Kelly Barnhill, author of The Witch’s Boy, will release her next middle grade sensation, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, on Aug. 9. But in advance of its release, Barnhill has written a stunningly lovely prequel called “In Which a Lost Girl Discovers Bees.” To prepare readers for The Girl Who Drank the Moon, EW is can reveal the prequel in two parts, one now and one Thursday.
Get ready to enter Barnhill’s magical new world, below:
“In Which a Lost Girl Discovers Bees”: Prequel to The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
The girl lay on the table in the central workshop dreaming of bees again.
Perhaps she had always been dreaming of bees.
“I told you this was a bad idea,” a man said from . . . somewhere. His voice set off a flood of murmurs. Or they sounded like murmurs. Perhaps they were more bees.
In her dream, the bees landed on her body—great, soft, swarming masses of them, all pollen and summer and sting. They gathered on her hands and face. They covered her skin. She wasn’t afraid. Why should she be? They were just bees.
Bees, she thought, delighting at the swarm in her dream. Bees, bees, bees.
“Did she say something?” the man from somewhere said.
Other voices murmured in response.
Perhaps they were other people.
The girl hoped they were bees.
“She’s speaking,” one voice said.
“No,” said another. “She’s listening.”
Blossom, her dream voice said. Petal.
The voices gasped.
Honey and stamen. Leaf and root. Each word, once sounded, gave her a thrill. She had only just learned them. She had known them all her life. Both things were true. She was missing something. Something important. And the missing of it gave her an ache in her chest.
“She is sorrowing,” someone said. A hungry voice.
“Step back,” the man said with a growl. “And anyway, she’s not sorrowing, and she’s not speaking neither. She’s singing. Don’t you dolts know a song when you hear it?”
The murmurs grew louder.
Was she sorrowing? The girl didn’t know. She wasn’t sure what that meant. Was she singing? She had no idea.
She didn’t know her name. She didn’t know anything outside what her dreams taught her. And then . . .
She looked around. Blinked.
“She’s awake,” a man said, his spyglasses falling from their braces on his face.
“She’s alive,” a woman said, furiously scribbling notes on a stack of papers.
The girl pulled her knees to her chest. She didn’t know where she was or who these people were. She missed her dream. She also missed . . . something else. Something she couldn’t remember. The loss of the bees and the tree was so real, so immediate, that she felt her heart splinter in her chest.
“Come back,” she choked. Her mouth was dry. Her lips had begun to crack. How long had she been sleeping?
“How she sorrows,” said a woman at the back, her face hidden by shadow. The girl could see only the way the woman paced along the wall, back and forth, like an animal in a cage.
The room was crowded with men and women in strange clothes and an odd assortment of tools. One man wore metal extensions on the fingers of his left hand, each ending in a bright point. Tiny baubles hung in another man’s silver mustache, catching the light each time he spoke, sparkling like stars. A small woman moved about on mechanical legs that made her the tallest in the room. The legs creaked each time she walked. A woman with green skin had a third eye positioned right below her throat.
And then that woman in the back, separate from everyone else in the room, pacing.
The girl stared at the adults. The adults stared at the girl. And, like a sudden storm, the questions began.
“Tell us, in detail, how you feel.”
“Any pain? Any pain anywhere?”
“What taste do you have in your mouth right now? Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?
“Exactly how sad are you? Can you express it in numbers?”
“Earthquake or wave? Your magic, I mean. When it arrived. Please be specific.”
“Have you been able to effect transformations in your dreams? Will you tell us when you can?”
“Any current murderous tendencies? Toward anyone specific, or in general?”
The questions came thick and fast without any explanation or context. No one was kind. The girl closed her eyes.
The strange adults with their strange tools continued to pester, so the girl drew herself into a tight knot, laying her forehead on her knees and gripping her ankles, and she let out a long, high scream.
The table beneath her shattered, sending stony shards scattering, cutting skin and dumping ink and careening into open eyes. The commotion and hullabaloo and panicked coming and going would have delighted the girl had she been watching it from afar.
And then she felt a sharp knock on the back of her head and saw a brief flash of light, followed by nothing at all.
Zosimos, an ancient wizard in the group of magicians (trapped, he felt, in a sea of nincompoops), couldn’t stand this persistent nonsense for another second.
