Chapter 41: The Cornered Boar


Heat and sweat coated Cooper’s body like a burning fever. His lungs and legs ached with exertion that bled slowly into numbness. The scout sergeant’s blurred vision hampered his progress as the shadows of leaves and trees swayed before him in a nauseating dance. The scorching burns left by Malachi’s sword continued their myriad of pain down his back and left shoulder. Every taunting, jostling step threatened to stretch and rip the seared flesh further, but he couldn’t stop—couldn’t risk losing momentum—or he might die out here before completing his mission.

The sun’s position was visible through the rare open patches of the canopy above the winding path he followed. By now, the nobles would have begun the morning hunt, which meant he was just as likely to run into either friend or foe, depending on which quadrant those witches had dropped him in.

‘I should have heard the morning bell. I must be further from Gilwren Manor than I originally thought. At least three to five miles. Damn it. If those witches wanted to help, they should have left me somewhere closer.’

Beneath the dense cover of Gilwren’s domain, it became difficult to keep track of which direction the east-rising sun lay in. After what felt like ages of blurred confusion, following the ever-winding and occasionally cross-splitting path, Cooper could only rely on the occasional tree moss, which grew on the north-facing bark, to correct his heading.

His progress stumbled to a halt when he was forced to clear a tree that had fallen in the storm the preceding night but otherwise remained steady, safe for a brief pause when he happened upon a babbling creek which he used to quench his thirst and burning throat before continuing his journey.

‘How long has it been, an hour, maybe more? What if those witches already went after the rest of my men? If I could just find some flint or a fire, then I could—’

The sergeant tumbled down the abruptly sloping path, which led into an unexpected clearing with a small fireplace. He glanced around hesitantly, déjà vu sharpening into clarity as he spotted the hunting hut dug into the earth beneath the roots of a toppled oak.

‘If they keep emergency supplies here, then—I might find something to light the signal!’

With feverish hope, Cooper dragged his quivering legs towards the door and flung it open. A somewhat dusty small room appeared with a simple table tucked into the corner with two chairs, a hammock and pillow, and, more importantly, several neatly stacked boxes of supplies. He quickly lined the boxes up along the floor, wincing as the scorched skin along his back stretched painfully with each lift.

‘I didn’t get away completely unscathed. But at least I have medicine and bandages to treat the burn.’

In the third box, the sergeant found a small wool bag with individually wrapped sticks of steel and flint.

“Finally,” Cooper whispered hoarsely, stumbling upright as he carried the tools outside. He gathered fistfuls of dry leaves for tinder from around the shed and carried them over to a flat rock by the campfire. A few moments later, the scout succeeded in starting a small fire more than sufficient to light the fuse of the signal flare. The sergeant carried the fragile flame over to the three rocks holding the flare upright on the ground. A few encouraging puffs of air and the fuse ignited, prompting Cooper to retreat to a safe distance.

The hissing flame coiled along the fuse until it reached the gunpowder packed at the bottom of the flare, launching it toward the sky. Even in the bright morning light, the spiraling red blaze burned like a star as it emitted a sharp whistle, climbing towards the soft blue horizon until it erupted with a final burst of red smoke.

‘If I had more than one to use, I could be certain, but—this will have to do for now.’

Fatigue hit him as the morning breeze rolled the red smoke over the towering emerald woodland. Cooper held his breath as he waited a few moments to see if a return signal would be lit but heard nothing as the wind rushed through the branches around him, knocking over one of the rocks placed on the flat surface.

‘I can’t lose hope. I still have a mission to finish.’

The sergeant returned to the hunt for medicine and water, only to realize he had no way to assess, let alone treat his injury.

‘Nevermind then. Better keep moving.’

He found a flask filled with stagnant water, shoved in some pain-numbing herbs, and gave it a quick shake with his good arm before guzzling it down greedily. The pounding hammer inside his skull overlapped with an oddly distorted echo that grew louder as the drumming sound of hooves approached.

‘The flare must have caught the attention of the hunters in this quadrant.’

Cooper coughed hoarsely as the numbing herbs tingled against his throat. He tossed the empty flask into the crate, scanning the room until he found a sheathed hunting knife hung on the wall behind the door. He grabbed it, tucking the blade into his belt as he took two cautious steps across the threshold.

