Emma and the Elixir of Madness | Chapter Two

Herbalism

Mama’s beckoning voice pulled Emma from a heavy sleep. Kimber lay draped across her, arms and legs askew, mouth open. She grunted, trying to push her little sister to the side, but couldn’t budge the sleeping weight of the girl on top of her. Emma shook her, tickled her sides, patted her on the cheek, and blew in her ear, but still Kimber slept.

The house could be full of screaming piglets and she’d not wake.

“Kimber!” yelled Emma.

Tam yawned and stumbled out of bed with his eyes closed. He swayed on his feet for a second or two before grasping at nothing and moving his arms as if he put on his tunic and breeches. Still wearing only his smallclothes, he trudged out of the bedroom.

Emma grunted and pushed up on Kimber’s shoulders. “Wake up!”

“Wha?” Kimber reached a hand out from under herself and wiped at her eyes, dusting Emma’s cheek with a spray of crumbles.

“It’s morning.” Emma rolled her sister toward the wall and slid out from under her. “Mama’s calling.”

“Morning!” Kimber shifted to kneel and stretched her arms over her head, grinning.

Mama walked Tam back in the door and proceeded to dress him. “Come on, girls.”

“Coming, Mama.” Emma got out of bed and changed from her nightgown into her favorite blue dress.

Kimber stumbled on her way out of bed and wound up face down on the little rug in front of the rat’s house. “Cannae sleep ’bit more?”

With Tam dressed, Mama gave him a light push toward the door and faced the girls. “Did you two stay up talking again?”

“No, Mama.” Emma got a two-handed grip on her sister’s arm and pulled her to stand. “Last night, I fell asleep right away.”

Kimber wobbled to the shelf of clothing and changed into a plain green dress.

“Well, you have had some trouble adjusting.” Mama pulled Emma into a quick hug. “Guess it finally caught up with you.”

Emma managed a weary smile and yawned again.

“Come then. Time to eat. Nan’s going to take the three of you to learn a bit about herbs after.”

“Yes, Mama.” Emma hurried down the hall to the front room, and after a quick trip out back to the privy, took her seat at the table.

Da smiled, though looked as exhausted as Emma felt. “Morning, Em.”

“Did you stay up all night talking with Mama?” She grinned.

“Hungry,” said Tam, bouncing in his chair.

The privy door slammed with a distant clatter.

Mama walked past the table with an impish smile, heading for the counter to help Nan cut fruit. “Sadly, your father got in late. Some business with the Watch.”

Kimber scurried in from the rear hall and hopped into the chair next to Emma.

“Ugh.” Da ran his hand through his hair. “Ol’ Loftin got it in his head that his cows woke him up, singing and laughing.”

“Oh, did they now?” asked Mama.

Da raised his eyebrows, staring into nothing. “There was no convincing the man he’d imagined it. Even said as soon as he went outside to tell them to keep it down, they complained about their feed. Stale or some such.”

Emma laughed, imagining Da making the same face while talking to the man, fighting the urge to carry him bodily back to bed so he could go home and sleep.

“Well, as far as I know”—Mama set a tray of hard breads, cheese slices, and apples on the table—“No one in that family uses any form of magic, druidic or otherwise.”

“Cows donnae talk. An’ they donnae sing.” Kimber took some food to her plate.

Imagining a row of cows singing like skalds got Emma giggling. “What did they sing?”

“No idea,” said Da around a mouthful of food.

Nan ran around with a skillet, giving everyone a slice of sausage. She returned the pot to the stove and settled in at the end of the table opposite Da. “Likely a ballad about the moooon.”

Tam laughed food out of his nose.

“Mother…” Mama seemed to be fighting the urge to laugh as well.

“Well…” Nan took some food to her plate. “That’s what I’d sing about were I a cow.”

Da flashed a half-smile. “This is udder nonsense.”

Mama gave him a shocked look, and burst into peals of laughter.

* * *

Still giggling on and off from the cow jokes that had continued during breakfast, Emma followed Nan across the meadow toward the forest. She figured Da had been tired, as he almost never made light of Watch business. Then again, a drunken Mr. Loftin imagining his cows singing had been far funnier than a fight at Eoghn’s Inn or catching thieves. Every few seconds, Kimber let out a gasp of delight followed by a disappointed sigh whenever she mistook a longfly or a bird for a faerie skimming low over the grass. Tam marched like a tiny knight, one hand gripping the wooden sword tucked in his rope belt.

