Crystal Throne sample chapter

The Crystal Throne

by

Kathryn Sullivan

Amber Quill Press, LLC

Copyright © 2003 by Kathryn Sullivan
ISBN: 1-59279-085-2 (Electronic)
ISBN: 1-59279-942-6 (Paperback)

Cover Art © 2003 Trace Edward Zaber
Amber Quill Press, LLC

RATING: G

CHAPTER 1

The Door

“Down, girl! Steady!” Jeanne Tucker clutched the reins and tried to keep her seat as the frightened Appaloosa reared wildly. The skittish mare came down on all fours and backed up a step, her eyes showing white and rolling at the leaves swirling on a gust of wind. Jeanne clung to the horse with knees and hands, using all the tricks her brother had taught her to bring the Appaloosa under control.

The horse reared again. “Down, Robin!” Jeanne jerked the reins and managed to turn the big head as the mare tried to bolt off the trail into the dark tangle of trees. Robin tossed her head, fighting the bit, whinnying with fear.

Finally, the mare quieted. Jeanne carefully released one hand from the reins to stroke the night-black neck. “Easy, girl. Easy now.” The horse stood quietly, calming under the continuous flow of talk and patting. Jeanne could feel the taut coil of fear loosen, the mare’s body slowly relaxing beneath her.

“Silly. A bunch of dried-up old leaves and you act as if a ghost is after you. Maybe you ought to write that essay on the haunted tree for me. You certainly get scared often enough.”

Robin swung her head back, nickering softly, and Jeanne suddenly felt tears of frustration springing to her eyes. “Oh, why can’t you behave, Robin? You know Mike’s going to sell you if you keep this up! He almost sold you last time, when I ended up in the hospital, but I promised you would behave. You’ve got to, girl!”

She wiped her eyes on the rough sleeve of her brother’s red wool jacket and shook her long brown hair back over one shoulder. “We’d better get home, girl, before anything else happens.”

Despite her words, the girl sat still a moment longer. The wood rustled softly about them, leaves painted the color of flames by the setting sun. Now why did I feel that I had to come to Wilson’s Forest today? she wondered. Especially at this time of the afternoon. She shook her head and nudged the mare into a walk. I certainly wasn’t thinking straight, or else I wouldn’t have brought Robin here. Starbolt or Firebird would have ignored the shadows and leaves, but not my poor Robin.

The Appaloosa shivered, nickering uneasily. Jeanne patted the smooth neck. “I know, honey. It’s dark and spooky out here.” That does it, she decided. Feelings or no feelings, I’m getting Robin home.

She eyed the deepening shadows of the forest preserve, breathed in the dusky scent of autumn. The soft clops of Robin’s hooves on the dirt trail and the creak of the saddle echoed in the stillness.

She tensed and pulled the mare to a halt, hearing voices raised in anger above the rustling leaves. Jeanne glanced about nervously, recognizing the thick stand of trees. Oh gosh, I’m practically right by the haunted tree! She shook herself. You’re more of a chicken than Robin. Ghosts out in daylight? Angry ghosts?

Listening to the irate mutter of the voices, she dismounted and pulled Robin onto a tiny path almost hidden by thick bushes. The path was seldom used. People usually stayed away from the haunted tree.

Jeanne shivered as she came within sight of the tree. Almost thirteen and you still believe in Grandpa’s stories? she scolded herself. Trees don’t move. She shivered again.

The tree did look haunted. The huge trunk of the ancient oak was bent and twisted with age and the heavy snows of past winters. The branches were bare of leaves even in the summer and the lower ones resembled twisted claws waiting to grab anyone who came too close.

She saw the Burns twins arguing in the clearing before the tree and paused a moment in surprise. Peter and Jody were new to town–their parents had moved in just before school started–but even newcomers would have been warned about the tree. Peter reached up and pulled one of the dangling, claw-like branches down. Jeanne caught her breath and almost called out a warning, but Peter had released the branch after a curious glance.

It figures, she thought. Miss Long says to write something about the haunted tree, so Peter comes and studies it as if it was a specimen in biology class. She glanced at her watch. He skipped gymnastics practice to be here at this time. Why? Wonder what Jody’s doing here.

