A Spook in the Forest—a #BookQW Excerpt

A Wizard’s Sacrifice comes out in just two short weeks, and I cannot wait for readers to get their hands on this book, especially because I just finished listening to the audiobook. Once again narrator Leah Casey did a marvelous job, one that had me weeping through the last several chapters.

In the meantime, I have another #BookQW (Book Quote Wednesday) teaser for you. The last few Wednesdays have been busy ones, so I missed a couple of opportunities to share more chapters. Today’s selection is brought to you by the word grim and features Princess Bethniel in the starring role. Bethniel was a secondary character in A Wizard’s Forge, but she takes center stage for a lot of this book. Much of the story revolves around her, which is fitting since the Kragnashians (Knownearth’s highly intelligent, giant alien insects) call her the Fulcrum.

A Spook in the Forest

A snarl of hoarsgrout climbed up the earthwork walls of the bastion, half-hiding the outpost from passersby. Ahead, a vine-covered portcullis opened. Looking forward to a hot bath and news, Bethniel urged her mare to a trot. She had over a month’s worth of correspondence to post, and she hoped for an equally thick packet of letters to read during a long soak. After that, there was a massive stack of homesteader charters to certify and file. Pride heated her cheeks, and she smiled at a job well done—so far, at least. An uncanny number of accidents had occurred among the would-be farmers and loggers she and her cavalry escort had found, the first stirrings of war between Fembrosh and the squatters. But Bethniel had managed to convince the squatters to undertake the proper rituals, and on their swing back toward the outpost, the newcomers reported no further hostilities. With proper respect for the land, peace was possible, and Bethniel would broker it.

“Welcome back, Highness,” called a sentry as they passed through the gate. “The commander was just about to send a scout to find you.”

“Is there news?”

“You’d better ask him, ma’am.”

They clattered into a yard milling with troopers and horses. Grooms ran to and fro, bringing gear or checking bindings. In a high-walled paddock by the far wall frisked a steed, his carapace shining copper in the mid-morning sun. Bethniel stared at the awesome creature and wondered why a single Herder would be visiting the outpost.

“Bethniel!” Melba burst out of a building and ran across the yard. Bruised circles rimmed her eyes, and worry etched amiable features.

The mounted patrol, their eager horses, the grim expressions on the officers’ faces seized Bethniel’s throat. “What are you doing here?”

“Highness.” The commander’s door banged open for Fieldmarshal Greldren. Bushy white eyebrows were tilted toward his nose. “The prince has been taken by Lornk Korng.”

She felt like she was reliving a bad dream while Melba twisted her sleeve into a knot and told a tale of steed rustlers turned kidnappers.

“We have to go now,” Greldren said, “or Korng’s party will reach the herd waiting on the plains. Once they do, we won’t have a chance of catching them.” He angled his head at the steed and shrugged. Bethniel’s fingers tightened into fists.

“You need to stay here,” he continued. “I’m not going to risk you falling into the Relmlord’s hands as well.”

“Lornk Korng is no longer Relmlord, Fieldmarshal. He’s nothing but an outlaw, and I’ve been dealing with those for the past ten weeks. I will see this one brought to justice, whatever the risk.” Grabbing her saddlebags, she slid off her mare. “Get me a fresh horse.”

Greldren sighed and mounted. “There’s no time to argue. Rustler!” A pair of troopers escorted a sandy-haired youth into the yard. Melba’s face turned splotchy, eyes shying from the boy’s bound hands as the troopers helped him mount a tan gelding. “If you lead us into a trap,” Greldren said, “you won’t live to know a hanging. Understood?”

The boy voiced a surly “Yes, sir,” then leaned toward Melba. “He’ll be OK.”

Damn right he will, Bethniel thought, hoisting herself onto a stallion.

* * *

As the sun topped the day, Bethniel maneuvered her horse close to the steed rustler. Lieutenant Lillem, the officer in command of her escort, shadowed her, handsome features bent in the same scowl he’d worn since they’d changed mounts at the outpost.

Brush hid most of the company as they plodded through thick woods. Hands bound, the rustler directed his gelding with knees alone, choosing a path wide enough for three mounts—his and his guards. Catching Bethniel’s eye, he smiled impishly and twisted his knees. Snorting, his mount wheeled and hopped over a fallen log to her side. Cursing, the guards scrambled to flank him as the boy winked at Bethniel. “Have you ever been on a steed?”

Lillem snatched the boy’s reins and reprimanded the other soldiers.

“It’s all right, Lieutenant,” Bethniel said. “He’s just showing off. What’s your name, rustler?”

“Febbin. You sit a horse pretty well. Think you could ride a steed? Ashel does pretty good for a Fembrosher.”

“Is it really like Greldren said?”

His grin shriveled. “It’s all Kelmair’s doing. She’s got Erik in her pocket, twists him round to her way. Joslyrn and me, we wanted nothing to do with any pirates, but we needed the mullas to pay the Guild fees, and Erik’s still crew chief.” He shrugged guiltily. “I’m sorry about Ashel. We were almost away when something spooked the steeds. Your brother is a good rider, but most Herders couldn’t have managed a steed that scared, much less a Fembrosher.”

A horse’s scream ripped through the trees. Bethniel’s stallion rolled his eyes, shying from shadow-dappled tree trunks. A trooper yelled in the distance. The boy’s gelding snorted, and whinnies chorused all around them. “Lupears?” she asked Lillem.

