The boar fell, an arrow lodged just behind its shoulder. It kicked once, then was still.
Hamish allowed himself to breathe again. Precious few things were more dangerous than a wounded animal. He leapt across the fallen tree in his path, easily getting to the animal’s side before the rest of his impromptu hunting party.
Close up, the size of the black-haired beast had him wishing he’d brought more men. The brute had given them a good run around as it was, leading them all over the forest of the western ranges, which was a challenge at the best of times. Getting the boar back through such terrain would be no small feat. The boar likely weighed as much as he did, if not more.
“By the Goddess’ swollen tits,” Ewan said as the rest of the farmers-turned-hunters reached the boar. He brushed back his dark hair. The day was young and, already, his hair clung in sweat-drenched clumps across his face. “Just look at the size of that monster. He’s going to be beast to carry.”
The corner of Hamish’s lip twitched at that. It would certainly feed a good number of the clan, perhaps even make up for the sheep they’d lost to the beast’s tusks. If the five of them were able to get the whole carcass back to the farm, which seemed unlikely. “Are we certain this is the beast?” He’d never seen such a large boar descend from these woods and had been hesitant to bring so few into a hunt without proper preparation. His reservations had ebbed somewhat after seeing the downed fences. It would take a good-sized boar to break through the railing they’d passed downhill.
“Aye, this is the brute. See this here?” Ewan extended his spear and gave the boar a nudge in the belly. There were two prominent scratches along the animal’s sides, about the right height for fence rails. “If this isnae the bastard that broke me fences, then he’s keeping bad company.”
“What does it matter now?” One of the other men muttered as he drew his hunting knife. “He’s nae going to get any less dead, might as well get to gutting him before the bears come sniffing.” The man bent over the boar’s head before pausing and glancing back at Hamish. “I’d clean forget me head if it wasnae attached.” He offered up his knife hilt first. “First cut goes to you, your highness.”
Hamish took up the man’s knife and made a swift cut across the boar’s throat. Everyone knew not to take their chances with these brutes, especially when those tusks were sharp and a good doctor was some hour’s march away.
It took the five of them manhandling the carcass, largely due to the fact they had to roll the beast onto its other side so gravity would help in the gutting. It left Hamish hot, sweaty and not the least bit covered in pig’s blood. If ever there was a time to not get an itchy nose, this had to be one of them.
Done, they stood back and stared at the gutted beast. Usually, Hamish would have no qualms in chucking a smaller boar or deer over his shoulders and marching home with it, but this brute was nothing like the smaller prey on the edge of the woods. Seems a shame to leave anything behind.
“What I’d give for a cart,” one of the farmers muttered.
Hamish glanced over his shoulder at where the steward, Lyall, sat upon his horse, clutching the reins of Hamish’s own heavy steed. The animals had a hard time traipsing through this rough terrain without the hindrance of a cart. “I guess we lop off the good bits and be on our way.”
“And—what?—leave the rest for the bears?” Ewan asked, his brows raised in incredulous horror. “Forgive me, your highness, but this winter’s already been lean and me wife will go spare over the fact I’m leaving the offal behind. If I leave the bones too…” He shook his head, likely already imagining his wife voicing her opinion.
“We’re nae exactly equipped for carrying out everything.” Not easily. None of them had been expecting to chase the damned sheep-gorer at all, let alone deep into the forest. They had no packs, no extra horses, not even a sled. Even if they quartered the blasted thing, they would be trotting off to Ewan’s home with the chunks balanced on their shoulders. Not the best position to be in if they came across a spring-hungry bear.
“Aye, that’s on me.” Ewan thumped a log with the toe of his boot. “Should’ve sent one of the lads back for proper gear.”
Sighing, Hamish motioned for the steward to bring the horses closer whilst he wiped most of the blood off his hands. “Perhaps if we lash some branches together, we can drag it out.” Unfortunately, there were no nearby roads. Even if they got stuck further along and had to break the boar down, then the men could hopefully come back for the rest.
Ewan nodded. “Aye, we should have more than enough rope between us for that.” He hefted his wood axe and, with a jerk at a pair of the other farmers, headed for a tree with low branches.
