About the Book
What do an old wooden box, a jeweled pendant and some mysterious, green-garbed strangers share in common? When Rolin son of Gannon sets out to solve this riddle, his adventures take him worlds beyond the walls of his little log cabin in the mountains. With the help of some grumpy griffins and a long-lost prophecy, Rolin and his friends battle a fiendish foe and his underworld army; deadly snake-trees; dragons, and other mythological creatures. On their perilous quest for the fabled Isle of Luralin and the Tree of Life, they must trust the King with their very lives. In the end, they learn that “The greatest help oft comes in harm’s disguise to those with trusting hearts and open eyes.”
BOOK I in the “King of the Trees” series
Chapter 1: Market Day
Snitch boy, snitch boy, hair-as-red-as-pitch boy! Bee in his bonnet, bee in his bonnet, bees in the hive and Rolin’s sat on it!” Rolin jerked awake, tore off his quilts and rushed to the window. He saw no one outside except a few blue jays warming up for the day’s chatter. An early morning mist still swirled among the firs and pines in the foothills of the rugged Tartellan Mountains, where Rolin’s father, Gannon, had built their cozy cabin.
Rolin groaned and flopped back on the bed. He always had bad dreams just before market days, when he and his father went down to bustling Beechtown to sell their wares. Was it his fault he had red hair (though it was really chestnut) or that his father kept bees? And who could blame him for reporting the cobbler’s sons to the constable for stealing chickens? As if that were not enough, “the Crazy Toadstool Woman” had been his grandmother. Had been.
Rolin screwed his eyes shut, squeezing out the tears. Several years earlier, first his grandmother, Adelka, then his mother, Janna, had died under mysterious circumstances, leaving Rolin and his father to mourn their losses in lonely bewilderment.
“Ho, Rolin! Sun’s up and it’s market day,” boomed a voice into the log-walled bedroom. Rolin yawned, stretched and hopped out of bed. Market day! Already he could see the crowds of traders and travelers, vendors hawking wooden trinkets, and the food stalls set up in the square, with their mounds of candied fruits, toasted beechnuts, smoked fish, and box upon box of luscious winter pears. And he could hear the children’s cruel taunts.
“Up with you now, sleepyhead,” Gannon called again from the next room, interrupting Rolin’s daydream. “It’s oatcakes if you come now and nothing if you don’t! We must leave soon or we’ll miss the best of the market.” Rolin knew his father’s blackberry-blossom honey would command the highest prices in the morning, when buyers were wanting their breakfasts. That did it.
“Coming, Father!” he answered. After hurriedly dressing, Rolin opened his door. There in the kitchen stood his father, a tall, red-bearded man with a jaunty wool cap, stirring a crock full of oatcake batter with a wooden spoon. Beside him, a griddle smoked on the roaring wood stove. Rolin’s mouth watered at the delicious wood-smoke-and-hot griddle scent filling the room.
“So, you finally decided to get up after all,” Gannon observed. “Your hair looks a fright, you know.”
Rolin grinned at the good-natured gibe. His hair always seemed to stick out every which way, especially in the morning before he could tame it. “So does your beard,” he shot back.
Gannon self-consciously combed batter-caked fingers through his tangled, unruly beard. “Don’t just stand there,” he said. “The first batch is getting cold on the table.” Gannon waved the spoon as he spoke, flinging bits of batter onto the floor and walls.
Rolin pulled up a chair and poured golden honey over a heaping plateful of oatcakes. “Do you think we’ll do well at market today?” he asked his father between mouthfuls.
“The best ever,” Gannon replied. “With the heavy honey flow we’ve had this spring and last year’s bumper potato crop, we should fare very nicely. After I have bought supplies, there might even be enough money left over for that gadget you’ve been wanting.”
Rolin’s heart leapt. “Oh, I hope so!” he said. Market days always attracted clever peddlers and magicians with their intriguing tales, astonishing tricks and marvelous inventions. At the last fall market, a wizened little man had been selling the most extraordinary devices: long, wooden tubes with round pieces of glass set in their ends. “Starglasses,” he had called them. Rolin had peered through one of the tubes at a sparrow perched in a distant tree. To his delight, the bird appeared life sized. The old peddler had told him the moon and stars themselves would leap down from the sky, so large would they loom through the eyepiece.
“Don’t set your hopes too high,” Rolin’s father advised him as he spooned more batter onto the griddle. “You can’t buy peddlers’ wares with promises—and one of those toys will cost you dearly.”
