By Liz Nelms
Copyright 2017 Liz Nelms
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction.
The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
Holly could feel the warmth of the tree-man’s body through her soaked t-shirt, a reminder that the graceful Cedar tree of yesterday had done the unthinkable, become a human. And, despite his initial inertia, he was on his feet, walking, and without doubt, very much alive. Overhead, the storm shrieked through the trees as they crossed the bridge over the brook.
Holly pushed the wider implications of what had occurred that morning out of her head, they were simply too much to deal with. Instead, she concentrated on the pragmatics. Firstly, he needed some clothes.
Once inside, with the front door firmly closed on the storm, Holly guided him into the lounge.
She heard him gasp – he had seen himself in the mirror above the fire, he glanced from the mirror to Holly and back again.
‘Is that me?’
‘Yes. That’s a mirror, it shows us what we look like.’
He reached a hand out towards the glass and then withdrew it. He held his hand up to his face, ‘what is this?’
‘It’s your hand, you have two.’ She nodded towards his other hand. Holly pulled a blanket off the back of one of the sofas and draped it around him, and then helped him to sit on the sofa nearest the fire.
The tree-man looked around him. The lounge was decorated for Christmas, with red and gold candles on every available surface. A Christmas tree twinkled in the corner.
He had one hand placed on his abdomen with a puzzled look on his face.
‘What is it?’
‘It feels strange. Here.’
She thought for a few seconds, and then asked, ‘are you hungry? Do you need food?’
‘I feel weak.’ He answered simply.
‘You need to eat food.’ Clothes would have to wait; she didn’t want him collapsing on her again.
Assuming the tree-man had never eaten before she wondered what to give him as she began to rifle through cupboards in the kitchen. What did trees eat? He’d only been human for an hour, so did that mean he was like a baby on the inside? Should she give him milk? Even with Holly’s limited scope of meal preparation, she knew he wasn’t going to get enough energy from a pint of semi-skimmed. Then she saw Carole’s Christmas Cake under a large glass dome, waiting patiently for Boxing Day; the family rule was that it was not to be cut until Boxing Day tea. However, this was an emergency and cooking would take time, not to mention she couldn’t actually cook. Messily hacking a large chunk out of the pristine white cake, she prayed that Carole would understand once she explained everything, she tipped the slab on a plate and put it on a tray along with a bottle of mineral water.
She made it back into the lounge just in time to see him pick up a banana from the fruit bowl on the low coffee table.
She placed the tray down and sat next to him. He was turning the fruit over in his hands, he sniffed at it, and then looked at Holly in confusion.
‘You have to peel it before you can eat,’ she explained.
Ah. He didn’t know how to peel it.
She took the banana from his hand and removed all the skin before passing him the pale fruit.
He held the unsheathed banana by his fingertips and frowned.
OK. He didn’t know how to eat either.
She peeled another banana and looking at him said, ‘this is how we eat,’ she took a bite and chewed slowly.
‘Then it goes to the back of your mouth, and you swallow.’ She pointed at her throat. He copied, at first he chewed carefully and watching Holly’s throat, he too swallowed. Then his eyes brightened, and he bit off a larger chunk, chewing more quickly. In no time the banana had gone.
‘This tastes… wonderful.’ He grinned.
‘It’s just a banana, but then… I guess you’ve never tasted food before.’
‘Never.’ He agreed, reaching for another.
Next she passed him the water, he looked at her uncertainly, so she held the glass, tipped, to his mouth. After the first taste, he grabbed the glass from her hands and drank deeply.
His eyes fell on the cake, which she passed to him and he demolished the substantial chunk with several bites. Holly went through to the kitchen to see what else she could offer her unexpected guest, she dug out some huge baking potatoes, leaving them on the kitchen island whilst she figured out how to turn the oven on. From behind her she heard a loud crunch. He had followed her into the kitchen and had taken a bite out of a raw potato.
‘I like this best,’ he managed between mouthfuls.
She stared at him for a few seconds. Jeez, he really was enjoying the raw potato, skin and all.
‘I’m sure the rest will taste better cooked,’ Holly assured him, opening the microwave door after giving up on the complexities of the oven.
