Twin Hills is a dying forest in an abandoned Texas oil field, now skirted by a residential neighborhood. Its protector is an ancient oak tree called Daronwy, who has turned the forest’s pain into a dark magic that it hopes can keep the remaining trees safe from further harm.
The spell was working, too—until a young boy from the nearby neighborhood, Jeremy Trahan, is drawn to the woods in search of the magic he senses instinctively. By finding the magic, Jeremy hopes it will help him escape the boredom and bullies that plague his life—just like in all the books he’s read.
But as he gets closer to discovering the gateway to the other world that the spell hides, land developers descend on the fragile forest with bulldozers and chainsaws. Will Jeremy seize the chance to leave his mundane world behind, or will he stand and fight for his haven?
“For a debut novel, The Last Stand Of Daronwy by Clint Talbert must be considered an impressive success. A deftly woven, complex, original fantasy story that engages the reader’s total attention from beginning to end, The Last Stand Of Daronwy is highly recommended for personal reading lists and community library YA fiction collections.” — Jack Mason, The Midwest Book Review
“There have been hundreds of stories that glibly tell of young people plunged into fantastic settings, but very few of them make you really FEEL what it’s like to struggle in two worlds, to bring the experience so vividly to life that the tale swallows you. Clint Talbert manages just that in this beautifully written gem of a tale. Get this book!” — Ed Greenwood, author & creator, the Forgotten Realms series
“Clint Talbert has crafted an intelligent fable about friendship, courage, and standing up for one’s beliefs. Jeremy’s quest to save the last remnants of a once proud forest pits the dogged idealism of youth against an adult world that has given up all hope for a happy ending.” — Sean Mulcahy, author, Slip Sliding Away
Daronwy’s senses stalked the boy among the discarded detritus of eighty years of human life—cracked plastic cap guns, dry-rotted tires, brown glass bottles whose labels wore away decades ago. The boy stopped at a murdered tree, fingering the wood chips in his hand. He shook his head, looked up and down the empty trail, then crushed the chips into his palm, curling his fingers into a fist.
The boy’s anger mirrored Daronwy’s. The great oak and his grove had covered these scars, reclaiming by bud and twig every injustice done to them. Daronwy had encouraged their hatred, blending together a dark magic with their weariness of wanton destruction. Water turned black, shadows turned blacker. When the sun’s rays slanted west, no human dared remain beneath their boughs—until now.
There had always been legends of human ears that could hear tree-songs on the breeze, stories of human lungs that could inhale every shade of green on a leaf. In Daronwy’s long seasons, he had only felt such a being once. However, this new boy, this miniscule sapling, was drawn to the magic. Should they pull this boy into the warm shadows of their boughs and teach him the truth of the wind so that he might tell his people and save what remained of their forest? Whirlwinds of song buffeted Daronwy’s branches. The others did not believe the boy was worthy.
Watching the boy’s anguish at the amputated tree, Daronwy disagreed. The great oak sang the boy’s name on the wind: Zhak-im-eya, one who hears. Among the boy’s kind, he was called Jeremiah.
* * *
A cold wind howled through the branches with a ghost’s voice. Jeremy shivered inside his blue jean jacket. It had sounded like a distant wolf. Jeremy couldn’t stop his hands from shaking and fumbled with his buttons. Unseen eyes pricked his skin, eternally watching. Vines hung from the trees, wove through the underbrush and shrugged closer to the trail, walling him in.
Could that noise on the wind be important? The hair on the back of his neck stood. After all, he had seen something. It had been weeks ago, at the beginning of Christmas break. He’d been walking back here, stalking some big animal he could hear and feel but not see, and when he’d looked through the matted vines, he’d seen a structure. Stones, columns, like a castle, or part of one. A wind—a wind like this one—had blown, and it had disappeared.
Maybe he was close to it again. Jeremy stepped flat-footed, squishing his way through the gray mud in the center of the trail. He peered into the dark shadows of the trees beneath the plaited canopy, hoping to see some sign, some indication of the other world he’d glimpsed.
