The Great Hunt(7)

By: Wendy Higgins

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.

Also By Wendy Higgins

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