“Ash!” That was the only warning that Ash got before something — someone? — barreled into him and began to deposit noisy sobs onto his shoulder.
“… Honey?” Ash gasped when he was able to breathe again.
“Thank Wright ye’re home!” Lyndsay cried. “I don’t know what to do! I’ve tried everything I could think of, but I — I just don’t –”
His arms went around her, one hand patting her hair. “Shush,” he said, “shush, shush, it’s all right. I’m here now, ain’t I?”
“No, Ash, it’s not all right!” Lyndsay shuddered against him. “Oh, Lord! The kids, Ash, it’s the kids!”
The kids? Ash never knew, before this, that a man’s heart could stop beating while he was still alive. But his had. All that came from his core, his trunk was silence. In that moment, even the cicadas ceased to hum and the wind to blow.
And Ash’s mind? It raced over every possible thing that could happen to a man’s children when he was away for the day. Betony catching a sudden chill — Ginny getting too close to the knives — Bran falling out of a tree and onto sharp rocks below or into a raging stream —
“It’s Thorn!” Lyndsay gasped, not even able to look up as she shook against him. “He’s gone missin’!”
“Thorn?” Ash yelped. “What’d ye mean, missin’?”
“We don’t know where he is! He an’ Ginny was playin’ in the woods — an’ — an’ –”
“Playin’ in the woods? Alone?”
“Ye said it was safe!” Lyndsay sobbed. “Ye said — ye said — the trees would watch over ’em!”
Yes, he had said that. He’d said that a thousand times, whenever Bran or Ginny or yes, Thorn would get out of Lyndsay’s sight for a moment and she would panic. And he would calm her, and tell her that nothing bad could happen to his or his sister’s children in the forest. The trees knew them. The trees were watching. And through the trees, the whole forest would understand that these children were not like other Sim children. They were not to be harmed.
But Ash’s heart started pounding when he realized how many things there were that the trees could not communicate with or control. Ditches — rocks — sudden streams — quicksand — a tree’s own roots, even. A running child could trip over one, go sprawling, hit his head and then, who knew when that child would get up again?
Yet if any of those things had happened, the trees would know, and the trees would be able to tell him. “All right,” Ash swallowed. “All right. Tell me — tell me what happened. So’s I can — so’s I know what ter axe ’em.”
“Axe who?” Lyndsay asked. Ash jerked his thumb at the trees.
Her eyes went wide for a moment, then she gulped. “Thorn an’ Ginny were playin’ hide-an’-seek.”
“In the woods?”
“Aye, in the woods.”
Ash struggled to keep his breathing under control. There were so many dangerous places to hide in the forest — so many little cubbyholes or other enclosed spaces that would look so inviting to a child, but could house bears, or wolves, or snakes —
No, no. No creature of the forest would willingly harm them. They knew, from the wolves down to the spiders, that Ash and Marigold’s children were not to be harmed if it could be —
If it could be helped.
How many ways could a small child scare an animal so that it would assume it had no choice but to hurt that child?
Ash gulped. “All right. In the woods. What happened next?”
“Ginny told me — she told me it were Thorn’s turn ter hide. I was inside with the baby, Ash, I should’ve been watchin’!”
“No — no, ye had ter take care o’ the baby. They knew they weren’t ter go too far from the house, didn’t they?” Ash asked.
“Aye, but …”
“But it’s in the past, Lyn, there ain’t nothin’ ye can do about it now.” It came out more brusquely than he intended, but he needed to know — what would he have to tell the trees to try to remember, to try to understand about the whirring shapes that ran below them. “What happened?”
“Thorn ran off an’ hid. An’ …”
“Well, Ginny looked fer him, o’course.”
“When was this?”
“Oh, Ash, ye know she don’t tell time very well yet,” Lyndsay sighed.
No, Ginny was not very good with time. But she was only four. Ash swallowed. “When was the last time ye saw ’em?”
“I kept seein’ Ginny all through the afternoon,” Lyndsay admitted. “Walkin’ by the windows. That’s what — that’s why I didn’t think there was nothin’ wrong, not at first.”
“When’s the last time ye saw Thorn, then?”
“Two hours after lunch — I saw him go runnin’ past the house.”
Two hours after lunch? Ash’s mind cried. And now it was well past sunset —
“But I kept seein’ Ginny!” Lyndsay wailed. “An’ so — an’ so I thought Thorn was walkin’ by when I weren’t lookin’! So I thought –”
“So ye thought everythin’ was all right.” Ash swallowed. And without any evidence to the contrary, would he have thought differently? “All right. How long before Ginny figured out somethin’ was wrong? About?”
