Vixen Hunted

Book Cover: Vixen Hunted
Part of the The Hunted Trilogy series:
Editions:Kindle: $ 0.99
ISBN: B013VW35GY
Pages: 245

Pursued by the Inquisition, Kit only has her dim memories of home to guide her escape.

Timothy Clarke isn’t much of a shepherd. His youngest lamb gives him no end of trouble. When he ventures into the woods-yet again-to find her, he finds more trouble than a single lamb could cause.

Together, Kit and Timothy must avoid the long reach of the Inquisition and find Kit’s home. But they soon realize a threat they cannot escape: their growing feelings for each other.

 

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Chapter 1

Where did she go this time?

The sapling branch slipped from Timothy's hand and slapped his face. The chirps and serenades of late summer strummed from the trees around him. Brambles grabbed at his legs. The lamb's trail disappeared into the tangle. How many times have I had to find her now? Six? The bell on his shepherd's crook chimed his annoyance. He needed to buy a good dog.

Timothy ducked under a toppled oak. A tuft of wool clinging to a dried skeletal limb told him he'd guessed the direction right. Last time he'd searched for almost an entire day before he had found the lamb playing in a brook. He wiped sweat from his brow. A bead slid between his shoulder blades. The cool shadows of the woods felt better than the sun of the meadow just beyond the trees. He hoped the rest of his small flock stayed put.

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His foot caught a root. He tried to grab a nearby sapling but missed. The undergrowth parted, and he hovered in the air just long enough to see a steep slope stretching ahead of him.

The trees rolled around him. His crook flew from his hand, and its bell laughed. Timothy crashed and tumbled. His mouth filled with leaves and dirt. He skidded to a stop in a shower of last year's leaves.

"Ah, there is my silent stalker."

"Baa."

Timothy spat and wiped his mouth. He sat back. The trees still spun.

"This is your lamb, silent shepherd?"

Timothy's vision cleared. The lamb leaned against a young girl wearing a rough green cloak. Worn shoes peeked from the hem of her blue skirt. Red hair streamed from her hood. But her eyes held him.

"Well, I doubt you are mute. Speak." She scratched the lamb's head.

"Yes. She is mine. What…who?"

The girl twisted with a hiss. "They are here. How'd they find me so soon?"

Riders crossed the field beyond the gap in the trees, only a few yards from his small flock. While he searched for the lost lamb, he had circled around close to the spot where he had first entered the woods.

His hand found his crook. The bell chimed.

The girl leapt on him and drove him back to the dirt. The lamb planted a hoof on his hand.

"Not a sound." The girl's breath felt hot against his ear. She pressed a hand against his mouth, her wide eyes shining in the forest shadows.

The seven men just beyond the tree line wore blue tabards. Nets dangled from their hands. Several carried crossbows with bolts nocked.

"I heard something. Something like a bell," one man said. His horse danced.

"Matthew, look there. Four sheep all by their own. Think the lord would want them? I don't see a shepherd about."

"A few more sheep wouldn't matter," the mustached man said.

One of the men fingered a scar. "Do what you want. I ride for the vixen," he said. The man wore a dark brown shirt and trousers.

"I will take them for myself then."

Timothy struggled against the girl. Her hand muffled his protests. He had to get to his sheep! The men wouldn't bother them if they knew the flock belonged to someone.

"Stop it!" The girl's hand squeezed his lips. "Do you want them to find us?"

But his sheep!

"She is likely back at those haystacks," Matthew said. He stroked his mustache. "Go ahead with your sheep, Lloyd. Rest of you split up. We can cover more ground. Tahd—"

"I will go where I want," the scarred man said.

Matthew shrugged. "Let's be off."

The man called Tahd rode toward where they hid. The girl's eyes narrowed, and her body tensed against Timothy's. Timothy sagged and sweated. The lamb crouched beside him. Timothy sighed as the two men deftly rounded up his four sheep. There went his livelihood.

The other men shared a look and rode off in different directions. Tahd rode closer and leveled his crossbow.

The lamb jumped to her feet and charged.

Timothy would have gasped if he could breathe. The girl beside him hissed and clamped her other hand over her mouth.

The lamb burst out of the trees, and Tahd's horse whinnied and reared. The lamb puffed out her chest and stared the pair down. Tahd cursed and glowered at the lamb, fighting to get his horse back under control. Without a word, he wheeled his horse and galloped off.

The hand clamping his mouth fell. Timothy sucked in a breath. The hooded girl stood and offered a hand. "That is some lamb you have."

Timothy stared up at the freckled face. "Who are you? What was all that about? They stole my sheep!"

Those green eyes weighed him. "You look like a good person, in a naive sort of way." She closed her eyes and bent close.

"What are you doing?"

Timothy pushed away from her, but the girl leaned closer. Her nose almost touched his. She took a long, deep breath, and her lips curved into a smile. The lamb pushed through the scant cover and stood beside the red-haired girl.

"Baa!"

"It is a problem that you've seen me." The girl caressed the lamb's ear. "If Tahd—"

"I don't even know who you are. I just want my sheep back!" Timothy stood. The crook's bell emphasized his point.

"I can't do anything about that. Unless you help me."

"Help you?" Timothy gestured with the staff. "Those men were armed. If people like that are after you…What did you do anyway?"

"It was a misunderstanding." She twirled a lock of hair. "A business misunderstanding, and I need help." She skewered him with her gaze. "Your help."

"Mine?" Timothy heard Aunt Mae's voice in the back of his mind. Did he always have to help anyone in need? Yes, he could hear Aunt Mae say.

The girl closed her eyes and took another deep breath. Her hood seemed to move. She opened her eyes and smiled. "I am a good judge of character. Of men especially. Call it a gift. You are a good man. A man who wants to help me."

