Try it before you buy it! Here are the first 3 chapters of The Great Hunt by Wendy Higgins––a dramatic, romance-filled fantasy with rugged hunters, romantic tension, and a princess willing to risk all to save her kingdom. Plus, this book can now be added to our “retellings we are dying to read” book pile because this is a retelling of the classic Grimm’s tale, “The Singing Bone” (which is a fairy tale we definitely hadn’t heard of until we found out about The Great Hunt).
Go ahead and give it a try and tell us what you think of the first three chapters in the comments below!
A late summer breeze blew warm over the deep and wide Lanach Creek. Moonlight caught the shock of Wyneth’s red-orange curls as she let her fiancé, Breckon, lay her back on the end of the dock. She could scarcely see his face in the dark of night as he hovered gently above her, but she knew every angle and plane by heart.
Another breeze crested down the creek from the nearby sea, but the couple’s combined heat warded them against it.
“I don’t want you to leave,” Wyneth whispered.
“If it were up to me, I’d stay right here with you. But it’s my duty.” He leaned down and kissed her gently at first, then deeper. Wyneth bent her knee, letting the silken layers of her dress fall back to expose her leg. Breckon’s hand cupped behind her knee, sliding up farther than she’d ever allowed him to touch before.
“Just think,” Breckon said, his breaths coming faster, “in three months, I’ll be back from the sea and we’ll finally marry.”
Wyneth moaned, not wanting his hand to stop moving. “I wish it were now.”
She pulled his face to hers again, feeling brazen and greedy for his soft lips. She hated when he left for the sea; it always filled her with a pang of worry and longing. Wyneth urged Breckon closer.
A rustle sounded from the nearby dark woods. The couple stilled, listening.
The noise came again like a crackle of dead leaves and brush. Definite movement.
In a rush, they sat up, Wyneth pulling her skirts down. Breckon readied his hand over the dagger at his waist.
All was quiet except the warble of water bugs, frogs, and the splashing of tiny waves at the shore.
“Do you think someone’s spying?” Wyneth whispered. She imagined her young cousin Prince Donubhan and his gang of trouble seekers, but the queen would have his hide if he sneaked out after dark.
“No.” Breckon shook his head, a lock of hair falling across his worried brow. “It’s most likely a deer.” But to Wyneth’s ear, he didn’t sound so sure.
He relaxed and gave Wyneth a smile, but the mood had been broken by thoughts of anyone witnessing their intimate time together. It was impossible to find privacy within the castle walls with the royal family, servants, and naval guards running about. The private docks at night had been their only hope without leaving royal lands.
“Perhaps we should go back,” she said halfheartedly as Breckon leaned in to place a trail of warm kisses down her neck to her collarbone. “We can fetch Harrison and wake Aerity and sneak down to the wine cellars again.”
Breckon chuckled. “The only matchmaking I’m interested in tonight is you and I.”
“But that noise—”
“You worry too much. We’re safe and alone out here, I assure you. I’d never put your safety or reputation at risk.”
Or his own. As the youngest naval captain, Breckon Gillfin’s actions were under constant scrutiny. Gossipmongers said he’d risen the ranks quickly because of his long engagement to the king’s niece, but anyone who’d seen Breckon in action knew that wasn’t the case. King Charles Lochson did not play favorites. Breckon was brave, loyal, and driven. These were all reasons her family accepted Breckon’s courtship and offer of marriage when Wyneth was only sixteen. He’d waited patiently these two years since, working hard all the while, and after this next short stint at sea their long wait would at last be over. And if Wyneth had her wish, her cousin Princess Aerity would finally fall in love with Breckon’s cousin Harrison, and all would be right in the world.
Another abrasive rustle from the trees caused them to break away again. This time they both stood. Something or someone was surely out there. Wyneth looked to Breckon, who scanned the trees with a scowl.
In the darkness, a large shadow moved within the mossy trees as they swayed. Wyneth grabbed Breckon’s arm, and he stared intently into the trees. His dagger, which she hadn’t seen him unsheathe, glinted in the moonlight.
“Who’s there?” Breckon called. “Show yourself!”
The trees stilled. Even the bugs and frogs stopped their chatter. It was too quiet. Wyneth’s heartbeat quickened.
“What if it’s the great beast?” she asked, a tremor in her voice.
Breckon shot her a rueful smile and rubbed her hand, which was likely cutting off the circulation in his bicep. “You know the great beast is only a tale among the commoners to impose a curfew on their youth. Besides, the royal lands are protected by the stone wall and the seas. It’s probably a buck. Wish I had my bow . . .”
His voice trailed off as they stared into the dark woods.
Rumors of a great beast had arisen through the waterlands of Lochlanach over the summer. Four watermen villagers had been killed, all at night, leaving behind only scraps of bodies. Tale or not, the castle maids who did their shopping beyond the royal wall said they’d never seen such fear among the people.
Just as Breckon was about to sheathe his dagger, a deep snort sounded from the trees.
“Oh, my lands!” Wyneth stiffened. “What was that?”
Breckon had tensed and lowered his voice. “Wild boar, perhaps?”
Wyneth had never heard of wild boars on royal lands. Only deer and small creatures.
“Stay here,” Breckon ordered. “I’m going to scare it off.”
“No!” She grabbed for his hand and he kissed her forehead, gently prying himself away.
