we had already eaten the beauty ointment, which was only honey, rough sugar and herbs, after all.
Ma put herself in the harness of the pony cart and heaved as if her heart were breaking, but she could not get the wheels to turn. She picked me up, but she was too weak to carry me back up the hill. I was still too young to walk so far at night. She put me in the small trundle bed and turned up our blanket, a rough weave of old fabric ends that we had never been able to sell. She set a skin of water beside me.
"You stay here," she said. "And if your father comes back, he will find me at the village. Tell him I am not afraid." She pressed her dry lips to my forehead and was gone into the evening shadows.
If you have ever been alone, you will know that time stretches into infinity and your thoughts loom over you. If I had been older, I would have tried to sleep by imagining myself into a better place. But I was too young to think of anything other than the truth. I was alone for the first time. My mother had left me, and I was sure that I would be eaten by bears long before my father came back.
Come, Pa, come, I prayed.
If you have ever been alone, you know that sounds become louder and the hairs rise up along your body, waiting for some sign of a predator. I was sick with fear at each creak of wind pushing through the wood of the pony cart, each rasp of wool and silk and samite as I pulled the blanket closer around myself. My own heartbeat was deafening.
Come, Pa, come.
And then there was a gust that shook the little pony cart and made the metal traces sing. I heard something outside, the slow, deliberate alternations of weight from hoof to hoof. It was him. He would swoop me up, hug me close and feed me sugared plums. Hope made me strong, and I pulled myself from the bed and ran to the door draped in my piebald blanket. I swung the little door open and saw ... darkness. He would be on the other side of the cart, giving the pony a rubdown. I kicked down the wooden stairs and ran to the other side, spreading my arms to catch him.
The weak sliver of the moon barely shone off the creek, the meadow grass, the looming trees.
But I had heard right. There, there it was — a gleam, a smear of dark grey against the black silhouette of the massive forest.
"Wait!" I screamed. He thought we had abandoned him. Heartbroken, he was leaving. I ran as fast as I could towards the grey and, as I approached, the shape swung out of the shadows toward me. I froze. It was not my father. It was not a bear. It was something much more terrifying.
Sixteen hands at the muscular, scarred shoulder. A lank mane and tail the colour of ghost's tears and tangled with dead leaves. A heavy head tilted down in suspicion. And the long, spiralling horn that ended in a delicate, rounded point mere inches from my heart.
I closed my eyes. A tear squeezed out between my eyelids and began to slide down my cheek towards my mouth. I imagined that the salt taste would be the last thing I sensed.
Instead, something smooth and cool touched my cheek. When I opened my eyes, the unicorn was lifting her horn away and feeling my tear trickle down the groove of the ivory. She — though I did not know she was a doe at the time — tilted her head to the side and considered me with a solemn, dark blue gaze. I stared back. People think that unicorns are the colour of bridal satin, of pearls, of fresh milk. A unicorn that colour wouldn't have five minutes' peace with all the poachers after them. My doe-unicorn was a dull, dappled silver that shimmered only dimly in the moonlight. I think I was able to see her only because I desperately needed to see something in the dark. That is the poachers' mistake. They only want to see their unicorns and are happy enough to go home with a rabbit or a red deer slung behind them. There is no man-made trick of finding them, only a need, though I did not know it then.
My unicorn made a sound that would have been a nicker coming from a horse. She stepped forward. I felt her hot breath on my face as she passed her velvet lips along my hair and nudged me towards her chest with her chin. She smelled like the freshly churned mud from her cloven hooves, like newly unfurled leaves, like acacia honey. I put my hand gently on her muscular shoulder and felt the crisscrossing of scars. The hair was longer and downier than that of our pony, softer to the touch. The unicorn turned slowly. Keeping my hand in place, I turned with her.
I was at peace that night. I don't remember much else. I think I saw the unicorn shake fruit from the trees using her horn; this memory comes vividly whenever I encounter the sour taste of wild plums. However, I do remember waking up to the slow thud-thud of my doe-unicorn's heartbeat and opening my eyes to see the shifting green-gold canopy of aspen leaves at the edge of the forest. I remember Ma arriving on horseback with a man and a woman, remember her seeing the open, abandoned pony cart and her running toward it, calling my name in a hoarse scream. She collapsed on the stairs. She sank her fingers into her thick, dark hair and began to pull. The two villagers dismounted and ran to stop her from hurting herself, but they both stopped short when they saw me and my doe-unicorn walking towards them.
