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Authors: Stephen Messer

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BOOK: Windblowne
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Gasping with the effort, Oliver lugged the book over to the kite-eater and threw it on top of the pile. Then another book. Then another. The kite-eater gnashed its jaws. “Sorry,” Oliver panted, “but you’re not eating that kite.”

The crimson kite was peeking into the workshop. “You can come in,” Oliver said. “I’ve got the kite-eater trapped.”

Oliver had always talked to his kites, but he’d never had the impression that one of them might be listening. Or if they were, it was only so they could do the exact opposite of whatever he asked. For example, “No, please, not in the tree” was interpreted to mean “Please dive directly into that tree,” or “Watch out for the crowd of people” meant
“Smash into the crowd of people in order to humiliate me as much as possible.”

And that record remained unchallenged, as the crimson kite shook dubiously and refused to enter.

Oliver looked around. Most of his great-uncle’s beautiful kites had been stolen. They’d apparently been stolen by that other boy, who in the confusion and blinding flashes had looked just like him. Somehow the boy had been able to make his escape under the cover of those flashes, and he’d managed to kidnap Great-uncle Gilbert and thoroughly ransack his workshop in the process. Everything of value was gone.

Almost everything, Oliver realized. The kite rack that concealed Great-uncle Gilbert’s secret room, where he kept his most valuable possessions, was still in place.

Oliver pushed and pulled in every direction, but the rack refused to yield. He took a hammer that had fallen to the floor and tried to pry the rack from the wall. He even gave it a few kicks, which resulted in nothing but a minute or two of hopping around in pain. The kite-eater seemed to be enjoying the spectacle—it had stopped chewing on the book and was watching Oliver avidly. Oliver had a sense that it was grinning at him. “Stop that,”
he ordered, “unless you want another one of those books on you.” The kite-eater quickly resumed chewing.

Oliver inspected the kite rack. From all appearances, it was part of a solid wall. He thought back to what he had seen through the window. His great-uncle had not actually been anywhere near the rack when it slid aside. He had been somewhere else in the room, somewhere Oliver couldn’t see from where he had been crouched. Turning the oil lamp up to its brightest level, Oliver surveyed the workshop.

Across the room, just above the shelf from which Oliver had pulled all the books, he spotted the tiniest depression in the wall. A hidden button, nearly invisible.

Oliver gave a whoop of triumph. “I’m brilliant,” he said to the kite-eater. The kite-eater replied by snapping at his ankle as he passed by. Oliver pushed the button. There was a click, and behind him the kite rack slid smoothly aside.

Oliver was disappointed to discover that the secret room was more of a secret closet. It was small and terribly dusty. On the back wall was a peg on which a single kite could be hung. Below that were a few dust-coated items sitting on shelves.

One of these items was a small chest, ornately carved. Oliver ran his finger over the intricate designs, leaving a trail in the thick dust. He tried to open the chest, but it was locked.

The next shelf held a soft velvet pillow, upon which lay a handvane. Though the pillow was covered in dust, the handvane was not. Oliver could tell right away that this was one of his great-uncle’s personal creations. It was carved from oak, and though it looked delicate and fine, Oliver suspected that it could stand up under the fiercest windstorm. He lifted it reverently and fastened it onto his wrist.

As it snapped into place, he felt a moment’s hesitation. Was this stealing? No, he decided—this was preserving. After all, Great-uncle Gilbert’s abductor might return for further pillaging. Oliver ought to protect one of the old man’s most valuable possessions. The fact that Oliver needed a new handvane was just a coincidence.

The only other thing in the closet was a book, which lay on the lowest shelf. It was not one of his father’s books, though it was equally enormous. The cover was rough and leathery. There had once been a title, but it was now too faded to read. The book had a musty odor,
and dull jewels were set into the cover. Oliver reached out gingerly and lifted the cover, the spine creaking quietly. He held the oil lamp close.

On the yellowed first page were words written in a style so elegant and ancient that Oliver could scarcely read them:

MYTHS & FOLK-LORE OF WINDBLOWNE

Fascinated, Oliver turned the delicate pages. The book was filled with lavish illustrations and dense type, most of which made no sense to him.

He lifted the heavy book to look closer, and it fell open to a page that Oliver could see had been consulted often. The margins of this and the following pages were filled with tiny notes and sketches drawn in a loose and rambling hand that Oliver suspected was Great-uncle Gilbert’s. At the top of the first page in this section it said:

The Whispering Baks

Oliver leafed through it in wonder. Here were pictures of things he recognized. There were many drawings of
tall oak trees, including his home oak and the oak that held the Volitant Dragon, though they all looked odd without treehouses in them. Next to one of these drawings was a passage that seemed to have particularly interested Great-uncle Gilbert. It was underlined, and the notes beneath it were more legible than the others. Oliver read:

… but legends concerning the giant oaks of Windblowne remain pleasant stories for children, and for fools and madmen as well, who claim that in the whisper of winds passing through the oaks, a great mystery is revealed.

Underneath this, in his great-uncle’s scrawled hand, Oliver read:

“the winds do not whisper…
but if you do whisper, O winds, then
whisper to me,
of oaks which dwell across the worlds.”

Oliver shuddered, remembering the despairing cries he had imagined on the winds.
A language for fools and madmen
.

