The Great Hunt(6)

By: Wendy Higgins

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?”

Also By Wendy Higgins

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