The Great Hunt – Wendy Higgins

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?” Wyneth had never heard of wild boars on royal lands. Only deer and small creatures. “Stay here,” Breckon ordered.

“I’m going to scare it off.” “No!” She grabbed for his hand and he kissed her forehead, gently prying himself away. Before he could take two steps from her, the dark shadow in the trees resolved itself into a gigantic creature on the sandy walkway. They both stared, not daring to move. It was taller than any man, standing on its hind legs. Wyneth questioned her own sanity as she stared in disbelief. Its body was massive, the size of a bear, with wiry hair like nothing she’d ever seen. Its face was as ugly as a boar’s. Tusks curled up around a dripping snout, sharp teeth shining. Its beady eyes eerily caught the moon’s reflection.

Everything about its stance and posture screamed feral. Deadly. Impossible. The long length of the dock separated them from the thing, but it was not far enough for her. Not nearly far enough. Wyneth couldn’t breathe. Her jaw hung open, poised for a scream, but not a sound escaped. She’d never known such crippling fear. Even Breckon made no move except the heaving of his chest from jagged breaths. The great beast was not a carefully devised tale.

It was real. “Stay behind me,” Breckon whispered without moving. “If anything happens, swim for your life across the creek. Do you understand?” For a moment Wyneth could not respond. Then her voice broke as she frantically whispered, “I can’t leave you! Come with me. We’ll swim together.” She wanted to reach for his hand, but she was stiff with terror and feared giving the beast reason to attack. Perhaps if they stayed very still and quiet it would go away. When Breckon turned his head to her, insistence in his eyes, that small movement was all it took. The great beast let out a roar, forcing a startled scream from Wyneth.

Breckon bit out a curse. The thing charged down the dock, its steps shockingly quiet, for Wyneth had expected the thunder of hooves, not large paws. But then she felt its heaviness shake the wood beneath her feet with each landing. “Go!” Breckon yelled. At the same time, she grabbed for his arm and screamed, “Jump!” But Breckon had no plans to run from the beast. He grasped Wyneth’s waist and pushed her backward with all his might. She felt herself flying through the air off the dock, all breath leaving her lungs as her body submerged with a crash into the cool water. All sound muted. Disbelief struck her once again. This could not be happening.

It couldn’t. It wasn’t real. But when her wet face hit the air and she gasped for breath, it took only a moment for her to turn toward the growling sounds and see the monster reach Breckon, towering over him. Skies above! “Breck!” “Swim!” He angled himself to avoid the beast’s mouth. “Get help!” Breckon launched his strong shoulder into the beast’s abdomen and they began to grapple, sounds of grunting and snorting carrying over the water. Finally Wyneth snapped from her fear-induced stupor and the instinct of flight kicked in. She couldn’t fight this thing with Breckon, but she could do what he’d commanded: get help. She turned and swam with all her might. She kicked and her arms sliced through the water as if the beast were right behind her. Indeed, she expected to hear the splash of the thing following at any moment, but it never came.

Wyneth hardly heard her fiancé’s strangled screams as he fought for his life on the dock behind her. Breckon was an excellent sailor and soldier. A fearless fighter. He had his knife. The beast was only an animal—no match for her betrothed. He’ll be okay, Wyneth reassured herself with each quick stroke through the water. After swimming nearly a hundred yards, her body was numb when she reached the dock on the other side of the creek. She pulled herself up, panting for air and cursing her wet, heavy garments. Her eyes scanned the water, but it moved at the same calm, slow speed as always. Then she allowed her eyes to seek out the dock beyond.

The great beast was nowhere in sight, and hope rose in her chest. The dock was covered in patches of dark moisture that glinted in the moonlight against the dry wood—a sickening trail of it. All hope vanished as she comprehended what lay at the edge of the wooden planks. In the very place she’d been kissed only moments before, were the remains of her life’s great love. Chapter 2 Paxton Seabolt sat on a wooden stool with his elbows on the beaten plank bar, sipping his ale and listening to the chatter of two excitable lasses at a table behind him. He felt their eyes on his back, but he wasn’t in the mood for flirtations. His thoughts were heavily weighted by one of their own watermen, who’d been killed two nights before by the great beast. The man had worked with his father for years, hauling in oysters and clams. Paxton recalled his husky laugh, which always seemed too deep for his gaunt face and thin body. Other men and women from the village of Cape Creek spilled into the dim pub straight from work, bringing marshy smells of salt water, morose faces, whispering rumored details.