The rest of them got to trussing the boar’s legs together, their efforts punctuated by their grunts and the solid chonk of sharp blades hitting wood as the trio by the tree chopped down a few of the straighter branches.
There was the faintest disturbance of foliage behind him before the warm gust of a horse’s breath heated Hamish’s neck. He twisted to give his horse’s muzzle an affectionate rub and moved on to check her saddle. “Soon, lass.” Over the mare’s back, Hamish caught the steward glaring at him from atop his horse. “Aye, Lyall? What is it now?”
Those pale blue eyes grew sharp and the man’s lip quivered in derision. They both knew he’d only meant to visit the village to check on the damage done to Ewan’s fences, not go gallivanting into the woods after the beast responsible. “It seems that his highness has forgotten that the ambassador is to arrive today. And that her Majesty expressly stated the presence of all her children was required when the ship comes in, which was sighted at dawn.”
Hamish groaned. This had to be the third ambassador to visit Tirglas in a year. Clearly, his mother was being a little more aggressive in scouting foreign nobility for a potential bride to wed him off to. It didn’t even seem to matter that the woman was also an uncloistered spellster. “I didnae forget,” he muttered, turning his full attention back to the men lashing a crude sled from the felled branches. How could he have possibly forgotten when the man reminded him at every opportunity?
With the sled complete, they fastened the poles to either side of his horse before hefting the boar onto the framework and used every last length of available rope to secure the beast.
“You promised her Majesty you’d be there,” Lyall pressed as Hamish swung into the saddle.
Hamish nodded, absently adjusting the straps securing his bow. “Aye, I did.” He nudged his mare into a steady walk. Maybe the men would discover the tracks of yet another monster boar that could’ve been the fence-destroying culprit. So long as it was something Hamish could spend the better part of the day hunting down with them. By the Goddess, if the steward wasn’t babysitting him, Hamish wouldn’t have given a thought towards seeking home until night had well and truly settled in.
Lyall rode alongside him. He stroked his beard, curling the black and grey end around his finger. “You’ll barely reach the castle before them at this rate. Forget meeting the ship at the docks.” He shook his head. “Will you at least clean yourself up before greeting the ambassador?”
Hamish smiled at the old man. “I thought you said I didnae have time?” Maybe turning up covered in pig blood would help deter the woman from heeding any of his mother’s daft plans. Then again, the ambassador was from the Udynea Empire, she’d probably mistake it for a proposal.
Their passage through the woods was slow, hampered every so often by the need to heft the sled over the odd piece of treacherously uneven ground. The woods seemed to still with their passage, though he caught the occasional flash of bigger animals. Deer, at least he hoped so. With spring settling in, the bears would be wandering the valleys in search of food. If any were nearby, the hulking beasts would hopefully make for the gutted remains before bothering them.
They stuck to the gentler hills, making their way around the steeper sections they’d originally traipsed over to spare any extra strain to the horses. His mare might’ve been a heavy animal, capable of spending long days crashing through the woods after sprightlier prey, but she was no plough horse accustomed to dragging dead weight.
Slowly, the land they trod became less wild. Trees stopped pressing in on each other, the undergrowth thinned and the slope of the earth evened to a gentle downhill incline. The familiar bleating of sheep grew louder, punctuated by the fainter call of cattle. Hamish slowed his mare and allowed the men to lead the way to the farm, deferring to their knowledge of walking along paths frequently travelled.
The men picked up their pace and, before long, the shattered remnants of the fence became visible through the sparse trees. With a little rearranging of the already-broken rails to fit their crude sled, Hamish continued on through the open field with the steward and Ewan whilst the rest of the farmers returned to their repairs of the fence.
Unhindered by brush or trees, their passage over the hills remained smooth and swift. The bleating of sheep grew louder as they neared Ewan’s farmhouse. When he had first arrived, the locals were attempting to herd the remaining flock into the pens.
Hamish scanned the gently rolling hills. There could easily be a few tucked away in the hollows, but it seemed they’d been successful. His mother would be glad, for the less sheep the people lost to wild animals, the less the crown had to reimburse them.
