By C. L. Herman
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THE SEVEN OF BRANCHES
All the most important moments in May Hawthorne’s life had happened beneath the tree in her backyard.
She had come into the world there sixteen years ago; her mother, too stubborn to admit she was in labor until it was too late, gave birth all on her own as night faded into dawn on a blistering summer morning, then drove herself and her newborn daughter to the hospital.
May had touched the Deck of Omens for the first time beneath that tree. Challenged her older brother to see who could swing themselves up into its branches more quickly. Whispered a thousand secrets to the knot in the center of the trunk, forever frozen in the shape of a half-shut eye. When sleep eluded her, she would sneak outside and curl up beneath the hawthorn’s gnarled branches on a bed of moss and fallen leaves. Its deep, steady heartbeat never failed to lull her into slumber.
It was the only place in the world where she felt safe, the only place where she didn’t have to be someone’s daughter or sister to garner attention. And now, after a century and a half of watching over her family, it was gone.
May rested a hand against the hawthorn trunk that had given her family its name, warm bark turned to red-brown stone, and listened desperately for a heartbeat.
“There’s nothing,” she said, panic turning her voice raw and scratchy. “It’s dead.”
“We don’t know that for certain.” Augusta Hawthorne, May’s mother, stepped out from the other side of the tree, her feathery blond hair slicked back from her forehead. She wore black silk pajamas and a matching pair of gloves, her feet shoved hastily into work boots. The weak light of dawn seeped in behind her, turning the dark circles beneath her eyes into cavernous pits.
The tree had called her, just as it had called May. Its cry for help had woken May at the break of dawn, her heart pounding in her chest. Her throat constricted in a silent scream as she shoved her curtains aside and stared out the window. The hawthorn’s branches were frozen and stiff instead of swaying softly in the early morning breeze.
The tree had not called to Justin, her older brother. May had found her mother in the backyard, then run to fetch him. But he’d refused to even open his bedroom door, and she’d realized that he did not—could not—care about this the way she did.
Her mother cared, though. They stood in the backyard together, May pretending she didn’t see the tears glistening in Augusta Hawthorne’s eyes as they both surveyed the hawthorn’s frozen corpse.
“We’ll have to handle this,” she said now. “Just us. No sense in burdening your brother.”
And for once, May wasn’t angry with her mother for letting Justin off the hook.
When a Hawthorne turned sixteen, they asked the tree to give them access to the powers that were their family’s birthright. These powers enabled them to protect the town of Four Paths from the monster that lurked in the woods in a lifeless prison called the Gray. But Justin had failed his ritual. Which meant there were powers he would never have—and responsibilities he would never bear. Keeping him around to watch them work would only have hurt him more.
It also gave May a chance to show her mother why the tree had chosen her over him in the first place. Because she could handle everything Four Paths threw at her. Even this.
“No one can find out,” Augusta continued, staring at the branches. “If the town discovers this attack on our family, the consequences will be catastrophic.”
“An attack,” May said, the words sour in her mouth. That was the right term for it, but it still felt dangerous to say. Because this attack hadn’t come from the monster they were supposed to be defending the town from. It had come from one of their supposed allies, someone she’d once considered a friend.
“This is Harper Carlisle’s fault,” May whispered. Harper, who was immensely powerful but had never known it—until now. “She got her memories back.”
Her mother nodded grimly. “It’s the only possibility.”
May stared at the hawthorn tree, its corpse turning more red than brown in the light of the rising sun, and thought of the past few weeks. The way the roots that connected Four Paths had split apart and woven themselves back together.
From the moment she flipped over Violet Saunders’s card a month ago, a passageway had opened up in her mind, roots tunneling down a path she’d never seen before. One where everything changed. She could have stopped it, let the roots wither. But instead, May had chosen to trust her brother and Isaac, chosen to give Violet Saunders her memories back after Augusta had erased them. She’d believed it had been the right thing to do to keep the town safe.
