“I’m Willow,” the young rabbit said. “And this is Rowan. He’s not my brother, so don’t ask me if he is like everyone does. He may as well be, though, because he’s absolutely helpless without me. Always getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. Anyway, we have no one now and we both need a place to live.”
According to Laurel the plantwise, those were the first words Willow said the day she arrived in Greenheart. At least, those were all the words Laurel could remember. Every day since, when the young kit spoke, it was like water rushing over stones, a constant relentless babble.
Willow only grew quiet when someone asked about her family or Rowan’s. Like most of the kits who had come to the warren, the two were orphans of the flood that had swept through the woods swifter and more terrible than any rabbit alive could remember.
All Willow said was that they were gone. Some thought she must have seen them swept away by the deluge. Others believed the two had been sent away when news of the flood reached their warren. Willow never even spoke their names. All she knew was that they were part of another life now.
Laurel took them in, not just because her heart was kind, but also because she saw in Willow a quick and curious mind. When they came to Laurel’s burrow, Willow asked the name of every root, leaf, and stem and petal in the jars and bundles lining the shelves. Where did they grow? What they were good for? What color were their flowers? What do they smell like? And so on.
Laurel’s excitement soon turned to disappointment, however. For all of her curiosity, Willow was a poor student. She remembered all of the names she was taught, but in the wrong order. The same for their uses and properties.
Rowan slept and ate with Willow and Laurel in the burrow, but during the day he helped Daub, the stoneshaper mend walls and fences. Despite what Willow said, the buck was no trouble maker. Instead, he was quiet, timid, and obedient.
Only when Daub told him stories of old rabbit heroes did Rowan brighten up. He never tired of hearing the tales of the Knights of the Clover in Oakhart and of Red Oak and his Red Riders.
Although she was very talkative, Willow had no friends among the kits in Greenheart. Amongst three or more, she would lower her eyes and shift around uncomfortably. The most immature kits would tease her cruelly, as all kits do in that brief time when they care little about the harm their words cause.
One day four of them stumbled upon Willow in the woods as she gathered hollyhocks for Laurel.
“Talk to the trees, Willow,” they taunted. “I’ll bet that stump over there is where you were born.”
She yelled at them to stop but they teased her more.
“Babbling, brook, babbling brook,” they said.
She tried to run, but they followed.
“Babbling, brook, babbling brook, drown your ears!”
Willow’s ears grew hot and stars flooded her vision. She glared at them and clenched her paws, but still, they laughed. Then one rabbit tried to brush away a stray vine clinging to his leg only to feel it grow tighter. Branches bent above them and leafy tendrils snaked around them as they cried out. Willow just glared, trembling, bearing down on them with the weight of her anger and hurt.
Only when the rabbits’ cries of fear turned to pain did Willow’s rage break. She saw them pinned together in a dense hedge of roots, vines, creepers, indeed any growing things within their reach. They looked with dark, wide eyes and begged her to stop. Horror gripped her heart and she ran.
It took until nearly dark for the sturdiest rabbits in Greenheart to cut and pry the kits loose without hurting them. Willow lay beneath her bed for hours and wouldn’t speak when Laurel found her.
The next morning Willow was still quiet when hunger brought her to Laurel’s kitchen. The plantwise was there with a bowl of porridge set before the empty chair beside her. Willow sat and began to eat.
“What exactly happened, Willow?” Laurel asked gently after they had sat in silence for a while. Willow continued to eat, and then finally spoke.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Has it ever happened before?” Laurel asked.
“Yes,” Willow answered. “No. Not like that. Never like that.”
“Do you know how…”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” Willow said, pulling her ears. “It just happened!”
“It’s okay,” Laurel said, laying her paw on Willow’s. “I’m not angry. Those kits are just fine. If you ask me, they got what they deserve. Rotten to the core. Every one.”
This made Willow smile just a bit.
“What does it mean?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Laurel said. “But I know someone who might. We’ll go and see her tomorrow.”
Normally, this would have caused Willow to unleash a storm of questions. But for the first time, she found herself afraid to know the truth of something.
They left early the next morning, Laurel, Willow, and Rowan. While the sun still slanted through the trees, they turned north onto a narrow path practically hidden from the main trail.
They went along this for some time until the sun was nearly overhead. Finally, they came to a clearing. At its far edge, a burrow was tucked into a little hill beneath the roots of a great oak tree. Wild herbs grew on the roof and unkempt, bursting gardens lay all around.
