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Chapter 29: A Trail to Victory


Chapter 29: A Trail to Victory


“Thank you, gentlemen!” Acheron flashed a confident smile as he shook the hands of his latest recruits. “If you could just bring your horses and gear to the counting booth outside the southeastern quadrant, the Crown Princess and I will be along to join you shortly!”

The three Lafearian lords nodded, their less-than-enthusiastic expressions confirming the rogue’s earlier assumption. ‘It’s not my fault you didn’t rank high enough to reserve a spot in the party of your choosing. But I’m in no position to turn away a willing bow.’

Acheron wiped his hand against his trousers and sighed as he leaned against his grazing black bay stallion. His demeanor quickly brightened at the sight of his newest acquaintance and drinking companion. “Lord Marco, good morning!”

The foreign nobleman offered a faint grunt and nodded in greeting as he fumbled with the buttons of his jacket, completely ignoring the untied blouse beneath that left most of his chest exposed.

‘I should probably offer him some advice regarding Lafearian social etiquette, given how far he may rise with his cousin’s backing.’

“You missed out on this morning’s excitement,” Acheron commented as he took the reigns from the distracted noble’s hands and double-checked that the blue roan mare’s saddle, reins, and stirrup were all secure.

“Ahh, yes. The execution,” Marco muttered in a matter-of-fact tone. His hazel-blue eyes flicked across the busy grounds as nobles gathered to join their respective hunting groups. “And where is Eleanora?”

“The Crown Princess? Should be along any moment—ah! There she is.” Acheron waved toward the approaching figure of the proud Ventrayna princess, his eyes widening as he took in the masculine outfit she had changed into. “Are trousers customary for Ventrayna nobles?”

The foreigner took his reins back and scoffed. “Women and men in Ventrayna dress how they please. Parents and spouses are free to object—as long as they can survive the ensuing flames.”

“Survive the what?” Acheron blinked hesitantly.

“We are a witch nation,” Marco replied, adjusting the quiver and bow strapped to his saddle. “Rules are determined by the strong. There is no room for the objections of the weak.”

“But you and Eleanora are—”

“Half-witches,” Marco interjected with a note of mockery. “Which is why our families pushed us to leave Ventrayna—to survive.”

Acheron swallowed nervously as the foreign noblemen stepped forward to greet the arriving Crown Princess.

“Cousin,” Eleanora murmured affectionately as she offered Marco her cheek, which he pecked in good humor. “I’m relieved you could join us.”

“Is that Caligo Wine I smell, Elly?” Marco replied with a hint of reproach. His brows narrowed suspiciously as the Crown Princess brushed him off, turning instead to the rogue, who bowed in greeting.

“Viscount Hendrix caught me on my way out,” Eleanora explained, gesturing to Acheron’s future father-in-law, who trailed behind her. “He asked if he might join our hunting group.”

‘Meaning that Percy likely rejected his request.’

“Of course,” Acheron replied diplomatically. “I’m happy to accept any hunter willing to test their skills on our behalf.” He quickly gestured toward the counting table marked with blue flags and ribbons. “If you’d bring your horse and gear just over there, my Lord, we’ll be joining the rest of the group momentarily.”

Lord Hendrix nodded as he scanned the distant gathering of nobles beneath a raised gloved hand. The Viscount turned back to face Acheron and appeared about to speak before the Crown Princess cut him off.

“How many have you managed to recruit?”

“With Viscount Hendrix, I believe we stand at sixteen,” Acheron replied after a quick mental head count. “Your father, Lord Alastair, brought seven other nobles with him.”

“Hmph,” Eleanora smirked as she pulled on her riding gloves. “I knew he wouldn’t let us down. What of the other hunting parties?”

“Lord Percy has a nearly full party with thirty-three registered nobles, while Marquess Borghese’s party filled up last night with forty.”

The Crown Princess winced and then climbed into her saddle. “So, we are the underdogs—as expected.”

“Not quite,” Acheron responded as he and Marco followed suit. “It would seem that Duchess Kirsi has yet to muster more than ten nobles to join her party.”

“What?” Eleanora scoffed as she turned towards the western woods. “How surprising.”

“Indeed, it’s a shame we can’t simply combine our groups together.”

“Your Highness!”

Acheron turned to where two young nobles in hunting attire rode towards them with similar expressions of desperation.

“Please, your Highness. My Lords. Might we join your party?”

The rogue glanced over their well-used, if poorly maintained, short bows, stuffed quivers of mismatch arrows, and brand-new hunting attire, all of which suggested they might be able to hit a stationary target.

‘Well, even if they only get lucky once, that will still increase our chance of winning.’

“Of course, the more, the merrier,” Acheron responded as he held out a hand in greeting to the young noble with chestnut-brown hair and bright ocean-blue eyes. “Lord Acheron Hargreve at your service.”

