From his hiding spot in the Angry Tree, Munjin peered through the forest for any sign of his hunters. His breathing had finally calmed down, but he was still hot and sweaty from running.
Every crinkling leaf jolted his spine. Normally, Munjin felt safe at the Tree. If only it hadn’t been Silas that was hunting him. Munjin’s imagination kept throwing up horrible scenes of what would happen if the older boy found him.
That was not his imagination. That was a twig broken by a footfall. Someone was down below, and close. Munjin held tightly to the tree branch, and squeezed his eyes shut. He prayed to the harsh gods of the mountain for a miracle. When he heard nothing else, he dared a glance downward.
A flash of peach-colored fabric caught his eye. That was not Silas. It might be ...
“Munjin.” It was his sister, Dinaelle! She said, “I know you can hide in a grasshopper’s shadow, but I’m tired of looking for you.” She was the only one who would be bothered to worry about him. She put her hands on her hips and ferociously shouted. “Munjin!”
Dinaelle scanned the upper branches. “Get down here, Munjin. I swear. You shouldn’t climb so high.”
No one but Munjin ever climbed the Angry Tree: an old twisted willow that grew tall and bent with evil. The tree walked into the village at night and stole misbehaving children. So it was said. To Munjin, the tree was simply a loner with ugly, broken branches. Like him.
He climbed down to the tempo of Dinaelle tapping her foot. She said, “Pa sent me to find you.”
Munjin frowned. It wasn’t like his Pa to care. He had done the meager chores assigned to him. What else could he do? He found the gnarled root that scooped out from the ground like an elfin chair, and sat down on it like a wounded king. He had wiped the tears from his cheeks, but he knew Dinaelle would figure out something was wrong. All she had to do was look at his torn tunic and his ripped leggings. She sat next to him without speaking.
“You seen any of the Kolva boys on your way?” asked Munjin.
“No. Are they out hunting squirrel?”
“No.” Munjin picked a piece of bark, threw it. “Me.”
“What...?” She reached out for him.
Munjin turned his face away. He felt the tears rushing up from inside him. Even if he was only eleven, Munjin knew boys were supposed to show brave. It didn’t matter if trolls tore your arms and legs off. Tears were forbidden.
“They already found me once. I got away.”
Dinaelle frowned in sympathy, then her eyes grew big, and she held up a finger. From her bag, she removed one of the clay plates their Ma was famous for. Inside was a piece of pumpkin pie. She handed it to her brother. “It’s still warm.”
Munjin smiled. He dug in to the creamy, orange-brown goodness. Dinaelle smiled at his good mood, but then frowned. The swelling on his face was hard to hide.
“Ma says she might start a new batch of flatware soon. Aunt Riza’s been asking for it. And the Stuhuvitches too.”
Munjin knew his Ma had not sat at her potter’s wheel in years. He knew Dinaelle was just trying to cheer him up. His Ma had been chased by the black dog for most of his life. He knew that was why his Pa turned a hard hand to him. If only the g--.
Munjin leapt up and spun, ready to run. Dinaelle leaned back from his eruption, and then turned around. No wild pigs or mischievous grues or cruel Kolvas emerged from the forest.
Munjin tried to control his shaking hands as he sat back down.
Dinaelle, her face soft, held out her hand. “Show me.”
Munjin shook his head. He did not want anyone, even Dina, to see his shame.
“Munjin.” Her voice lowered. “Show me.”
And he did, in a way only he could. He gripped her arm, and she jolted as if struck. Her eyes changed into the color of evening sky. A sudden wind from under the mountains and behind the clouds whirled through her. It grabbed her spirit and pushed it up and away over the elms and willows. She flew, alert and nervous, sliding through the air like a falcon. The lazy afternoon sun warmed her soul-self until she saw the dark figures tromping through a field of wild wheat.
Three boys strode through the field, chopping at the stalks with their sticks. The boy in the lead grinned cruelly. This was Silas Kolva. In this floating space outside of time, Dinaelle sensed his hate. It seeped from him in red and black streams. She grimaced as she realized the boys headed straight for a single tree and her brother napping beneath it.