She blinked those green eyes. Timothy swallowed and sighed inwardly. This was going to be trouble, but how could he say no to eyes like those?

"What do you need help with?"

"I need to go to Fairhaven, and you are going to take me there." She grinned.

"I guess I am." Did Aunt Mae have to teach him to help anyone in need regardless of what the need was? Timothy extended his hand. "Only as far as Fairhaven. And you still owe me four sheep."

"I didn't take your sheep." She eyed his hand. "Your name? Unless you prefer me to call you by a name I make up."

"Timothy Clarke."

"And I just thought of a good name for you too."

"Something tells me not to ask."

She shrugged. "I guess you will never know. My name is Kit."

"Something also tells me I am going to regret this." Her hand felt soft, but her grip was strong. "I will only help you get to Fairhaven. I don't want any part of whatever trouble you are in."

Kit laid a hand on his arm. "Don't worry about parts. You will have the whole of my trouble." She yanked his arm. "Let's get going."

Timothy dug his feet in. "Hold on. I need to get my stuff."

"We are going to the road. If we stay here any longer, they may find us." Kit grabbed his hand with both of hers. She tugged. "Now let's go!"

"Baa!" The lamb disappeared into the undergrowth again.

"Wouldn't it be safer to keep to the woods and fields? Let. Go." Timothy fell into Kit with a grunt.

Her cloak opened around her. She wore a cream blouse in the cut some of the town women wore. It clung to her in damp patches. How could she stand wearing a hooded cloak in this heat?

"They won't look for us on the road. They would expect me to try to keep hidden. Fugitives are foolish that way. It is better to hide in plain sight." Kit rubbed her hip. She jabbed a finger at him. "Twice now you tried to get on me. Are you a pervert, Timmy?"

"What? No! Both times you—"

Bushes rustled and Timothy jumped. The lamb skidded into him, his worn leather pack dragging behind her. The stew pot strapped to the pack smacked into his arm.

"Baa." The lamb pawed the pack with a hoof. "Baa."

"Your stuff, I take it? Looks like we are ready to go now." Kit dusted her skirts.

Timothy relieved the lamb of the overstuffed pack. The crook sank into the soft earth.

Kit started ahead, glancing over her shoulder. "Coming?"

The lamb bounced around her.

Timothy crunched through the forest debris behind the slight girl. "This is going to be troublesome."

"And you are a troublesome, noisy shepherd, Timmy." Kit had slowed down enough that he now walked beside her. "Perhaps I should find someone else to help me? Someone who would appreciate being with a pretty woman like myself?"

"I…uh…" He fell silent, feeling his face heat.

The sun beat down on them as they left the shelter of the trees. Pasture and wheat fields stretched over the surrounding hills. The sun shone high overhead. After the relative cool of the trees, the sun had the same heat as the stew he'd let his friend Kyle make. Timothy still didn't know what he put into that to make it taste as hot as the campfire.

Kit flicked her gaze at him and chewed her lower lip. She was probably the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen, her red hair shining in the light, freckles scattered over her face. And those eyes. Why did he seem to attract the strange girls? Kyle loved to poke fun at that. At least helping this girl get to Fairhaven would allow Timothy see his friend again. Kyle was always good for advice and for a kick to set him in the right direction.

"It is strange, Timmy."

He tripped over a root. "It's Timothy. What is strange?"

Kit squinted at him. "I feel at ease around you, as if I've known you forever. It is an unsettling feeling."

He shrugged. "I am just an unsettling man." Stupid. Now she is going to think I am a scoundrel or something.

"Hardly. I can tell by your scent that you are kind."

"My…scent?" He sniffed himself. "You can tell that by how people smell?" He'd heard of being able to tell people's character by looking into their eyes. But from their scent? He leaned close to Kit and took a deep breath.

"What are you doing?" She pulled away.

She smelled unique. He couldn't quite place it. Sweat and something else. He frowned. "Is there some trick to it?"

Kit chuckled. "I doubt you can do it. I am a little…unique." She looked away. "I am not sure if I should trust you or not. My nose tells me to trust you."

"I am not the type to do anything." Timothy rubbed the lamb's head. I couldn't even save my sheep. The lamb bleated.

Kit studied him from under her hood.

Timothy ran a hand through his damp hair. "I do the best I can." And it often isn't enough. He scanned the fields around them where a few farmers worked. No signs of horsemen or his sheep. He sighed. They were gone. Maybe Fairhaven's magistrate could see to it? Those sheep were all he had. He couldn't return to Aunt Mae, could he? His mind wandered over his options. What options? A single lamb couldn't start a flock.

Kit stopped.

Timothy went on for a few moments before noticing she wasn't beside him. "What is it?"

She wrung her hands. "Grammie once told me that I would eventually find…That I would know when I found…never mind. May I smell you again?"

Timothy scratched his head. The sun beat down on him, hot and insistent. "Uh, I guess?"

Kit hesitated a moment before drawing close. She thrust her nose into his chest and took a breath.

"You know, this is a little awkward." Timothy held his arms out. She pressed against him. A pair of men about his age watched from the distant field. One of the men pointed at them.

Kit grabbed his sodden shirt and looked up. The hood of her cloak fell back a little to reveal red hair plastered to her forehead. "I've decided I am going to trust you."

"Uh, thanks? This is a little much for just a walk to Fairhaven. Besides, who said I trust you?"

Kit widened her eyes. "You are welcome to stare into my soul."

Those green depths reminded him of untouched pasture. An odd sensation of trust filled him as if he knew this girl as well as he knew Aunt Mae.

She shoved away from him. "Okay, enough of that." She shivered. "Someone staring into my eyes like that is too strange."

"And sniffing me isn't?"

COLLAPSE

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