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CHAPTER ONE

AURIANNA

He took my heart the night he killed my grandmother; the night I swore the Blood Oath, binding my life to his death.

Even outside the glade, I heard the shriek and screech of metal, followed by the silence of a predator that has leapt but not yet landed.

The other dryads would not welcome my presence, but a sense of growing dread pushed me, so I threw myself into the breeze. Swifter than my legs could run, the air currents carried me though the forest to the rocky walls that sheltered my people’s hidden glade

When I entered the glade, no one frowned or turned away with mocking smiles and knowing stares. Instead, they all stared up, watching as a human’s car plunged the long distance toward the ground, falling from the hard black river above.

Time slowed.

Time froze.

Time exploded back to life as the car crashed into my grandmother’s sycamore tree with the root-chilling snap of splintering wood. The force of the collision threw the human body free of the metal shell. Then, Grandmother’s death-cries floated through the air, thin as tattered gossamer.

Unlike me, she had rooted and changed. As a hamadryad, the wounded sycamore tree housed her soul.

“Grandmother!” I pushed past the gathering dryads and curious satyrs. Her whispered moans echoed through the glade, repeated from leaf to leaf by greenspeak, the shared voice of the forest.

The car had smashed into her tree near the base. The trunk remained upright, but a gaping wound now wept streams of spring-quickened sap.

I clutched at the trunk, my fingers slipping across the sycamore’s smooth surface as I searched for her spirit inside. “Grandmother!”

She did not answer. Her silence kindled a frantic emptiness inside of me.

Please hold on!” I thrust my toes into the forest soil, impatient at the eternal seconds it took for each toe to stretch and split into a web of roots. I had to save her. She was all I had.

With an urgency that shook me, I pulled up great waves of the earth’s nourishing power, pouring it through my hands into the broken tree.

She responded to the flood of energy with only the faintest rustle of thought. You cannot heal this wound, Aurianna.

Grandmother! Do not leave me.” I poured even more energy toward her.

It is the way of things. Listen. I have little time and I must speak. Forgive me, Aurianna. I have not . . . been kind to you. I have not loved you. I allowed your mother’s shame to make me cold and distant.

We can love each other now.” For as long as I had lived, her lack of love mattered more than anything else. “

Listen. Even in death, she surrendered no warmth, betrayed no tenderness. Her coldness stabbed into a place deep inside of me. Somehow, it always managed to create a new wound among the old scars.

Your mother—the voice of her spirit faded away for a few seconds.

My heart froze, jumping to attention like a rabbit’s ears. Mother. That word opened up a yearning far deeper than my current grief or past sadness.

“Tell me! Please.” I pressed hard against her trunk, straining to listen while flooding more and more energy into her dying tree. She could not last long. But perhaps long enough to explain the secret shame that had blighted my life.

Your mother— Grandmother’s voice faded as her tree’s life flowed away. Too late, she gasped. Orison.

“No!” I stretched each root, gulping more and more energy from the earth, hurling it at her until the small plants around me wilted and died, drained of life. Grandmother remained silent. “Tell me of my mother. Please.” I pounded on her trunk now, beating it with my fists “Please!”

Her silence revealed how alone I had become. As long as she lived, I had cherished hope that her polite, distant coldness might someday thaw to something approaching warmth. But with her death, who would ever love me?

“The Oath, Aurianna.”

I lifted my head away from Grandmother’s tree. Morganna, the dryad queen, stared down at me. In her tangible, corporeal form, her face was as unyielding as the hickory tree she inhabited. “Swear the Blood Oath. Your grandmother’s tree fades quickly. We must sing the Orison and free her spirit.”             

The other dryads stood in a silent circle nearby, their willowy forms mingling with the more bestial shapes of the satyrs, who skulked by the tangles of wild honeysuckle near where the human had fallen.

Morganna nodded and one of the satyrs stepped forward. Panto was still young enough that he did not yet know to avoid me, so we talked on occasion. His goat-feet squerched through the late spring mud as he trotted up, offering me a dagger from the scabbard he wore.

The metal looked cold in his hand; I hesitated.

