Read Thornghost Online

Authors: Tone Almhjell

Thornghost

For Torbjørn, first and last

DIAL BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS

PENGUIN YOUNG READERS GROUP

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, NY 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Tone Almhjell

Maps and music artwork by Jennifer Thermes

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

eBook ISBN 9780698189584

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Almhjell, Tone, author. Title: Thornghost / Tone Almhjell.

Description: New York : Dial Books for Young Readers, [2016] | Summary: “When strange things start happening in the woods around Niklas's home, he and his lynx sidekick travel to another realm to save their world”— Provided by publisher.

Identifiers: LCCN 2015035420 | ISBN 9780803738973

Subjects: | CYAC: Fantasy. | Magic—Fiction. | BISAC: JUVENILE FICTION /

Fantasy & Magic. Classification: LCC PZ7.A4474 Th 2016 | DDC [Fic]—dc23

LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2015035420

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Jacket art © 2016 by Kali Ciesemier

Jacket design by Kristin Smith

Version_1

Contents

W
hen Niklas was four, he said to his mother: “Mom, I have terrible news. There's a skull inside your head!”

He'd told her this in the bird room, below the skeleton mobiles that circled slowly under the rafters. He had been looking in the science books, and he had just figured out that the piles of bones that sat on his mother's desk actually belonged on the inside of living things.

Niklas was twelve now, but he remembered this scene for two reasons. One, because his mother had laughed, and this was his only memory of her laughing. And two, because the next summer, his mother had been buried in the Summerhill graveyard, skull, skeleton, and all.

They were all that remained of her. Her bones, and sometimes, the
nightmare.

C
HAPTER
O
NE

T
he apples in the orchard were nothing but sour buds. No point in stealing those.

Niklas Summerhill frowned at the Molyk farmhouse with its paint of patchy lemon yellow. Mr. Molyk probably lurked somewhere behind the windows, watching through his binoculars. He claimed he used them to watch wild birds, when in fact he watched for wild kids.

Not without reason, Niklas had to admit. In all of Willodale, Mr. Molyk was by far his favorite victim.

Usually, Niklas preferred to do his little raids in the evenings, when Willodale filled with deep shadows under the towering mountains. But the rain had only just let up after two days, and he was too itchy after being cooped up to wait any longer. He just had to be careful.

And he had to figure out where to strike, of course. Not the tractor, because that could get expensive. Definitely
nothing involving the manure pit. Unless . . . He hated to be predictable, but maybe the boot trick again? Just the thought of Mr. Molyk sticking his feet into sloshy, first-grade muck made Niklas grin. He picked up a small rock, perfect for throwing at the rusty iron roof of the Molyk barn, put it in his pocket, and edged toward the pit.

Down by the river a faint jingling sounded, the source hidden by the orchard. Niklas slipped from tree to tree until he could see the riverbank. Sure enough. The enclosure by the old mink pens held a flock of lambs and the bell sheep Edith, who nipped at the sad grass by the legs of the burnt-out cages. It was mid-August, so the sheep should still be up in the mountain vales getting fat. But Mr. Molyk had brought them down early this year, and that could only mean one thing.

Forget about the boots.

“Come on. We're letting the . . .” He turned over his left shoulder, but quickly closed his mouth.
I'm letting the lambs out,
he corrected himself. Eleven months had passed, but for a moment there, he had forgotten.

She was gone. Always his best friend had hovered there, one step behind, ready to tell him about the flaws in his plan. But Lindelin Rosenquist had left with her mother and father, moved to the city to live in a rotten house on stilts. They claimed they were coming back, but they kept pushing the date for their return. Last he heard, it was another year from now. Niklas rubbed his forehead. No Lin, no one
to stop him from taking a risk or two. Besides, what could be wrong with giving the lambs a final taste of freedom?

Staying in the cover of the fence, he unlatched the gate to the enclosure, fetched a couple of sugar cubes out of his pocket, and clicked his tongue softly.

“Here, Edith, pretty, pretty Edith! Want some sugar?”

Edith raised her long, not-so-pretty head, still chewing.

“That's right,” Niklas said, holding out his hand. “I've got sugar for you, sugar and green woods!”

Edith came jingling through the gate with all the little ones in tow. As she munched up the treats, Niklas reached into the bell around her neck and twisted the clapper stuck so it wouldn't make any noise. “Keep him off your trail a little bit longer,” he said, patting her scruff. Edith sniffed after more sugar, and when there wasn't any, she let Niklas nudge her away from the farm and wandered toward the woods with a line of tail-wagging lambs behind her.

They kept each other company up the hill. The sheep ate glittering tufts of grass, Niklas picked wild strawberries with sweet, cool raindrops. The trail rose hard between the trees, sometimes turning into steps held in place by roots. But neither Edith nor the little ones seemed to mind the climb, and the valley fell quickly away beneath them.

One by one the other neighbor farms came into view. Slanting fields glowing bright in the dark woods, with long, narrow houses tucked at the back of shelves in the plunging mountainside.

Fale with its rows and rows of vegetables, where a fleet-footed thief could snitch a fortune in carrots and plums. Ottem, where only last week Niklas rode the pulley to the top of the granary, but not down again, since Mrs. Ottem insisted on calling a fire truck to come fetch him off the ledge. And Molyk on a strip of sandy ground by the emerald-colored river.

Niklas had chosen it for his favorite target because Mr. Molyk kept lambs that got sent away on trucks at the end of the season. This had been the case since Niklas asked his grandmother where the truck would take them, and got an honest explanation about the fate of most summer lambs. Grandma Alma just shook her head and said, “You should think of something else to do with your life, because you'll make a lousy farmer.”