“Enough,” he bellowed. Using a combination of a few swift kicks, two well-aimed spells, and enough foul language to make even the saltiest among them blush, he cleared the room of witches and magicians and wizards and scholars within a few moments of the table’s explosion.
No one was happy with him. But that wasn’t particularly unusual.
“This is for science, you old fool. Science!”
He refused to dignify their protestations with a response.
Science! he thought. You idiots have no idea what that means. He stomped his foot against the granite floor, causing it to ripple like water, knocking the last of the magicians to their knees and carrying them in wave after wave into the hall. The door slammed behind them.
The old castle groaned, and Zosimos could hear the crackle of spidery fissures along the pillars and beams. “Sorry, old thing,” he whispered, directing a spell for healing at the foundations. A temporary salve, alas, but it was better than nothing.
Zosimos looked down at the tangle of arms and legs and patchwork clothing and long braids sprawled over the rubble on the ground. Magic, too. So much magic.
Poor child. She never asked for any of this.
She would have to be moved, the wizard knew. Away from the magicians and their incessant meddling. For now, anyway. The question was how.
Zosimos eyed her warily.
The girl had obliterated a table made from a block of the densest stone in the world. Was it the squeeze of her eyelids that had caused the explosion? Or the note of her scream? Magic manifests differently depending on who touches it, and even more differently in the rare cases of full bodily enmagickment like this. The changes inflicted on her were irrevocable. She was enmagicked forever.
He took care before picking her up.
“Come now, little thing,” he said, first fitting a leather apron reinforced with lead over his clothing and then sliding his hands into iron gloves. Even then he winced when he curled his arms under her back and hefted her to his chest.
They shouldn’t have done this to her. They should have asked me first. Such things were supposedly only possible with babies. Half-grown children required a process that Zozimos did not want to think about. The descriptions alone turned his stomach.
It was a miracle that it had worked. It was a miracle that she hadn’t died.
Bodily enmagickment was a rare thing, only attempted once in a generation or more. Zosimos had never met anyone else enmagicked as he was, and he had assumed he was the only one in the world. And perhaps he had been. Until now.
“Bunch of irresponsible dunderheads,” he muttered as he gingerly made his way through a gap in the wall that only he could see, down the hidden stairs, into the labyrinth of cellars, and along the bottom corridor that opened out to an underground stream. The stream poured out of a little cave in a heavily wooded area on the western slopes, a good ways away from the castle itself. No one else knew about the gap, or the stairs, or the corridor, or the stream, or the cave. They belonged to Zosimos alone.
The girl was heavy—heavier than she looked. “Blasted magic,” the wizard grumbled.
“Is that you, old friend?” a rumbly voice said from a short way down the mountain. Four heavy paws shifted on the stony slope. A tremendous tail uncurled into the green, and a magnificent pair of jaws widened in a yawn.
“Ennyn,” Zosimos said. The scales on the enormous dragon’s back gleamed brightly, illuminating the wood. At least the day was cloudy. On bright days, it was difficult to look at the tremendous creature head on.
“With humility and grace,” Zosimos huffed. He had difficulty remembering the words. “Aaaannnd,” he struggled under the weight of the girl. His arms began to shake. “Oh, bother.” There was a particular pattern of gestures and phrases with which one was to greet a dragon: eye contact followed by eye aversion, a bow, a clasp of hands, and a salute. Zozimos had counted Ennyn among his few friends for nearly a century now, but he did not take that friendship for granted. Dragons are sensitive, after all, and self-conscious. Respect matters.
“Forgive me.” His breath changed from gasps to painful wheezing. “For putting my manners aside.” He crinkled his face to divert the rivulets of sweat from his eyes. “This one is heavy.”
The dragon inclined her head. The trees bent as she pushed forward. She raised one glittering eyebrow. And then her eyes went suddenly wide.
“They didn’t,” she breathed.
“They did,” Zosimos sighed.
“She hasn’t been—” Ennyn whispered. “Is she . . . like you?”
“Alas. She has been. And she is. I was not consulted, obviously.” He stumbled toward a grassy hollow and gently lowered the girl to the ground. He sank back on his haunches. Troublesome thing, he thought. Already so troublesome.
Underneath the dragon’s broad belly, an egg the size of a small basket sat on a soft pile of feathers and moss. It wriggled and smoked and vibrated. Zosimos knew better than to look too closely at a dragon’s egg.