And Violet had kept the town safe—but surely she had realized that Augusta was capable of much more. That she had used her powers against other founders, like Harper. Violet must have figured out how to return Harper’s memories, too, leading Harper to seek revenge on the family who had taken them from her. Which meant that what had happened to the hawthorn tree was May’s fault. Guilt rose in her stomach, thick and bubbling, as she wondered how long it would take for Augusta to realize what she’d done.
May had been the perfect daughter to Augusta Hawthorne for the last seven years. But Augusta’s memory was long, and May knew that she had not forgotten the time before that, when her daughter’s attention and adoration was reserved solely for her father. It didn’t matter how well May behaved herself now. Augusta would never truly trust her. And if Augusta found out about what she’d done, it would shatter the fragile peace between them—possibly forever.
“How do you think it happened?” May asked, trying to keep her voice calm and methodical.
“The Saunders family,” her mother said immediately. May sagged with relief. “I was a fool to think I could change the old Carlisle-Saunders alliance. To be happy that June—” She shook her head and pressed a gloved hand to her mouth.
“Okay, so the Saunders family might have given Harper her memories back,” May said hastily. She didn’t like people paying special attention to her when she was overcome by emotion; she could extend her mother the same courtesy. “What do we do about it? How do we fix this?”
Augusta’s face twisted with fury. “If Harper Carlisle is truly the one responsible for this,” she said, “we will see to it that she sets this right, and answers for what she’s done.”
May let the word we kindle inside her—a promise. “Yeah. We will.”
Augusta nodded approvingly. “You know what you need to do next, I assume.”
May sighed, but she inclined her head. It wasn’t that she minded using her powers—it was just that Augusta never asked her for any help beyond her abilities. They were the only part of her daughter she seemed to care about. “You want a reading.”
“Yes.” Augusta gestured toward the hawthorn. “But I want you to do it for the tree itself. Is that possible?”
May stared up at the tree, her heart heavy in her throat. Normally the smaller branches would be bending in the wind, birds chirping from above as they nestled in the copper-and-yellow leaves. But the tree was stiff and still, the wildlife gone. Perhaps they had been scared away; perhaps they had been petrified, too, for May had spent the past three weeks with Harper Carlisle, and she knew by now that Harper had no mercy. Still, May understood that it was not in the branches where the true lifeblood of a tree lay, nor was it in the knot on the trunk or its yellowing leaves.
It was the roots that really mattered.
“I think so.” May reached into the pocket of her pink pajama shirt and pulled out the Deck of Omens, then knelt at the base of the tree. “I can do my best.”
Augusta’s lips pursed, and May knew exactly what her mother was thinking—that her best was not a guarantee of victory. That it had never truly been good enough. But she sat beside May anyway.
The Deck of Omens was the Hawthorne family’s greatest heirloom, crafted by the family’s founder, Hetty Hawthorne, from the bark of this very tree. In most hands they were useless, but in May’s grip they contained the power of possibility—the ability to gaze into the past and future of a living focal point, assuming she asked the right question. The cards changed over time, evolving with each generation to reflect the town and allow for more accurate readings. The only person May couldn’t do a reading for was herself.
May’s hands shook as she began to shuffle the deck, searching for the connection that always formed in the back of her mind when she touched the cards, the opening of a pathway that only she could travel down. Lives were complex, twisty things, brimming with a myriad of possibilities. It was her job to follow the pathways most likely to occur, to use the cards as a guide that would cut through any internal turmoil. People, she had learned, were often in deep denial about where they had come from and where they were going.
But it wasn’t her job to fix them. It was her job to tell the truth, whether they liked it or not.
For a moment, the pathway resisted her, and panic swelled in May’s chest, a bubble that burst a moment later as the familiar feeling coursed through her. May gasped with relief. It was not dead, then, merely hurt, and that meant she could find a way to heal it—she would find a way to heal it. Because without this tree her family would be broken; without this tree, she would be nothing at all.
“How can we fix what happened to you?” she asked the stone trunk in front of her, addressing her question directly to the gnarled, half-shut eye. A path unfurled in her mind, and she followed it, images rushing through her brain, as the cards in her hand began to disappear.