“Are you going to collect more Nymph’s Hair?” asked Emma.

Nan smiled back at her before shaking her head. “No, Em. That grows too deep in the woods. To walk there would take most of the day. We’re not traveling far today. There’s plenty of useful plants near enough to the house you can learn to recognize.”

“Kin’I make ae potion too?” asked Kimber.

Tam swiped his hand at a passing white butterfly, which evaded him.

“Well, there are some poultices and salves anyone without a magical gift can make. However, few destinations have only one road leading there.”

Emma furrowed her eyebrows. “What do roads have to do with potions?”

“Aye,” said Kimber.

Nan chuckled. “Well, Em, you’ve helped make some potions, so you are aware how we ask the spirits to lend them power.”

“Yes, Nan.”

“Someone who does not have the favor of the spirits can often substitute various rare ingredients for the magic, often these reagents are infused with power. Take dragon’s blood for example.”

Tam gasped. “We’re hunting a dragon?”

“No, Tam.” Nan ruffled his hair. “Someone who has spent years studying can find combinations of ingredients which produce potions similar in effect to what we can do with our magic. However, it’s much more difficult that way.”

Emma closed her eyes as they approached the forest’s edge, and whispered, “Linganthas, please guide my step.”

A tingle of magic swept down her body, protecting her from sharp thorns, rocks, and making it easier to navigate the woods. Nan followed a path, keeping a grip on Tam’s wrist so he didn’t race off. Emma walked behind her with Kimber at her side. The occasional hanging vine snagged on her sister’s dress, but flowed around Emma. She stared up past the trees at scraps of blue sky among the leaves, squinting whenever the branches shifted enough to expose sunlight. Soft thuds and snaps announced the presence of deer, small boar, or other animals, though none came close enough to see.

Tam looked around with such a serious face he appeared to be a tiny version of Da. “I’ll pa’tect us from goblins.”

“Goblins don’t come this close to town,” said Emma.

“They’as do sometime,” muttered Kimber. “Hopin’ tae grab a li’l kid ’er an’ old’un.”

Nan puffed herself up. “Well, this old’un has a bit of a surprise for any wayward goblin.”

Emma grinned.

They crossed a tiny creek, mere inches deep, which drew squeals from Emma and Kimber at the coldness of the water. Tam stooped to drink a few handfuls before running to catch up. Soon after, Nan veered left off the path. Neither she nor Tam appeared bothered by the brambles and vines, though Kimber’s dress and hair continued to snag.

Emma stared in confusion at Nan until she noticed her holding the boy’s hand. She stopped, waited for Kimber to catch up, and took her hand. Emma pictured Nan’s explanation of using magic, needing to desire the effect to occur. She concentrated on wanting the Druid’s Step to extend its protection over Kimber. Three vines fell away from the girl’s copious red hair.

It worked! Emma grinned.

“Wha’as ya do?” whispered Kimber, staring down at her feet in awe.

“Linganthas’s magic is protecting you too, but I think I have to keep holding your hand to share it.”

Kimber nodded. “Aye. Feel like ae steppin’ onna bed now.”

Nan walked on for a little while, glancing side to side. Before long, she headed to the right and came to a halt by a cluster of close-growing trees. White mushrooms littered the ground at the roots, with wide, flat caps, the largest of which as big as Da’s hand. A ring of thin grey membrane dangled from the midpoint of the narrow stalk, which looked like it should have been too weak to be able to hold up the thick cap.

“Here we are.” Nan set her walking stick in the dirt and leaned both hands on it. “Em, do you know what these are?”

“Mushrooms,” said Tam.

Emma grinned. “Umm…” She crept closer, squatted, and examined one close without touching it. Most of them had brown gills, though the largest ones had turned purple inside. “You have some of these in your cabinet, but I don’t remember what they are. Not faerie’s throne.”

At the word ‘faerie,’ Kimber snapped her head up and looked around.