They crested the brow of the hill that’d blocked the sight of the farmhouse. Sheep milled around the buildings like impatient clouds. Children and dogs darted amongst the flock, driving some into the nearby barn and others into pens where adults waited for the animals.
The activity slowed as they neared and curiosity drew people’s attention from their tasks.
One of the women—which Hamish presumed was Ewan’s wife—hastened out of the pens to meet them. “Is that the blighter responsible for ruining me fences?” she asked of the man, tilting her torso to peer around Hamish’s horse. “He’s a fair brute, isnae he?” She turned her attention to them, swinging her head from side to side as she seemed to count them. “Didnae more of you leave this morning? Where’d the rest of you lot go to? Are they all right?”
“Aye, they’re fine,” Ewan replied. “They’ll be back once they’re done with fixing the fence. Until then, it’d best if we moved the flock to the lower fields. I could do with a few of the young ones to help me dress this beast. They could use the experience.” He jerked a thumb at the boar.
Nodding, the woman strode back towards the pen to bellow orders at the people milling around there.
A few of the younger folk hurried over to help with removing the sled from behind Hamish’s horse. They dragged it towards the farmhouse, grunting all the way.
Ewan watched their efforts, a small smile tweaking his lips as he shook his head. Shielding the sun from his face with a hand, he looked up at Hamish. “Are you sure about leaving the boar behind, your highness? It’s your kill.”
“I’m sure.” He lifted his gaze from the farmer’s face to take in those of the man’s family and neighbours. “You’ll all need it more than I will. Especially once winter settles in.” They’d a few months yet of growth and harvest, but the chance of them retrieving the stock they’d lost through the downed fence was barely worth the thought.
“Thank you, again. I’m nae certain we’d have caught the bugger so easily without your help.”
Hamish laughed. “You thought that was easy?” Granted, he’d taken on tougher prey, but not after traipsing several hours through untamed woods for it. “Maybe I should be bringing you on me hunts.”
The man ducked his head, but Hamish caught the faint gleam of delight in his eyes. “Anytime, your highness.”
“If you need any extra help in dressing—” Hamish cut himself off as Lyall cleared his throat. He glared at the man.
“Has his highness perhaps forgotten he is meant to be meeting the Udynean ambassador?” Lyall asked, his face innocently neutral.
Hamish fought for his own features to remain so calm. Why cannae you just forget? If the steward would remain lax in reminding him, he’d be able to put off the meeting until tomorrow. “Aye, I had.” It took some effort to not have his teeth grind on each word. “Thank you for reminding me.” Again. Nodding his goodbyes to Ewan, he kneed his horse into a trot.
Lyall kept an easy pace with him. “May I also remind you that you are currently covered in pig’s blood? You’re nae going to reach the docks, so you might as well take the time to clean yourself up before the rest of your family returns to the castle.”
Grumbling under his breath, Hamish kneed the mare into a canter. Whatever else Lyall said was drowned out in the thunder of hooves. By the Goddess’ good graces, he was thirty-seven years old, not some child still tied to their mother’s apron strings. As much as it would’ve amused him to see the look on the ambassador’s face if he greeted the her in his current state, it wouldn’t be worth the bollocking he’d get for it later.
He thundered along the dirt roads leading towards home. Mullhind Castle loomed over them, a hulking stone beast atop the hill. Below her, and ahead of Hamish, lay Mullhind itself. The city sprawled across the western side of the harbour, sheltered by the natural hook shape of the land.
His horse veered around the outskirts of the city, taking a path they’d raced across many times, jumping a few fences and logs along the way. At his back, Hamish caught the tail end of the steward’s exasperated cry. He ignored the man and urged his mare to go faster. If Lyall wanted to take the long, winding way through the city, he was welcome to it.
Hamish slowed his mare as her hooves clattered onto the cobblestone. They trotted along the streets that butted up against the cliff face. The castle sat just above them, a clear upward climb if he’d wings.