I had been watching all of this as we took our measured steps together. I was too young to understand; I felt certain that the miracle of the unicorn, that the sight of us together, would stun the grief from my mother. When she looked up, the harsh creases at the edges of her mouth relaxed slightly. Her fingers eased from her hair. But Ma did not smile. Not like the others. They were struck by the sight of the unicorn, but she was my mother first and the witness of a miracle second.
The man had a spear with him, in case of boars or bears, but when he saw my unicorn, he let it fall. The plump, grey-haired woman covered her mouth with her hand, but even so, I could see the happy curves of her mouth. The unicorn nudged me towards my mother and I went. She waited patiently until Ma's arms were around me. The villagers' eyes turned towards us and when we all looked up again, the unicorn was gone.
Though we did not know it yet, the forest had already claimed me as its own.
Ma pulled me up in front of her in the saddle and we rode to the village, where we stopped at a large, comfortable house with black beams that stood out securely from the pale wattle and daub. Before she handed me to the man, Ma whispered that the two villagers with us were the headman, Nicholas Helder, and his mother and that I was to behave. As I was deposited in the hands of the headman, it became obvious that he was unused to holding children. He let all my weight lie in the hard curve between his thumbs and his forefingers. Instead of bringing me easily to his chest, as my father would have done, he set me down at arm's length. "You gave us a right scare," he said, as if being left alone in the pony cart had been my idea.
But Mrs. Helder winked at me and took my hand. She asked me if I wanted apricot jam or apple butter on my scones.
My mother and I sat down at a wide-planked table. As Mrs. Helder brought out crocks of jam and unlocked the scones from the tin breadbox, Nicholas Helder collected a quill, ink, paper and a sand-shaker. "Well," he said as he sat down, "now you've got your child, where will you go?"
"As long as there is a chance my husband will come back for us, it's best if we stay," Ma said. "Perhaps I could sell my stock at the village?"
Nicholas Helder's beard rasped against the collar of his shirt as he shook his head. "With all respect to you, lady, they've had enough of thin-bottomed pots and frayed ribbons." He laid out the sheets of paper. "I cannot force them to buy what they do not want."
"Then we have nothing."
"Do you have money to buy another pony? Can you carry on the trade elsewhere?"
"The money is gone."
"Do you have anywhere to go?" Nicholas Helder said.
Nicholas Helder and his mother exchanged a glance.
"Any family that can take you in?" asked Mrs. Helder gently, as she spread apricot jam on my scone.
Ma pursed her lips. "My husband never had any."
There was a long pause. I tried to chew quietly. Were they trying to send us away?
"Can't we stay?" I said. "What if Pa comes back?"
Again, that quick glance between the two of them.
"Well, there's that," Mrs. Helder said, as she buttered my second scone. "And if ... well, there is the fact of the unicorn."
I saw my chance to press my case. "It's my friend," I said. "It can help me find Pa."
"Strange things happen in the Fenlen Forest," said Nicholas quickly. "That's why it's never been logged. You could stay with us until you get sorted. You'll be hired easy for the harvest. Even the little girl."
"After selling them, what was it? Thin-bottomed pots and frayed ribbons? We'd need something better to offer."
"Why not," Mrs. Helder said into the silence that followed my mother's stiff declaration. "Why not listen to the child? The unicorn has chosen her. That must mean something. Go out and see if it will come back. Sometimes the hunters find old horns at the forest's edge. What do they call it? Alicorn?"
"Yes. That's the apothecary's name for unicorn horn," Ma said swiftly. Her brows were tensed. Curiosity was beginning to crowd out sadness and anger. My heart leapt, for I did not like when she was sharp.
"Right," said Mrs. Helder. "Alicorn. If your little girl found one, it would set you right up. You know what the alicorn is worth." She paused, but no one answered. "It protects against sickness," she insisted, "against poison. Ground up, you could use it as a restorative. As a beautifier. No more fake ointments that housewives could cook up themselves. The real thing."
"Yes!" I said, seeing my chance to please Ma and find my unicorn again, before Pa came back for us. "I could find it!"
"This isn't the time for fairy stories, Mam." Nicholas Helder cleared his throat. "Mayhap the man will turn up in a day or two, and the family can be on its merry way. All right, then," he picked up his quill and dipped it in the ink. "Now tell me, my lady ..."
"Sylvia. That's my name," Ma said sharply, warding off any trace of sarcasm.
