All Christopher Fredrico wanted was to be a peaceful scholar who could spend a lot of time with his friends. Now, falsely accused of stealing a magical artifact, he is forced to leave the only home he knows.
But as he and his friends travel towards the coast, they find a riddle that may save a kingdom — or cost them their lives.
Banished: The Riddled Stone Book One by homeschooled teen author Teresa Gaskins, is being serialized freely on this website at the pace of one chapter per week. The full novel is available in ebook or paperback format on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and other online retailers.
Nora awoke and rubbed her eyes. She propped herself up and saw that, besides herself, only the animals were awake. They were all at the lake, drinking the water and eating the flowers, which the breeze had blown to shore. She looked at the wall of the canyon and saw that the flowers had already been replaced by small purple buds with a frosty white glaze over them. The harpies were gone.
She looked around. The grass was bright, and the peaceful scene made her want to relax and forget the world.
Then a voice whispered behind her, “Wake the others, then go: drink and eat your fill. There is enough for all. After that, I will tell you why it is you were brought here.”
Nora turned to see Andrea, her eyes sparkling and a soft smile on her face.
Nora had met Andrea when they were young. She had found the harpy in the mountains above North Yorc, unconscious and with a badly cut wing. She had, perhaps foolishly, gone to her aid, and the two had become friends. She had never told anyone about Andrea, but harpies had always been a touchy subject for Nora after that. Maybe that was why she had reacted so meanly when Terrin asked — old habits.
“There is much to tell,” Andrea continued, “and you must leave tomorrow. And rest today.”
Nora nodded and eagerly woke the others. Before they could ask anything, she told them that they could drink and eat from the lake.
When Nora took her first bite of the pressed flowers, a wonderful feeling went through her. The feathery petals were slightly crunchy, and they were sweet, like honey except there was some strange flavor in the background that slipped away right before she could name it. The flowers’ centers melted like they were made of little crystals that dissolved in her mouth.
Then she tasted the water. It was lighter than normal water and tasted delectable, much like the unidentifiable taste of the flower. It filled them quickly, and then she longed to fall back asleep on the feathery softness of the golden grass.
But Arnold’s reddened shirt and stiffness as he leaned over the lake reminded her sharply that his wounds needed tending.
The gashes were not as bad as they had looked, though he still felt slightly dizzy from blood loss. Nora sponged the dried blood off his back and applied some anti-infection herbs from her saddlebag, and then wrapped bandages around his back and shoulders. After that, there wasn’t much she could do, but she didn’t think the cuts would reopen.
When she had finished, Andrea approached them from the shadows and spoke softly, “Come. I have much to tell you, and I fear we haven’t much time.”
Nora followed her back into the shadows. The others came, too, though more reluctantly.
Andrea pulled aside some of the vines to reveal a cave. The other two unusual harpies were sitting inside. On the wall were a dozen or so candles, set in notches in the rock. Andrea led them to the center of the room, where she sat cross-legged on the floor next to the other female harpy. Nora sat next to her, then Chris, then Terrin, and last Arnold.
Andrea spoke, “This is my mother, Janley, and my father, Coren. There is much to tell, but first I feel like we should explain harpies to you. Mother?”
Janley spoke in a low, soft voice. “The valleys in these mountains have been home to our clan for generations. We have been taught that while many humans would care for these paradises, there are more who would harm them.
“So, for a while we kept all humans away. Then, several hundred years ago, a man came into the mountains, wounded from battle and fleeing with his family in tow.
“They came at the same time of year that you have come, during our annual ceremony. The ceremony protects this valley from ruin, for the flower’s sweet juice in the water is what makes the golden grass grow. At this season, it is custom that each harpy shall bring an animal to drink of the waters, and some of the younger harpies took pity on the wanderers and brought them here.
“The man found mysteries here, secrets that we are about to show to you. He left, saying that he must find a way to end the war. And eventually the man brought peace.
“Our family has lived in this valley since, guarding its secrets. We are rulers, of a sort, for our clan. Among our people, each family of harpies has its own valley, and once a year we perform the ceremony that you saw last night. But this valley is too large for the three of us to handle alone, which is why the whole clan gathered.”
For a while there was silence.
Then Arnold spoke, “Tell me then, why do you kill humans?”
Coren answered, “We wish we didn’t have to. We try to scare them away by flying overhead, or by causing mountain rockslides, but humans are very persistent. Those who discover our valleys have no will to stay, for the water and flowers become bitter to any who taste them for long. But if we let them escape, our homes would be in danger.
“In the end our only choice is to fight. We are strong, and we have to protect our paradises. Do humans not also fight to protect what they love and cherish in the world? Do they not also die to defend their homeland?”
He did not say this in a questioning tone, but as a statement of fact. Again they sat in silence.
Andrea broke it. “There is one more thing you need know about us. I am what you’d call a fortune teller, or seer. We call it listener. My type is rare, born only when something terrible is about to happen in the world. As a listener, I walk these caves and hear whispers, hints of famine, floods, life, and death. Sometimes the whispers speak of what has passed, other times of what is to come. I believe it is my responsibility to share what I hear with any it concerns, even humans.
“I listen, but the whispers are broken — they jump around, and the message is unclear. Recently, I heard of four young humans who would read the stone.
“And then you come into our mountains, including one who is known to me. You come alone, walking separate from your race, as those who have read the stone before have done. I believe you are the humans of whom the whispers spoke.”
The harpies stood, and Coren turned towards a small, shadowed passage while Andrea said, “Follow us, please.”
Nora was the first on her feet to follow. The passage was cold and dark, almost completely round. The wall was smooth, and the candles sparse. Coren said, “Water used to flow through here, ages ago, and wore the rock smooth. It makes for treacherous walking. Step carefully.”
Janley spoke from behind them. “Normal harpies have trouble walking here. The stone is too smooth against their claw, so it is hard for them to grip. And claws are not the best for walking, as it is.”
The passage opened out into a wide room with an indented ridge all around and plenty of unlit candles. Andrea went to the single torch on the back wall and used it to light the smaller flames.
“This is where I hear the whispers,” she said quietly.
Nora felt Terrin shrink back, a bit unsure. Knowing her friend’s fear of spirits and magic in general, Nora caught Terrin’s hand and squeezed. No doubt the fact that this was where these ‘whispers’ originated made her uneasy.
Chris stared intently at the stone in the middle of the room, its surface covered with carved lines and shapes. With the brighter light, he blinked rapidly, then his eyes widened as they flickered over the stone. Andrea walked behind him and held the torch high.
Nora looked at the stone, but all she saw were squiggly lines.
Terrin spoke, perhaps a bit louder than intended. “Can you read it? What does it say?” She glanced towards Andrea.
But it was Chris who pulled in a deep breath, and then spoke:
“Where walkers cannot tread and seekers lose,
Beneath the surface, and yet high above,
The path is simple, yet will it be found?
Until the hidden are retrieved,
You cannot be free.”
Copyright © 2012 by Teresa Gaskins
Published by Tabletop Academy Press
Cover and layout copyright © 2016 by Tabletop Academy Press
Cover art copyright © Anton Tokarev / DepositPhoto.com, and Christian Joudrey / Unsplash.com
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.