The noble’s eyes widened slightly in recognition before he hastily seized the rogue’s offered hand. “A pleasure to meet you, my Lord. I am Asher Winslet and this—” he gestured to his comrade, “—is my cousin, Rufous Hearish. We’re both excellent bowmen!”

“Yes, yes. We can make introductions later,” Eleanora interrupted impatiently from where she and Marco waited just ahead. “Let’s take them and go. It looks like the other hunting parties are already heading out.”

“And there’s his Majesty now,” Marco observed, nodding to where Crown Prince Nicholas rode towards the western counting table, with its purple flags, escorted by Captain Beaumont, Prime Minister Attwood, and six royal knights.

A bell tolled from the tower above Gilwren Manor, signaling that half the morning hunt had already passed. Acheron turned his horse after the already departing Crown Princess as they hastened towards their waiting group and huntsman.

‘Eighteen bows against thirty-three and forty. And we got the last pick of the hunting quadrants. At this rate, it will take a miracle for me to win the royal favor.’ The rogue clenched his fists tightly around the reins as he shook away the nagging paranoia that had lingered since waking up in the bed of the Crown Prince’s mistress. ‘I’ve given up drinking and fornicating. I’ve even agreed to marry a woman that hates me. What else must I do to be rid of this guilt?’

While Acheron firmly believed Rosamund would never breathe a word of their indiscretion to anyone, he still found it impossible to feel at ease. The moment his sin was exposed, Nicholas would have him killed, friendship or not.

Wars had started for less.


“Twenty-four is far too many,” Nicholas blurted out as he stared down the four ranks of Bastiallano knights waiting beside the southwestern counting table. “Unless you’re converting half of them into hunters to make up our numbers.”

“Half of them will be responsible for carrying back any quarry we manage to bag today,” Carina explained patiently as Colonel Isaac helped her adjust the fit of the sling for her new crossbow. “The rest will keep a discreet distance behind us at all times.”

“This should be all of us,” Walter commented to their huntsman, Jasper, as he counted the nobles in attendance. “Seven. I’ve never seen a hunting party so large and yet so outnumbered.”

“We stand at eleven, my Lord,” Jasper countered around the sunflower seeds in his mouth. “That is—if you count the Duchess’s four wolves.”

“If they’re as fierce as their Mistress, we might still stand a chance of winning this,” Viscount Gladstone commented with a cheeky grin.

“Fine, let’s get moving. It looks like we’re the last party to head out,” Nicholas grumbled as he circled his stallion around the Duchess’s pretty white mare. “We can’t afford to let Marquess Borghese win this, Lady Kirsi. Especially after going head-to-head with him this morning.”

“Not to worry, your Majesty,” Carina replied neutrally before nudging her mare forward. “The Marquess is about to discover that numbers amount for nothing when there is no prey to be found.”

“What do you mean, your Grace?” Attwood asked hesitantly as he and Beaumont followed behind the Duchess and Crown Prince, who took the lead along the forest trail.

“Let’s just say my wolves have been busy redistributing the wealth of Gilwren Forest into the appropriate quadrants.”

“That—” Walter glanced back at the knights trailing behind them, “—sounds a bit like cheating.”

“I doubt the Marquess will keep quiet about this,” Gladstone commented in agreement. “Especially when he learns about your wolves, your Grace.”

“I doubt any other group is using wolves to hunt,” Nicholas mused worriedly. “But they are a natural predator of Lafeara. Would the Marquess be able to link any unusual activity directly to you?”

The Duchess turned to offer him a confident smirk. “I assure you, your Majesty. No matter how loudly he protests, Borghese will not be able the lay the blame at my feet.”

‘Especially after his daughter was forced to publicly apologize for hurtling accusations at me without proof.’

“Ahha!” The Crown Prince slapped his thigh with a grin of approval, which quickly shifted into a frown as he spun sharply toward the nobles behind them. “Not a word of this to anyone else, my lords.”

Attwood arched a brow, sighed, and nodded in agreement along with Walter and Gladstone.

“How exactly did you redistribute them, Lady Kirsi?” Nicholas pressed curiously as he readied his bow.

“As evenly as I could,” Carina replied honestly. “Though it was easier to drive them east and south, some of them will have wandered into the Crown Princess’s quadrant.”

The Crown Prince scoffed but straightened in his saddle before lowering his bow and reigning in the stallion with a look of stunned surprise. Jasper and Beaumont rode quickly in front of the Crown Prince as the nobles gathered close behind them to take in the sight of six doe and two stags laid out across the trail, each with their head and neck almost completely severed.

“The Huntsman was right. We don’t have seven hunters. We have eleven,” Walter muttered, nervously scanning the forest around them.