The Blood Oath meant permanent rooting and transformation: becoming a tree for the rest of my life. All dryads eventually became trees; Nature made that our destiny. But I was so young to be confined forever.

“The Oath, Aurianna.” Morganna’s harsh voice snapped into my thoughts. “Spill his blood and make your change. Then we will sing the Orison.”              

My own feelings did not matter. Rooting in the human’s blood became my duty when he killed my grandmother; our law demanded that. I needed to swear the Oath so they could sing the Orison and release her spirit from the tree.

I took Panto’s dagger and walked to the human. All the others moved away, except one of the satyr elders who continued to stare at the body of my grandmother’s killer

The human lay sprawled on the ground, cradled by autumn’s last leaves and spring’s new growth. Still and pale, he had little life left for me to take.

I knelt down and raised the dagger.

Long strands of black hair glistened in the moonlight, slick with the red sap humans called blood. Flowing from a gash in his head, it ran down the carved angles of his face, tainting the innocence of the wild daffodils beneath him.

A soft groan parted his lips, and his eyelids fluttered, a gentle movement that contrasted with the wildness I read in his face.

Hints of a breeze blew by, carrying the faintest whisper of magnolia.

Magnolia? In early spring?

Surprised by the unseasonal scent, I paused and looked around.

“Aurianna! Complete the Oath and take root in his blood,” Morganna ordered. “Would you leave Honnoria’s spirit imprisoned inside a dead tree?”

I looked at Grandmother’s tree. I could not leave her trapped in death and decay, and the others would not sing the Orison until I swore the Oath. I gripped the dagger with fresh resolve.

Perhaps killing the human would earn my people’s trust. Perhaps, after I changed, they would no longer shun me. Perhaps I would hear my name spoken without irritation or distaste. I would win their acceptance. That hope glowed inside of me, spreading like a summer dawn.

Raising my arms to the sky, I called out the words. “I, Aurianna of the Dogwood,

swear the Blood Oath. As you have spilled the sap of my grandmother, so I will spill your

blood, watering the earth from which we both came. As I take root in your remains, you will nourish my tree. Limb for limb, life for life, balance is restored.”

The metal of Panto’s dagger burned cold in my fingers. It seemed a hard thing to kill something so beautiful, so wounded, so wild. But I had sworn the Oath. I would kill him, then, with his blood watering my roots, make the final transition of a dryad’s life. And my people would no longer dislike me.

As a tree, I would never again walk. Never again dance in the breeze—Be strong!

With my free hand, I clutched his warm, mossy hair and pulled his head back, exposing his throat. But slick with blood, his hair slipped from my grasp.             

“Make haste,” Morganna said. The others murmured agreement.

As I fumbled to grasp the human’s hair, my fingers brushed his face. Heat rushed up, followed by a thunderstorm of magnolia-scented images, faces, and feelings that flashed through my mind far too swiftly to comprehend. They left me confused, for they seemed both familiar and strange. They were not mine. And yet, they felt real. Memories of memories, ripples from a stone I had not splashed. 

“Aurianna!” Many voices joined Morganna’s now.

The memories faded, replaced by a growing instinct. As sure as the wild geese know to flee winter’s coming chill, I knew I could not kill him. And, like the geese, I could not explain it.

For the first time in eighteen summer-turns, I made a choice for myself. Until now, I had calculated every action to either earn Grandmother’s approval or avoid fanning the smoldering coals of my people’s dislike.

“Kill him!” All the dryads cried with a single voice now.

Warm dreams of friendship froze in my chest. I swallowed hard against the bitter lumps of frost-killed hope. They had always disliked me. Now, they would hate me. But for reasons I did not know, I needed this beautiful human to live.

I thrust my feet into the forest floor again. Once more, they branched into roots, stretching down where life pulsed and hummed. The energy rushed into my roots, and I sent it coursing through my fingers, into the human’s birch-white skin.

Behind me, the other dryads shrieked.

Far above us, screaming wails tore through the air. Flashes of red and blue fire lit the sky as more human cars gathered on the dead black river atop the glade. 

The other dryads retreated into their trees, but I remained by the human, struggling to heal him. I repaired broken bones and organs, then drew out an intoxicating poison that filled his veins.

