"She had never screamed before, not when she overturned the rowboat and almost drowned, not even when Lightfoot bucked her off and she felt her leg break underneath her with an agonizing crunch. But now she screamed long and loud, with all her breath."
Hallow Hill has a strange and tragic history. For thousands of years, young women have been vanishing from the estate, never to be seen again. Now Kate and Emily have come to live at Hallow Hill. Brought up in a civilized age, they have no idea of the land's dreadful heritage-until, that is, Marak decides to tell them himself.
Intelligent, pleasant, and completely pitiless, Marak is a powerful magician who claims to be a king-and he has very specific plans for the two new girls who have trespassed into his kingdom.
The Hollow Kingdom is a 2004 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
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Clare B. Dunkle grew up in north Texas, where her favorite activity was living inside other people's stories. She worked for years as a librarian and still thinks of the library as home. She wrote The Hollow Kingdom in a series of letters to her two teenaged daughters, who attend a German boarding school. They remain her biggest fans and harshest critics. Ms. Dunkle lives in Germany with her family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The change in Kate was obvious to all, but no one understood it. Prim and Celia were sure Kate's restless unhappiness was due to disappointment. Prim assured her that Hugh would give in to their arguments and take her into town, but Kate no longer wanted to go. In the aftermath of her guardian's horrible disclosure, society parties had gone quite out of her head.
Kate couldn't bear for her little sister to find out that they weren't really family, so she said nothing about what she had learned, and she tried to keep up a cheerful appearance. But keeping a secret from loved ones is a heavy burden, and now she was keeping two secrets. Her nightmares were wearing her out, and her worried sister's constant questions were upsetting her. Prim noticed the pale cheeks and the dark shadows under her niece's eyes. Lips tight, she called the doctor, but neither he nor Prim could find anything wrong. Between them, they dosed Kate with a variety of strong and well-meaning remedies that did no good at all.
The weather changed with the approaching end of summer, and clouds gathered over the Hill. One breathless afternoon nothing could bring relief to spirit or body. A gray haze hung in the air, too diffuse to be called clouds, but too thick to be called anything else. The sun shone through it as a brilliant white spot, and not a whisper of wind stirred. As evening came, no thunder rumbled in the hills, and no breeze sprang up to fan their clammy cheeks. The sun was leaving without a blaze of color. The thick haze just seemed to swallow it.
"Please, Aunt Prim, let us walk up in the hills and see if we can't find some cool wind somewhere," Kate begged. "I promise we'll come back before it gets dark." Her aunt knew better than to let her go. Storms were sure to follow a day like this, even if they were taking their time building. But at last she gave consent, with all the conditions that approaching storms and nightfall demanded. They were to stay out of the woods, watch the sky, and come back at the first sign of bad weather.
The girls headed down through the orchard, intent on the rocky meadows beyond. Kate was sure that if they climbed to the top of one of those grassy hills, they were bound to find a breeze, but at the top of their meadow, they found no breath stirring. The twilight was blending with the strange, close sky to form a dark brown haze, and the grass at their feet shone with a blond shimmer, as if the few rays of light left could not rise above the surface of the ground. Landmarks even a few yards away were melting into the brown gloom. Purple lightning bloomed across the dark sky before them.
"We'd better go back," sighed Kate.
They waded through the grass back down the hillside. Ahead of them in the thick dusk stood the stone wall of the meadow, but no gate appeared as they followed the meadow's edge.
"Wait, Em, we must have gotten turned around. The gate's over there."
As their fence formed a corner with another stone fence, the gate appeared a few feet from them, white boards gleaming in the dim light. They hurried over to it as another shining purple curtain shook across the sky, and swinging the gate shut, they sped up the little road before them.
A couple of minutes later, they stopped short in bewilderment. Another stone fence blocked their path. But how was this possible? They should be at the orchard by now. The two girls climbed a slight rise and looked around in all directions, trying to make out the shapes of trees that marked the orchard. Some faint light still remained. They could see each other's faces, pale in the deep dusk, but now they couldn't distinguish the black horizon from the black cloudbanks. The lightning, undulating over the swollen masses of the clouds, was distant and too weak to see by. It gleamed silently first in front and then behind them.
"This makes no sense," Kate said firmly, thinking over the way they had come. "All we had to do was walk back down the hill, through the gate, and up the orchard path. We've missed the gate somehow. There must be two in that meadow, and we hit on the other one. We'll follow the road back and look for the other gate out of that field, the one that takes us to the orchard."
