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Chapter 31: The King’s Stag

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Chapter 31: The King’s Stag

 

The gathered nobles greeted Viscount Gilwren’s arrival with mingled impatience and anticipation. Carina took her seat at the same table as before, where she was joined by her cousin, Walter Bromwell and Viscount Gladstone. A surly-looking middle-aged huntsman with a rather wispy beard soon joined them.  He offered the Duchess a stiff bow, then took a seat at the end of the table without comment.

“I got a quick look at the other groups’ turn-ins,” Walter whispered as a steward placed a tray of fresh drinks on their table. “Would you believe it? Marquess Borghese’s cart was practically empty.”

“No wonder he looks like someone took a piss in his cup,” Gladstone chuckled with a playful grin before jolting in realization. “Ah, forgive me, your Grace.”

The Duchess shook her head dismissively as she glanced over her shoulder to where Earl Hawthorn’s hunting group appeared to be in high spirits as they reveled in the depressive cloud that hung over the members of the Royal Party.

Percy caught her glance and raised his drink in the ice witch’s direction with a suggestive nod of either recognition or appreciation.

‘He knows about my wolves now, so it’s likely he’s figured out that I might have had a part to play in Borghese’s misfortune.’

Carina returned the nod, then shifted her gaze to the host’s table, where Viscount Gilwren rang a small bell to silence the waiting nobles.

“Lords and Ladies, I’ll give you a brief update so that you may all get back to preparing for the afternoon hunt,” Rykard announced as he tapped the four pages laid out in front of him. “The numbers turned in this morning were surprising, to say the least. To give you a better picture, on average, a typical hunting group brings in roughly 12 deer per quarter. Some of you were clearly fortunate while others—” his gaze drifted to where Borghese gripped a pulverized pear in his fist, “—ahem. Then just as a refresher, the point system is as follows. Deer are worth 5 points each. Boars are worth 7 points. Small animals such as rabbits, squirrels, and quail are worth 2 points. Foxes are worth 3 points, and wolves—” The Viscount’s eyes flicked towards the Duchess’s table “—are worth 8 points.”

“Odd,” Gladstone muttered uneasily. “Wolves normally aren’t included.”

“What about bears? What are they worth?” Acheron called out hesitantly.

Viscount Gilwren furrowed his brow as he glanced from the Prime Minister to his son. “It is very rare for a bear to be sighted within Gilwren’s territory. They tend to remain close to the border of Fog Tooth Mountain. But in the past, when bears were captured and released for the hunt, they were valued at fifteen points. Unfortunately, that tradition has died out since hostilities broke out between Lafeara and Tharyn.”

“Not to mention, it’s damn risky for inexperienced hunters,” Walter muttered with a nod of agreement.

“Now,” Rykard continued as he spread the pages out, “As for the groups ranking, as of this morning, first place goes to—Earl Percy Hawthorne!”

A quick round of applause filled the room as the Noble Faction lifted their drinks and cheered.

“Lord Percy brought back an impressive amount of thirty-two deer, six foxes, eight rabbits, and five quail for a total of 204 points.”

“Damn,” Gladstone muttered as he turned to offer the group behind them a brief applause. “Makes you wonder if Lord Percy has more than a few hunting falcons up his sleeve.”

Carina clenched her jaw and lifted her drink without comment. With a royal favor as the prize, she had expected each group to bend the rules where they could, if not break outright them, which was why she had brought Lumi along to give them an advantage.

‘Perhaps I should have herded all the deer from Marquess Borghese’s quadrat into ours after all.’

“In second place was her Grace, Lady Kirsi Valda, with a total of 141 points.”

The Duchess blinked in surprise as the Noble Faction applauded her small group with surprising enthusiasm. She turned awkwardly to offer them a nod of gratitude as Lord Rykard continued.

“In third place, Lord Acheron Hargreve with sixty-three points. And finally, in last place, Marquess Gladstone with—fourteen points.”

A brief and awkwardly tense silence followed as Viscount Gilwren turned to write the final numbers on the chalkboard placed at the back of the royal platform. The first to break the tension as Marquess Borghese glared murderously around the room was none other than the Earl of Hawthorn himself, whose quiet but mocking snort of laughter set off the building resentment of the Royal Part like a match set to a pile of dry tinder.

