THE STAR STONE

FROM SEASON 1: BOOK HUNTER    

A couple of hours after we passed the last tumble-down, vine-infested ruin at the edge of the ancient town, we turned off the old road onto a narrow track. There was a clearing at the end where we’d camped once before. By that time I was almost as tired as Gramps, but we needed a cooking fire, so after I saw to the horses, I gathered firewood while Gramps got out the pots and pans.

When we arrived at the next settlement, where people were hungry for knowledge and stories, we’d trade our salvaged books for oats and hay, fat plucked chickens, fresh-laid eggs, juicy peaches, plump potatoes, maybe even strawberries and sweet cream. Thinking about all that good food made my stomach growl, and I smiled.

A moment later I heard a faint whistling sound, followed by a grunt, like someone just had the wind knocked out of them.

When I turned, Gramps was lying on the ground with an arrow sticking out of his chest. My body went cold and my heart thudded.

I dropped the firewood, ran to Gramps and knelt beside him. Frothy blood bubbled up from the wound. I knew what that meant from hunting rabbits and squirrels: The arrow had punctured his lung. There was so much blood, I thought it must have nicked an artery, too. We’d always tended each other’s little wounds, but this wasn’t little, and I couldn’t fix it.

“Gramps!” I wailed. “No!”

His eyes were wide open and glassy. “Don’t let them catch you,” he said. “Promise me.”

Them? “Who are they? Do you know who shot you?”

He didn’t answer my question. “Promise me!” he rasped.

“I promise, Gramps.”

He coughed up blood and the arrow shivered. I didn’t dare pull it out. It was lodged between two ribs at the edge of his breastbone. If I pulled it out it would rip a bigger hole in him.

I scanned the trees, seeing nothing, no one. That arrow might’ve been loosed by a ghost.

“Don’t tell them you’re a bonnaday,” Gramps whispered.

A bonnaday? I’d never heard that word before. “I don’t understand.”

His lips moved again and I leaned close. “Find the box … remember … remember the song.”

“Which song?” We were always singing songs to pass the time between settlements. Which song did he mean, and which box? We had lots of boxes filled with books.

Hounds bayed in the distance and my heart jerked in terror. Those were hunting dogs. Hunting us? Who shot that arrow? A scout for the hunting party? Why hurt Gramps? He’d never harmed anyone.

“Marra, forgive me,” Gramps whispered.

I wanted to hush him, tell him to save his energy, but he was trying so hard to speak that I didn’t have the heart to stop him.

“I tried to protect you,” he said, struggling to get the words out. “Forgive me if I did wrong.” He drew a ragged breath and grimaced in pain.

The baying of the hounds grew louder.

My grandfather’s fingers gripped my wrist with surprising strength. “Run, Marra,” he said. “Run!”

He drew one more rattling breath, his grip loosened and fell away, and then the light left his eyes.

I wanted to stay with him. I wanted to fling myself across his lifeless body and protect it from the murderers who’d taken him from me.

But I had to go, I’d promised. I kissed my grandfather’s forehead, took his hunting knife from his belt and got to my feet. My hands were red with his blood. His words whispered through my mind: Find the box. Remember the song. Forgive me.

Forgive him for what? What had he tried to protect me from? The hunters, whoever they were? I didn’t have time to figure out what any of it meant. I didn’t have time for grieving.

With a last look at that pale, still face, I sprinted for the trees. I’d once seen wild dogs tear a rabbit apart. I didn’t want to think about that.

I ran downhill, toward the stream I knew was there, leaping over fallen branches and tangled roots. My heart slammed against my ribs. That dear old man was all I had, the only family I could remember.

Don’t tell them you’re a bonnaday. What was that about? A dying man’s delusion?

My foot caught on a tree root. I tucked and rolled, tumbling down the slope until I landed with a splash in water as cold as ice. It was shallow, but that didn’t matter. It would hide my tracks and throw the dogs off my scent. I got to my feet and ran down the stream as fast as I could.

I hadn’t gone far before I slipped on a patch of moss and my ankle twisted under me. I barely saved myself from falling, but my ankle screamed with pain. Crouching in the water, I listened hard, trying to decide how far away the dogs were. Way too close for comfort.

There was a tall boulder at the edge of the stream. I lurched toward it and ducked behind it. My feet were still in the water, but my ankle was starting to swell. Maybe the icy water would numb the pain until I found somewhere to hide.

The dogs were getting louder by the second. They were upstream from me, around a bend.

When something rustled behind me, I froze. One of the dogs, ahead of the others, nosing through the bushes? If that’s what it was, I didn’t stand a chance.

Stiff with cold and fear, I looked up into Daisy’s big brown eyes. I knew it was Daisy because of the star on her forehead. How had she found me?

I pushed myself upright and struggled up the shallow bank to Daisy. But how was I supposed to climb onto her back with one good foot? I grabbed a fistful of mane and led her away from the stream, limping, hissing at the fire shooting through my ankle.

I led Daisy to a fallen tree. While I was struggling to climb onto it, a voice shouted, “This way!”

The dogs went crazy and Daisy started to shy, but I held onto her mane, whispering until she calmed again, then I pushed off my good foot and lunged onto her back. Bunching two hunks of mane in my fists, I held on with my knees and nudged her flank with the heel of my good foot.

“Run, Daisy,” I whispered, and she did, dodging trees, leaping fallen branches, hooves pounding the forest floor. Behind us arose a frenzy of barking and shouting. I expected the arrows to start flying any second.

If I’d had my bow, I would’ve stayed and fought. I would’ve tried like hell to kill the bastards who murdered the only person I loved in this whole world. But my bow was in the caravan, and I kept hearing my grandfather’s voice: Run, Marra. Run!

So Daisy and I ran, slowing only when she needed to catch her breath. I’d never realized how hard it was to ride bareback, with nothing to cling to but mane. It took every ounce of strength and determination I had, but we kept running until we cleared the trees, crossed miles of fields and rolling hills, climbed a ridge into another forest, topped another rise and slipped and slid down a long slope to the edge of a small lake. We ran until we left the barking of dogs and shouts of men far behind us.

And then — dripping with sweat, muscles cramping, lungs heaving, throats parched — we stopped.

After I caught my breath, stretched the worst kinks out of my legs and back, led Daisy to the lake to drink and slaked my own thirst, I tried to reason the whole thing out. Who’d kill an old man, then leave behind a caravan stuffed with valuable trade goods to chase a young girl through the woods?

That’s when it dawned on me: The arrows I’d expected had never come. Did that mean they weren’t trying to kill me?

If they weren’t thieves, and they didn’t want me dead, what did they want? Who were they?

The answer hollowed out my belly and sped up my heart. Those people chasing me? They had to be slavers.

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