For the next hour, there was zero opportunity to ask questions, as she watched in fascination as his tremendous appetite took him through several baked potatoes, endless rounds of toast and two enormous bowls of porridge, where he mastered the use of a spoon amazingly fast. However, when she opened a pack of bacon his expression suddenly clouded.
‘Not that,’ he pointed at the pink, glistening strips. ‘It smells wrong.’
‘OK,’ she pushed the bacon back into the fridge, ‘looks like you’re a vegetarian then.’
‘Something feels odd.’ His eyes, panicked, found hers. He was holding his lower abdomen this time. Surely he wasn’t going to chuck all of it back up? If there was one thing she didn’t do, it was vomit.
A favourite phrase of Jack’s popped unwelcomingly into her head, what goes in must come out.
If she’d had to teach him the basics of being human, like eating, then of course if followed that she needed to go over everything else. She was so glad none of her friends were around right now. She would never, ever, live it down.
After leaving him in the downstairs cloakroom, she sat in the lounge, and waited, not daring to go back and check if he was OK. If he needed her he’d shout wouldn’t he? Hopefully he wouldn’t. Her face burned when she remembered some of the explanations she had just given him. That was one conversation she never wanted to repeat.
A loud meow from the doorway heralded Jupiter’s arrival, he meandered into the room in Holly’s direction.
‘Hey Joop! Where have you been fella?’ She rubbed the soft fur on his head. Jupiter purred and did the slow blink that all cats do when they show affection. He jumped up onto her knee, then she heard the cloakroom door click open. As soon as the tree-man appeared, Jupiter abandoned Holly’s lap and trotted across to him, tail raised high in greeting and wound his stripy body around his calves.
The tree-man pointed to the large framed photographs on the wall. They were black and white, arty shots her family had posed for, taken some time last year. Holly was in all of them, one of her by herself, one with her parents and one with her and Carole.
‘That is you, who are the other humans?’
‘That’s my family, my Mum and Dad, and my Gran, Carole.’
‘You look like Carole.’
‘Yes, she thinks so too.’ It hadn’t occurred to her that he was technically an orphan. ‘I suppose you don’t know any other humans?’
‘No. Only you.’
It was hard to imagine having no family or friends and only knowing one other person.
It hadn’t escaped Holly’s notice that Jupiter jumped up onto him as soon as he sat down. Her Dad joked that Jupiter was like a German Shepherd, he had a good nose for scenting out the bad, and for knowing who he did or didn’t like, the postman’s ankle could attest to that.
The tree-man rubbed Jupiter under his chin and around his ears, Jupiter’s purr buzzed through the air as he attempted to climb up to his shoulder.
‘You look better.’ She acknowledged.
‘I am at full strength. Thank you for giving me food.’
Well, she could hardly let him starve.
‘It was no problem.’ Her eyes slipped down to where the blanket didn’t quite cover his chest, if she was going to sit and talk to him sensibly, and find out some answers, she needed to be focussed. ‘I’ll find you some clothes.’
Fortunately, her Dad was almost the same size as him so finding jeans and a t-shirt wasn’t too difficult. She took the clothes into the lounge.
Jeez. He was naked again. What was he doing now?
The tree-man was stood in the front bay window, looking out across the lawns towards the steep bank that led up to Marlbury Woods, but he’d left his blankets behind. She fervently hoped Carole didn’t choose that moment to turn in the drive, she didn’t want her Gran to put her car in the brook.
Holly hurried across the carpet and passed him the pair of jeans. He held them up and assessed them speculatively, she laughed and gently took them from him.
‘Let me show you.’ Pointing out to him the holes where he had to push his feet through was interesting, actually getting his legs inside them even more so. He almost lost balance and fell so she stood close by, hands up ready to break his fall, as he pulled them on.
‘We need to find you a name.’
‘I have a name.’
‘You do?’ All this time she’d been trying not to call him tree-man out loud in case he found it offensive.
‘My name is Crae.’
‘Crae. OK. I’m Holly.’
He took a step nearer, smiling. ‘I know.’
Of course he did. He had been calling her. Was that only this morning? She helped him pull the t-shirt over his head when a loud meow came from the hall, Jupiter was howling to go outside. Holly left Crae to finish dressing, she went to open the front door and the cat shot out.
