They said a monster lived in the mountains.
They couldn't say where it hid. They couldn't say when it had come. They certainly couldn't say what it looked like, though they had plenty of conflicting ideas on that subject. But they all agreed that it was there. Somewhere.
They being no one in particular and everyone in general who lived and worked at Hill House, where Leo spent the summer of his eleventh year. At first, Leo assumed it was simply another one of those sayings that grown-ups liked to bandy about, such as swearing "Silent Lady!" when frightened, or "Dragon's teeth!" when angry.
"Best come in, it's almost dark," his nursemaid would call from his bedroom window when he was playing out on the sloping lawns and gardens of Hill House. "You don't want the mountain monster to carry you off."
This wasn't true. Leo wouldn't have minded much if the monster did carry him off, or at least made the attempt. He put off coming in until the very last minute, just before his nursemaid would feel obliged to sally forth and fetch him. But no matter how long the shadows in the mountainside garden grew, he saw neither hide nor hair of anything monsterlike.
Then one day he took the servants' stairway down from his rooms, for it was a quicker route to the gardens. He overheard furtive voices and could not have stopped himself from eavesdropping for the world.
"I swear on my hand, I saw it!" said the voice Leo recognized as belonging to Leanbear, the carriage man. "I was on my way up the mountain trail to my old granna's house, and I saw it clear as day!"
Leanbear was a strong man, used to working with the tough mountain ponies that pulled the carriages in this rough part of the country. But his voice quavered and remained low as he spoke.
"What did it look like?" Mistress Redbird, the cook, asked in a tone rather too dry to be sympathetic. "Was it big and shaggy? Did you see the Wolf Lord's ghost? He was said to prowl these parts back in the day."
"This was no wolf, Redbird, I'll tell you that straight," said the carriage man. "I've hunted down my share of wolves, and I'm proud to say I've yet to feel even a twinge when they set up their howling on winter's nights. But this was no wolf."
"What, then?" demanded Redbird. "A troll? A goblin? A sylph?"
"More like ... a demon."
Leo shuddered in his dark stairway, a delightful shudder of terror such as only boys of a particular spirit may experience. But Mistress Redbird laughed outright. "I'd have sooner you said dragon, Leanbear."
"You know as well as I that it's out there," the carriage man growled.
For a moment, Mistress Redbird's voice became more serious. "I know what I know, and the rest I don't pretend to understand. But I say it's best you keep such fool talk to yourself, especially while the little mister is running about the place."
Leanbear grunted, and both of them moved on without seeing Leo where he stood in the dark stairway.
Leo did not move for a long moment. He'd made plans for his day already, packing up the fine library chess pieces into a leather sack to sneak them out to the garden, where he intended to dig a dirt fortress and wage a battle that had nothing whatsoever to do with chess. But such paltry games were as nothing to the inspiration that now filled his soul.
His chess pieces rattling in their sack, Leo turned and raced back up the stairs and on to the Hill House library, where he could be certain to find his cousin, Foxbrush.
Foxbrush was a pale, sickly, self-styled cherub, and a favorite of Leo's mother. She thought him a good influence on Leo, so she insisted the two of them be the best of friends. Leo wouldn't have minded this so much --- not even his mother's constant nagging of "Why can't you be more like your cousin?" --- if once in a while Foxbrush could have been convinced to put down his books and get out of his overstuffed chair.
"Foxbrush!" Leo cried, bursting into the library. His cousin looked up from behind the cover of his book. It was one of his "improving reads," something like Economic Concerns of the Trade Merchant's Status, full of numbers and dates and other hideous things of that nature. Foxbrush pretended to enjoy them and was so good at the pretense that Leo sometimes believed him. He'd even picked up one or two of these books himself but had found them to be rubbish.
"Foxbrush!" he cried. "There's a monster in the mountains!"
"No there isn't," said Foxbrush.
Hill House belonged to Foxbrush's widowed mother, which meant that when any disagreement arose between the boys, Foxbrush could usually win with a final swipe of, "This is my mother's house, so you have to do what I say!" However, Leo's was by far the stronger personality, so if he made the effort he could sometimes barrage Foxbrush with so much enthusiasm that his cousin forgot to employ that dreaded line.
Foxbrush took one look at Leo's face, flushed and bright-eyed with the prospect of adventure, and ducked behind his book as though sheltering from a siege.
"Yes there is!" Leo said. "The carriage man saw it!"
"He also sees pixies dancing when he's been into last year's cider."
"We must hunt it!"
"No, we mustn't." Foxbrush nestled more solidly into his comfortable chair. "Aunt Starflower wouldn't like it."
"Mother's not here!"
"She'd find out."
"And praise us for catching a demon that's been terrorizing the countryside!"
"There isn't any demon."
"How do you know?"
Foxbrush's face emerged from behind the book, this time wearing his patient expression, the one that made Leo want to poke him in the eye, and said, "I've lived here all my life. I've heard people babble nonsense for years. But I've not seen it. I've not heard it. It doesn't exist." Back behind the book again, he added, "Go away."