❆❆❆❆❆

“Goodness, what a fascinating morning it’s been,” Nicholas chuckled as the group returned to the southwestern woods. “I don’t think I’ve seen Borghese this worked up since my engagement to Eleanora.”

“What happened to our huntsman?” Gladstone inquired with a nod towards the beefy new huntsman that trailed slowly behind them.

“Ah.” The Crown Prince glanced at the sullen Duchess who rode silently ahead of them. “It seems that Viscount Gilwren took the news regarding Lady Kirsi’s wolves poorly. Our previous huntsman was fired on the spot.”

“That seems harsh,” Gladstone muttered. “Fellow seemed capable enough.”

“The Viscount might have been more forgiving had Jasper been with us longer,” Walter commented, looking disheartened nonetheless. “But keeping secrets from the man who pays you after only a month of service was probably less than wise.”

“Weren’t we the ones who asked him to keep it a secret, though,” Attwood pointed out. “Surely a commoner would be hard-pressed to refuse a request from the Crown Prince, regardless of what his Master might say.”

“Never mind that now,” Nicholas interjected dismissively. “The Duchess’s knights are looking for him as we speak, so I’m certain things will turn out all right.”

“Ahh, you beat me to it then, Lady Kirsi,” Gladestone called out to the silent Duchess, whose gaze remained distractedly focused on the branches above them.

“Perhaps the new huntsman ought to introduce himself?” Attwood suggested with a glance over his shoulder. “If he can manage to catch up to us.”

“Harry,” Walter barked out as he reigned in his mount to wait. “Could you pick up the pace? We want to take first place, not fall further behind.”

Harry glowered in their direction, then spat out his tobacco before nudging his mare into a faster gait. “I didn’t think you’d need my help navigating the trails, my Lord.”

“Perhaps not, but I can’t exactly leave you behind when we need you to confirm our kills.”

“Aye, fair enough. Might I suggest we head further south, my lords?”

“That’s where we were this morning,” Gladstone replied. “I doubt the deer will have hung around after taking such heavy losses.”

“Then, the northern trails?”

“No,” Lady Kirsi interrupted as she turned around to face them. “We should head to the stream in the western area.”

Harry’s expression soured as he turned to face the Duchess. “Forgive me—your Grace. But I know these woods like the back of my hand.”

“The day has grown progressively hotter, and we’ve spooked whatever herds were to the south. The stream and main water source for this quadrant lies to the west, does it not?”

“Lady Kirsi,” Nicholas interrupted hesitantly as their huntsman’s face grew redder with apparent irritation. “Perhaps we should try—”

“Do you trust me, your Majesty?”

The Crown Prince blinked beneath the Duchess’s sudden forcefulness. “Of course, my Lady, but when it comes to knowledge and experience in these matters.”

Kirsi’s left brow twitched with annoyance as her ice-blue eyes narrowed with impatience. “And would you attribute our success this morning to either my lack of knowledge or experience?”

“Every beginner thinks luck is on their side,” Harry snorted dismissively, already nudging his horse along the trail around them. “There’s a nice grazing spot of dogwood trees and maples up north the deer like to snack on and nap under, especially in the hotter hours of the day. That is what my experience and knowledge tell me—my Lords.”

Nicholas glanced from the departing huntsman’s back to Kirsi’s confident, almost insistent glare, then turned his gaze to the Prime Minister. “What do you think?”

“I think we should continue to trust the Duchess—and her wolves,” Attwood responded without hesitation.

‘A competent monarch must demonstrate trust in those who have shown their capabilities.’ The Crown Prince smiled at the Prime Minister’s teachings and nodded his understanding. “Lord Bromwell, would you mind guiding us in the direction of the western stream?”

“But—your Majesty!” Harry protested with an expression of utter shock.

“Certainly, your Majesty,” Walter cut in with a warning glare in the huntsman’s direction. “I can’t wait to see what surprise the Duchess’s wolves have for us.”

❆❆❆❆❆

At Lady Kirsi’s insistence, the group separated and approached the stream from opposite sides while leaving the knights at a discrete distance. Nicholas crept behind the crouching Duchess, who demonstrated remarkable subtility and agility as she stalked through the dense forest with carefully muffled steps. Colonel Isaac moved stiffly at her side, burdened beneath his armor and the heavy dark cape his Mistress had insisted on him wearing.