Before he could take two steps from her, the dark shadow in the trees resolved itself into a gigantic creature on the sandy walkway. They both stared, not daring to move.
It was taller than any man, standing on its hind legs. Wyneth questioned her own sanity as she stared in disbelief. Its body was massive, the size of a bear, with wiry hair like nothing she’d ever seen. Its face was as ugly as a boar’s. Tusks curled up around a dripping snout, sharp teeth shining. Its beady eyes eerily caught the moon’s reflection. Everything about its stance and posture screamed feral. Deadly. Impossible.
The long length of the dock separated them from the thing, but it was not far enough for her. Not nearly far enough.
Wyneth couldn’t breathe. Her jaw hung open, poised for a scream, but not a sound escaped. She’d never known such crippling fear. Even Breckon made no move except the heaving of his chest from jagged breaths.
The great beast was not a carefully devised tale. It was real.
“Stay behind me,” Breckon whispered without moving. “If anything happens, swim for your life across the creek. Do you understand?”
For a moment Wyneth could not respond. Then her voice broke as she frantically whispered, “I can’t leave you! Come with me. We’ll swim together.” She wanted to reach for his hand, but she was stiff with terror and feared giving the beast reason to attack. Perhaps if they stayed very still and quiet it would go away.
When Breckon turned his head to her, insistence in his eyes, that small movement was all it took. The great beast let out a roar, forcing a startled scream from Wyneth. Breckon bit out a curse. The thing charged down the dock, its steps shockingly quiet, for Wyneth had expected the thunder of hooves, not large paws. But then she felt its heaviness shake the wood beneath her feet with each landing.
“Go!” Breckon yelled.
At the same time, she grabbed for his arm and screamed, “Jump!”
But Breckon had no plans to run from the beast. He grasped Wyneth’s waist and pushed her backward with all his might. She felt herself flying through the air off the dock, all breath leaving her lungs as her body submerged with a crash into the cool water. All sound muted. Disbelief struck her once again.
This could not be happening. It couldn’t. It wasn’t real.
But when her wet face hit the air and she gasped for breath, it took only a moment for her to turn toward the growling sounds and see the monster reach Breckon, towering over him.
Skies above! “Breck!”
“Swim!” He angled himself to avoid the beast’s mouth. “Get help!” Breckon launched his strong shoulder into the beast’s abdomen and they began to grapple, sounds of grunting and snorting carrying over the water.
Finally Wyneth snapped from her fear-induced stupor and the instinct of flight kicked in. She couldn’t fight this thing with Breckon, but she could do what he’d commanded: get help. She turned and swam with all her might. She kicked and her arms sliced through the water as if the beast were right behind her. Indeed, she expected to hear the splash of the thing following at any moment, but it never came. Wyneth hardly heard her fiancé’s strangled screams as he fought for his life on the dock behind her.
Breckon was an excellent sailor and soldier. A fearless fighter. He had his knife. The beast was only an animal—no match for her betrothed.
He’ll be okay, Wyneth reassured herself with each quick stroke through the water.
After swimming nearly a hundred yards, her body was numb when she reached the dock on the other side of the creek. She pulled herself up, panting for air and cursing her wet, heavy garments. Her eyes scanned the water, but it moved at the same calm, slow speed as always. Then she allowed her eyes to seek out the dock beyond.
The great beast was nowhere in sight, and hope rose in her chest.
The dock was covered in patches of dark moisture that glinted in the moonlight against the dry wood—a sickening trail of it. All hope vanished as she comprehended what lay at the edge of the wooden planks. In the very place she’d been kissed only moments before, were the remains of her life’s great love.
Paxton Seabolt sat on a wooden stool with his elbows on the beaten plank bar, sipping his ale and listening to the chatter of two excitable lasses at a table behind him. He felt their eyes on his back, but he wasn’t in the mood for flirtations. His thoughts were heavily weighted by one of their own watermen, who’d been killed two nights before by the great beast.
The man had worked with his father for years, hauling in oysters and clams. Paxton recalled his husky laugh, which always seemed too deep for his gaunt face and thin body.
Other men and women from the village of Cape Creek spilled into the dim pub straight from work, bringing marshy smells of salt water, morose faces, whispering rumored details.
“It killed six others in water towns during the summer months, you know. . . .”
“Old man Pearl said he saw it with his own eyes . . . said it was a giant creature like nothing he’d ever seen before.”
Paxton would doubt that statement if old man Pearl wasn’t as sound and respectable as they come.
As a couple of older women bustled in, Paxton caught sight of the notice that’d been nailed to the door the day prior—an official order from the royal army to stay indoors when the sun went down. A night curfew. Apparently the beast was nocturnal.
“Did you hear?” asked one of the women to the people in the pub. “They’re sayin’ royal lands were attacked by the beast last night!”
“Impossible,” said the barkeep. “It’s fortified. Nothing can get past that wall or the navy.”
“I don’t know how the thing got in, but it killed one of their officers.”
The barkeep grabbed a rag and scrubbed a wet spot. “Well, if that’s true, perhaps they’ll finally do something about it.”
“Aye,” Paxton agreed gruffly. “Perhaps they’ll finally believe us filthy commoners.”
The barkeep glanced at Paxton’s nearly empty glass and filled him another without asking. “How fared the hunting today, Pax?”