As if he had much of a choice. Who else was there to take over the farm when Uncle Anders got too old? But Niklas would rather be a hero than a farmer, and today, he was rescuing the Molyk lambs. At least for a little while.

For the next three turns, the path wound up through an old rock slide. On that bare patch, he'd be easy to spot, say, with a pair of binoculars. So Niklas made himself some armor from maple leaves strung together on skinny twigs.

“If it will fool trolls, it will fool Mr. Molyk,” he told one of the lambs, a little straggler who liked to sniff around a bit before climbing the root steps. She tore off a leaf
of sourgrass, looking unimpressed, and Niklas shrugged. “Not my fault you don't know about trolls.”

To be fair, not many did. Three summers ago, Lin and Niklas had found an old jar behind Grandma Alma's fishing gear in the loft. The contents didn't seem like much, just a handful of dusty, smelly acorns. But it had a label that said
Troll's Bane,
and when Lin saw that, her eyes had lit up. “This is for hunting trolls,” she had said. “In the woods!” Niklas scratched a black spot behind the lamb's ear, and added, “It's our favorite game, you see. Or used to be.”

He hadn't been troll hunting since Lin left. No point in that either.

Summerhill lay far enough up the mountainside to stay out of the evening shade, and by the time the path forked, the trees were tipped in gold. Niklas said good-bye to Edith and the lambs and followed the sound of rushing water home.

The Summerchild tumbled down from Buttertop and ran all through the Summerhill lands. “That stream is just like you,” Grandma Alma sometimes told him. “Noisy and wild.” But Niklas had always thought that the stream was like his mother: just passing through. When he was younger, he used to imagine he heard her voice in the water, singing him lullabies.

The sound of a scratchy engine cut into the splashes, and as Niklas entered the yard, he saw the first sign of
trouble: farmer Molyk's truck vanishing down the road like a red-eyed creature retreating into a sea of trees. He'd found out already, then.

Usually Mr. Molyk would just call, shouting until Grandma Alma's phone crackled. Only for some of Niklas's more inspired ideas did he force his old truck halfway up the hill in order to yell at him in person. But Niklas had let the sheep out before without the honor of a red-faced lecture. Something was wrong.

He skipped up the steps and through the front door, and Grandma Alma called him immediately from the bird room.

Something was very wrong.

His grandmother liked to spend her evenings by the black stove in the new room, which wasn't new at all, but a cozy den of old novels, camphor candy, and oil paintings of stormy shores. But tonight she had chosen to wait for him in the easternmost of Summerhill's rooms, in the company of memories.

The room had gotten its name because of Niklas's mother, who had filled it with birds. Not living creatures, but bones and books and sketches. She puzzled the skeletons together with twine and hung them under the rafters. She braided leftover feathers and beaks into long strings that reached from ceiling to floor. They took it all down after she died, but Niklas remembered how the walls used to flutter and click with the draft, how the
skeleton birds twirled. Grandma Alma only lectured him there when she wanted to make him squirm.

Before he poked his head in, he put on a mask of innocence. “You need something, Grandma?”

She sat in one of the stern, tall chairs, even though it must make her back ache. In her youth, Grandma Alma had carried so many buckets of water up from the Summerchild that her spine had slowly curled into a question mark. But there was nothing questioning about Grandma Alma's face tonight. “You were in Mr. Molyk's fields, stealing his sheep.”

Niklas gave a bow. They had their own way of doing this, like a play they both knew by heart. The neighbors called Niklas the rascal prince, which made Grandma Alma the reigning queen. “Not stealing, Your Majesty! Do you see me carrying any lambs in my pockets? I was just giving them a little taste of—”

Grandma Alma stopped him before he could finish his line. “That was reckless. Reckless and stupid.”

Niklas straightened up, still trying to stick to the script. “But I have to prove myself worthy if I'm to inherit the realm.”

That ought to earn him a chuckle, followed by a half-hearted scolding. Grandma Alma had once had a town meeting called in her honor to discuss “the slick fingers of that insufferable Miss Summerhill.” But that was more than seventy years ago, and Grandma Alma's fingers
had grown knuckled and bent, almost too weak to make hot chocolate anymore, let alone do any mischief. They rested now in her lap, clasped and blue in the evening light.

“Niklas, Niklas,” she said at last. “Not all pranks are funny, and not all paths are safe. There were hunters in the woods today. Hunters with guns.”

“Oh.” Niklas felt his mask fall. The hunters could have seen him darting between the trees, all stealthy in his maple armor, and if they got nervous . . . He knew enough to be careful in the hunting season. Except it wasn't hunting season. “What were they after?”

Grandma Alma's voice dropped. “Something has been marauding deer in the woods. Could be a bear. Could be that sneaky lynx. Whatever it is, it's big and out to kill.”

Niklas bit his lip. Edith and the lambs were still out there. “I didn't know that. I'm sorry.”

“I know you are,” Grandma Alma said. “But sorry won't save those poor sheep. Now, I know what you're thinking, and you may not. The hunting party is still out. You could get shot if you go into the woods again tonight, so
you may not.
Do you hear me?”

Niklas nodded. He heard.

Grandma Alma frowned at him with her wet-rimmed eyes. “Sleep,” she told him. “Think on your sorry. Tomorrow you may help Mr. Molyk gather his sheep.”

Or what is left of them,
Niklas thought as he crept up the
stairs, all twitchy with regret. He had led a whole flock of lambs and their mother into the maw of a predator.

At the top landing, he sat down by the window to watch the yard. Sure, he had heard. But that didn't mean he was going to listen.

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