NED FIREBREAK CHAPTER PREVIEW
Posted on August 19, 2012
I was so excited with the arrival of a new character, the ambulatory enchanted tree I mentioned in an earlier post, that I had to share the chapter in which he makes his debut. He's going to be quite the sidekick for Ned.
CHAPTER TEN TURNCOAT TIMBER
Every single muscle below his belt screamed in pain. Fleeing for one's life after being on involuntary bed rest for so long bordered on insane. As he pumped his legs, Ned winced with every impact. Every step felt as if collapse was the next logical course of action. He fought the urge to crumble to the ground in a heap. Curling into a ball wasn't the way to go if evading a rampaging tree was the order of business.
Ned looked back to see the tree fifty feet away. It unspooled its roots toward them, grabbing hold of its fellow trees and catapulting itself forward. The slingshot mode of transport was highly effective. It had cut the distance in half. They needed to get clear of the woods. If they didn't, the tree would catch up to them in three or four more launches.
Ahead, Tekka barked at him to pour it on. Kalabeth, surprisingly, outdistanced them both. Ned found that odd. Tekka seemed to be the athletic one, but evidently not. The more delicate sister vaulted over a rotted log and landed on the far side of a small stream, every move she made calculated.
Kalabeth said, "Nothing like a sprint to get the blood flowing." She drew in an easy breath, winded not in the least.
Tekka ducked a low branch and splashed through the stream. "You would make this cheery, wouldn't you?"
Ned somersaulted over the rotted log and slid awkwardly into a patch of purple mushrooms. He sprang to his feet and dove across the waterway. The sisters were already up the slight embankment and were waving at him to hurry. Tekka looked perturbed, while Kalabeth wore an expression of pure giddiness. Ned wondered if the princess thought their ordeal would end in a round of hugs with their pursuer. She certainly appeared to think the marauding vegetation nipping at their heels was simply a playmate, that its intentions were not overly wicked.
A thick root whipped past his head and wrapped around a tree to his left. He rolled forward, thinking the next root was for him. It wasn't. As he stumbled up the slope, he saw the other root secure itself to another tree. Their pursuer was about to sling itself right on top of him. Ned scrambled up the hill, finding slick purchase in the soft ground. He slipped back.
Here it comes, he thought. Any second, he'd feel the weight of the massive tree slam into him. Surely, broken bones would be one result. Hopefully not another coma lay in his future.
He made one last lunge upward, crossing nearly five feet of ground. He pulled his legs up and under, hoping for a near miss.
A near miss was what he got.
A wall of dirt blasted him in the back. Forest debris, including an unsuspecting burrowing animal who had tunneled its home on the wrong side of the stream, flew into the air. Ned shielded his eyes with his forearms as the airborne mess fell on him, burrower included. The animal scrambled off him and away.
He crawled two feet more before looking back to see the angry tree looming over him. Three small roots lashed out and snagged his legs. They flipped him on his back. Ned grabbed about wildly, attempting to latch onto anything he could call a weapon. Pity a woodsman hadn't left an axe out in the middle of the woods for him to find. That would be altogether too convenient.
The creature's large mouth yawned open. Its eyes dug into him. What had he ever done to the tree to fill it with such spite? What few encounters he had with enchanted objects and plants, he had always conducted himself on the side of politeness and decorum. Well, except for that one time he had dropkicked a foot stool that had been rather quick with the insults. Did wooden furniture hold grudges and spread word of its vendettas to its forest brethren?
Nothing like wood with a grudge.
"Let go of me!" he protested, kicking one leg free.
The tree laughed. Three more roots appeared and clamped down on his free leg. They squeezed much tighter than the first one.
Tekka shouted at the tree, "Free him, fiend, or taste more of my bite!"
The tree snickered. It picked up a large rock and flung it at the princess. Tekka dodged it as she nocked an arrow. She artfully slid a few feet down the hill, drawing dangerously within range of the roots.
Kalabeth was right behind her sister, her pad and flowers gone. In her hands, she brandished a heavy branch. "Release, Ned."
The tree clapped several of its larger branches together, precipitating a downpour of errant leaves. "You two maidens, so funny. Threatening me with harm by fellow wood. While the tiny metal head of your arrows does lodge deep, it's nothing more than a nuisance." The tree glared at Kalabeth. "And you, what do you hope to do with that branch? Batter me soundly? I think not."
Tekka let an arrow fly. It scored a hit just above the tree's right eye.
"Good shot, milady." The tree whipped the arrow free and broke it in half.
"What are you doing here?" Ned asked, frustrated that he was the one in need of a rescue. "I thought nothing threatening could find its way onto the reservation."
The tree exhaled sharply, outwardly peeved at being inquisitioned and reprimanded. "Oh, don't you play this scene like that. I'm not that dumb. I wasn't born yesterday." The tree shifted its gaze wistfully. "Actually, I take that back, I was."
"What are you babbling about?" Ned said.