The gash on his forehead still trickled red, and his spirit bore even deeper wounds. But the other humans tromped down the steep hill then, lighting their way with shafts of cold light trapped inside metal tubes.

I could delay no longer. I stood, hummed the opening song, then slipped inside a delicate dogwood tree. The humans placed the wounded male on a long bed and carried him back up the steep hill. The wails sounded again, and they departed, taking the red and blue fires with them.

When silence and darkness returned to the glade, I emerged from the dogwood. The other dryads met me with glares of throbbing anger, a bitter hate too strong for words.

I stammered and struggled to explain. “I felt something—”

“You are a disgrace!” Morganna hissed, snapping her head away from me. “We must sing the Orison.”

“But the Blood Oath has not been fulfilled,” someone else said.

“That is custom, not law,” Morganna replied. “I will not allow Aurianna’s weakness to imprison Honnoria’s spirit in a dead tree.”

They turned their backs to me, surrounding Grandmother’s tree in a circle of clasped hands.

“Wait!” I ran to the circle to join the final ritual of my grandmother’s life, but they clasped hands tighter.

“She was my grandmother!” I threw myself against their arms, but they pushed their shoulders closer—unyielding, unforgiving. Trapped outside the circle, I stood alone as the Orison’s final notes filled the glade with bittersweet harmonies.

Coaxed open by the song, Grandmother’s tree split with a loud crack. A warm breeze rushed out of the broken trunk, circled the glade, then spiraled up into the sky.

Her spirit was free.

The other dryads kept their backs to me as Morganna spoke. “We hold Aurianna of the Dogwood as traitor and oathbreaker. By healing the human who murdered her grandmother, she broke our people’s most solemn oath and betrayed her grandmother’s memory. Let no dryad speak her name. Let no tree give her shelter. Following her mother in disgrace and shame, we name her Outcast.”

“Outcast.” The other dryads chanted. “Outcast.”

Outcast. The greenspeak picked up the cry now, whispering my banishment from leaf to blade and stem to stalk.

I turned and ran from the glade.

The greenspeak travelled faster than I ran, rustling the verdict to all growing things in the forest. Every tree in my path pulled his budding branches away; the new undergrowth twisted to avoid me. Honeysuckle, wild blackberry, even poison ivy bent back, unwilling to be touched by the Outcast.

Outcast.

The word rippled through the forest, set against the rising fury of a sudden spring thunderstorm. Tumultuous clouds rolled over the moon and stars. The wind rose with little warning, and a sudden spring thunderstorm pounced, whipping the quiet night into a howling frenzy. Jagged talons of lightning tore at the clouds, and rain hurled down from the sky.

I ran to a nearby beech tree and darted inside—but instead of entering the tree, I collided with it. Wet bark scratched my skin and lichens smeared my face. The tree had shut me out. My people had shut me out.

              Outcast.

As the rain soaked beneath the leaves and grass I wore, the reality of my banishment soaked into my consciousness. With that reality came a new fear, chilling me inside and out.

My people had closed the trees to me. With no shelter, I would eventually die. But if they had also sealed the earth against me, my starvation had already begun.

Would the earth receive my roots?

 

 

 

 


CHAPTER TWO

BRANSON

Testosterone doesn’t make you dumb, but it sure can make you do dumb things. Add some adrenaline and you have an emotional Molotov cocktail that can blow up in your face. In my case, I’d barely avoided jail.

I remembered that much. Everything since then was fuzzy, including why I was alone in a strange bed in a pitch-black room.

Lightning flashed outside, big blasts, barging into my room like some kind of S.W.A.T. team.

That wasn’t what woke me up, though. Something else had. Something I couldn’t remember. The lightning and the thunder just finished the job.

My head still buzzed with the dream I’d been yanked out of—something crazy about hairy goat-men and very tall women who lived in trees. They looked sort of human, but taller and more willowy. High, angled cheekbones and almond shaped eyes. The color of their hair, eyes, skin—whatever—came from the trees around them. Pretty hot, actually.

But, where the crap was I?

My head felt fuzzy, but not bad—almost like my body wanted to have a hangover, but somehow hadn’t managed it. Ironic. That was one of the only things I’d never failed at before.