Jody appeared to be arguing with her twin. Peter ignored her, brushing his dusty hands on his jacket and jeans. The fraternal twins were so different that the term ‘twin’ didn’t seem to apply to them. Peter was a little shorter than his sister and his hair was sandy where hers was pale blonde. Their personalities differed also. Peter was more independent and often seemed older than his twelve years. Jody, on the other hand…

Jeanne cut off that line of thought. Now that she was closer, she could feel the hot flames of anger within the two. Now how do I do that? she wondered, asking the same tired question. How is it that I always know what people are feeling?

She turned away and began to lead Robin back to the main trail. Robin tossed her head and suddenly whinnied.

“I told you it was haunted!” Jody screamed.

“Oh, bother,” Jeanne muttered. She pulled Robin into the clearing and almost bumped into Peter. “Hi. Sorry to frighten you. You scared me, too. Didn’t expect to see anyone out here.”

Jody glared at her with unfriendly blue eyes and Jeanne felt the dark chill of the taller girl’s hostility. Jody’s gaze flicked to Jeanne’s oversized jacket and heavy jeans, and Jeanne suddenly felt very sloppy in comparison to Jody’s fashionably bright colors and expensive jacket. But you can’t ride a horse in that, she cheered herself. “Hi, Jody. Do you have to write an essay on the tree, too?”

Jody sniffed.

Peter glanced over at his twin. “Jody…”

“I don’t have to speak to farmers,” Jody drawled arrogantly. “And especially to her. Amy Evans says she’s weird. Amy says that–“

“Oh, shut up, Jody,” Peter interrupted. “You sound like you’re stuck in a loop.”

Jody glared at him.

“Go ahead,” Peter said slowly, tightly controlled anger in his voice. “Go ahead, add one more of Amy’s comments. I dare you.”

Jody sniffed again. She strode haughtily past Jeanne back to the trail. “I’m telling Dad on you!” she yelled and ran.

“I’m sorry, Jean,” Peter sighed, drawing a hand through his rumpled sandy hair. “Jody’s been hanging around that Evans crowd too long.”

Jeanne shrugged. “I’ve heard worse names from Amy.”

Peter suddenly looked past her and his blue eyes widened. “Hey, Jean, is that an Appaloosa?”

“The name is Jeanne,” she said, adding the ‘ie’ sound to the name, “like the genie of the Lamp.” At his blank expression she mentally sighed and continued, “Yes, she’s an Appaloosa.” The mare nudged Jeanne, and she automatically started stroking the silky neck. “Do you ride?”

“Don’t I wish! We’ve always lived in cities or suburbs before now.”

Jeanne suddenly heard her voice saying, “I could teach you if you want.” Her hand froze on Robin’s neck. What had she said? She couldn’t teach him; couldn’t afford to be around him. What if she made some dumb slip that showed him exactly how different she was from others? No, safer not to teach him. And yet…

Peter’s smile grew even wider. “Could you? That would be–naw,” he interrupted himself. “I couldn’t pay, and it would take up your time–I know you probably have chores.”

He sounded so dejected that she couldn’t let him down. Maybe I could trust him. It would be nice to have a friend my own age, not just the stable gang. Sure, she corrected herself cynically. As long as he thinks you’re normal. But if he notices that you’re a mite too perceptive, then watch him draw away, just like all the rest.

But somehow, the words slipped out without any thought. “I never said anything about money. What do you think I am? We’re friends, aren’t we? And one of my ‘chores’ is exercising some of my brother Mike’s horses, so you’d be helping me.”

Robin nickered uneasily and Jeanne led the mare over to the cleared area in front of the haunted tree, away from rustling leaves. Peter followed. “Your brother has horses?”

“My oldest brother raises horses. He bought Robin here in the spring.”

“She’s beautiful.” Peter moved towards them, and Robin tried to hide behind Jeanne. He stopped and waited for the horse to quiet. “Did I do something wrong?”

Jeanne held the bridle firmly. “No, Robin just frightens very easily. Move slowly. I won’t teach you on her. She’s bad enough for me.”

Peter patted the sleek hide. “Why do you ride her then?”

<"Mike told me that if I could cure her, she's mine."

“He must not have much confidence in you. Aren’t horses expensive?”