"You bothering to talk. Asking me all sorts of questions so you can stall me long enough for proper help to arrive." The tree looked left and right with suspicion. "What do you take me for?"
Ned shrugged. "Hey, can't blame me for trying. Guess I can't pull the wool over your eyes."
"Wool?" the tree asked. "Why would you drape sheep over my eyes? What advantage is there to that?"
"No, no. It's an expression. It means to trick you."
"Rather odd way of saying that. See, that's the trouble with you humans; always making everything so much harder than it has to be."
Ned found the tree frustrating. "But you just used an expression with me earlier. You made some comment about being born yesterday."
The tree looked mildly disturbed. "I did, didn't I? Curses, it would appear you humans have rubbed off on me more than I thought."
"See? There's another one. Rubbed off?" Ned, seeing a way to tangle the tree up more, continued. "Appears you've been infected, you've contracted a disease."
The tree looked taken aback, as much as a wooden creature could look taken aback, that is. "What? Goodness no. That's not right. What is it? What ailment do I have?" It rustled its branches.
"Idiomitis. Apparently a bad case of it from where I sit."
The tree swatted at him. "That's not a real disease. You're making that up. Don't do that. I'm very on edge about staying healthy. Here I thought you were going to say I'd fallen prey to blight or bark rot."
The roots pulled Ned forward. He looked back to see only Tekka was there to watch the proceedings. Where had Kalabeth gotten to? Tekka nodded, wanting him to keep up his conversation with the tree.
Ned's knowledge of enchanted foliage was on the thin side. He had encountered very few chatty plants in his travels. An eloquent shrub here, a lecture-prone fern there. All in all, he knew very little. Other than this particular one was finicky about word play and had a healthy fear of disease. He thought he could make that work for him.
"True, you caught me there. Clever of you." Ned nodded at the tree with respect.
The tree said, "Always nice to know my dinner has a healthy regard for me. Makes digestion that much more pleasant."
The tree opened its mouth wider.
"So that's all there is? You just chase me down, gulp me up and that's that? Clearly you're strictly bottom rung material."
"What do you mean?"
"No, no, you said you didn't want me to get you all caught up in a conversation. After all, you have a timetable to keep. The longer you drag it out with me makes it more likely help will arrive, you said so yourself."
The tree frowned. "Well, now you're just being cocky. Don't care for that kind of tone."
"Lackeys never do. Don't feel bad. You can't be held responsible for how limiting your station in life is."
"My station?" The tree freed a root from his right leg and slapped Ned across the cheek. "Now see here. You can't comment on my place in this scheme. You're clueless."
"I am, but that's all fine and good with you. You don't want me knowing the whys and wherefores of your actions, right? You gain nothing by spouting off your part in whatever evil is afoot, right?"
The tree hesitated.
Ned knew he had gotten to it. "Hear me out."
"Normally wouldn't hear one's meal out, but I guess I can make an exception. If only to show you I'm much more in the thick of things than a lowly henchmen would be. Continue."
"If you say so. Well, really you're going to have to say so to prove to me that you're not low man on the totem pole."
"There you go with the playful talk. Infuriating."
"That's my aim," Ned said. "Of course, it's always easy to ruffle someone whose strictly entry level in whatever insidious organization or troupe you seem to be a part of."
"My role is of substance. And how I got on your little reservation borders on a stroke of genius." The tree puffed out its trunk.
"Do go on," Ned exhorted as if he were an exhorting expert.
"I shall." The tree flexed three of its main branches. "When I said I was born yesterday, I was being truthful. Yesterday morning, I was just a seed with a dream."
"Most definitely. As a seed, one has quite a bit of time on their hands, especially if they have to wait a while for fertile soil to come along."
"So seeds wait for the earth to come to them?" Ned loved how easy it was to lead the tree astray. He wondered if that was a trait of all trees. Maybe they couldn't resist branching off into new conversational paths. "I always thought the seeds did the seeking. You know, being scattered by the wind or hustled off to the ground on the back of a furry rodent not inclined to regularly clean its coat."
"Well, yes that's true. We do have to be brought to the soil. I misspoke."
"You overreached with your abilities. Typical of someone at the bottom. Don't be too hard on yourself. Been there myself." Ned was enjoying himself. His mind felt sharp, like witty banter was his thing. Apparently, the coma had dulled that aspect of his personality. He was happy to have his snarky side back.
"Um, yes, well... "
Ned found it funny to see a tree flustered. "You were born yesterday. That's what you were going on about before we got off topic." Ned sent the tree a scolding look. "You know, you're really not good at the whole staying-on-task thing. Keep this up, and I'll have stalled long enough for a whole army of woodsmen to arrive with axes freshly sharpened."
The tree shuddered at the image. "Yes, you're quite right. Don't know how you got me so off track."
"Might be your age. You are only a day old, according to how you tell it."
The tree snapped, "Enough prattling. Let me have the floor."