Paxton shrugged, frustrated he hadn’t seen any deer that day. “Only a rabbit.”
“Your mother will surely make something nice with it.” He set the ale in front of Paxton, then wiped his hands on his dirtied apron.
Just as Paxton lifted the full glass to his lips, someone
jostled too close and bumped his arm, spilling ale down his chin and the front of his tunic. He glared at the grinning face of his younger brother, Tiern.
“Oy, got a little something there, Pax.” Tiern pointed at his older brother’s dripping chin. The girls behind them laughed, and Tiern rewarded them with a smile.
“Don’t make me snap you, clumsy twig.” Paxton wiped his chin with the back of his wrist, but Tiern was unperturbed by Paxton’s dark mood. The younger Seabolt brother appeared as put together as always, with his brown hair tied back neatly, in contrast to Paxton’s wavy strands hanging messily around his face.
“Everyone’s right shaken up about this monster, aye?” Tiern pulled out a wobbly stool, scraping the hard dirt floor, and sat.
The barkeep peered down at Tiern’s boyish face. “What’re you having today?”
“Just water for him,” Paxton said. When Tiern frowned, he continued. “We don’t need you getting silly off one ale.”
“I don’t get silly.”
The barkeep chuckled and poured water from a jug. “Aye, you do. You start hugging everyone and telling them all the things you love about them.”
Tiern pulled a face and took his water, muttering, “It’s no crime to be friendly.” He abruptly set down his water. “Oh! Did you hear about Mrs. Mallory?” His face turned uncharacteristically serious.
Paxton’s ears perked. “Is she in labor?”
“Already?” asked the barkeep.
“Aye, she is, and it’s too early. Mum was running to their cottage to help when I left.”
Paxton’s stomach soured. The barkeep shook his head and looked away. It was never a surprise when pregnancies failed, yet each time felt like a blow to the village. The birthrates in Lochlanach were at an all-time low—only four children under the age of five in their entire village. It was said to be that way through all of the lands of Eurona, having declined drastically in the past hundred years, though nobody could say why. Many blamed the Lashed Ones, as if it were some sort of magical curse. Paxton knew the truth, but he could not voice his theory without being seen as a Lashed sympathizer.
At that moment the oak door to the pub flew open with a bang and Mallory’s husband ran in, his face ashen and his eyes red. People made a quick path for him as he moved to the bar, peering around frantically as if lost.
“Mr. Sandbar,” the barkeep said. “What do you need?”
“I . . . alcohol. To stave off infection.” He looked about wildly, shoulders stooping. “There were two. Twins . . . boys. Both gone.” The entire bar gasped as a wave of sorrow passed through the room. Mr. Sandbar lifted a shaking hand to his disheveled hair. “Mallory’s bleeding too much.”
“Okay, man. Stay calm for her.” The barkeep filled a cup with clear liquid and thrust it forward.
“I can’t pay you right now. I—”
“Don’t worry about that. I know you’re good for it.”
Before Mr. Sandbar could take the cup the door opened again and everyone went still. In the doorway stood Mr. Riverton, an ordinary-looking man in his early thirties. But to the village he wasn’t ordinary at all—he was their one and only registered Lashed. He rarely came out except to pick up a bottle of mead from the bar now and again. Paxton felt himself go tense all over as his fellow villagers glared at the man. Mr. Riverton hadn’t fared well in the last few years, but the Lashed never did. They seemed to age faster than normal people, dying decades sooner than they should. It didn’t help that most couldn’t find jobs and had to support themselves on the land or starve.
Paxton had caught his own mother sneaking food to Mr. Riverton’s lean-to porch early one morning, but he’d never told her he saw.
Mallory’s husband began breathing fast and ragged as he took in the sight of the Lashed man.
Mr. Riverton looked about at the staring faces, landing on Mr. Sandbar’s. “S-sorry, I was only picking up something to go . . . I’ll just . . .” His hand fumbled for the door handle to exit, but Mr. Sandbar flew across the room in a rage, brandishing a knife from his pocket that he shoved to the Lashed man’s throat, pressing him against the wall. Everyone crushed forward to see. Paxton and Tiern leaped from their stools, pushing through the crowd.
“What did you do to her?!” Mr. Sandbar shouted.
Mr. Riverton kept his hands up, his eyes closed. “I didn’t do anything, I swear!”
“I saw you look at her two days ago. You stared at her stomach! What did you do?”
“I was glad to see how well she was progressing—that’s all!”
“Lies!” Mr. Sandbar pressed forward, denting the Lashed man’s throat, causing a trickle of blood to flow. “You’re a filthy murderer! Just like your hero, Rocato!”
Mr. Riverton’s panicked eyes shot open. “Rocato was a madman! I’m nothing like him—”
“More lies!” Mr. Sandbar’s shout came out a sob as tears began to seep from his angry eyes. “You took my boys, just by looking at her!”
“Mr. Sandbar!” Paxton shouted. He grabbed the mourning man by the shoulder. “He can’t hurt her with his eyes. You know this. He has to touch with his hands to work magic, and I’m certain he’s never gotten that close. Am I right?”
Paxton looked at Mr. Riverton, who whispered hoarsely with his hands held high, “Aye. I never touched her.”
