Stolen Enchantress by Amber Argyle
Copyright © 2018 by Amber Argyle
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products, bands, and/or restaurants referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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For all my sisters from other misters.
You know who you are and what you’ve done.
As well as the retribution coming your way.
(It’s tacos. The retribution is tacos.)
Table of Contents
Excerpt from Witch Song
About the Author
Mud squelched between her toes as Larkin shoved the hoe into the ground, lifted a sodden lump of earth, and dropped seeds from her belt into the hole. Rain dripped from her damp wool hood, and her back clenched in one big cramp. But she didn’t let the ache or the rain slow her. Bane had promised to come for her after her work was done. They were to go fishing at the river. With any luck, her family would have fresh meat for the first time in days.
She dropped the last seed into the ground and straightened with a sigh, rolling the kinks from her neck.
“Sela, time to go.”
She pulled back her hood and turned to look for her little sister. Instead, she came face-to-face with Crazy Maisy, jagged lines of mud painted across her skin, her wet hair plastered over her face. Larkin jumped back, heart pounding. She forced her spine straight. Best not to show fear around the girl.
“The forest take you, Maisy!”
How long had she been stalking her? And what nasty tricks did she have in mind? Throwing rocks or insults? Making one of her gruesome predictions?
“Within the shadows of the trees,” Crazy Maisy recited in a singsong voice, “the beast doth live and the beast doth breathe.”
Gruesome predictions it is. Larkin cast an uneasy glance at the forest. She’d strayed too far from her home. The muddy fields were surrounded on three sides by the Forbidden Forest and the fourth side by the river Weiss. The wind picked up, and the forest’s enormous trees groaned, branches straining like arms eager for her to come close enough to strangle the breath from her body.
Only her parents ever risked coming this close to the forest. She stepped back, grabbed the hoe, and held it like a spear—a dull, mud-caked spear. It was laughable, but she felt better with it in her hands. She searched the shadowy stillness for signs of the beast.
Maisy circled Larkin. “When day dies and shadows grow, the beast without his kingdom goes.” She was nothing if not cruel.
“Shut it, Maisy!” Larkin searched for a puff of tangled blonde hair, a flash of pale skin. She saw nothing. “Sela?” she called again. Even to her own ears, her voice sounded hollow. With her father at the tavern and her mother attending a birth, Larkin had been left in charge of her sister. How long had it been since she’d heard her little sister playing? She couldn’t remember.
Pushing damp strands of copper hair out of her face, Larkin whirled in a circle. On this side of the river, the fields were fairly flat. She should have easily spotted a muddy four-year-old girl. But there was no sign of her.
Maisy circled closer, stalking Larkin. “Shadows his cloak, magic his staff, his snaggily claws reach ‘n grasp.”
Larkin’s heart squeezed violently. The last thing she needed was the druid’s mad daughter taunting her. She shot Maisy a glare and ran to the last place she’d seen her sister, mud clinging to her soles and splattering her back. Her skirt tugged free of her belt and dropped around her hips, hampering her every step.
“Sela?” she called again, louder. Only the steady patter of rain answered.
Larkin swept the muck for Sela’s tracks. There was a general mess, like Sela had decided to swim in the mud, then perfect little footprints, the toes digging deep as if she’d run. Larkin hiked up her wayward skirt and followed the erratic footprints past mud mounds, mud cakes, and finally, partially melted mud balls. The path took her closer to the smear of trees, but then the tracks went from zigzags to a straight line—directly toward the Forbidden Forest.
“Snatching the virgins from their dreams, never a chance to voice their screams.” Maisy squatted, her head cocked to the side as her ragged fingernail drew an X through one of Sela’s tiny footprints.
“Go away, Maisy!”
Dread wrapping a poisonous cloud around her, Larkin followed those tracks to the outer edge of the outstretched boughs. She stood there, the wind pressing her ragged, damp skirt against her legs. The trees whispered dark secrets to each other. If she strained her hearing, she might be able to understand the words, but she was quite certain she didn’t want to.
Beside her, Sela’s tracks had also paused—she could tell because they were deeper and nearly perfectly formed—but then her baby sister’s footprints crossed into the Forbidden Forest.
“Ancestors save me,” Larkin whispered. The sun chose that moment to peek out from behind the clouds, though the rain continued drumming against her head and shoulders. The trees’ shadows stretched toward her toes, ready to infect her with their inky darkness.