Jeanne smiled. “Oh, he does. He just thinks I’ve met my match in Robin. You see, Robin’s previous owners were very cruel to her. She still doesn’t trust people.”

Peter eyed her curiously. “You know, you’re a lot like your horse. I don’t know why Amy’s been picking on you but with her around I can see why you’re always on your guard.”

Jeanne felt a slight shock at the unexpected remark. “I’m not–“

“You are. I’ve watched you in class. You’re awfully edgy around people. You hiding some deep dark secret? Why do you let Amy push you around?”

“I don’t.” She glanced down at the ground, confused and unaccustomed to the kindness behind his remarks. “Don’t mess with Amy’s crowd, Peter. I can handle her better than you can. We’ve been enemies for a long time. You’re a newcomer. Amy could–“

“Amy couldn’t do anything to bother me.”

“Amy’s already bothering you through Jody. And you don’t know what one rumor in this town can do.”

“Like the one she told Jody?” Peter asked. “That you have magical powers?”

Jeanne flushed in anger. That rumor was too close to the truth for comfort. “I don’t–“

“Of course not. There’s no such thing as magic–or haunted trees, for that matter. Hey, I was meaning to ask you. How come when Miss Long mentioned this old tree, practically every kid in class looked scared? What’s the big deal about it? It’s just a tree.”

Jeanne glanced nervously at it and found herself wondering if it had heard. “Miss Long is new to town–she doesn’t understand yet,” she said swiftly. She turned back to Peter. “There–there’re stories.”

“Such as?”

“Such as people vanishing.”

Peter frowned. “Oh, come on! What does that prove?”

“Not much, I guess. It did happen almost a hundred years ago. But sometimes you can hear voices here, only they don’t sound human.” Jeanne warmed to her subject, feeling as if she was reciting from one of the fantasies she loved to read. “And there’ve been lights–dancing, bobbing lights, like a will-o’-the-wisp, only there’s no swamp near here. The tree has been known to walk, too.”

“Walk?”

“Sure. Raccoon Creek is about a hundred feet through there,” she said, pointing into the thickly tangled underbrush. “And the tree used to be on its banks.”

“Huh?”

“Yep. Stood right on the bank of a creek a hundred feet from here, though the bank was undercut so badly by the water that the tree was just about ready to fall in. This was back when Wilson’s Forest was private property, before the Wilsons donated it to the town as a forest preserve. Anyhow, the Wilsons decided to cut the tree down.” She paused for effect.

“And?”

“And when they got out to the creek, the tree was gone. They finally found it right here.”

Peter silently studied the gnarled old tree. “You’re kidding,” he said finally. “You actually believe that stuff?”

“Some. My grandfather remembers when the tree was on Raccoon Creek. He was my age then.”

“Trees don’t move,” Peter said flatly. “Your grandfather was only kidding you.”

“No, I can tell when someone is lying. And I also believe him because every time I come here, near the tree like this, I get the feeling that there’s someone watching me.” She shivered. “Like right now.”

“It’s probably just Jody sneaking around.” Peter glared into the shadows, looking for his twin.

“She’s just as confused and hurt as you are, Peter. Give her time.”

He glanced at her sharply and she realized her slip. “I–I mean,” she faltered, cursing her stupidity, “it’s always rough when my brothers and I fight. Must be worse for twins.”

Peter frowned at the surrounding trees. “Yeah, it is. She won’t even listen to me now.”

Jeanne forced herself to remain silent, although she wished she could say something to comfort him. She felt fear rising strongly in the mare’s trembling body. “Gosh, it’s late. I’ve got to get Robin back.”

She swung up into the saddle and looked down at Peter, remembering her promise. “Could you come out to the farm tomorrow? It’s Saturday; I’d have time to start you then.”

“That soon? Gee, that would be–“

The Appaloosa suddenly squealed with fear and reared. Jeanne, caught off guard, lost her balance and tumbled off Robin’s back. Time seemed to slow as she fell. She heard Jody’s laugh; saw the swing of dark cloth. Where’s the tree? Omigosh, I’m going to hit–

Suddenly she felt herself caught and cradled in two great arms, then dumped into a pile of leaves.