“Come on,” Paxton said. “Let’s get you back to Mallory.” He gave the man a gentle tug to pry him away from the frightened, cornered Lashed.
Tiern, who’d had the good foresight to grab the cup of alcohol, took the hand of Mallory’s husband and pressed the cup into it. His knife arm dropped and his eyes cleared, seeming to remember why he’d come.
“I’ll go with you,” Tiern said. He led the stricken man out of the bar.
The people continued to glare at Mr. Riverton, who lowered a shaking hand to his bloodied neck. He took one last glance around at the hostile faces before turning and rushing out, not bothering to get what he’d come for.
“Good riddance,” a woman whispered. “Their kind shouldn’t be allowed in here.”
Paxton clenched his teeth as a roar of familiar anger clawed inside him. He pushed his way back through the people and slid two copper coins across the bar. “This should cover Mr. Sandbar’s bill and my drink. Keep the rest.” The barkeep nodded, pale faced, and took the payment.
When Paxton turned to leave, the two lasses stood in his path, pretty in long braids and cotton skirts. He knew them to be sixteen, a year younger than Tiern.
“That was generous of you to pay his debt,” one of them said, tilting her head demurely up at him. “The poor man.”
When he looked at the girl, all he saw was future heartache and loss—the same fate that awaited all who wished to start families—not the kind of future he wanted for himself. Paxton didn’t plan to remain in Cape Creek forever.
“Get yourselves home before nightfall,” Paxton said.
He sidled past the girls and left the suffocating pub behind him.
Princess Aerity could not sleep past daybreak. She woke and stared from her vast arched windows at the sea and the far creek that split through thick woods at the northwest end of the gray stone castle.
In all of her seventeen years, Aerity had never seen her father, King Charles, so focused on a foe. The entire castle was on edge. And for good reason.
The great beast was real.
Her cousin and dearest friend, Lady Wyneth, had seen it with her own eyes mere days ago, and the kingdom had lost one of its best and brightest naval officers. Breckon had been the pride and future of Lochlanach.
Since that attack, the entire castle seemed to be covered in a suffocating blanket of grief and fear.
Her maid knocked once gently, and entered her chambers with an armful of clean laundry. The girl set Aerity’s pale dresses, petticoats, chemises, and corsets across the dressing table and began putting the items in their proper places.
Staring back out the window, Aerity asked her maid, “Are you well this morning, Caitrin?”
“Aye, Princess. Thank you.”
“Any happenings during the night?” Aerity’s stomach clenched in anticipation of bad news.
“No beast sightings, Your Highness.” Her maid hung up the last dress of light green silk, and then ran her hands down her apron. The girl’s cheeks were pink from exertion. “But there are rumors. . . .”
Aerity raised her eyebrows. She wasn’t allowed to wander the grounds on her own since Breckon’s death, so she relied on her maid to carry news to her from the royal market, where citizens from local towns came to sell and trade their wares.
“What sort of rumors?”
Caitrin glanced around the room, as if making certain they were alone, then lowered her voice to a whisper. “People are saying the great beast is a monster created by the Lashed.”
Aerity felt her brow tighten. “That’s preposterous. They can do many things, but not something of this magnitude.”
Caitrin gave a small shrug. “Would you like a fire in the hearth, Princess?”
“No, thank you.” It was chilly, but not cold. Her shawl was enough for now.
“Breakfast is nearly ready in the informal dining room.” Her maid gave a curtsy and turned to leave.
“Caitrin,” Aerity called, and the girl stopped. “Please don’t pay any mind to the Lashed rumors. They’re unfounded.”
The maid gave a smile and nod before leaving her.
Aerity sighed and leaned against the window. The Lashed were always blamed when something went awry in Loch-lanach, even though it’d been more than a century since they were permitted to openly use their magic. Lashed had once been revered like royalty for the amazing things they could do with their hands. They could cure illness and heal minor wounds, even cause a living being to sleep and plants to grow or die. But Lashed Ones also had the ability to kill by paralyzing the heart.
All it took was one wayward Lashed, the now infamous Rodolpho Rocato of the hotlands, to change all that. He’d killed the king of Kalor over a hundred years ago in an attempt to take over the kingdom. And he hadn’t been alone. A handful of power-hungry Lashed from each kingdom followed his lead, rising up and attempting to overthrow the thrones throughout Eurona.
Aerity shivered when she thought of the old tales. It must have been a horrid time to have lived. So much war and death. Lashed from all five kingdoms, innocent or not, were rounded up and killed—men, women, and children—anyone who bore the telltale signs of magical use under their fingernails. Each time a Lashed One used their power, the magic manifested as a horizontal purple line under their nail. Like a bruise. A lashing.
Were they capable of creating something like this? She shook her head against the notion and went to her wardrobe to retrieve a drab, gray gown. She would mourn the loss of her cousin’s fiancé until Wyneth was up and about again. Only then would Aerity don dresses in soft colors.
Before the great beast, breakfasts in the informal dining room were warm and filled with laughter. Now, even the bright tapestries and colorful foreign rugs seemed as dull as the wooden tables. Her father sat next to her mother, Queen Leighlane, and absently stroked her hand with his thumb. Aerity recognized their lost-in-thought expressions, their plates still full. Even under duress their love was palpable.