“You’re right, Em.” Nan chuckled. “Faerie’s throne mushrooms are bigger, and have bright red caps with white dots. These are alderscap.”

“Oh.” Emma sniffed it, getting a nose full of wet dirt smell strong enough to taste. She reached a tentative finger out and fussed at the collar of membrane around the stalk.

Nan pointed with her walking stick at a white lump that resembled a hen’s egg planted on end in the ground. “That bit clinging to the stalk is what’s left from a protective covering on the baby mushroom. It breaks open as the mushroom grows. For our purposes, the stalk isn’t useful. The natural energies we use are in the top. Alderscap are shy things. They only grow in old forests where people don’t disturb too much.”

Emma poked a cap, finding it spongy and damp. “What do we use them for?”

“Potions,” said Nan with a smile. She took a small cloth sack from within her cloak and handed it over along with a short knife.

Snap.

Tam turned toward the distinct sound of a breaking twig, and drew his wooden sword. “Somethin’s watchin’ us.”

“Jes’ ae’ deer ’er pig ’er somefin’,” said Kimber.

Emma accepted the knife and sack, giving Nan an unamused stare. “Potions?”

“Yes.” Nan chuckled. “This mushroom is useful in remedies for magical problems, and it is the main ingredient in a brew that removes unwanted magical effects.”

Kimber gawked, mouth open. “Wha?”

“You used one in the potion you and Mama made for Alan… to cancel the magic that made him part fish.”

“Correct.” Nan smiled at Kimber. “If someone has bad magic working on them, the potion I make with this mushroom gets rid of it.”

“Oh.” Kimber nodded.

“Take only a single cap, Em. One with purple gills. Those are the older ones, which have more potency. Alderscap doesn’t like being collected. It rots to slime in only a few days unless it’s placed in mineral oil. If you forget it in your satchel, you’ll wind up with a handful like a goblin blew its nose. Cut it below the membrane and it takes a bit longer to rot.”

“Eww!” yelled Kimber, squirming.

Tam laughed.

Emma shifted from squatting to kneeling, and gently sliced a big alderscap stem. She picked it up and eased it into the sack before handing both it and the knife back to Nan. Upon noticing her fingers covered in purple dust, she froze. “Nan… is this bad?”

“Spores. As someone who uses magic, breathing them in or getting them in your mouth will make you feel a touch sick. It won’t do any permanent harm.”

Tam froze, his wooden sword cocked back in preparation to smash a mushroom. He shot a worried look in Emma’s direction and lowered his weapon.

She turned her face away and held her breath while clapping her hands back and forth to clear them of spore dust. Nan rattled on for a little while about how alderscap liked to grow in groups in the shade of large trees. Those who didn’t use magic could eat them, even cooked, and after a while, it would make them somewhat resistant to the effects of spells.

Emma listened to Nan’s description, glancing over her shoulder now and then at a rustle or crunch. Though she didn’t see anything, she couldn’t quite set aside her worry that more than a simple animal lurked among the trees, and whatever she heard seemed to be following them.

“What’s that?” asked Tam.

“Bad!” yelled Kimber.

Nan tugged him back. “Listen to your sister.”

Emma peeled her attention away from the spot she’d been watching. Her brother pointed at a spread of bright red vines studded with long, black thorns that coiled up the trunk of a dead tree. “They look like they hurt.”

“Indeed.” Nan used her walking stick to bother at one of the thorns, showing it to be floppy and soft. “Firesnap Vine. What you think are thorns are really its flowers. The vine won’t hurt you unless it breaks. The sap inside causes itching and burning. Quite uncomfortable.”

Emma felt no desire to lean closer to study it. “What potion is this used for?”

“None.” Nan shook her head. “It’s little more than a nuisance. Adding this to a potion would be… evil.”

Tam looked up at her. “How can a plant be evil?”

“If you get the sap on you, your skin would turn red. Blisters puff up, and it itches so much you’d want to cut your arm off to make it stop.” Nan leaned over him with an eyebrow wiggle. “Now, think of that happening to your insides.”

Emma gulped, shivering.

Tam paled. “That is evil.”

“What’s the cure?” asked Emma.

