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There were terrible things in the Grimwood. Things that could, and would, try to kill her. This was why Poppy’s parents didn’t want her in the Grimwood at all. She understood that, and yet here she was, standing at the forest’s edge.
Her heart raced, but not from fear. It wasn’t likely she’d bump into a monster—not at high noon, so close to the town of Strange Hollow.
She peered into the wood’s dappled shadows where the trees stretched away behind the cockeyed arches and towers of her house. Poppy could only manage one hundred paces into the wood before the ward her parents put on her became unbearable. They hoped it would curb her thirst to learn everything there was to know about the Grimwood, but it didn’t. Trying to make her stay out only made the longing worse. Especially when her parents were always leaving on long, mysterious trips into the wood themselves.
She was nine when her parents stopped sharing stories of their work. They must have realized that the light in Poppy’s eyes was more than just a passing fancy. Instead they huddled together in the kitchen reviewing their plans when they thought she was asleep. Poppy, in turn, perfected the art of eavesdropping. She learned a lot that way, not just about the woods, but about the dangers her parents faced hunting maledictions. They risked their lives to bring the objects home and put them in stasis—making them powerless to lure the people of Strange Hollow into the wood.
Poppy tugged her long black hair into a ponytail and wiped her palms against her black jeans. She carried her small day pack, filled to bursting with her mother’s old net gun, an extra knife (her favorite was holstered in her right boot), two apples, bug spray, and a water bottle. She slung the length of rope over her shoulder. Before she left the house, she’d swapped her own black T-shirt for one of her mother’s from the laundry—decorated with a sea dragon and the words “They Might Be Giants,” whatever that was supposed to mean. She lifted the neckline of the shirt and closed her eyes to take a deep breath. The bunched muscles of her shoulders eased as the warm green scent of her mother’s vetiver oil washed over her.
Her parents had hunted maledictions in the Grimwood for the last three days. Jute told her they were back the moment she had woken up that morning. They’d arrived home when the sun was just a hint of green on the horizon, and they would sleep for most of the day. So Poppy was taking matters into her own hands.
It was time to prove they could make the Hollows safer as a family. She was tired of being alone. She was tired of hoping they would see she wasn’t just another kid they had to protect, who had nothing to offer.
They had taught her a lot about the forest—more than they knew—but it wasn’t enough. Poppy wanted to know all the Grimwood’s secrets. Her questions itched under her skin, as numerous and irritating as the mosquitoes buzzing around her. Some of them were big … like whether the Alcyon sea was bottomless, or whether the Holly Oak could talk, or if unicorns were real. She wanted to know more about the maledictions—and how to tell the difference between a good witch and a bad one. Big or small, any question could keep her awake for hours—like, what did a thorn tree look like, or how many species of tentaculars were there?
Poppy wanted to see it all with her own eyes—was going to see it all. She was done starving for answers while her parents threw them out like bread crumbs.
She tugged on the fingerless leather gloves her uncle Jute had given her for her last birthday. The black leather made her skin look even paler than usual, but they beat the cuts and insect bites she used to come home with on her hands. Jute wasn’t really her uncle. He was a hob her parents had rescued in the forest and invited home before she was even born.
Poppy finished pulling on her gloves, and straightened her spine. She would go in, get the Mogwen feather, and come straight out again. Alone, the Mogwen were no threat to a human—but they were rarely alone. A symphony of Mogwen, once angered, became merciless predators. But if she could get a Mogwen feather, her parents would see she was ready. She let herself imagine it—holding the long red and turquoise feather out as her mother’s eyes widened in shock. Her father’s mouth falling open … their faces full of resigned respect.
Poppy stared into the forest and considered. Yes, that would make them listen. It would prove she deserved to go all the way into the Grimwood—not just a hundred steps. She hoped that after today her parents would take their ward off her themselves.
