She tried to warn them. They wouldn’t listen.
As a child, Terrin of Xell barely escaped a spirit from the Dark Forest. She knows better than to rely on magic. But with her schoolmate Chris accused of a magical crime he didn’t commit, she couldn’t let him face banishment alone.
So Terrin gets caught up in Chris’s quest to recover an ancient relic, with only magic to guide them. Naturally, everything goes wrong.
What lurks in the shadows, hunting Terrin and her friends? Or did the magic itself turn against them?
Hunted: The Riddled Stone Book Two is being serialized freely on this website at the pace of one chapter per week. You can buy the full novel at my publisher’s store or in ebook or paperback format at your favorite online retailer.
The sun glimmered down, reflecting off the smooth mountain stone and blinding anyone who looked the wrong way. The three companions rode slowly down the switchback road, Arnold’s eyes pinned on the back of Terrin’s head to avoid the shining mountain peaks. Nora followed behind.
Terrin had insisted they leave the inn just after breakfast — she’d almost refused them that — to cross the ridge and head out of the mountains. They would easily reach the forest of Xell before evening.
But in Xell, finding Chris would be like finding a toothpick in a wood pile. If he was even there.
They had tracked him as far as that last riddle cave. Arnold wondered, had Chris been able to read the ancient markings on the stone? It had looked like a jumbled mess — but the first stone had been covered with strange marks, too, and somehow he had understood them.
That first message had warned of danger and death, and the harpy seer Andrea had hinted at something terrible about to happen. Then this morning they heard rumors of war brewing in the south. Was that what the riddles were about?
How would they ever figure it out, if they couldn’t find Chris?
Outside the riddle cave, they had found clear tracks headed down the mountain to the east. He couldn’t have been too far ahead of them. But the sun set before they could catch him, and then the rain had come and nearly washed the whole trail away. Without Nora’s mountaineering skills they would have been stuck until the path dried out.
But the tracks were gone. Arnold had no idea how they would find Chris now, and the longer they rode the less hope he had.
Terrin had decided that Chris was headed out of the mountains into the forest, and this was the quickest path down — practically the only path that wasn’t washed out. Arnold suspected she was being influenced by the desire to go home.
Few of the forest folk traveled as far as Fredricburg, where the four of them had met and become friends, even though the school was known as the best in North Raec. Terrin had never been at home in the city or in the surrounding plains. She had seemed more comfortable in the small woods north of town, where they had explored as children in their free time, but even then she’d been wary. So Arnold couldn’t help but wonder how different she would be in the forest of Xell, where she had been raised.
He supposed her outward stubborn streak would remain, but he wondered if she might lose some of the angry cheek she had given even the headmaster. After all, she had repeatedly boasted that forest children were taught to respect their elders.
But Arnold knew that her outward confidence and ferocity were just shields. She was as vulnerable to doubt and fear as himself — sometimes more so. He knew her mind was constantly replaying her behaver towards Chris, wishing she hadn’t been so harsh.
He would never forget that time when he had seen her—
Terrin’s voice startled Arnold out of his reverie. Instinctively he started to pull back on Rich’s reins as Terrin pulled to a stop in front of him, but when he realized what she’d said, he nudged the horse forward to stand beside Terrin. Before them on the path stood three large wolves. Behind him, Nora pulled her own horse to a halt.
The wolves were obviously tired. One had its left eye swollen tightly shut, with fresh claw marks over it. All bore several such claw marks in various places and were missing clumps of fur. Some of the scratches still bled.
Arnold hissed through his teeth. “We need to back away slowly.”
“I know,” said Terrin, a bit too sharply.
The largest of the wolves growled.
Arnold glanced back to Nora. She was slowly moving Minty back. The horse’s nostrils flared, and her ears flickered. Nora leaned forward, patting her neck and shushing her.
Terrin was examining their surroundings. A couple yards to their right a rocky wall stood head-high beside the path, while on their left the steep slope of stones and scraggy mountain grasses offered no place to hide. As she slowly turned forward again Arnold caught her eyes for a second. He saw the flashes of anger behind her glowering eyes. She gathered her reins and signaled Leaf to back. The horse took two quick steps and tossed its head, snorting.
The third wolf moved past the leader and then crouched low, snarling. Its fur was tinged ginger-red, but Arnold couldn’t tell if the color was natural or if it was blood.
Taking his reins in his left hand, he signaled Rich to move in front of Terrin. His right hand moved almost unbearably slow to loosen his sword.
The three wolves began to spread out. One-eye’s flattened ears almost blended with his head. And his eye seemed to flicker from Arnold to the lead wolf. On the other hand, the ginger’s eyes were locked on Arnold, and its snarl sent a shiver down his back.
“I don’t think this is working,” whispered Arnold.