Nan tugged the boy along, and kept walking past the firesnap. “No magic needed for getting it on you, Em. A tincture of liferoot and emerald moss will cancel the itching.”

A scattering of baby deer raced out from the right, followed soon after by their mother. Kimber let off a yell of surprise and grabbed on tight while Emma waved, though she didn’t have time to invoke the Wildkin Whisper before they vanished.

“Ahh, there.” Nan pointed ahead and ambled faster.

She approached a wide-bodied tree, bent and twisty, bigger around than their privy shack. It stood as tall as any of the other trees in the area, but the massive trunk gave it a stubby appearance. Swaths of yellow lichen blotched the coarse bark, and a starburst of roots swelled up out of the dirt around the base, visible for a good ten paces in all directions. A powerful scent of wet wood hung in the air. The twistiness of it reminded Emma of the forest in the Faerie Realm.

Tam darted ahead and ran a ring around the tree, searching for a handhold to climb. In seconds, he’d gone a quarter of the way up.

“This is a burlwood tree,” said Nan. “From it, we find burlbark, which we use in potions after grinding it into powder.” She handed the girls each a cloth sack. “It is completely harmless, but you should take care not to injure the tree. Collect only bark that has begun to peel away. If you have to pull with any measure of strength, don’t take that piece.”

Emma stooped to pick up a slab that had fallen away. “Can we use the bark that’s already fallen?”

“If you see no signs of mold.” Nan nodded.

The piece she’d found didn’t appear to have anything growing on it, so Emma added it to her bag and stepped over the thick roots at the tree’s bottom, some of which looked bigger around than Da’s thigh. She spotted a curl of bark already separating from the wood, and tucked her finger under it. A light tug pulled away a strip about eight inches long that smelled of tree sap and clove. She dropped it in the bag.

“Burlbark we use rather often,” said Nan. “Legends tell that these were once oak trees that Uruleth used to scratch his back.”

Emma grinned, imagining the huge bear spirit rubbing against a tree to reach an itch.

“The bark is a powerful reagent for potions that increase strength or toughness.”

“The potions Mama always makes for Da,” said Emma, remembering pouring a handful of dark brown dust into the crucible.

“Correct.” Nan smiled.

Splat.

Kimber let off a high-pitched scream.

“Tam!” yelled Nan. “That was not nice.”

Emma ran around the trunk to where Kimber stood, rigid as a statue. Bright yellow slime covered the top of her head and dribbled down her hair. Tam, a good three stories up in the branches, had the same slime all over his hands.

“I-its s-sae c-cold.” Kimber shifted to face Emma, barely moving her arms.

“What is it?” asked Emma.

An arm-thick vine burst from the ground and shot upward to wrap Tam around the middle. It lifted him off the branches and brought him back to the ground before receding back under the soil. Nan towered over him, fists on her hips. His impish grin faded to a blank look for a second before becoming an apologetic frown.

“Sorry, Kimber.”

“Ambermoss,” said Nan. “It’s most useful quality is possessing the consistency of ice cold snot.”

Emma scooped it out of Kimber’s hair, nauseated by the feel of it between her fingers. “How is that useful?”

“To six-year-old boys with older sisters, quite useful.” Nan glared at him, though couldn’t hide her amusement.

He stood still and quiet as long as it took Emma to clear the bulk of the icky substance from Kimber’s hair. Fortunately, it had no smell, and the gelatinous ooze stayed together, leaving her hair damp but slime-free.

Nan resumed walking, curving leftward. Emma pictured them following a circular path that kept them somewhat close to home. After quite a few minutes, Nan stopped and indicated a patch of ground with her walking stick.

Emma crouched by it, pushing the green undergrowth aside to reveal a group of pale, brown tubers pressing up from the soil. They resembled yams that had been bent into arches, with each end burrowing into the dirt, the middle suspended. It took her only seconds to recognize dreamroot from Marsten’s shop. The awful herbal taste and dizziness came to mind, and she scowled. “I hate dreamroot.”

“In its natural form, dreamroot can often be mistaken for common tubers with a sweet scent and buttery-almond flavor. Some farmers even eat them like potatoes. When baked, it loses much of its potency, though it still causes drowsiness.”

Kimber stuck her tongue out. “I donnae like ’et.”