The streets fell away swiftly enough, opening out into the city square. Free of their confines, he nudged the horse faster and they tore up the slope leading to the castle gates. It followed the natural curvature of the hillside, sweeping to give him full view of the city and harbour.
Hamish glanced at the docks far below him to confirm what he already knew. The huge Udynean ship sat proudly in the harbour, her sails furled and likely with all travellers disembarked. He urged a little more speed into his mare. He’d be cutting it fine, but he could reach the castle in time to swap his bloodied clothes for clean ones.
The castle gates came into view.
He slowed his horse. Far too many people milled near the entrance for his family to still be at the docks. That had to mean the ship docked early. He’d no chance of slipping by unnoticed, either. That meant meeting the ambassador as he was. Bugger. His mother was going to give him a right dressing down once they were alone.
No point delaying the inevitable. He nudged his mare onwards, hunching his shoulders as the gate loomed. Maybe he could duck into his quarters after introductions and avoid his mother’s lecturing. For a few more hours, anyway.
A mob of people bustled about the courtyard, his family at the centre. His mother had her back to the gate, heavily invested in talking with a man in a long, silvery-white coat and red cape. Probably the ambassador’s steward or whatever the Udynean equivalent was called. Of the ambassador herself, he saw no sign. Not that it meant much. A whole person could hide behind his father’s enormous bulk.
Hamish quietly guided his mare along the stable front, skirting open stable doors and scattering the odd discarded piece of grooming kit. If he could get his horse into her stall, he might stand a chance of slipping into the castle before anyone noticed his presence.
He’d almost made it when his brother glanced his way. Gordon’s mouth split into a wide grin as recognition lit his face. He jogged over, drawing the attention of a young stablehand who was instantly at Hamish’s side to relieve him of the mare’s reins.
“Good to see you could make it,” Gordon said. “I thought for sure that you’d gone bush on us.” Hamish dismounted and his brother’s brows lifted to their highest. “By the Goddess’ sweet name, what have you been up to?”
“Ewan’s farm,” Hamish replied, jerking a thumb back the way he’d come. “Boar took out all the leeward fences.”
His brother nodded. “Aye, I ken you were going to check the damage. But what’s all this?” He gestured to Hamish’s attire. The pig’s blood had dried on the trip out of the woods, but it’d left dark marks all across the soft brown leather of Hamish’s hunting jacket.
Hamish self-consciously brushed at where the tunic hem was unprotected by his jacket. His trousers, baggy in the traditional style, were also liberally smeared with blood and dirt. The laundry workers would no doubt give his ear quite the chewing once it was known. “We tracked down the boar. He’ll nae be destroying much but a wee bit of hunger now.”
Gordon clapped his hand on Hamish’s shoulder. “Well, you missed the ambassador’s arrival.”
“Did I?” Hamish finally relinquished the reins over to the waiting stablehand. He nodded his thanks to the lad and turned back to Gordon as his horse was led into her stall. “I’m fair heartbroken.”
His brother beamed. “You might be when you see who they sent us.”
Who? Hamish peered at his brother, trying to decipher just what had put that gleeful twinkle into his normally stark green eyes. “I thought it was just some countess?” He glanced back at his parents and the man they were speaking with. No woman at all beyond his mother. Including his sister. “Where’d Nora scamper off to?” Granted, she wasn’t much one for the false niceties of politics, but if Hamish was expected to be here, then so was she.
“Herding the troublesome trio to lessons, where else?”
“And your daughter?” At twelve years of age, Sorcha was more than old enough to begin her training that would eventually lead to her taking the throne after her father. Even if she did prefer stalking deer to politics.
“She’s probably the one leading them astray, as always.” Still grinning, Gordon shook his head. “Come on. Mum’s head is practically exploding trying to be civil about the change.” He chuckled and pulled him in close. “Let’s see if we can still make that dam burst.”
“Nae that I’m complaining about her absence,” Hamish said, choosing his words carefully as they veered within earshot of his parents. “But did something happen to the original ambassador they were sending?” He’d admit to a few unfair prayers sent her way, but it wasn’t her fault his mother played matchmaker with him and every single noblewoman.