“Looks like deer,” Gladstone whispered as he brushed loose leaves from a fresh set of tracks. “About three from the looks of it.”

“We should be able to manage that,” Nicholas replied confidently. “How far are we from the stream, Lord Bromwell?”

“It should be just ahead, your Majesty,” Walter answered with a hushed breath.

The Duchess turned and shushed them silently before motioning for the Crown Prince to join her.

‘How the devil does she know where she’s going?’ Nicholas wandered as he moved with painstaking care behind her.

They tracked forward for another ten minutes in sweltering silence before the sound of running water reached his ears. The sweating Crown Prince was relieved that the wind was in their favor. When Kirsi motioned for him to ready his arrow, he complied silently. After a few more careful steps, the Duchess pressed herself against a yellow birch tree before nodding to the stream up ahead.

Anticipation filled Nicholas as he took cover behind the nearest white pine and peered toward the glittering surface of running water. For a few moments, he saw nothing as the harsh glare of sunlight on the open embankment burned against his vision, but then—the creature came into view.

The white stag was magnificent and massive in size. At first glance, the creature’s silver antlers, which glinted above the shallow edge of the stream, appeared to number close to twenty.  Two young bucks followed behind the majestic stag, grazing lazily on the dense clusters of grass and fallen acorns beneath the twisted oaks that offered shade nearby.

Nicholas blinked slowly, his grip on the bowstring trembling as he took in the living, breathing forest monarch that stood before him. Gratitude and panic welled up in his chest as the prince turned his frantic hazel-blue eyes to the Duchess, who signaled to the others behind them to stay back. When her gaze returned to the prince, Kirsi smiled and nodded as if granting permission to claim his prize.

‘If I miss this shot—’ Nicholas swallowed and turned back to face the Silver Stag, who raised its head inquisitively as it sniffed the breeze. ‘No. Now is not the time for doubt. I can’t miss. I am Lafeara’s next King. This—is my birthright.’

With steady patience, he pulled back his arrow and raised the bow before swinging around the tree to take aim. The stag’s head whipped in his direction, its dark red eyes piercing through the forest shadows, alarm shifting through the beast’s features as its nostrils flared and the broad muscles of its body tensed to bolt.

‘Now!’ Nicholas’s mind screamed as he exhaled and released the arrow.

The forest monarch lurched into a run, but its footing faltered on the wet stones of the shallows. The brief but deadly hesitation gave the Crown Prince’s arrow a chance to find its mark. The stag’s bellow of pain echoed through the trees around them. Nicholas grabbed another arrow and rushed forward, anxious to ensure that his quarry would not escape. The white stag clambered onto the shore, blood streaming down its snow-white coat from the arrow lodged between its rib cage and front leg before collapsing beneath the mossy embankment.

The two young bucks stared at their fallen monarch for a moment in stunned silence, then bolted away, clearing the steep embankment easily before they vanished from view.

Nicholas paid them no mind. He eased the tension on his string as he waded through the shallow stream toward his prize. The fallen forest monarch heaved a few more struggled breaths as its ruby eyes blinked sluggishly against the pain of its failing heart. For a moment, the majestic stag seemed to look right at him before all signs of life faded from its features.

It was a strange form of recognition that brought tears to Nicholas’s eyes as he knelt and placed his gloved right hand on the stag’s neck before whispering, “Thank you.”

❆❆❆❆❆

“Congratulations, your Majesty,” Carina called out as Isaac carried the Duchess across the stream.

“The Silver Stag!” Gladstone whispered reverently as he circled the beast, holding onto the roots protruding through the embankment as he moved around the Crown Prince’s prize. “Eighteen points. He’s been around a while, then.”

“Your Majesty is incredibly fortunate,” Walter agreed with an acknowledging nod in the Duchess’s direction as the Colonel set her down on the shore.

“And to think we might have missed it if we followed the huntsman’s experience.”

Nicholas laughed dryly, then rose to his feet and turned. “Lady Kirsi—I’ll never doubt you again.”

Carina scoffed quietly but bowed her head in thanks all the same. “I am honored to have witnessed your successful hunt, your Majesty.”