A bell chimed in the distance as the two huge branches moved away from Jeanne to hang from the haunted tree again. She stared at the haunted tree now in front of her, knowing it had been behind her only seconds ago. No. No, I’m dreaming. Trees don’t move. They don’t, they don’t!

The trunk of the tree seemed to ripple like water and Peter fell out of the brownness, catching his balance with a gymnast’s reflexes. He turned and stared down at her, his eyes glassy, as a chime sounded in the stillness.

“P-peter?”

“You…you fell through the tree!” he stammered. “I tried to catch you but you hit it and fell through! Then this…tree grabbed me and…”

Jeanne heard her voice saying calmly, “And now we’re here.”

Peter gulped, his face regaining some of its tan. “But where’s here? Look, the forest is gone.”

Jeanne looked about her. Peter was right; the forest was gone. They were in a great meadow, empty except for the haunted tree. Jeanne tried to orient herself, but there were no familiar landmarks. Green and golden hills rose in the distance where the town should be, and the stretches of farmland outside of Wilson’s Forest had become a dark and forbidding woods.

“Even the town’s gone,” Peter said in a strange voice. “And this dead tree has green leaves now! What happened to us?” He glanced at his watch. “We haven’t lost any time, but if someone knocked us out and drugged us, they’d probably reset the watches as well.”

Jeanne climbed to her feet and walked over to the tree. “We fell through here,” she said slowly, remembering books she had read. “We should be able to go back.” She gathered her courage and pushed against the trunk. Nothing happened.

“It’s solid,” she sighed. “Whatever…door…that let us through is closed now.” She pushed her hair back out of her face and studied the tree. “Well, what do we do now?” she asked the tree.

“I don’t know,” Peter replied, studying the ground. He was growing more and more convinced that he had imagined stepping through the tree. This couldn’t be the same tree from the forest; the forest was gone. But how had they arrived in this meadow? “The only footprints around are ours. No tire marks…no hoof marks… Why would someone go to so much trouble to kidnap us?” He spied a glint of metal rolling through the fallen leaves towards them. Under his gaze the rolling metal suddenly stopped and fell over. He fished it out of the leaves and found that he held a gold ring. He placed it on the palm of his hand and watched, startled, as it started to roll again. He tried again and noticed that, no matter in which direction he held his hand, the ring always rolled toward Jeanne.

Jeanne walked away from the tree, her eyes studying the sky. Peter joined her, absently pocketing the ring. “What are you looking for?”

Jeanne shrugged, her eyes on something that had suddenly appeared on the horizon. “Don’t know. I just suddenly got this feeling that someone’s watching us.”

“I don’t see anyone,” Peter commented, looking about the empty meadow.

A shrill scream trembled through the air. “What was that?” Peter exclaimed.

“Peter!” Jeanne pointed into the sky.

Gliding swiftly towards them across the windless sky was something that resembled a red-violet dragon. The cruel beak opened in a horrid grin as it shrieked again.

“Wow! Great special effects!” Peter said. “You can’t see any wires or blue matte outlines. Wonder how they’re projecting that pteranodon?”

The thing was not far from them now. “Two legs, so that’s a drake, not a dragon,” Jeanne muttered.

“No, definitely a pteranodon,” Peter said.

Jeanne could see the huge eyes on either side of the ugly, wedge-shaped head. A chill wind suddenly rose, cutting through her jacket as the massive wings angled toward the ground. The long body swung forward, the giant talons opening.

“This is too large to be radio controlled,” Peter observed.

Jeanne, sensing the greed and hunger in the creature’s mind, stared in amazement at Peter and suddenly realized why he was being so calm. She shoved him to the ground and followed.

Moving too fast to stop, the thing swooped through the space they had been, the talons snapping shut just over their heads. It started to curve back into the sky when suddenly the tree rustled. Long branches whipped out like tentacles and wrapped about the creature. The thing struggled wildly, shrieking its horrible cry, but the branches relentlessly drew it against the tree trunk. As they watched in amazement, the creature suddenly vanished in a puff of green particles. Jeanne could see Peter rubbing his eyes as the green smoke slowly drifted to the ground. The branches shook more of the dust off, then returned to their original position. “Where are we?” she breathed.

