Poison Tree Path excerpt by Joan Campbell
The following excerpt from South African writer Joan Campbell's young adult fantasty manuscript, "Poison Tree Path," is used with her permission.
A figure slipped out of the forest just as the first rays of light touched the eastern sky. He pulled the dark cape closer to his body to keep the late-winter chill at bay, hoping it would also wrap him with a measure of invisibility.
The imposing stone walls of Gwyndorr towered above him as he crept forward. He had to pass the sentries at the town gate before he could reach the relative safety of the Birch Grove. As he drew near the gate, he could hear the banter and laughter of the night and morning watchmen changing shift, and he breathed a sigh of relief at his good timing.
On entering the Birch Grove, a bird hidden in the folds of his cloak let out a short whistle.
“Sorry, Tabeal,” he said as he made an opening in the garment. She flew up and—in the gloom—he could see her shape perched on a branch above his head. She let out another call.
“I know. Time is short.”
From under his cape he drew out an object wrapped in oilskin cloth. Dropping to his knees, he started to dig in the soft mulch of decaying leaves, down to the harder soil underneath. He scraped away the soil until he had a deep enough hole in which to lay the rectangular object. Quickly, he covered over the evidence of his work.
The sky was streaked with orange by the time the man emerged from the grove. He knew the danger of returning to the forest in the early light. One last time he turned to look at the bird. She flew to him, nestling on his shoulder.
“The time we have been waiting for has come, Tabeal,” he whispered. “Now it’s up to you.”
The guards spotted the man when he was still a good distance from the forest and immediately let loose their dogs.
“He won’t be able to outrun Brute!” one burly guard shouted to his companion as they ran in pursuit.
It didn’t take the dogs long to reach the man. They felled him, ripping first into his cloak and then deeper into the flesh of his hands, which stretched out protectively in a plea for mercy.
The guards laughed as his shouts carried to them over the rocky ground. “They’ll take a good chunk out of him before we get there.”
Suddenly the growling frenzy changed to yelps of pain. The dogs jumped away from the man as if struck by lightning and then fell to the earth, bodies convulsing.
The guards, too, were suddenly knocked down, although later they would be unable to explain the force that brought it about. There was a shattering of sound in their ears that pulsed deep into their heads, as wave upon wave of searing pain assaulted them. Eventually the agony overtook them, and they slipped into unconscious darkness.
When they came around, they could not tell how much time had passed. Their heads ached as if they had drunk too much mead the previous night. The cowering dogs slunk towards their masters, whimpering, their tails between their legs. There was no sign of the man. Only chunks of his woollen cloak and a few drops of blood showed where the dogs had taken him down.
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