Following the success of his New York Times bestselling Serafina series, author Robert Beatty introduces Willa of the Wood, the first title in the Willa series, set for nationwide release on Tuesday, July 10. Readers of The Laurel are treated here to an exclusive preview of Willa of the Wood’s fi rst two suspenseful chapters. An orphaned forest girl, Willa scavenges for her own existence and that of her clan, the Faeran people, taking from the woods around her and stealing into the homes of the “day-folk” living in the Great Smoky Mountains during the heyday of the timber industry. “Willa is a mysterious, 12-year-old girl with special powers,” Beatty says. “She’s as brave and determined as she is curious and compassionate.”
The Great Smoky Mountains 1900
As Willa overheard the two day-folk men talking about whether the earth was fl at or round, she shook her head. nor round. It was mountains.
Chapter 1 Willa crept through the darkened forest, following the faint scent of chimney smoke on the midnight air. The silver strands of the clouds passing in front of the moon cloaked her movements in shadow, and she made little sound stepping across the cold, wet leaves she felt beneath her bare feet. All during the night she’d been moving down the slope of the mountain into the small valley where the homesteaders lived. When she came to the rocky edge of the river, she knew she was getting close to what she’d come for.
She didn’t know the river’s mood here, so she avoided the dark and dangerous currents by climbing up through the gnarled limbs of the craggy old trees and asking for their turn, helping her across with the care that they would give a sapling granddaughter. She made her way hand over hand above the misty breath of the tumbling river, then slithered down a trunk on the other side.
“Thank you,” she whispered to the trees, touching one’s bark with the palm of her hand as she left them behind her.
Passing a tranquil pool of starlit water among the stones at the river’s edge, she glimpsed her reflection: a twelve-year-old willow wisp of a forest girl with long, dark hair, a rounded face with streaked and spotted skin, that might fl ash in the gloom. Wherever she went in the forest, her skin and hair and eyes took on the help. As the branches reached out over the water to hold her, they rustled in the wind, talking to one another, as if concerned about where she was going. Her tunic of woven green cane flexed with the movements of her body as she climbed, the branches of the trees holding her gently, intertwining wrist and arm, ankle and leg, then letting go in and emerald-green eyes. Unlike most of her clan, who coveted the glittering treasures of their enemies and even wore their deadened clothes, Willa wore no fabric or jewelry of any kind color and appearance of the green leaves around her. If she paused near the trunk of a tree, she turned so brown and barken that she became nearly invisible. And now, as she looked into the water, she saw her face for just a moment before it took on the color of the water and the nighttime sky above her and she disappeared, her dark blue cheeks dotted with glistening stars.
Continuing toward what she’d come for, Willa slunk low and quiet through the mountain laurel, up the gentle riverine slope, her heart beating slow and steady as she approached the homesteaders’ lair.
She came from a clan of forest people that the Cherokee called “the old ones” and told stories about around their campfires at night. The white-skinned homesteaders referred to her kind as night-thieves, or sometimes night-spirits, even though she was as flesh and blood as a deer, a fox, or any other creature of the forest. But she seldom heard the true name of her people. In the old language—which she only spoke with her grandmother now—her people were called the Faeran.
Willa stopped at the edge of the forest and blended her skin into the surrounding textures of green. Tendrils of leaves wrapped around her. She became all but invisible.
The soft sounds of the night’s insects and frogs surrounded her. But she stayed alert, wary of beady-eyed dogs, hidden watchmen, and other dangers.
She gazed toward the lair of the homesteaders. They had built it with the cut-up carcasses of murdered trees nailed one to the other in long slabs. The bodies of the dead trees made flat walls with square corners, unlike anything else in the forest.
Just get what you came for, Willa, she told herself. The lair had a high, slanted rooftop, a large railed porch that came around the front, and a chimney made of jagged rock the homesteaders had broken from the bones of the river. She saw no oil lamps or candlelight in the windows, but she knew from the thin line of gray smoke drifting from the chimney that the homesteaders—whom she sometimes called the day-folk, because they retreated into their lairs when the sun went down—were probably sleeping inside in their long, flat, pillowed beds.
She knew from experience that the homesteaders in this area locked the doors of their lairs at night, so she had to be clever. Through an open window? Down the chimney? She studied the lair for a long time, looking for a way in. And then she saw it. In the lower part of the front door, the owner of the lair had fashioned a smaller door for his white-fanged companion to come and go. And that was his mistake.
Her heart began to pound, for her body knew the time had come, and the leaves withdrew from around her. She emerged from the cover of the forest and quickly darted across the open grassy area that surrounded the lair. She hated open areas. Her legs felt strange and uneven as she ran across the unnaturally flat ground. She dashed up the steps to the wooden porch. Then she slipped down onto her hands and knees, pushed through the little door, and crawled into the darkened lair to begin the night’s take.
Once inside the walls of the lair, Willa scurried out of the moonlight filtering in through the window. She hunkered down on the floor in the shadowed corner of the eating place, the small quills on the back of her neck rising up as her eyes scanned the darkness for danger.
Where’s the biting dog? she wondered. Are all the dayfolk upstairs in their beds?
Holding her breath, she slithered across the floor and looked out into the main room of the lair for attackers.
She waited, she watched, and she listened.
