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The Riddled Stone

The Riddled Stone

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The Riddled Stone

Length:
922 pages
12 hours
Released:
May 15, 2019
ISBN:
9781892083401
Format:
Book

Description

How can a knight fight magic?

Christopher Fredrico loved the quiet life of a scholar-in-training. Plenty of spare time to spend with his friends. But the night Crown Prince Tyler came to dinner, everything changed.

Falsely accused of stealing a magical artifact and banished under threat of death, Chris leaves the only home he knows.

But as he and his three friends travel towards the coast, they find a riddle that may save a kingdom --- or cost them their lives.

If you love exploring magical worlds wracked by epic struggles of good against evil, then don't miss this complete, four-books-in-one bundle of Teresa Gaskins's serial fantasy adventure, The Riddled Stone.

Released:
May 15, 2019
ISBN:
9781892083401
Format:
Book

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The Riddled Stone - Teresa Gaskins

The Riddled Stone

Omnibus Edition

Four Books in One

Teresa Gaskins

Copyright © 2019 Teresa Gaskins

All rights reserved.

Tabletop Academy Press

Ebook version 1.0

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Cover Photo Credit: A man in a cape by Anton Tokarev via DepositPhoto.com, and Cave, Kapaa, United States by Christian Joudrey via Unsplash.com.

License Notes

Like most software, ebooks are licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for helping to conserve the ecosystem that keeps ebooks affordable.

Praise for the Riddled Stone Series

A captivating fantasy story with a well-thought-out plot … the excitement, adventure, and suspense will easily keep the reader’s attention.

— Wayne S. Walker, Home School Book Review

Enjoyable … a quick and easy read, and a good story.

— Katie Grace, online reader review

Intriguing … There are many new languages unearthed, magic uncovered, and creatures unleashed. I enjoyed the book and I am absolutely amazed at how such a young author can write so well. I definitely see her going far in her writing career, and I can’t wait to see what stories she publishes next.

— Tia, Homeschool Literature.com

Contents

Title Page

Banished: Book One

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Hunted: Book Two

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Betrayed: Book Three

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Revealed: Book Four

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Epilogue

About the Author

Banished

The Riddled Stone

Book One

Contents

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

~

Part One

~

1

Christopher

Wide-eyed with curiosity, Chris crept away from the grassy spot where he was supposed to wait. His nurse had turned away to clean up Trillory, his twin sister, who had spilled her food over her front. Standing, Chris walked as quickly as he could with waddling, short steps.

He paused just before a corner of the hedge, his chubby almost-two-year-old hands catching himself on a branch. From around the corner he could hear someone crying in short sobs. He continued forward and was surprised to see Anthony, his eldest brother.

Anthony’s hair, usually so much like Chris’s own curly black, was in a mess. He was sitting with his back to the stone wall of a gazebo, his knees pulled as tight against his chest as they could be with his head buried in them.

Chris let out a soft gurgling sound.

Anthony glanced up. His pale blue eyes, also like Chris’s, looked hollow, and the top of his cheeks tear-stained. Chris smiled and cocked his head, much like a puppy. Then he stumbled forward a couple steps before tripping.

He looked up in time to see Anthony’s face go from surprise to anger. His eyebrows squeezed together until they nearly touched, and his lips all but disappeared as he pinched them.

Chris was surprised. His brother had always been smiling, friendly and loving. Last time, Anthony had reached out his hands and laughed when Chris had grabbed his fingers.

Anthony rose and scooped his brother up. Holding him loosely, he carried Chris back the way he had come.

Naughty child! You should be with your nurse, not sticking your nose in other’s business, he hissed. Chris gave a small cry at his brother’s roughness.

Then a few steps later they encountered the nurse, carrying Trill and hurrying down the path. She paused as she saw Anthony, and then dropped a curtsy.

Thank you, young master Anthony, for returning your brother to me.

Anthony gave a slight humph, and handed her Chris. See that you don’t lose him again. Then he turned, leaving as fast as he could while retaining a noble posture.

Chris stared after him for a second, and then buried his face against his nurse, who spoke with a slightest tremor. Now, now, Christopher. See that you don’t wander off again. It’s time you two were headed inside for your nap.

2

Christopher, 17 years later

Chris caught Arnold as the bigger boy stumbled backwards towards him and Nora. He pushed Arnold back towards Terrin, and the two continued their duel.

Arnold easily regained his balance in time to parry a blow from the grinning, brown-haired forest girl, Terrin.

Nora sat nearly oblivious to the scene. She had long ago stopped being excited at the duels of her friends. Now she hummed quietly, her long, blond hair falling to nearly hide her face. To a passerby, she would have looked completely absorbed in her studies, but Chris could see a hint of amusement in her deep sapphire eyes as she glanced up every once in a while.

Nearly four years had passed since he had met Nora, back when she had first entered the school. She came from North Yorc, a town up in the mountains of North Raec. Yorcs were tough folk; some thought them too opinionated. After the Great Raecan War, the war that had really made North and South Raec two different countries, the people of Yorc decided that no longer would they serve the king, except when they agreed with his orders. It was commonly understood that the only reason the king had put up with such insubordination was that Yorcs were some of the best fighters, and he hated to completely lose their allegiance.