Maisy stood beside her and faced the trees. “Back to the forest, he doth go, to nibble and dribble their bones just so.”
“You saw her go in!” Larkin whi
“I did tell you.”
That idiotic song! Maisy closed her eyes and tipped her face to the sky. Rivulets of water exposed streaks of pale skin.
“The forest called to Sela,” Maisy said. “She heeded the call.”
Maisy was as bizarre and unwelcome as a midsummer blizzard. Not worth beating to a pulp. Larkin shoved Maisy so she landed hard on her backside. “She’s a child!” The forest often sent its beasts to take virgins as sacrifice—the Taken—but never a girl younger than fourteen. Sela must have wandered in on her own.
Larkin was furious. Sela might be only four, but she knew better.
Larkin pointed back to town. “Go get help!”
Crazy Maisy lay back in the mud with a plop. “The men won’t risk the forest—not for your sister.”
“Get your druid father. He serves the forest! He can make it spit her out again.”
“He would praise her sacrifice.”
Larkin wrapped her arms around her middle, partly to hold herself together and partly to keep from strangling Maisy. Every year, girls went missing—sacrifices taken from their beds by the beast. They disappeared in the night. No one ever saw them leave.
And no one ever saw them again.
Now her baby sister was gone, and it was Larkin’s fault. She should have watched her closer, should have reminded her—again—to stay away from the forest. She looked back at her home, situated on a little rise beside the river. The conical hut rose from the ground like a beehive. Beyond the river was the town of Hamel. Blue-gray smoke rose from some of the roofs. For half a thought, she considered going back for help. But Crazy Maisy was right. No one would risk those shadows for Sela, not even Papa. He’d give Sela up as lost, or worse, devoured by the beast—one less worthless girl’s mouth to feed.
To never again feel the solid weight of her sister in her arms, to never come home from the fields to find a cluster of flowers on her sleeping mat . . . Larkin couldn’t bear to lose her sunshine.
“Once to the forest she hath gone, never again will she see the dawn.” Crazy Maisy had slipped away to twirl through the fields. She’d made that last part up; it wasn’t part of the song.
Larkin couldn’t go back home. She had to go in after her. Clenching both hands around the hoe, Larkin eased into the forest.
Rotten leaves and naked branches closed in on her from every direction. She had the immediate sense she’d stepped into some vast being; the forest was aware of her presence, and it didn’t want her there. Perhaps even more frightening, the beast could be hiding right beside her, just out of sight, and she’d never know.
With every step she took, the animosity bearing down on her grew. She glanced back. Between the massive trunks, she could make out the field that shone behind her, a rainbow arching over her town. She could still go home—and tell her mother that her youngest child had been devoured and that it was Larkin’s fault.
Not really a choice at all.
Larkin willed herself to keep moving, to keep her attention on her sister’s fading prints as the forest’s anger grew into a living thing that gnashed and clawed. The ground here didn’t take tracks as well as the mud of the plowed field, but she saw enough signs of Sela’s passage—a freshly broken stick, a stray footprint, more little mud balls—to believe she was headed in the right direction.
And then a giant picked up the forest and spun it—at least that’s what it felt like. She grabbed the nearest tree and held on, the bark biting into her hands. Anger and hatred stung like a thousand hornets. She had a sudden urge to do something. Some nameless word rested on the tip of her tongue, but she lost it in her desperate attempt to hold on to the tree.
“You think you can frighten me,” Larkin gasped. “I’ve known hatred and pain my entire life. You can’t scare me!”
Finally, the rolling slowed and stopped. She concentrated on holding still, though her head continued to spin. She blinked a few times, eyes watering, to keep from bolting away from an animosity so strong it made her stomach heave. Was this what they called the stirring?
She glanced around and tried to get her bearings. The town had been behind her, but she wasn’t sure of that anymore. Her legs shaking, she bent to retrieve the hoe she’d dropped when she grabbed the tree. Gripping it so hard her hands hurt, she clenched her teeth and kept going.
She hadn’t taken more than a dozen steps before another stirring caught her. Everything blurred, the trees melting in the sun. This time, she had nothing to hold. She collapsed and dug her fingers into the bleeding earth. She tipped her head toward the boughs dripping hot, burning wax onto her. “I will not leave without my sister,” she said firmly.
The feeling faded, but it was only pulling back into a crouch, ready to spring at any moment. She bolted, and the stirring struck. The world swirled around her, melting branches dripping on her, forming blisters that popped, clear fluid running down her skin.