If they caught her here—actually inside their lair—they would kill her. They had hacked the trees of the forest and hunted the animals. They had murdered her mother, her father, her twin sister, and so many others of the Dead Hollow lair. The day-folk did not think. They did not hesitate. Whether it was the wolves who howled to find their loved ones in the night, or the great trees who raised their limbs to the sun, the day-folk killed whatever they did not understand. And they understood very little of the forest into which they had come.
As she pulled in a slow and steady, tightly controlled breath, she heard the sound of the small metal-wound machine ticking on the fireplace mantel and the slow hiss and crackle of the dying embers that had led her here to the lair.
The scent of something startlingly sweet reached her nose. She tried to ignore it, but her stomach growled. She turned to see a round, stonelike container sitting on a flat wooden surface above her. She knew she shouldn’t let this distract her, but she’d been so hungry yesterday and all through the night. She quickly rose up, lifted the container’s lid, and gobbled down several of the small, crumbly lumps inside like a ravenous raccoon. As her mouth watered with the sweet flavor, she couldn’t help but smile, but she was careful not to leave any crumbs that the day-folk might notice. She wanted to eat more of the lumps, but she stuffed half of what remained into her woven-reed satchel and hurried on her way.
As she snuck into the main room, she noticed a rectangle of tin with a mottled depiction of several of the day-folk, as though they had looked into their reflection in the pool beside the river and never escaped: a cleanshaven man, a dark-haired woman, two little ones maybe five and six years old, and a tiny crawler in the woman’s arms. But Willa didn’t look at them for long, because she didn’t like to think about their souls inside the metal.
Get what you came for, she told herself again and pressed on.
Glancing nervously at the stairway as she worked, she quickly searched the main room for valuables. She found a small wooden box filled with a moist, brown substance that she was pretty sure was chewing tobacco. She stuffed half of it into her satchel. It wasn’t the kind of takings she was keen for, but she knew the padaran, the leader of her clan, would be pleased by this special gift. She could see herself standing before his looming figure as she emptied her satchel in front of him, his eyes gleaming with approval.
Feeling pleased with herself, she continued on. In a very small, tightly enclosed room filled with nothing but clothing hanging down from strange, shoulder-like shapes, she found a long, dark overcoat with a leather wallet and coins in the pockets, and she smiled. She took half the bills and half the coins. These were the takings the padaran had trained her to find.
The padaran sent her and the other jaetters—the young hunter-thieves of the clan—out each night, and he gave his love to the ones who returned with their satchels full of coins or anything else of value.
She glanced at the stairway again, knowing that when danger came it would come down those stairs. She’d already had a good take, and she knew that a wise jaetter left when the leaving was good, but she wanted more.
When she’d returned to Dead Hollow the night before, her satchel had been light, and the padaran had struck her face so hard with the back of his hand that she’d fallen to the ground, astonished and ashamed to be wiping the blood from her mouth. Over the last few months, she’d thought that she had become his favorite, but now he had struck her, just as he did the other jaetters, and she still felt the fire of it on her cheek. Tonight she wanted more, more than she had ever taken before, to prove to the padaran and the rest of the clan what she could do.
Finally, she went over to the bottom of the stairs, cupped her hands behind her ears, and closed her eyes, listening to the rooms above. She heard a man snoring, and there were probably other day-folk up there, too, a little clutch of them, sleeping away the night.
But where’s the dog? she wondered again. The dog is death. She’d run into trouble with the fanged beasts before, with their loud barking and their vicious, biting, scratching attacks. I can smell the wretched creature around here someplace, she thought. I used its door to get in. But where is it? Why hasn’t it come charging out at me with its snapping teeth?
Most of her fellow jaetters stole things from unattended wagons, midnight yards, and dark-morning barns when there were no day-folk around. Very few ever dared to sneak into the day-folk lairs, and none would do it when the day-folk were actually inside. The jaetters had been trained to go out together in small groups, and to never take such risks. But she put her foot on the first step and began to creep up the creaky wooden staircase, treading as lightly as she could on the strangely flat surfaces, so unlike anything she encountered in the forest.
When she reached the top of the stairs, her legs trembled as she inched slowly through a narrow, cavelike tunnel toward the open doorway of the first room. In the forest she could use her camouflage and her other powers, but her powers didn’t work in the inner world of the dayfolk. Here she could be seen, she could be captured, she could be killed. Her palms were sweating as she slowly peeked into the sleeping man’s room. She had noticed on her other takes that the day-folk seemed to sleep in twos. But this man was sleeping alone, on one side of the large bed, as if the one he slept with was gone. But there beside him was the biting dog she’d been looking for—a shaggy black-and-white fiend, lying fast asleep beside its master, its white fangs and sharp claws visible in the moonlight.
The man’s face was bristled with whiskers and he was lying on top of the covers, his clothes torn and wrinkled, as if he had collapsed there in exhaustion. A chair and a small table and other day-folk things had been knocked to the floor as if there had been some sort of struggle. There was a wound on the man’s head and a mat of dried blood on the dog’s shoulder.
Seeing the blood, Willa’s heart pounded heavily in her chest, and she swallowed hard. Had they attacked one of the animals of the forest and been entangled in a battle?
But then she frowned in confusion. If they had fought something in the forest, that wouldn’t explain the knockedover furniture in the room.
And then she saw it. Lying in the bed next to the man and his dog, there was a long piece of metal with a wooden stock and what looked like two iron pipes side by side.
That’s a killing-stick, she thought, right there beside them. She drew in a ragged, unsteady breath and fought the urge to run.