“How the hell did you train wolves to do that?” Nicholas blurted out in disbelief as the huntsman dismounted to examine the nearest stag.

“It looks like they were all killed in the last hour or so,” Jasper commented. “They bled out quickly after being nearly decapitated—and then were dragged—or carried here?”

Four Bastiallano knights dismounted and then draped tarps over their horses before hefting the first kills of the Royal Hunt across the saddles.

“Well, after today, there’s no getting around telling Viscount Gilwren about the Duchess’s wolves,” Attwood remarked grimly as he turned away from the grizzly sight of the dangling half-severed heads. “This goes well beyond what a typical hunting hound is capable of.”

“But it doesn’t break the rules,” Carina pointed out as she unhooked her crossbow. A distant howl echoed through the forest at a close distance as a rush of wind swept along the trail. “I would ready your bows, my lords. They’re about to drive fresh quarry our way.”

“At least they saved some for us,” Nicholas growled as he nudged his horse ahead and pulled back on his short bow eagerly. The other lords spaced themselves evenly along the trail while the knights withdrew from the line of fire.

A distant rumbling sound came towards them, like a surging stream, before the first leaping figures of the herd burst through the brush straight ahead. Carina raised her crossbow as Nicholas let loose his arrow. A doe at the head of the throng of twenty-odd dear stumbled and fell. Even at a distance of maybe fifty yards, she could hear the animal’s dying cry before the herd merged around their fallen comrade, swallowing her from view.

Five more arrows flew in quick succession, and four more deer fell. The fifth, a stag, was struck in the front right limb and managed to keep running as the herd turned sharply away from the wall of hunters before them. Carina aimed her crossbow after the limping deer, now less than twenty yards away from her, and squeezed the trigger.

The four-point stag fell as the bolt buried itself just behind the deer’s front left shoulder.

“Well done, your Grace,” Gladstone called out after loosening his second shot.

The Duchess exhaled with relief before reaching into her bag for another bolt. She noticed as she turned that neither Beaumont nor Isaac had moved for their bows but dismissed them from her thoughts as she nocked and loaded her crossbow. Her earlier practice paid off, despite the adrenaline that made her hands shake noticeably. She exhaled in disappointment as the second bolt sailed harmlessly over the already disappearing herd, then took in the myriad of deer that lay dead or dying on the forest floor around them.

As prepared as Carina may have been for the mental image of dead forest creatures, she was not ready for the sound of them dying. One of the doe’s that had been shot poorly now thrashed against a nearby bush, drowning the serenity of the forest in panicked bleating wails.

The animal’s screams tore through Carina’s ears and chest. Guilt and the swirling dark shadows of Kirsi’s memories hammered against her soul as she clutched her crossbow. She sucked in a strained breath as her mind rebelled against the ghostly visage of crimson pleading faces that flashed before her, all of them human.

The white mare skidded sideways nervously as the reins and mane beneath the Duchess’s tightening grip hardened beneath a coat of ice. Carina exhaled forcefully as she adjusted her hold, fighting back the cold clawing through her chest as the looming shadows of the forest spun around her.

The sound of metal digging into flesh brought the deer’s agony to a swift end.

Carina blinked as she refocused on the huntsman, who lowered the doe’s head toward the forest floor. She caught a glimpse of the deep scarlet stain running down the doe’s neck. A surge of relief rushed through her as the pounding in her ears faded. Jasper wiped his hunting blade against the deer’s shoulder, then rose to finish off another two catches that had yet to expire. Silence returned to the forest once more as the other nobles moved in to examine their kills.

“How many is that?” Nicholas called out eagerly as he jumped down from his saddle.

“Looks like eleven, your Majesty,” Attwood replied from his saddle as he scanned the fallen deer. “Not bad for our first excursion.”

“Never seen anything like it,” Gladstone commented in agreement. “They were so focused on running away from the Duchess’s wolves that they nearly ran right through us.”

“Aye, but—where did the wolves go?”

“Perhaps Lady Kirsi has trained them to keep out of sight?”

The Duchess nodded stiffly in response. A glance at her reins confirmed the frost had thawed once her chaotic emotions stabilized.

“Are you all right, cousin?” Walter whispered worriedly as he rode up beside her. “You look a little pale.”

“I’m fine,” Carina replied with a weak attempt at a smile. “I was—caught off guard.”

“Hunting is not a sport for everyone,” Walter replied with a hint of sympathy. “But it is a necessary task. If the deer are left unchecked, they will grow beyond what the forest can sustain, resulting in plundered and ravaged fields and farms. The Royal Hunt is organized to cull their numbers while also providing meat and leather for Lafeara’s soldiers.”

“Yes, you—mentioned that before.”