“I know,” replied Rolin with a sly glance at his father. “You can’t hawk honey with batter in your beard, either!” With that, he rushed out of the cabin, just as a well-aimed spoonful of batter splattered against the door behind him.
Outside, Gannon’s bees were flitting in and out of their conical clay hives, which were steaming in a warm spring sun. Rolin savored the rain-washed mountain air, spicy with the pungent scent of fir needles and cottonwood balm. Already, the sponge mushrooms would be sprouting among the poplars. He scooped up an armload of firewood and brought it into the house, where another tall stack of oatcakes awaited him at the rough oak table. His father soon joined him with an even taller stack. Before you could say oatcakes and honey, they had gobbled up everything in sight. Rolin twirled his last bite of oatcake in a pool of honey, popped it into his mouth and sighed.
“Fetch me the money box and some punkwood, will you, my boy?” Gannon asked him, licking the honey from his plate. (I fear table manners in the cabin—indeed, all manners—had suffered since Gannon and his son had been left to themselves.) Opening the money box was an event reserved for special occasions—chiefly the spring and fall markets.
Rolin hopped down from his chair and threw back a tattered rug lying beside the table. Pulling up on a small handle recessed into the floor, he opened a groaning trapdoor to a musty-smelling cellar. Clambering down a flight of creaking stairs, Rolin felt his way in the darkness to a tall cupboard. Its shelves sagged under the weight of potatoes, carrots, flour, honey and beans. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Rolin spotted a pile of the half-rotted, dried wood whose thick, sweet smoke had such a calming effect on angry bees.
After stuffing a few pieces of the wood in his pocket, he searched for the money box. It was nowhere to be seen. He groped about on the shelves, raising a cloud of dust that sent him into a sneezing fit. Still, no box. Standing tiptoe on a wooden crate, he peered over the top shelf, seeing only some broken tools and pottery, a few yellowed scraps of parchment—and a box.
What is it doing up here? he wondered. He seized the box and jumped down, nearly tipping over the cupboard. After blowing dust off the lid, Rolin realized he had the wrong box. This one was wooden, not metal, and its lid was adorned with intricate engravings of trees and mythical-looking winged creatures. Spidery lettering ran around the sides.
“Rolin!” Gannon’s voice echoed into the cellar. “There’s no need to look for the money box; it was here in the kitchen all along.”
Rolin scrambled back up the stairs with the punkwood and his new find, closing the trapdoor behind him. Gannon was standing at the table, holding a plain-looking box with rust around its edges.
“Father, look at this!” Rolin exclaimed. “What is it?”
“Why, it’s your grandmother’s old box,” said Gannon. “I had forgotten all about it.” Gannon’s fingers caressed the carved lid. “It must be very old. You don’t see such fine workmanship these days.”
“Do you suppose there’s anything inside?” Rolin asked.
“I doubt it—at least nothing valuable, like gold or silver,” Gannon replied. “Your grandmother might have kept some spices in it, but they’ve probably turned to dust by now. Heavy, though, isn’t it. Let’s see what’s on the bottom.” As Gannon turned the box over, a distinct rattle came from within, as of rocks knocking together.
“I knew it!” said Rolin. “There is something inside!”
“That’s odd,” Gannon remarked, feeling around the corners. “I can’t find any hinge or latch.” Shaking his head, he put the box down. “We’d better be going now. I’ll try to open this after we return home.” Gannon tucked the money box under his arm and strode out the door. Rolin lingered, brushing his fingers across the carvings on the wooden box.
As he touched the tree design in the center, Pop!—the top flew open. Inside lay a coin-shaped, silvery pendant cushioned on a bed of dried, faded flowers.
Rolin gasped. As he picked up the gleaming medallion by its chain, a ray of sunlight struck fire to a blood-red, faceted gem in its middle. The piece’s rim bore markings like those on the box, except at the bottom, where the metal was melted.
“Boy, why are you still here? Didn’t you hear me calling?” Gannon demanded, beckoning from the doorway. His face softened when he saw the pendant dangling from Rolin’s fingers. “Ah, yes, your grandmother’s necklace,” he said, a faraway look in his blue eyes. “She used to wear it when she missed ‘the old country.’ To my recollection, though, she never took it out of the house.”
Rolin remembered the same faraway look in his grandmother’s eyes whenever she mentioned the old country. Once, he had asked her to take him to visit the land of her childhood. “We can never go back there,” the old woman had said with a bitter laugh. Rolin had never again dared ask Adelka about her birthplace.
Gannon fingered the pendant. “How did you open the box?”
“I just touched it,” Rolin replied with a shrug.