A high, quivery moan cut right through the darkness.

Oh yeah. That’s what yanked me out of my tree-woman dream.

“Hello?”

No answer.

The storm rumbled again, and the wind whipped itself up into a pretty good moan. Maybe that’s what I heard?

I stumbled out of bed and tripped on something, face-planting on uneven wooden

floorboards. Who left my gym bag next to the bed?

              Falling hurt. A lot. My un-hungover head felt okay, but, for some reason, my whole body ached. Like I’d done a hard workout I wasn’t ready for, and then done it again. And then got beat up. Twice.

              Lightning. Then more moans came, high-pitched and fluttery, louder now.

Another round of lightning strikes helped my eyes adjust to the darkness enough that I could see some curtains hanging against the wall like dead bodies. I forced my aching body up, then walked over and pulled them open. The thick fabric sent clouds of dust into my face as the thunderstorm exploded outside in all its glory.

With the curtains open, the lightning lit up the room enough for me to see the peeling, floral wallpaper.

The lightning took a break between sets, but I didn’t need it anymore. I knew right where the light switch was now. I walked over and flicked it on. Yellow stains on the ceiling, old rag rug over the uneven floorboards.

Holy crap. I was back in my old room. But how?

How the freak had I come back to Hilltop Farm?

My head didn’t ache, but felt so fuzzy. It took a lot of effort to squeeze even a few memories out. I’d been driving from New York to Aunt Judith’s and stopped in Nashville for gas. I met a hot girl, who invited me to a party.

 

More lightning flashed, and without any warning, thirteen years disappeared. In my mind, I was four years old again, sitting up in bed in this room during a storm, screaming out for Mama and Granddaddy. Screaming because the guilt and fear and anxiety got too big for my words to hold. Screaming because closing my eyes brought the flames back.

From a long way away, I felt my hands clench the curtains, trying to keep myself upright as the world spun and flipped—like my stomach.

Not much had changed; I’d just gotten bigger. So had the guilt and pain. Instead of screaming, I’d found other ways to cope, big-boy ways to smother the pain: high doses of adrenaline, hundred and eighty proof tesosterone, and anything that got the two of them pumping.

Something about being back in this room stripped away the shell I’d developed over the years. All the attitude and toughness disappeared, leaving me feeling felt naked and cheap.

Cheap. That word gouged down inside of me. Granddaddy hated being shabby and cheap. It was the worst thing he could call someone.

“Trashy people do cheap things,” he’d say with a frown. “A hound dog in a ball gown is still gonna scratch for fleas.”

I thought that was funny as a kid. Now—not so much.

Because I had a whole lot of fleas.

The thought of Granddaddy always brought crushing guilt and—

Stop!

              I closed my eyes and shoved everything down deep inside me: the memories, the ache, the guilt, the vulnerability everything. I’d gotten good at this over the years, shoving more and more down. Now, that part of me was like a suitcase crammed so full it could barely close.

              The storm got louder right then, shaking the house.

The moans came back, loud enough to make me jump. I reached down and grabbed some sweats from my athletic bag.

I staggered into the sweats—why was I so sore?

And why did I have on different underwear than yesterday?

That suggested some intriguing possibilities, hopefully with someone hot. I liked physical nakedness a lot better than the emotional kind.

The moans kept going. I stumbled to the door.

“Hello?”

No answer—of course—but the moans got stronger and more regular. Creepy, but not ugly, almost like a song that had been broken, then put back together and sung by ghosts.

I checked the room next to mine. Nothing there, so I walked down to the study at the end of the hall and opened the door.

              A warm, musty smell hit me. Memories rushed back, even before I turned the light on. How many hours had I spent here? I flicked the light switch on, and my breath caught in my chest. I’d forgotten about the walls.

              The whole study had been paneled in solid oak, almost every inch carved with detailed scenes of strange creatures. I used to spend hours making up stories to go with the carvings, especially when it rained. I’d stay in here all day, or at least until Aunt Judith kicked me out so she could work in her ledger.

              It was the desk that really caught my attention though. As a kid, it had seemed massive, big enough to be whatever I imagined: a pirate ship, castle, treasure cave, a jungle fortress—anything. It still had the same smooth feel, same oily furniture polish, and chemical-lemon smell.