“Not hatched yet, is he?” Zosimos asked politely, keeping his eyes on the mother.
“Not yet. Soon. I will tell him when it is time.”
The girl rolled onto her side, murmuring in her sleep.
“Any mishaps yet?” the mother dragon asked.
Zosimos shrugged. “Just an explosion.” He creased his brow. “Could have been worse. In any case, she managed to spook the lot of them. It bought me some time.”
The great dragon inclined her head even further, until her massive jaws were nearly touching the girl. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The girl did not stir.
“Honey,” the dragon said. “Pollen and wax. Were her parents bee keepers?”
“Unknown,” Zosimos sighed.
“Well.” The mother dragon pulled her haunches under the shimmering curve of her torso and uncurled her long neck until the top of her head was nearly level with the trees. She tilted her skull to one side, and then the other, cracking her spine. Then she leaned on her forearms, tilting forward and thrusting her face into the magician’s.
Even though he knew Ennyn was his friend, Zosimos felt his knees begin to shake.
“She isn’t staying here.” Ennyn’s voice was quieter than one would expect from a creature so large. But even in its quiet, it shook the mountain and sparked a tremble in the old wizard’s bones.
“Oh, but she is,” Zosimos said, hoping he sounded braver than he felt. “She doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Not yet, anyway.”
“And what about the baby?” Ennyn said, her eyes narrowing to two bright slits.
“I can’t imagine that any spell—no matter how volatile—could possibly penetrate dragon shell. The girl must stay here, away from the magicians, while I try to understand the best way to help her. In the meantime, you must do what you can to find out her name. Try to help her remember. Also—” He gave the massive dragon a skeptical stare. “Do try not to frighten her, will you? She’s delicate.”
On the morning of her first day in the dragon’s lair, the girl opened her eyes, saw the enormous creature looming above her, saw the intolerable brightness of the monster’s scales, saw the merciless sheen on the razor sharp edges of each terrible tooth, screamed—and fainted.
“Oh dear,” Ennyn muttered. Because Ennyn was a very good mother—or she hoped she would be some day—she found a bit of moss and put it under the girl to give her something soft to lie upon. With the freshly plucked down from the nine geese that she had eaten for lunch, she made a nest around the girl to keep her warm. She pulled a honeycomb from a nearby hive, mixed it with fresh spring water, and dripped it, little by little, into the girl’s mouth.
The second morning the girl woke and saw that the dragon was not only looming over her with those massive jaws but apparently stroking her with the padded undersides of those cruelly tipped claws. The creature opened its mouth; the girl screamed again and was once again struck unconscious with fright.
“Bother,” the dragon said. But, because it couldn’t be helped, she continued to care for the child as before.
On the morning of the third day, the dragon was ready. She crouched a little ways away from the girl, and tried to make herself as small as could be. The girl opened her eyes, stretched, looked around a bit, and—
“Wait!” Ennyn said before the girl could scream. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The girl pressed her lips together. She wrinkled her brow. She looked as though she was trying to remember something. Finally, she spoke.
“M-monster,” the girl said, her lips shaking as she formed the word.
“Truly I am not. I am a friend.”
Large tears appeared in the girl’s eyes.
“M-mother,” she managed, her lips tripping on the sounds.
“Alas. You are missing yours. But I am a mother—or I soon will be. And I will take care of you.”
This was too much, Ennyn realized, for the girl had begun to cry—huge tears bubbling out of her eyes and falling in gushes to the ground. And before the dragon could comfort the child, the tears had soaked the moss, causing it to enlarge upon itself until it was the size and shape and structure of a small house, with an open door and shutters on the windows. Moreover, each feather touched by a tear became a toddling gosling, stumbling and tumbling through the grass looking for bugs.
The girl was so shocked she could hardly speak.
“How—” she began, her voice tumbling over the simplest words. “How did that happen?”
The dragon cleared her throat. “Right,” she said. “Listen, you should probably sit down. Oh. I see that you are. There is this small side matter to discuss, regarding your magic.”
And, patiently, tenderly, the dragon explained things to the girl. The great, sinewy bulk of her crept slowly toward the shaking child, curled a wing around those tiny shoulders, and, eventually, scooped her close, holding her tight and protecting her from harm.
Check back Thursday to finish the story!