“It didn’t taste anything like butter,” said Emma, arms folded.

Nan sidled up behind her and gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze. “It tasted foul due to the way they prepared it, to be inhaled rather than eaten or drunk.”

Tam whacked one of the dreamroot tubers with his sword, but it didn’t seem to care. “That’s for bein’ mean to Em’ and Kimber.”

Emma smiled. “Bad people use this to kidnap.”

“Indeed.” Nan patted Emma’s head while nodding. “It has other uses as well. People who have trouble sleeping brew it into tea. Also, it can help those who are always frightened to relax. In potions, we use it for a protective elixir that wards off fear.”

“I still don’t like it.” Emma pressed herself against Nan, trying to stop thinking about that man grabbing her from behind and mushing the wet cloth over her face.

“There, there, Em.” Nan raised an arm to let Kimber into the group hug. “Those fools won’t bother you again.”

Emma pulled her face out of Nan’s cloak and looked up at her. “Is there a way to fight it? A spell?”

“You’d not be asking much of the spirits with a hand over your mouth, but there is something to be done should you find yourself attacked again.”

Emma stared into Nan’s eyes with baited breath, a faint tremble in her limbs.

“Wha’s it?” asked Kimber.

“It’s easy, but it’s also hard.” Nan squeezed them tight. “The easy part is doing it. The hard part is staying calm enough to be able to do it. If someone tries to get you with dreamroot again, hold your breath. Let air out of your nose slow so the fumes don’t go in. Pretend to be sleeping, and when they let go, wait for a chance to run away.”

Emma tried to imagine that, but didn’t feel confident she’d be able to stay calm if someone grabbed her like that again. Though, with her silk trading days behind her, she couldn’t think of any reason someone would bother trying to kidnap her again. Kimber seemed to be practicing letting slow breaths out her nose.

She followed as Nan resumed walking south, approaching a familiar section of forest. Kimber’s attention shifted from practicing against dreamroot to searching for signs of Silverbell Faeries. Tam twisted at another snap in the woods, brandishing his practice sword in that direction.

“We’re close to the faerie circle,” said Emma.

“Aye. ’Tis right over there.” Nan raised an arm, pointing off to the right.

Wide-eyed, Kimber looked up. “Are we gonnae visit t’ faeries?”

“Oh, not today, dear.” Nan rubbed her back. “Don’t need to bother them. This here”—she gestured up ahead—“is what we’re looking for.”

A short distance away, patches of deep green light glowed from the rocky face of a tall ridge on either side of a thin stream. The tiny waterfall spilled over the top and ran at least twenty feet down before collecting in a well-like pool at the bottom, the source of the shallow creek they’d crossed earlier. Kimber’s disappointment at not going to the Faerie Realm lessened a bit as she ‘oohed’ over the scene before them. She crept to the basin, toes curling over the stone at the edge.

She squatted and tested the water with her hand. “Is cold.”

Emma’s mouth hung open at the beauty of the glowing moss. Rippling bands of dark and brighter shades of rich emerald spread over the surface. It appeared wet, as if some mad artist had spread glowing paint over the boulders and rock faces only a minute before. She crept up beside Kimber, peering down into the cup-shaped pool. While only about seven feet across, it looked deep enough for three men to stand on each other’s shoulders and still not quite reach the top.

“You can wash your hair,” said Tam. “Stick your head in.”

“Nae.” Kimber backed up. “I donnae wan’ tae.”

Emma put an arm around her. Tam didn’t know that Old Man Drinn used to hold her face down in water to punish her for not making enough copper coins selling apples. “We can take a bath when we get home. In warm water.”

“Aye.” Kimber nodded.

Tam approached a boulder that came up to his chest, covered in the light-bearing plant. The way the darker and brighter shades moved across its surface appeared to have mesmerized him. “It’s pretty.”

“Emerald moss,” said Nan. “It only grows in places where faeries are known to frequent.”

Kimber grinned, clapping.

“Often, near water.”

“Is that why it looks wet?” asked Emma.

Nan tapped a finger to her chin in thought. “Well it does hold a lot of moisture.” She took a glass bottle from her satchel and handed it to Emma along with the small knife. “Go on and fill that.”