Lots of memories here, but nothing that was moaning. I left and walked to the big

staircase to the second floor.

As I walked to the stairs, the floorboards squeaked under the thin ratty carpet. It sounded like the music Psycho right before someone gets stabbed. That felt appropriate somehow.

I grabbed the banister, but it wobbled, and I was afraid I’d tear it off.

When I was a kid, Hilltop Farm had been nice. Not comfortable or homey, but fancy. Intimidating. It was the King family’s way of telling the whole county to suck it since we were richer than all of them put together.

Now everything looked worn-out and ragged, like the whole place had a terminal illness. Slightly creepy and seriously shabby. If that Downton Abbey show had been a horror movie, it would look like Hilltop Farm.

I came to the second floor landing—a long, dark hallway with lots of doors and a big, grandfather clock that swore it was five in the morning. The moans were definitely louder here. I closed my eyes and listened, following the sound to the first door.

Aunt Judith’s door.

“Look, girls! Jack’s back!”

I jumped as a thin, shaky voice flutter-kicked from the darkness at the end of the hall. An old woman with wild eyes and dirty, white hair came next, sort of flitting out of the shadows. She came up to me and pushed her face right into mine. Her smile got so big, I worried it might split her pale, wrinkled skin. “Everything will be just fine now.” She looked down at three old dolls she carried in a headlock in her right arm. “He’ll fix everything!” Even with a smile, she seemed haunted.

It took me a few seconds to recognize her. “Aunt Dorothy?”

Great-Aunt Dorothy—or what was left of her—kissed my cheek with cold, waxy lips. I flinched a little. It wasn’t exactly appealing; she smelled weird too.

Thirteen years had been even harder on her than the house.

              “Oh, Jack, we’ve missed you so!” Her gentle Southern accent smoothed out her quivery, wavering voice. “I always knew you’d come back! I kept every photo and letter you ever sent.” She waved a brown leather photo album, jerking the dolls in her other arm up and down.

“Aunt Dorothy?” I used my most soothing voice—which was a little hard with the storm outside. “I’m not Jack. That’s your brother. My granddad.” Even after all these years, thinking of Granddaddy put a big, aching fist in my chest. “I’m Branson. Bran-son.”

I don’t think she even heard me. The haunted look on her face got worse. “Jack, I’m sorry about Fiaunna. I didn’t know!” Aunt Dorothy was more confused than a meth head waking up in a crack house. Grandma’s name was Marguerite.

Speaking of confused, I still had no idea how I’d gotten here. Or what the moaning was. Maybe it was Aunt Dorothy.

She grabbed my hand, squeezing harder each time she shrieked about Jack and Fiaunna. Her dolls and photo album hit the floor, then bounced down the stairs.

Aunt Dorothy cried out, then let go of me, running after her book and dolls.

“Now, Dorothy, you just calm yourself down.” A deep voice came from the bottom of the stairs.

Lightning flashed above the skylight in the entryway, turning heavy shadows into a broad-shouldered figure.

Abraham!

Another flash came. As the lightning lit him up, a big smile creased his worn, dark face and I felt like Christmas had come—then I remembered why I had to come back. My face grew hot with shame. He had to know—someone must have told him. For the first time in years, I blushed.

Aunt Dorothy’s shrieks faded to ragged whimpers. I realized the moans had stopped. Must have been her. She ran down to Abraham. “Jack’s back!”

Abraham winked at me, then he took Aunt Dorothy’s hand in his. With his other hand, he reached up and touched her cheek. That calmed her down even more. Seeing such a gentle touch come from such big, rough hands surprised me a little. I needed to learn to caress women like that. They loved strong, gentle hands.

“This is Mr. Branson, your great-nephew. Mr. Jack’s grandson. Remember? He’s coming to live with us for a while.” His low voice never sounded loud, but somehow, it rumbled above the storm.

Aunt Dorothy’s eyelids fluttered. She looked at me with milky eyes that didn’t show any recognition. Finally, she smiled and giggled like an old-school Southern Belle. Seriously pathetic. “Pleased to meet you, sir.” Poor lady. Not confused. Straight-up crazy.