A menacing sigh escaped from a thing with no lips. Its icy breath condensed against the back of Jeremy’s neck, folding him forward like marsh grass before a hurricane. Something was stalking him, matching his steps. Jeremy froze, left foot hanging in midstep. Whatever was behind him did not anticipate this, and the splash it made in the sucking mud echoed along the trail. Jeremy half turned. He craned his neck as much as he dared, trying not to shift his weight as he peered along the empty trail through tangled vines that wove among branches of half-dead trees. On all sides, shadows disappeared into a deep thicket carpeted with generations of dead leaves and quicksand. There was no one there. Faint smells of light, sweet crude oil and fainter wisps of ocean salt hung on the now still air like mildewed rags. Blood thudded in his ears, drowning all other sound.
He recognized this presence; it was what he’d tracked. He had to be near the crossroads to that magical place. Jeremy made another step, careful to bend the sun-starved weeds beneath his foot so that he did not sink in the mud and make an inadvertent noise. He brought his left foot to his right with a controlled movement. A gray puddle spread before him, covering the trail. Bending his knees, staring at the ancient root on the other side of the puddle, he leapt, landing on the root with a cat’s silent grace.
It moved, unseen behind him, and squelched into the soft mud. The sound froze Jeremy’s breath in his throat. Whatever it was, it was not something that you found; it was something that found you. Torn between bolting for home and walking up the trail, he stood, squinting through the thicket, trying to divine from the way the vines hung what it was and what it wanted.
Should he confront it? He unsnapped the scabbard of the long Rambo survival knife that hung at his waist and held the blade before him in two hands, facing the solitary line of his own prints in the oily mud. Eyes darting from one side of the trail to the other, Jeremy stepped backwards. He sank to his calf in quicksand. Startled, he tried to pull free, but the sand slurped his foot down, holding it with unseen claws. Jeremy’s balance faltered; the ground rushed toward him. He splashed his free foot down on the edge of the muck, dropped his knife, and caught himself with his right hand. Using his thrashing for cover, the thing squelched ever closer. Jeremy glanced at the hungry shadows surrounding him. He snaked his left hand beneath his knee and wrenched at his leg. He couldn’t pull free.
A soft step settled into the deadfall as a hackle-raising silence muzzled the thicket. A shadow shifted, obscured by the dry vines, biding its time, gathering its strength. Jeremy scrambled to grab the knife in one hand, holding it above his prone body. He twisted his jeans into a knot and made one last white-knuckled wrench, pushing with his free foot at the same time. The sand released him. He careened sideways. His shoulder slammed into a tree with rotten roots. The tree crashed through the net of vines, whipping the tangled brush into a malicious frenzy. A carrion stench filled the trail as a shadow lunged.
Jeremy bolted. He ran past the mysterious mounds that were riddled with opossum and armadillo holes; he vaulted over the giant clearing of quicksand. Gnarled claws reached out, thorns tugged at his jean jacket. Roots snapped at his feet. His pursuer no longer feigned any silence; it smashed through the underbrush. Jeremy burst from the woods at a full tilt, spinning once his feet reached the pavement. He clutched the knife ahead of him, waiting for the thing—whatever it was—to emerge.
The forest stared at him. Nothing moved; no sounds, no smells. Jeremy’s breathing began to slow. A soft wind blew, shuddering the tree branches beneath the slate-gray sky. Whatever the icy terror was, it had vanished. Jeremy was still in the same world. He glanced at the houses with their stale, lingering Christmas decorations and sighed, sheathing the knife. If only he had stood his ground, maybe the pursuer would have led him to that other world he’d glimpsed. Or maybe it would be tearing his limbs off right now. Jeremy shivered, trying to rub the goose bumps away. The diffused circle of the sun was nearly overhead—it was almost one o’clock. Daniel would be home from church by now.