Lyndsay sighed, and Ash knew what the answer would be. They could have no idea when Ginny realized something was wrong.
Ginny was their dreamer. The one who only kept her feet on the ground because she hadn’t figured out how to fly yet. Her head, though, her head was always up in the clouds, soaring through the tops of the trees, meeting the birds for afternoon tea and gossip.
If any of their children were to get lost in the woods — well — Ash would have thought it would be Ginny. She was the type to go wandering off in one direction, lose track of time, and return to the world with a start and the realization that she had no idea how long she had been walking, no idea what direction in which she had been heading, and no idea how to get back home. It was a good thing that Thorn and Bran were generally so —
“Where was Bran?” Ash asked.
“Playin’ with the Brogan boy,” Lyndsay admitted. “Paddy. Ye know how they hit it off at Roma’s weddin’.”
“Aye, aye, o’ course,” Ash sighed. “So Ginny jest wandered for a while?”
“Fer a long while, I’m guessin’.” Lyndsay gulped. “An’ then — she told me started ter get worried. So she started callin’ out fer Thorn, naturally.”
“But she couldn’t find him!” Lyndsay cried. “She says she called till she couldn’t call no more, an’ Ash, I believe her!”
“I’m sure she did — our Ginny wouldn’t do nothin’ else. Did ye hear her callin’?”
“I heard yellin’, but — but –”
“The kids always yell,” Ash sighed.
“An’ Lilé Brogan had come by ter drop Bran off, so she an’ I were talkin’ …” Lyndsay gulped. “But we were by the window! If they’d needed me, I’d have seen!”
“I understand. What happened next?”
“It were about sunset,” Lyndsay replied, “when Ginny ran home an’ got me.”
“She were scared, Ash! She thought she was gonna get a hidin’, so she thought she’d try ter find Thorn before she came home!”
Ash took a deep breath. “It’s half a miracle she found her way home.”
“Ash! Don’t say that! Don’t –”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. So she came an’ got ye.”
“Aye. An’ so I told Bran ter keep his eye on Betony –”
“Ye left the baby with a seven-year-old?”
“Well, what else I was supposed ter do?” Lyndsay snapped. “Lilé Brogan was gone by then, an’ it ain’t like yer stepma is jest a mile or two away anymore! I couldn’t take Betony with me, she’s gettin’ right heavy, an’ if I found Thorn an’ he was injured an’ I had ter carry him home — would ye have me give the baby ter a four-year-old ter carry?”
“Ye brought Ginny with ye inter the woods?”
“An’ didn’t let her out o’ me sight once I got in there, let me tell ye, Ash Thatcher!”
“O’ course ye didn’t — o’ course.” No, once scared, Lyndsay wouldn’t let any of the children out of her sight. He could trust her for that. They probably wouldn’t be allowed to play in the woods unsupervised for months after this.
Assuming they got through this.
“What happened next?”
“Well, we went inter the woods — I had Ginny try ter show me where they were playin’ — an’ we called fer a bit — a long bit! But once it got dark …”
Lyndsay bit her lip. “Ash, ye ain’t scared o’ anythin’ in those woods, but I am. An’ I weren’t gonna be out there with a little girl past dark. Besides, I knew ye’d be home soon …” She gulped. “An’ here ye are.”
“Here I am,” Ash murmured.
“So — so –” Her eyes swam behind a curtain of tears. “Ash, are ye — are ye gonna talk ter the trees?”
“Aye, o’ course.” His mind raced — how to explain this problem to the trees, how to poke and prod them in such a manner that they would be able to search their centuries-long memories to focus their attention on just this one sunny summer afternoon out of so many sunny summer afternoons …
He shook his head and strode to the house, or more accurately, his own tree.
“Ash?” Lyndsay asked as she followed on his heels. “Ain’t ye — ain’t ye –”
He paused. “Ah — sorry, Lyndsay. I gotta get some stuff.”
“What? I can get it fer ye.”
“Well, a lantern, fer starters … an’ I need ter have a word with the tree, if any of ’em will be able ter understand about Thorn …”
He hesitated, waiting for his head to be bitten off — waiting for Lyndsay to snarl, “What d’ye mean, if any of ’em will understand?” The snarl didn’t come. All he heard was a shifting of cloth and Lyndsay saying, “All right. I’ll get the lantern, ye — ye do that.”
Oh, Wright. Oh, Wright, if Lyndsay ain’t even gonna be angry — Ash thought as he opened the door.
Ash froze. “Bran.”
“Did ye find Thorn yet?”