‘Wow! she stepped back from the open doorway and hit the hard bulk of Crae, who had followed her. ‘It’s wilder than ever out there!’
They both surveyed the scene of siling rain, so thick that they could barely make out the trees on the other side of the garden. Crae moved around Holly and stood in the shelter of the porch. He looked up at the angry sky and across at the trees bent out of shape, he winced at the sound the roaring wind made as it tore blindly through the boughs. Small twigs and leaves were being ripped from their branches and scattered across the lawn. Holly moved next to him seeing the crease of consternation across his brow.
‘I don’t like this.’ His dark eyes flickered across the sky. It seemed Jupiter didn’t either, as having finished his ablutions in the nearest flower bed, he zipped between their legs back to the warmth of the fireside.
‘It’s just a storm, it’s Winter,’ she explained, trying hard not to laugh, he had been human for a couple of hours and he was worried about the weather? She touched his arm lightly, ‘don’t worry, this is normal.’
She took hold of his hand and pulled him inside.
‘Come on, we need to talk about more important stuff.’
Following him back into the lounge, she realised that along with gaining a better colour, he had lost the strange, stiff gait he had had this morning. And although he looked and sounded the same as any other man his age, she just could not wrap her head around how he came to be here.
‘How do I know you’re human? I mean, properly, a human?’
He lifted his huge shoulders in a shrug. ‘I am. I am no longer a tree.’
‘Do you know why you changed?’
‘Shall we start with what you do know?’
Crae looked at her steadily.
‘The reason I am here is…’
‘Is?…’ She prompted.
‘To be your soul mate.’
She stared at him, speechless.
Her soul mate.
‘Holly, one thing I am sure of is that I was sent here to be with you.’ He gazed at her intently, waiting for her to absorb his words, ‘to protect you.’
She tried so hard not to laugh out loud at that, protect her? Hadn’t she been the one to drag him, starving and weak, from the forest this morning?
‘I don’t need protecting! Nothing ever happens in Marlbury.’
He moved to sit closer to her.
‘You are beautiful.’
‘Thanks, but I am the first female you’ve met!’ She slid a little further away along the sofa.
‘We are meant to be together.’ He spoke with utter assurance.
Holly jumped up, not convinced that the question and answer session was going in the kind of direction she had anticipated.
‘I’ll make us some hot chocolate.’ She needed some excuse to not be sitting quite so close to him.
Not that it wasn’t pleasant, in fact, it was rather too nice, the urge to reach and touch him was becoming stronger. Was it because he was all by himself in the world? And was it that which was pulling on her heartstrings? Or was it something else? Here she was, completely alone with him, and she felt safe, despite only knowing him for a few hours. And yet, all the months she and Dex had dated, she’d always made sure her friends were around. Not once had she invited him down to Brookhill. There had been something about Dex she didn’t trust.
In the kitchen, at the back of the house, she flicked lights on because the sky was so dark outside, even though it was barely afternoon.
So much had happened since Carole had left this morning, and it was looking like she would be out all day. Not that she could really ask for Carole’s advice on this one, how could she explain that she was attracted to someone who was a tree three hours ago? Under usual circumstances, this kind of conversation was only ever entrusted to Kelsie, but imagine that one now?
Oh hey Kelsie, you know my art project – sketching trees in Marlbury Woods? – You’ll never guess! One of them is now a gorgeous, muscly young man and I want to draw him naked! Wait, what! Did she really just think that?
Not. Going. To. Happen.
On both counts.
She poured hot water into the mugs and sighed. Although, it had to be said, no boy had ever called her beautiful before, not ever.
Back in the lounge, she put the mugs on the coffee table, noticing that Crae was on sentry duty at the front window again.
‘Who is that?’ He was staring out towards the driveway bridge.
‘It’s probably Carole, my Gran.’ Holly didn’t bother to look at first.
‘No, this is not your Gran. This is someone very different.’
Holly’s head shot up at that, she wasn’t expecting anyone else here today, especially not in this storm. She could see the outline of a man’s shape on the driveway.
No! What was this? Think of the Devil?
Whatever his reason for his utter randomness, she knew it wasn’t good. He was slowly making his way towards the front door as if he wasn’t sure who may be home or what kind of reception he would get. The doorbell jangled. Crae was already half way out of the lounge.