Jeremy walked up the cement street, cut across Mira’s corner yard, and stole into his driveway. The garage smelled of pine lumber and old leather. His mom’s Oldsmobile was parked beneath the peeling paneling of the right wall. The workbench held a grinder, a vice, and scattered carpentry tools amid rusted Folgers coffee cans of screws and nails. He left his shoes between his dad’s giant work boots and his sister’s fluorescent green jellies and trudged inside.
“Jeremiah Trahan, take off those shoes!” He hadn’t even crossed the kitchen yet.
“Oh. Well, then roll up that pant leg. How did you get so muddy?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He bent to roll it. “Can Daniel come over and play?”
“Sure, but we have to be at Mommit’s by five for dinner.”
“Okay.” Jeremy walked to the phone that hung on the wall and spun each digit on the rotary. “Hey, you wanna come down and play? Meet you halfway!”
Jeremy unstrapped the knife from his belt and ran to his room, vaulting over the tea party of dolls that an indignant Rosalyn had arrayed through the living room. He ran back through the garage and stopped on his driveway to stare across the street at Twin Hills. The forest’s dark shadows remained expressionless; the doorway had undoubtedly closed. He wished he had stood his ground. Jeremy put it out of his mind as he pedaled his bike up the street. Daniel rode from the opposite direction with a girl in tow.
“Hey.” Jeremy’s eyes flicked to the girl, a mousey-haired tagalong with pink-rimmed glasses.
“This is my cousin, Claire. She’s visiting today, so Mom said I had to bring her.”
Jeremy shrugged. “Hi.”
“Hi!” Claire squeaked.
Jeremy turned his bike around.
“So, what do you want to play?” Daniel asked.
It was a rhetorical question, but a necessary one to begin the spell. It was the same thing they had played since they were five, and as Jeremy answered, imagination melded with their world, shifting everything just so, painting vibrant colors over a drab day. “Let’s play that Kronshar has been lying again,” Jeremy said. “He told the warriors that the wizards are causing the border raids, and he told the wizards that the warriors are.”
Daniel’s eyes glittered. “But it’s actually the Shadows.”
“Right. The Midnight Wizard wants us to investigate. It’s nighttime and we’re walking the horses through the middle of the valley that separates the warriors and the wizards.”
As they pedaled, the world rippled like a pond spattered by rain. Houses grew upward into sheer stone walls and the soft whir of bike tires against concrete transformed into a clopping equine gait.
“Wait, who’s lying about shadows at midnight? What’s going on?”
The world fell apart; cliffs shifted back into houses on either side of the street. Daniel turned to Claire. “Kronshar is this evil wizard who’s lying to our Council of Elders. We are adepts, which means we’re these special people with wings. Eagle—Jeremy is Eaglewing, he’s a warrior, and I’m Lightningbolt, a wizard.”
Claire put one hand on her hip as she rode. “Now wait. This isn’t that D&D stuff, is it? ‘Cause you know my brother got in trouble big time for that. Mom says it’s”—she glanced back toward Daniel’s house, as if judging if they were in earshot—“satanic,” she finished in a whisper.
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “No, this is something we made up. It’s not like that at all. If you don’t want to play…” Jeremy shrugged.
“Hang on. Can girls be warriors?”
“Yeah, of course.” Daniel smirked toward Jeremy. “She could be Mayflure.”
Jeremy blushed. “No! She can’t be Mayflure.”
Daniel laughed, “She’s a girl adept who—”
“A girl warrior adept. Just one of the people in the game,” Jeremy said, eyes burning holes in Daniel.
“Oh, I’ll be her!”
Jeremy rolled his eyes.
Daniel smiled. “Okay. Let’s pretend we’re riding the horses through the valley that separates the wizard lands from the warrior lands.”