‘If I’m north of Gilwren Manor. That means I’m either in the Duchess’s quadrant or—’

The sergeant clenched his fists as the first riders appeared, bearing the yellow scarves of Marquess Borghese’s hunting party.

‘Damn it. I’ll take mortals over witches any day, but I’m in no condition to face these numbers.’

A group of at least ten nobles and their stewards circled around the hunting hut, studying the bedraggled scout with wary glares as the last tendrils of red smoke faded overhead.

“What have we here?” The first noble commented darkly. “A poacher or a saboteur?”

“Neither, my lord,” Cooper countered, “I am a knight of Bastiallano.” He pushed back the tattered remains of his camouflage poncho to reveal the tunic beneath that carried the Duchy’s sigil.

“Even more suspicious,” the noble retorted with a snort. “Why would one of the half-blood’s men be this deep inside our quadrant—unless you were up to no good?”

“I’m afraid I got turned around in the forest on my way back to camp,” Cooper explained patiently, sticking as closely to the truth as possible. “The forest looks the same no matter which quadrant you’re standing in.”

“That may be, but there are flags lining the borders to prevent competitors from wandering into each others territory.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, my Lord. I did not see any flags on my way here. Perhaps the storm last night loosened some of them from the trees.”

“What is it that you’re wearing?” Another noble interrupted curiously. “You look like a wood nymph beneath all those shrubs.”

“A drowned wood nymph,” sniggered another.

“The nearest river is miles from here—” The first noble interjected sharply. “By chance, did your wanderings take you close to the border of Gilwren Forest?”

‘So even Borghese’s supporters know about the Shadow Army’s movements.’

“I stumbled my way into a shallow creek half a mile back,” Cooper lied smoothly. “I apologize if I have interrupted your morning pursuits in any way. If I could borrow a horse and a compass to guide me back to the Manor—”

The sergeant’s attempt to misdirect their attention was interrupted by the arrival of two more nobles, whom Cooper recognized immediately with growing dread.

Marquess Borghese and Earl Coldwell reigned in their horses on either side of the campfire, where the scorch marks of the scout’s flare were still visible.

“What is one of the bitch’s dogs doing in my forest?” Borghese snarled as he leveled his crossbow at the scout’s head.

“He claims he got lost,” answered the noble who had interrogated the scout earlier. “Seems to be all alone.”

“I mean no harm, my lords,” Cooper interjected, raising his hands in an attempt to placate them.

“You set off that noisy flare in the middle of my hunt, frightening off what little deer we’ve been lucky to set eyes on and then claim you’ve done no harm?!”

“My Lord,” Coldwell interrupted as he nudged his mare around the Marquess. “He might be one of the three spies the Lieutenant warned us about earlier.”

‘Damn it. It looks like that traitorous Royal Knight made it back safely.’

“Ahh. What a shame then,” Borghese growled as he leveled the crossbow at the scout’s chest. “It seems we’ll have to add another casualty to this year’s hunt.”

“Given how he’s dressed, we can hardly be blamed for mistaking him for an animal,” the first noble commented in silent agreement. “We’re all still on edge after yesterday’s bear attack. Why not have one of the younger nobles do it?”

Cooper felt his blood run cold as the nobles began arguing over who would shoot him down. ‘I can buy a little time if I manage to barricade myself inside the hut. But at this distance, the Marquess isn’t likely to miss.’

“My Lords!” An anxious voice ended the quarrel as the party’s huntsman appeared. A young man of perhaps twenty years stepped forward. He possessed a youthful face, which had yet to reach maturity, framed by a thin, scruffy beard beneath a pair of sharp blue eyes that darted nervously over the unusual scene before him. “This hut is a sanctuary for any who become lost in Gilwren Forest. To shoot this man is to commit murder!”

“Keep your mouth shut, boy,” one of the older nobles snapped while the rest laughed at the young man’s naivety. “Unless you care to be strung up and skinned like a deer.”

