The Great Hunt(9)

By: Wendy Higgins



The other six children were loud behind them. Aerity clapped her hands. “Let’s line up and have a race!” Her voice echoed off the slick marble floors, tall stone walls, and massive windows. The room was large enough for grand balls, but it was a poor substitution for running through grasses, climbing trees, and swimming.

“No cheating, Donubhan,” Aerity warned.

Her ten-year-old brother grinned up at her, mischief in his eyes, too adorable with all that thick hair.

Vixie stood with the younger lads and lasses, hiking up her skirts to run, stuck at the age where she still wanted to play yet also wanted to be treated as a grown woman when the mood struck.

Aerity lifted her arm and lowered it, shouting, “Go!”

Redheads of every shade dashed across High Hall and Aerity couldn’t help but smile. Her two siblings and seven cousins were safe and exuberant, despite the chaos outside their doors.

All the royal children were present except Wyneth, the oldest. She was still in her chamber. Daggers stabbed at Aerity’s heart to imagine what Wyneth had been through. The horrors. She couldn’t fathom the deranged animal her cousin had seen.

Where had such an atrocity come from?

The princess turned to the grand window and stared out at the castle lands. High Hall was the tallest point of the castle besides the towers, with windows adorning all four sides. Marksmen would be on the roofs above them at that moment with their bows strung tight, scouting. Below, the only people about were soldiers, both naval and royal, bustling on their missions. The edginess never left Aerity, even as she tried to hide it from the curious children.

From this western window she could see the commons area and the seas past it with the trade port. Merchant and fishing boats were always going in and out. From the north window was forest and the royal docks along Lanach Creek. From the east window she could see hundreds of acres of lush land, rolling and green. Beyond that, out of sight, was the fortified stone wall that went from Lochlanach Bay above to Oyster Bay below. The south window looked out over the royal markets, where people came from all over to buy, sell, and trade goods.

Looking out at the waterlands kingdom of Lochlanach, the princess was reminded how much they had to lose. The people who worked so hard. The peace her father and his father before him had worked to bring about after years of war.

Now a single creature threatened all that, and it made Aerity wish she were a warrior princess who could kill the thing herself. But, alas, she had no talents other than acrobatics, swimming, and simple archery. Nothing useful.

The children screamed and laughed behind her, but she hardly heard them. She stared from the giant window at the crashing waves beyond. At sea were naval ships of all sizes. Water, water everywhere. Aerity couldn’t imagine it any other way.

There were the bays and all their wide creeks stretching out like fingers from a palm to touch everything in sight, feeding into rivers, streams, and lakes. Vast fields of vegetation and crops lined forests that backed up to streams and lakes, both saltwater and fresh. At sea were miles of uninhabited barrier islands and tropical islands farther out, which held coveted spices and vegetation used in valuable trades with other kingdoms—all of it in peril.

When her mother arrived in High Hall with a maid bearing a tray of cinnamon sweetcakes, Princesses Aerity and Vixie rushed to her side. The children abandoned their race and bombarded the maid.

“Mother, may I visit the stables now?” Vixie begged. “The horses have never gone this long without me.”

“I know, dear,” said the queen. “But your father still doesn’t want you to leave the castle. The horses are being tended.”

While Vixie pouted, Aerity stepped up.

“Mother, may I see Wyneth?” Aerity asked. “Please.”

The queen pressed her lips together. Her eyes dropped.

“She is not well, love. She won’t speak.”

Aerity swallowed hard at the thought of joy-filled Wyneth gone silent.

“I won’t bother her. I swear.” It was killing her to be kept away.

Queen Leighlane thought about it, and Aerity’s spirits soared when she finally nodded. “Perhaps seeing you would be best for her. But don’t be offended if she wants you to leave. Don’t press her. Understand?”

“Aye.”

“And be gentle with your aunt Ashley. She’s not herself either.”

Aerity nodded, sad to hear it.

Her mother’s maid stayed to watch over the children while Aerity rushed to her cousin’s chambers. Wyneth’s mother, the oldest of the king’s younger sisters, sat on a cushioned bench in the hall, a handkerchief held loosely in her hand as she stared at the wall.

It hurt to see this strong woman appear lost and broken. Lady Ashley’s usually pristine dress was slightly crumpled. More faded hairs than ever streaked her red locks. Princess Aerity knelt with her hands on her aunt’s knees and lowered her head in respect.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Aunt Ashley.”

Everyone knew she’d loved her future son-in-law. They’d all loved Breckon.

Lady Ashley softly patted Aerity’s shoulder but said nothing. The princess stood silently and went to Wyneth’s room. She knocked twice and pushed the heavy wooden door open. The curtains had been drawn, and no lamps were lit, blanketing the room in darkness. Aerity’s first instinct was to brighten the space, but she didn’t want to shock her cousin’s eyes.

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