But Chris had found that Nora was neither opinionated nor did she have much of an interest in fighting. Instead she was shy and studious, and what opinions she did have, she rarely stated. It had surprised him a bit when he first met her.

Arnold he’d known nearly all his life. Terrin he met when he was seven. The four were best friends, doing everything together. Arnold had graduated the year before and had left to continue his training as a knight. Having completed that training, he had come to spend some free time with them. The other three had missed him, but they too would be parting soon.

Though she’d begun training as an ambassador, Terrin’s heart remained in the forest of Xell, so she would return home to become a hunter. Nora was going to continue her studies at a small college, to specialize in either history or healing. Chris himself would be going to a more well-known college, where he would finish his training as a scholar.

A bell tolled the late hour, and he sighed. I need to be getting back now. I’ll see you tomorrow, and then maybe we’ll have a duel, Arnold, to see if you really have earned your knighthood. When do you have to leave, anyway?

I might as well go Monday, Arnold said. You’ll be back in classes, and with exams … Well, I’ve been there before, and I wouldn’t do it again for the world. I’d rather take on the whole school alone in a fight.

Terrin rolled her eyes, and Nora smiled.

Chris waved and departed. He walked with his head down, trying not to draw unwanted attention. He was the youngest child of Earl Fredrico, and he hated when people felt the urge to bow and say, Honorable Christopher, when he would rather be treated like a normal person.

He was about halfway to the manor house when someone grabbed his arm and tugged. He turned his head to see his twin sister, tall as him but with strawberry blond hair flowing in waves down her back. He thought Trill had a regal look, with her straight pose and her bright eyes, like a younger version of their mother.

Anthony is home, she whispered, barely audible.

He knew what this meant and started walking again quickly. Anthony was his eldest brother, who spent most of his time out looking for quests or courting at the Dukedom of Grith, where he had lived in Chris’s childhood as a squire and later as a knight.

Anthony was not really bad, but Chris and Trill thought that he was overly ambitious and more interested in power than anything. Their father, on the other hand, considered him the crown jewel of his collection, and, in his own words, one worthy of kingship.

Chris himself was scared of his eldest brother, who had often teased him about being the youngest — even younger than his twin by several minutes. And Trill, the only one who knew, hated Anthony because of it.

He groaned, straightening his coat, and hurried on with Trill at his elbow, preparing himself for his brother. He probably wouldn’t be allowed to leave the house over the weekend. He’d have to ask one of the servants to give his regrets to Terrin, Nora, and Arnold.

3

Christopher

As the music ended, Chris pulled Arnold back against the wall of the ballroom, hoping to avoid attention while the various young ladies sought their next partners. Voices rattled in the background. The feast had been finished hours ago, and now it was eleven and he was sick of dancing, and his feet agreed.

Anthony had brought the news that Crown Prince Tyler was coming. Four days later the prince had arrived, and now, of course, there had to be a party. All sorts of people had accompanied the prince, or arrived slightly before him. Chris wasn’t even sure how they all found out the prince was coming.

Arnold, as a knight and a member of the family, had been invited to the banquet, and though he had planned to leave town yesterday, he decided to stick around for the food, as he’d phrased it. But Chris wished the two girls were with them as well. He had danced most of the dances, but the ladies were snobbish or boring. He wished Terrin was there to roll her eyes at their fancies, and Nora to at first stare in awe, but then giggle with him about their faults.

A slim lady, more elegant than most, stepped forward. She held her chin high, showing off her pearl choker, and causing her pearl circlet to catch the light.

Honorable Christopher, she said in a high voice, with a bit of an accent, you probably don’t remember me. We met when we were young. I was a bit older, so I remember, but you were just five. I’m Lady Joline.

He half bowed, then said, Lady Joline, I think I remember you a bit. Your parents were the ambassadors for Diamond Isles, right? This is my cousin, Sir Arnold, recently titled a knight.

Arnold bowed deeply, and Chris saw a slightly sappy grin on his friend’s face.

Lady Joline beamed. "Sir Arnold. An honor to meet you. Yes, my late parents were the ambassadors, and I have recently taken my mother’s place. Duke Grith has been very kind to accommodate me when I’m in North Raec.

But enough about me. Arnold, come dance with me. And can I claim the dance after from you, Honorable Christopher?

I do not have any previous engagements, he said.

Then Arnold stepped forward to take Joline’s arm. Chris bowed his head to them as they departed. Arnold glanced back, and Chris played the game, grinning at him and winking.

But the grin vanished quickly as he wondered how mad his father would be if he simply left. He looked towards the high table. Prince Tyler was chatting merrily with his father, who no doubt was slipping in compliments to his children whenever he could. Chris shook the thought from his mind — with the crown prince here, there would be no hope for escape.

Anthony himself was nowhere to be seen, but Chris suspected he was among the dancers, winning favor with the most important of the young ladies, or at least the richest.

By the time the bell tolled midnight, he had been made to dance with almost every lady in the room. His feet ached, and he happily retired to a corner as his father stood to make a speech, and then the prince after him.

Midway through the prince’s speech, there was the sound of footsteps from the hall. Everyone’s eyes shifted to the door, and the prince paused. Then the door swung open, and an old man appeared, accompanied by five younger-looking guards.