‘It’s OK, Crae, I know who it is.’
‘I don’t have a good feeling about this human,’ he looked at her in earnest.
He wasn’t on his own.
‘It’s fine, he was… he was a friend, but I’ll get rid of him.’
Holly opened the front door a crack, enough to notice Dex rearranging his crotch, he clutched a cheap bunch of cellophane-wrapped, supermarket flowers in the other hand. He was beyond disgusting. What had she ever seen in him?
‘Why are you here?’ She asked, warily.
‘Aw, come on Holly, that’s not friendly.’
‘That’s more like it,’ he smirked, leaning casually against the porch wall. ‘Those photos on Instagram don’t do you justice. You should’ve got those extensions done before. Half the football team are using you as a pin-up… in their bedrooms, if you get my meaning.’ He leered at her. Revulsion must have shown on her face as he suddenly lurched forwards and shoved the door fully open.
‘News has it that Holly’s all alone. Mummy and Daddy gone away yeah?’ She stepped back from him, reeling from the smell of stale alcohol on his breath.
‘I’m not alone.’ She warned, ‘back off!’
‘Hey come on babes, it’s Christmas! I only want a little Christmas kiss,’ he wheedled, flinging down the flowers on the hall side table. Brazenly he reached out a hand, awfully close to her breasts, but she stepped back again. She had seriously underestimated him, she didn’t think he would turn up at her house, let alone try and molest her, then she remembered Lysa Benshaw in the pub – and that had been in front of most of the village.
As he stepped ever closer, she leaned away. He sneered nastily, ‘what’s the matter? Turned Lezzie? Always thought there was something funny about you and Kelsie.’ He made another grab for her.
‘You prick! She cried as she dodged him again, falling back into the coat stand. Dex wasted no time in taking his opportunity. He grabbed her arms so tightly she screamed, and as much as she attempted to get away from him she felt her knees giving way as he tried to pull her onto the floor. And then suddenly he wasn’t there. She looked up to see him flying through the open door. Briefly, Crae flashed past her and out on to the drive.
Oh Jeez. Holly scrambled to her feet, shouting after Crae to stop, but by the time she got outside he had picked Dex up by the neck and by the belt of his jeans. Dex was dangling like a hooked fish, his arms and legs flailing and kicking, but unable to escape the strong hold Crae had of him. Every expletive Holly had ever heard, and a few she hadn’t, were being spat angrily from Dex’s mouth. There was a thick, dark streak of mud up his legs and all over his jacket, from where he had hit a puddle when Crae had thrown him through the front door. Crae was strong enough to break his neck she figured, and realising that he didn’t know the rules about assault, and worse, murder, she took off after him. The way Crae’s back and shoulders were set as he strode purposefully down the drive through the coursing rain told her just how mad he was too. Was he going to throw him in the stream?
She ran, splashing through the huge, muddy puddles, trying to catch him up.
‘Crae, stop! Don’t hurt him.’
‘He threatened you!’ he hurled back into the squalling wind, without breaking his stride. Damn. Somehow she had to distract Crae and there was only one thing she could think of. Deliberately dropping to the ground and onto her knees, she gave a loud squeal of pain.
‘Crae?’ She whimpered, watching his retreating back. Immediately it had the desired effect. He spun around. Holly grabbed onto her leg and effected a pained expression, it wasn’t too difficult because her DKNY jeans were new and now soaked in mud. Crae disposed of Dex by throwing him across the bridge, where luckily for him he landed in a patch of muddy grass, he quickly picked himself up and scuttled away.
Crae was at her side in seconds. ‘Holly? Are you hurt?’ His anxious face filled her vision.
‘My knee, I’m OK though I think, nothing’s broken.’ Carefully and gently he scooped Holly up as if she was the most precious thing he had ever held. She looped one arm around his neck, shivering and wet, appreciating the heat that was coming from his body. Once they were back in the hallway, he slowly let her slip out of his arms again.
‘Listen, Crae, we don’t hurt or kill other humans.’
‘He hurt you.’
Hmm. How to explain this?
‘He’s not a good person and I don’t want you to be like him.’
This was the truth. If Crae really was her soul-mate, then she certainly didn’t want him to be like Dex.