She adored the story of her parents. As a young king, Charles ignored his adviser’s warnings and married the commoner girl he’d fallen in love with. Leighlane was the daughter of traveling acrobats who’d come to entertain the Lochlan royalty. After only a week at the castle, at the young king’s urging, Leighlane stayed behind while her parents took to the road again. Three months later they were married. The oft-repeated tale of their love was a steadfast comfort.
Since the death of Breckon, the king’s face was lined with the pain of guilt, robbing some of the confident light from his eyes. As much as her father respected his queen, he still scoffed at commoners’ superstitions. Many of them were silly, meant to frighten children into good behavior. But these recent mysterious attacks had left mutilated bodies in their wake.
Before Breckon was killed, her father and his advisers had tried to reason these away as the attacks of a madman, or a resurgence of wild wolves that had once roamed the waterlands before being chased into the ridgelands by floods decades ago. Their explanations weren’t perfect, but the holes in their reasoning were easier to deal with than the existence of a monstrous predator.
They’d been wrong on this one, and they had chosen to do nothing. All the royals had had their doubts about the tales, though deep down Aerity had known something strange was happening in Lochlanach. Something that couldn’t be so easily explained away. Caitrin had appeared more shaken each morning as she relayed information to Aerity about the great beast’s attacks.
Now there was no denying its existence.
Soldiers and castle commanders were running about, shouting orders of a massive hunt, and a royal decree had been issued for people to remain inside with doors bolted at night.
The princess hoped they caught and killed the great beast soon, because this was no way for anyone to live. Since Breckon had been killed three days ago, they hadn’t been allowed out of the castle, day or night, and she hadn’t seen her cousin Wyneth or her dear friend Harrison. Breckon had been buried at sea, a sailor’s ritual, with his family aboard the mourning ship.
Aerity’s father stood and silently left the dining room with her mother at his side. Aerity shared an awkward moment of quiet glances with her aunts and uncles before they all stood to retreat to their quarters of the castle as well. It was strange not to receive a good-bye or well wish for the day from the king and queen.
Aerity didn’t want to return to her chambers. She decided instead to visit someone in the castle she hadn’t seen in a while. Heading toward the east halls, she spun around when she heard light footsteps on the stone behind her.
Vixie stood there, holding up her navy blue skirts, and watching her older sister with wide, hopeful eyes. Aerity sighed. Vixie’s hair was a wild state of dark red curls. It was a sign of their mother’s preoccupied thoughts that she hadn’t insisted Vixie have her hair tamed. In Aerity’s opinion it would do well for her sister to start acting like more of a young woman and less of a child.
“Where are you going, Aer? May I join you?” The fifteen-year-old lass sidled up to Aerity.
“I’m visiting Mrs. Rathbrook. You’ll be bored to tears.”
“Do you think she’ll work a bit of magic for us?”
Aerity started forward again, and Vixie rushed to keep up. “Mrs. Rathbrook’s magic is not for your entertainment. How long has it been since you had your hair brushed?”
Vixie frowned. “It hurts when Valora does it.” Valora was their mother’s maid, who had no patience for anyone other than the queen.
“It’s probably time you had your own maid. Until then, you need to learn to do it yourself. I’ll send Caitrin over to teach you. She’s gentle, and she works wonders with a warm comb and touch of oil.”
Vixie scoffed. “As if you need it.”
True. Aerity’s hair lacked the bright curls of Vixie’s. She’d inherited her father’s nearly straight, strawberry blond strands. She often felt left out as the only royal child without the trait. Even their younger brother, Donubhan, had a mop of glorious dark red waves. At least she shared the same hazel eyes as her siblings and father. Her mother’s were gray and striking against her cabernet curls.
They rounded the corner at the end of the hall and took a set of stone steps that spiraled upward to the south tower. It’d been too long since Aerity had visited the royal Lashed One, and the woman rarely left her chambers. Mrs. Rathbrook had healed a cut on Aerity’s finger eighteen months ago after her arrow lodged too deeply in a tree’s trunk, and she’d yanked it out in earnest. She hadn’t seen her since.
At the top of the stairs, a tall, older officer named Vest stood at attention before the large door. Officer Vest was a retired navy guard whose sole job now was to watch over Mrs. Rathbrook. He accompanied her everywhere.
“Good morning,” Aerity said. “We’re here to see Mrs. Rathbrook, if she’s willing.”
The officer nodded and rapped twice on the door.
Mrs. Rathbrook opened the door, smiling, a long gray braid lying over her shoulder. “I thought I heard voices. These ears are still good after all. Please, come in, Princesses. Seas alive, how you’ve both grown!” The woman glanced up at the guard, who gave her a nod before closing the door behind them.
The girls entered the dim chambers, breathing in the powdery-scented incense.
“Hello, Mrs. Rathbrook,” Aerity said.
“Yes, hello, Mistress,” Vixie added.
The shorter woman looked them both over, clasping her hands together. “You appear well. Are you in need of healing?”
“No,” Aerity told her. “We’ve come to visit. I hope that’s all right. But if you’re busy—”
“Nonsense!” The woman smiled, seeming delighted at the idea of a visit, and Aerity felt a stab of guilt that she rarely gave the healer a passing thought these days.
Mrs. Rathbrook led them to her seating area of old chairs and offered tea.
“No, thank you. We’ve just come from breakfast.”