Gannon nodded. “You always did have a knack for puzzles.”
“Can you tell what the writing says?” Rolin asked. At an early age, he had taught himself to read from some moldy books he’d found in the cellar. The letters engraved on the box and pendant, however, were unlike any he’d seen in all his thirteen years.
Gannon shook his head. “Only your mother and grandmother could read those chicken scratches.”
“Since I found the box, may I keep it?”
“I suppose so,” Gannon sighed. “Now that I think of it, Adelka gave it to your mother years ago, and your mother wanted you to have it when you turned fifteen. You may as well keep the necklace, too. It can’t be worth much with that damaged spot, though the stone might fetch a handsome price. Just don’t lose it.”
Rolin promised he wouldn’t. He looped the chain around his neck, letting the pendant drop inside his shirt. After hiding the box under his bed for safekeeping, he clapped a cap on his head and took a seat on the wagon beside his father.
“Giddyap, Nan!” Gannon shouted to his flop-eared mule, and they clattered down the dirt lane leading to the river road below. As the wagon groaned under its load of potatoes and honeycomb, a warm spring breeze frisked among the alders leaning over the narrow track, drying the muddy ruts. Rolin chewed a piece of honeycomb while keeping an eye out for unwary sponge mushrooms poking through the weathered leaves beside the road.
“How much farther?” he asked, already knowing the answer. They still had a long, bumpy way to go.
“Far enough that if you keep eating our honey, there won’t be any left to sell!” Gannon retorted.
Rolin laughed, knowing that all of Beechtown couldn’t eat so much rich honeycomb at one sitting. He rode in silence for a mile or two, recalling the years he had made the same trip sitting on Janna’s lap. “Father, please tell me again how you and Mother met and fell in love,” he said.
The skin around Gannon’s eyes tightened and his jaw muscles knotted. Rolin hated upsetting his father, but he never tired of hearing the tale of his parents’ unusual courtship.
“It was in a tree—a tree house, you might say,” Gannon began and clucked his tongue at Nan. The mule quickened her pace. “Rumor has it that when Beechtown was still just a sleepy village, your grandmother, great with child, appeared late one night on the doorstep of a local farmhouse. Though Adelka couldn’t speak a word of our tongue, the farmer and his wife took her in and looked after her until she gave birth.”
“To a daughter,” Rolin murmured.
“Then Adelka retreated with her child into the depths of the woods,” Gannon went on. “There she made her home in the hollow of a great beech tree. From the beginning, her queer ways aroused the suspicions of our superstitious townsfolk. ‘The Toadstool Woman,’ they called her, because she used to poke about under the trees picking mushrooms to eat. After word of her healing powers got around, though, people started coming to her with their ailments. There wasn’t any magic in her concoctions of herbs and ointments, but some still thought she was a witch.” Gannon shot a sideways glance at his son. “She wasn’t, of course.”
Though Rolin already knew as much, it was a relief to hear his father say so. Gannon cleared his throat. “When I was about your age, I was a-hunting wild bees’ nests up in these hills and got myself as lost as can be. I was hungry and scared—and fevered, too. After a couple of days, the Toadstool Woman herself found me sleeping under a tree. She gave me a terrible fright, all dressed in green, with that deep look in her eyes. ‘I heard you were lost,’ she said and took me to her tree house. You know the rest.”
Rolin did. While Adelka nursed young Gannon back to health, the beekeeper fell hopelessly in love with her daughter, green-eyed, willowy Janna. Rolin smiled, remembering how his mother had taught him the secrets of the forest: where the tastiest mushrooms hid and how to tell the delicious, golden lisichki from the sickly green, deadly poganka; how to prepare a soothing poultice from sweet amentine leaves, using plenty of honeycomb; and when to cut willow and elderberry stems for making flutes and whistles. Rolin had also enjoyed gathering mushrooms and herbs with Adelka, transforming the contents of their brimming baskets into savory soups. On one such foray, Rolin had plucked up the courage to ask his grandmother where she had learned her woodlore.
“From listening to the forest,” she had wistfully replied. Ever after that, Rolin listened carefully whenever he was out in the woods but heard only the wind rustling in the tops of the trees and the scolding of squirrels. Without Adelka, the forest now felt lonely.
Presently, Rolin and his father joined the jostling mass of other market-goers on the broad road running beside the river Foamwater. Droves of goats, sheep and cows plodded beside wagons and carts piled high with bacon and fat hams, cabbages and cauliflowers, skeins of wool, sacks of candles, stacks of firewood and tools whose uses were a mystery to Rolin.