The Crown Prince’s tense features broke into a boyish grin as he walked towards her and wrapped the startled Duchess in a sudden, tight hug. “I will never forget this day. Royal Favor be damned, you may ask anything of me now, Lady Kirsi, and I would happily grant it!”

“Your Majesty!” Attwood’s voice came from the embankment above them as the remaining half of their group appeared. “Good god is that—”

“I could hang up my bow now without regret if I wished!” Nicholas replied, patting the Duchess’s shoulder before he moved to assist the Prime Minister down the loose soil and roots.

“My Prince—your Majesty!” Attwood embraced him, clapping the jubilant hunter’s back in apparent joy. “I can hardly believe it—but of course—you finally have your own trophy to hang in Peony Palace. The first of many, I’m sure.”

“It’s going right above my bed! No, let’s put it in the throne room!”

“We should get the Crown Prince’s prize back to Gilwren first,” Walter replied with a glance to the Duchess. “I think it’s safe to summon the knights now.”

Carina nodded and gave Isaac the go-ahead. The Colonel blew on his short brass horn, scattering a few birds from the trees nearby as the note rang out in the forest around them.

The knights of Bastiallano moved the fallen forest monarch with utmost care across the stream and up the embankment while the Crown Prince fussed and admonished them for even the slightest jarring movement. An extra tarp was draped over the beast at his insistence to prevent any further damage to the deer’s hide or antlers.

“I shall be returning, Lady Kirsi,” Nicolas announced as the royal knights brought in his horse along with Captain Beaumont’s dappled gray gelding. “It’s customary for the ruling monarch to skin the Silver Stag personally. And the sooner, the better.”

“Of course, your Majesty,” Carina replied with a demur curtsey. “I shall endeavor to increase our lead in the meanwhile.”

“I think it best that I return with the Crown Prince,” Attwood added with an apologetic smile as he waded across the stream to join the Crown Prince. “To ensure the Viscount’s staff are prepared to handle everything related to processing the King’s Stag. We shall have a pair of leather boots made for your coronation, your Majesty!”

The Duchess nodded her understanding as she moved to the edge of the stream, dismissing Lumi’s shards who watched nearby and sending them off to find more deer.

“They’ll need a huntsman to guide them back,” Walter stated promptly as he turned to Harry, who glowered at the Duchess from the top of the embankment. “I think it would be best if you went with his Majesty.”

“My Lord,” Harry protested as he slid down the embankment. “You know that I must witness and confirm each kill. Unless you mean to halt the hunt until I return.”

“Are you saying the Viscount holds so little faith in me that he would not trust my judgment on the matter?”

The huntsman huffed out an impatient sigh, shaking the strands of his whispy beard. “You are a contestant, my Lord. We both know that when it comes to these matters, Lord Rykard prefers to avoid even a whiff of suspicion regarding the fairness of this competition.”

“Let him stay,” Gladstone interrupted with a placating smile. “We’ll stick to the nearby area until you return, Lord Bromwell.”

Walter drew in a breath to protest, then sighed as he turned to the Duchess. “If he does or says anything inappropriate—”

“It’s nothing I can’t handle,” Carina replied with faint amusement.

“Of course.” Walter glanced towards Colonel Isaac, then offered the Duchess his arm. “Shall I carry you across the stream, your Grace? Since I’m headed that way?”

“Go,” Carina retorted with a laugh. “Before his Majesty leaves without you.”

“I’ll be back as quick as I can.” The carefree noble waved as he turned and trudged through the stream to where the Crown Prince and Prime Minister had already mounted their horses.

“Send half our remaining knights back with Nicholas,” Carina murmured to the Colonel beside her. “Have them inform Captain Silas of the change in plans. He may use whatever means necessary to ensure the Crown Prince’s safety until we return.”

“Even with help, the Crown Prince will probably take an hour or two to skin that beast,” Isaac replied with quiet cynicism as he signaled to one of the Bastiallano knights beside them.

The Duchess raised her hand to shield her eye as she gazed after the already departing group of royal knights mixed with half of her own that trailed behind the Crown Prince and his party. Captain Beaumont turned in his saddle and met her gaze briefly, with a curious expression, before Nicholas kicked his stallion into a gallop, eager to return to Gilwren Manor. The glittering armor of the knights soon vanished behind the dull gray and brown of the forest trees.

‘Is it me, or did the Captain look worried for some reason?’

