Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2018 finalist, Suchitha Reddy! Suchitha finished 6th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “The Forester.”  Here’s what one of our judges had to say about Suchitha’s story: “The storyline is compelling and intriguing. The writer uses twists and turns to create a sense of mystery and enchantment.”  Enjoy!

Remi’s eyes fluttered open as beams of sunlight poured into her quaint cottage. Her pixie style hair was strewn across her face. She groggily climbed out of bed. The only part of her that seemed alert were her bright green eyes. Her father always used to say, “You’re like my own little emerald.” She hastily pulled up her amber hair into a tight ponytail and draped her army green jacket over her shoulders. The jacket was a gift from her mother for her 18th birthday earlier that year. She laced on her supple leather hiking boots that had molded to her feet. Slowly, she turned her ivory doorknob, careful not to make a noise. The isolated village of Elkwood was filled with hills. They were like waves in the vast sea that bordered them from neighboring villages. The village was placed on the outskirts of a never ­ending forest guarded by an imposing fence. Remi started on her way to the Ashbrook Meadow with the blazing sun looking upon her.

Remi’s father had taught her how to forage when she was very young. It was what had kept her father alive when he lived in the neighboring village. She had felt like a deer, frolicking through the meadow. As Remi passed by the usually inviting forest, she discovered that a dark tinge was slowly creeping up some of the branches of a tree. It was like ink bleeding on paper. It seemed lifeless. The tall trees in the heart of the forest were slowly taking on this color too. Maybe it’s because of the weather? Remi hoped greatly that nothing bad was happening to the forest, but the damage she saw was inevitable.

The meadow was dotted with specks of color. Spring was nearly there, and the flowers had already started to bloom. Remi popped a boysenberry into her mouth, and its sweet taste spread across her tongue. She harvested some more of the berries for her journey home and for her supper. Although there were usually plenty of berries in the marketplace of the village, the numbers of berries and other produce were slowly diminishing. Remi made her journey back home as the sun started to set, and the thought of the forest was still lingering in her head.

Remi stood on top of a hill looking over at the plagued forest. The people looked parched and weak. The sun made her feel as if her skin was blistering. Remi awoke with heavy panting. She hoped that her dream would never become a reality. Remi longingly peered out her window facing the forest. How she wanted to figure out what was causing this dreadful behavior. Remi’s urge to get out into the forest greatened each day but there was the one matter that she could not get past. Ellie, the prided village chief, had fenced off the forest for a reason. Remi had a very agile build and thought she could easily scale the fence. What if there are unspeakable dangers in the forest? Remi banished the thought. She knew she had to do something to save the forest, but it wouldn’t be now.

Today is the day. She hesitantly placed her hand on her doorknob. Should I do it? The door opened at a snail’s pace. She placed her foot on the dewy grass and slowly trudged forward questioning each step she made toward the forest. Now only a few feet away from the grand fence surrounding the forest, Remi thought that it seemed to tower to the sky. The view from her quaint cottage was quite different than the reality of the never­ending forest. What if I fall? The skyscraper of a fence now startled her. As she placed her hand on the barrier she heard the sound of footsteps seeming to approach the fence. She quickly ducked behind a nearby shrub. She took a quick glance outside and crouched back down. She had seen the blurred view of a woman’s face. It was Ellie. What is she doing out here?

Ellie took out a small vial filled with an iridescent liquid. Remi’s hands were shaking. Droplets of perspiration were starting to form on her forehead, as she slowly shuffled out from behind the bush. Ellie ran her fingers along the side of a battered section of the fence and to Remi’s surprise, the fence broke apart to reveal an entry into the forest. Remi carefully placed one step after another and stealthily trailed behind Ellie. Clutching the vial tightly, Ellie poured out its contents onto an old, withered tree. In an instant, a dark tinge started creeping up the tree. Ellie left and closed the entry behind her. Remi’s hands were shaking and a chill tingled her spine.

Ellie stole a quick glance at Remi. Ellie questioned, “What are you doing here?”

“I um, uh,” Remi stuttered, “lost my ring here the other day?”