“What are you doing here?” a strange voice suddenly demanded from above them.

They looked back over their shoulders. A tall, gray-haired man frowned down at them. He was dressed in a loosely fitting shirt and trousers that glittered with a dull metallic gleam. The folds of a cloak of the same dull silver rippled about him, then stilled, though no breeze had blown. The man’s face was smooth and unlined, despite his long gray hair, but something about him, in his bearing, in the way he stood waiting for their answer, reassured Jeanne, although she couldn’t explain why.

“Who are you?” Peter asked.

The man stared at them, and Jeanne could feel his bewilderment. “You are not elves,” he said slowly. “You are humans!”

“Of course we’re humans,” Peter replied, equally puzzled. “There aren’t any such things as elves.”

Jeanne felt her mouth go dry. Elves? Where had they come to?

The man shook his head. “Children!” he said to something unseen. “Now you would bring children into this?”

Peter climbed to his feet and held his hand out to her. “C’mon, we’re leaving,” he whispered. “This guy’s a nut case.”

Jeanne sat up but ignored his hand. She hugged herself, trying to shut out all the strange feelings crowding in upon her. “Where do we go, Peter?”

“Anywhere. C’mon!”

“And two of them,” the man said slowly, folding his arms. “The Watcher has never brought two through before.” He rubbed his thumb along the smooth edge of his jaw. His gray eyes studied them.

“Who are you?” Peter demanded.

The man nodded. “The question is typically human, but the attitude is wise in the Lands today.” He bowed slightly with an elegant sweep of his cloak. “I am called Graylod.”

He folded his arms again and stared at them thoughtfully. “I…cannot read you. What magicks do you two possess?”

“What?” Peter began.

“Wait, Peter.” Jeanne climbed to her feet and faced the silver-garbed man. “Let’s start at the beginning. I’m Jeanne Tucker and he’s Peter Burns. We fell through that tree. It was all an accident, and we would be very glad to go back if you would tell us how.” She hesitated, caught by the absent look in his eyes. “Mr. Graylod?”

Graylod blinked, and his gaze softened. “Are you the healer?”

“Am I the…” Jeanne repeated in amazement.

“Neither of us are doctors,” Peter said. “How do we get back?” Jeanne noticed that he didn’t add ‘through the tree’.

Graylod was rubbing his jaw again. “But the prophecy specifically mentioned a–eh?” He turned his attention to Peter. “Back? Through the Watcher? You cannot.”

“Can’t?”

“Never?” Jeanne added faintly. Graylod was telling the truth; she could not sense the double echo of a lie. She shivered. Elves, she thought. My biggest dream come true. Then why am I so frightened?

Graylod watched her. He said gently, “You cannot go back. The Watcher has picked you, the both of you, to save our land and until that is done it will not allow you to leave.”

“What do you mean, ‘will not allow’?” Peter demanded. “Who is this Watcher, anyway?”

“It stands behind you,” Graylod said. They both turned.

“The tree?” Peter said scornfully.

“The Watcher is the door to all human lands and our guardian of last hope. When the Free Lands are threatened and a human can save us, it brings him here. Thus it was promised and thus it is done. Your coming was no accident. You two can help us, though I cannot see how, and so the Watcher brought you here. Then it summoned me and protected you until I could arrive.”

“The tree?” Peter said scornfully.

“That’s why that thing vanished!” Jeanne exclaimed. “Magic!”

Graylod nodded.

“Don’t believe him, Jeanne,” Peter said angrily. “There’s no such thing as magic.”

Graylod drew himself up to his full height. “For one who knows so little,” he said, his voice full of authority, “you should not claim to know so much. Watch!” He lifted his right hand. A swirl of color appeared at his fingertips, a dancing rainbow of dazzling colors. Slowly out of the dazzling swirl a solid object grew–first a short, slender rod of gray, then it lengthened into a long staff. Graylod hefted it, sending a wave of colors moving up and down its length.

“Magic,” Jeanne breathed. “You’re a wizard!”

Graylod nodded. “Hear me out, Peter Burns,” he ordered, as Peter was about to speak. “The Watcher has picked the both of you to help us and by right you must know what you are to face.