Immediately the man, whom Chris recognized as the Shard’s caretaker, knelt and bowed his head. The guards quickly did the same. The prince bid them rise, and the man, Darwin, explained.

Hail, Crown Prince Tyler Coric. Hail, Earl Diard Fredrico. Hail, honorable knights and ladies. I’m sorry that I must ruin your fun, but I have found the Shard stolen, and proof that one of the Earl Diard’s family is involved. He held up a brooch, marked with the seal of the earl’s house.

Chris bit his lip. Making a quick decision, he stepped forward before anyone else could. I have been missing my brooch since the early afternoon. I noticed it was gone when we were walking back to the house from meeting the prince. I didn’t go out after that.

Then Anthony stepped forward and said, I hate to accuse my own brother, but I have not seen him for at least the last hour. I speak only out of concern, but it is hard for him to confirm his story.

And slowly, as if Anthony’s words had convinced them, the people said they couldn’t remember it either. Suddenly Chris felt dizzy, even slightly sick. He looked for his sister, but Trill was shrinking into the crowd, unable to say anything above the growing murmur of angry voices.

His father’s face looked red and angry as he spoke above the noise. And how do you suppose an eighteen-year-old boy, even the son of an earl, stole a Shard?

With the Crown Prince at the manor, we thought it best to move most of the guards here. Only these five were at the Shard, and I found them fast asleep.

What will you have us do, Crown Prince? asked the earl. His hands gripped the table, his knuckles white.

Tyler rose. Search Christopher and his rooms for further evidence. If none is found, we will let him go. If proof of his involvement is found, then I will send a message to my father.

Chris stiffened, but then relaxed. They couldn’t prove anything against him, because he hadn’t done it. And the only people who could have planted something in his room were his family, the servants, or maybe a few of the guests.

And why would any of them do that?

4

Terrin

The crowd milled around the courtyard outside the earl’s manor. Most belonged to the party Crown Prince Tyler had brought along, but there were others, too. They were all waiting for the prince and the earl to finished talking, waiting to hear Chris’s fate.

Terrin felt ready to punch something — the face of either the caretaker, the prince, or Earl Fredrico would have been fabulously satisfying. Especially the caretaker’s.

She glanced at Nora, whose expression looked gray and stony as she tried to keep from crying. Terrin’s eyes softened, and she took her friend’s hand. She saw Arnold, on Nora’s other side, do the same with Nora’s left hand. She turned her attention to the scene before them.

Two weeks had passed since Chris had been arrested. A small disk had been found in his room, and the caretaker, who was something of a magician, had claimed that it was a teleportation device, big enough for the Shard but not anything much larger. The guards and caretaker had checked everywhere they could think of, and had still not found the actual Shard.

Terrin cursed mentally. She was sure this was some kind of mistake, or a setup.

Finally the prince and the earl stepped out onto the veranda. The prince raised his hands, and the earl coughed a bit. The crowd fell silent at once.

I have made my decision, and I have received approval from my father, Prince Tyler began.

She pressed her lips together. Next to her, Nora shuddered and squeezed her hand. Terrin squeezed back, but kept her gaze on the prince.

He continued, "I have decided that as the Shard cannot be found, nor any traces of it, we cannot truly prove Christopher Fredrico guilty on the circumstantial evidence of a teleporter and a missing brooch. However, he has no alibi, and it seems certain that he is involved, so I have decided to banish him from the kingdom of North Raec until such time as completely solid proof for or against him is found.

"From this moment forward, Christopher is to have nothing of his father’s, not even his last name. He will be given only enough money for passage beyond our borders. If he is found within the territory of North Raec after this month is out, his life will be forfeit.

If any of you find fault with my decision, speak now.

The silence fell like a brick.

Terrin wanted to yell that it wasn’t just, that Chris wasn’t a criminal, and therefore he should have no punishment. However, she held her peace and looked hard into Tyler’s face, as if trying to telepathically pass the message instead.

Finally, I wish to add that any who go with him, or offer him assistance, will share his fate, continued the prince.

Terrin raised her eyebrow a bit. So he thought some of them might choose to go with Chris? Or was this merely protocol, informing everyone of the exact rules? Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Arnold biting his lip.

If no one has any comments, then you are dismissed. Christopher, I will grant you tomorrow to prepare, but you must leave no later than the morning of the following day.

5

Terrin

It wasn’t fair, Terrin thought. The Shard should not have been that big a deal. Sure, it was a powerful source of magical energy, but no one could use it. A few people had tried to draw on the power of the Shards, generations ago, and the action had sucked them dry of magic.

Way back during the Great Raecan War, King Miles had followed a series of cryptic hints that led him to the famous Riddled Stone. It was surrounded by a shell of impenetrable, black rock, but as he picked it up, the shell split into five pieces, revealing the white Stone.

Those five Shards were nothing, compared to the power of the Stone — and only the king could use that. King Miles had used the Stone to end the Great War. The Raecs had still become separate countries, but there had been peace, for a while. Later kings had used it, too, in times of great need, but never on a whim because the magic in the Stone was natural, not a magician-cast spell, and such raw magic was always finicky.

Of course, from Arnold and Chris’s story, she thought the whole situation reeked of magic. How else would all those people forget that they had danced with Chris mere minutes before? But of course, there was no way to prove anything of that sort.

