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It's been three months since Rob's younger sister, Chloe, fell into a coma after a riding accident, and his life is in disarray. Rob's parents spend most of their time at his sister's bedside, and his best friend is afraid to talk to Rob about Chloe. To distract himself, Rob takes a job working at a secret archaeological site, where workers have uncovered a mystical ring of black timbers. At its center an ancient tree is buried upside down in the earth—a tree with the power to transport Rob to the Unworld, where Chloe lives in a forest of enchanting dreams, trapped between life and death.
Catherine Fisher has combined a fascinating exploration of myth with a modern quest for understanding. Where is the land of the imagination? And if we found our way there, would we ever want to come back?
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About the Author
Catherine Fisher's acclaimed works include Darkhenge, Snow-walker, and The Oracle Betrayed, which was a finalist for the Whitbread Children's Book Award. She lives in Newport, Wales.
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The oaks shimmer, the stream runs cold.
Happy is he who sees the one that he loves.
The Book of Taliesin
The tree branched like a brain.
It was the same as the diagram in his biology textbook, a tangle of neurons and dendrites and synapses. It was what was in him now, working his eyes and fingers. So ingenious. So fragile.
He bent over the page, noticing how his shadow was ultramarine blue on the white cartridge paper; with the side of the pencil he shaded in the edge of the bough, feeling the soft fibers of carbon darken the grain. He marked a few quick cracks, then cross-hatched the hole in the trunk, rubbed splotches of lichen, enjoying the skill in his hands, the way drawing it made him and the tree one creature.
A drop of rain spatted on the page.
Rob looked up. His concentration snapped like a thread.
Clouds were looming in from the north. They were black and heavy; already he could see the leading edge as a gray smudge drifted over the miles of open downland, masking the low hump of Windmill Hill and its barrows. "It's raining," he said.
From the high grass a tinselly whisper of music rose and fell.
"Dan! We're going to get soaked."
A hand played air guitar toinaudible riffs.
Rob glanced around. There were a few thorn bushes to shelter under, but not much else. The white chalk track of the Ridgeway ran away on each side along the exposed crest of the downs. Below in the fields, acres of barley waved.
He kicked the sprawling figure; Daniel sat up, annoyed. "What?"
He said it too loud, the earphones deafening him. Rob reached over and tweaked them off. "Come on. I'm hungry. We're going."
"Right in the middle of the best bit." Dan turned the CD off and rubbed his numbed ears. "So where's the masterpiece?"
"Show you later. Come on."
These days he never wanted to go home. It was Tuesday and Maria would be there, and she irritated him, filling the gloomy rooms with her cheery Italian chatter. They couldn't do without her, but he didn't have to be there to put up with it. He slid the sketchbook into the backpack and snapped the pencil tin shut.
The bikes were tangled together in the long grass. Dan tugged his front wheel out. "Three more lessons, max. No more bikes then, Robbie boy."
Rob grinned. "Sure." Danny had already taken the driving test twice. If he failed again his mother had said she wouldn't pay for any more lessons, and if he did pass she wouldn't let him near her car. So either way he was an optimist.
Rain was spitting. "Green Street?" Rob asked.
"Too far. The track under the barrows. Down to the lane."
Then he was gone, riding fast, the earphones jammed back in, speeding off to heavy metal. Rob stared after him, stricken. Dan had forgotten. In the three months since the accident, they had never gone down that track.
Or maybe he hadn't forgotten; maybe it was deliberate. Rob had to face the place sometime, and it was best to do it now, without thinking too much. He climbed on the bike and cycled, head down.
There were poppies in the fields, like something from Monet, splashes of red. Those on the grass near the track were chalk-whitened, powdered from passing trail bikes and the heavy clump of hikers' boots. Now big raindrops spatted beside them into the dust. All across the fields the golden crop bowed and shivered, as the approaching storm shredded its peace.
The Ridgeway was rutted, its dry hollows and tire tracks hardened into solid ledges; the bikes bumped and slewed through and over them. No one else was up here today; raising his head Rob could see the parking lot on Overton Hill was empty, and beyond it the trucks on the A4 roared down toward Silbury, their windshields glinting in the ominous light. All the wide downland seemed to cower under the gathering wind, and as the bikes turned into the barley and rattled down to the barrows, he breathed in the rapidly cooling air, its sweet mingled summer smells, the sourness of crusted horse dung, the spatter of insects.
Dan was well ahead. The track dropped beneath a trio of barrows, each darkly crowned with crowded copses of beech trees. As he rode under them, he saw the swell of the burial mounds, one side scraped raw where some kids had rigged a rope and dragged their feet in the white chalk. He was riding full into the wind now and the rain stung his face; he kept his head down, marveling how the weather on the downs could change so fast. Already the rain was pelting, each drop a hardness. The front of his T-shirt was soaked.
Dan was cycling recklessly. He hated getting wet and was careless about the rutted track, taking the bends with insolent speed. Rob was more careful. The backpack, jammed full of tins of pastels and a bulky sketch pad, bounced on his shoulders; he raced across the downs at a crazy angle, and there was no shelter from the horizontal storm until the overgrown hedgerow along the track down to Falkner's Circle.
The turn was too sharp. He skidded, chalk stinging out under his back wheel. The bike heeled over, hit a stone. Suddenly he was off balance, knew that nightmarish moment of going too far ever to be upright again, got his foot down, but the bike's weight shot from under him, and he went sprawling.
He picked himself up, kicked the bike, and looked at his hands. Chalk lumps rolled from indentations in his skin. One palm was grazed, its black smear filled with tiny beads of blood.
Excerpted from Darkhenge by Catherine Fisher Copyright © 2007 by Catherine Fisher. Excerpted by permission.
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