“Nettle?” Laurel called. “It’s Laurel.”
An older grey rabbit emerged from the burrow and scowled.
“I know,” she said in a sure voice. “The trees told me you were coming. Well, I’ll bring some tea.”
There were no chairs, so they sat on an old fallen branch instead. Neither was there a table. When Nettle emerged the first time with Laurel’s tea and the second with tea for Willow and Rowan, they had to hold the steaming mugs in their paws.
“So what brings you?” Nettle said abruptly. “And who are these?”
“I’m Willow,” Willow said. “And this is Rowan. He’s not my brother, so don’t ask—”
“Wasn’t going to,” Nettle said. “This one’s quite a rustling leaf,” she said to Laurel.
“There’s more,” Laurel said. “I think she has… I think she sees what you see.”
“Oh, does she now?” Nettle smirked. “What do you see, dearie?”
“I… I… I don’t see anything,” Willow stammered.
“I think, maybe, you should talk to her alone,” Laurel said.
“Oh?” Nettle said. Then she noted Rowan’s confused look. “Yes, fine. Make the buck useful while he’s here. Come on.” She motioned to Willow to come inside.
Though it was small, Nettle’s burrow felt bright and roomy. Behind the front door was a kitchen with a fireplace and a table with one stool. Herbs hung from the ceiling and shelves of jars on the walls filled with leaves, roots, and other things Willow felt she’d rather not know about.
“Are you a plantwise like Laurel?” Willow asked.
“I’m a toothsayer,” Nettle said.
“Sakes, what’s Laurel teaching you?” Nettle said, clucking her tongue. “It means I see things. Or that things see me.”
“Outside you said I was a rustling leaf,” Willow said. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’re noisy,”
“I’m sorry,” Willow said.
“Well, you shouldn’t be,” Willow said. “Some of my favorite trees are noisy. Some are quiet. Both are fine. Never be sorry for who you are. Now, why are you here?”
“I trapped some kits that were teasing me by making branches and vines grow all around them,” she said, suddenly crying through hot tears. “I don’t know how I did it. I just did! Who am I?”
“That, my dear, is the most interesting thing you’ve said so far,” Willow said. “Give me your paws.”
Willow outstretched her paws and Nettle clasped them firmly.
“Now, close your eyes and think of the very first time this ever happened to you. See it in your mind. Take me there.”
The memory was easy for Willow to conjure. It had been two years ago in her home warren which she barely remembered now. It was late in the day and she stood in a quiet clearing kissed by a soft forest breeze.
Instead of plants and flowers, however, all around, countless threads of light danced like tall grass in the sun. The trees were pillars of light stretching up into a canopy of leaves that blazed like a sea of stars. Beneath her feet, streams of light dropped into the earth into vast, unseen currents of sluggish brightness, falling, falling, threatening to pull her down with them.
Willow’s vision broke. Rowan! She dashed outside. Laurel stood wringing her paws looking up into the trunk of the great oak stretching over Nettle’s burrow.
“I just turned for a moment to look at these lovely mushrooms and he was up there!” Laurel cried.
“What are you doing?” Willow yelled.
“I wanted to see what it feels like to be a warrior,” Rowan called down in a trembling voice. “Like in Daub’s stories. But I can’t get down!”
“Just come down the same way,” Willow said.
I can’t,” Rowan said, beginning to cry. “The vines I used are over there and now I’m over here.”
“Bring the vines to him, Willow,” Nettle said, standing before her burrow.
“I can’t!” she said. “How?”
“Pull the light apart in your mind,” the toothsayer said. “Don’t let it drown you like it did when you were angry.”
“I don’t see any light?” Willow cried.
Willow looked again. She could see a faint radiance winding up the tree. It was always there, even when she tried to push it from her mind. She touched it with her mind, gently, and felt it sway. With a mixture of fear and awe, she pushed it towards Rowan.
To her amazement, he reached out for it and began to climb down. Light! He was climbing down pure light! She dared not take her attention from it and held it fiercely in her mind until he was safely down.
“How did you make the vines move like that!” He cried, staring at Willow with wide eyes.
“What about the light?” Willow said. “How did you climb down all that light?”
“What light?” Rowan asked. “I didn’t see any light.”
“Why can’t he see it?” Willow asked, turning to Nettle. “What am I?”
“You’re a tangleroot,” Nettle said.
“What does that mean?” Willow asked.
“Stay with me awhile and I’ll teach you all about it,” Nettle said. And for the first time, she smiled.