The huntsman’s face flushed with anger, even as fear flickered behind his confused expression. “Your threats will not silence me. If you insist on committing murder within Gilwren Territory, then you had better be prepared to face the cons—”

Cooper winced as an ash-blonde nobleman slammed his riding cane against the back of the huntsman’s skull, knocking the young man from his saddle onto the forest floor. The nobles watched in quiet surprise as the attacker dismounted, nudging the huntsman with his boot to confirm that he was unconscious.

“Who the devil are you?” Borghese growled, his attention momentarily diverted by the young nobleman’s action.

“That would be Lord Asher Winslet, son of Baron Frederick Winslet,” Coldwell supplied as he studied the future baron approvingly. “It would appear that Lord Asher has inherited his father’s perception and capability.”

“Pardon me for overstepping, my lords,” Asher responded with a quick bow. “I merely thought it best to avoid the possibility of having a hostile witness testify against you.”

“He’s right,” commented the first noble. “Given how Viscount Gilwren protected the half-blood during yesterday’s farce of a trial.”

“Thank you, Viscount Kendall, for that insightful comment,” Borghese remarked with pointed cynicism. “I am well aware of where Lord Rykard’s loyalty lies.” The Marquess eyed the young nobleman with a considering gaze. “But your earlier suggestion does hold merit. Lord Asher, perhaps you have a suggestion for how we should deal with this saboteur?”

Cooper inched back towards the hut door, taking advantage of the small window the brave but naive huntsman had given him. The hair on the back of his neck prickled as the Marquess’s attention whipped in his direction. With no time to hesitate, the sergeant spun on his heel and lunged for safety.

His heart stopped the moment he heard the bolt snap free. A chill ran down his spine as the missile whistled through the breeze, and a sharp stab of pain exploded against his left hip, knocking Cooper off balance as his left leg locked up before collapsing beneath him. Instinct made him dive forward. His right shoulder clipped against the side of the narrow hut doorframe, altering the direction of his fall, and he crashed against the laid-out boxes of supplies.

Cooper bit back a scream as the cross bolt snapped beneath his weight. Pain surged up his spine, nearly paralyzing him. He blinked beneath the fog of nauseating agony, conscious of the adrenaline bleeding out of his numb, quivering limbs. A surge of hopelessness welled up at the back of his throat before Cooper snapped his attention back to the present. The sergeant gritted his teeth, turned his head, and kicked the door closed with his right leg, then glared at the unbolted latch that clanged mockingly against the wood panel frame, well out of reach.

Each momentary breath of clarity soon drowned beneath the current of pain and weakness. Every struggling, awkward movement twisted the broken end of the bolt deeper into his bloody hip. The futility of his position stared down at Cooper as the door banged open to reveal the young nobleman and the Marquess, who aimed a flintlock pistol at the pale, panting scout.

“What a mess you’ve made,” Borghese commented as he kicked a supply box out of his way. “How are we supposed to frame this as an accident if we have to shoot you twice?”

Cooper remained silent, with his jaw clenched in pain and frustration. His fingers grazed the hunting knife still tucked into his belt. Even with his blurred vision, he couldn’t miss at this distance, but he needed to hit a vital artery or a clean headshot to take the Marquess down.

‘The least I can do is avenge Davis and Anderson before I die.’

The sergeant gripped the knife hilt tightly as Borghese lowered the pistol, then turned and offered it to the young nobleman. “Handle it quickly, Lord Asher. I’ll deal with the rest.”

“But—muskets aren’t allowed in Gilwren—”

“Whose to say his body will be found,” Borghese interrupted with a faint sneer. “I swore I’d put at least one of those bitches wolves in the ground today—this dog will more than suffice.”

Cooper groaned in frustration as Asher accepted the pistol and stepped between the sergeant and his target. The sergeant eyed the young nobleman, who seemed ill at ease with the task he’d been given. “You should think this through,” Cooper growled out through clenched teeth. “Making an enemy of the Duchess—”

“Spare me your empty threats,” Asher snorted as he pulled the hammer back from the striking flint. “That little bitch won’t be around long enough to create a fuss—if she manages to wake up at all.”

Cooper felt the muscles in his cheeks and jaw spasm in frustration as the young nobleman took aim. He stared at the muzzle, tiredness and acceptance washing over him in a blanket of numbing bliss—and blinked as the pistol’s barrel glimmered beneath a sheen of pale frost that crawled towards the striking flint and gunpowder.