He was about to argue that neither had the floor as that would necessitate them being inside a building and not out in the middle of the woods, but thought better of it. No sense going too far. "By all means."
"There was magic involved in getting me where I am."
"I assumed as much."
"The protective spell around your reservation won't let the living and breathing through, but those of us who photosynthesize, well, there's your loophole."
"Isn't there always? Why, when I get out of this mess, I'll be sure to fix that." He looked obnoxiously pensive. "Mental note: shore up spell to prevent evil plants from roaming about."
"The one who ensorcelled me shall remain nameless as I'm not stupid enough to tell you everything."
"That's your prerogative."
The tree ignored him, or least tried to look like he was ignoring him. "The mage, he/she imbued me with foul purpose and a quick grow spell."
"Now was that one spell that did it or two separate ones?"
"Two, I think. I was a seed at the time and not completely sorted out. One spell for the evil purposefulness and the other to make me grow to full size in under a day."
"Yes, well, wish I could take credit." The tree shrugged, knocking free a tenacious flying treadle that had been clinging for its life in its upper branches all this time. The treadle scampered off, disappearing into a quartet of bushes, its feeble rodent brain noting to be more circumspect of its next choice in tree to roost in.
"I bet you do, but you owe all that you are to someone higher up." Ned felt the roots squeeze him tighter. He checked on Tekka. She was still there. Kalabeth had not returned. Had she gone to get Aunt Nance? Would his aunt arrive with Mink in hand and slice and dice his way to freedom?
"I was placed on the back of a bird. It was sent into the reservation and I was knocked free. I landed in a very nice patch of soil and went to work."
"Wait, you crossed the fence on a bird? Shouldn't the spell have stopped the bird from making it over?"
"Well, I'm no expert, but the bird had no evil on its little bird brain, so that would mean it could come and go as it pleases. Another loophole there."
"Yes." Ned rubbed at his chin.
"And that brings us to here." The roots lifted him up. "End of story for you."
"And what about you? What's next for you?" Ned kept his voice calm.
"That's very sweet of you to think of me with you in the situation that you're in." A large brown tongue snaked out and danced around his feet.
Yes, call me sensitive." Ned added, "I just wanted to make sure you've thought this through."
The tongue retracted so the tree could respond. "How do you mean?"
"Well, correct me if I'm wrong on any of this, but your mysterious magic user makes you bad, sends you over with a quick grow spell and wants you to eat me?"
"What do you do next?" Ned said. "I mean, after you eat me, you're kind of trapped on the reservation."
"Well, the spell around the reservation won't allow anyone to cross who seeks to do me or the princess's harm, right?"
"Yeeeess." The tree dragged out his affirmative.
"That leaves you stuck on the wrong side of the fence. Now you're trapped on the reservation with four princesses, a wizard and my aunt who all want revenge for you eating me."
"Oh," said the tree.
"Sort of proves my earlier point."
"Me being low rung?"
"That kind of makes me disposable."
"Completely." Ned added, "In fact, it almost mandates your disposableness."
"It does." The tree looked upset.
"Not a great feeling knowing your superiors had it in for you from the get go, huh?"
"Not a good feeling at all." The tree slumped. "I feel all churny inside."
Ned held up a finger. "I have an idea."
"And it totally plays into your evil nature."
"It does? I mean, I really sort of have to honor that. I was made to do bad things."
"Well this certainly qualifies." Ned looked the tree up and down. "Nah, not sure you have it in you."
"What is it? Tell me. I can handle it."
"You sure? It's pretty despicable."
"Yes. Tell me."
"Well, what could be more sinister, more illuminating of your bad self, than executing a double-cross against your bosses?"
The tree paused.
Ned wasn't sure what it was thinking. The tree didn't move. Its mouth hung open in an oddly comical way.
Ned snapped his fingers. "You still with me?"
The tree leaned forward. Its mouth opened wider. Ned could smell decay wafting from the tree opening. Apparently, he wasn't to be the plant's first meal. It had made an appetizer of a few woodland creatures before Ned had come upon him.
"That sounds dastardly and brilliant." The tree gnashed its bark teeth. "I'm totally thinking I can pull that off."
Ned smiled. "Great! Sounds like a plan. How about you release me, and we discuss the particulars?"
The roots loosened and retreated.
Ned stood and brushed himself off. He steadied himself against the turncoat tree.
"Only one little snag in your plan, Firebreak." The roots squirmed nervously about underfoot.
Ned heard branches breaking in the distance. To his left, he saw the tops of several trees shaking vigorously.
"I wasn't the only evil seed they sent across. You think you can convince my brothers that betrayal is the way to go?"
Four trees, each bigger than the one Ned had just sweet talked out of eating him, came crashing toward them, knocking their fellow unenchanted trees to the side in their zeal.
One of the trees came up on Tekka from behind and rolled right over her. Ned watched the princess disappear under a flurry of raucous roots.
The turncoat tree said, "Not looking too good for you, Ned."