Now Terrin, Nora, and Arnold were sitting at the fountain. They didn’t care that Arnold should be on his way, or that the girls should be in class. They had just returned from the earl’s house.

The early spring air, which had seemed icy and fragile, shattered as Nora spoke. I suppose we should be packing.

Arnold stared at her, and even Terrin blinked in surprise.

She had known what was coming, from herself and Arnold at least, but she hadn’t expected it from Nora. Arnold opened his mouth and spluttered something that sounded a bit like, Sput duh you manths? though it probably was, What do you mean?

Nora spoke again. Oh, come on, Arnold. We can’t just let him go alone. Yes, he’ll argue, but he can’t stop us. Even when he had his title of Honorable Christopher, he couldn’t control us. We all know that he’s not a thief. Besides, it’s better to all go together rather than run into each other later.

Arnold opened his mouth as if to argue, but Terrin shook her head. Nora’s right, we all know we’re going. There’s nothing else to do. Come on, Nora, I bet we can finish packing before class ends. No use letting our roommates figure it out.

The two got up and hurried to their room. She heard Arnold mutter something about girls, and she rolled her eyes.

She and the boys had been together since their early years in school. They’d had their arguments at first, lots of them, and it had been a long time before they had actually become friends. But something about Chris had drawn them, and later Nora.

And it still did.

* * *

Terrin, Nora, and Arnold left in the early morning, when only people like shopkeepers or farmers were up. As soon as the city gate opened, they slipped out and rode as far as the first bend in the road. Now they let their horses nibble the grass as they waited for Chris.

Finally he appeared, riding his white horse, Marc. He obviously hadn’t packed much. The medium-sized brown sack slung across Marc’s back couldn’t have contained much more than a bit of food and a few changes of clothes. Chris’s head was hanging, and Marc picked up on the mood, plodding more like a pack horse than a fine steed.

Arnold nudged his dun-colored horse, Rich, to walk alongside Marc, and the girls followed on their own horses — Terrin’s, a dark chestnut named Leaf, and Nora’s, a dapple gray named Minty.

Chris looked at them sadly. I should have known I couldn’t get away without saying goodbye.

Nora opened her mouth, and then shut it. Terrin wondered if she was scared of how Chris would react when he realized they weren’t there just to see him off.

Arnold spoke instead. Chris, we are going with you.

Chris’s eyes popped with anger, and he pulled Marc to a stop. He twisted in his saddled and glared at his friends.

Did you not hear what the prince said? If we’re caught in this country by the time the month is out, I’ll be thrown in a dungeon, or worse. And anyone traveling with me will get the same. I don’t care how much you want to show your faith in my innocence, I’m dangerous. Get that through your heads: I’m dangerous.

Marc stomped his foot.

Terrin spoke calmly, "Chris, we are coming with you. You know you can’t stop us. And it’s not just to prove that we think you’re innocent. It’s also because you’re our best friend. We’re old enough to make our own decisions. However much you keep saying no, we’ll just follow you."

Chris looked her in the eye, but she knew he was faltering.

6

Arnold

The four companions rode in silence. No one knew what to say. They had turned south the first chance they got, about two hours ago. Arnold squinted at the sky. The sun had nearly reached its peak.

Yesterday had been a whirlwind of preparation. Now that they were on the road, he had time to think, and he began to wonder why they were going with Chris. They couldn’t let him go alone, of course, but it felt wrong just to leave — like giving up without a fight.

If only they could prove that he was innocent. What would Chris want with a Shard? The whole thing was ridiculous.

But where had he gone, the night of the dance? Or had he been there, in the ballroom, the whole time? Arnold’s memory of that night was a fog of confusion.

Finally he turned to Chris and asked, Where are we going?

Chris didn’t even bother to look up as he spoke. Diamond Isles. It’s the best spot, I think. Since I’ll have to take a boat to get anywhere.

The Diamond Isles. One of the most active trading ports, and the most peaceful country Arnold knew. Wasn’t that where Lady Joline was from? She had been a star example of why he’d never been interested in the Isles — friendly and very pretty, but oblivious to the world at large and the dangers it held.

Chris was his best friend. Arnold couldn’t abandon him when the whole world seemed against him. But eventually Chris would settle down, and then what? What could a knight do in the Diamond Isles?

He glanced around. They were still on the plains, but to the east he could see a woods not far off, and beyond that the mountains of Scar Range. No, the Isles wouldn’t be the same as Raec. They would all miss their homes. And what would their families think of them trekking along with an earl’s banished son? Nora was a Yorc and so was protected, at least a bit. Her family would always be glad to welcome her home. But what of Terrin? Or himself?

He heard Terrin call, Hey, Arnold! Wrong way, silly. Aren’t you paying any attention?

He looked up and realized Chris had turned off onto a side road, and, deep in thought, he had kept riding straight on.

Scowling, he turned Rich around to follow them.

What’s wrong with the main road? he asked. It’s safer than going through the mountains.

Terrin shot him a blazing look, and he had a feeling that in a different situation she would have kicked him. He realized that Chris didn’t want to be recognized, and on the main road there was always the chance of meeting a noble.

So much for his knowing Chris better than anyone.