His brother shrugged. “He said she couldnae make it.”
“He?” Hamish echoed. His gaze flicked back to the man chatting with his parents, barely seen around his father’s shoulder. That was the ambassador? They’d sent a man? After his mother no doubt requested the ambassador be a woman? Small wonder she was fair fuming.
He rounded the crowd, hoping to get a good look at the ambassador to determine just what sort of man their kingdom would be dealing with.
His silvery-white coat remained closed without any noticeable way of doing so. No metal buttons like Hamish’s own attire, nothing visible at least. What Hamish had first mistaken to be a cape appeared to be a shawl. The red fabric hung over one shoulder, winding behind him to hang in the crook of his other arm. The way it draped spoke of him being very conscious that the golden thread embroidered along the edges be visible to everyone.
The man’s whole outfit seemed to scream the same thing. Luxury. The silvery-white garb halted at his knees to reveal matching trousers that hugged his figure far more than the voluminous fabric encasing Hamish’s own legs. All of it was heavily embroidered in a sort of floral motif with gems stitched into the design. The stones sparkled in the noon light and made the man look very much like a cheap trinket.
No one, not even Hamish’s own mother, looked quite so… gaudy. If he planned on impressing anyone in Tirglas with such an obvious display of wealth, he’d quickly learn that bearing weapons and proving he knew how to use them would work far better.
“Aha!” Hamish’s father bellowed. He’d turned sometime during Hamish’s scrutiny and now singled Hamish out with one thick finger. “There’s me missing son. Come, lad.” His father beckoned him closer, clapping a hand onto the ambassador’s shoulder, which had Hamish wincing in sympathy right alongside the man. To the uninitiated, his father had quite the grip.
The ambassador turned, his brow arched in curiosity, and froze. On his face sat an odd metal framework encasing a pair of small clear discs like windows for his eyes. From behind these eye-windows, the man’s gaze flicked over Hamish in apparent disinterest, widening to reveal a multitude of colours as they slowly traverse back up Hamish’s body before making eye contact. A ring of black darkened the edge of his eyelids, making the whites that much brighter and his eyes huge.
“This is our ambassador, Darshan vris Mhanek.” His father fumbled with the foreign words. What could be seen of his face through the thick and greying, dark red beard was screwed up in concentration.
Hamish knew as much as any Tirglasian did about the Udynea Empire, which wasn’t a lot. But he knew what those words meant, or at least in part. Not just any ambassador, then. The empire had sent a prince in place of the countess. He held out his hand and bowed slightly, getting his height as close to the man’s and then a little lower. “Welcome to Tirglas, your imperial highness.”
The ambassador continued to stare at Hamish. His eyes glazed over much like a deer stunned by a glancing arrow. One brow lifted and the slight twitch of his moustache suggested a restrained smile. There was the faint suggestion of a beard trying to break free, tamed to barely cover his chin and cleft. At least they hadn’t sent some clean-shaven boy to negotiate these new trade agreements.
He waited patiently for the man’s brain to catch up with his ears. He’d heard from the other ambassadors that the Tirglasian accent made it difficult for some foreigners to understand, that certain inflections took a while to grasp.
Then, Darshan blinked and a soft redness touched his olive-toned cheeks. His gaze flicked to Hamish’s outstretched hand, which Hamish only now realised still showed traces of pig blood. The man’s gaze shifted, clearly taking in Hamish’s blood-stained attire.
Grinning sheepishly, Hamish wiped his palm clean on the side of his trousers and offered his hand again.
The ambassador slowly accepted the gesture, the rings adorning his fingers glittering in the noon light. Hamish couldn’t help noticing how the man’s slim fingers lacked anything in the way of calluses. Not a warrior, then. Not in the traditional sense, at least. Udynean nobles were strong spellsters and a prince would certainly be one of the more powerful.
“H-hello,” the man mumbled, his tongue barely able to utter the greeting. “Uh…”
“Hamish,” he offered, giving man’s hand a reassuring squeeze.
The man cleared his throat, his face growing redder. He ducked his head, the soft curls of his dark brown hair bobbed. “Darshan.” The word came out soft and crisp.
