<h1>1</h1> <p class="fl">Ever since fairies had stolen away her little brother, Rowan Fox—or Red, as she now called herself—had thought of nothing except how to get him back. It consumed her and became her sole purpose, her reason for being. His disappearance had occurred less than two months after their parents’ deaths eighteen months ago. At the first opportunity, Red had run away to search for him. During the months that followed, she had lived by her wits and refused to doubt—even fleetingly—that she would find him. Her determination had been rewarded. She’d made a breakthrough. <em>The</em> breakthrough.</p> <p>She had finally gained access to the fairy realm.</p> <p>It was dawn when she awoke from a sleep that had been like a black void. She was curled into the hollow trunk of an ancient tree. Shivering, she reached out a stiff, cold hand to push aside the tangle of branches and brambles concealing her from the forest. As the mottled morning light filtered through the undergrowth, she saw the scars.</p> <p>Both palms were caked with a dark substance. Dried blood. Her skin was lacerated with thin slashes, crossing this way and that, too many to count. Yet beneath the blood, the injuries had healed to silvery scars. Her mind raced back, remembering how she had got them. Red had not been intended for the fairy realm on the night she gained access to it. Someone else had—an unwilling captive held in cruel bonds of spidertwine. In severing them, Red had cut her hands—and her intervention had allowed her to be the one who crossed into the fairy realm.</p> <p>Her empty stomach growled. Her full bladder was aching.</p> <p>Grimacing, Red pulled herself from the hollow and stumbled away from the tree. She had pins and needles in her feet from sitting cramped for so long. Warily, she took a quick look around. Unable to hold on any longer, she lowered her trousers and squatted.</p> <p>The woods were unnaturally quiet. When she was finished, she stood up and collected her belongings from the hollow. From her bag she withdrew the knife that she always carried with her and strapped it into its holster on her belt. Then she took a few steps back and looked up at the tree. It was an old and sturdy oak, but thanks to the birds—or whatever else lived in the tree—seeds from another plant had found their way into some nook of the bark and taken hold, for this other plant grew all over the tallest part of the tree. A spray of red berries caught her eye. They were rowan—her namesake—although she hadn’t been called by her real name for a long time. Another lifetime. It was the reason she had chosen this particular tree. Legend had it that rowan offered protection against enchantment—the malevolent magic of witches—and fairies.</p> <p>Uneasiness settled heavily upon her. The berries had been hard and green when she had entered the hollow shortly after midnight. Now they were red and soft, having ripened—overnight. Added to the healed scars on her hands, this unsettled her. It seemed that time had passed.</p> <p>Quickly she tried to recall what she knew of the plant. The berries usually became red in autumn. But when she had entered the hollow just after midnight, it had been July, the height of summer. Something was wrong. She had heard of time slips in the fairy realm, but if her guess was correct, it would mean that more than two months had passed since the point at which she had entered it.</p> <p>Red glanced around the forest. Nothing stirred, but she knew that this scene of peaceful isolation was an illusion. She wasn’t alone. Something would reveal its true nature eventually—a face in the bark of a tree perhaps, or a haunting song inviting her to dance. She had heard of the dangers of the fairy realm.</p> <p>Now that she was in it, she had to be ready for those dangers.</p> <p>There was one last thing to do before setting off. Using the knots in the bark of the oak tree as footholds, she hoisted herself up to reach a rowan branch that was marginally thinner than her wrist. The branch snapped immediately beneath her weight and fell to the ground.</p> <p>The rowan wood was about a foot shorter than she was tall. Resting it in the crook of her arm, she removed the knife from her belt and began hacking at the smaller twigs and branches that were growing from the wood, snapping them off to leave a staff of sorts. Now, with this added protection, she was ready.</p> <p>She moved off. The woods were silent and cool, the early morning air swirling like wraiths in a low mist on the forest floor. Dew dripped from above. Red could smell the damp leaf mold on her clothes from being inside the hollow. It was mixed with the scent of her own sweat and blood. She reeked, and she knew it.</p> <p>She walked relentlessly, following the sun as it moved higher in the sky. The air warmed a little but retained an autumnal chill. Still, she walked, her staff poised and her eyes and ears alert for any sign that she was being pursued. As the forest awoke, leaves rustled with movement above her head. A few times she looked up to catch sight of fey eyes peeping down at her. Sometimes the fairies vanished as their eyes met hers. Others, less wary, more curious, emerged farther from their nooks for a closer look, their wings and markings blending with the golden, ruby, and rich brown of the trees.</p> <p>Presently, she heard the welcome sound of running water. Her heart lightened. She headed toward it until she found herself before a tiny brook that cut through the forest.</p> <p>It trickled past, carrying the odd leaf here and there. Red knelt thankfully at its edge, placing the wooden staff carefully in front of her knees so that it remained close should she need it. She pulled her backpack off and unzipped one of the compartments to withdraw her water flask. She shook it; it was almost empty, containing less than a mouthful of liquid. She unscrewed the lid and emptied the stale water onto the grass next to her before taking the flask and plunging it into the water. It ran over her hand, icy and fresh.