Holly looked down at their sodden clothes.
‘We need to get changed.’
Later, after making Crae familiar with the shower and soap, Holly showed Crae the balconies that ran around the upper floor. The wrought-iron, Italian-style balconies around her house had long been the envy of her friends, Kelsie in particular, liked to stand wistfully upon them, and quote theatrically from Romeo and Juliet. No other house in the village was like Brookhill, although the Victorian villas – where the vicar and the Doctor lived, were equally as large and impressive.
She observed him as he stood on her balcony, leaning his long, muscular body into the wind, with his head tilted, his hair being blown. She unravelled her plait and towelling her hair dry from the rain, wandered across to stand on the balcony next to him. Straight away she noticed the dull roar of rushing water.
‘Jeez, is that the brook?’ she exclaimed. Holly rushed back through her room and across the landing, into her parent’s bedroom on the west side of the house, facing the stream. She flung their balcony doors open and saw the raging torrent that the tinkling little stream had become – each blast of wind was warm but larger twigs were being hurled past. Holly ducked as a branch with faded red leaves whipped by her head, moving inside she closed the doors behind her.
Inside her pocket, her mobile bleeped, a text from Carole.
Tried phoning. Wind blown lines down. Tree down over the road too. Can’t get through. Am going to have tea at pub. Hope road cleared by tonight. Are you OK?
Holly sighed with relief that it wasn’t Mum stuck up there, she’d be hyperventilating by now and would have sent at least three screens-full of text. Not Carole, though, she was completely cool, thankfully. She typed back speedily.
Am fine. Weather scary. Joop by fire x
No need to mention tree-men. And yet she was completely unprepared for what came next.
Have you got a friend there?
This wasn’t like Carole. She didn’t ever butt into her life. She couldn’t mean Kelsie either as she would be in the pub, she was waitressing today. Surely Dex, the giant prick, hadn’t had the audacity to go in the pub? Mouthing off about Crae? She couldn’t imagine him being that stupid. But then, how did Carole know? Miss Rational would bring a migraine on trying to figure that one out.
Yes, his name is Crae. He’s just a friend.
She tried to imagine Carole’s face reading that last sentence. Her reply though, was even more baffling.
Good. I’m pleased. Check the outside store – more food.
Holly pushed her mobile into her back pocket and turned to see Crae in the doorway.
‘My Gran is stuck up in the village and the road is flooded.’ She watched him as his eyes swept from her to the view outside of the window of the raging brook, the flying tree shrapnel and slanting rain.
‘I need to go out and listen.’ He turned and ran down the stairs.
Listen? Bemused, she was compelled to follow him to understand what he meant. He was already in the front garden. Holly remained on the porch, she wasn’t getting soaked for the third time in one day.
‘Can’t imagine you’ll hear much in this!’ She shouted as loud as she could over the constant roar of the wind.
Crae did not hear her, he had walked down to the bridge, where substantial hunks of gnarled, dead wood were being swept along by the current. On one side of the driveway the brook had already broken its banks and water was seeping out into the road. Fascinated as to what he could be doing, she watched as Crae stood very still, looking upwards towards the sky, listening intently.
‘Crae, aren’t you cold?’
He meandered back towards her, still checking the sky. ‘I’m never cold.’
‘What were you listening for?’
‘I need to know what the trees are saying.’
Of course he did. Trees ought to be able to have conversations, why not? If they can turn into humans, then a quick chat between an oak and his willowy neighbour should be no problem. Holly went into the lounge, sat down and shut her eyes again. She opened them when she felt the sofa give next to her. Crae was looking at her closely.
‘Holly are you OK? Is it because of me?’
‘No, it’s more… how you came to be here.’
‘Trees do not usually come to life, do they?’ He guessed.
That was rather stating the obvious. She sat up then, and faced him squarely.
‘Look, you need to answer some of my questions. No more of the ‘I’m your soulmate’ stuff, OK?’
‘OK’ he repeated, mirroring her serious expression.
‘OK, OK… Let’s work backwards, maybe that’s easiest. So, we were upstairs, and you said you had to go and listen… to the trees. What were they saying? No! Wait, first of all, how do you hear them?’
‘The wind helps trees to hear each other by rattling the leaves.’
‘Did you hear a message? Just then, in the trees?’
