A heart-pounding adventure starring a strong heroine who is battling the challenges of being a legend—perfect for reading aloud with the whole family.
"Exciting, fast-paced, and beautifully written! The perfect follow-up to the first book, and by the end, readers will be clamoring for more!" —Jennifer A. Nielsen, The New York Times bestselling author of The False Prince
In this Scottish medieval adventure, after attempting a daring rescue of her war-band family, Drest learns that Lord Faintree's traitorous uncle has claimed the castle for his own and convinced the knights that the lord has been slain . . . by her hand. Now with a hefty price on her head, Drest must find a way to escape treacherous knights, all the while proving to her father, the "Mad Wolf of the North," and her irrepressible band of brothers that she is destined for more than a life of running and hiding. Even if that takes redefining what it means to be a warrior.
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part one: the bounty
A crow’s shattering creea sounded beyond the healer’s hut from somewhere on the village path.
“Did you hear that?” Drest bolted up from the floor, thumping her shoulder painfully against the heavy wooden bed. “That’s Tig’s crow.”
“Was it one call?” Emerick, the injured knight—nay, lord—who had been her companion for the past six days, sat up and pushed away the blankets. “Or was that two? Drest, can you defeat two enemies?”
She reached up for the dagger sheathed against her ribs. “I can try.”
“No, what am I saying? I’m half-asleep.” He wiped his fair hair from his sweating forehead. “Will you help me up? We must hide in the woods.” He tried to swing his legs over the bed, but stopped, seized in pain.
Carefully but firmly, Drest pushed him back onto the bed. “Nay, we don’t need to hide. Mordag was only waking you, Emerick. She knows how well you heal when you’re woken in the night and need to flee.” She patted his bandaged chest. “This is nearly as good as being on the road, is it not?”
“I have my soundest sleep, of course, when I’m woken every few hours fearing for my life.” He wet his lips. “Was that one call, or two? Where’s Tig? Has he not heard Mordag’s warning?”
“Tig’s at the mill and he’s surely heard it. But if you like, I’ll go out and see what’s there.” Drest pointed to Wimarca, the village healer, who was sleeping by the circle of embers in the center of the room. “Wake her if you need her.”
“If I need her? Drest, there is surely someone out there. Mordag doesn’t make that call for nothing.” Emerick grabbed her arm, his grip surprisingly strong, though it trembled. “You’ve not slept for I don’t know how many days. You’ve barely eaten. If you try to challenge anyone, you’ll fall. Drest, you’re weak as a kitten—”
“A wolf cub. I’m as weak as a wolf cub who smells its prey.” Gently, Drest pried his fingers from her arm. “And if I find someone, I’ll slay him, or hide from him, or mock him. I’m good at that, see. And I’ll be back before you know.”
Emerick frowned. “If Mordag is warning us of knights again, you must run. Run where they cannot find you. Wimarca can help me, but you must go, as swiftly as you can. If they catch you, they’ll kill you this time.”
Drest scrambled away from the bed, no longer in Emerick’s reach. “Are you worried for me? Strange. I am a legend, and I seem to make it through anything that tries to set me back. I’ve saved your life twice. I intend to do it again.”
“Thrice,” Emerick said gloomily. “You’ve saved my life thrice.” He sighed. “Please be careful.”
“I always am.”
She bowed low, then slipped to the door and outside.
THE TERROR OF THE WOODS
Drest trotted away from the hut and into the woods, her jeweled dagger now drawn. It made her feel strong, though a sword at her hip would have made her feel better. Once she was deep among the trees, she listened, then went on. She brushed past leafy branches, over mossy stones, as silent as the mist that shrouded the night around her.
Each time she’d heard Mordag’s call for the past week, an enemy had been near:
A bandit on the dusty road.
A knight with his sword raised in a castle chamber.
An army of castle men streaming into the woods after her family.
The crow called again: a lingering note of warning. It was louder now, and close.
Drest shivered in her thin tunic with its ripped-off sleeves. The night was cold and damp. All around her, the trees formed monstrous shapes, their branches weaving above her head to block out the sky.
And there she was, sleep pulling at her consciousness like a stone in a net, alone in the woods.
Alone. Yet not alone: Her father and brothers were resting at the mill, ready to leap to their feet with their weapons.
But they didn’t have their weapons, she remembered: All their swords had been broken or taken from them when they’d been captured at their headland home. Her family had hung from iron rings in Faintree Castle’s prison for five days. The only weapons they would have would be the ones they’d stolen during their escape.
Nay, but our hands are our greatest weapons yet, said a rumbling deep voice in her mind: her eldest brother, Wulfric. She had long imagined her brothers’ voices when she had been alone before. Wulfric’s voice softened the edge from her fear.
Perhaps we’ve all heard Mordag as well, came her favorite brother Gobin’s voice, a smile in his words. You know what that means, do you not, lass?
We’ll be prowling, said his twin, Nutkin. The terror of the woods.
Drest shook her head. They had never been prowling in real life when she’d imagined their voices like that, which meant that she was still alone.
The best you can hope for is your lad Tig. The voice of Thorkill, her second-eldest brother, was thoughtful and calm. He’s heard his crow, and he’ll come out to see what she’s calling about.
The best you can hope for is to dig up your own courage wherever you’ve buried it, you mewing squirrel-brained fish-gut, sneered the voice of Uwen, her youngest brother.
Drest searched the trunks around her for the twins’ black-haired phantom shapes, or the towering figures of Wulfric or Thorkill, or Uwen’s smaller one.
But there was no sign of them.
Nor of Grimbol, her father, the Mad Wolf of the North—who would have ordered her to wait for the war-band and not go out alone.
I may be alone, but I’m not frightened, Drest thought. I’ve seen my family captured by enemies, been under a bandit’s knife, and hung from a ring in a dark and horrible prison. These are only woods.