Her parents were always going on about the town’s useless obsession with wards. They carved statues of monsters and placed them on roof beams and posts outside their doors to keep the real monsters away. They put out bells to appease faeries. But they were just trinkets. They sang songs, too, and they were pretty—but what good was a song, her father would scoff.
No, there were only two kinds of wards that did any good at all. Rock salt mixed with iron shavings was one. The other was a blood ward, like the one her parents had put on her.
Poppy took a deep breath and stepped into the forest. Her ears buzzed with the warding, but she ignored it. The air was cool and smelled of sap and heat, and something else bitter-sharp, and like always—despite the ward, there was part of her that could breathe better here. It was as though she was a knot, drawn tight all the time, and only the air of the forest could untangle her. Ninety-eight steps left. Her boots sank a little in the summer soil, and her heart skipped a beat as she looked up into the canopy. There was no breeze, but the trees rustled and creaked.
Poppy paused to listen. In the distance she caught the Mogwen song—two birds, or maybe four—singing in two-part harmony. Mogwen weren’t rare, but they were rarely caught. She moved quickly, holding tight to the loops of rope she’d slung over her shoulder and backpack. She stopped counting her steps. She had tested the ward with painstaking thoroughness, so she knew what would happen. First her skin would tingle, and then it would itch—and then, when she got close to her hundredth step, it would burn, and not in a pleasant way.
Poppy’s breath rasped against her teeth as she hurried toward the birdsong. She hoped Mack would join her. He’d be angry at her if she “made bad choices” without him. Half a smile edged its way across her face at the thought of his stern expression. It was Mack who had told her about the Mogwen. He’d been her best and only friend ever since an afternoon two years ago when she found him picking mushrooms at the edge of the forest.
The song grew louder, and now the birds sang in three-part harmony. That meant there had to be at least six of them. Any more, and she’d have to come back another time; it would be too dangerous. Three more steps and her skin tingled everywhere with full-body pins and needles. Twenty steps left.
A flash of red feathers high above gave the Mogwen away. Poppy pressed herself against the sticky bark of a pine tree and looked up. The birds were in the highest branches of a white-barked birch—and beside it stood the first thorn tree she had ever seen.
Poppy’s heart jumped. She knew what it was right away. Nothing else could have that shiny, smooth black bark. The tree almost glittered, as though it was draped in a fine sunlit layer of frost. The whip-like branches shifted, dancing in the nonexistent breeze, and she caught glimpses of the long thorns underneath. She hadn’t expected them to be so … pretty. It was like a willow tree gone wrong.
Thorn trees grew from heavy black soil, watered in the blood of their prey, and littered with the skeletons of animals once wrapped in their thorny whips. In the Grimwood deep, whole groves of them grew. Her parents had stumbled on more than one that had caught a human. They spoke about the thorn trees in hushed voices, after they stumbled in from their death-defying missions. Young Poppy had loved the tiny shivers that ran down her spine when her parents told her about their work.
Seeing her first for-real thorn tree made Poppy’s mouth go dry, but she resisted the urge to move closer for a better look. The trick with thorn trees was to see them before you got too close—before they sensed you were there. This one hadn’t been there a few days ago. She’d heard they sprang out of the ground like springs, but did they always grow so fast, she wondered … and what was it doing here, so close to the edge?
The thorn trees defend the forest and feed its magic. Attack the forest, and a thorn tree would grow. Any creature that dared to cut down a tree in the Grimwood would soon find themselves looking at the world from high up, wrapped in the whips of a thorn tree. Had someone—besides her—gone into the forest and tried to, what? Cut down a tree?
The dark circle of soil around the thorn tree still held remnants of the shrubs and plants that had died when it rose. Poppy shivered. She didn’t even want to imagine what had caused the huge groves in the deep wood to grow. Perhaps they had been there as long as the forest.
She peeled her gaze away from the tree, turning back toward the Mogwen. The birds were clever. They had perched just far enough away that the thorn-covered-whips couldn’t reach to strike them down or wind them in a deadly embrace.