Ellie gave her a suspicious look. “ You are not allowed to come near the forest until further notice,” Ellie warned with a threatening gaze.

Remi’s heart was pounding and her hands were shaking. Ellie’s presence made her cower with fear. Remi knew that she had to obey Ellie’s commands. She headed back to her home with a premonition that Ellie was going to hurt the forest. Remi didn’t want to let go of all her hope instantly.

Remi was up with the sun. She silently crept out of her bed and started walking toward the forest. The dark plague that she had seen before was worsening. If it went another week like this, the people would starve. The fence surrounding the forest seemed to challenge her. She examined the fence looking for the damaged section. Her fingers traced along a groove in the fence and to her surprise, the door opened. She took a step into the vast forest and the woodland animals seemed frenzied. They were running about this way and that hoping to find food not affected by the darkness. Thwack! A branch plummeted from the sky. The crunching of a leaf did it for Remi. Already jumpy, she was now frantic. She ran deeper into the woods not knowing where she was going or what was on her trail. Remi crouched down with beads of sweat forming on her forehead. She knew she could run no more. Suddenly, a shadow fell upon Remi. Her nstincts made her turn around.

“Who are you, and what are you doing in this forest?” A girl about Remi’s age confronted her. Her wispy, strawberry blonde hair fell to her shoulders. Her blue eyes gave Remi an intimidating stare. She wore a weathered brown leather jacket and carried a small dagger in her hand.

“I mean no harm. I have come from the village of Elkwood and intend to stop the dreadful plague that has cursed this forest.”

The girl’s face tightened. She looked as if she was in pain. “I am Mira Elkwood. My father used to be the chief of the village. My ancestors are the ones who started the village many many years ago. When I was a young girl, my mother passed away, and my father married Ellie of the neighboring village. My father fell ill and without him knowing, Ellie banished me to the forest. I have been living here for ten years and have never heard any news, not even a whisper about my father.”

“I’m sorry. I tried to get into the forest but Ellie spotted me. She poured a liquid into a tree, and it started turning black like the other trees.”

“Prioria Incantuous, I should have known. It has the power to heal things or destroy them. It is made from a plant that only grows in Altissimus, the highest peak,” Mira explained.

Time had slipped away from them and before she knew it, Remi slowly dozed off. Her dreams were no longer about a great famine but the plant that could save them all.

Beams of sunlight poured through the trees. The melodic bird calls echoed throughout the forest. Remi’s eyes fluttered open. Mira was out trying to forage for berries not affected by the plague. The foraging was successful and Mira returned with two fistfuls of lingonberries. The tart taste of the berries exploded in Remi’s mouth. It reminded her of the berries she had found in the meadow.

“I know the way to Altissimus. My father taught me to follow the southern star and I will find it. He went there himself as a child. We must leave now if we are to get there by tomorrow.”

The southern star was not a star but a quartet of trees taller than a skyscraper, taller than Altissimus, and as old as the earth itself. Mira had a huge leather backpack on but Remi didn’t dare question her.

Mira’s urgency got to Remi and they started to trek toward Altissimus. The various meadows and fields near the forest seemed to be unaffected by this plague. The faint discoloration of the grass turned into a trail. Remi and Mira continued to pass by various boulders, meadows, and hills. The sky was now painted with hues of tangerine and cotton candy.

“I see it! Look!” Mira called out. The faint peak of Altissimus could be seen among the hills that surrounded it, but there was still a long way to go. It was nightfall by the time they were in close proximity to the mountain. The huge mountain dwarfed them and they were like ants standing next to an elephant. At the foot of the mountain was a large cave. Mira dared to venture into it,
hoping that it might lead her to the Prioria Incantuous flower.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. You can’t just walk into a cave. I am going to try to find another route to the top.” Remi was certain that the cave was a bad idea but Mira was persistent and went into the cave without a light or Remi.