He glanced back at Terrin, who was slowly reaching for her bow. If there was a fight, it would start before she had a chance to string it.
And as the lead wolf began to move forward, adding his own snarls to the ginger’s, it was looking more and more like a fight. He signaled Rich to back with short steps, keeping him between the wolves and the girls. But the leader moved forward with matching steps. Arnold loosely wrapped his reins around his saddle’s pommel and slowly reached back for his shield.
Too slowly. The ginger lunged.
Arnold signaled and Rich pulled into a rear, then pivoted. The wolf landed to their right, and as Rich fell back to all fours Arnold swung his sword down.
The blade caught the red wolf’s shoulder and it sprang back with a yelp. The other two quickly charged in. Arnold turned his horse again and his sword flashed in the air between him and the closest wolf — the leader — which pulled back as if stung. Arnold pivoted Rich, and the horse pranced toward One-eye.
One-eye retreated with bared fangs, a growl rumbled in its chest. Then it lunged forward, forcing Rich back to avoid its angry jaws. Both the lead wolf and the ginger joined in, pushing the horse back with their snapping teeth.
“Arnold, the edge!” Nora called.
Arnold instinctively glanced at them. Terrin had dismounted and strung her bow.
Rich slipped. For a second Arnold felt the horse begin to slide down the stony slope, then Rich lunged forward onto the path.
The wolves scattered.
Arnold didn’t wait for Rich to fully steady himself before turning the horse to rush One-eye, the nearest wolf. It started to pull away, now wary of the horse, but Arnold’s sword caught it behind the ears.
The wolf collapsed, and he pulled his sword free. He turned to face the leader, just as an arrow struck it down.
He swung his head, searching for the ginger wolf, but it came to him. The reddish-gray blur registered in Arnold’s peripheral vision, and he started to pull Rich around to face it. Then pain shot up his left arm as the lunging wolf’s teeth sank into his wrist. The unexpected power of the wolf’s momentum carried him off his horse, giving him barely time to kick his feet free.
He landed on his sword arm, the impact knocking his breath away and causing him to release his sword. He rolled and slid for several feet, ending face down in a patch of dew-soaked grass. The wolf was carried over him, nearly pulling his arm out of joint, but it released his wrist as it passed. It hit the ground and tumbled over, sliding into the mountain wall.
The beast lay still, stunned and maybe even dead. Arnold shut his eyes for a second, pulling a deep breath. Then he opened them, and the ginger was dragging itself to its feet. Snarling more than ever, it staggered towards him.
Before the wolf could reach Arnold, Rich spun with stunning speed. His back hooves kicked out, striking the ginger straight on, and sending it flying back into the wall with a crack that made Nora’s stomach twist. At the same time, she heard a sharp twang. An arrow smacked into the wolf’s chest, no doubt killing it — if it wasn’t dead before.
For a moment Nora could only stare at the scene before her. The air seemed eerily silent after the bow shot. Then something clicked in her mind, and she swung off Minty and ripped her bag free from her horse’s back. With a quick movement she twisted the reins around the saddle horn before she turned toward Arnold.
She forced herself to walk and to take several deep breaths. Rich turned to face her, his eyes and nostrils wide.
“Whoa, good boy,” she said, gently patting the horse’s forehead before she crouched next to Arnold. The horse was well trained, and now that the danger was gone, he held perfectly still.
“Is he okay?” asked Terrin, kneeling beside Nora.
“I’m fine, and I’m right here,” said Arnold as he rolled to his back and started to prop himself up. But when he put weight on his left hand, he collapsed again with a yelp.
“Stop getting dirt all over it,” Nora said.
She grabbed his forearm and turned the wrist over. Thin, gray mud smeared over the wound, mixed with the red of fresh blood. As she held his hand, he pushed himself into a sitting position.
“Of course it had to catch you on your wrist,” Nora muttered. Then, louder: “Terrin, get me my water skin. I need to see the wound.”
Terrin leaped into action, but instead of turning to Minty, she quickly detached Arnold’s skin from where it hung over his saddle-horn.
As she handed it to Nora, she asked, “Is it bad?”
Nora splashed the water across his wrist, causing Arnold to groan through clenched teeth. The dirt washed away, exposing the torn flesh for a second. Then blood welled up, hiding it again.
Flowing blood was good — it would cleanse the wound.
But not enough.
“We need to move,” she said. “We have to find a stream.”
She stepped back to let Arnold scramble to his feet. Then turning to Terrin, she added, “An animal bite is always bad.”
Copyright © 2015 by Teresa Gaskins
Published by Tabletop Academy Press.
Cover and layout copyright © 2016 by Tabletop Academy Press
Cover Photo Credits: “Girl with bow” by Yeko Photo Studio via DepositPhoto.com and “Forest, untagged” by Lukasz Szmigiel via 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.