“This land was once a fair land, from Beginning Time the refuge of all magic you humans denied in your world. Ages past, the Evil Ones had been defeated in this land and thrust out into the realm of the Shadow Land. Its borders watched against trouble, our land settled into contentment and forgot the dangers that once threatened it.

“But we forgot too soon. Witches united forces in the Shadow Land and broke through our protective safeguards. Our most powerful guardians were killed in a great battle of magic. Three witches survived. They now control our land and have placed our people under a curse until they can gather enough strength to move against your own land.”

“A curse?” Jeanne asked. “Can’t the witches be stopped?”

“The curse is one of forgetfulness,” Graylod said slowly. “Very fitting, since it is what led us to our downfall. Many of us, including myself, have forgotten our ways of magic. We remember only a little of what we once had. Important spells, cures–these are gone from our memories.

“The curse rids our land of any potential threat to the witches, for we cannot remember how to rid ourselves of them. A legend says that the witches’ power will be broken by a human Sensitive. I had hoped one of you would be that Sensitive.”

“Didn’t that, er, Watcher find anyone else to help you?” Peter asked, frowning. “Jeanne and I don’t know any magic.”

“The Watcher has found others who tried to help,” Graylod said slowly. “All of them failed, although they were skilled in magic. Perhaps the Watcher knows you possess other talents that may help.” He watched Peter’s face as he added, “I cannot send you back to your land. The Watcher has picked you, and only it controls the doors to your land.”

“Well, tell your Watcher to send us back,” Peter said angrily. “I’m not volunteering for this.”

“It is not ‘my’ Watcher,” Graylod said patiently, “but the Land’s.”

As Peter argued, Jeanne irritably rubbed at her right eye. The “anger ache” behind her eyes throbbed as if her brothers were quarreling. What’s wrong with me? Peter’s not family. I’ve shut strangers out better than this!

The icy touch of wrongness crept once again up her spine, and she worriedly glanced at the sky. “Watcher!” she yelled.

Shrill screams echoed from the sky. Graylod turned as two drakes raced from the horizon, heading unerringly toward them. “The hounds!” he exclaimed. “Stand close to me!” He swung his staff in a wide, blazing circle…and the drakes were gone. So was the haunted tree.

Peter blinked. One second they had been in an open meadow and now they stood on a flower-lined pathway of brightly shining stones deep inside a forest. The time had changed as well. There had been three hours before sunset and now, from what he could see of the sky, they had closer to four hours left of daylight. They must have been transported west, but how?

“The witch hounds know you are in this land,” Graylod said briskly. “Soon one of the witches will know also. You will stay here until we can organize an expedition against them.”

“Where is here?” Peter asked.

“A day’s travel west of the Watcher. This is an elf-village.” Graylod frowned. “Though I do not know where its people are. They should not be hiding from me.”

Peter looked at the tall trees like living walls about the path, glanced at Jeanne and shrugged. There had to be some way for them to escape from this madman.

Graylod’s staff shimmered into liquid light, then solidified. “I do not sense any traps. Follow me.” He strode down the path, Jeanne and Peter on his heels.

Jeanne shivered, feeling as if eyes were watching their every move. The silence was oppressing; no birds sang, no insects cricked in the shadows. She saw burn scars and axe marks on some of the trees, noticed that patches of the beautiful flowers had been uprooted and carelessly tossed aside or trampled under booted feet. She shivered at the deliberate vandalism and glanced aside at Peter. What had they gotten into?

Graylod stopped abruptly. “The Open Door has been closed!”

Jeanne heard the shock in his voice and wondered briefly at it. Before them two living trees formed a tall arch above the path. The path ran through the arch and continued on until it wound out of sight. There was no visible door anywhere.

Graylod moved his staff before the two intertwined trees. He stamped the end of his staff on the ground. “Rwit!” he demanded.

Jeanne caught her breath as green and silver symbols appeared on the tree trunks, some shining where burn scars had been but seconds before. Green light shimmered in the archway.

“Begone, creatures of the night,” a thready voice hissed at them. Peter turned, trying to locate the speaker as the voice murmured musical syllables that yet seemed full of menace.

Graylod raised his blazing staff, and the voice stopped short. “Graylod! Forgive me! Enter the Open Door!”

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