‘Yes, but I don’t want you to worry.’
‘The trees have a message, for you, and you’re telling me not to worry. What did they say, I need to know!’
‘The storm is far from over. There is too much energy in the atmosphere.’
‘Great, the storm will get worse.’ Holly turned to look out the side window to see a small branch fly by. ‘Not to mention the house is actually whistling.’
‘The wind is a very powerful force.’ Then he reached for her hand, ‘Holly, listen, you are safe, I am here to protect you.’
She couldn’t argue with that, he had got rid of Dex, and if she had been alone when that creep rocked up – the outcome was unthinkable.
‘So, this morning, all the trees seemed to be… calling my name, that was… you?’
‘That was me.’ He confirmed.
She rubbed her hand across her forehead. Miss Rational ran through the facts: the road outside was flooding, not to mention a tree was blocking the way between Brookhill and the village. It was so dark now that the outside lights had flickered on. Crae would have to stay the night – there was another guest room after all. Oh boy. Imagine her mother’s 9pm Skype call and then her getting an eyeful of Crae! Along with her super-sized hair. Just as well the phone lines were down.
‘Holly?’ Crae broke into her thoughts.
Again? Jeez this man could eat. She remembered Carole’s food shop marathon from yesterday, not to mention the text earlier. She needed to raid the outside store. She’d already seen the potato pile that could feed half of Ireland.
More than ever, she was sure Carole knew far more about all this than she had been prepared to admit. But Crae didn’t know Carole. Yet it seemed Carole was expecting someone to be here and she knew that person would have the appetite of an army.
So why hadn’t Carole warned her?
Holly lay a plateful of baked potatoes in front of Crae, and after helping herself to one, she sat back and zapped the TV into life. It came up with a movie channel, Crae seemed fascinated.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a TV, it has… stories on it – it’s all made up.’
Jupiter rose from the fireplace, stretched his paws out and strolled casually over to Crae, rubbing his flank against his legs. With barely a hesitation he jumped up next to him and settled in his lap. Crae shifted position so that Jupiter could curve his huge body into a snug oval.
She bet her life if she Googled I’d only known him a day and he’s telling me he’s my soulmate then she’d be staring at an empty screen. Boys just didn’t say that! Maybe she should be a little more grateful. The girls at college often spent endless hours discussing their lack of soulmates, Kelsie especially, which was odd when she came to think of it – she was seeing Cody after all.
‘She’s not as beautiful as you.’
Sorry?’ She saw Crae looking at the TV. It was an advert for a Disney princess movie remake, the princess in question had lush, chestnut waves and her broad-shouldered prince was about to rescue her from the evil villain.
That pretty much summed up her day didn’t it?
Bountiful hair, no zits and arrival of strong, handsome, adoring man who saved her from the baddie. Oh, yes, and he did literally sweep her off her feet and carry her inside. At some point in her life, wasn’t that every girl’s dream? Surely she should be appreciating this a little more and not worry so much about the whys and wherefores.
She looked back at Crae. He wasn’t at all the kind of guy she’d normally go for, his dark hair was unkempt, but this only made him more attractive; his skin reminded her of the Italian volleyball boys she had shared a few games with on the beach last summer whilst holidaying on the Amalfi Coast.
‘You’ve changed colour,’ she observed.
He looked down at his long arms, ‘I have?’
‘Yes, you look more like the colour you were as a tree.’
Just then a particularly violent gust buffeted the house, causing them both to look out of the window. When was this storm going to end?
Thinking about the little she knew about the laws of nature and the universe and remembering something from a barely-attended to physics lesson at high school, every action causes a reaction.
Holly got up to stand nearer the window to look out at the thrashing storm outside.
The shadows of the trees swayed in the security lights.
‘Do you think this storm has something to do with you?’ She turned back and looked at him for an answer. Crae lifted Jupiter onto the sofa and then with careful, graceful movements, so different to his first stumbles that morning, he edged around the coffee table to stand behind her at the window.
He was so close that she knew if she leaned backwards, only slightly, she would brush against him. ‘How was your first day of being human?’
‘Really?’ She turned to face him. His transformation this morning had seemed brutal. ‘What do you like about it?’
‘I like having these.’