</p> <p>Once the flask was full, she took several long gulps before returning it to her bag. Afterward she turned back to the water and began to gently wash the blood from her hands, watching as it disappeared into the flowing stream like swirls of dark red paint. She scooped up handfuls of water and sloshed them over her face and neck. Refreshed, she sat back on her haunches and watched her reflection in the stream. It swayed with the movement of the water, and with another jolt Red saw that her hair had grown. Leaning forward, she lifted a hand to her head and touched her mousy tresses. She had cut it herself only days before, into a short boyish style. But sure enough, it was longer. Half an inch of her natural auburn showed at the roots. Time had definitely passed.</p> <p>Suddenly a figure appeared in the water beside her reflection. Quick as a cat, Red grabbed the rowan staff and turned as the figure loomed toward her, just inches away. Red slid back in shock, losing her balance. She fell backward into the brook and dropped her wooden staff. At the same time, a swarm of birds and fairies scattered from the trees above, shrieking warning calls as they deserted the area.</p> <p>As Red emerged spluttering from the chilly water, she glimpsed the rowan stick drifting downstream, out of reach.</p> <p>A rough hand stretched toward her, accompanied by a low voice.</p> <p>“Come, child…”</p> <p>The face of the woman to whom the voice belonged was partially hidden in the shadow of the hooded green cape she wore. Beneath the hood long, grizzled hair spewed out, spilling over the woman’s shoulders. There were things tied and knotted into her tendrils—pieces of rag and little rolls of parchment. Red could see a little of her face. A crooked nose—thin at the bridge and broad at the tip—was the dominant feature. Her nostrils were large and pink-rimmed. Her mouth was thin and curved, her lips colorless like the rest of her skin, but when she spoke, the inside of the mouth was unusually red. There were dried flecks of spittle at its corners. It was impossible to tell whether she was fey or human.</p> <p>“Come,” she said again, with difficulty, as though the words felt strange in her mouth. She hunched suddenly, giving a horrible, hacking cough.</p> <p>Red stood her ground, not moving an inch. Her heart was still hammering from the woman’s sudden appearance. How had she arrived so soundlessly? Water ran from Red in rivulets, and her hand gripped the hilt of her knife, ready to pull it out. She saw the woman’s head incline and knew she had noticed the knife, still sheathed firmly in Red’s belt, at precisely that moment. Red moved her hand very slightly, as though she were about to draw the knife. Though she was unsure whether the woman meant her harm, something in Red’s gut made her uneasy. She wanted the woman gone, and if it meant scaring her, then so be it.</p> <p>The woman backed away as silently as she had come, edging between the trees. Red watched, still motionless, as the woman slowly vanished from sight. There was something strange about the way the woman had moved, something she was unable to pin down. Red shook herself as goose pimples appeared on her arms. She was cold now, as well as hungry. She needed to find food—and soon.</p> <p>She gathered her bag and made to move off, habitually checking her knife with a quick pat of the hand. The familiar feel of the cold hilt reassured her. Lifting her bag onto her shoulder, she set off, determined to set a quick pace in order to keep warm, and dry off. Her wet clothes clung to her, and her hair dripped icy water down the nape of her neck. She shivered, and walked faster, cursing the fact that she had nothing else to change into. All she owned were the clothes on her back.</p> <p>She had not walked very far when she saw another fairy. In the stillness of the woods, a subtle movement in the branches overhead caught her attention. A gray-skinned creature the size of a small child was hunched in the trees above. It was squat and rotund, its skin leathery like an elephant’s hide. At either side of its dome-shaped head were large, batlike ears. It looked like an ugly stone gargoyle. She paused momentarily before proceeding, never taking her eyes off it. The creature returned her gaze with an unflinching, amber-eyed stare, and crouched lower on the branch, holding on with ragged-looking claws. Its sudden appearance made her realize that the other rustlings and whisperings had stopped. Either the fairies were being very quiet or this part of the woods was strangely lacking in their numbers.</p> <p>Cautious now, she kept up her stride as she passed beneath the branches, the creature still overhead. On the pathway before her lay a fallen tree, the width of its thick trunk reaching the height of her knee. In front of it lay heavy bracken and other forest debris. She needed to watch her footing. Momentarily she took her eyes off the gargoyle-like thing above to step over the tree trunk. As she did so, two things happened at once. The first was a strange sound coming from overhead: the chink and clinking of metal on metal. The second was that, as she lowered her foot to the earth beyond the fallen tree, the ground gave way beneath her.</p> <p>As she plummeted forward, arms flailing, her left leg, still behind the tree, was forced onto its bark—carried by her own weight. She felt fabric and flesh tear as they caught the rough surface, extending down the length of her shin as gravity propelled her over. She was falling through branches and foliage into darkness. As the ground swallowed her, the last thing she was aware of was a high-pitched cackling before everything went black.</p> <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>13 Curses</b> by <b>Harrison, Michelle</b> Copyright © 2011 by Harrison, Michelle. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.