"Sylvia, tell me what your man looks like. There's a press at Wealdton. I can have a broadsheet printed up and sent to the larger towns."
Ma described my father and Nicholas Helder leaned over the table, scratching away with a quill. As I watched him making broad marks across the paper, I got up with my third scone in hand and sidled over.
"What does that say?" I asked, pointing at the first and largest words.
"That's his name." I always heard men call my father Tinker.
"And what's yours? Is it Curly?" He tousled my messy brown hair.
He gave a strange smile. "You mean Elizabeth Tinker?"
"No," my mother said, from where she had been staring into the fire. "Not Tinker. Not any longer."
Nicholas Helder shook sand over the sheet of paper to soak up the excess ink. Ma watched him and ran one meditative finger over the wooden grooves of the table.
"If you are finished, may I write a letter?"
He gaped at her — that he could write was rarity enough, let alone a tinker's abandoned wife. "Then you do have family who might help you?"
"I do not know," Ma said. "We shall see."
By nightfall, Ma was Lady Missing to the village men because of her clear accent, neat features, and her strange ability to write. She was Poor Sylvia Missing to the women, who whispered that they pitied her and who attributed her stiffness to a rumour that she had been high born. But I am getting ahead of myself.CHAPTER 2
The next day, the Helders drove us back to the pony cart in a small wagon loaded with a bushel of apples and root vegetables, a ham, a wheel of cheese, a sack of oats, and two nanny goats for milk. They also loaned us a bundle of gardening implements and a pouch of seeds. If we were staying for any amount of time, Mrs. Helder reckoned, we might as well grow some winter cabbage, turnips, beets, and radishes.
When we arrived at the pony cart, Nicholas Helder went with Ma to check for any repairs that might be needed. Meanwhile, Mrs. Helder fussed over me. She combed and braided my wild hair and fed me slices of apple.
My father used to cut me slices of apple, but first he used to peel it in a long, unbroken, scarlet spiral. "Do you think Pa will come back?"
"I can't say," she said slowly. "Elizabeth, whether your Ma decides that you should stay or go, you should know some of the stories told about Old Fenlen Forest. There is a reason why only the hungriest men hunt here. There is a reason why Gersa ends here. Do you know what lies beyond Gersa in that forest?"
"Philistion?" It was the only other country I had ever heard of.
She shook her head. "No. Even if Philistion looks like it belongs on the northeast side of the forest on a map, some people say that if you walked across that forest in a straight line, you would never arrive. The forest paths are said to twist and change and disappear. No ... beyond Fenlen, there is another world where strange and wonderful things belong."
"Like unicorns," Mrs. Helder assured me. "And the Old Folk. They are said to pass through here sometimes. Some people say they're ghosts, or the spirits of lost hunters. Some people say they steal children who run away from home." She tapped me on the nose to break the spell. "I know I would steal you away in a minute, if I were Old Folk," she added with a wink.
"If Old Folk found me, could they take me to Pa?" Having seen a unicorn only yesterday, I trusted everything Mrs. Helder told me.
But Mrs. Helder shook her head. "No, child. There are legends of people wandering into that forest to catch a rabbit and never coming back. Or coming out to find that their grandchildren were old men and women ... and they had not aged a bit. No, Elizabeth. Go with a unicorn if you must, but stay away from strangers."
"What stories are you telling her, Mam? Weren't the goats enough folly for one day?" Nicholas Helder had returned and was letting the goats off the back of the wagon. Mrs. Helder gave him a look as he passed a wheel of cheese to my mother.
"Stories have no price," Mrs. Helder said. "If that's what you mean by folly."
"In time, we will pay you for the goats thrice over," Ma said in a voice that made Nicholas Helder turn red.
"You have faith in your daughter's gift," Mrs. Helder said, giving me an affectionate pat on the cheek.
All through the day, I waited for my unicorn to come. But the unicorns were not our first visitors.
They arrived a few weeks later — though by then, I felt as though we had lived by the forest's edge for all eternity. Ma was cooking up porridge — again — and I was picking firewood. I had just stood up with my arms full of dry branches, when I thought I saw my unicorn watching me from between two aspen trees. I blinked, and when I opened my eyes again, there was no unicorn at all, just another tree, a bit in the distance. I had been hoping just a little too hard.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Changeling of Fenlen Forest"
Copyright © 2019 Katherine Magyarody.
Excerpted by permission of Great Plains Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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