Remi paced along the perimeter of the mountain, finding a smaller cave entrance. There was no other way into the midst of the mountain. Remi peered into the cave and the pitch black darkness greeted her. Remi knew she had to find the plant. She slowly planned out each step putting one foot in front of the other. The smallest of sounds made her lose her confidence. She saw a path of illuminating amethyst light. That has to be the plant. What else could it be? She trailed behind the glow and to her disappointment, she didn’t see the plant but did see something else, a stone staircase and Mira.

“I followed the light!” Mira exclaimed.

“I did too. I was hoping to find the plant here but the only thing here of interest is that staircase. It has to lead to something!”

They cautiously climbed up the staircase. The stone steps were narrow and there was no railing. Rock and crystal formations surrounded them. The long flight of stairs led them onto a platform almost entirely made out of crystal. Although the crystals were captivating, the pièce de résistance of the display was the violet flower, in the center of the platform, that illuminated the
whole room.

“Is this it?” Remi desperately wanted to know.

“I think so.” Mira delicately picked two of the flower buds, from the plant, and placed them in a small pouch. “Now all we have to do is mix these with the forest springwater, and it will help the forest return to its natural state. We must now find somewhere to stay for the night.”

The search for shelter moved them closer to the forest. Mira propped up a sheet of leather supported by a few sticks against a tree. “You can stay in here, and I will sleep up there.” Mira pointed to another sheet of leather, similar to the one she had made into a shelter, affixed to a branch about seven feet up into the tree. It wasn’t long before both the girls slowly dozed off.

Remi and Mira walked back to the forest at a quicker pace. The meadows seemed endless, but they were in the forest by noon. Mira mixed the bud into the murky springwater and nothing happened.

“Maybe it isn’t working,” Remi suggested. Suddenly, the water turned a murky shade of brown. Things were seemingly becoming worse. “Are you sure you did it right?” Remi hoped that the answer would be yes.

A panicked look spread across Mira’s face. “I don’t know what could have gone wrong. We did everything the spell calls for,” Mira replied.

In an effort to make things better Remi started dumping various things into the water but nothing worked.

Suddenly Mira remembered. “Wait! I picked two flower buds!” Mira exclaimed. She rummaged to find the small pouch in which she had kept the flower buds. She slowly placed the other bud into the water. The murky shade of brown in the water was slowly turning back to its original clear color. The curse was reversing. A smile started creeping up Mira’s face. It was the first time that she had smiled in years.

Mira followed Remi back to the village. It seemed as if Ellie was waiting for them. “ Well, well, well, if it isn’t Mira Elkwood and Remi Deerbrook. I thought you were not to go near the woods. As for you, little Mira, I thought I’d never see you again. Thanks to you, I have lost all of the money I made trading with the neighboring villages. I might have to banish you both this time.” Ellie cackled.

“Since I am back,” Mira stated, “I have to become the rightful chief of Elkwood and you shall be banished.”

“No one knows what I am doing. Do you really think that they will believe you?”

“Actually, they are right behind you!” Remi had gathered all of the village people while Mira distracted Ellie. The angered people of Elkwood started to push Ellie toward the forest. The mob crowded around her. The foul nature of the village chief had finally been revealed.

The crowning ceremony took place in the village hall. Mira was dressed in a long, scarlet dress that came down to her ankles. It was made of the finest gossamer silk found in the forest. Her hair was pinned in a tight braid around her head and on her head rested a crown. It was Elkwood tradition that the female village chiefs were to wear a dazzling crown reflecting all the colors possibly imaginable, on the day they become chief.

“For those of you who do not know me, I am Mira Elkwood. My father was the village chief. Ellie banished me to the forest when I was very young. I stand here before you to tell you that my first order as village chief is to remove the fence that surrounds our forest. Now anyone can go into the forest and explore the many things that the forest provides.” The hall was filled with applause. Ellie had never issued anything for the benefit of the people. She hadn’t even spoken to them. “I shall make my first advisor and assistant chief Remi Deerbrook.”

Remi was speechless. Her hands were cupped around her mouth. Without saying anything, Remi went up onto the platform and wrapped her arms around Mira. “Thank you,” Remi whispered.

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