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FOR USE IN SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES ONLY. A girl from the forest enlists at Pennyroyal Academy, where princesses and knights are trained to battle the two great menaces of the day: witches and dragons.
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M.A. Larson is a film and television writer who lives with his wife, daughter, and two dogs in a canyon in California. Larson has written for Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney UK, Discovery Kids Channel, The Hub, and Nickelodeon. As a writer on the cult sensation "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic," he has been a guest at brony fan conventions from Paris, France to Dallas, Texas. This is his first novel. Larson can be found on twitter at @M_A_Larson, where he frequently tweets about classic films and magical candy-colored ponies."Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
IF I’M STILL in this forest by nightfall, I’ll never leave it again.
The girl’s eyes darted through the misty pines. The air was wet, though it wasn’t exactly raining. Everywhere she turned she found dull gray shadows, and her mind put monsters in all of them. The only sound was her own frantic breath. No birdsong. No tumbling water. Nothing.
A leafy tendril snaked up from the undergrowth and began to slither around her ankle. She tore her leg free and raced into the mist, her bare feet crackling through a carpet of dead leaves and fallen needles. Towering trees swayed overhead like mossy giants, and the small patches of sky she could see were black with clouds. Night was coming. And so were the things that lurked in the fog.
As she hurdled over a rotting stump, a heart-sized dragon scale necklace bounced against her chest. A matted drape of spiders’ webs covered her body, her only protection against the elements. The rest of her was streaked with mud. She had been lost in this forest for three days. Had seen and heard things that still didn’t seem real—a weathered thighbone so thick and long it could only have belonged to a giant; the deafening thunder of thrumming wings and the shadow of an enormous dragonfly passing above the canopy. Three days lost and she knew, one way or another, there would not be a fourth—
CRACK! The girl jumped at the sound, then heard the popping crackle of splitting wood somewhere above. She wheeled just in time to see the hairy branch of a beech tree swooping down. It slammed into her, knocking her over the edge of a hill. She tumbled through moldy black sludge to the bottom, where she collided with a pine trunk. She eased herself up, rolling her shoulder to be sure her arm wasn’t broken.
The first day, the day she had left home, she had taken a savage beating from the trees. Her father had always warned her to stay out of enchanted forests, but she was still taken aback by the trees’ ferocity. She had slowly begun to learn their moods and patterns, and before long was able to anticipate their attacks. She tried to avoid beeches especially, as they seemed the most malicious.
Today it wasn’t the trees that frightened her. The sun and moon and stars had all gone, along with chirping birds and skittering goblins. In their place, the clouds and mist, and the distinct feeling that something else was out there.
She listened, silent and still, though all she heard was wind shivering through leaves. As she stood, her emerald-green eyes narrowed. There, faintly visible through the dusk, was a distant pinpoint of light. The window of a cottage.
She had always been cautious, much more so than her sister, but once she saw that light, she ran for it. The cottage was small, its timbers frayed and soggy. This was the first shelter she had seen since leaving home, and yet something inside her screamed to turn back and run and then run some more.
Would I rather be out here when the sun is gone, or inside?
She ignored her instincts and edged to the window, grabbing hold of the sill. Clumps of rot crumbled off in her hands. She wiped them away, then leaned in again.
Firelight washed across her face, and her stomach roared. At the far side of the room, a thick, brown liquid bubbled over the rim of a cauldron, sizzling on the embers. She couldn’t see anything else, but that was enough. Her hunger drove her to the door, but as she clutched the handle, panic swarmed up through the soles of her feet like a million wasps.
Something’s not right here—
A wolf’s lonesome howl echoed down from the mountains, and she knew she had no choice. She gave the door a hard shove, but it didn’t budge. She threw her shoulder into it and finally it barked open.
“Hello?” she said with a small, shaking voice. There was no answer, only the soft pop of the fire. The floorboards screamed as she stepped inside and shouldered the door shut with a resonant thud.
The cottage was warm and tidy. Beneath the lone window sat a wooden table, where waterflies buzzed around a pile of blackish-red slop. Next to that were a rusted hand-crank machine and several neat stacks of multicolored candies. A chill ran down her arms.
In the corner, beyond the hearth, next to the open door of a small bedchamber, stood a large cage, oranged with rust and age. It was just the right size to hold a person. Next to it, a small pile of children’s shoes spilled across the floor.
She turned to run, but the door that had just been so solidly stuck now hung open. And outside, footsteps crackled through the leaves.