“Well then,” Harry muttered as he scratched his chin. “Shall we see what those wolves of yours can do, your Grace?”

The Duchess glanced at the surly man warily, then shifted her focus to Lumi’s scattered shards, one of which reported a small group of wild boars not too far from the stream. When her vision sharpened back into focus on the bloodstained shoreline, she found the huntsman’s suspicious gaze fixated on her.

‘I’m beginning to think there’s a reason why Bromwell didn’t want to leave him behind.’

“Shall we explore a bit more to the west?” Carina suggested before taking Isaac’s offered hand. The Colonel lifted her quickly, then carried his small Mistress across the stream to where their horses waited.

“For someone who has never set foot in Gilwren before, my Lady seems very familiar with the landscape of the forest?” Harry remarked as he trudged through the water behind them.

“Not at all. Our previous huntsman did an admiral job showing us the lay of the land.”

“Ha! I grew up on these lands. I know every nest, den, breeding hole, and grazing ground in these woods.”

The Duchess murmured her thanks to the Colonel as Isaac set her down on the opposite side of the stream, then turned to face the chatty huntsman. “Does that knowledge extend to the borders of Gilwren?”

“Certainly, your Grace.”

Carina smiled as she adjusted her gloves before retaking her saddle. “Then—if you had to guess the best means by which a small unit of mercenaries or assassins might approach this quadrant or Gilwren Manor—what would it be?”

The huntsman went deathly pale as he gazed up at her, mouth agape. “Your Grace—how could I—I’ve no knowledge of such things.”

“But you know the lay of the land,” Carina countered as she stroked the tired mare’s neck. “Surely you would know the best paths such a force could use that would provide the best possible cover under darkness.”

“I—I’m afraid there are many paths that lead through the forests, but without a guide—”

The Duchess’s gaze narrowed in on the huntsman as his stumbled reply offered sudden clarity. Even with five hundred knights surrounding Gilwren Forest, they couldn’t cover every inch.

‘Still getting past the border patrols and then finding their way through the forest to the Crown Prince undetected. Unless they had a knowledgeable guide, their chances of success are slim.’

“Vesper River,” Harry muttered, clasping his hands anxiously. “It runs through the northwestern quadrant, but every stream in Gilwren leads back to it. Even in the dark, it’s not hard to find your way if you follow the river.”

‘And the northwestern quadrant belongs to Marquess Borghese’s hunting party. It would be an easy task for him to turn a blind eye or steer his people away from the river when necessary.’

Carina turned quickly to Colonel Isaac. “Send a message to Lieutenant Quinn to increase security on both ends of Vesper River. We need eyes on them night and day.”

❆❆❆❆❆

Beneath the bubbling flowing water of the stream, the chunks of ice magic that had slowed the Silver Stag’s escape broke free from the algae-covered rocks and flowed away with the fading traces of the forest monarch’s blood. A sudden hush fell as a curtain of swaying branches and limbs rose above the receding sound of the departing hunters.

A low rattle emerged as the stones and pebbles along the shoreline trembled. The clear waters turned murky with mud that billowed up from the bed of the stream. All along the embankments, trees groaned as roots strained and snapped beneath the giant white bones, similar in size to a mammoth’s tusks, that pierced through the loosened soil.

First, a hundred, then a thousand similarly curved bones emerged through the forest soil. The trees too close to the stream toppled and crashed against the ground as the monstrous skeletal figure shook itself free. The pale white rib bones vibrated as they absorbed the forest monarch’s blood and the remaining traces of Carina’s ice magic.

The churning water surged against the embankments. The current twisted then reversed direction, traveling along the skeletal figure that spread 200 feet down the narrowing rivulet to a dried-up river bed where it swirled into a whirlpool of blackened water. Two glowing green eyes glimmered from the murky depths beneath the leaves, cones, and pines that rocked and danced along the chaotic current.

The pale white bones of a colossus horned, triangular skull burst through the surface as the muddy water surged away, then turned back to its original course.

A host of voices hissed around a tongue of blackened roots that slithered through a pair of sharply curved fangs. “At last, Daughter of the Deceiver—you have returned.”

The ancient remnant rolled onto its belly, gathering stone, broken boulders, mud, and water to create a hardened exterior armor. It drained the narrow ravine as it slithered up the embankment to begin its hunt.

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