Terrin pulled Leaf up to ride beside him. She had on her sternest face, and her prominent cheekbone made her expression look even harsher. He looked away. When she got angry, Terrin was scarier than any dragon.

7

Nora

Nora sat beside the campfire with her arms around her knees, which she had pulled up to her chest. Her eyes were on Arnold and Terrin, who were talking quietly. Arnold had a worried look, and Terrin was looking rather serious.

Chris was already asleep, or at least pretending to be. He was on the far side of the fire from her, and she watched him.

She understood why Arnold had been thinking so hard during the day. She had been thinking hard, too. But she’d made up her mind: Chris was her best friend, and life wouldn’t be the same without him. It’s true she was leaving her family, but she could come back someday to visit them.

Probably.

Anyway, ever since she met Chris, she had wanted to travel more. She had never really known anything outside of North Yorc before.

She slipped into her bedroll.

When she awoke, she saw that Chris had already woken up and was gone.

She jerked up, throwing off her blanket, then calmed as she noticed Marc grazing nearby. For a second she had thought that Chris had slipped away while they were sleeping.

Comforted by the fact that he wouldn’t have left Marc, she guessed he had gone down to the nearby stream. She stood and stretched with a big yawn. She slipped on her shoes, boots that were made for traversing the rough terrain of a mountain, and started towards the stream.

Chris was there, sitting in the shade, fishing.

She stood beside him for a moment, then whispered, Will you let me fish for a bit? I used to help my father, and it would be fun.

Chris looked at her with a surprised expression. She wasn’t sure why he had that look, but he handed her the rod. They continued to fish for a while, then they headed back to camp with their catch.

As they walked, Nora said, I doubt I’ll be much help in catching food. I can only fish, and fish gets pretty tiring. But, I’ll be sure to cook us some tasty stuff.

Don’t. It’s not your job.

She turned on him, her brow furrowed. "Listen here, Chris. It’s not your job to take care of us. Especially because you don’t want us along.

Which brings me to a point that I can’t understand: Why don’t you want us along? If I was in your place, I’d be overly eager for company. Is it so bad for you that we’re here? We’re old enough to leave our nests, Chris. What would you do if I were in your place?

They looked at each other for a while, then Chris gave up. Fine. Just make sure that whatever you cook is yummy stuff, or I’ll have to fire you.

She gave a solemn bow, though she could feel the corners of her mouth twitching.

8

Christopher

Chris felt a slight breeze twisting around his hair. He nudged his horse down the hill. They would be entering the mountains soon, a small section called Scar Range that hung down from the main northern mountains and made a gray scar across North Raec on the maps. It would be the hardest part of their journey, or at least the slowest.

The four had been traveling through the foothills for a couple days now. Their pace had slowed, but Chris felt a lot more at ease. He still missed home, mostly his twin and his other friends — though he had spent most of his time with Arnold, Terrin, and Nora.

In fact, now that he thought about it, he almost wished he had spent more time with others. Ever since he had met Arnold, back when they were six, he’d tagged along. Wherever Arnold led, he would follow.

But now, Arnold was the tag-along.

Before Arnold, Chris was very shy and opened up only to his sister. As the youngest of eight, he wasn’t often noticed. Then he entered school, and more people had noticed him.

Still, he stayed next to Arnold, not sure how to act. It had felt weird, being called honorable. The first, and pretty much only, time he had exercised authority was to tell people to drop the title.

Ah, well, he thought with a small chuckle, that won’t be a problem anymore.

Hey, Chris. What’s with having your head in the sky? We’ll have enough of that in the mountains, even though we’re staying on the low roads. And you’re not a scholar yet, so you don’t have that excuse.

He turned his head and saw a grinning Arnold beside him. Humph. Scholars don’t always have their heads in the sky. They can be very adventurous men. After all, think of King Miles. He discovered the Riddled Stone, and he was also known as one of the wisest scholars.

It hadn’t pinched as bad as he thought it would, to mention the Riddled Stone. He would have preferred to avoid the subject, but Miles was the first example that came to mind. Luckily no one noticed, or rather, no one showed that they had noticed.

Instead, Arnold threw a punch at him. He ducked, and the punch went harmlessly over him, as both boys had known it would, and Chris then picked up a canter. He heard Arnold and the girls do the same behind him. Arnold pressed Rich up beside Marc, and they raced towards the next hill.

It was a game they had played a lot as boys. One would try to punch the other — though even the first time, they’d missed — and then they would race a ways. Somehow they always knew where the finish line was, usually wherever it was that they were forced to slow down, like the upward slope of the hill they were quickly approaching.

The first time they had played the game, they hadn’t been friends. But they’d been walking together, talking about squires and knighthood. Or rather, Arnold was talking, and Chris listening. Then, for whatever reason, Arnold had thrown a punch at his head, and he had ducked. Then he had run, thinking that Arnold was being mean. It was something his older brothers did quite a lot. But they reached the door and ran into his sister, Trill, and that put a stop to the chase. Later, Arnold had complimented him, and that was when their tradition started — at first more a test of skill, but soon it became a game.

This time, Chris won. He slowed his horse to a walk to climb the tall hill. The path thinned, and on the rugged mountain terrain, they had to go in single file.