She looked for another way out, but it was too late, so she dove under the table and hugged her legs to her chest. A thick drip of red slid through the slats of the table and plopped on the floor at her feet.
Oh please oh please oh please . . .
A pair of muddy riding boots clomped across the floorboards, shoved along by an old woman draped in layer upon layer of decaying black robes. The door slammed shut behind them, though no one was there to slam it.
The girl’s blood ran cold. She was trapped.
The old woman, hunched and bent like a river, shoved her prisoner into the cage and rattled the latch home. He was around the girl’s same age, and wore a dark gray leather doublet embroidered in burgundy. His dark hair was in knots from countless hours on horseback, and his arms were bound behind his back. The cage was too small for him to stand, so he threw his shoulder into the door. The frail metal clanged, but held fast.
His captor went to the cauldron to stir her bubbling broth, which hissed against the flames like a chorus of angry snakes. “Now then, what have I done with my jars?” Her voice was full of contradictions, soft and sweet, but with a knife-edge of menace. “It’s been so long since I had a heart to put in them. Eh-heh-heh-heh-heh . . .” She leaned her ladle against the stone gently, like a kindly grandmother might, then shuffled into the bedchamber.
Now! Now! NOW!
But the girl sat frozen in place, watching as the boy strained and writhed against his bonds. He leaned back to give the door a solid kick, and that’s when he saw her.
“Hey!” he hissed, jerking his head toward the latch. Tears welled in her eyes, and she suddenly felt as though she might faint. “I know you’re scared, but open this cage and you’ll leave here alive. I swear it.”
She pulled her legs tighter, clinging to them like the last jagged stone before a waterfall. But as her tears fell and her heart thumped in her chest, she noticed something in his eyes that calmed her. He wasn’t afraid. When he said he could keep her alive, he believed it.
Somehow, before her own fear could stop her, she began to scoot forward. Each creak of the floorboards made her want to scream and run for the door, but she kept her eyes fixed on his and crept closer and closer to the cage.
“Hurry!” he whispered.
Her trembling fingers reached for the latch. She tried to work it free as gently as she could, but the metal had become violently angry over the ages. It screamed open.
The girl wheeled and fell back against the cage. She had never seen a witch before, but there could be little doubt that that was what stood before her now. The witch didn’t move, just stared at her with milky yellow eyes and a wide, toothless grin. Her skin was the color of a worm after three days’ rain, and it drooped from her bones like a melted candle.
“Open the latch!” shouted the boy, slamming his shoulder against the door.
But the witch’s gaze paralyzed the girl. The hag’s eyes bored straight into her own, slicing through her brain and down her throat. The girl gasped for air as the witch stared deeper, deeper, straight for her heart. She was choking on hate, anguish, fear . . . the feeling that she had already seen the sun for the last time without even realizing it. The witch was inside her—
“RUN!” shouted the boy as the cage door finally crashed open.
The girl snapped free of the witch’s gaze. All that choking awfulness slid out of her throat and she could breathe once more. The dragon scale whipped round to her back as she sprinted for the door. She threw it open and burst out into the night. The blackness of the woods and the swirling fog made it seem like the witch was everywhere at once. Even in the open forest, the girl was trapped.
“Over here!” The boy stood next to a massive white horse that glowed in the moonlight like a ghost.
“What? On that?”
“These are her woods! We’ll never make it on foot!”
She grimaced, but knew she would have to trust him. As she raced to the horse, the flickering firelight inside the cottage was suddenly extinguished. Smoky blackness, darker than the night, wafted from the door.
“Eh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh . . .” The cackle was no longer that of a feeble old lady. It had morphed into something elemental and terrifying.
The girl swung onto the horse’s back. Beneath the smooth white needles of hair she could feel sweat and muscle and knew the boy was right: this was their only chance of escape. She reached down and grabbed the rope binding his arms, hauling him facedown across the horse’s backside. Black smoke billowed from the door, and the cackling reverberated through the forest like it was coming from the fog itself.
“Let’s go!” grunted the boy, but the girl was transfixed by the figure floating out of the cottage. The witch’s body had distorted into something monstrous, long-limbed and inhuman. Her tattered robes billowed smoke. The skin around her mouth began to crack and split as her smile grew ever wider.
“Take the reins and go!”
The girl wrenched her eyes away. Straps of leather tack dangled from the horse’s head and neck. She didn’t know what any of it was, so she gripped the mane instead. With her other arm twisted behind her, she clutched the rope around the boy’s hands.