Leo stared at the thick red cover for several fuming seconds. Then he took the sack of chess pieces from his belt and tossed it so that it came down on Foxbrush's head, eliciting a satisfactory "Ow!"
"You're no better than a girl, Foxbrush," Leo declared, storming from the library. It was much too fine a day to waste on his cousin.
Out in the gardens, Leo stood for some time a few steps from the door, gazing about. Hill House was so named because it rested high in the mountains in the southern part of the country. It commanded a fine prospect, looking north toward the spreading landscape of Leo's homeland. The weather was pleasant here, a little cool due to the altitude, but fresh and invigorating ... the right air for an adventurous heart.
On regular days, the mountainside gardens of Hill House were interesting enough to occupy the boy. But now that he knew there was more to this monster talk than a mere nursemaid's warning, the gardens were suddenly much too small and cramped. No monster would come within the bounds of Hill House's gardens. Leo would have to venture out after it himself.
But first he must be properly armed.
"I need a weapon," he told Mousehand, the gardener. Mousehand was probably the oldest, creaking-est man in the world, and his face was a mass of beard. At Leo's words, the beard wrinkled into something that was probably a smile underneath, and the gardener's little eyes winked.
"A weapon, eh?" said Mousehand.
"Yes. A sword, if you have one."
Mousehand grunted, pausing to contemplate the row of parsnips he was weeding. "I think I know what you need."
With a splendid cacophony of crackling, the old man rose from his knees and hobbled to his toolshed with Leo close behind. In moments, Mousehand undid the various chains and latches that had baffled Leo every time he'd tried to get into the shed on his own, and the door swung open with almost as much creaking as Mousehand's joints. The gardener stepped inside and emerged with his selected weapon, which he handed to Leo with great ceremony.
Leo took it and frowned. "A beanpole?"
"A mighty sword, good sir knight, if you look at it right."
Leo wrinkled his nose. "You mean, use my imagination?"
"I might. Or I might not," said the gardener.
If there was one thing Leo disliked about grown-ups, it was their tendency to treat him like a child. "I'm going to hunt a monster. Is this really going to help?"
Here the gardener seemed to really look at Leo for the first time. He put his gnarled hand on the doorpost, leaning against it as his eyes traveled up and down the boy's slight frame. He took in the fine clothing, slightly mussed from play. He took in the scrapes on the hands that indicated a willingness to plunge into any activity with a will. He noted the spark that shone behind the sulkiness in a pair of large black eyes.
"What monster do you hunt?"
"The monster up the mountain," Leo replied. "Have you heard of it?"
The gardener nodded. "I have."
"Have you seen it?"
The gardener's beard shifted as the mouth somewhere in its depths worked back and forth in thought. "What I've seen and what others've seen ain't likely to be the same thing."
Leo shouldered his beanpole. "What have you seen?"
Mousehand shook his head. "You must see for yourself, lad, and decide for yourself. So, you're setting off up the mountain, are you?"
"Does your nursemaid know?"
Dragon's teeth! He hadn't thought of that detail. "Um ..."
"I'll just tell her you'll be home by nightfall when she asks, eh?"
Here Leo gave the old man a real smile; a smile that Mousehand, who had been a spirited boy himself ages ago, returned. Then the gardener escorted the boy up the mountainside to the edge of the garden and saluted solemnly as Leo stepped through the gate.
"Which way is quickest to the monster?"
"Never be in too much of a hurry to catch your quarry, young master," the gardener responded. "The adventure is the hunt, not the catch, remember." Then he pointed an arthritic finger up the beaten trail. "Follow that a good hundred yards, then look for the deer path on your left, beginning just under the silver-branched sapling tied with a red scarf. Follow that path, and you'll make a wide loop around that side of the mountain and end back where you started. Be careful you don't stray, now."
"I won't find a monster while following a path."
"If you're meant to meet with the monster, you'll meet it on that path. I swear to you. Do you believe me?" His eyes met Leo's and held the boy's gaze for much longer than Leo was comfortable. But Leo was not one to look away, so he studied the old man and considered what he'd said.
Oddly enough, he found that he believed Mousehand.
"All right," he said. "I'll follow the path."
With those words, he adjusted his grip on the beanpole, squared his shoulders, and started at a trot up the mountain.
"Hey!" the gardener called.
Leo looked back over his shoulder.
"Try not to get eaten whilst you're about. Might be kinda hard for me to explain to your folks, eh?"
Leo nodded, saluted the gardener, and continued up the path.
At first, it was a fantastic feeling. The forest at that time of year was a heavy dark green that breathed mystery. The birds sang tempting tunes like sirens, not so cheerful as to destroy the ambiance. Leo felt that surge of manliness common to all young adventurers and tried the mettle of his beanpole on an offending sapling or two. Perhaps it was a little lonely sallying forth on his own. Perhaps he would have preferred a brave comrade-in-arms. But there's a certain spirit that follows the solitary adventurer and prevents any real loneliness from setting in.