Scanning the surrounding rocks and trees, he stroked his mount’s neck. “Could be.” Another shout echoed through the woods, the words garbled. “They don’t usually hunt in Fembrosh, but could be they followed the steeds in.”

A cacophony of curses, whinnies, and cracking branches spun around them. A woman screamed, her cry cut short by a sickening squelch. Lillem urged his stallion to Bethniel’s side, his eyes shadowed with readiness.

“It’s the same thing spooked Meager,” muttered Febbin.

Snorting, Bethniel’s stallion hopped sideways, haunches quivering. With pats and soothing noises, she brought him under control and they paced forward. Birds twittered. Sunlight shafted green and gold through the canopy, conjuring spirits out of shadows. A pair of riderless horses galloped across their path, reins flying, the whites of their eyes bright under the trees. People shouted in front, behind them, cries punctuated by panic.

Lillem touched Bethniel’s knee with a long, brown finger. “You’ll be all right, Highness.”

Bethniel peered through the woods but could see only light and dark trunks, screens of leaves and clumps of needles. Her mount groaned, his steps hesitating. The rustler looked nervous, as if he’d never been astride before. The horse beneath one of his guards whickered and danced, ignoring the rider patting her neck.

A Kragnashian appeared on their flank, leaves whirling in its wake. Bethniel’s stallion reared, front hooves pawing the air, a squeal vibrating his neck as she hung on with clenched knees and fingers twined through his mane. She glimpsed Febbin’s gelding plunging into a thicket, his guards’ horses fleeing pell-mell into the woods. Lillem was scrambling to his feet, his mount gone. Landing with a huff, Bethniel’s stallion leapt over a gully, climbed swiftly up the opposite bank, hooves slipping in the depth of decaying leaves. There was a thwack, and a rancid knot hissed past her hair as the stallion topped the rise.

Withers foaming, the stallion careened around tree trunks, choosing his own path. The Kragnashian flowed after, branches snapping, plowing through hoarsgrout as if it were grass. Bethniel hugged the horse’s neck and prayed. Mother, give me calm. Elesendar, give the stallion speed. A horn blew somewhere. With a piercing cry, the stallion veered toward the noise, Kragnashian on their tail.

“It’s right behind me!” she yelled aloud and with all the mindstrength she possessed. The horn cut off mid-blow. Something splattered on the stallion’s flank. Squealing, he skidded, bucked, his eyes rolling. She clung to his neck, screamed at him to run. The Kragnashian sauntered closer. Kicking, the stallion twisted round to bite a sizzling wound. She jumped out of the stirrups, stumbled for footing, putting the horse between herself and the Kragnashian. It swung around the animal and shot through a shaft of sunlight. Blood pumping, Bethniel scrambled toward a cerrenil. Branches whipped down and swept her into the canopy. Mandibles snapping, the creature screeched. She grabbed for a higher branch, one foot lodging in a crevice, and thrust herself up. The limbs quivered, shifting lower and higher as she climbed, boosting her beyond the Kragnashian’s reach. Clinging to the old mother’s trunk, she wept her thanks.

In the distance, the horn bugled a signal for the troopers to regroup. Below, a sulfurous pheromone squeaked out of the tracheae lining the Kragnashian’s abdomen. Its antennae twitched. Bethniel’s heart in her mouth, she watched it hesitate toward the horn, then ram the trunk with its head. The cerrenil shook, bark jamming under her fingernails.

“You are the Fulcrum,” the Kragnashian clicked. Rearing back, it launched a wad of spit. Twigs and leaves rustled, and the spit splattered against a green shield. The old mother shivered as half-eaten leaves dripped acid into the leaf litter.

The Kragnashian backed up for another charge.

The Fulcrum was the name the Kragnashians had called Bethniel in the desert. “What do you want?” she cried, clapping and snapping the words, as humans did to communicate with Kragnashians.

The creature rammed the tree, and she clutched at thrashing branches. “The Fulcrum.” It hit the trunk again and again, the tree convulsing with each strike. The armor between the creature’s eyes became dented and scratched while Bethniel hugged the cerrenil and prayed. She coughed sobs at the fall, at her fate when she landed, at the thought of a wad of the creature’s acidic spit hitting her—

Thunder banged overhead. The Kragnashian froze. Bethniel followed its gaze through the canopy and found a sky blue and clear. Another boom, loud as a lightning strike in the garden.

Hooves pounded the ground. A man roared, and a spear plunged into the creature’s thorax.

Leaves whispered softly. A warbler trilled. At the base of the tree lay the Kragnashian in a heap. Lillem’s horse huffed beside it; the rider peered through the branches.

“Are you all right, Highness?”

Blinking, Bethniel wiped a salty wet face on her shoulder, smelled the stink coming from her trousers. Laughing at the indignity of fear, she hugged the old mother, thanked it for its protection, as true as a genuine mother’s.

“Are you all right?” the lieutenant repeated.

“I am,” she said, climbing down. “I’m afraid I need fresh trousers,” she added sheepishly when her feet hit the dirt.

He smiled sympathetically. “This day, you won’t be alone in that.”

Like what you read? Find out what happens before and after:

Get a copy of A Wizard’s Forge

Get a copy of A Wizard’s Sacrifice

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