The Great Hunt(3)

By: Wendy Higgins

“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.

Also By Wendy Higgins

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