With a cry, she slammed into a tree, fell into a patch of prickle weeds, and promptly lost the contents of her stomach. She rested her forehead on a clean patch of dirt. Had Sela endured this stirring? It hurt to think of her four-year-old sister facing this.
She threw back her head. “I will not leave without my sister!” She pushed herself to her feet. She’d lost the trail, but she couldn’t stop. She limped away from the patch of prickly weeds and plowed doggedly forward.
When the stirring came again, she did her best to ignore it, forcing herself to stumble through the whirling shapes all around her, hatred pelting her. She tried to avoid the roots that snatched at her feet. The stirrings came faster and faster, one on top of another. Clenching her eyes shut, she felt her way forward. Sometimes she ran into things. When she did, she carefully felt her way around and kept going.
Something growled behind her. The beast? She took off running and slammed into another tree. She cried out as something pierced her palm. On her hands and knees, she crawled. And then the stirring stopped. She looked back. The trees were whole again, glowering as if furious she’d escaped. If the beast had been there, she saw no sign of it.
She collapsed and lay still, panting. Her feet stung with thorns, but though welts and scrapes covered her arms and legs, there were no burns, no blisters. She lifted her hand. A splinter the size of her pinky had pierced the meaty part of her palm opposite her thumb. Bracing herself, she yanked it out, though a sliver was left behind. Fresh blood welled, dribbling down her wrist. She squeezed her palm to slow the blood flow.
With a groan, she sat up and pulled stickers from her feet and backside. In the relative quiet, she heard a child singing. She tipped her ear toward the right, where dark shadows lightened to emerald.
“Sela?” Larkin whispered, the sound of her voice loud in the stillness. She pushed to her feet and hobbled through the thinning trees and into a meadow filled to the brim with wildflowers. She squinted in the bright light streaming down in shafts from the clouds, the colors so sharp it was almost painful.
In the middle of it all, next to a burbling stream, sat Sela in her simple ankle-length tunic. She was surrounded by flowers. She’d stuffed them into her collar, her cuffs, and her wild, strawberry-blonde hair.
“Sela!” Larkin cried as she ran toward her.
Sela’s round face lit up, her bright green eyes a stark contrast to her muddy face. “Larkin! Look, pretty flowers,” she said, lisping the l and r. She held out a fistful as proof.
Larkin dropped to her knees and took her sister’s too-thin face in her hands. She really was fine. Sela smiled brilliantly back. Larkin bundled her sister into her arms and rocked her back and forth, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Sela, you know you’re not supposed to go into the Forbidden Forest! The stirring—how did you even get past it?”
Sela rested her hands on Larkin’s shoulders, her little brow furrowed in concentration.
She realized her eyes were closed. When she opened them, the last vestiges of the oppressive hatred were gone. In its place, warmth and life spread through her, growing and enlarging until her limbs tingled with energy and power. She took a free breath. She felt alive, more alive than she’d ever felt before. The sensation was familiar, and yet foreign at the same time—like the stories her mother used to tell of her privileged childhood.
Larkin looked at the forest with new eyes. It no longer seemed a dark and foreboding place. Instead of sinister, the shadows seemed cool and inviting, promising protection and safety. The rotting leaves smelled spicy and fresh. Birdsong sounded in the distance. The new sensation was so strong it overwhelmed Larkin’s fear.
“All better,” Sela whispered as she patted Larkin’s cheek with a hand that smelled of crushed plants and dirt.
Larkin gaped at her sister. “What did you do?”
Sela shrugged. “The trees are our friends.” Her big green eyes full of concern, Sela thrust the flowers into her face. “Picked flowers for you.”
Remembering where they were, Larkin brushed the tears from her cheeks as her nervous gaze swept over the meadow. It now seemed a pretty place, but it was all deception. This was the Forbidden Forest. And Sela might have escaped its stirring, but she wouldn’t outrun its beast, with its terrible claws and insatiable hunger. If it found them, they were as good as dead.
She forced herself to be calm. Running for safety would do her no good if she went the wrong way. “I’m lost, Sela. I don’t know the way back.”
Sela patted Larkin’s cheek again. “Larkin, don’t cry.”
Larkin gave a wobbly smile and looked around again, trying to remember where she’d come into the meadow. Something out of place caught her attention, and her gaze snapped back.
In the shadows of a tree, a man watched them. He stood far enough away that she could cover his form with her outstretched hand. Her heart lightened with hope. Had one of the villagers come for them after all?