He stopped at a flat hollow in the hill. There was a shallow cave and a bit of open meadow. He glanced back at the line behind him. Arnold was first, then Nora. She was a natural on a horse, though she hadn’t learned to ride till she had met them. Last came Terrin, who was intently watching the ground.

Arnold pulled up and glanced back as well, to see what Chris was looking at.

Chris nibbled his lip and asked, Think she’s spotted the tracks of a wolf pack or something?

With the best of luck, it’s a deer herd. Plenty of good venison nearby, though we couldn’t carry a whole lot.

Nora had stopped on the path and was calling to Terrin. Come on, everyone’s waiting.

Terrin looked up and nudged Leaf on, and Nora turned forward. In unison, their faces changed. Terrin’s became twisted in disgust and horror, and Nora’s jaw dropped, and her eyes widened in surprise. Both boys turned to see what it was, but from their angle at the flat hollow, they couldn’t see anything.

It was Nora who answered their question. She pulled herself together and shouted, Harpies!

9

Arnold

Arnold swung off Rich and drew his sword, instinctively wrapping the reins around the horn of his saddle so they wouldn’t tangle Rich’s legs. Rich trotted to the back of the cave, the most shadowed part, as far away from the harpies as he could get.

Arnold noticed out of the corner of his eye that Chris had also dismounted, and Marc was following Rich. Down the hill, Terrin and Nora were hurrying to the top. Arnold shouted, Let your horses loose. You’ll do better separate from them.

Harpies were among the most common magical creatures — and one of the most dangerous. They had bat-like wings that spanned at least eight feet and humanoid upper bodies. They wore dark purple robes, which swirled around their torsos like smoke. Their eyes and hair were the same purple color, and the latter fell in thick waves and curls around their childlike faces. Their legs were covered in feathers and ended with talons big enough to latch onto an ox. As large as harpies were, the talons often seemed too big for the rest of their bodies.

Arnold pulled his shield off his back. It had once held an emblem of two spears crossed behind a sword, the symbol of North Raec. Now it had a plain, silver-gray cotton cloth over it. It made him sad to hide the fine glint of metal that had always made him feel fierce in battles.

Squinting into the bright noonday sun, he could see the harpies descending. In this clan there were five adults, full-sized and deadly, and three children, who were a bit smaller and less lethal, but still dangerous. Plus the adults would be more aggressive to protect their young.

He took a firm grip on his sword and shouted, Niarrg! It was pure nonsense, but he made it sound fierce as he waved his sword and slipped into a loose battle stance.

The harpies swooped towards him, and he leaped back, drawing them away from where the path joined the hollow, just as the girls appeared.

Chris shouted, too, and moved to the other side. Four of the creatures, three adults and one child, went after Chris, and the rest followed Arnold.

A harpy screeched. The sound was hawk-like, but much more terrifying, perhaps because that innocent-looking face turned out to have a mouth full of shark-like teeth. The shriek sounded like a mocking battle call that made the beasts seem more intelligent than they probably were. Arnold did his best to ignore the screech, but it somehow burned, like being stabbed with an icicle. Only this was all around, enveloping you.

He slashed at a diving harpy, and danced to the side at the same time. The beast swerved and spun away, but recovered quickly, still undamaged except for a barely-noticeable tear in the gauzy material of its robe.

Two of the children grabbed his shield and pulled, which surprised him a bit. He heard a ripping sound as their talons broke through the cloth, and a horrible high-pitched sound of their claws against the metal. Their wings flapped wildly, tangling with each other and hitting Arnold’s face.

He swung his sword in front of him and saw blood spill from a cut in one’s stomach, and the other was flying lopsided as they retreated.

A large talon sunk painfully into his back. Arnold jerked forward, and then stabbed over his head. The harpy let go, but only to shift its grip. Another was closing in fast, and the first pulling upward as if to fly off with him. Arnold turned on the ball of his foot, leaning heavily to the side, before the incoming one reached him. The creatures collided, and he was released. He fell to the ground with a clattering thud, his shield pressing painfully against his rib.

Gasping for breath, he rolled over so that his shield was on top. As he did, he saw Terrin with a bow and arrow, standing slightly in the cave, with Nora pressed against the wall behind her and next to the horses.

Chris, he noticed, was missing.

His two attackers circled above him, screeching, their wings causing shadows to dance over him. Between the blinding sunlight and the loss of blood from his back wound, he decided this fight didn’t look promising. And, he noted with disgust, this blasted noise is giving me a headache.

The two harpies dived, and he rolled away. He clambered to his feet and took another fighting stance. His head may hurt, but he could still swing his sword.

The creatures had expected the move and were skimming the ground towards him. A couple yards away, one flew up and circled around, and the other let its back claws touch the rock. The scraping sound was horrible, adding to the continual screech.

Arnold charged, fighting the urge to put his hands to his ears. He wasn’t sure what happened next, but he heard Nora shout, which turned into a scream.

He felt a blazing pain as talons sunk into his shoulders. He was pulled into the sky, still trying to slash at his opponent, and the harpy released him. As he fell, something went by, buffeting him, and his sword was torn from his hand. Then the claws grabbed him again, pulling his fall up short with a slight jerk.

He heard a sickening silence. Nora had stopped screaming.

10

Christopher

Chris hadn’t lasted long. He was no sword genius, and he didn’t get much practice. Two of the adult harpies had taken turns fake-diving at him, and he had been kept on his toes, making sure they didn’t make a real try for him.