The path was broad, for many lived in the higher reaches of the mountain and trekked down to the lower village once or twice a week. It was hardly the right location to hunt monsters, but to Leo it was nonetheless exciting. He'd never before been so far away from home on his own. In fact, he had never before been so completely alone.
This thought struck him just as he came upon the silver-branched sapling tied with a red scarf. It was a threadbare scarf looped around the thin trunk. The red dye was so faded with age that it was lucky it caught Leo's eye. Obviously, someone had placed it there as an unobtrusive marker, not for the whole world to see. Leo might have stopped to wonder how the gardener knew about it or why he had decided to point it out to Leo ... but he didn't. His mind was much too caught up in the sudden decision presented him.
The deer trail led around the mountain rather than up, and it led deep into the forest. The dark forest. Like a pathway into the blackness of a mine, the light dimmed and then vanished only a few paces in.
Leo had to make the choice. Did he truly desire the adventure he had come seeking? Did he truly wish to make that plunge and hunt the monster? Or would he rather turn around and call it a day after a brisk and relatively interesting walk? No one would blame him, after all.
For a terrible moment, he stood undecided, doubting his own courage, excusing his fear.
Then from the depths of the mountain forest, so distant as to sound like an echo, he heard a trill of silver notes from a bird that might almost have been singing words had Leo known the language.
And something about that song told him, It's all right. Make the plunge. Hunt your monster and see what you find.
With a mighty cry to prove to himself how unafraid he was, Leo smacked his beanpole against the sapling as hard as he could, making it sway and tremble. Then he pushed through low growth and on down the narrow trail.
The going was slower now, since he had to watch the ground for roots and duck to avoid branches that swung at his eyes. His heart raced, but it felt good to let it race, and his grip on the beanpole tightened until his knuckles were white. In his mind he pictured the monster again and again, remembering the bits and pieces he'd overheard.
A demon, Leanbear had said. Leo imagined a towering, lurching, spine-shouldered fiend with dripping jowls and red eyes. He imagined his beanpole really was a sword, slashing away grasping claws and driving home to rid the world of this abomination.
A dragon, Redbird had remarked. Leo saw in his mind scaly wings, smoke-fuming nostrils, and a long, sinuous tail. Of course, it would be difficult for a dragon to crawl about in this overgrown forest without making a terrible racket.
Perhaps a sylph, a creature of the wind, wafting and horrible, with sharp white claws. Leo liked this idea better. Immaterial monsters were frightening, but they were less likely to cause physical harm ... and when one was venturing out with only a beanpole for protection, this was just as well.
Monster after monster flitted across Leo's imagination. The day lengthened, and the path beneath him did as well. He could not guess how long he had been traveling; it seemed like forever. All that tramping around, even sheltered as he was from the hot sun, made Leo hungry, and the monsters in his mind swiftly grew less interesting.
His beanpole out at an awkward angle to push aside a clump of nettles, Leo froze. Then his heart started to pound wildly, yet still he could not move. Other than the birds' random twittering and the crunch and crash of his own feet on the uneven terrain, he hadn't heard a sound that deep in the forest. Not until this moment.
It was closer now, he thought. Was it moving his way? He'd never pictured seven-foot spine-backed fiends making noises quite like that, but who was to say what monsters sound like? He brandished his beanpole, leaving the nettles to swing back and bite him in the leg. "Dragon's teeth!" he yelped.
Leo whirled around, for the sound had come from behind him. Peering into the brambles through which he had just come, he saw fur and an inhuman body. And for a second, he saw the glint of an evil yellow eye.
Then the goat pushed her nose through. "Bah!" she said.
Leo only just stopped himself from swinging his pole. He stared at the goat, which stared back at him, and the accusatory gleam in her eyes made him feel very stupid.
"Dragon-eaten beast," he growled. "What are you doing out here all alone? You're not even wearing a bell. Did you wander away from your flock?"
"Bah," said the goat, stamping a cloven hoof.
It was embarrassing how fast his heart was still drumming. Leo bent down to rub his leg where the nettles had caught him, muttering to himself about goat stew. What a waste this afternoon was turning out to be! He'd have been better off with chess pieces in the dirt like a stupid little boy rather than all this adventuring nonsense. Monster indeed! Nothing but a stupid goat.
Something cracked behind him.
There it stood, not ten feet away. Swathed in veils, white and incorporeal and horrifying in the shadows cast by the tallest trees.
Leo did not wait for a second look. Pushing past the goat, he crashed headlong back through the forest as fast as his feet could carry him, leaving his beanpole behind.
Excerpted from VEILED ROSE: Tales of Goldstone Wood, Book 2 © Copyright 2011 by Anne Elisabeth Stengl. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.