During May’s first few readings, the images had been overwhelming—people she didn’t know, symbols she didn’t understand, coming at her so quickly that it was impossible to process them. But she had learned to channel her thoughts and merely let them flow through her, a vessel for the Deck of Omens, for the Hawthorne family. It was almost like watching a slideshow. Now she saw a traffic jam on Main Street, a puddle of strange iridescent liquid, a flash of the Carlisle lake. And then suddenly one image, stronger than all the others: a tree with the bark half melted away. Something wrong was stirring in the wreckage of the collapsed trunk. May’s heartbeat sped up as a wisp of gray extended outward from the tree like an unfurling hand.
The vision faded, and May was left clutching three cards, the taste of decay in the back of her throat. Things were rising that should have been long buried—bodies and broken promises, betrayed friends and dishonored families.
Across from her, Augusta was staring intently at the cards. “Three seems low for this sort of reading.”
“I don’t control how many are left. You know that.” May pushed down her annoyance at how much Augusta always questioned this, questioned her, whenever she did a reading. Screaming would change nothing, and so all she had was this: the satisfaction that nobody else knew what she was thinking.
She inhaled shakily, then laid the cards out on the grass and pressed her palms to the earth, her fingers digging into the loamy soil. May pictured herself grasping the roots that tunneled beneath the ground, roots that had long ago taken up residence in her soul.
Some of the founders’ descendants wanted nothing more than a way out of this town, but May Hawthorne had never once considered it.
This was her home. This was her birthright.
And this moment, of dawn breaking, earth on her palms, hope in her heart—this was what she was meant to do.
May reached forward and flipped over the first card.
It was her card. The Seven of Branches. A girl with her arms lifted above her head, her face tipped back toward the sky. Branches wove around her body and rooted themselves in the earth; her fingers elongated into tendrils, leaves budding from the edges.
The card frightened Justin. He’d told her multiple times that he found it unsettling, the way the tree had taken her over. But May saw it differently: the serenity on the girl’s face, the peace in her posture. She belonged to the forest, and it belonged to her.
“Interesting,” Augusta said softly, across from her.
May tried to understand what the cards were telling her. She rarely pulled her own card in readings that weren’t for a family member—but maybe the tree was as good as a family member. Maybe that was why.
She flipped over the second card, and her heart twisted in her chest.
It was the Two of Stones. Harper Carlisle’s card. The art showed a single hand breaking through the surface of a lake, a stone visible in its clenched fist.
May’s gut had been right. This was her fault, and she had to clean up her mess before it got even worse.
“I think Harper can fix it,” she said. “I guess that makes sense.”
Augusta’s jaw twitched. “I suppose so.”
May sank her fingers into the dirt again and thought of the roots, felt the path in her mind unfurl a little further. She could feel the hawthorn more clearly. Another vision—herself, standing in the same place she was kneeling now as the tree changed from stone to bark. And yet it didn’t feel like a victory. The vision May had seen a moment ago tugged at her mind, a deeper dread, a bigger problem. Something she needed to solve.
“I don’t think my card is just here because I’m doing the reading,” she said, frowning.
Augusta raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“No.” May swallowed. “The tree is asking me for help.”
The doubt on her mother’s face hurt. “Are you certain?”
“Would you have said that to Justin?”
May hadn’t meant to put it so bluntly. She knew from the thinness of Augusta’s lips that she would pay for it later somehow, in a privilege taken away or an unpleasant patrol schedule for the next week. But it wasn’t fair—it wasn’t. That nobody seemed to believe she could be that important. That, deep down, May worried they were right.
“Justin isn’t here,” Augusta said. “And you still have one card left.”
May stared down at the all-seeing eye. It was easier to look at the card than her mother’s face. Her hands trembled as rage, hot and heady, swirled within her. Rage for her tree. Rage for her mother, still desperately chasing down the child who could not help her and ignoring the one who could.
Deep in her mind, the pathways spiraled and wound. May felt something unfurling—a path that was hers. Thin and spiky, coiling around itself like a tangled knot of possibilities that could not yet be unraveled.
