no place like oz Page 16

I didn’t care. I raced down the path as fast as I could, as narrow and obstructed as it was, praying with each stride that my foot found a solid landing.

The forest was dark and overgrown. The trees grasped and clawed; they swiped at me with their sharp branches and bent their trunks to trip me.

Instead of screaming, they were now grunting and hissing and whispering taunts in my ear that I couldn’t quite make out.

Behind us, I could hear that sick, scraping, creaking sound as the first tree dragged itself across the bricks in pursuit of me and my aunt and uncle and my dog. When I heard more snapping and cracking sounds, I knew that it wasn’t just one anymore: his brothers and sisters were uprooting themselves to chase after us now, too.

I ran faster, still baffled how easy it was in my five-inch heels.

The whole time, I made sure I was listening for the sound of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry close behind me. They might have been old, but at least they could still outrun a few trees.

And then Aunt Em tripped. She let out a sharp scream and went flying onto the ground in front of me, landing on her chest with a thump.

“Em!” I cried.

“I’ve got her!” Uncle Henry raced up from behind me. It’s a good thing my aunt was so tiny and a good thing Uncle Henry was stronger than he looked, after all those years of working alone in the fields. Without even pausing in his stride, he swept Aunt Em up into his arms, threw her over his shoulder, and kept on running.

It didn’t matter. It was too late. The trees had closed in on us, blocking the path forward.

They were behind us as well, their branches weaving tightly into one another, trapping us completely.

One of the trees snarled and lunged for Aunt Em. She cried out in terror as it slashed its wooden claws against her face, leaving three thin lines of blood on the ridge of her cheekbone.

I didn’t look at him, but I could feel my uncle trembling next to me. I should have been scared, too, but I wasn’t. Just the adrenaline, I guess. Instead, I felt myself go white-hot with rage.

How dare these trees threaten me? How dare they harm the people I cared about? I didn’t even think they wanted to hurt us. I think they were just trying to humiliate me. Just like Suzanna and Mitzi had done at my birthday party.

Maybe that would work back in Kansas, but here in Oz, I demanded respect.

“Stop,” I commanded.

My shoes pulled tight on my feet, like they’d just gotten a size smaller. A shock of energy sizzled up from where my heels dug against the bricks and spread through my body. It felt strange, but I welcomed it.

It felt like another person had taken hold of me. “I am Dorothy Gale,” I said. The words sounded strange and foreign as they came out of my mouth, reverberating through the endless tangle of branches.

The trees were listening. “I am the Witchslayer. Allow us to pass, or suffer the fate of all the others that have stood in my way.”

Just like that, the trees began to relax their branches. They shrank away, stifling their hissing like it had all been one big accident. Slowly, they crawled out of the road and back into the forest, where, one by one, they began to settle their roots back into the dirt.

We were free to go on.

I had done that somehow. All I’d had to do was ask. Were the trees just big pushovers in the end? Or was it something about me that had scared them?

“How—” Aunt Em said. Uncle Henry dropped her out of his arms and placed her upright again.

“What came over you, girl?” my uncle asked. “Not to say I’m not grateful, but . . . you didn’t even sound like yourself.”

“I don’t know how I did it,” I said uncertainly. I had found a power somewhere within myself, and I had used it. Or had it used me? It was hard to tell. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.

“Next time,” Aunt Em suggested, “it might be wise to bring an ax.” She glanced over at me nervously. There was relief in her eyes that we’d made it through the woods alive but I thought I saw something like fear, too. Not fear of the trees either. Fear of me.

“There’s not going to be a next time,” Uncle Henry spat. “Because we are going home. I’ll spread my own butter if it means I never have to go through anything like that again as long as I live.”

The four of us carefully made our way through the rest of the forest not saying anything else about what had happened. The trees were still scowling and making jack-o’-lantern faces at us from the side of the road, but they didn’t make a peep. We walked quickly. Toto hopped into my arms, where he stayed, keeping careful watch on our surroundings.

Soon, moonlight began to streak through the gaps in the branches, and then the path opened up. We had made it out of the woods. A silvery vista unfolded before us, the winding path of yellow bricks shimmering like water and dipping down into a huge, breathtaking valley. All along the road, little flowers lit the way, their centers glowing with flickering blue flames.

I collapsed onto the road and caught my breath, finally able to let down my guard. I put a palm against my face and drew back blood from where one of the trees had scratched me. My calves were shooting with pain from running. Or was it from something else?

And yet, I wasn’t really tired. Winded, yes, but not tired. Actually, I felt more alive than ever, like I had energy seeping from every pore on my body.

I followed the road into the valley and then up the crest of the next hill, and I saw that we had finally reached our destination: there on the horizon was the Scarecrow’s house, golden and radiant against the night sky, lit from within. Just like the Munchkins had told us, the house was made entirely from enormous corncobs as tall as trees and five times as wide around, each one forming a single, towering turret. It wasn’t just a house. It was a castle, really.