Listen to the trees
The trees know what is up, yo
They know all the things
MEG’S RESOLVE may have been wavering, but Peaches’s was not.
When I hesitated to follow Meg’s orders, the grain spirit bared his fangs and hissed, “Peaches,” as if that was a new torture technique.
“Fine,” I told Meg, my voice turning bitter. The truth was, I had no choice. I could feel Meg’s command sinking into my muscles, compelling me to obey.
I faced the fused oaks and put my hands against their trunks. I felt no oracular power within. I heard no voices—just heavy stubborn silence. The only message the trees seemed to be sending was: GO AWAY.
“If we do this,” I told Meg, “Nero will destroy the grove.” “He won’t.”
“He has to. He can’t control Dodona. Its power is too ancient. He can’t let anyone else use it.”
Meg placed her hands against the trees, just below mine. “Concentrate. Open them. Please. You don’t want to anger the Beast.”
She said this in a low voice—again speaking as if the Beast was someone I had not yet met…a boogeyman lurking under the bed, not a man in a purple suit standing a few feet away.
I could not refuse Meg’s orders, but perhaps I should have protested more vigorously. Meg might have backed down if I called her bluff. But then Nero or Peaches or the Germani would have just killed me. I will confess to you: I was afraid of dying. Courageously, nobly, handsomely afraid, true. But afraid nonetheless.
I closed my eyes. I sensed the trees’ implacable resistance, their mistrust of outsiders. I knew that if I forced open these gates, the grove would be destroyed. Yet I reached out with all my willpower and sought the voice of prophecy, drawing it to me.
I thought of Rhea, Queen of the Titans, who had first planted this grove. Despite being a child of Gaea and Ouranos, despite being married to the cannibal king Kronos, Rhea had managed to cultivate wisdom and kindness. She had given birth to a new, better breed of immortals. (If I do say so myself.) She represented the best of the ancient times.
True, she had withdrawn from the world and started a pottery studio in Woodstock, but she still cared about Dodona. She had sent me here to open the grove, to share its power. She was not the kind of goddess who believed in closed gates or NO TRESPASSING signs. I began to hum softly “This Land Is Your Land.”
The bark grew warm under my fingertips. The tree roots trembled.
I glanced at Meg. She was deep in concentration, leaning against the trunks as if trying to push them over. Everything about her was familiar: her ratty pageboy hair, her glittering cat-eye glasses, her runny nose and chewed cuticles and faint scent of apple pie.
But she was someone I didn’t know at all: stepdaughter to the immortal crazy Nero. A member of the Imperial Household. What did that even mean? I pictured the Brady Bunch in purple togas, lined up on the family staircase with Nero at the bottom in Alice’s maid uniform. Having a vivid imagination is a terrible curse.
Unfortunately for the grove, Meg was also the daughter of Demeter. The trees responded to her power. The twin oaks rumbled. Their trunks began to move.
I wanted to stop, but I was caught up in the momentum. The grove seemed to be drawing on my power now. My hands stuck to the trees. The gates opened wider, forcibly spreading my arms. For a terrifying moment, I thought the trees might keep moving and rip me limb from limb. Then they stopped. The roots settled. The bark cooled and released me.
I stumbled back, exhausted. Meg remained, transfixed, in the newly opened gateway.
On the other side were…well, more trees. Despite the winter cold, the young oaks rose tall and green, growing in concentric circles around a slightly larger specimen in the center. Littering the ground were acorns glowing with a faint amber light. Around the grove stood a protective wall of trees even more formidable than the ones in the antechamber. Above, another tightly woven dome of branches guarded the place from aerial intruders.
Before I could warn her, Meg stepped across the threshold. The voices exploded. Imagine forty nail guns firing into your brain from all directions at once. The words were babble, but they tore at my sanity, demanding my attention. I covered my ears. The noise just got louder and more persistent.
Peaches clawed frantically at the dirt, trying to bury his head. Vince and Gary writhed on the ground. Even the unconscious demigods thrashed and moaned on their stakes.
Nero reeled, his hand raised as if to block an intense light. “Meg, control the voices! Do it now!” Meg didn’t appear hurt by the noise, but she looked bewildered. “They’re saying something…” She
swept her hands through the air, pulling at invisible threads to untangle the pandemonium. “They’re agitated. I can’t—Wait…”
Suddenly the voices shut off, as if they’d made their point.
Meg turned toward Nero, her eyes wide. “It’s true. The trees told me you mean to burn them.” The Germani groaned, half-conscious on the ground. Nero recovered more quickly. He raised a
finger, admonishing, guiding. “Listen to me, Meg. I’d hoped the grove could be useful, but obviously it is fractured and confused. You can’t believe what it says. It’s the mouthpiece of a senile Titan queen. The grove must be razed. It’s the only way, Meg. You understand that, don’t you?”
He kicked Gary over onto his back and rifled through the bodyguard’s pouches. Then Nero stood, triumphantly holding a box of matches.
“After the fire, we’ll rebuild,” he said. “It will be glorious!”
Meg stared at him as if noticing his horrendous neck beard for the first time. “Wh-what are you talking about?”
“He’s going to burn and level Long Island,” I said. “Then he’ll make it his private domain, just like he did with Rome.”
Nero laughed in exasperation. “Long Island is a mess anyway! No one will miss it. My new imperial complex will extend from Manhattan to Montauk—the greatest palace ever built! We’ll have private rivers and lakes, one hundred miles of beachfront property, gardens big enough for their own zip codes. I’ll build each member of my household a private skyscraper. Oh, Meg, imagine the parties we will have in our new Domus Aurea!”
The truth was a heavy thing. Meg’s knees buckled under its weight.
“You can’t.” Her voice shook. “The woods—I’m the daughter of Demeter.”
“You’re my daughter,” Nero corrected. “And I care for you deeply. Which is why you need to move aside. Quickly.”
He set a match to the striking surface of the box. “As soon as I light these stakes, our human torches will send a wave of fire straight through that gateway. Nothing will be able to stop it. The entire forest will burn.”
“Please!” Meg cried.
“Come along, dearest.” Nero’s frown hardened. “Apollo is of no use to us anymore. You don’t want to wake the Beast, do you?”
He lit his match and stepped toward the nearest stake, where my son Austin was bound.