Another call from Mordag, harsh and desolate—from the other side of the village.
Near the mill.
Where all of Drest’s family were sleeping.
Drest broke into a run, her pace long and swift, toward the faded echo of the call.
She emerged into the hay field at the top of the village, a sea of murky green in the dark. Stalks whispered beneath her feet as she skirted the edge.
Soon she was at the town square by the mill. That squat building with its wheel on the stream was but a deeper shadow in the night.
Silence. Not even wind.
Yet Mordag had called from the mill. The crow had never been wrong before. Something was surely out there.
Drest started to cross the dusty square, her eyes on the mill. Nothing was moving. The shadows were heavy.
Halfway there, Drest shot a glance down the grassy path that led to the villagers’ huts.
In the center of the path stood a knight. Even in the dark, his chain mail hood seemed to glimmer as he turned toward her.
THE WOLF'S HEAD
Terror pricked the back of Drest’s neck. But a thrill as sharp as lightning branched throughout her too. She was there alone to battle a knight. And she was a legend, as Tig had always said.
Yet Emerick’s warning flared in her mind.
The knight was advancing slowly, his chain mail hauberk clinking as he moved.
I’ll make him chase me. His chain mail will slow him. And I’m faster than even the twins.
Drest darted back into the woods. In the corner of her eye, she could see the knight following. A dagger suddenly gleamed in his hand.
She slipped deeper among the trees, tearing past the branches, running so lightly her toes barely touched the soil.
The knight was close behind. Despite his armor, he didn’t stumble, and didn’t slow.
Suddenly he was at her heels, too close—
She was falling, sprawled across the branches and moss, one ankle caught by a hand.
Drest kicked wildly, but felt a hand around her other ankle too.
“Hold still,” the knight snarled.
Drest lashed out at him with her dagger, but her blow only clanged against his armor.
“Ha! You’ll try to fight me, will you?”
He knelt on her ankles, the chain mail on his knees scraping her skin through her hose, and grabbed her wrist. He squeezed hard, trying to make her drop her dagger.
Drest twisted her arm, shifted her dagger to her right hand, and lashed out again.
She was too quick for him to block, but the knight rolled off her, just missing her blow. He was on his feet as Drest scrambled up.
“I knew you’d be here,” said the knight. “Yes, in the town that all the knights avoid. Where else would you go? You’re Grimbol’s son, and this is Grimbol’s town, and here you are to do Grimbol’s bidding. Have you put our poor lord’s body in one of those village huts? Tell me where. You don’t need it now that he’s dead.”
He thinks I’ve slain Emerick! Drest thought. Why would he think that? She almost began to speak, but Gobin’s voice stopped her.
Or he’s pretending he thinks that, and wants you to say where the lord is hiding. Take care, lass.
Drest retreated, holding her dagger between them. “Are you faithful to Lord Faintree?”
“Am I faithful? Was I faithful to the man you murdered, you mean. And the answer is yes: A knight is not a knight unless he’s faithful. Now, did you slay him, or was it your father?”
She hesitated. “He’s not dead. I was saving his life at the castle, not slaying him.”
The knight smiled; his teeth showed in the darkness. “Then where is he? In this village?”
She backed away still farther. Something about his voice—and that smile—made her uneasy. “Nay, he’s not in the village; my family’s only passing by. If I tell you where he is, what will you do?”
“I’ll tell his dear old uncle, a noble knight called Sir Oswyn. Yes, Sir Oswyn will be very glad to know where his nephew’s hiding—”
His hand lashed out, grabbing, but it only grazed her cheek as she dove out of his reach.
“God’s blood,” whispered the man. “No one said you were a lass.”
She barely heard him. She was running again, veering her path to lead him away from the village.
He grunted as he followed, his chain mail hauberk rattling. But the hauberk was heavy, and though he tried to keep up, he wasn’t strong enough. He lagged. Soon Drest could no longer see him behind her. She started to look for a tree to climb.
It would be risky: If he saw her do it, he could wait below and she’d be trapped. But if she kept running and he caught up with her again, she might not be so lucky to escape a second time.
She turned to the nearest big tree: an ancient beech.
Drest scrambled up the trunk. Hand over hand, barely making a sound, she climbed until she reached a strong perch high above the other branches. Gripping that branch, she waited, panting with short sharp breaths through her nostrils alone—a trick she had taught herself when playing hiding games with Uwen.
“The devil’s tail.” The knight was below, circling a nearby oak. Through its interlacing branches, his figure was barely visible. “Where’ve you gone? You can’t have disappeared.”
Drest set her cheek against the trunk.
A scrape, followed by a loud crunch: The knight must have tripped on a downed branch.
Grumbling, he rose.
“Grimbol’s youngest,” he murmured, “and not a lad but a lass. And she knows where the lord’s gone. Soggyweald, maybe? I’ll have to look. If I find him, I’ll tell Sir Oswyn. What honor I’d gain from that. But her—that’s thirty pounds if I catch that wolf’s head first.”
Drest closed her eyes. Her heart was thumping in her ears.
“Bah.” Branches cracked as he stepped away from the trees. “You’re gone. You’re at the village, I warrant, rousing the rest of your brood.” A pause. “What a wasted chance. I almost had you: a wolf’s head who could give me back my honor, and give me thirty silver pounds. Yes, a proper wolf’s head with that price.”
He sniffed, then started back the way he’d come.
Drest waited until she heard his steps grow distant. She scrambled down.
What a bat-headed old man, said Uwen’s voice. Why don’t you rush up after him and stick your dagger in his back? That would be a right surprise!
But Drest didn’t move. She stood at the base of the tree, rubbing her cold bare arms. The knight’s words had lodged in her mind:
A wolf’s head with that price.