“It killed six others in water towns during the summer months, you know. ” “Old man Pearl said he saw it with his own eyes . said it was a giant creature like nothing he’d ever seen before.” Paxton would doubt that statement if old man Pearl wasn’t as sound and respectable as they come. As a couple of older women bustled in, Paxton caught sight of the notice that’d been nailed to the door the day prior—an official order from the royal army to stay indoors when the sun went down. A night curfew. Apparently the beast was nocturnal. “Did you hear?” asked one of the women to the people in the pub. “They’re sayin’ royal lands were attacked by the beast last night!” “Impossible,” said the barkeep. “It’s fortified.

Nothing can get past that wall or the navy.” “I don’t know how the thing got in, but it killed one of their officers.” The barkeep grabbed a rag and scrubbed a wet spot. “Well, if that’s true, perhaps they’ll finally do something about it.” “Aye,” Paxton agreed gruffly. “Perhaps they’ll finally believe us filthy commoners.” The barkeep glanced at Paxton’s nearly empty glass and filled him another without asking. “How fared the hunting today, Pax?” Paxton shrugged, frustrated he hadn’t seen any deer that day. “Only a rabbit.” “Your mother will surely make something nice with it.

” He set the ale in front of Paxton, then wiped his hands on his dirtied apron. Just as Paxton lifted the full glass to his lips, someone jostled too close and bumped his arm, spilling ale down his chin and the front of his tunic. He glared at the grinning face of his younger brother, Tiern. “Oy, got a little something there, Pax.” Tiern pointed at his older brother’s dripping chin. The girls behind them laughed, and Tiern rewarded them with a smile. “Don’t make me snap you, clumsy twig.” Paxton wiped his chin with the back of his wrist, but Tiern was unperturbed by Paxton’s dark mood. The younger Seabolt brother appeared as put together as always, with his brown hair tied back neatly, in contrast to Paxton’s wavy strands hanging messily around his face. “Everyone’s right shaken up about this monster, aye?” Tiern pulled out a wobbly stool, scraping the hard dirt floor, and sat.

The barkeep peered down at Tiern’s boyish face. “What’re you having today?” “Just water for him,” Paxton said. When Tiern frowned, he continued. “We don’t need you getting silly off one ale.” “I don’t get silly.” The barkeep chuckled and poured water from a jug. “Aye, you do. You start hugging everyone and telling them all the things you love about them.” Tiern pulled a face and took his water, muttering, “It’s no crime to be friendly.” He abruptly set down his water.

“Oh! Did you hear about Mrs. Mallory?” His face turned uncharacteristically serious. Paxton’s ears perked. “Is she in labor?” “Already?” asked the barkeep. “Aye, she is, and it’s too early. Mum was running to their cottage to help when I left.” Paxton’s stomach soured. The barkeep shook his head and looked away. It was never a surprise when pregnancies failed, yet each time felt like a blow to the village. The birthrates in Lochlanach were at an all-time low—only four children under the age of five in their entire village.

It was said to be that way through all of the lands of Eurona, having declined drastically in the past hundred years, though nobody could say why. Many blamed the Lashed Ones, as if it were some sort of magical curse. Paxton knew the truth, but he could not voice his theory without being seen as a Lashed sympathizer. At that moment the oak door to the pub flew open with a bang and Mallory’s husband ran in, his face ashen and his eyes red. People made a quick path for him as he moved to the bar, peering around frantically as if lost. “Mr. Sandbar,” the barkeep said. “What do you need?” “I . alcohol. To stave off infection.

” He looked about wildly, shoulders stooping. “There were two. Twins . boys. Both gone.” The entire bar gasped as a wave of sorrow passed through the room. Mr. Sandbar lifted a shaking hand to his disheveled hair. “Mallory’s bleeding too much.” “Okay, man.

Stay calm for her.” The barkeep filled a cup with clear liquid and thrust it forward. “I can’t pay you right now. I—” “Don’t worry about that. I know you’re good for it.”

.

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