“Oh! You’re right. I apologize. I give the same speech every year we host the hunt.” Walter scratched his jaw hesitantly as they watched another six Bastiallano Knights prepare their mounts to carry the latest kill back through the forest. “I suppose this must all seem silly and unnecessary to you, but it has been the tradition and honor of the Gilwren family for many generations.”

“I meant no offense and offer no judgment, Lord Bromwell.” The Duchess let out a weary sigh as she brushed her fingers across Viktor’s bracelet, welcoming the comforting chill that numbed the unease left in her chest. “Both venison and leather are highly prized commodities of our kingdom. I could no sooner criticize you than any other noble raising cattle and livestock to be butchered for food and raw materials.”

The nobleman chuckled as he pulled a pinch of tobacco from his belt pouch and then placed it between his lip and gum. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re far too rational for your age?”

A faint smirk tugged at Carina’s lips. “Thank you for the compliment.”

“That’s four for Gladstone and three for Walter,” Nicholas tallied out as the huntsman retrieved the marked arrows from the fallen deer. “Two for myself—two and a half if you count the stag Lady Kirsi help me finish off—and one for the Prime Minister and Duchess.”

“I think you mean nine for the Duchess, your Majesty,” Jasper commented as he returned the arrows to the bowmen. “Apologies, your Grace. I’m afraid your bolt was bent on impact.”

The Duchess nodded absently as she watched the huntsman clean his hunting knife on a strip of cloth before returning it to his belt. As hard as she tried not to think about the dying doe, the animal’s screams still echoed in her ears.

“Well, yes. If we count the eight killed by Lady Kirsi’s wolves—I suppose that puts the Duchess in the lead with nine kills,” Nicholas grumbled.

“I’ll have to up my game,” Gladstone commented with a nod to the Duchess. “If her Grace becomes any more proficient with that crossbow, I won’t stand a chance of catching up.”

“And what about you two?” The Crown Prince demanded, turning on Beaumont and Isaac. “Did either of you even try to take a shot?”

The Colonel glanced over at the silent Knight Captain, then offered the young monarch a shrug. “A subordinate should never outshine their superior, your Majesty.”

Beaumont’s stony expression twitched with amusement while Nicholas muttered something unintelligible before whipping around to reclaim his reins from Attwood.


By the time the third bell tolled the mid-day hour, Jasper had turned the hunting group around to confirm their kill count and take a brief rest from the rising heat. For the second time that day, Carina was relieved that Hana and Ivy had chosen to remain at the Manor. She couldn’t imagine either of them enduring the more gruesome aspects of hunting, much less the heat and discomfort of tracking through a forest for half a day.

She was also beginning to envy Eleanora’s choice of wardrobe. Beneath the silver riding jacket, full-length dress, corset, petticoat, chemise, and stockings, Carina was obliged to cool herself down with ice magic repeatedly to keep from fainting.

Nearly every noble, aside from the Prime Minister, had shed their jacket to alleviate the discomfort of the climbing temperature. To avoid making the men uncomfortable or awkward, the Duchess had chosen to ride ahead of the group with their huntsman, who, like herself, remained surprisingly cool and refreshed despite the heat.

“Your Grace appeared to lose interest in the hunt,” Jasper observed conversationally as he lifted a branch that ran across the path for her to ride beneath.

“I’m still far too inexperienced to inflict unnecessary suffering on an innocent animal,” Carina replied honestly as she leaned over her saddle and rode past.

“You can practice more while we’re on break if you like.”

The Duchess made no comment as the Huntsman remained at his post until one of the knights came to relieve him. Before killing her first deer, she had viewed the contest as an opportunity to hone her skills with moving targets. While that remained her goal, Carina needed time to adjust to the reality of what it cost.

‘Honestly, I’m surprised Kirsi didn’t rip me apart for hesitating to finish the animal off myself.’

Jasper soon rejoined her, correcting the Duchess as she paused before two split paths.

“This way, your Grace. The north path leads towards the next hunting quadrant.”

‘I know.’ Carina nodded as she nudged her white mare behind him. ‘Lumi has kept close watch over me since we entered the forest.’

The Duchess’s ice-blue eyes narrowed as she caught a strangely nostalgic whiff of iodine from the huntsman. Tapping the mare with her heels, she leaned in closer, picking up notes of cedarwood, pine, and something that brought to mind the memory of Kirsi’s life in the castle by the sea.

‘If I didn’t know any better….’

Jasper turned towards her with an inquiring brow that Carina quickly answered with a polite smile as she leaned back, fanning her cheeks and neck.

“We’re nearly there, your Grace.”

The Duchess observed the huntsman’s unguarded back curiously but decided to keep her thoughts to herself. Right now, all she wanted was a good hour away from the scent of blood, sweating men, and the discomfort of her saddle.


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