‘Hands?’ She smiled as he turned his hands over in front of her face. ‘They’re useful, I suppose we just take them for granted. What’s it like, being a tree? Pretty static?’
He considered for a moment. ‘I couldn’t move if that’s what you mean. I felt the seasons come and go, but mostly I spent my time learning.’
‘From the other trees, I learned about how the Earth works, nature, about the balance of the elements, and then there were all the birds and squirrels that nested in my branches.’
‘Do you know how long you were a tree?’
‘In human years I don’t know. I felt more than a hundred Winters, if that helps.’
Holly looked into his face. ‘Wow, you’re really old! Yet here you are, a young looking human.’
‘For a Cedar, I am young. Cedars can live for more than a thousand winters.’
The wind blasted the house again, and shrieked down the chimney. Holly gasped as the windows rattled. Realising she had grabbed his hand she gabbled, ‘sorry, it’s just that I haven’t known the wind to be as bad as this.’
‘It is OK, but you are safe here, Holly. No harm can come to you.’
‘Did the trees tell you that?’
‘Yes.’ He kept hold of her hand, rubbing his thumb gently over her skin.
‘How do they know?’
‘I don’t know. What I do understand from them is that natural energy was needed for me to become human.’
‘What energy? Like the sun?’
‘The energy comes from all of the Earth’s forces.’
Holly considered carefully, trying not to be distracted by his proximity, not to mention the hand-holding. ‘So, the wind brings the power? And the heavy rain we had all Autumn, and all this wind? All that made you?’
‘In part. I could not change without it. Or without you.’
‘Me? What did I do?’
‘You came to me. When I called. Did you hear my heartbeat?’
‘Yes, two days ago, I was drawing in the woods, I stood up and the sun was in my eyes; when I moved I saw the Cedar tree… you. I wanted to draw you, so I went to look at you.’
‘You touched me.’ He had begun to trace circles with his forefinger across the back of her hand.
‘Yes. That day, you were different from the other trees. You were warm!’
‘You were drawn to me as much as I wanted to get to you. Only I couldn’t.’ Crae placed his other hand over Holly’s. ‘You have no idea how frustrating that was. I was already capable of thought and sensation. But I didn’t have a beating heart.’ He looked at her in earnest. ‘I knew what was needed to complete my change, but I had no way of telling you. They said that the right human female would make it happen. That she would instinctively be drawn to me.’
Holly flushed, ‘I didn’t know that was what was happening. I just thought you had, you know, good lines.’
Crae laughed a little. ‘Good lines? I can live with that. Especially as it means I get to be here now, with you.’
‘How do you know I am the right one though?’
‘When you placed your hands on me, and you leant against me – that was the moment. There was a physical cross-over.’ He frowned, ‘I’m not sure whether I’m explaining this all that well.’
‘You mean there was some kind of exchange?’
‘Yes, an exchange. You gave some of yourself to me and I passed some of my strength and vitality to you.’
There it was. Miss Rational had her perfectly logical and valid explanation. There was just the small matter of it never having happened on Earth before, surely if it had it would have been on Channel 4.
‘So, my hair, my skin that has never looked this good, is all because I touched you.’
His eyes took in her hair and fell down to her face. ‘Yes. For me, it was the jolt I needed to grow a heart.’ He shifted his body so he was standing even closer to her. ‘The female I was destined for is the only one who could finish the change.’
Staring at him, realising her mouth was hanging open, she fought valiantly for the right words to say.
Crae continued, ‘when we exchanged, I also absorbed your language.’
A sudden panic hit her, ‘wait, you can’t read my mind can you?’
He smiled, ‘No.’
Holly grinned in relief. ‘I want to show you something,’ she said, clasping his hand and pulling him out of the room, and across the hallway to the barely used dining room. Over the table was a protective cloth which was strewn with brushes, paints and canvasses. Holly flicked open the clasps on a large, black leather folder and pulled out a sheaf of drawings, she spread them out across the table. Each one of them was of the cluster of Cedars.
‘The day after I touched you, I drew this from memory.’ She handed the paper to him. ‘There you are – or were.’
‘You drew me?’ He carefully held the paper. A mixture of emotions passed across his handsome face. ‘This was my life, for so long.’