The sergeant blinked slowly beneath the soft click of the trigger as the hammer struck forward, and the gun exploded in Asher’s hands.


Just outside the hut door, Marquess Borghese flinched in surprise at the boom that filled the small room behind him. The sound was wrong, as were the wailing shrieks that followed as Asher stumbled outside clutching the tattered stump of flesh where his right hand should have been.

“What the devil?” Borghese sputtered incredulously as the young nobleman collapsed down to his knees, sobbing like a child. ‘How could this have happened? That musket belonged to my steward—there should be nothing wrong with it!’ The Marquess’s chartreuse-green eyes narrowed as they snapped towards the scout’s still legs, visible just beneath the smoke of gunpowder. ‘What a mess this has been.’

“My Lord!” Coldwell called out, an odd tinge of anxiety lingering beneath his tone.

The familiar brassy notes of a military trumpet soon grabbed the attention of Borghese’s entire hunting party. The nobles stiffened, several turning towards the Earl and Marquess with obvious panic that exploded as several large glittering white wolves charged through their ranks like predators released on a herd of defenseless sheep.

A chill crawled up Borghese’s spine as the chaos unfolded before him. Snarling fangs, panicked horses, and even more terrified nobles jumbled together as they were corralled by the large, majestic creatures snapping fangs. The stewards and servants bolted at the first flash of teeth, squealing like the useless cattle they were as they discarded their packs and hunting gear and then scrambled off into the forest.

The Marquess’s unattended stallion reared in terror before two of the predators. The largest beasts seized the horse’s neck in its jaws, slamming the black beauty against the ground before rending it into a bloody mess.

“What are you men doing?!” Borghese snarled as he locked a bolt into place and took aim at the wretched beasts feasting on his prize stallion. “Shoot the devils!”

His blood boiled with frustration as he watched the nobles fumble with their bows, barely able to remain in their saddles as the horses bucked and jostled against one another inside the tightening circle of wolves—at least eight by his count.

The Marquess exhaled as he waited for the perfect shot and then pulled the trigger. He blinked in disbelief as the bolt bounced harmlessly off the wolf’s neck before sinking into the hind quarters of Viscount Kendall’s steed.

The mare shrieked and danced madly, throwing off her rider before plunging through the line of wolves, who pulled her down and ended her suffering in another bloody frenzy.

‘Those aren’t—natural beasts. They’re—something else.’

A shiver ran down the Marquess’s spine as the predator that had slain his stallion so savagely now turned towards him with glistening, colorless, soulless eyes.

‘This—this has to be witchcraft!’

The blood-spattered wolf threw its head back with a soulful howl that appeared to summon fog from the very earth around them. The cold mist rolled down the sloping embankment, flooding around the nobles until it reached the open door of the hut. As the last chilling note of the predator’s plaintive song ceased, the pack turned as one to sniff the breeze, then scattered back into the forest, disappearing as quickly as they had come.

“Is everyone all right?” Earl Coldwell called out anxiously as he pulled the fallen nobleman up behind him in the saddle. “Viscount?”

“Did you see them, Coldwell?” Kendall stammered, looking shaken but miraculously unharmed. “What sort of devilry is this?”

“I’d rather not wait around to find out,” the Earl replied with forced bravado, eyeing the fog that pooled beneath his boots warily. “We need to get the hell away from here. The Marquess needs a new horse, and someone put a tourniquet on Lord Asher’s arm!”

“Not until we’ve dealt with this spy!” Borghese snapped as he pulled another bolt from the quiver at his hip.

“What’s this, Lord Borghese,” a distinctly female voice cut through the mist, freezing the Marquess in his tracks. “You wouldn’t be threatening one of my men now, would you?”

The fog pulled back like a curtain being drawn from a stage to reveal the Duchess of Bastiallano, very much alive and awake, surrounded by at least one hundred of her knights, several of whom, Borghese noted with unease, were armed with muskets. His gaze returned to the half-blood, dressed in a pastel blue gown more suited to entertaining guests indoors. As small and frail as Lady Kirsi looked standing among her armed and armored knights, there was something chilling and unnatural about the smile she offered him and the strange locks of white hair that now adorned her ash-brown curls.