“What brings you?” She eyed the princesses with curiosity, resting her frail, wrinkled hands in the brown skirts at her lap. Her nails were trimmed neatly, and Aerity couldn’t help but stare at her nails, which were nearly all purple. She felt no fear, but was awed nonetheless at the knowledge that those hands could kill as easily as they could heal.
Aerity shifted. “This morning I heard of rumors . . . ridiculous rumors. I suppose it just made me wonder how you were faring. I know father’s been keeping you busy with the injured men.”
“Ah, yes.” Mrs. Rathbrook nodded. “I’ve saved a few who made it to me in time, but not all. And some refuse my help, of course.” A shadow cast across her face. “Their poor families. I imagine these rumors you’ve heard are about the Lashed Ones, aye? Folks saying we’re responsible for this beast?”
“I know it’s not possible—” Aerity began.
“Perhaps not, my dear,” Mrs. Rathbrook said in an ominous voice. “But the need to place blame is human nature.”
“But the Lashed are not evil,” Vixie said, sitting forward. “Why are people such idiots? We know your grandson saved father’s life with magic.”
“Vixie!” Aerity gasped with embarrassment and leveled a glare at her sister. Under her breath she ground out, “A bit of tact, please.” Mrs. Rathbrook’s grandson was not something the royal family spoke of. Vixie stared back as if to say, “What?”
But the old woman lifted a hand. “No, dear. I don’t mind. We are safe here.”
“Will you tell us the story?” Vixie asked eagerly.
“Vix . . .” Aerity hissed. She was regretting allowing her pushy sister to come, but Mrs. Rathbrook only smiled and settled back.
“Really, I don’t mind. As you know, when your grandfather King Leon reigned, his closest adviser was my son-in-law, General Marsh. The general did not know he’d married a woman with Lashed blood, because my daughter was not Lashed and I was careful to never use my power. My grandson, Sean, grew up with your father. They were best friends from the time they were wee lads.” Mrs. Rathbrook’s damp eyes shone as she remembered the boys. “Your father, a prince at the time, adored running with the royal hounds. He was often scolded for letting them out of their pens to wrestle and play.” She chuckled, remembering.
“Well, in the summer of their eleventh year, one of the dogs was bitten by a rabid raccoon and became ill. The dog attacked your father—had his bloodied leg between its teeth and wouldn’t let go. Sean grabbed hold of the dog without thought, and the animal dropped. It was the first time he’d ever used his powers. Sean didn’t understand what had happened until he saw the marks under his nails. He’d killed the animal with his sheer willpower to save his friend. Charles lost so much blood that he passed out, until Sean healed his wound.”
The girls were quiet and still as the woman continued. It wasn’t the first time Aerity had heard the story, but it never ceased to give her chills.
“Sean ran straight home. My son-in-law feared repercussion against his family, so he packed up the lot of us and moved us during the night, abandoning his high position. When King Leon learned what had happened, he let us be. He couldn’t afford to be seen as a Lashed sympathizer. But when your grandfather died and your father became king, he sought us out. By that time the general was past his prime and could no longer work for the navy. And Sean, poor Sean, had taken his own life. When your father asked if I was Lashed, I decided to be honest. Out of honor to his childhood friend who’d saved his life, King Charles asked me to work for him as the royal Lashed healer and I agreed.”
The three of them were quiet for a respectful moment.
“I don’t understand why people think Lashed are evil just because of one man,” Vixie said.
The woman nodded. “Like regular folk, most of us are not evil. But you can be sure, young princess, there are evil Lashed Ones. More than one. History has taught us as much. Greed and magical power are a potent combination.”
Vixie frowned and crossed her arms. “It’s still not fair.”
Mrs. Rathbrook let out a sigh.
Since Rocato’s attempt to take over Kalor more than a century ago, magic use had been outlawed everywhere in Eurona, with the exception of a few trusted Lashed who worked for the royalty in all five kingdoms, for their personal healing. All Lashed were required to be registered as soon as their capabilities became known, usually around the age of seven. Periodically the royal guard would do rounds, and any Lashed found with the markings were hung without question.
It saddened Aerity to think of the lost potential, those tortured for their talents, and she especially abhorred stories of people bullying children who’d just discovered their magical capabilities. Magic was inherited, but it was rare. There seemed to be no pattern, simply random chance.
Now the Lashed were seen as worse than criminals or diseased. They were outcasts.
Mrs. Rathbrook spoke quietly. “Your father the king is only upholding the laws that have been passed down to him for the safety of the kingdom. He cannot allow that kind of power to threaten us again. And it’s not his fault that his people act out of ignorance and fear. Perhaps someday my kind will be better understood.” Her voice carried an undercurrent of both sadness and hope.
Still, it pained Aerity to think that the innocent Lashed throughout the kingdom were being suspected of this recent madness.
“There’s no way a Lashed One created this monster,” Aerity said.
Mrs. Rathbrook shook her head. “I cannot think of how our power could be used in such a way, but there are many far more powerful than me.”
An icy sting ratcheted up Aerity’s spine. The Lashed could not wave their hands and create a monster from nothing. Their magic didn’t work that way. She refused to believe the Lashed had anything to do with the great beast.
Mrs. Rathbrook appeared tired after so much talking.
“Can I get you anything?” Aerity asked her.
