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 cold water felt good as it ran down Nora’s throat. Sword lessons were tiring, but fun. Not to mention, they made everything taste better. She savored the last drops, then set down the now-empty clay cup.
“Thank you,” she said to the forest man.
He nodded back.
This was one of four stopping posts for anyone coming and going from the swamp. Horses could not traverse the muck, so about a hundred years ago the king set up stables for the sake of travelers like themselves. Not that there were many. Chris had been reluctant to show his face here, but as Thomas pointed out, if no one recognized him in their month at the village, one day here would not matter.
Nora climbed up to the loft and started to lay out her bedding for the night. Terrin was already asleep. As was Arnold, who had gone straight to bed after the day’s lesson. Her eyes settled on Chris’s empty spot. Her hand paused against her bag.
The entire month since he had returned, she had barely spoken to him. Only earlier that day, Terrin had chided her for it.
“He’s not going to leave again,” she had said. “And it’s not your fault he left the first time.”
Nora turned and opened her bag, pulling out a much smaller, older bag. It was made of supple leather that felt cool to the touch. Out of habit she ran her fingers along the cracking paint. The bag had been passed down through her mother’s family for who knew how long. Her aunt had given it to her before she’d left for school the first time. Since then she had stored her most precious possessions in it.
There weren’t many, and she quickly found the wooden flute she was searching for. It wasn’t really a flute, too short and simple. But there was no better name for it.
Now, to find Chris.
Chris ran the cloth over Marc one last time, and stepped back to admire his handiwork. The horse still looked more grayish-brown than white. Marc looked at him and nickered, the other horses echoed the sound.
“What?” Chris said, just as a sharp tweet sounded in his ear. He jumped and turned, but it was only Nora, holding a wooden tube.
She extended it to him, and he took it. She went to visit her own horse.
He examined the tube.
It’s some sort of flute, he thought as he ran his fingers over the few holes, and around the mouthpiece. There was a small crack on either side, finer than a strand of hair, which told him it had once been two pieces.
“It looks well made,” he said.
“Good. I made it myself,” Nora said.
She turned to face him, and Minty head-butted her. She laughed and turned halfway back to continue patting the horse.
“I didn’t know you carved,” Chris said.
She shrugged and leaned into the horse, gazing out of the stables and into the shadows beyond.
Chris looked at her. She had so many skills he had never expected from her.
“Play it,” Nora said suddenly, glancing at him. Her eyes shone.
Chris obediently lifted it to his mouth and tested each note. Then he tried a short song. He’d once thought about becoming a minstrel, but had quickly given up that dream — his father would have been horrified.
“You play it almost as well as me,” she said.
“Nonsense. I’m sure I can play better than you. That tune was just a test.”
“You might be skilled with stringed instruments, but we mountain folk are natural pipers.”
“Well, then, you play it,” he said, offering it back.
“No, it’s yours. Think of it as a welcome-back gift.”
“Oh,” he said, and he dropped his hand, his fingers folding around the instrument.
“You should join me and Arnold at swordplay,” she said. “It was your idea in the first place.”
Chris faked a groan. “If I do that, Arnold will make me duel him.”
“You two used to duel all the time, and you loved it.”
“Back when I could beat him, yeah. Now he’s a real knight.”
“Terrin still wins almost every time.”
“He lets her.”
Nora smirked, and cocked her head.
“How do you know that he didn’t let you win, before?” she asked.
“Nonsense,” Chris said, though he’d wondered the same thing. “It’s one thing to let a girl beat you when you’re grown, quite another to let a man beat you when you’re young.”
“Are you calling Terrin a girl?” Nora asked, raising her eyebrows. A barely contained smile quirked the edge of her mouth.
“Irrelevant,” Chris huffed.
“Well, I remember once, when you were fifteen, and he dropped his guard wide open for you, right when you were ready to strike.”
“How would you remember something like that?” Chris laughed. “In fact, I’m positive you’re making it up.”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“Because he certainly wouldn’t remember.”
“Uh, huuuh,” she said. “Keep telling yourself that.”
They both laughed longer than the joke deserved, enjoying the release of a month’s worth of tension.
When they recovered, Nora spoke first. “But seriously, I’m tired of losing all the time. I have to take Arnold’s word for it that I’m actually improving.”
“Are you saying you could beat me?”
“Oh, don’t start that,” Nora said.
The horses nickered, as if in agreement.
“All right, I won’t. But I am curious,” he said as he put away his grooming equipment.
It wasn’t till he was done that Nora finally said, “No. No, I can’t even beat Thomas, without some luck. I couldn’t beat you now.”
For a second he thought about teasing her on the last word, but he decided against it. It was getting late, he was tired, and tomorrow they would enter the swamp.
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.