“It’s so beautiful. I don’t want to ruin it,” muttered Emma.

“It’ll grow back as long as you don’t take all of it.” Nan winked. “The trick is to feed it a little magical energy. When you cut it, you’ll feel a mild tug. Let it have some of your magic. If you don’t, what you collect will die too fast for us to use.”

Emma touched it with one finger, finding it cold and slimy, like the goop Tam had dropped on Kimber earlier. Upon inserting the knife, a tingle ran up her finger that reminded her of casting the Wildkin Whisper. Allowing the moss to draw at her magical essence, she worked the blade downward while holding the bottle underneath. She didn’t have to slice as much as scrape it from the rock into the bottle.

“We use emerald moss for potions that enhance the senses,” said Nan. “Depending on what it is combined with, it can make vision sharper, offer protection against magical attack, and even allow someone to see in the dark.”

Kimber frowned. “Thieves use ’at potion ’lot. What seein’ in ’a dark. Donnae need light. He made me ’ave some once.”

“Sorry.” Emma glanced back from her work with a look of sympathy. “Forget that man.”

Nan patted Kimber’s head.

“Why ’e give you a see-inna-dark spell?” asked Tam. “You’re not a thief.”

Kimber looked down, face reddening. “’E stuff’ me inna window of a rich man’s ’ome tae small fer ’im tae fit. I ’ad tae sneak open ’a front door so’as ’ey could get in.”

Emma gasped.

“I dinnae wan’ tae do ’et, but I ’ad tae.” Kimber kneaded her hands and ground her toes into the dirt. “’E gonnae punish me bad if’n ae say no ’er got caught.”

Nan picked Kimber up and rocked her, patting her back for a while. “That’s not your fault, dear. Listen to Em. Don’t waste any more time thinking about that lot.”

“Aye, Nan.” Kimber sniffled.

Tam came tumbling down the ridge in a fall of dirt, scaring a worried scream out of Emma. He rolled over twice on the ground, laughing. She hurried over and grabbed a fistful of his tunic, pulling him upright.

“Tam! Don’t scare me like that. You could’ve been hurt. What are you doing climbing a cliff?”

He held up a skinny root covered in golden hairs that sparkled like precious metal. “Saw gold.”

Nan set Kimber on her feet and ambled over, snatching the root from him. “This is not for boys your age, Tam.” She chuckled.

“It’s not Faeberry,” said Emma. “What is it?”

“Kirling root.” Nan tucked it away in a pouch. “It is similar to Faeberry, but not as strong. Faeberry makes people see things that aren’t there. Kirling grind this root up and pack their smoking pipes with it. Some humans use it as well. It relaxes the mind, causes strange and whimsical thoughts, and makes people lazy… also rather prone to snacking. Nothing you children should be concerned with.”

“What’s Kirling?” asked Emma.

Nan smiled. “Kirling are another race, Em. Like humans or elves. They’re somewhere between the two as far as looks go, but a grown man’s only up to about your height. Big eyes, pointy ears, and… most humans would think them ‘cute.’”

“’Er wee ones got’a be adorable,” said Kimber, grinning. “Wee Kirling babe ’ae size o’ a turnip!”

Nan winked and pinched Kimber’s cheek. “Not as precious as you.”

Tam turned away and stuck out his tongue in a gagging gesture.

“Or our adorable little knight. Isn’t he cute?” Nan tickled his belly with one finger.

He jumped back, trying to look angry, but couldn’t stop smiling.

“I’as saws ae Kirlin’ once,” said Kimber. “’E p’tended tae be ae li’l boy so’s ’a guards let ’im go.”

Nan scratched at her chin hairs. “If you ever meet one, don’t go assuming they’re thieves. They’re sensitive about that. Kirling mostly stick to themselves. They don’t venture out into the world too often, but alas, a few rather successful thieves have given them a reputation. Not all Kirling are prone to legerdemain, but everyone thinks they are.”

Tam’s eyebrows knit together, as did Emma’s.

“Le gerd a what?” asked Emma.

“Means stealin’,” whispered Kimber.

Emma scraped enough emerald moss into the bottle to fill it, and lost a moment gazing into the rolling shimmer of green within. “It’s so bright, I could use it like a candle at night.”