“No, no, dear. My maid takes good care of me. In a few moments I’ll walk the roof gardens with Officer Vest.”
“Is Mr. Vest your lover lad?” Vixie asked, blinking her wide eyes.
Aerity nearly choked on her own tongue. “High seas, Vixie! That’s none of your concern!” Aerity had always wondered herself if there was romance between them, but she’d never dare ask.
Vixie’s cheeks reddened and she muttered an apology. Aerity realized her sister had probably repeated something she’d heard, not even realizing how improper it was.
Aerity was still in a state of mortification when Mrs. Rathbrook began laughing.
“Don’t hold your tongue on my account,” the woman said. “Officer Vest is very dear to me. I trust him with my life each day.” She gave the girls a wink and made to stand. Aerity helped her, though the woman seemed quite capable.
“Thank you so very much for visiting. Please come again soon.” Mrs. Rathbrook put a hand on Aerity’s arm, and the princess bent to kiss her cheek.
“It was my pleasure. I promise to return.”
Vixie was still blushing when she leaned forward to kiss the woman’s cheek, and then rushed from the chambers, nearly tripping on her skirts.
They’d barely made it to the bottom of the steps when Vixie whispered, “What’s wrong with lover lad?”
“Vixie . . .” Aerity shook her head and silently cursed their mother for not talking with the girls about important things. They learned far too much from the lips of maids. “When someone has a lover it means they have . . . a romantic relationship. Like married people.”
Aerity headed in the direction of High Hall.
“You mean kissing and the like?” Vixie asked.
“Yes, Vix. And it’s impolite to ask people about such private matters. Understand?”
“Have you ever kissed anyone? Or is that too private for me to ask, even of my sister?”
Aerity sighed. She wanted to shush her sister, but Vixie didn’t have the blessing of a cousin her age or a friend to speak of such things with. Her best friend was her horse.
“I’ve kissed one lad.” On several occasions. She felt Vixie’s big eyes on her.
“Is he your lover, then?”
“No! Stop saying that word.”
“Who was the lad?”
“Breckon’s cousin, the lieutenant.” Her heart gave a squeeze.
“You mean Harrison Gillfin? But he’s twenty! Three years your senior!” Vixie pulled a sour face, as if he were an old man.
“Are you going to marry him?” her sister asked.
This gave Aerity pause. She loved Harrison, but not in that way. They’d tried many a time to force something romantic, but their friendship overrode those notions. Their kisses had lacked passion and often ended in laughter. But during the summer gala when Aerity, Harrison, Breckon, and Wyneth had sneaked down to the castle’s wine cellars and shared several bottles of mead, Aerity and Harrison had made a fuzzy-minded pact as they snuggled together between two crates, giving their cousins privacy.
“What if I never find a lad to marry, Harrison? What if I never find a good match or fall in love, like my parents did? What will the people say if I rule alone?”
She’d been leaning back between Harrison’s legs, and he kissed her hair.
“You will rule well on your own or otherwise. But if you feel you must take a husband, I will marry you in a heartbeat.”
She’d turned to peer up at his smooth-shaven face. A face she trusted. “You will find a wife long before that.”
He’d stared past her, his eyes going blurry for a moment in thought, then he took a long drink from his bottle. “I don’t think so, Aer. I will always be here for you.”
But it hadn’t been a confession of love. Of that she felt certain.
“I don’t know, Vixie,” Aerity finally answered. “I’m not sure I’ll ever marry.”
“Me either!” Vixie said.
Aerity pushed open the doors of High Hall and let out a relieved breath at the sight of their little brother and cousins running about. She pushed heavy thoughts from her mind.
Already the lot of them were at one another’s throats with boredom, whining and shouting, and it had been only three days since they’d been confined to the castle. Princess Aerity
had volunteered to entertain the children during the day while studies were suspended, distracting them and keeping them away from the adults, in exchange for having her acrobatic silks brought up from the practice room, a space which was too small for all of them to play in.
Her youngest cousins, Caileen and Merity, were playing with the silks, running through them, letting the light fabric flow over their heads. Six-year-old Merity grabbed hold of the bottom of the red silk, which hung from the tall ceiling. She tried to climb, but it slipped through her fingers.
“Here,” said Caileen, much wiser and able at eight years of age. “Let me show you.” The girl took hold of the silks as high as she could reach with both hands, and attempted to circle her leg around the bottom. She made a frustrated sound when the fabric wouldn’t catch against her foot, repeatedly sliding through.
Aerity giggled, and the girls turned. Their faces brightened.
“Aer! Show us!” Caileen begged.
The princess obliged. “You’ve got to get it nice and tight around your foot, like a band, to the point where it nearly stings.” She grabbed hold up high with both hands, wound her ankle about the fabric with a downward thrust to tighten, and then placed her other foot securely on top of the silks to leverage it, stepping up. Aerity swung lightly above the ground, her legs locked, muscles tight. She explained each step as she went, then hopped down to let the girls try. “One at a time, youngest first.” Caileen pouted as Merity cheered.
The other six children were loud behind them. Aerity clapped her hands. “Let’s line up and have a race!” Her voice echoed off the slick marble floors, tall stone walls, and massive windows. The room was large enough for grand balls, but it was a poor substitution for running through grasses, climbing trees, and swimming.