“Could you help a poor old woman with her baggage?” a shrill voice cut through the din of rumbling wheels and lowing cattle. Rolin glanced down at a swaying bundle of quilts bobbing alongside the wagon. The patchwork fabric parted, revealing a mop of hair as red as Gannon’s beard and a pair of shrewd blue eyes set in a plump, seamed face.
“Hullo, Aunt Glenna,” said Rolin with a polite nod. After tossing the hitchhiker’s quilts over Gannon’s potatoes, he helped her clamber up beside his father. Gannon pretended not to notice. “What, is my nephew the only one here with a tongue in his head?” Glenna barked. “Have you gone deaf and blind, Brother?”
As Gannon rolled his eyes, Rolin smirked. His father and outspoken aunt agreed on very little, particularly when it came to raising children—and that included Rolin’s upbringing.
“Good day to you, Sister,” Gannon grunted, gritting his teeth and clenching the reins in a white-knuckled grip. “May you live to see your great-grandchildren, and may your eyes never grow dim!”
Rolin stifled a snicker. His spinster aunt was childless, and her eyesight was poor from years of needlework.
“Hmph!” Glenna snorted. “You know very well I can’t tell a horse from a haystack at fifty paces. As for great-grandchildren, if you want any of your own, you’d better buy a place in town. The boy needs a mother, and he’ll soon need a wife, too. You won’t find either one up in those desolate hills.”
Rolin bit his lip. He didn’t want another mother. He had been happy with the one he’d had and still didn’t understand why she had died. Three summers before, a fierce mountain storm had torn through the forest, toppling Adelka’s ancient, hollow beech. Though the old woman no longer lived in the tree, she pined away before her family’s horrified eyes. Within a week, she was dead.
A month later, Rolin and his mother were listening to the woodcutters chopping their way up the mountainside through the ravaged timber. Janna flinched at the crash of each falling tree, as if feeling its final splintering agony. Then she had rushed into the woods.
The next morning, Rolin and his father found her curled up beside a downed beech in Adelka’s grove, as pale and cold as a frozen lily. She revived only long enough to tell Gannon, “Mind the box—and the birch!” With that, she had breathed her last.
The birch. Hot tears stung Rolin’s eyes at the memory of the seedling his mother had helped him plant in the bee yard on his fourth birthday. Ever since, Rolin had protected the skinny sapling from fire and drought. When a hungry beaver gnawed it down the spring after Janna’s death, the bleeding stump mirrored Rolin’s heart, cut afresh with the loss of his mother.
Gannon broke the strained silence. “We found Janna’s box.”
“That dusty old thing?” Glenna said. “I can’t imagine why she wanted Rolin to have it. Still, plain or pretty, a keepsake’s a keepsake, I always say. Goodness knows, the boy has little enough to remember his kinfolk by. Look how thin he’s become, moping about in your woods. City life would do you both a passel of good.”
“As I’ve told you before, what would I do in town?” Gannon protested. “Where would I keep my bees? The townsfolk would throw my hives in the river and me with them. ‘Beekeepers make fine friends but poor neighbors,’ as the saying goes.”
“Then find other work. They need more raftsmen nowadays.”
Gannon’s lips compressed. “You know I can’t swim.”
Glenna shrugged. “You can learn.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Besides, it’s not safe in the woods anymore, what with all the strange goings-on lately. Why, just yesterday, five of Farmer Stubblefield’s sheep up and disappeared. Disappeared, I tell you! Mark my words, first it’s sheep being carried off, and then it will be people. There are unholy noises in the night, too, such as human ear has never heard. Something evil is astir, and you would be wise to move to the safety of town as quick as you can.”
Rolin’s ears perked up. Only the week before, a bloodcurdling night cry had set his hair on end. “What kind of noises?” he asked. His father shot him a warning glance.
Already knowing where the argument was going, Rolin said, “I think I saw some sponge mushrooms under those cottonwoods. I’ll catch up with you later.” He kissed his aunt on the cheek.
“Don’t be too long,” Gannon told him. “You know how you lose track of time when you’ve found a mushroom patch!”
“And there’s another thing,” Glenna continued without skipping a beat. “You’ve got to put a stop to this toadstool-picking nonsense. It’s just not healthy. The boy’s apt to poison himself and you, too. Then where will you be? He needs to learn a respectable trade and stop wasting his time on these foolish excursions . . .”