The mundane world transformed once more into the fantasy they had spent years creating. Jeremy imagined himself as Eaglewing: taller, stronger, but still golden-haired. He was clad in mail, a shield strapped to the horse, a sword at his hip. Daniel was his fraternal twin, the wizard Lightningbolt, who wore the loose, dark robes of his class and a leather jerkin over them. A gnarled oak staff protruded from the holster in his saddle. His hair was much darker than his brother’s but also long, pulled back in braids. As for Claire, she became the lanky form of… Jeremy shook his head. No, she didn’t have the natural grace that Mayflure would have. Looking at her now, he couldn’t imagine Mira, and he always imagined Mira when he thought of Mayflure.
“I can feel them watching us,” said the wizard.
“Who?” said Claire, scanning the street.
“The wizards,” Daniel snapped, glancing back at her. “The wizards are watching us.”
“Well, I’ve counted thirty-seven archers on the east wall,” said Eaglewing.
Lightningbolt turned in his saddle. “What? Where?”
“Trust me. They’re there.”
“Why don’t I see them?”
“How can I—”
“Aaaaaaaah!” Mayflure spurred her horse faster, pulling her bow and arrow, and shot.
“What are you doing?” Jeremy pedaled hard to catch up to Claire.
“I’m playing that one of the wizards was going to cast a spell on you so I shot him with my bow and arrow.”
“Claire, the wizards are on our side. You can’t shoot them,” said Daniel.
“What about the warriors? Can I shoot one of them?”
“No, they’re also on our side. They’re just confused about these raids,” said Daniel.
Jeremy nodded. “They are blaming each other, but we know that it’s really Kronshar.”
Claire looked from one boy to the other. “Oh. Well, I was just trying to protect you, Eaglewing.” She winked at Jeremy.
Daniel snorted a laugh. “Twin Hills?” He hooked a thumb toward the trees.
Jeremy bit his lip, then shook his head. “Let’s go up on the canal. Let me grab our weapons.” Armed with whittled sticks, they left their bikes in Jeremy’s yard and ran around Mira’s. They came to the tall rise of the flood control canal that snaked through the neighborhood, choked with cattails, tires, and beer cans.
“Let’s play that Kronshar will attack from behind them, from the west, since that’s where the nearest graveyard is.”
“What does a graveyard have to do with it?” said Claire.
Jeremy glared at Daniel.
“Kronshar is a necromancer, he—”
“Necromancer,” Jeremy said, crossing his arms.
“He makes dead things live again, like zombies. They’re called Shadows.”
Jeremy pointed at the rise of the canal embankment on either side of the street. “Look, we’re coming up on the Akendale road. I’ll go to the warriors, you two go to the wizards.”
“I want to go with you, Eaglewing!”
“Come on!” growled the warrior, spurring his mount up the right embankment as Lightningbolt rode up the left.
“Let’s play that Guntark won’t listen to us.”
“He’s just one of the warrior generals.”
“But I thought you were an Adopted General?”
Jeremy turned to her. “Not adopt, adept. We’re adepts. It means that we’ve had a lot of training in magic. Combined with our talent and our wings, we’re kind of like the special forces in the army.”
“But then why won’t he listen?”
“Because… well, it’s a long story. Basically because Kronshar stole a Stone of Karnak. And everyone thinks the adepts let him do it.”
“Stone of Kar-what?”
“It’s not important right now. But—”
“Eaglewing, they’re coming!” Lightningbolt shouted.
“Come on!” Jeremy and Claire ran down their embankment, across the street, and up the next embankment to join Daniel.
“Let’s play that they’re flying in beneath the clouds. I’m going to create a wall-spell that will help to surround them.”
“The Shadows—Kronshar’s zombie things, remember? Come on!” Jeremy said.
“Can I shoot them?”
Mayflure and Eaglewing sprinted ahead of the glittering wall that Lightningbolt raised behind them. Swords drawn, they launched themselves into the air to meet the oncoming horde. Bringing his awareness into both worlds, Eaglewing could see the macabre world of the Shadow overlaid over the real. These beings looked like an unholy cross between bats and people, carrying poisoned swords and axes. Eaglewing and Mayflure fought back-to-back, turning through the air as the Shadow-Beings broke around them like a school of fish.