Then a child had joined in. It had flown at his face, screeching. He had jumped to the side, trying to make a strike for the monster. But he was used to human opponents, and the child’s speed and ability to maneuver had messed up his timing.

A third adult had grabbed his shoulders and started to fly off with him.

It was then that Marc had come out and reared. The adult had dropped him and scattered, but one of the others grabbed Marc and carried him away.

Chris had made a good strike at the leg of another adult, but then the child returned and grabbed him. He hadn’t seen much as they’d lifted off, only that Terrin was shooting from the mouth of the cave.

Then they passed over the back of the hill, and he couldn’t see the hollow any more. They flew towards the mountains. In a different situation, he might have been awed by the beauty. From here, he could see the range stretching out in both directions, in its odd, curving, scar-like way. As they got closer he saw hints of dark and light green blurred together. This was the forest that the people of Xell lived in, Terrin’s forest tribe, though there were other tribes there as well.

But mostly he noticed the mountains: From the ground, the mountains really did look like a horrid scar among the green fields and woods that North Raecans loved. But from here, he saw what the harpies must see every day of their lives. In the noon sun, the mountains gleamed silver, and the waterfalls sparkled, blue and glorious. Rivers and streams wound between the treacherous cliffs. He saw patches of color that must be mountain flowers, and then, in the deep gulches in the mountains, which he was sure no man had ever seen, there were gold fields of something that moved a bit like grass, waving and twisting like the sea, with small dots of white or larger dots of brown, which were probably animals, like rabbits or deer. And rising up around the gold, cascading from every crack, crevice, and cliff, and bushing on the ledges, was a purple and green that seemed to glow.

They flew towards the highest mountain, and Chris saw the real scar of Scar Range. This particular mountain was very steep, and no one had ever climbed it successfully. Most people avoided it, because harpies were a common sight around it.

But now that he saw Scar Mountain from the top, he noticed a wide gash in it, which reached down to a plain that looked like it was underneath the mountain. Here the gold grass was almost blinding, and there was no gray to be seen, only purple and green. In the center of the plain was a small lake of sparkling blue. But the animals here were different, more numerous and of a wide variety from rabbits to wolves all milling around peacefully, as if without a care in the world.

The harpy carrying him floated down in spirals towards the golden plain below. As they flew inward, he looked up to see that two other harpies were also descending into the mountain. One carried a deer, the other Marc.

Below him he heard a chorus of screeching, and five harpies rose to meet them. His harpy dropped him a few seconds before they landed. He saw that Marc was set down gently several feet away.

They herded Chris towards a shadowy corner. He looked about him. It seemed like the entire mountain must be hollow, and it all glowed. The purple flowers, he now saw, had feather-like petals, and the green vines and leaves around them were covered with thorns. He reached out to touch one of the flowers, but one of the harpies grabbed his shoulders and jerked him to the ground with a screech.

He was forced to watch from that position. His horse was allowed to wander. He saw that it stayed far from the walls, but nibbled gently at the grass.

He looked at the grass, which seemed thicker than normal and was feather-like, as the flowers were. He realized with a start that it looked like a brighter version of the brownish-yellow feathers on the harpies’ legs. He wondered if this valley was the home of the harpies, and if their coloring took after their home.

When he touched the grass with his hands, it pressed down like a cushion, and for some reason, he found that he wanted to stay in this beautiful place. The soft, glowing grass, if it was really grass, reminded him of his childhood bed. It had been one of the few places where he felt safe, where he could rest without worrying about anything. And the warmth that the canyon seemed to hold, it reminded him of—

He heard screeching, and saw that more harpies were arriving. One swooped towards him, and he was surprised to see that it held an unconscious Arnold. The feeling of peace snapped, and he suddenly felt anger rising against these beasts.

The harpy landed backwards, in a way that allowed Arnold to be laid back in a restful position on the grass. He almost looked like he had simply lain down there at the end of a hard day.

Chris pulled his knees to his chest and put his arms tightly around them. He wished that he could attack the harpies, but he wouldn’t even get to his feet before they were on him, so he tried to hold in the anger. It was hard. No longer did he let the golden grass comfort him. He was sure that he would find some way to stand up to these beasts.

Then suddenly, Nora crashed into him in a tight bear hug, and he realized that in his anger he hadn’t noticed the screeching that signaled her arrival.

Terrin joined them shortly, her face drained and ragged, her hands scratched from her clenched nails. She whispered hoarsely, Nora. Then she saw Arnold and fell to her knees beside him. Arnold, she said in an even more urgent tone.

Nora released Chris, and he unbent himself and looked them both over.

Are you two okay? he asked.

We’re fine, Nora said. Terrin lasted quite a while, as it was mostly a distance fight, but after Arnold was caught, there were too many of them for her to handle. They didn’t hurt her too bad, though. I was completely useless, and they didn’t hurt me at all. It looks like Arnold got the worst of it.

Nora continued to tell him what she had seen of Arnold’s fight. Harpies were almost impossible to beat, unless you had at least one well-trained fighter for every one or two harpies, and it was always good to have extras. There had only been three of them, as Nora had no way to fight back — with only Arnold really trained for that sort of thing — against a large group.

