Excerpt: The Broken Forest

When the first woman vanished, the villagers hoped that was the end of it. By the time the fifth one was taken from her bed and dragged off into the forest, never to be seen again, they knew it would never end, but still they were reluctant to summon a Huntress.

After they woke to find a child had been taken, the villagers conceded they had no choice.

They chose their fastest horse and most capable rider, and sent her hastening toward the capital to summon a Huntress.

By the time they received word a Huntress was coming, two more children had died.

By the time the Huntress arrived so had three more women.

*~*~*

It was damp, cold, and foggy when Adamina arrived. Few people were out of doors, and they fled quickly upon hearing the clip-clop of an unfamiliar horse. Torchlight flickered here and there but was not strong enough to puncture the fog.

The creaking of a sign guided her to the only place likely to have one in so small a village. She smiled when she drew close enough to see that the sign simply read Inn & Tavern. If ever it had possessed more of a name, all traces were long gone.

Dismounting, she passed through the gate to the right of the building and walked slowly until she found the stable. Once her horse was settled, she carefully crossed the courtyard until she came to the inn, walking along the wall a few steps until she came to the door. Pulling it open, she sighed at the warmth that washed over her, the smell of food that followed in its wake. After hours upon hours of traveling, it would be nice to rest and eat for a bit before she dove into her latest mission.

A man scrubbing the floor gaped at her, eyes going the size of dinner plates. Typical reaction in the outlying villages, where they seldom got into the kind of trouble that required a Huntress. Smiling briefly at him, Adamina continued down the hall until she came to the archway leading into a small but clean and moderately well-lit dining hall. Perhaps fifteen or so people filled it, huddled in scattered clusters. Fear lingered sharp on the air, pungent as fresh droppings. She wrinkled her nose and took a seat near the middle of the room, giving her space without setting her completely apart.

“Can I take your cloak, Huntress?” A large, heavy woman with pale skin and graying orange-red hair set a pitcher of hot ale and a cup on the table, then a platter of bread, butter, and honey. “Dry it off by the fire for you? I’ll have food along shortly. Name’s Victoria, I’m in charge of this establishment.”

“Thank you, Mistress Victoria,” Adamina replied, and handed over the long, heavy red cloak she wore. Victoria looked sad and wistful for a moment, then smoothed her expression into something more brisk and contained as she bustled it over to hang on a hook close to the fire.

Though Adamina’s distinctive cloak was gone, there was still her red tunic, and even if she was naked her red eyes would mark her. Adamina quirked a brow, mouth curving, as she caught a cluster of young men staring. Had they ever had a Huntress in the village before? Victoria had seemed familiar with Huntresses, but given she was the only white-skinned person in the room she could know of them from wherever she’d used to live.

It would be a little strange if they’d never had a Huntress there before; the outliers seldom needed them, but seldom was not the same as never. She would have to confirm it.

Tucking the thought away, leaving the young men to their staring and whispering, Adamina cut a slice of bread and smeared it with butter and honey. Her stomach growled as she took a bite. She washed it down with the dark, faintly smoky tasting ale. She’d finished three slices of bread and nearly two mugs of ale by the time Victoria brought her a bowl of soup. “That smells wonderful,” Adamina murmured. Smelled like the best thing she’d had in forever. Lately it seemed she did nothing but ride, sleep on the ground, and forage for food. It was nice to be back in civilization for a bit, even if that meant more work instead of taking a sorely-needed break. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, my lady. We are grateful to have you here.”

Adamina was fairly certain grateful was not the word. Desperate was far more like it. But she appreciated the effort to be polite, rather than greeting her with superstitious hostility that was far more common in such remote villages. “Thank you. I hope I am swiftly come and swiftly gone. What is the soup?”

“Beans, carrots, onion, pickled cabbage, some herbs. A splash of milk for additional heartiness, but that’s still within the bounds of the Huntresses, yes, my lady?”

“Yes, thank you,” Adamina replied. “You seem experienced in our ways.”

“My grandmother was a Huntress, Goddess rest her soul. She was slain by a manticore when I was a girl.”

Adamina mentally ran through the list of Huntresses. “Lady Wynn. She is still greatly missed, a Huntress as strong as the Duchess Redd. I am surprised you did not follow in her steps.”

“I tried, but I showed no affinity for it.” She shrugged. “I gladly leave the guarding of the forests to women better suited than me. My strengths lie in the kitchen and ordering people about.” Gesturing to the room around them, she added, “This inn wasn’t much when I married and decided to move here to Edge to live with my husband, but I’ve made it something now. Everyone who comes to Edge Village enjoys their stay here.”

“I believe it. Thank you again for the meal.”

“Let me know if you need anything else.” Victoria bustled off toward the table of whispering boys, said something that sent them scattering, then vanished into the kitchens once more.

Adamina ate her soup, ignoring the stares she could feel like cold fingers. Beyond the warm walls of the inn, past the dark and foggy streets, the forest beckoned with cracked and broken whispers.

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