Authors: Megan Derr
Tags: #LGBTQ romance, #Fantasy, #fairy tale
When women and children begin to vanish, the people of Edge village summon a Huntress. Though she is long due for a break and exhausted from her previous assignment, Adamina accepts the assignment and heads for Edge. But when she arrives, the simple assignment she anticipated proves instead to be complicated—complicated enough she must consult with a witch. A beautiful, compelling witch that makes Adamina sharply aware of her own lonely life, and temps her to make it less lonely.
Assuming the forest doesn't kill them first.
The Broken Forest
By Megan Derr
Published by Less Than Three Press LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher, except for the purpose of reviews.
Edited by Amanda Jean
Cover designed by Aisha Akeju
This book is a work of fiction and all names, characters, places, and incidents are fictional or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is coincidental.
First Edition March 2015
Copyright © 2015 by Megan Derr
Printed in the United States of America
Digital ISBN 9781620044841
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.
She had heard of the Broken Forest, but had never heard that it was
broken. She only knew it was called thus because it had long ago been separated from the Laughing Forest to which it had once belonged. What had done the deed and why, no one knew. Perhaps Adamina would be the one to solve the mystery at last.
If that was supposed to be an honor, it was one she would gladly pass on to another. She had been working nonstop for months, had missed two allotted breaks and desperately wanted one. She wanted an easy assignment so she could return home all the more quickly, not wade through a complicated, possibly dangerous assignment that could last weeks or even months.
She loved being a Huntress, more than anything in the world, but even the Great Queens needed a few days off here and there.
Heavy footsteps drew her attention, and Adamina looked up to see three men draw close. So much for politeness. Hopefully she could contain them before anything got out of hand. "Can I help you, gentlemen?"
"Shouldn't you be out there, killing that monster before it takes more women and children?"
"Only a fool would venture into a dangerous forest when it is dark and foggy. A hunter who cannot see soon becomes hunted. If you want the monster dead then trust me to know my business."
"My wife is dead!" One of the men said, smaller than the other two, ragged around the edges. "That thing—I never saw it, she was just
, and you're eating soup—" He stopped as Adamina stood.
Moving around her table, Adamina stepped in and pressed a hand to his chest, looked down into his eyes. "I traveled three days and three nights without rest to answer your call. Even now I listen to the woods whisper, and I shall know if the monster lurking in them slinks out. When the sun is up I shall find it and kill it. I know you're in pain, good sir, and I'm sorry for it. Trust me to know my work, or more people will die." She slowly withdrew her hand, squeezed his shoulder. "Let your friends take you home with them now."
He opened his mouth, closed it, then seemed to wither and did not protest when his friends drew him away, casting apologetic glances over their shoulders. When they had gone, Adamina resumed her seat, eating with less enthusiasm until there was nothing left but the dregs of the ale.
Victoria came bustling out a few minutes later and gathered up all the dishes. "I've had a room prepared for you, sent up a pitcher of hot water and soap. If you want a bath, I'll see it's done, my lady."
Adamina shook her head. "The hot water is all I need, thank you. The meal was delicious." She glanced around the few people who still remained, bent over their ales and clearly reluctant to venture home. Victims, or did they fear becoming victims? Looking back at Victoria, she asked, "Who should I speak with to learn all I can about the people who were taken?"
"Anyone, really," Victoria replied. "It's a close village, and so small that it's hard not to know everything about everyone. I moved here from a larger town, and it took some getting used to, let me tell you. Not as difficult as getting used to those woods, though. They always seemed gloomy to me, spooky even."
"You have good instincts," Adamina replied. "If you can spare the time, tell me about the women and children who were taken. Otherwise, send me to someone who can speak with me for an hour so."
Victoria pursed her lips in thought. "You'll want to visit Matlock—Peter Matlock, that is. He's what passes for a healer around here; we have to send up to Norton for a real healer when it's bad enough. He probably knows a few things people like to think the rest of us don't, if you follow. He'll still be awake this hour, hoping to be of some help before another dies, bless his soul. Just turn right out the front door, stay on this side of the street until you come to a building with an old green door."
Adamina nodded and stood, set a few coins on the table. "Thank you, madam." Victoria tucked the coins away, and bustled off. Adamina fetched her cloak from beside the fireplace and headed out.
The old green door proved as easy to find as promised, and she gave it several soft raps, squinting through a dirty, smudged pane of glass, unable to catch more than shadows and a couple of flickering lamps. After a moment, the door swung open. "Has there been—oh! My lady, please come in." The man in the doorway hastily stepped back, pushing at the slightly crooked spectacles he wore, combing through messy brown hair as he hastened over to where he had been reading a book and drinking what smelled like mulled wine. "Can I offer you a drink?"
"No, but thank you," Adamina replied, and sat in the second chair when he gestured she should. Exhaustion washed over her, made her eyes heavy, but she pushed it away. "Victoria told me that I should speak to you about the women and children who have died, that you might know something that connects them that no one else in the village knows—or should know, anyway."
"Peter Matlock," the man said. "An honor to meet a Huntress." He took a gulp of wine. "I can tell you something, actually. The women had all been sealed, and the children were witch-potentials."
Adamina's mouth tightened. That unpleasant, though not entirely unexpected complication. She'd just been hoping for an easier, less dangerous cause.
If whatever was stealing people was seeking out sealed witches and witch-potentials, then they needed the raw magic energy, and that meant there was warped magic or a curse involved. Combined with the fractured whispers she had been hearing since her arrival, she dreaded what she would find when she finally entered the forest. And that definitely killed any hope this would be an easy, quickly resolved problem. She'd still try, though; there'd been enough death already. "Who else here has been sealed or will be considering it when they come of age?"
Picking up the book he had set aside, Peter pulled out a small slip of stiff, crackling paper filled with neat lines of writing. "These are all of them. I was considering speaking to them, but I was afraid that if word got out…"