The three huddled together over Arnold until mid-evening. During that time several more harpies arrived, carrying various wildlife and bringing in the other three horses. The horses joined Marc in grazing on the strange grass.

A knot of harpies gathered next to the lake, and more joined them as they brought the animals. From time to time, the harpy who was standing guard over the humans would screech, and a new harpy would come to relieve it.

Finally something interesting happened. Three new harpies landed, and instantly all of the other harpies gathered around them — all except the one guarding the humans, and it looked extremely depressed about being left out. Its expression reminded Chris of his sister Trill when she was told she couldn’t do some boyish thing. But he turned away from it to watch the scene.

There was a lot of low screeching going on. Then the three new harpies appeared, walking towards them.

The first two were obviously middle aged. One had long hair, the other short. They were both tall and slender. The long-haired one wore her hair in cascading curls that somehow reminded him of the flowers. She, for it was obviously a she, also wore purple eyeshadow, which made her eyelids look heavy, and in her hair was a circlet with brass wings.

The male had a pale face, and wore his hair straight, and it fell in pointed ends. He too wore a circlet, this one with silver wings.

Then there was the youngest, and she was the most surprising. She had a pale, shy face. Her hair was short and curly, more blue than purple, and her eyes were sea green. Her eyes were wide, and her hands lightly clenched, one pressed to her mouth. She wore a circlet with gold wings.

There were three things, though, that set these new creatures apart from the other harpies. The first and least important was that their wings were feathered. The second that they had human feet, which were barefoot. The third was that they had human arms.

11

Terrin

Terrin had never seen a real harpy before, only the ones in books at school, though she had sometimes seen strange great birds in the distance when traveling from the forest to the city. They terrified her — so human-like, yet so inhuman.

She heard a moan beside her and saw that Arnold was stirring. She went to support him as he sat up. She couldn’t really tell him to lie back down, considering all that was going on. He deserved to see this, too, before they died.

Just as she got her arm around Arnold, she heard Nora cry out. At first, Terrin thought Nora was in pain or terrified. But when she turned her head to look, Nora was hugging the youngest of the new harpies. For a second she thought that the monster had used some foul magic to confuse Nora. Then she saw Nora’s expression. Nora was smiling, and so was the harpy.

The older harpies smiled as well, but the male said softly, We understand, Andrea. But not now.

Nora’s cry had been a cry of joy. As she broke away from the harpy, she spoke in a rush: Andrea, please tell me what’s going on. Why did these other harpies capture us and hurt my friend so bad? Why are we here? Where is this? Is this the valley that you used to tell me about? It has been so long—

Andrea held up her hand and said, "I’ll explain soon. But you must understand that this is of utmost importance, so it’s best you just watch and stay silent. Go back to your friends.

Kao, you may leave your post.

This last phrase had been directed at the harpy who guarded them. It knelt before the three and then went to join the others.

Nora returned and sat next to Terrin with a lighter expression than usual.

Terrin whispered, But wait, I thought harpies could only screech? And Nora, why are you so friendly with that one?

Nora scowled and spoke sharply, There’s obviously a lot not known about harpies. And it’s a long story. I’d rather not tell it right now. Then she pulled her knees up to her chest and laid her chin on them to watch the proceedings.

Terrin shrank back in silence. In nearly four years, she had never seen that sort of anger from Nora. She felt Arnold flinch from it, too. A glance at Chris told her that he also was surprised.

The three strange harpies turned away from them and began to sing, swaying gently from side to side. The red light of sunset filled the valley, and the other harpies rose and flew to the walls. They bit their purple flowers off and carried them down, dropping them in a pile next to a small trench that Terrin hadn’t noticed. As the pile grew, the young harpies swooped down, picking up the flowers in their talons and squeezing them over the trench. It was hard to see, but a juice flowed out of the blossoms, filling the trench and overflowing into the lake.

After squeezing the flowers dry, the child harpies flew to the lake and dropped the pressed flowers onto the water. Meanwhile, the adults kept adding more and more flowers to the pile, and all this time, the three continued to sing. Andrea’s eyes seemed to glow. The red light gave their pale faces a strange, distant look.

Curiosity made Terrin glance at her companions’ faces, and she saw that they, too, glowed red and distant. She turned back to watch the ceremony, wondering if it was an effect of the light or some sort of hypnotic magic — hoping the former. She nibbled at the inside of her lip, shifted herself into a less comfortable position, and forced herself to stay alert.

The adult harpies had landed and were standing just beyond the trench. She realized that all the flowers had been picked, even the ones behind them. Finally, the lake was absolutely covered in flowers, and the trench held a large puddle of juice, though much more had run into the lake. The song ended, and the canyon felt eerily silent. The three singers approached the puddle. Each took a single mouthful of juice.

Then the other harpies did the same, one by one. As they left the trench, they walked around the edge of the lake and the three once again took up the strange song, and the normal harpies joined in. And this time, as they sang, they cried.

Now Terrin realized that their song was an altered version of an old forest song, one often sung at funerals. She hated it — it made her tremble and feel strange inside.

When the song was finished, she felt relieved. As the harpies all rose to the sky, a tiredness came over her. She fell onto the soft, feathery grass and couldn’t help falling asleep.

12

Nora

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 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

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