“So I’ve heard.” Still, it was nice to hear the name spoken by its owner and not mangled by his father.
Another faint blush took the man’s cheeks. “It is an absolute pleasure to meet you, your highness.” He spoke Tirglasian quite smoothly, with the influence of his tutors lingering in the slight rolling tones. There was the hint of a musical note in the words that suggested his natural voice wasn’t used to being quite this harsh.
Hamish straightened and slowly released his grip on Darshan’s hand. “I do apologise for me absence. I was told your ship wouldnae get in before the afternoon.”
“Yes,” his mother interjected, slipping coolly between them. She glanced his way, the icy depths of her blue eyes flashing their customary warning whenever he was near a man of unknown background. “We were all taken aback by the unexpected fair winds that rocked the harbour this early morning.”
“I am no sailor,” Darshan admitted as if it weren’t completely obvious that his perfectly-manicured hands had never held anything rougher than silk. “But the winds did seem to favour us towards the end.” The longer he talked, the less stilted his accent became. Each word gained a rich, velvety tone and a softness that had Hamish’s mind briefly meandering into forbidden depths.
It wasn’t until Darshan cleared his throat a little louder than necessary that Hamish realised the man had still been talking. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s been a long day, you ken? You were saying?”
Brief panic flickered across the man’s face before his expression turned neutral, although his gaze darted all over the place. “I… believe I understood that, yes. I merely mentioned that—”
“How oddly the sailors reacted,” his mother interjected, her brow furrowing as she eyed Hamish. “Dinnae blame them. In all me life, I’ve never seen the winds shift eastward for another month or so.” She placed a hand on the ambassador’s back, turning him. “Come, your imperial highness. You must be weary after such a long travel. I’ll have one of the servants escort you to the guest quarters.”
Darshan eyed the castle with barely-concealed dismay. Had he been expecting it to look different? Or was he not yet ready to settle? If Hamish ever found himself in a foreign land, sleep would’ve been the last thing on his mind.
“Why doesnae Hamish show him the way?” Gordon suggested. “Since he missed the ambassador’s arrival.”
Hamish fixed his brother with a very pointed stare. What was he thinking? Their mother would never allow him to be alone with Darshan without her believing he was bending over for the man. He didn’t want to be responsible for another ambassador’s swift banishment. Especially when they were also a Udynean prince.
Their mother’s head whipped around, causing the end of one honey blonde braid to slap her shoulder. She glared daggers at Gordon, who smiled innocently back. It was a facade that Hamish envied at times. Being the eldest, his brother got away with more than he felt was fair at times.
It didn’t help matters that Gordon would use that leeway to needle Hamish and had done constantly ever since his brother found him kissing one of the stable boys back when he was a lad. Thankfully, he’d always stop short of outright suggesting anything that couldn’t be innocently construed.
The ambassador continued to stare at the castle, oblivious to the silent berating going on in his midst. Hamish took the man’s preoccupation as an opportunity to re-evaluate him.
If Darshan had been a Tirglasian, his attire would’ve been considered a frivolous waste, but the rumours of Udynea suggested they’d plenty of a great many things. It likely hadn’t occurred to him, although there was a spark of cunning in his eyes that hinted at more. Especially in the way the man’s stare didn’t settle on one spot. That muddy-brown gaze roved across the castle walls, followed several of the servants and guards, flicked towards the stables before sliding to the front gate. Calculating.
Hamish just wished he knew if the man was looking for weaknesses to relay in an attack or searching for a way out should his mother renege on the man’s protection. Unlike Udynea, Tirglasian spellsters were sent off to spend their days in cloisters, their healing talents called upon only in times of dire need.
Trying not to startle a man that was likely capable of spewing fire, Hamish nudged the ambassador’s shoulder. Attention got, he jerked his head towards the castle door. “Come on, it willnae take long to show you the way, then you can get back to staring at our defences.”
A small, slightly sheepish, smile creased the man’s eyes. He inclined his head and indicated Hamish lead the way with the sweep of one bejewelled hand.
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