“Watch those blades, Mayflure, they’re poisonous!”
Lightningbolt sprinted forward, leaping into the air, sending crackling electricity through the semi-translucent shades. Ambushed, the Shadow horde dove toward the adepts and the wizards in a desperate, shrieking charge. Lightningbolt’s magic arced across the sky. Eaglewing and Mayflure’s blades flashed in the starlight. The horde began to retreat, flying higher into the sky and fleeing toward the west. The three adepts followed, cutting down stragglers.
The three of them watched the last of the Shadow horde disappear into a black circle like a hole in the night sky. They hovered in the air, trying to catch their breath.
“That was close,” said Mayflure.
“Yeah, I think they’ll be back,” said Lightningbolt, “but this ought to prove to the Council that the Midnight Wizard is right.”
Eaglewing nodded toward his brother in agreement. He gazed into the blackness where they had disappeared. “Maybe we should have followed them, confronted Kronshar.”
“He’s too powerful. We have to wait for some advantage.”
“If we wait much longer, he’ll attack us,” said Mayflure.
Eaglewing and Lightningbolt stared at her.
“Won’t he?” said Claire.
Eaglewing smiled. “Yeah, I think so. But Lightningbolt’s right, too. We need to make the Council see it; we need to get the army behind it. Three adepts can’t take him down alone.”
They ran across the canal embankment, flying down to where the warriors and the wizards now stood after the brief battle.
“Jeremy, is that you back there?”
Jeremy looked down into his backyard at his dad. “Yes, sir?”
“You need to get in here and get cleaned up. We’re going to Grandma’s.”
“But Dad… ”
“Come on. Now.”
Jeremy started toward the moss-covered wooden fence.
“Don’t jump that fence! Go around front.”
Daniel continued the story as the three adventurers climbed down the embankment and walked back to their bikes in Jeremy’s front yard. “Let’s say that the warriors and wizards start paying more attention to us now that we showed them they were wrong.”
“Yeah, and the Midnight Wizard is getting worried that Kronshar is not going to be happy with just Dan’kir.”
“He’s building an army,” said Claire.
“Right. To look for the Stones of Karnak.”
“We’ll have to find them first.”
They stopped in Jeremy’s front yard. Daniel picked up his bike. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes, “Ugh, school. Don’t remind me.”
“Bye, Jeremy,” said Claire, waving like a coy princess.
“Bye, Claire.” Jeremy watched them pedal up the street, then let his gaze slide toward Twin Hills. In the failing winter light, he could almost see the shadows moving beneath the branches. If only he had stood his ground today, he might be free from school. He’d be sleeping under different stars, in a land where animals talked, where he could be a hero. The doorway to that world was in Twin Hills; he just had to find it.
* * *
Jeremy sulked in the back of the Oldsmobile, in clean jeans and a different T-shirt but the same mud-splattered jean jacket. The sun was setting on his last day of freedom, transforming the clouds in the wide Texas sky into violet and golden swirls. Country music streamed through the radio as his father drove toward the Rainbow Bridge, a marvel of WPA engineering, and the tallest bridge in the South for a time. The bridge towered over the wide mouth of the Neches where it emptied its load of chemicals, oil, and silt into Sabine Lake, the final stop before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. On their right was the first port, a sprawling Texaco refinery. Orange tongues of flame danced atop flares, licking the underbellies of clouds as they floated over the cracking units and cooling towers. The amber halogens that covered the refinery were just beginning to wink on. Farther upriver, the port of Beaumont was barely visible, silhouetted against the setting sun. Atop the bridge, they passed through a choking cloud that smelled of rotten eggs, but no one in the car commented. It passed as quickly as it had come.
Jeremy’s great-grandmother lived in a small clapboard farmhouse that had neither air conditioning nor heat. On cool winter days like this, she would light her gas-powered space heater. Jeremy wanted to believe that it really had come from space. About the size of R2D2, the heater had the rectangular shape of a prototype droid. The menacing blue flames inside it looked like a jagged row of teeth, and the orange plumes licked over them like a capricious snake tongue.