Nan took the bottle. “It’s pretty, but a candle would let you see farther.”

“Nan!” yelled Kimber. “Look’a this.”

Emma turned toward her sister’s voice. The redhead squatted a short distance away, where the deep basin pool became the head of the creek. She’d brushed a layer of greenery aside to expose the ground beneath, allowing sunlight to gleam from a straight length of metal. Kimber pawed at the dirt and pulled out a crude iron shortsword. She stood, turning to face everyone, and held it up so Nan could get a closer look.

“Hmm.” Nan plucked the blade from her grip and examined it.

Kimber swatted dirt off her hands.

“This looks goblin made. Bit of rust on it…”

Emma’s eyes widened. Tam snarled, raising his wooden sword.

“It’s likely been there for a while.” Nan studied the ground. “I don’t see any footprints but ours.”

“There can’t be goblins here. We’re too close to town. Kimber always used to walk around here, an’ the goblins never got ’er.” Emma bit her lip, regretting saying something that would remind her of that cruel man.

Kimber shook her head. “Goblins nae mind wif me.” She reached up and fluffed her long, curly red hair out.

Nan chuckled. “Perhaps.”

“What?” asked Emma. “Goblins always try an’ grab kids.”

“And put ’em inna stew,” said Tam.

“Remember the Firesnap Vine? They’re bright red as a sign they’re dangerous.” Nan winked. “Some believe that goblins leave redheads alone, taking the color as a warning. Some humans avoid eating spicy peppers because of their color.”

Kimber stood proud. “I’as tae ’ot fer ae goblin tae eat.”

“Rawr,” said Tam, biting Kimber on the shoulder with a playful glint in his eye.

She smirked at him.

He stood away from her, making faces as if appraising the flavor of wine. “Not spicy.”

Kimber shoved him, grinning.

A heavy snap came from the trees to Emma’s left. She spun toward it while Kimber sucked in a gasp of air. Tam pointed his training sword in that direction, though the tip wobbled from his arms shaking. Nan raised a casual eyebrow.

Greyfang glided into view from behind a cluster of trees and padded over to stand by Emma. She looked up into his eyes, smiled, and wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her face in the lush fur of his cheek.

Tam exhaled with relief. Kimber put a hand over her heart, leaning on Nan to keep from passing out.

“You sounded like a goblin,” said Tam.

“Strixian, please grant me the Wildkin Whisper,” muttered Emma. Little points of light appeared in front of her, circling around her before seeping into her body. She focused on the huge wolf. “Mafindwel, Greyfang.”

“Greetings, Emma.” He sniffed at her. The cold of his nose at her neck made her scrunch up her shoulders. “And to you, Raven.”

Nan offered a nod of welcome.

“Forgive my intrusion, but I would ask of Emma a small favor.”

“Yes, of course.” She glanced back at Nan. “Umm… can I?”

“He’s not even told you what he needs yet, child.” Nan smiled.

Emma faced the alpha wolf and clasped her hands. “He would not ask of me something I could not do. They have always helped me.”

“My son Half Tail has been injured. There are teeth in the earth that nip at his paws.” Greyfang turned his gold eyes up toward Nan. “We fear without help he will not walk right again.”

“Oh, no.” Emma’s heart grew heavy. “Nan, I must go and help. Please, is it all right?”

“Have you seen goblins about?” Nan held up the sword.

Greyfang leaned closer and sniffed at it. “The scent is known to us. Creatures you call goblins are close, but to the north.”

“All right.” Nan’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Emma, you are to stay with the wolves and heed Greyfang or his mate as you would your mother or I.”

“Yes, Nan,” said Emma.

“Please see her home straight away once your son is whole.”

“Of course.” Greyfang bowed his head in reverence to Nan.

The great wolf lowered himself to let Emma climb up. She hiked up her dress to sit astride his back, tucking her heels into thick fur and grabbing handfuls by his shoulders in an effort to hold on, expecting him to run fast.

Kimber clung to Nan, staring worry at Emma.

She held eye contact with her sister. “I promise I’ll listen. I’ll come right home.” With that, Greyfang started into the trees, trotting up to a run.


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