Holly could hardly imagine what he must be feeling, having been a solid, immovable object for so many years. Knowing only the changing of the seasons, from snow covered branches to Spring melt, the blaze of a hot August sun to the warm rain of a September day. In her mind’s eye she saw the flash of light again, his flesh exposed, as the Cedar had been torn apart.
She placed a hand on his arm. ‘What happened to you this morning – it sounded like you were in agony?’
He placed the artwork back on the table. ‘There was some pain. But you were there. Everything was as it should be.’ He turned to her, and again, he touched her hair and moved his other hand to her back. Holly moved closer to him and lay her head against his chest, just as she had done yesterday before he changed, now she could hear the thrum-thrum of his heartbeat, where it should be. She felt his other arm tighten around her.
All day, she had been swamped with her own emotions, trying to make sense of it all, battling with Miss Rational. Had she given Crae a single consideration? About what he had gone through to be here?
From above her head Crae spoke softly. ‘When you lay against my trunk, I felt your heart beating too. And your breath against my skin.’
‘You could feel all that? Through bark?’ Holly moved her head upwards to find his eyes.
‘Bark is like skin.’ He very gently traced the side of her face with his fingertips. She reached up and touched his hair, and then his face.
He breathed her name again, ‘Holly…’
Then, with the worst timing possible, a hideous crack sounded, the house jolted.
Holly and Crae leapt apart.
She looked up at the ceiling, expecting it to be caving in, but it wasn’t.
She turned to Crae but he was already gone.
Running after him, Holly yelled, ‘Wait! I’m coming!’
Crae stood on the drive, one hand over his face, shielding it from the fierce gusts. He peered up at the roof, the relentless rain had already soaked through his clothes. He looked back at Holly.
‘No, Holly. Stay inside! You are safe while you are in the house.’ With that he ran past her, between the house and the brook, and disappeared around the back of the building into the wild night. The floodlights showed twigs, dead leaves and other detritus being flung across the lawns; the brook had become a churning river, it slopped over the banks and into the garden. She edged nearer to the end of the porch and tried to step out of its shelter, wanting to see where Crae had gone. Immediately, the wind slammed into her body, she clung to the porch post to avoid being knocked down the driveway too. How was he able to run against the wind like that? Another vicious cracking noise emanated from the steep bank behind the house, it sounded like the entire cliff was collapsing. With fear squeezing her lungs, she knew that if that happened, Brookhill, along with her, would be crushed.
Back inside, Holly closed the front door on the storm and sprinted through to the rear window of the lounge. The security lights allowed her to see it straight away, one of the largest poplars was leaning towards her house, it was easily sixty feet high.
A tremendous gust of wind shook the house again, and she watched in horror as the immense trunk was ripped clear of the bank. The tree hurtled towards her. Holly screamed.
What she saw next was worse. Crae, had launched himself from the roof, somewhere above her head. He threw his body against the trunk, knocking it and himself into the river.
Holly ran the length of the lounge to the front window, just in time to see the massive tree smash into the driveway bridge; the force was enough to hurl chunks of stone through the air and onto her garden.
Crae was nowhere to be seen.
Holly Ledford, 18, and Kelsie Harland, 17, have been best friends since pre-school. Life is perfect for them and their friends in the idyllic English village of Marlbury. They have just spent the summer lazing in the sun enjoying beach trips and pool tournaments. None of them suspect that Marlbury has magical links and that life for Holly and Kelsie is about to change dramatically. Adults in the village are keeping secrets, because they have been sworn to silence by the High Priestess of Avalon in return for protection. Holly is unknowingly on a predestined path to help Avalon maintain an ancient pact between humans and the natural world. She is destined to fall in love with a man who isn’t fully human. Ultimately, Holly’s relationship leads to her best friend, Kelsie, being kidnapped by an angry Goddess. But Kelsie also has a soul mate waiting for her, and he too isn’t entirely human. Both girls have to cope with the consequences of having partners with superhuman abilities. The girls have to come to terms with the realisation that their lives, families and the village is not what they thought it was and deal with the deception of their loved ones. In Winter Unveils, they embark on adventures that take them through dangerous snowstorms in the Scottish Highlands, across wind-swept Welsh beaches and deep in the green of England, to the mysterious island of Avalon itself.