“Ride,” she whispered, and they lunged away into the night. Every muscle in her body clamped down as she felt the horse’s power beneath her. Her fingers clutched the mane so tightly, the knuckles had already gone white. As the horse sailed across uneven ground, each stride threatened to break her grip.
“I can’t do it!” she screamed over the thunder of hooves. “I can’t!”
“Please . . .” was all the boy could muster. His midsection slammed repeatedly against the horse, forcing the air from his lungs. He couldn’t draw breath.
The girl closed her eyes and ground her teeth. I will not let go. The horse or the rope may slip free, but on my father I will not let go. She glanced back, and what she saw made her gasp.
The witch, a billowing, spectral fiend, swooped through the trees like an enormous owl. Waves of frigid air swept up from behind as her bony fingers reached forward.
The horse leapt a fallen tree. The landing nearly ripped the mane from the girl’s fingers. Her legs, pinned tightly around the horse’s shoulders, felt frail and insignificant. Her entire body hurt, but the truly ferocious pain was in the fingers holding the boy’s binding. It sawed deeper into her raw skin with each stride. I can’t hold on . . . It’s all coming loose . . .
“Water . . .” he croaked.
She scanned the darkness until something in the distance caught her eye. The pale reflection of moonlight on water. A river.
She jerked the mane, steering the horse toward it. The boy’s weight pulled the rope to the final joints of her fingers. She was going to lose him.
Suddenly, she released the mane and grabbed the boy’s vest just as the rope slipped from her fingers. Now her legs, locked around the horse’s neck, were the only thing keeping them both alive. She lay twisted along the horse’s back, and the headlong gallop was driving the leather saddle into her side. The boy was barely on the horse, and she had no way of knowing if he was alive or dead.
The bristles of the horse’s coat scraped farther down her legs. Lower . . . lower . . . nearly to the ankles. Behind them, a wall of pure terror rose up. The witch was enormous, wraithlike, her arms extending from a cloak of swirling smoke.
Then, in an instant, the girl lost all sense of gravity. Her body soared through the air. The boy was gone. The horse was gone. And in the next moment, her lungs filled with icy water. With shocking clarity, she realized she had made it to the river. As she began to panic for breath, she found the rippling moonlight beneath her. She righted herself and kicked toward it until her head popped into the crisp night air, and she coughed until her lungs were dry.
The witch had gone, hiding no doubt in the fog at the shoreline. On the opposite bank, where the air was clear and stars painted the sky, the white horse staggered out of the water.
She swam toward the bank until finally her feet touched the rough, slimy stones of the river bottom, then pulled herself ashore like some ancient creature, sobbing and gasping for breath.
I made it. A miracle’s happened and I’m still alive.
Her legs buckled and she dropped to the pebbly shore. She forced herself onto her back, filling her lungs with the night until her panic began to recede. As she lay there, astonished to be alive, a strange thought crossed her mind. This night sky, a pale swipe of purple-white across a black field of untold numbers of stars, was the single most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Crickets chirped rhythmically from the trees. The choking mold stench was gone. Somehow, she really was alive.
“Here . . .” came a weak voice from farther down the gurgling river. She sat up. The horse stood at the waterline nuzzling a dark figure. It was the boy, arms still bound behind him, lying facedown in the sand, his legs dangling in the current. She went to him, but her fingers were too stiff and sore to grip the crude knot. She tried pulling on the rope, and it suddenly crumbled away like it was a thousand years old.
The boy, battered and weak, pushed himself over, too dazed to drag his legs free of the water. His teeth chattered, his whole body shuddering in the steady night breeze. “You must be . . . f-frozen solid . . .”
The girl, barefoot, sodden to the bone, and wearing only a thin covering of spiderwebs, said nothing.
“What . . . what’s your n-name?”
Her eyes fell to the rocks. “I don’t have one.”
THE GIRL STARED, not at the fire, but above it, where orange sparks wisped into the night sky to join the stars. The soft crackle of burning wood and the comforting smell of flame reminded her of home, somewhere that now seemed like one of the distant galaxies floating in the blackness above. She had always had an affinity for fire, though she had never quite learned to make one. Her father tried to teach her, and her sister could do it easily, but the best she could manage was a faint thread of smoke. Now that the tendons in her fingers had l...
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Book Description Condition: New. Seller Inventory # 25042781-n