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Three days later, Will could barely believe they were still alive. The king’s wish for the Fern’s blessing must have come true. He lay on sticky, moist ground, exhausted and panting from having just escaped a pitfall that he and Annette had accidentally found. Despite facing a troll, four ogres, a flash flood, a swarm of mosquitoes, vomit-inducing water from a lake, and a dozen other threats, the two of them had managed to stay alive against all odds.
Instinct made him look left to see a pair of large, orange eyes peering through the dead foliage. He grabbed Annette’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m really sorry, but we have to climb a tree now,” he managed to get out.
“What is it this time?” she mumbled, sitting up slowly. Her hair was a stringy mess of mud, twigs, and pebbles, as his own must have been.
“Probably a grizzly bear,” he answered, pulling her with him as he stood. The eyes blinked. He pushed Annette toward the closest tree, grabbed under her arms, and boosted her to the lowest branch. As soon as she struggled to stand up on it and reached for the next limb, he jumped and dragged himself up. His weary muscles screamed for rest, but a snout appeared out of the bushes, followed by a huge head with stubby ears and then a gigantic furry body, lumbering right at them with a roar.
“Will!” Annette called.
“Climb!” he shouted back.
He grabbed onto the next branch and swung his feet up seconds before huge, sharp claws raked the air he had just occupied.
The bear reared up, swiping for them. They climbed higher. His arms shook, and he was sure Annette was nearing the last of her strength. “Just a little bit higher,” he encouraged her in a flat voice. The bark bit splinters into his palms.
“I can’t go any further.” She crouched on a stumpy branch, arms wrapped around the tree trunk.
“Okay,” he allowed. “We should be out of its reach.”
So they clung to the tree as the bear paced below. How long would it be before they could get out of this one?
He should use the elevation to get their bearings, he decided. The view around them was much the same: Gray trees bearing black, slimy leaves. Then something caught his eyes. Tall towers of stone interrupted the dreary landscape. He never thought he could feel relief at the sight of his childhood home, but he could describe this current sensation by no other word.
“We’re going to make it,” he sighed. “We’re almost there.”
Annette shifted to bring her feet out from under her and dangle her legs on each side of the branch. “Can you tell me what we’re doing when we get there?” she inquired.
“Saving the Golden Fern.”
“Oh.” Surprise tinted her voice.
“You didn’t know?”
She shook her head.
“Then what are you still doing here? Are you insane? Why stay with me when you didn’t know and could have stayed safe with the sage?” This girl—she did the oddest things. Not that he was complaining. Usually the odd things she did helped them evade capture or escape attacks. He was growing more fond of her than he remembered being of anyone in his life.
She avoided meeting his eyes. “I’m supposed to be with you. The Fern said. Why would I go anywhere else?”
He shook his head. “You’re crazy.” But mild affection—he thought that would be the name for it—colored his denouncement.
When Will’s arms were growing numb and his legs past cramping, the grizzly finally lost interest and wandered off. Half an hour later, they dared climb down and press on toward the castle. OF course, the ground kept rising, so they were limping uphill. The flies were biting something fierce. Every sound made them jump.
Somehow, they received no further challenge until the dead plants cleared onto the castle path. Memories of his childhood flooded his mind as his boots and Annette’s bare feet crunched on the sharp gravel. Those memories quickly dispelled any relief he had previously experienced and warned him to prepare for the reunion with his parents.
Yet nothing could have prepared him to find his parents and a balding, middle-aged man at the castle door, or to hear the words the king spoke: “Hello, Bill. Nice of you and your sister to come home.”