She was a small woman with curly, gray-streaked black hair that she kept trimmed short. They had arrived with fried chicken from Church’s, and she made dirty rice for Jeremy and homemade macaroni for Rosalyn. The moment they stepped inside, aromas of food mixed with the musk of the turn-of-the-century house, and Jeremy’s stomach growled.
Falling in and out of Cajun French, Grandma and his parents talked about people he didn’t know. They spoke of who was doing well and who had cancer now. Grandma knew everyone in Texas and Louisiana and how all of them were related to their family. When he was excused, Jeremy went into the front room. Crochet projects covered the couch. Since the couch doubled as a giant pincushion, he sat on the floor as he flipped on the television to watch Knight Rider.
Instead, he saw a giant tree fall across the screen. The mosquito song of chain saws blared through the tinny speakers. Jeremy took a step back from the TV to see clearly. People stood in a giant version of Twin Hills, cutting trees down and setting them on fire. Where was this? Rosalyn whined about something. Jeremy clenched his hands into fists and tuned her out. Where was this happening? The newscaster was saying something about farming, about progress, but nothing, absolutely nothing, about where this was happening.
“Jeremy, I want to watch cartoons!” Rosalyn reached for the knob on the TV.
“No!” He pushed her, but she pushed him back. Jeremy caught himself on the edge of the TV as the newscaster said, “reporting from Brazil.” Brazil was a long way away.
“Jeremiah Trahan!” He glanced up at his dad. “Apologize to your sister.”
A triumphant grin spread across Rosalyn’s face. She loved to get him in trouble.
“Rosalyn, there aren’t any cartoons on Sunday night. Jeremy, Knight Rider is on channel six. Can the two of you manage not to kill each other while we help Grandma with the dishes?”
“Yes, sir,” they said in unison.
* * *
“Are you ready for school tomorrow, mon cher?”
Jeremy turned away from the TV at the sound of Grandma’s voice and found her sitting on the couch. She wove a crochet needle like a frantic moth dancing around a light bulb. The pink needle darted in and out, making knot after knot, but her eyes never left his. “No, ma’am. I hate school.”
“Jeremy!” his mom said, then shook her head.
“What? It’s stupid, Mom. It’s boring, and you don’t learn anything and they never let you go outside.”
Grandma laughed. “Oh cher petit bébé. Mon cher, one day you will want to go back. You will see. Enjoy it now.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. Knight Rider was back on. “Thanks for the dirty rice, Grandma.”
“You are so welcome.” She turned to his mom, patting the baby blanket she was crocheting. “You sure you can take this to Mrs. Babineaux? It’s no trouble?”
His mom raised her voice, drowning out the television. “Is your hearing aid on? I already told you I would take it over there on Wednesday before work.”
When Knight Rider finished, Jeremy’s dad herded them into the Oldsmobile. Rosalyn fell asleep; Jeremy stared out the window. As they left Port Arthur, he could see the tall stacks of the Gulf and Texaco refineries across the flat marshlands. They drove down the highway to the river and the bridge, and motored up its steep side. Jeremy stared into the east. There were no lights out there. Miles of trackless marshlands spread beneath the moonlight, free from walls and fences and schools. Adventure called to him, begged him to come and find it, to slip this world’s chains.
They came down into the darkening roads of Bridge City. It was nine o’clock and all the lights were off. Forgotten snowmen waved from black shop windows, looking more like harbingers of Halloween than Christmas. In his room, he retrieved the book bag from the depths of his closet. He put his Trapper Keeper into it and the latest book he’d borrowed from Mira’s dad: The Hobbit. He crumpled next to his bed, knees drawn up, head in his hands. Why didn’t he follow that thing in Twin Hills today? If he had—if only he had—he’d be worlds away by now.