It pulsed in her mind like a beating heart, and for the first time, May reached for it. She grasped at the tendrils and pulled that path into focus, letting the roots worm their way into her mind.
It’s mine, she snarled, at the cards, at Four Paths itself. Whatever happens next belongs to me.
A surge of energy coursed through her, to the card in her hands. It burned white-hot between her interlaced fingers, tracing the maps of old wounds that had long since faded. It was only her sense of self-control that kept her from crying out.
May felt the path lock into place. Felt the card in her hand vibrate—then shift, until the heat on her palms had faded.
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. She could feel blood pooling beneath her nostrils and at the rims of her eyes, blurring her vision. When she blinked, crimson splatters appeared on her pajama pants.
“What was that?” Augusta said sharply.
May’s lie was quiet, easy. “The cards had more to tell me.”
But it had been just the opposite. She’d had more to tell the cards—and they had changed. They’d listened to her.
A Hawthorne shouldn’t have been able to do that. But she had.
May flipped over the final card without another word, ready to see her path, ready to accept her future.
Her eyes took in the Crusader—a knight on a horse, reared back to charge, no part of him visible but two fiery eyes beneath his helmet.
Her father’s card.
May already knew that when she looked at her mother’s face, all she would see was crushing, inevitable disappointment. Augusta would insist it meant nothing, that it was a sign to be ignored.
But May knew better.
Because the Crusader in this context could only mean one thing: She would not be able to fix the hawthorn tree without her father. And if that meant going against Augusta’s wishes, so be it.
After all, the Deck of Omens wasn’t her mother’s to command. It was hers.
One week later
Harper Carlisle waited for her reckoning with a blade in her hand and a deep, impenetrable dread in her heart.
“You can put that down,” Violet Saunders said, the calm in her voice belied by how aggressively she was gripping her cup of coffee. They stood side by side in the backyard of her friend’s imposing manor house, staring out at the woods. The treetops on the hill before them shone like a wildfire in the late-afternoon sunlight. “They aren’t going to hurt you.”
Harper eyed the two figures standing at the bottom of the hill, perhaps twenty feet away, and opted not to lower her sword.
“They’re my family,” she said. “Of course they’re going to hurt me.”
This meeting hadn’t been her idea. But she had agreed to it when her siblings texted Violet, desperate to see her. Because after a week sequestered in the Saunders manor with nothing to do but stare at creepy taxidermied animals, Harper was sick of hiding.
There were problems she needed to deal with if she ever wanted to leave the safety of Violet’s house again. And although she didn’t want to talk to them, Seth and Mitzi Carlisle were still the least awful of the conversations she had ahead of her.
Nobody spoke beyond awkward greetings as Harper’s siblings shuffled through the back door. Violet shepherded them all to the living room, where Seth and Mitzi sat on the wide leather couch. Harper took a plushy armchair, her residual limb twinging with pain as she surveyed her brother and sister. Her left arm ended just after the elbow, the result of an accident that had happened right after her ritual. When she was particularly frightened or upset, she could still feel the pain in her phantom limb, an invisible left hand aching.
They had both seen better days. Mitzi’s long red hair was piled in a messy bun atop her head, her eyeliner smudged at the corners and a zit budding on her chin. Seth was wearing a sweatshirt that read PUBLIC SAFETY HAZARD; it looked more like a statement of fact than a bad joke.
“I brought this,” her sister said quietly, shoving a duffel bag onto the coffee table between them. “It’s your clothes and makeup and shit.”
Harper raised an eyebrow. “You’re wearing my black sweater right now.”
“I didn’t say all your clothes.” Mitzi was fourteen, and in that moment she sounded it, petulant and frustrated. “You know you don’t have to do this, right? You could just come home.”
“Mitzi.” Seth’s voice was low and hoarse. He reached into his pocket, pulled out Harper’s phone, and tossed it onto the table beside the duffel bag. “She was so desperate to get away from us that she didn’t bring anything with her. She’s not coming home just because you ask.”
