The Great Hunt(5)

By: Wendy Higgins

“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 Lochlanach, 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.

Also By Wendy Higgins

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