The Great Hunt(4)

By: Wendy Higgins



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.





Chapter


3


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.

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