“Not yet, son.” Ash tried to smile as Lyndsay brushed past him, her skirts gathered in one hand as she ran for a lantern.
“Lyndsay — Lyn, where’s the baby?” he called, as more father-fears rushed into his mind.
“Upstairs — sleepin’!”
“I’d have heard her if she cried, Da,” Bran nodded.
“Ye’re a good lad, ain’t ye, son?” Ash asked. He tousled the hair on his boy’s head. Bran had gotten to the age where he usually pulled away and made a face if you did that, but tonight … tonight he sat still as a stone.
“Eh?” Ash asked, recalling his thoughts from the thorny problem of putting a child’s disappearance into terms a tree would understand.
“Are ye gonna find Thorn?”
“O’ course I am, son, don’t ye worry about that!” Ash replied … and gulped.
For a moment — just a moment — he was as young as Ash, and he desperately wanted his father to tell him that everything was going to be all right.
His father — his father couldn’t help now. Or maybe he could? Didn’t the monks say that souls in Heaven could help out the poor souls here on earth when trouble came knocking?
Maybe it wouldn’t count for him, a plantsim — but Thorn wasn’t a plantsim — and surely the Lord Wright was magnanimous enough to help out in the case of a missing child, no matter who or what his parents were!
Ash closed his eyes —
And opened them when a sniffle echoed through the tree. “Bran?”
“That’s jest Ginny,” Bran shrugged. “She’s been bawlin’ off an’ on ever since she an’ Ma got back.”
“She’s been …” Ash couldn’t finish, his feet were taking in search of his daughter.
He found her in the kitchen-area, her hands covering her face. “Ginny?”
She looked up. Her lip quivered just as it had when she was only a baby. “Daddy!”
“Ginny baby …”
“Sorry, baby?” he asked, kneeling by her and letting her rest her head on his shoulder.
“It’s my fault, ain’t it? That Thorn’s missin’?”
“No, no — it’s nobody’s fault. Certainly not yers.” He kissed the top of her head. “Ye did what ye were supposed ter, sweetie. Ye tried ter look fer Thorn yerself, an’ when ye couldn’t find him ye came an’ got a grown-up.” Or rather, she did what could be expected of a four-year-old — and what more could he ask of her?
“But Daddy, if somethin’ happens –”
“Nothin’ bad’s gonna happen ter Thorn,” Ash heard himself promising — but what else could he do? Tell Ginny that her cousin, so close in age he was almost her twin, was out in the woods in the middle of the night and it wasn’t looking good? That anything could happen to him — could have happened to him already?
“Ye know what I think?” Ash asked her.
Ginny looked up and shook her head.
“I think …” he started. “Well, first of all, I think when ye an’ Thorn was playin’ this afternoon … he got a little … distracted. Ye know how ye get distracted, honey?”
She nodded a tear-stained face.
Ash wiped away a little trail of moisture and kissed the top of Ginny’s head. “Ye know how sometimes ye see an anthill, or maybe some fox cubs, or a nest o’ birds, an’ ye start watchin’ it, an’ ye lose all track o’ time? I think that’s what happened ter Thorn.”
“But then why didn’t he hear us callin’, Daddy?” Ginny asked.
Well, that was a good question. “I’ll wager,” Ash said, his voice running as slow as the sap in winter, “that whatever it was that got him distracted … got him good an’ distracted. Ye know how ye get that sometimes, Ginny? When ye’re thinkin’ really hard on somethin’, an’ ye don’t even hear yer ma an’ me?”
Again Ginny nodded.
“An’ then, before Thorn even really knew it, I’ll wager it started gettin’ dark. An’ he got scared, ’cause he couldn’t find his way home. But ye know what? Ye remember what I told ye ter to, if ye get lost in the woods an’ it’s getting on toward night?”
Ginny frowned. “If — if it’s warm, find a tree with some wide roots — an’ no naminals — an’ make a bed out o’ pine needles and burrow down under some leaves, an’ sleep there until mornin’.”
“Exactly! I’ll wager that’s exactly what he did.”
“D’ye think it’ll be warm enough fer Thorn ter be all right, Daddy?”
“I’d stake this whole tree on it, sweetie.”
“Are ye sure?”
“Sure as I can be,” Ash replied — well, at least, that wasn’t quite a lie. He couldn’t be very sure of anything, just now. Not even whether up was up or down was down. “Now, sweetie, ye’ve got ter be a good girl an’ a brave one, an’ be calm fer yer Ma.” He straightened and kissed her cheek. “Daddy’s got to go find yer cousin.”
He held her for just a moment longer, the better to whisper into her ear. “An’ I will find him — I promise ye that, Ginny.”