Holly clenched her jaw, lips pressed tightly together. Her father had laid a cup of tea beside her, but she hadn’t touched it. It was cold now anyway. He crouched down next to her chair and tried to look into her eyes.
“Hey, I’m sure it’ll be alright. You just need a little more time. Better than rushing I can assure you.”
“Yeah, right. That doesn’t help me now though, does it? I can’t believe I read all those ******* books, and for nothing.” She turned away again. Earlier in the day Lily had finally worked up the nerve, and the excuse, to tell Holly that she couldn’t spawn. She’d done her best to be gentle, sitting her down in the council circle, picking the mildest Spring morning, but Holly rarely held much store by niceties, and all she took from the meeting was that her sister had inexplicably decided that she ‘wasn’t ready’ to spawn. A mixture of anger and disappointment was sitting uncomfortably inside her, and she felt as if someone had pulled the earth out from under her feet. She rose, resolving to get some fresh air and pull herself together. Out in the cool evening air, she took a breath and stared out over the lake. The water was calm and still, shining like a liquid mirror. Or was it? Almost too quickly to notice, a shadow darted across the surface. Holly stood bolt upright,
self-pity rapidly replaced by suspicion. Taking a sniff, she thought she could smell a wild dog, so she turned around and peered cautiously into the nearest bush. At first it seemed she was correct. But as she stared, and as the terrible, yellow eyes of her guest turned on her, it became apparent there was something quite different afoot.
Meanwhile, Moss sat down on a council chair, pushing up his glasses and wiping the sweat from his brow. Carefully, with trembling fingers, he lowered something into the hole at his feet and picked up the shovel next to him. He began to pile the earth back over his deposit.
“Last one,” he said, nodding to the rose bush in the centre of the circle. It was a phenomenon witnessed by few besides Willow, that Moss could converse quite fluently with plants. Now he smiled, apparently at something it had replied.
“I hope you don’t find out what it does,” he sighed. “I don’t think it’ll be good for you or Willow.” His smile weakened, and started chewing his lip again. This was the final stage of his ‘special project’, but it was still gnawing upon his mind. It had done ever since Willow had asked him to do it, not because it was difficult – Moss was far more intelligent than his relatives could ever know – but because of its implications. One word from his brief had stuck with him like an unpleasant fungus since day one. Defence. He didn’t care for that word at all. It spoke of change, of danger and of some kind of plan which might involve people getting hurt. Moss was not a fan of change, or of danger, and especially not
of people getting hurt. It was not a word the garden had ever had cause to use before. He glanced up into the heavens, the memory of the dancing stars reflected in his eyes. Then he looked again. It was not a memory. Though it was only evening, those same stars were spinning and flashing again. Closer. Gritting his teeth and desperately trying to quell the quaking which came over him, he increased his speed.
“There you are!” Lily was waiting behind the spring, tapping her foot impatiently, when Larch came creeping around the corner. He carried a bottle filled with liquid, which the child in Lily’s arms was squirming and crying to get at.
“Shush Cherry,” he whispered, handing it over. “There’s a good girl. She’s coming on well, isn’t she!” Lily nodded, looking proudly down at her daughter. They had named her Cherry a few days after her birth, owing to the fact she had been born among the fruit trees, and because Larch had maintained that Apple, Lemon and Orange sounded ‘ridiculous’. The question of a suitable name was a trivial task, however, when compared with that of hiding a flesh baby in the middle of the forest. Larch had advocated stowing her away in a tree, as it had always served him for an effective hiding place, but Lily had stood her ground. It simply wasn’t safe enough. Eventually, seeing as the area was largely vacated while Holly scrubbed it out, they had settled on making a little nest in the reeds behind the spring. Even as a temporary measure, it still felt like they were cutting it very fine.
“I told Holly today,” said Lily, after a long silence. Larch raised his eyebrows.
“Oh dear. How’d she take it?”
“Not great. She called me a maggot and stormed off crying. I wish I could explain it all properly.” She sighed. Larch looked alarmed. He pointed a finger at Lily.
“Don’t you dare! Don’t even think about telling anyone.”
“We might have to, eventually. Even if it’s after Willow and Oak, well, you know…”
“Maybe,” said Larch. “And while I’m at it, I’ll them all what I think of them, spit in their eyes and leave here like I always -” At this he was interrupted by Cherry, who, disgusted at finding her bottle to be empty, had pushed it out of her mouth and begun to bawl at the top of her lungs. Both of her parents gasped and tried at once to subdue her, to no avail.
“Oh shut up Cherry, please,” Larch begged. “You’re going to get us all killed.”
“Yes,” said a voice behind them. They whipped round and stared in shock and horror.
Standing there, grinning like a cat, was a man who seemed to be made all of moonlight, with empty eyes gleaming crimson.
“Yes she is.”