He felt something nudge his arm, and looked down. It was the crimson kite, gently brushing him, its tail swirling clear of the kite-eater’s jaws.

He slammed the book shut. The kite fled from the workshop.

Oliver followed, pressing the button once more as he went. He heard the kite rack slide closed behind him.

When he reached the living room, he found the crimson kite smacking itself against the front door.

“You’re going to hurt yourself,” said Oliver. “Here.”

He opened the door, and the kite flew outside into the night, then paused, hovering, its long tail beckoning.

“Forget it!” shouted Oliver into the winds, thinking of the long slashes on the barricade, and the dark fighting kites. “I’m not following you anywhere else tonight. It’s too dangerous!”

The kite rose higher, shaking frantically.

“Come home with me,” pleaded Oliver, feeling guilty despite himself. “We’ll alert the Watch at dawn.”

But the kite shuddered in the turbulent winds and flew no closer.

“Fine!” he shouted. “I’m going home. Great-uncle
Gilbert told me to stay away anyway. He doesn’t want my help!”

Oliver came down the steps, leaning into the winds, as the kite danced backward, lashing its tail.

“I’m not scared or anything! It’s just that I’ve got the Festival to think about!”

He tried to march onward impressively, but before he could take his first impressive step, he heard a
whoosh
, and then the kite was in his face, beating its sails against him. He tried to grab the kite, but it slipped around him, striking at him. Oliver ran down the path, arms over his head, the kite in close pursuit.

He stopped. The kite drifted menacingly before him, blocking the path. Oliver thought longingly of his safe, warm bed. He had to come up with a way out of this. The last thing he wanted to do, given his reputation, was run through Windblowne being chased by a kite.

“Look,” he said to the kite, “be reasonable.”

The kite hovered warily.

“There’s nothing I can do to help Great-uncle Gilbert, whatever’s happened to him, even if I wanted to. Even if he had trusted me. Even if he hadn’t almost shoved me down the stairs and set his kite-eater on me and”—Oliver
realized he was getting carried away—“and everything else.”

The kite buzzed, tail lashing like a whip.

“You heard Great-uncle Gilbert,” Oliver said. “I don’t have any talents. I’ll never be a kitesmith. My great-uncle wants nothing to do with me, and neither does anyone else!”

The kite’s sails sagged mournfully.

“So that’s it,” Oliver continued uncertainly. This had been easier when the kite fought back. “If you don’t want to come with me, then fine. I promise to tell the Watch all about this.”

The kite drooped away. It drooped past Oliver and back up the path. Oliver watched it go. It appeared determined to fly on, whether Oliver was coming or not.

“Fine!” declared Oliver, without conviction. He turned toward home. The path ahead swirled with fallen leaves. A few low, bare oak branches draped the path, their shadows tracing the ground.

A distant sound came to his ears—an immense wave of wind, far off but rolling closer. The world seemed to gather itself. The treetops stilled, oak leaves settled to
earth, and Oliver held his breath. He knew this sound. A windburst was coming, and a big one.

Before he felt it, he could see it, as oaks in the distance began to thrash wildly, sending up clouds of leaves to join the wave.

Oliver braced for impact as the wave hit. He threw up his hands to protect his face when the leaf-cloud enveloped him, rushing past.

The winds pummeled and fought, and he fought back, pushing with all of his strength. Step by step, he battled forward.

He risked a glance back.

The crimson kite, buffeted by the winds, was drifting heavily up the path. In moments, it was lost to Oliver’s view.

Oliver dropped his hands. The winds rose again, and thousands of oak branches shook together. Then the wind-wave passed, and Oliver listened as it rolled away across the mountain.

He fell to his knees, exhausted from his struggle with the winds.

I win
, he thought.
I can go home
.

But he didn’t go. He crouched there, hearing the weird and distant dying voices of the windburst.

He plucked a few dead leaves from his sweater. Looking at them, he could see that they were not all from the sick oak. One of them came from a sentinel, and another from the oak across the Way from his own home oak.

He looked at these leaves, and he remembered the soft feel of the sick oak’s bark, and he remembered the way Great-uncle Gilbert had shouted “No!” and looked at him, and how that distraction had resulted in his great-uncle’s defeat and disappearance. Something was very wrong with the oaks, and he had a feeling that Great-uncle Gilbert had been trying to do something about it.

And all this with the Festival only two days away.

Oliver groaned, then ran after the kite. When he caught up, it whirled about in surprise, then spun happily in the air.

This is madness
, thought Oliver, and in a way that sealed it for him. He was mad like his great-uncle and his parents.

“All right,” he said with resignation. “If you know where Great-uncle Gilbert is, then take me there.”

The kite shot back up the path, and Oliver followed, buffeted by the winds. He ran all the way back up the path, following the lashing tail, past the turn to his great-uncle’s house—and then, in horror, he realized where the kite was leading him. The crest.

In moments they reached the oakline, where the path emerged onto the crest. The kite stopped, hovering, and Oliver stopped too, just a few feet away. He clutched at a nearby branch and squinted as dust and debris from the raging winds swarmed over him.

On the crest, the grass was bent flat as a sheet, and the moonslight stabbed down through a chaotic cloud of unbridled power, a screaming maelstrom where the protection of the oaks ended and the night winds leveled everything. Oliver felt as though he were staring into the maw of an invincible creature bent on total destruction.

BOOK: Windblowne
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ads

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