Poppy ignored the sparking sensations that fluttered over her skin and carefully reached back over her shoulder. Her fingers wrapped around the smooth cold barrel of the net gun as she lifted it free. She peered up at the nearest bird through the crosshairs and pressed her lips together. She’d forgotten how big they were. Easily two feet tall, with a pointed red crest and sharp black beak they used to pierce their prey.
Poppy paused and studied the trees. She’d have to choose one and climb to get close enough to nab the bird with her net gun. Her best option would be the pine just outside the circle of black soil that marked the thorn tree’s territory. It was farther from the Mogwen than she liked, but she had the ward to consider—not to mention the thorn tree. The pine was just out of its range.
She wrapped the rope around the pine with a sharp exhale, coiling each end around one of her wrists. She gripped tight, leaned back, and gritting her teeth, began to climb.
Beams of sunlight pierced through the trees like arrows. The pine sap made the rope stick, and sweat burst out over Poppy’s forehead as she quietly made her way up the tree. She tried not to step on the small purple and black tentaculars that scattered over the surface of the bark, each one waving its sticky arms in the air to gather pollen before bending them, one at a time, to the hole of its mouth.
Poppy’s hands slicked, and she sent Jute silent thanks for the gloves.
The Mogwen song drifted over the forest, the three distinct patterns rising and falling together like a spell. Poppy pulled herself up to sit on a branch and caught her breath. The humming of the ward in her ears was starting to give her a headache, but she didn’t care. She was almost as high as the Mogwen now—just below them, but close enough to see their round yellow eyes. One of them had cocked its head at her, watching.
She squeezed her hands into fists, gritting her teeth as she fought to push away the itching pinpricks of the ward. The pain was supposed to keep her out of the wood altogether. It was supposed to make her turn around and go home, but it only made her more determined.
She was shaking her hands out when a thump from below caught her attention. Mack scowled up at her. Her best friend’s skin and chestnut curls were almost as dark as the pine bark, and for a moment all Poppy saw were his copper eyes looking up at her from the dappled shadows. Mack was an elf, but still growing and, for now, only a little taller than her. In addition to his many good qualities as a friend, Poppy had to admit that his forest savvy had been helpful on several occasions. From where she sat, high in the tree branches, he looked small. She gave a tiny wave.
“What are you doing?” he mouthed up at her.
She pointed across at the Mogwen.
Mack shook his head.
Poppy nodded and lifted her net gun from her lap.
She could hear his nose-sigh from all the way up the tree.
She scooted farther from the trunk to take aim, her body rocking as she balanced on the narrowing branch. She forced herself not to cringe as the buzzing of her ward grew louder in her ears. Slowly, she lifted the net gun to peer through the crosshairs and sighted a beautiful male Mogwen singing the bass line.
The gun gave a twang. The net careened toward the bird, and he squawked a deep cry, lifting into the air as it wrapped around his branch. Poppy let out a swear word as a single black whip, longer than the rest, looped up from the thorn tree, wrapped around Poppy’s ankle, and yanked.
She toppled from the tree.
Mack dived to catch her, and she landed on him, knocking the wind out of both of them. Another whip struck the ground next to their faces, and Poppy rolled over, tugging to get her leg free as the thorn tree reeled her in.
Mack, choking and gasping for air, grabbed under her arms and scuttled backward, pulling until Poppy was suspended in the air, with Mack on one side and the thorn tree on the other.
“Lose the boot,” Mack grunted.
Poppy tried to bend her knee, but her leg was pulled taut. “They’re my … favorites,” she ground out. Her knee-high leather boots had thick soles, and thick leather—and cute little skulls on the sides.
“By thorns, Poppy! Lose the boot!”
“I thought you were strong! Pull like you mean it, Mack!”
Copyright © 2021 by Gabrielle K. Byrne