‘So much for the possibility of her never waking up.’

“Duchess Kirsi Valda,” Borghese returned, forcing out the name with unfiltered disgust. “What brings you this far into my quadrant? Have you abandoned your duty to protect the Crown Prince?”

“I was responding to the distress signal of one of my men,” Kirsi replied with a cold smile as she nudged the rose-gray mare down the slope into the clearing. “Not that I am required to answer any of your questions.”

“Your Grace,” Coldwell interjected hesitantly. “This is highly irregular. To interfere with the Royal Hunt so blatantly will—”

“That is my man lying injured in the hut behind you, is it not, Lord Borghese?”

The Marquess clenched his fists, resenting the coolness with which this detestable half-blood addressed him. ‘What the hell was she doing awake? My man reported that Nicholas left without her this morning. And yet she was able to respond to her scout’s flare so quickly?’

“Lord Asher,” Kirsi continued, her gaze descending to the young nobleman quivering on the ground. “You appear to have met with an unfortunate accident.”

“One of your wolves attacked him,” Borghese interjected quickly. “There’s no controlling a beast’s true nature no matter how you dress them up.”

“A fascinating observation. I’m not sure the physicians waiting at Gilwren Manor will agree with your hypothesis. Perhaps it would be best to set aside pathetic excuses that will only crumple beneath the eye of any experienced doctor.” The Duchess’s smile faded as she reigned her mare in two feet from the Marquess and then leaned towards him. “Put down your weapon and step aside, Lord Borghese. You’re in my way.”

The Marquess felt his throat run dry as several knights leveled their muskets at his chest. The half-blood dismounted, clearly anticipating his obedience. The momentary fantasy of his arrow punctuating her pretty face teased against his quivering outrage. Still, even he could not survive the legal and political fallout that would come from murdering a Duchess—not that her knights would let him live long enough to face a trial.

With a sigh of resignation, Borghese took three steps to the side and fired his cross-bolt into the root of the fallen oak tree. The Duchess smirked as she strode toward the hut entrance, followed by six of her knights, pausing only slightly on the threshold as she took in the unmoving scout. “Captain Arlo!”

“Your Grace?”

“Arrest them all!”

“Your Grace!” Coldwell sputtered in disbelief as the knights surged forward without hesitation. Three of them wrestled Borghese to the ground while the other knights seized and, in some instances, tackled the Marquess’s supporters from their saddles. “Your Grace, this is absurd!”

“Has all that ill-gotten power finally gone to your head?” Borghese snarled, struggling against the hands that pinned him down and wrapped a rope tightly around his wrists. “You have no justification for this!”

“The bolts in your quiver,” Kirsi answered icily as she returned to the door and moved aside to allow a medic inside. “You decorated your feathers with gold paint to make them easily identifiable.” She held up the broken end of the cross-bolt the Marquess had fired into the scout’s hip and tilted it so the flecks of golden paint caught the sun.

“The man fled instead of identifying himself,” Borghese countered as he was dragged up onto his knees. “I shot what I thought was a poacher interfering with the hunt. Nothing more! You cannot arrest me!”

“He’s right, your Grace,” Coldwell interjected swiftly from where he knelt, hands bound behind his back. “Only a King or acting monarch may issue the arrest for a noble of Earl rank or higher.”

“A bolt in his hip, Lord Asher’s mangled hand, and the remains of a broken pistol—” Kirsi replied curtly, gesturing to the fragments of metal and wood on the hut floor. “Once might be construed as accidental—but twice?” The Duchess chuckled dryly and then turned to her captain. “Silence them and bind them into groups of four, then escort them back separately for questioning.”

‘Fuck!’ Borghese ground his teeth together as the half-blood disappeared inside the hut. Resist as he might, it wasn’t long before he and every member of his hunting party sat gagged and tied on the forest floor. ‘This won’t end how you think, Kirsi. We’ve all seen your magic. Even Nicholas wouldn’t mindlessly arrest half the Royal Faction on the word of a half-blood—who just so happens to be a witch!’


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