With that plan in mind, they started off confidently, but now their light was gone. They found the little road again more by feel than by sight, but it didn't lead them to a gate. It turned and skirted along another stone wall, went through a tumbled-down gap, and lost itself altogether in a narrow draw.
Again and again, Kate tried desperately to find the right path in the darkness, making them s20retrace their steps, but each time they did, they lost their old landmarks. Everything seemed to shift in the darkness around them. They had no idea which direction they faced or where home was. They could only tell that they were moving farther and farther from the shelter of the woodlands. The fields were flattening out, and stone fences were becoming rare.
There followed a time which was the worst in their lives. Method was gone, and landmarks were forgotten. They blundered along hand in hand through the dense blackness, following any path they crossed. Lightning seemed to be all around them now, and every white flash lit up a dreary landscape that held no familiar sight. One black field followed another. They might be one mile from home, or they might be ten. They certainly felt that they had walked a hundred.
As they stumbled along, footsore and exhausted, Emily let out an excited squeak and tugged Kate around. Far across the fields, a light was shining. It wavered, winked out, and then showed up again. The girls turned and scrambled toward it.
The light was a bonfire, blazing up in the darkness with a reddish glow, and figures moved back and forth before it. The fire lit up no house or barn. It appeared to be built in the middle of an empty field. Kate began to watch the figures by the fire uneasily. A hunting party? Gypsies? Vagabonds? Two men stood by the fire in long cloaks, their hoods pulled down over their faces. That spoke perhaps of hunting and of the stormy weather. But two or three short people moved about as well. Children? They had to be, but there was something odd about their shapes. As the girls came nearer, Kate noticed four horses standing patiently beyond the fire. They appeared to be saddled. Hunting, then, but who would be out on such a night? She began to slow down, not so anxious to walk out of the darkness toward this strange group, but Emily, clutching Kate's hand, began to speed up. Warmth, light, people-these held no fears for her. She broke into a trot, pulling her sister behind her.
The party turned, sensing their approach. One of the short figures broke away from the fire-lit circle and bustled toward them.
"Oh, look! Two pretty girls right out of the storm! Do let old Agatha tell your fortune, dears."
"Gypsies!" whispered Emily excitedly as Agatha hurried up. Kate stared down, astonished, at the shortest woman she had ever seen. Agatha came up only a little past Kate's waist, but her small, stocky body did not appear to be hunched or twisted. The old face was seamed into countless wrinkles, and the black eyes snapped and sparkled in the firelight. "Here," she said, capturing Kate's hand in her own surprisingly large one, "come by the fire so I can see your pretty face."
As Kate followed Agatha over to the bonfire, she glanced around nervously at the other members of the party. The two men stood nearby. One was only a little taller than she, thick and barrel-chested. The other man, of average height, towered over him. Perhaps they had been conversing before, but now they were silent, watching Agatha and the two girls. They were draped in the black cloaks and hoods she had noticed earlier, and she could see nothing at all of their faces. This was prudent, given the coming storm, but it irked Kate to be seen and not to see. She wished she had a cloak of her own.
Agatha, meanwhile, was peering intently at Kate's palm, turning it this way and that in the firelight. "Oh," she breathed. "Not every young lady has a hand like this." Kate heard chuckles from the men. "But, dear," she said, ignoring them, "I see danger in this hand. Danger from someone very close to you." Now the men roared with laughter. "Be quiet, the two of you!" She whirled on them, still holding Kate fast. "I'm very serious!"
"What about me?" demanded Emily eagerly, holding out her hand to the old woman. "Do you see danger in my hand?" Old Agatha took her small palm and turned it toward the fire.
"And such a lively thing you are, my dear!" she said to Emily. "Still a long way from marriage, aren't you? Well, that can't be helped, and one does grow, you know." Emily giggled over this odd speech, but Kate frowned. Hugging her arms about her, she stepped back from the firelight and eyed the two men warily. Now they had turned away and were talking again in quiet tones. She couldn't seem to catch what they were saying. The taller one threw his head back and laughed at something the short one said. She noticed as he laughed that he carried one shoulder higher than the other.
"Your palm speaks of tears early but laughter late," Agatha summed up grandly. "That's as good as a palm can say. You've a lovely, open nature, child."
"Oh, Kate, look!" Emily called excitedly. Kate turned to see a huge black tomcat approaching the fire. It rubbed its head against Emily's knee, its velvet coat shining in the light. Kate felt as if she couldn't breathe. Surely the cat was four times-no, six times-larger than the largest cat she'd ever seen!
