When I realised where Yolande was taking me, I wished I'd asked for more details. I wanted to learn more about my magic — the kind that came from me, not those other, newer powers that I now shared with Con — and, given I was still unable to contact my Blaise relatives, Yolande was the only person I knew who would help me without asking impossible questions. But I wasn't sure that I wanted to learn Yolande's admittedly incredible skills with wards if it meant travelling to one of the most notorious bad spots outside town.
I was a bit more cautious when venturing outside my door, these days.
Yolande was impatient with my unease.
'There's nothing here that will hurt you, as long as you keep your eyes open,' she said, striding from the car with her hands in her pockets. I wondered if she had some of her wards concealed inside.
I followed her reluctantly into the dark. The ground was dusty on my feet, and dead trees seemed to loom up at me on all sides of the path. The whole place was still, and silent, like a hastily drawn breath. There was nothing peaceful or calm about the quiet — instead I felt as if the place was waiting, getting ready to strike.
Yolande stopped abruptly in front of me. As far as I could tell, there was nothing different about her stopping point — just more dead trees, standing motionless in the night air. But it clearly meant something to Yolande. She nodded, as if confirming some private calculation to herself, and leaned back against one of the trees.
'This is the place,' she said. 'We'll work here.'
I had expected that Yolande would teach me to make the same kinds of wards that she used — strange constructions of objects she'd found around the house, little woven collections of thread and twine, dull metal and chipped china. But this, apparently, would not work for me.
'Wards have to be made from things meaningful to the person creating them,' Yolande said.
'I can hardly build a ward from sunlight!' I said, laughing. The thought of sunshine was incongruous in the cold, hostile place in which I found myself.
'Don't be ridiculous,' said Yolande. 'Think about the things that give you strength, and the particular way you care for others. The sun's rays run through both.'
'You mean trees, don't you? Trees, and growing things.'
'And baking,' she said.
'Baking has nothing to do with sunlight — oh, you mean fruit, don't you? Fruit that grows on trees.'
'Exactly so. We are standing in a place that used to be an orchard. It was utterly destroyed in the wars. I want you to try and restore it.'
What Yolande was asking seemed impossible — but then so much of my life was filled with difficult and impossible things, these days. Growing an orchard from dead trees didn't seem any stranger than the other stuff that had happened to me in the past few months.
'You need to touch one of the trees, and think of sunlight, and life, and growth. Don't worry if it's only a little change to begin with — this kind of magic working is hard. A few shoots in the new earth, a few green leaves — that's what you should be aiming for.'
I reached out a hand reluctantly — I really didn't relish the prospect of touching those cold, lifeless trees — and pressed my palm into the dead bark. I don't know what I was expecting — the tree crying out in pain at what it had witnessed would not have surprised me — but what I got was a gentle sense of welcome, like a greeting. It was hard, in the blackness of night, to think of daylight, and draw the feeling of warmth and sun through me, but I did my best. I thought of delicate cherry and plum blossoms, of apples and apricots warm in the sun, of branches heavy with an abundance of fruit. I thought of growing things.
I was trying to keep an eye out for the small changes that Yolande had told me to expect, and so I nearly missed what was going on right above my head: flowers bursting into life, scattering along all the trees, and filling the dark sky with their scent. The air smelled fresher, and leaves rustled on branches. As I watched the blossoms grow, they were joined with fruit, which ripened in seconds before my astonished eyes. It was beautiful: a living oasis coming to life from a place of darkness and danger. I could see the fruit and flowers taking shape on other trees, expanding outwards until the entire bad spot had become carpeted with petals and every tree sang with leaves and life.
Yolande looked impressed, in spite of herself.
'I suspected this kind of magic would suit your affinities, but I didn't expect it to work straight away,' she said, stretching up to touch one of the apples.
'What next?' I asked, afraid to release my hand from the tree I'd been touching since I first worked the transformation.
'Now you take this magic, and you bring it back to Charlie's, in your baking. Use the fruit, and think of protection and warding when you cook it. Everyone loves your creations — it's why Charlie's is so popular. If everything works properly, you will have made wards for everyone you feed.'
'Absolutely,' said Yolande, laughing.
We gathered up as much fruit as we could carry, and drove home through the growing light of sunrise.
I returned to the orchard with Con the next night, calling him when I was in the heart of the grove. He appeared by my side, noiselessly, and as always I felt that involuntary shock — a tiny, sudden rush of fear at his inhuman presence. The feeling always disappeared quickly, and I wondered what it said about me that my main reaction to having a vampire looming over my shoulder was now one of happiness and relief. Con always said that I'd transformed him, my human warmth somehow seeping into his icy blood, but I think he changed me, too, into something sharper, and harder, and less afraid.
The faint smell of flowering trees filled the air — apples, peaches, apricots and cherry blossoms. In this strange garden of mine there was no care for seasonality: the trees bloomed all at once, and fruit sat side by side on branches next to flowers. It should have been unsettling, but instead I felt exhilaration. Everything gleamed in the silvery moonlight: a garden of abundance. I took Con's hand, and led him through the avenues of trees.
'I have been in this place before,' he said, his voice careful, as if he had to remember how to form words after a long period of disuse. I sometimes wondered if I was the only person he ever spoke to.
'I bet it looked different then!' I said, gesturing at a plum tree with my free hand.
'Indeed. It was some time ago when I was here last. The trees were dead, the earth was dusty and devoid of all living things. It felt cold — even I was chilled by it. How is this transformation possible?'
'It's me. Yolande showed me. You know that I draw my power from the trees, from daylight, from growing things. A lot of the bad spots around here used to be forests and orchards, and she had a theory that I might be able to revive them with magic. We tried it last night, and it worked.'
Con looked unnerved. 'More than worked, I think. It has been a long time since I noticed fruit trees, but I do not think they are supposed to carry flowers and fruits at the same time.'
'No, nor bloom and ripen in a single night. I don't think Yolande was expecting it either. I think she thought I might make a few green shoots or leaves start to appear. Slow growth, rather than plums and cherries flowering together.'
I reached up, and pulled a handful of cherries from one of the trees. They tasted real enough, although I wasn't sure if their warding effects would work on me. I needed to remember to ask Yolande about the exact specifics of warding spells the next time I saw her.
Con watched me, silently, as the cherry juice stained my fingers red. A faint breeze whispered through the trees, and the leaves rustled and swayed. With one sudden, impossible motion, Con pulled a spray of flowers from the plum tree, sending a shower of blossom over us in a shivering cascade. He tucked the flowers into my hair, his cold hand cupping the side of my face. We were long past the days when I avoided the dangers of his gaze, and I looked into his eyes without fear.
'Your power continues to surprise me,' he said. 'I never would have thought such a thing possible. You have made a bad spot bloom in the darkness. You have leached the poison from this place. It was a blackened, blasted wasteland — empty of all living things — and you caused it to ripen, to protect, to heal. You took death, and made it grow.'
The pair of us leaned back against the plum tree, and watched the petals float down, brushing our faces before they fell to the earth. The wind stirred through the braches, and the leaves parted with a whisper. Con felt as solid and ancient as one of the orchard's trees beside me, his fingers twined through mine. I inhaled the scent of ripe fruit, and watched the stars drift across the inky night sky.