Then she looked at the photo album and the dolls, scattered on the stairs.

“My girls!” she said. “Those poor, poor girls! They were moaning tonight. Did you hear them?”

“It’s all right,” Abraham said. “Your dolls are going to be just fine.” He stepped forward, but he moved in slow motion. Even though he smiled, I saw pain in every movement. Thirteen years hadn’t been good to him either.

“Let me get that.” I went down to the stairs to get Aunt Dorothy’s stuff.

I was still really sore, but I didn’t want Abraham to have to do it, so I grabbed the photo album and dolls—naked Barbie, decaying Raggedy Anne, and an ugly baby with uneven, hacked-off hair.

“Here you go.” I gave them to Aunt Dorothy, who clutched everything to her chest like someone might steal them. “Don’t tell Judith about the letters. She gets so mad at me—”

“Now, Dorothy why don’t you head on into the kitchen,” Abraham said. “I just got here and boiled you an egg—freshly laid from my biggest hen.”

She nodded and flitted towards the kitchen.

“Sorry about that,” Abraham said. “Dorothy must have startled you plenty.”

“A little. So, uh, what’s the deal with Aunt Dorothy? What happened to her?” She’d always been a little flighty and different, but not like this.

Abraham sighed and shook his head. “Years ain’t been good to her.”

Uh, yeah. You could say that.

I started to ask about the moaning, but Abraham smiled at me and opened his arms. “Now, you come here for a proper welcome home.”

I hesitated. Something stuck in me. Being around him reminded me just how far I’d gone away. Had Aunt Judith told him what I’d done and why I was coming back? Next to him, I felt so dirty. So cheap—

He pulled me into a big hug. Peace and security washed over me; all my questions and worries got lost in soft flannel and the smell of Irish Spring and Old Spice.

Those arms had sheltered me back when I was a brand-new orphan, so scared I couldn’t talk. He’d been my rock. All-knowing, all-powerful. Abraham could do everything and fix anything. Including me. A hug had been his answer to everything. And it had usually been the right answer.

After not long enough, he stepped back and put his hands on my shoulders, then flipped on a light. “Let me see you now—all grown up and so handsome. I bet you broke about every heart in New York City!”

I looked away from his beaming eyes. Maybe he didn’t know. Either way, Abraham wouldn’t like my romantic history. I tended to break more rules than hearts. So, I fake-smiled and shrugged. “Well, you know what Granddaddy said, ‘Gentlemen never kiss and tell.’”

That triggered another little flash from last night. I went to the hot Nashville girl’s party. I’m pretty sure black lace was involved at some point. And drinking. Lots of drinking.

“That’s right.” He nodded. “That’s Mr. Jack all over. Real, old-school southern gentleman.” Abraham’s smile faded. “So, how you feeling today? Sheriff said you’re lucky to be alive after last night.”

Sheriff? That word hit me like a kick to the gut. After my last adventure a few weeks ago, I’d barely missed joining the fine young men at Riker’s Island Juvenile Detention Facility. Luckily, I was a minor with an amazing lawyer, and since my teacher was a legal adult, the judge gave her most of the blame. So I got off with therapy, probation, and banishment to Aunt Judith’s custody. But if I got in trouble again . . .

I wiped sweat away from my forehead; this room had gotten really hot. Forget about the moaning. “So, uh, what happened last night?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


CHAPTER THREE

AURIANNA

Outcast.

              Alone, wet, and cold, the reality of my situation grew more urgent to me.

              With nowhere to shelter, the elements could scatter my essence. I would die in the next frost or great heat. But if Morganna and the others had sealed the earth against my roots, I would starve.

“Aurianna!” A hairy paw closed around my hand and I looked down. Panto had come. “You look terrible,” he said. “Like a drowned dandelion.”

I nodded, unable to speak. Dryads are light, and fragile, like dragonfly wings or—as he said—dandelion down. I had not fully understood just how badly we need shelter in storms until I no longer had it.

“You are trembling,” he said. “Follow me! I know somewhere you can go.”