Rolin hopped off the wagon, dodged a cart full of squawking chickens and dove into the woods, where he shuffled through the old, gray cottonwood leaves carpeting the riverbank. “Aha!” he cried, pouncing on a cluster of little tan humps peeping out from the leafy litter. After uncovering and picking the pitted, egg-shaped mushrooms, he knocked off the dirt and deposited them in his cap. He could already taste their delicate richness in a plate of steaming scrambled eggs.
Then he searched the forest floor around him, discovering more of the shy sponges. Minutes later, he emerged triumphantly from the woods with an overflowing cap.
Rolin caught up with his father and aunt on the Beechtown bridge. He hid his hat behind him and put on a long face.
“Has the mighty hunter found any trophies?” asked Gannon.
“From the look on his face, I would say not,” remarked Aunt Glenna. Then with a flourish, Rolin produced his hat.
Gannon laughed. “I might have known,” he said, looking over Rolin’s finds. “You don’t often return from your mushrooming expeditions with an empty hat.” He doffed his own cap, holding it out like one of Beechtown’s beggars. “I trust my son will share this bounty with his poor, starving father?”
“I suppose,” said Rolin with a grin, hoping to sell some of the mushrooms to buy his starglass. Then he darted into the crowd.
“Beware of pickpockets!” Glenna called after him. “And watch out for those Greencloak fellows, too. You never know . . .”
Rolin lost himself in the babble of voices: drivers shouting at their horses and mules; hawkers announcing goods for sale in singsong chants; children crying for their mothers; and troubadours playing wooden flutes. Full-bearded fur trappers hailed one another from under bundles of shaggy pelts; shepherds herded their bleating sheep with crooked staffs; and boisterous river boatmen dressed in bright red blouses sang out their ballads.
Towering above them all were the Greencloaks. Though Rolin couldn’t bring himself to believe these quiet, courteous strangers were capable of kidnapping, as his aunt claimed, he still avoided anyone robed in a dark green cloak and tunic. On reaching the market, he searched out the starglass peddler among the colorful tents, booths and tables crowding the square.
“Come right up! See the moon and stars as never before! Most amazing invention in the world!”
Rolin heard the peddler pitching his wares before he spotted the stooped old scarecrow surrounded by curious spectators, some of whom were already squinting through the wooden tubes. Rolin squeezed through to the front of the crowd, where he found one of the devices lying on a flimsy table.
“That’s right, boy, have a look-see. It won’t hurt you!” With his furrowed face, hooked nose and deep-set eyes, the old man resembled an owl. Rolin set his hat on the table and had just picked up the starglass, when—kerplunk!—the eyepiece dropped out.
As Rolin bent down to snatch the piece of glass out of the dirt, he bumped into someone beside him. “Oh, I’m s-sorry,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean to—”
“That’s quite all right,” replied the stranger, who was wearing a green tunic and cloak, brown leggings and an amused smile. “Let me help you with that.”
As he reached for the eyepiece, the man glanced at Rolin’s chest, and the smile faded from his face. Rolin looked down to see the pendant hanging outside his shirt, its stone glowing brilliantly in the sun. The thing must have slipped out while he was retrieving the eyepiece. He felt his face flush.
“Where did you get that?” the man demanded. He whistled shrilly and then grabbed at the pendant. Rolin tried to escape, but the crowd hemmed him in.
“No! You can’t have it; it’s mine!” he cried. He lunged across the table, falling at the feet of the startled vendor. Picking himself up, he squeezed between two tents and raced across the square, Greencloaks following close behind. He had to reach the bridge!
About the Author
Having spent most of his teenage years vicariously adventuring in Middle Earth, the author is an avid fantasy fan. His first allegorical fantasy title, The King of the Trees, came out in 1998 (WinePress). Bowing to reader demand, he has expanded the series to include a total of seven titles to date, with more to follow. While still in high school, he began his writing career editing his father’s popular identification guides, Edible and Poisonous Plants of the Western/Eastern States. As an Assistant Professor in the Special Education Department at Western Oregon University, he served as a successful grant-writer and program coordinator.
Burt holds a B.S. in English from Lewis and Clark College and an M.S. from Western Oregon University in Deaf Education. In addition to writing books, he works as an RID-certified American Sign Language interpreter with over thirty years’ experience. His interests include reading, foreign languages and mycology. He is married with two grown children.
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Where to Buy the Book
KOT BOOKS—offering wholesome, faith-based fantasy for all ages.
Order Book I from the website (paperback, Kindle and Nook (epub) versions)—The
King of the Trees (autographed)
Amazon.com (paperback version)—The King of the Trees
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Audio Book Link: The King of the Trees