"Isn't he beautiful?" squealed Emily, kneeling to tickle his chin. She loved animals of all descriptions, and her greatest regret was that the aunts wouldn't let her keep pets. The enormous cat was almost eye to eye with her. "Miaow?" he said plainly, and that is just what it sounded like: a miaow said by a person imitating a cat. Kate shook her head and stared hard at the giant feline as if he were a puzzle she needed to solve. Something needed explaining here. Perhaps she was just dreaming?
"Oh, scat, Seylin!" scolded Agatha, waving her big hands. "Such a nuisance you are, really! Go on!" The men walked away, heading toward the horses. A small boy came out of the shadows to throw wood on the fire. Kate thought she saw a beard on his face as he turned to look at her. Just a trick of the light, perhaps, or nerves. Enough of this! Emily stepped toward the shadows, coaxing, "Seylin..." Kate caught her by the arm and pulled her around, turning to the old woman.
"Thank you so much for the fortunes," she began firmly, "but what-"
"Oh, I know all about it, dears!" Agatha interrupted kindly. "Two pretty girls lost on a wild night, scared and tired, looking for the way home. You let old Agatha take care of that. We'll take you home, don't worry. Can't have you out in a storm like this, no. And the only question is, who will take whom? Let's see, where did they go? What's your name, dear, Kate? And who will take Kate home, eh?"
The taller man was leading his horse, a large gray hunter that any gentleman might be proud to own. Kate noticed that the man limped slightly. That, along with the high shoulder. Old age? His posture was unaffected, and he carried himself with dignity. He couldn't be old; he had laughed like a young man, and when he spoke, his voice was not an old man's voice. It was rich and pleasant, naturally commanding. "Don't worry, Agatha. I'll take your Kate home, of course." Amused and tolerant. Amused at what? The old woman? Their silliness in getting lost?
"Oh, Marak!" breathed Agatha delightedly, turning her twinkling black eyes on him. Kate felt again that sense of unease. Why the delight and excitement over a simple, good-hearted gesture? The man brought his horse up to her wordlessly and turned to check the saddle. She could see nothing but a black cloak. Good cloth, Aunt Prim would say. Expensive cloth, generously cut. Big, gloved hands pulling down the stirrup. Kate looked more closely. The right hand had six fingers.
"W-wait!" she stammered. "You-you don't know where we live. How can you promise to take us home if you don't know where we live?" The man paused for a fraction of a second and then continued his work without looking up. She turned quickly, hoping to see a surprised look on Agatha's face, hoping to find some answer to the riddle she was facing. But Emily blurted out helpfully, "Yes, we live in the Hallow Hill Lodge. Do you know where that is? Are we very far from there?"
"Of course we know where you live, dears," replied Agatha with a chuckle. "Do you think anyone in this country doesn't know of the pretty girls come to live with the two old ladies up in the forest? We've not got much to gossip over around here. Now, let's see. Marak, shouldn't Thaydar take the little one along? Such a receptive nature, such pluck."
"I think so," replied that amused, amiable voice. "It's probably for the best. So, ready?" And he turned to Kate, putting out his hands to boost her up onto his horse. Emily was stroking the horse's neck delightedly. He was far finer than any at the Hall.
"No!" said Kate, stepping back and treading on her sister's foot. "I-I prefer to walk, thank you." A silence swept across the little group.
"Oh, Kate!" Emily gasped.
The rider dropped his hands slowly and seemed to stare down at her from beneath his hood. He was almost a head taller than she was. "Really," he said distinctly, all amusement gone from that commanding voice. His manner was beyond cold. It was glacial.
Kate forced herself to hold up her head and face him as the blood rushed through her cheeks in a tingling wave. She wasn't sure why she had said what she did, but she would not be faced down now by strangers. Something was wrong here; she knew it. She refused to be a fool for them.
"Yes," she replied as calmly and formally as she could. "Please lead my sister and me to the Hallow Hill Lodge, where we live. If you do, we will be very grateful. I hope we are not far from the Lodge because we do not wish to try your patience too long."
The hooded man continued to stare at her for a long moment. Then he gave a short laugh. "Well, well, how intriguing! No," he continued firmly over Agatha's spluttered protests, "we will certainly humor the cautious young woman. Thaydar, I'll not need you. I believe one horse is sufficient to point out the way." He swung up into the saddle. "Now, shall we begin our walk?" 0he added to the two girls. "Or, that is-" he went on, bending toward Emily. "I assume that you prefer to walk, too?"
"I do not!" said Emily decidedly, glaring at her sister. She caught the rider's arm and let herself be swung up before him.
"Em!" shouted Kate, panicked, but it was too late. He settled her little sister comfortably and put the horse into a plodding walk. Kate stoo...
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