“No cheating, Donubhan,” Aerity warned.
Her ten-year-old brother grinned up at her, mischief in his eyes, too adorable with all that thick hair.
Vixie stood with the younger lads and lasses, hiking up her skirts to run, stuck at the age where she still wanted to play yet also wanted to be treated as a grown woman when the mood struck.
Aerity lifted her arm and lowered it, shouting, “Go!”
Redheads of every shade dashed across High Hall and Aerity couldn’t help but smile. Her two siblings and seven cousins were safe and exuberant, despite the chaos outside their doors.
All the royal children were present except Wyneth, the oldest. She was still in her chamber. Daggers stabbed at Aerity’s heart to imagine what Wyneth had been through. The horrors. She couldn’t fathom the deranged animal her cousin had seen.
Where had such an atrocity come from?
The princess turned to the grand window and stared out at the castle lands. High Hall was the tallest point of the
castle besides the towers, with windows adorning all four sides. Marksmen would be on the roofs above them at that moment with their bows strung tight, scouting. Below, the only people about were soldiers, both naval and royal, bustling on their missions. The edginess never left Aerity, even as she tried to hide it from the curious children.
From this western window she could see the commons area and the seas past it with the trade port. Merchant and fishing boats were always going in and out. From the north window was forest and the royal docks along Lanach Creek. From the east window she could see hundreds of acres of lush land, rolling and green. Beyond that, out of sight, was the fortified stone wall that went from Lochlanach Bay above to Oyster Bay below. The south window looked out over the royal markets, where people came from all over to buy, sell, and trade goods.
Looking out at the waterlands kingdom of Lochlanach, the princess was reminded how much they had to lose. The people who worked so hard. The peace her father and his father before him had worked to bring about after years of war.
Now a single creature threatened all that, and it made Aerity wish she were a warrior princess who could kill the thing herself. But, alas, she had no talents other than acrobatics, swimming, and simple archery. Nothing useful.
The children screamed and laughed behind her, but she hardly heard them. She stared from the giant window at the crashing waves beyond. At sea were naval ships of all sizes. Water, water everywhere. Aerity couldn’t imagine it any other way.
There were the bays and all their wide creeks stretching out like fingers from a palm to touch everything in sight, feeding into rivers, streams, and lakes. Vast fields of vegetation and crops lined forests that backed up to streams and lakes, both saltwater and fresh. At sea were miles of uninhabited barrier islands and tropical islands farther out, which held coveted spices and vegetation used in valuable trades with other kingdoms—all of it in peril.
When her mother arrived in High Hall with a maid bearing a tray of cinnamon sweetcakes, Princesses Aerity and Vixie rushed to her side. The children abandoned their race and bombarded the maid.
“Mother, may I visit the stables now?” Vixie begged. “The horses have never gone this long without me.”
“I know, dear,” said the queen. “But your father still doesn’t want you to leave the castle. The horses are being tended.”
While Vixie pouted, Aerity stepped up.
“Mother, may I see Wyneth?” Aerity asked. “Please.”
The queen pressed her lips together. Her eyes dropped.
“She is not well, love. She won’t speak.”
Aerity swallowed hard at the thought of joy-filled Wyneth gone silent.
“I won’t bother her. I swear.” It was killing her to be kept away.
Queen Leighlane thought about it, and Aerity’s spirits soared when she finally nodded. “Perhaps seeing you would be best for her. But don’t be offended if she wants you to leave. Don’t press her. Understand?”
“And be gentle with your aunt Ashley. She’s not herself either.”
Aerity nodded, sad to hear it.
Her mother’s maid stayed to watch over the children while Aerity rushed to her cousin’s chambers. Wyneth’s mother, the oldest of the king’s younger sisters, sat on a cushioned bench in the hall, a handkerchief held loosely in her hand as she stared at the wall.
It hurt to see this strong woman appear lost and broken. Lady Ashley’s usually pristine dress was slightly crumpled. More faded hairs than ever streaked her red locks. Princess Aerity knelt with her hands on her aunt’s knees and lowered her head in respect.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Aunt Ashley.”
Everyone knew she’d loved her future son-in-law. They’d all loved Breckon.
Lady Ashley softly patted Aerity’s shoulder but said nothing. The princess stood silently and went to Wyneth’s room. She knocked twice and pushed the heavy wooden door open. The curtains had been drawn, and no lamps were lit, blanketing the room in darkness. Aerity’s first instinct was to brighten the space, but she didn’t want to shock her cousin’s eyes.
Wyneth lay curled in the middle of the bed, a grievous sight. The princess rarely found reason to cry, but she feared she might now. She climbed onto the bed and curled herself around Wyneth, swallowing back the burn of moisture. Aerity pressed her cheek to the back of her cousin’s head and rested her palm against her arm.
“I’m so sorry.” Aerity’s voice shook.
Her cousin’s words came out garbled and nearly unrecognizable. “It can’t be real, Aer. Tell me it’s not real.”
“Oh, sweet Wyn . . .” The princess’s heart swelled with grief.
An anguished moan rose from Wyneth, and her whole body rattled, making Aerity break out into gooseflesh at the mournful sound. Wyneth fumbled weakly for Aerity’s fingers. The princess reached out and grabbed her cousin’s searching hand, lifting it to her cheek.
Together, they held tight to each other and cried.
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