Panto trotted down a hill. With nowhere else to go, I tried to follow, but I struggled to keep up, for the storm grew worse, whipping the world into a frenzy. Even in my most tangible, corporeal form, I struggled to keep from being blown away. When an especially fierce gust of wind came, I had to grab the branches of a pine tree to anchor myself. While clinging to those branches, the boughs just above lashed me with wet, cold needles. I could not discern if the tree was driven by the storm, or if the dryad inside of him used the wind as an excuse to slap me. 

              “Aurianna, hurry!” Panto called from the bottom of a hill. “I grow cold!”

I needed no encouragement. The rain had long past soaked through the meager coverings over my form. Without shelter, it would sink down into my essence soon, bringing a chill or worse.

As soon as the power of the wind waned enough for me to safely move, I followed Panto down to a clearing at the bottom of two hills. Next to a stream, the humans had stacked the bones of dead trees, creating a large shelter that defied both sun and storm.

“In here!” He darted in through a gap between the rough planks. I started to follow, but paused.

“Are you coming?” He stuck his nose out the gap.

The place reeked of smoke and death. And yet I shivered without ceasing now, unable to control the movement of my limbs. If the living trees would not shelter me, their dead brothers would.             

I slipped through a gap in the rough planks, plunging at once into warmth and quiet.

The lingering scent of smoke troubled me. I had seen this place from a distance. Every Summerend, the humans brought bundles of long, lush tobacco leaves from their fields. They hung the leaves in bundles over great fires of wet wood, using the smoke to dry the leaves into brittle deadness. Over the years, the smoke had soaked into the wooden walls.

Built from murdered trees and reeking of fire, this human structure should have been an abomination. But, somehow, welcome rippled through the air, a sense of peace beyond the absence of wind and rain.

Now that I no longer risked being blown away, I needed to find out if I the earth would still receive my roots. I pushed my feet into the structure’s dirt floor. My toes stretched into roots, which pushed through the hard-packed earth, then dove down into the rich, mellow loam. I had rooted near one of the ley lines, powerful subterranean rivers of throbbing, thrumming energy. With hunger approaching greed, I gulped it in.

              Relief flooded me, along with the energy and the nutrients. The other dryads had not sealed the earth from me. I would live. That brought me relief, although it gave no one else joy. Just as my loss would bring no one grief. That thought filled my chest with a feral, clawing emptiness.

              “Feed while you can,” Panto said. He shook himself violently, flinging drops of water everywhere. “Morganna was trying to convince the others to seal the earth when the storm came.” His words plucked my short-blossoming hope. If they did, I would die a slow, withering death.

              “Did the others listen to her?” I needed to know where I stood, what my chances were. “Did everyone agree?”
              He shook his head. “The storm came up before she could get very far. But tomorrow, I fear she will try again.”

              Perhaps I should flee. If I could run far enough way, perhaps the earth there would still receive me. “Panto, I am grateful for your kindness. You have my thanks. But how do you dare to talk with me? I am Outcast.”

              He snorted. “The satyrs do not have to obey Morganna. She cannot make you Outcast for us.”

              I nodded. Everyone usually did whatever she commanded, but he spoke truth. She could only command the dryads and the plants.

              “You forgot this, Aurianna.” He pulled the long, metal dagger from his scabbard and pushed it toward me.

             

 

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Brandon Gray is the pen name of Braden Bell. The author of several fantasy books for middle grade readers, Braden spends his days immersed in young adult drama as he teaches middle school theatre and choir. He spends evenings and weekends wandering the hills and hollows of rural Tennessee. He likes old movies, Amazon gift cards, and long summer days in his hammock.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Down the road from where I live, there is a hollow. It's mostly thick forest, except for a clearing by a stream. An old tobacco barn sits in that clearing, and I always thought there must be a story about it. So, I started thinking and thinking. And then the story of a dryad popped into my head.
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
A.
When I was very young. Probably not long after I started reading, honestly. I remember spending summer days alternating between reading in my treehouse and writing in the storage room under the stairs that I turned into my office.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I have never been one to be terribly defined by genre, either as a reader or a writer. I read stories I like, regardless of genre. I write stories that come to my mind, regardless of genre. The story of Aurianna and Branson just came. And I wrote it. Their story happens to be a YA romance.

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Science Fiction & Fantasy
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