The Great Hunt

By: Wendy Higgins

Chapter


1


A late summer breeze blew warm over the deep and wide Lanach Creek. Moonlight caught the shock of Wyneth’s red-orange curls as she let her fiancé, Breckon, lay her back on the end of the dock. She could scarcely see his face in the dark of night as he hovered gently above her, but she knew every angle and plane by heart.

Another breeze crested down the creek from the nearby sea, but the couple’s combined heat warded them against it.

“I don’t want you to leave,” Wyneth whispered.

“If it were up to me, I’d stay right here with you. But it’s my duty.” He leaned down and kissed her gently at first, then deeper. Wyneth bent her knee, letting the silken layers of her dress fall back to expose her leg. Breckon’s hand cupped behind her knee, sliding up farther than she’d ever allowed him to touch before.

“Just think,” Breckon said, his breaths coming faster, “in three months, I’ll be back from the sea and we’ll finally marry.”

Wyneth moaned, not wanting his hand to stop moving. “I wish it were now.”

She pulled his face to hers again, feeling brazen and greedy for his soft lips. She hated when he left for the sea; it always filled her with a pang of worry and longing. Wyneth urged Breckon closer.

A rustle sounded from the nearby dark woods. The couple stilled, listening.

The noise came again like a crackle of dead leaves and brush. Definite movement.

In a rush, they sat up, Wyneth pulling her skirts down. Breckon readied his hand over the dagger at his waist.

All was quiet except the warble of water bugs, frogs, and the splashing of tiny waves at the shore.

“Do you think someone’s spying?” Wyneth whispered. She imagined her young cousin Prince Donubhan and his gang of trouble seekers, but the queen would have his hide if he sneaked out after dark.

“No.” Breckon shook his head, a lock of hair falling across his worried brow. “It’s most likely a deer.” But to Wyneth’s ear, he didn’t sound so sure.

He relaxed and gave Wyneth a smile, but the mood had been broken by thoughts of anyone witnessing their intimate time together. It was impossible to find privacy within the castle walls with the royal family, servants, and naval guards running about. The private docks at night had been their only hope without leaving royal lands.

“Perhaps we should go back,” she said halfheartedly as Breckon leaned in to place a trail of warm kisses down her neck to her collarbone. “We can fetch Harrison and wake Aerity and sneak down to the wine cellars again.”

Breckon chuckled. “The only matchmaking I’m interested in tonight is you and I.”

“But that noise—”

“You worry too much. We’re safe and alone out here, I assure you. I’d never put your safety or reputation at risk.”

Or his own. As the youngest naval captain, Breckon Gillfin’s actions were under constant scrutiny. Gossipmongers said he’d risen the ranks quickly because of his long engagement to the king’s niece, but anyone who’d seen Breckon in action knew that wasn’t the case. King Charles Lochson did not play favorites. Breckon was brave, loyal, and driven. These were all reasons her family accepted Breckon’s courtship and offer of marriage when Wyneth was only sixteen. He’d waited patiently these two years since, working hard all the while, and after this next short stint at sea their long wait would at last be over. And if Wyneth had her wish, her cousin Princess Aerity would finally fall in love with Breckon’s cousin Harrison, and all would be right in the world.

Another abrasive rustle from the trees caused them to break away again. This time they both stood. Something or someone was surely out there. Wyneth looked to Breckon, who scanned the trees with a scowl.

In the darkness, a large shadow moved within the mossy trees as they swayed. Wyneth grabbed Breckon’s arm, and he stared intently into the trees. His dagger, which she hadn’t seen him unsheathe, glinted in the moonlight.

“Who’s there?” Breckon called. “Show yourself!”

The trees stilled. Even the bugs and frogs stopped their chatter. It was too quiet. Wyneth’s heartbeat quickened.

“What if it’s the great beast?” she asked, a tremor in her voice.

Breckon shot her a rueful smile and rubbed her hand, which was likely cutting off the circulation in his bicep. “You know the great beast is only a tale among the commoners to impose a curfew on their youth. Besides, the royal lands are protected by the stone wall and the seas. It’s probably a buck. Wish I had my bow . . .”

His voice trailed off as they stared into the dark woods.

Rumors of a great beast had arisen through the waterlands of Lochlanach over the summer. Four watermen villagers had been killed, all at night, leaving behind only scraps of bodies. Tale or not, the castle maids who did their shopping beyond the royal wall said they’d never seen such fear among the people.

Just as Breckon was about to sheathe his dagger, a deep snort sounded from the trees.

“Oh, my lands!” Wyneth stiffened. “What was that?”

Breckon had tensed and lowered his voice. “Wild boar, perhaps?”

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