A big one. As a young child, James had slipped away from a family outing and vanished into the forest. He reappeared three days later -
alone but unharmed, and miles from where he was last seen. Where had he been? Who had helped him? James wouldn't say. He had promised to say nothing about meeting the WindSinger.
The WindSinger was a creature with the power to care for and heal all living things. She believed herself to be the last of her kind. Humans had been responsible for exterminating other members of her species, so she'd been taught to fear them. Yet, in the three days they spent together, she and James had made a connection that would cross time and space.
Nine years after their first encounter, the WindSinger came back into James's life.
This time it was she who needed help. Conscious of the debt he owed her, James willingly became her protector. But he didn't anticipate the dangers he'd face in returning to the forest with her. What happened there would leave him with an even bigger secret. And it would change his life forever.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.41(d)|
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By Peggy Harkins
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Peggy Harkins
All right reserved.
Stay away from the humans.
That's what Mother would have said.
Z'Nia knew what would happen if even one of them saw her.
Mother had warned again and again: They will track you, and they will kill you. Daughter, you must stay away from them.
Z'Nia had always obeyed. Until today. Today, she was drawn toward danger like a honeybee to sweet nectar. From far off, she had heard the low pitch of an adult male, the higher tone of his mate, and several voices that were shrill and noisy. The humans had brought their young, and Z'Nia wanted to see them.
She moved closer, carefully planting each step on solid rock. She knew a single loose pebble could skitter down the hillside and give her away.
No one will hear me, she promised herself.
Nor would she let them see her. Her appearance would startle them, at the very least. Thick reddish-brown hair covered her body, all but her face, her hands, and her long-toed feet. And when she stretched to her full height, she could tower over most bears. Mother had once called her beautiful. But humans would not agree.
They attack out of fear, her mother had said. And they fear anyone who looks different.
Z'Nia felt certain the humans would fear her.
She was a Tazsmin, perhaps the last of her kind. Though she'd lived alone since her mother's death some years before, she often imagined Mother at her side. Within her mind, Z'Nia replayed their old conversations. She pretended to hear Mother's voice each morning, reminding her of work to be done. If Z'Nia needed advice, Mother offered that, too. And when the loneliness seemed almost unbearable, Mother's imagined presence eased the pain. A little.
Yet, Z'Nia sometimes felt a longing that she didn't understand. She knew only that today it drove her to spy on the humans, something her mother would never have allowed.
So when Mother's voice warned her once more to stay away, Z'Nia defiantly answered, I can take care of myself.
She moved in a low crouch, gliding from one shadow to the next, until she could see them. Two adults and three children. A family. Perhaps, like her, they'd wanted to be outdoors after a week of rainy days. And so they had climbed to this beautiful spot.
It was really just a meadow. In summer it would have been filled with wildflowers, though few remained this late in the autumn. The grassy field was surrounded by gentle hills that stretched upward to meet the sky. For anyone standing in the meadow, the slopes would cut off all view of the outside world. They would transform this ordinary meadow into a secret place. A private place. A hollow within the hills.
It is perfect, Z'Nia thought.
She hid among the boulders that crowned the eastern ridge. From there she could observe and listen, her back warmed by the late morning sun.
She watched with interest as the adult male led two of his young to the center of the field. He threw a round object toward them, and one of the children tried to hit it with a club.
Is it a game? Z'Nia wondered.
Long-forgotten memories crowded her mind: her mother tossing seed pods, Z'Nia chasing after them. This might be similar play, she decided.
Z'Nia saw the adult female spread a blanket, set out food, and tend to her youngest cub. Then the woman called the others to join her, and they began sharing a meal.
Z'Nia's mouth watered as the wind brought the scent of apples.
Mother and I shared apples, too, she remembered.
But apples would not satisfy the hunger she felt today. It was companionship she wanted, not food.
She remained still, her eyes darting back and forth to view the scene below. She had often watched humans from a distance but had ventured this close only once before. That time, when she was a cub herself, a young boy had seen her hiding near a forest path.
"Monkey!" he had cried.
His parents had laughed, thinking he'd made a joke.
Later, Z'Nia's mother had explained the boy's mistake. Z'Nia had laughed, too, at the notion of humans confusing the highly developed Tazsmin with a monkey. But she also learned a lesson that day. She learned to avoid being seen.
Human cubs can be dangerous, her mother had warned.
She had explained about their sharp eyesight and curious minds. While adult humans usually ignored what they could not understand, Mother believed their children still had a sense of wonder. And like the boy on the forest path, they wouldn't hesitate to call attention to something out of the ordinary.
Z'Nia remembered her Mother's advice.
Be wary of all humans, she'd said. And that includes their young. The buzz of a passing insect snapped Z'Nia's thoughts back to the present. She frowned at her carelessness.
I must remain alert, she scolded herself.
She was squatting uncomfortably behind the largest boulder on the hilltop. It concealed most but not quite all of her over-sized body. She was relieved to see neither of the adult humans looking her way. The two older children hadn't noticed her either. Unfortunately, the smallest one did.
Head cocked to one side, he stared at her boulder. His gaze traveled past it and then returned. She froze. Smiling, he looked toward his parents. As he did so, Z'Nia slid behind the rock. Surely this tiny cub would think he had imagined her.
Z'Nia could no longer see the family in the hollow below. She might have crept away. Certainly, that's what Mother would have advised. But a wave of stubbornness swept over her.
I will not leave until I am ready, she thought. I want to know more about these humans.
Even to herself, Z'Nia found it hard to admit her true motive. What she really wanted was to hear the playful cries that brought memories of her own childhood.
She closed her eyes, leaned back against the rock, and imagined being part of a family again. Lost in the welcome images, she soon forgot about staying alert.
And then something startled her. A low sound, not threatening in itself, but unfamiliar. Her eyes flew open. Without turning her head, she let her gaze slide to the left, then to the right. Apart from a single crow scrabbling for seeds among the rocks, nothing within her field of vision had changed.
The sound came again, a soft chuckle, much like the song of a gurgling brook.
Alarmed, she whipped her head to the side and stared into a pair of bright blue eyes. There, within touching distance, stood the smallest of the human cubs.
He laughed aloud.
Z'Nia shrank back, rigid with fright. A human had found her.
From somewhere below, a voice called out.
Z'Nia struggled to decipher a language she had previously heard only from a distance. After a moment, her brain made the necessary adjustments.
It is a command, she decided. The child's mother wants him to come down from here.
Part of her hoped he would obey. So far, none of the other humans had seen her. Once this child had turned his back, she could escape.
But another part of her asked, Escape to what?
To safety. That was Mother's voice in her head, advising her to be cautious, as always.
Z'Nia pushed the thought away. Today, she was not interested in being safe. Faced with the unique opportunity to see a human up close, she let her curiosity win out.
The child turned his gaze toward his mother, then back again to Z'Nia.
He will go now, she thought, surprised to feel dismayed.
But he didn't. Instead, he reached out to touch her.
Instinctively, Z'Nia pulled away. To be touched by a human, even one so small, was unthinkable. No Tazsmin would allow it.
Her lips peeled back, displaying teeth much sharper than her vegetarian diet required. For an instant, her blood burned with the need to strike at him.
Such a thing had never happened to her before. She gasped one hot breath, and then a second. It took a third one to stifle the snarl she felt growing deep in her throat.
What is wrong with me? she wondered. With effort, she dampened her instincts into submission.
Sharp teeth safely hidden, Z'Nia looked into the boy's eyes. She was surprised to see curiosity rather than fear, acceptance instead of distaste.
Yet we could not be more different, she thought.
Vaguely aware of his pale rounded face and small features, she felt mesmerized by his eyes. They were the deep blue of wild lupines, framed by dark lashes and set well apart below a smooth, flat brow. She could not look away.
In contrast, he would see- What?
Her mind called up the wavy images he had seen floating on a shallow lake. Large, dark eyes sheltered by the bony ridge of her forehead. Flat cheekbones flanking a nose that seemed slightly squashed. Skin, sun- browned and weathered to a leathery sheen.
No, we could not be more different, she thought again.
And yet he had reached out to her. She marveled at his bravery.
Z'Nia wanted to feel brave, too. For once in her life, she wanted to ignore her mother's warnings and be adventurous. Daring. Maybe even reckless.
Reminding herself that this human was far too small to pose a threat, she offered him a smile.
The boy's mother called again, "What are you doing? Come down here."
This time, Z'Nia understood the words.
The boy looked at his mother but did not answer. Then he turned his attention back to Z'Nia. He reached out again. She felt a faint shiver as she let him place his hand on her much larger one. His fingers explored the rough texture of her palm.
"Do you grow trees like my grandpa?" he whispered.
Z'Nia didn't understand that word. But she did know about growing trees.
She sent a message into the boy's mind: I care for all the earth. Not only the trees, but the flowers, the grass, and all the animals. For lakes and rivers, too, and streams. For even the smallest puddle on the beach. I care for all of these.
His eyes widened.
Too late, she remembered that humans did not communicate with other species as the Tazsmin did. He would not have been expecting her to answer his question. Nor would he have any experience with mind-linking.
But he heard me, she realized.
The idea excited her. Could she continue the mind-link, even for a little while? What could she talk about with this tiny human cub?
He likes trees, she thought. Perhaps he would be interested in something that comes from a tree.
She carried a woven pouch slung across her shoulder. Now she reached inside it to find the perfectly formed pinecone she had collected that morning. She held it out to the child.
It is for you, she told him. A gift.
He reached for it. Then he stopped and rubbed curiously at the fine drops of rain dotting his skin. He looked up at the sky.
"James!" the mother called.
This was another word Z'Nia did not know. She decided it must be the boy's name. And she easily understood the rest of the mother's message.
"Come down here now," his mother had said. "It's starting to rain."
Over the years, Z'Nia had noticed that humans tended to avoid being outdoors during a rainstorm. She saw dark clouds mounding on the horizon. Probably, the family would leave now.
Her acute hearing brought the sound of footsteps on grass, then a scrabble of pebbles followed by a sharp cry. Pain. She concluded that the human female had been hurt.
The child paused, hand still outstretched, and glanced down into the hollow. Then he sighed and pulled his hand away.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I have to leave now."
Reluctantly, Z'Nia watched him go.
Z'Nia risked a single peek over the edge of her boulder as the child started down the path. She still hoped he might return.
But, no, the boy's mother had fallen, and the rest of the family was running to help. To Z'Nia, this represented too many humans, all of them much too close to her. No longer feeling brave, she backed away from her rock and retreated to the shelter of a birch grove a stone's throw away.
From there, she could still hear the voices, enough to know the adults were leaving and those called "Josh" and "Lindsey" would follow with their belongings. And the boy, of course. He was to go with his sister.
Disappointed, Z'Nia realized her encounter with the human cub had ended.
Her mother's voice rang inside her head. It is for the best. What you did was incredibly foolhardy.
The need to defy her mother had subsided. Z'Nia closed her eyes to beg forgiveness. She imagined Mother's knowing smile.
Go home, Mother would say.
Z'Nia bowed her head. She would go.
She raised her eyes for one last look, and what she saw left her breathless with horror. The child had slipped away from his family and was now walking directly toward her birch grove, his footsteps unsteady on the hillside.
A distant clap of thunder drew the boy's gaze to the cloud-ridden sky. Distracted, he stumbled and fell headlong. She heard a crack as his head struck the ground. His body rolled down a rocky slope and came to rest in a low spot.
I must help him, she thought, and she hurried to his side.
Though she'd never examined a human before, Z'Nia knew the nature of living things. She saw the bloody head wound that had left him unconscious. Still, she'd known creatures to recover from injuries far worse than this one appeared to be.
He will live, she concluded.
But not unless someone found him. Already it was raining. Small streams of water drained down the hillside and pooled in the area where the child lay. In a real downpour, like those on the previous days, an unconscious person might even drown.
As this image filled her mind, the storm sent a second warning. More thunder. Closer and louder.
Z'Nia listened for human activity in the hollow. Hearing none, she believed the rest of the family had left. But she also knew how humans behaved when one of their kind went missing. Time and again, she had watched from a distance as searchers scoured the woods for a lost hiker.
They will return for him, she thought. But if I leave him here, will they find him in time?
She feared they would not.
Z'Nia gathered the child into her arms, intending to leave him in a safe place. But where? She pictured the family sharing their meal.
The hollow. They will look for him there.
Knowing she must hurry to avoid being seen, she headed up the incline. She paused momentarily to muster her courage before stepping into the open. That's when she heard them coming.
"James, where are you?" the father called, his voice echoed by the children's cries. "Jamesy, come out!"
Z'Nia ducked. If anyone saw her holding the boy, they would think she had attacked him. And just as her mother had warned, they would hunt her down.
And kill you, Mother's voice repeated. Daughter, they will feel compelled to kill you!
Terrified, Z'Nia ran back toward the birch grove. Once there, she went on running until the grove became a woods and the woods became a forest. She ran without thinking, knowing only that she must escape. Not until she reached the heart of the forest did she finally regain control of herself. Gradually, her breathing slowed, and her pace grew rhythmic. At last she stopped, panic ebbing away, and then she realized she still held the child.
In an instant, her fear returned.
Leave him! Mother's voice ordered.
Z'Nia wished she could do that. She wished she could just go on her way. But this cub was too young to fend for himself, and besides, he'd been hurt.
She thought, I am responsible. I must care for him.
But first she had to find shelter from the storm.
She doubled back through the forest until she reached a deep gorge cut by the river. She headed north along the top of the ravine, the river on her left. Usually, she would cross here, for she had a shelter on the other side. Though men had built no bridges in this out-of-the-way spot, she could easily ford the river on most days. Not today, though. Swollen by recent rainfall, the water gushed by at an alarming rate.
Could I swim it? she wondered. No, she decided, not with the child in her arms.
So on she went, slower now, careful of the wet earth that threatened to crumble beneath her feet. Another shelter waited at the end of the gorge. If she could get to it, she could rest and decide what to do about the human cub.
Excerpted from The WindSinger by Peggy Harkins Copyright © 2011 by Peggy Harkins. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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