Harper stared at the gauntlets her siblings had thrown on the table, her heart heavy. She wanted to give Mitzi skin-care advice and tell Seth to wash his hair. She lowered the sword onto her lap instead. It was the only thing she’d brought with her when she’d shown up here seven days ago—that and a muddy, soaking-wet nightgown that she’d been forced to throw away.
“Seth’s right,” she said. “I’m not coming home. But it’s not because I’m trying to get away from either of you.”
Mitzi leaned forward. “Is it…?” Mitzi’s voice was soft. “The reason you’re not coming back… is it because it’s true? What the Hawthornes are saying about you?”
Harper’s heartbeat hammered in her throat. Violet, who’d remained perfectly silent until now, cleared her throat.
“Careful,” Violet said. Orpheus, formerly a house cat and currently Violet’s undead companion, leaped into her lap. “You promised not to ask too many questions.” It wasn’t a threat, not exactly, but Harper’s siblings stiffened just the same.
This was why Harper had asked Violet to sit in. Not for physical protection—Harper was more than capable of defending herself if necessary—but because there were things they both knew she was unwilling to talk about. Truths she wasn’t ready to tell. This one, though, Harper was okay with.
“It’s all right,” she said. “You want to see what I can do? You want proof?”
Harper’s hand brushed the edge of the neglected fern sitting beside the table. She took a deep breath and pushed.
She had not gone to the Hawthorne house the night she got her powers back with the conscious thought of destroying their tree. But when she saw the hawthorn’s great branches spreading behind the roof, waving in the wind, she had felt the cumulative rage about everything that had been done to her—her father’s hands closing around her neck, the Church of the Four Deities in their dark brown robes, Justin staring at her, a sword pressed against his neck, and, of course, the night that had just come back to her. The night Augusta Hawthorne had taken her powers away before she’d ever gotten the chance to use them.
Violet was obviously the reason her memories were back. Violet had gotten them back herself, after all, and so had Violet’s mother; clearly she was the one who had figured out the secret to restoring herself, clearly she was the one who had left Harper that note.
There was so much to sort through. So much to feel. Harper understood now why Justin Hawthorne had behaved strangely toward her these past few weeks—because his mother wasn’t the reason she’d lost everything.
He’d betrayed her the night of her ritual. Sold her out to his mother before she could have the chance to use her newfound powers.
Pushed her into the lake, which had led to the accident that had cost her a hand—and led her straight into the Gray.
Harper had lost sight of herself in that moment, dizzy with longing for everything Justin and his family had taken from her. She’d reached forward, her palm pressing tightly against the trunk, and pushed her anger into it. And when she pulled back and realized that the hawthorn had gone deathly still, she hadn’t wanted to reverse it.
This time, the change was smaller, almost gentle. The leaves froze in place, their color fading to red-brown and spiraling down into the dirt, until there was no plant remaining, only stone. But then Harper felt something else: a push to keep going. The stone spread down the side of the fern pot, encroaching toward the floor, and Harper’s throat went dry with panic as she realized that she didn’t know if she could stop.
Violet’s hand landed on her shoulder, wrenching her focus away. Harper exhaled with sharp relief as she realized that the spread of stone had stopped. When she looked up, Mitzi and Seth were both gaping at her.
Her brother spoke first. “Shit.”
Mitzi knelt on the floor, examining the plant. When she caught Harper’s gaze, her eyes were as round and wide as two full moons. “You have powers?”
Harper’s laugh was slightly bitter, slightly manic. “Yeah.”
“And you used them…”
“On the family that deserved some retribution,” she said. “So, yeah, I left, because I didn’t want Augusta Hawthorne to punish any of you for me. Because you deserve to make your own choices instead of being forced to go along with mine.”
“Choices?” Mitzi returned to the couch, tugged on her earring—a nervous tic.
Harper sighed. This was the part of the conversation she’d been dreading the most.
“Augusta Hawthorne took my memories of my powers away,” she said. “Do you still want to patrol for her, knowing that?”
Mitzi hesitated. “Patrolling is what keeps the town safe.”
“Does taking my powers away seem safe
"The follow-up fans have been waiting for. Every bit as eerie as the first."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Apr 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers