The maidens danced in pairs, one Marlish to an Ibian, each facing the other. Music of flute and string guided their steps. They clasped their right hands together and locked gazes as their feet pivoted and paced in unison. Every maiden held a length of ribbon, which whirled and fluttered with every turn and bow. The Marlish women wore pastoral dresses, long ones of cream color with simple lace trim. The Ibian ladies were clothed in green dresses with no trim, but bore garlands of daisies and other wildflowers atop their heads, as was their tradition when dancing.
From under the awning of an open pavilion, Gerry sat and watched. All others around him mingled and ate, while the food before Gerry turned cold. He cared not, for among the dancers was Taresa, who moved as gracefully as a feather in the breeze.
A servant stepped before Gerry, holding a model galleon. Gerry craned his head to look past it before a tap on his shoulder broke his gaze.
“Your Highness,” Everitt whispered.
“Sir Everitt, I’m trying to–”
“My boy,” Audemar interrupted.
Gerry shifted in his seat to pivot toward his father, who sat at the neighboring table beside King Felix.
“The ship,” Audemar continued. “Tis a gift from our guest, the honorable sovereign, King Felix.” Audemar tilted his head to the king, who turned from his wife upon hearing his name.
“Of course,” Gerry replied. He addressed King Felix. “Your Majesty, you do me a great honor with your generosity. I am humbled.”
“You need not mention it, Your Highness,” Felix said while raising his glass. “Your gifts are grand as well, a mark of true craftsmanship.” Felix lifted one before him, a Marlish hunting dagger housed in a leather and bronze sheath. Gerry saw that it was finely crafted, having an embossed scene of a fox hunt – with a vixen crossing the length of the sheath, dogs and mounted hunters trailing her – of intricate detail, one that could only have been made by Marland’s best arms makers.
Gerry turned back to Felix’s gift to him, which the servant had laid on his table. The galleon was indeed impressive, with every sail, railing and rope to scale, constructed of Ibian cedar. Gerry even spotted a tiny compass before the helm. To his amazement, when he turned the small ship, the needle of the compass moved as well. Gerry grinned, considering the collection of compasses he and his brothers had in Terran.
The music paused, leading to an eruption of applause. Gerry looked up to find the maidens curtsying toward the royal pavilion. He rose, clapping louder than necessary until all the rest quieted. He took his seat as Taresa and her sisters strolled to the table where their parents sat, bending down to kiss each of them on the cheek.
“You mustn’t stare too long.”
Gerry cringed. Is he still here?
He looked over his left shoulder to find Xain, inebriated and in between two Marlish maidens, who struggled to keep him upright.
“My cousin, she has a sense for those with impure thoughts.”
“You will find nothing impure with our prince, Your Grace,” Everitt interrupted.
Xain bowed his head to Everitt in acknowledgement. “Still,” he continued, turning back to Gerry. “If your look lingers, she may think you to be such a man.”
Gerry forced a smile. “My intentions are not to cause any discomfort or insult to your family, Your Grace. Especially the ladies of your Court.”
“Yet, here you remain.”
“As is my place.”
“And mine, young prince. Out of curiosity, how old are you now?”
“Nineteen. And yourself?”
“Old enough to know your age well, time and again. Isn’t that right, ladies?” Xain dug his nose into the nook of each women’s neck. The maidens responded with smiles and giggles, as Xain pulled them away in the audience, his laughs melding with theirs.
Everitt placed his hand on the pommel of his sword. “Just say the word, my Prince.”
Tempting though it was, Gerry, looking after them, shook his head.
Gerry swung around to discover Belitta, her hand gently clasped around Taresa’s arm. Both curtsied to Gerry, who stood to bow. Everitt, after bowing, stepped back.
“Your Majesty, Your Highness,” Everitt said to the ladies, before bowing to Gerry. “I will take my leave to allow some privacy.”
“Queen Belitta. Princess . . .” Gerry said as Everitt left. “Your dancing, it was lovely.”
“Thank you, Prince Jameson,” Taresa replied.
“She has always danced well,” Belitta affirmed. “Not as well as I did at her age, but a decent effort nonetheless.” The queen pinched her daughter on the underside of her chin before nodding to the galleon replica on the table. “I see you have accepted my husband’s gift.”
“I have, and I am humbled by your family’s generosity. You do me a great honor.”
“Honor, pssss . . .”
“Mother!” Taresa chided.
“What? Oh, I don’t mean that it’s not a fine gift. But these foreigners make such a fuss over our cedar. I realize it is a rarity to this island, but back home even the commoners use it to build their homes.”
“Please excuse my mother, dear prince. Her tongue seems to loosen when she goes abroad.”
“Child, really. I am not so old that you need to explain my behavior. My Prince, I only express my candor because I know our families will be joined by union soon. After all, I have seen the way you look at my daughter.”
Taresa gasped while Gerry, caught off guard, blushed with embarrassment. Taresa glared at her mother before storming off while the two watched.
“Should I . . .” Gerry began.
“No, my dear prince, no need. She only needs to cool, as she has her father’s temper. And courtship can be such a tender topic. I’m afraid the last one with what’s his name, Prince . . .”
“Yes, Prince Denisot. I fear that the long engagement – which as you know, ended terribly – left Taresa sensitive to such matters.”
“Indeed. Her next courtship will have to be shorter. I trust that will not be an issue.”
The queen tilted her temple toward Gerry. The prince, put on the spot once again, only smirked and shook his head. Belitta, satisfied, grinned and strolled away after her daughter.
Gerry stared down at the replica. All this trouble for an alliance. And this is only the first day.
“Now for the procession of his Majesty’s royal stable,” Reysen announced. “The most prized horses of Marland, led by the riding master, Sir Waldeve of Har-Kin Hamage.”
Sir Waldeve and a number of knights rode in on finely-groomed steeds. The crier made his way toward the prince. Gerry, seeing him approach, could not help but roll his eyes. The royal announcer, Sir Kenard, had taken ill that morning, so in his infinite wisdom Audemar commanded that the next readily available crier serve in his stead. Reysen, in attendance in the commoner section of the Court, had come forward eager and willing.
Now, he came before the prince. “Your Highness,” he proclaimed.
“Yes?” Gerry asked, blinking as he coped with the crier’s louder-than-necessary voice.
“His Majesty, King Audemar, has asked that you and the Grand Duke join him and King Felix in his pavilion.”
Gerry turned to where his father and Felix had been sitting, to discover their seats empty. “To think they snuck away,” he said to himself.
“Pardon, Your Highness?”
“Nothing.” Gerry then glanced all around, finding no sign of the Grand Duke either. “Have you seen Xain, Master Reysen?”
“Of his Grace, the Grand Duke of Almata, I have seen no sign.”
“Very well, I suppose we should go and find him.”
“Your Highness, you need not concern yourself with trivial matters such as fetching or searching. I will grab one of the servants—”
“No,” Gerry interrupted. The pomp and circumstance of Court had been enough to sour Gerry’s taste for royal life for one day. Queen Belitta’s meddling, along with his and Taresa’s embarrassment, had not helped matters. “I will lead the effort to find Xain. I insist.”
“As you command, Your Highness,” Reysen declared, followed by a bow.
Gerry sighed. How I miss Terran.
He marched from under the awning. Reysen followed. Everitt, having been watching from afar, hurried to join them.
“Have you seen the Grand Duke Xain?” Gerry asked.
“Nay. He disappeared,” Everitt answered.
Seeing a crowd ahead, Reysen raced before the two. “Make way!” he announced.
“Shhh, not now,” Gerry urged.
Reysen withdrew to Gerry’s side.
Gerry, now in the center of the encampment, scanned the lot. The Marlish Court had been careful to select a site for the midday banquet and hunt away from the capital walls yet not so far as to strain the Ibians with a lengthy journey. The king’s advisers had settled on Raineminster, so named for the Har-Kin that once overlooked the land but had since married and been dissolved into other families. A small hamlet, it boasted a wide meadow beyond the town center that the Saliswaters used from time to time for stately affairs.
Though no stranger to guests from afar, the impromptu accommodations swelled with attendees since the Courts of both nations arrived earlier that morning. Townsfolk from not only Raineminster, but also Over-the-Straitford, East Fletchley and Meanderstead had trekked in, making their way first to the servants’ pavilions before filtering through to those of the lesser nobility. In turn, the lesser nobility mingled with the higher ranking barons and dukes, so that now the whole of two kingdoms seemed to converge with no barrier or delineation between them.
This security concern was not lost on Gerry, nor the prince’s Right Captain. “Your Highness . . .” Everitt started, his tone tinged with worry.
“I know,” Gerry admitted. He turned his attention to Reysen. “Find my father’s guards. The Day Captain should be found in the pavilion next to his.”
“As you wish,” Reysen said, bowing lower than needed.
“And you need not bow every time I speak to you.”
“My apologies,” Reysen said, catching himself in a bow before straightening. “Your Highness,” he added before taking his leave.
“A peculiar little fellow,” Everitt stated, once Reysen was out of earshot.
“Yes, but loyal, I suppose.”
“Shall we start this search?”
Gerry nodded as Everitt took his place by his right side. The two meandered through the throng of nobles and commoners, soon realizing the Grand Duke was not among them. They widened their arc, going beyond to the outlying tents. Upon finding no sign of nobility, save a few drunk barons and their kin, they turned to the cook fires, makeshift barracks and rope corrals. Still, they encountered no sign or clue of the Duke’s whereabouts, the result of which weighed on Gerry’s nerves.
“Where now?” Gerry asked.
“Perhaps he started the hunt early?” Everitt ventured. “The outlying woods are the only place we have yet to check.”
“Aye, I like the idea of poking my head in there no more than you do. We are without a proper retinue of guards. Tis a poor idea.”
Gerry paused for a moment. If indeed Xain had gone hunting while Gerry had not – notice or no notice given to his father – he could only imagine the sharp words his father would have for him.
“We had better stroll the perimeter, just to be certain,” Gerry commanded. “That way, no one can accuse us of failing to try.”
Gerry thought he caught a glint in Everitt’s eye, as though the knight knew his fears, what he was thinking. “Very well, Your Highness,” was all Everitt said, as he fell in to his right side once more.
Though freshly dug, the stench from the latrines proved enough to make Gerry regret his decision. Nonetheless, he pressed on, with Sir Everitt faithfully by his side. They rounded the privies, along with several wagons, coming across commoners until they ran into Baron Tristan.
“Prince Jameson . . . Sir Everitt. What brings you to these commoners’ quarters?”
“We could ask you the same.”
“Why, I’m searching for my kin, of course. Too many townsfolk on the grounds have forced some of us to seek refuge in quieter parts. My brother and I thought to whisk away to the forest to partake in some ale while we prepared our weapons for the hunt. But then, he fell in with the crowd and disappeared. Oh, wait, speak of the devil . . .”
Slipping between wagons and crates of goods came Sir Ernald of Har-Kin Boivin. Gerry stood, his mouth agape. Nearly a year had passed since he last saw the knight, and in that time, much about him had changed. Though in his early twenties, Ernald – who once bore the moniker “weelamb,” on account of his small stature – had managed to shoot up in height, so that he now stood shoulder to shoulder with Gerry. His hair, which Gerry remembered to be dark brown, had lightened and even exhibited reddish streaks. Most impressive, though, were the angular features of his face, as the baby-faced boy he had once known had grown into a man.
“Your Highness!” Sir Ernald waved, smiling.
“Sir Ernald,” Gerry replied. “It has been a while.”
“Too long. By Mar, look at you. Princehood has treated you well.”
“And nobility, you.”
“Yes, yes,” Baron Tristan added. “We are all fine and well. My brother, I see you returned empty handed.”
“With that small barrel of ale you were carrying gone.”
“Your powers of observation have not waned today, Tristan.” Ernald winked at his brother as Gerry grinned. Never the center of attention due to his runt-like status, Ernald had developed a raucous wit. Though at times crass, he remained as unapologetic as any baron.
“Well, brother, though you are not concerned with us going thirsty, now we have no drink to offer our guests.”
“No need for concern on that front,” Gerry assured. “We are not here to mingle so much as to search.”
“Have you seen Grand Duke Xain?” Everitt asked.
The Boivin brothers shook their heads. Gerry and Everitt were about to move on when a cry captured the attention of all.
The four paused, trading glances, when it erupted again. Everitt, never one to take chances in his duty, drew his sword. Gerry rested his hand on his own pommel as both Ernald and Tristan unsheathed their hunting knives. Everitt motioned to the bushes that bordered the forest around them, tilting his head as more indistinct sounds – low, muffled moans – emanated from the woodland cover. In a succession of silent steps, he proceeded to the largest bush before them, pulling back its low-hanging branch.
Stretched out on the ground, with her legs spread and her head bent back, laid a Marlish maiden with the Grand Duke of Almata on top of her.
“Dear Mar,” Tristan roared, as Ernald broke into laughter.
The Duke snapped his head in their direction. His eyes, dark and accusatory, looked past the knights and baron to rain daggers upon Gerry.
“You!” he cried. “How dare you! I knew you vile.”
“Watch your tongue!” Everitt demanded.
“And you! His henchmen,” Xain proclaimed, as he slid off the maiden to pull up his trousers. “Draw blades on me? I am a Grand Duke of the Ibian Court. Nephew to King Felix. Your guest. Sheathe your swords. Or I will have the lot of you drawn and quartered for impudence.”
Everitt looked back to Gerry, who nodded. He sheathed his blade. The Duke, tying the laces of his trousers, brushed past the knight, leaving his bare-chested beauty on the ground to fend for herself.
“Your Grace, it was my fault,” Baron Tristan offered. “I lingered where I should not have, in waiting for my younger brother.”
“Your brother? Is he this knight?” Xain looked Sir Everitt up and down.
“Well, no . . .”
“Then he has not offended me.” Xain, straightening his ruffled shirt, stepped up to Gerry. “My cousin deserves better. Her last Promised would have had the good sense to look away.”
Gerry, his knees weak and his back less than straight, turned his head. The heat of the Duke’s breath was enough to make him grimace. But for fear of offending him more, he merely tightened his lips.
Xain, his anger nearly spent, backed away. Finding Sir Ernald grinning, he faced him.
“Entertained?” he asked.
“No,” Ernald said, shaking his head. “I simply admire a man who can handle his own.”
The two stared at each other, before Xain pivoted and marched back to the center of camp, weaving in and out of the wagons.
“A bunch of fuss for a maiden turned whore,” Tristan snarled, as the Marlish woman clung her bosom and ran away.
“Disgraceful,” Everitt proclaimed. “The Duke has nary been on our shores for a day and already he is planting his seed in our women.”
“He is a guest of the Court,” Ernald reminded him.
“Do you think . . . he will say anything to Father?” Gerry asked.
The other three considered, Gerry’s anxiety mounting all the while. The morning had gone so well. Why did the Duke have to ruin it all? One word from him, to the Court, or the King, could spoil everything.
“You needn’t worry,” Everitt declared, as he fell in beside Gerry. “A thousand rumors will swirl through these grounds. Some from the commoners but even more from Court. Accusations will be made. But you are the son of our King. No harm will come to you.”
Are you sure? Gerry wanted to ask, thinking better of it.
Gerry returned, without haste, to his father’s pavilion. He entered the sprawling tent, a hall unto itself, where the highest nobleman and clerics of both Courts mingled. Making his way to the rear of the shelter, he spotted his father and King Felix, merrily drinking and engaged in joyous banter. Beside them, Xain sat, himself drinking as if nothing were amiss.
“My boy, my boy,” Audemar waved, beckoning Gerry forward. “Come, sit.”
“I thought . . . are we not preparing for the hunt?” Gerry inquired.
“Of course, but in good time. My good sovereign here was just regaling me with tales of his family. Did you know the Ibians finally came to their sense in the waning years of the Century War to side with our Kin?”
“I did not,” Gerry fibbed. In truth, he had heard that history from his father half a thousand times.
“And tell us, my good King Felix, about that slain foe your father bested.”
“Sir Ti’alo? Why he had the gall to try to end my father’s reign while he slept, that swine. Fortunately, by the grace of Mar, my father dreamt a warning of the knight’s devious ploy. So on the night the assassin came to visit, my father hid behind the curtains, with his Right Captain and two of his best guards, waiting. By the time Ti’alo realized the ruse, my father’s sword had made its home in his bowels.”
“Oh, what a grand tale. I love any story that ends with a fallen Foleppi.”
“Half-Foleppi,” Felix corrected. “Sir Ti’alo was half-Foleppi, and the other half . . . well, I don’t recall.”
“Still, you must agree that the only good Foleppi is a dead one.”
“Well then, you will relish in today’s hunt.”
“That is my intention. Word is that your fox hunts are legendary.”
“It is not merely the hunt itself,” Audemar started, leaning in as he became serious. “It is what the hunt represents. You see, as the symbol of Kin Foleppi, the fox represents the eternal enemy of Kin Saliswater. The fox, both the animal and the Kin, managed to overrun these parts and terrorize this island while our barons and I fought in Afari during the Century War.
“With no noblemen to watch over their manors and hunt, foxes bred and multiplied. At first, the effects of their population growth were negligible. A lost chicken here, a half-eaten lamb there. Then overnight, the foxes devastated our farms, crippling the outlying hamlets and towns. Hens and roosters were torn to shreds, their coops ripped apart. Shepherds suffered similar losses, their flocks scattered. Even heads of cattle and horses went missing. No livestock was safe.
“Kin Foleppi proved no different than their four-legged brethren, though their victims were not animals. No, they had a taste for royals and nobility. Just as cunning as foxes and vixens, the Kin were careful with their first kills, making sure they appeared like accidents or illnesses. The firstborn of a Har-Kin discovered at the bottom of a long staircase, his neck snapped. Or an old knight who developed gangrene from a splinter. Even when tales spread of a mysterious fever, traveling from village to village, we on the battlefields of Afari remained none the wiser. Until the foxes of our Kin targeted our wives, our loves . . .”
Gerry held his breath. He knew of whom his father spoke. As did King Felix, even Grand Duke Xain. The past of King Audemar – his conquests in Afari, his discovery of losses suffered in Marland, the recapture of his lands – had been known by all for quite some time.
Audemar stood, a hush overrunning the sprawling tent, the anticipation growing as the monarch scanned the watchful faces, his own a stone mask.
“Jameson,” he finally said, approaching his son.
“Yes, Father,” Gerry replied.
“We hunt.” He wrapped his hand around Gerry’s shoulder, sloshing wine on the rug-covered floor of his pavilion as he pointed and shouted at his servants. “Bring us our javelins,” he commanded. “And our hunting bows,” he added, leading Gerry forward as they exited.
Gerry squinted as they came into the sun. In response to his father’s commands, the servants raced about, gathering all the hunting gear they required. The barons, seeing their sovereign about to leave, issued orders to their own attendants. The camp turned from a sprawling mass to a confluence of hirelings and retainers, all eager to appease their masters and assist with the hunt.
The scene of haste upended the contents of Gerry’s stomach. Unlike his brothers, he had never developed a taste for the sport, despite several outings with his Kin and the Court. The yelps and cries of the prey, followed by the tearing of flesh or the gushing of blood, managed to best him time and again. Once, he had even vomited, though thankfully it was away from the eyes of others.
Gerry, knowing his tendencies, inhaled. His chest expanded, pushing against the loops and ties of his tailored shirt and hunting vest. He exhaled. He repeated the process, his father oblivious, as they approached their well-groomed steeds.
If his anxiety was ever apparent, none took notice. Audemar, concerned for the welfare of his royal guest, hardly gave his son a second glance. With every ancient oak they passed, or expanse of glistening red ferns, Audemar pointed and boasted, as if he was a child entertaining guests for the first time. Felix, for his part, expressed interest in his own manner, as did many others of the Ibian Court. Xain had even managed to forget the day’s earlier events, lending his ear to Audemar and others when they called for it. Few of the men of either country paid much mind to Gerry, except for the obligatory bow or offering of a wineskin.
The whole diversionary nature of the hunt proved to be a welcome relief for Gerry. As the minutes pressed into hours, with nary a fox in sight, he perked up in his saddle. He rode taller, his confidence growing. He even managed a laugh at one of his father’s many feeble jokes. His anxiety dissipated, as he considered that the hunt could end with not a drop of blood shed. Perhaps we will even end early and return to the camp. Partake in more festivities. Speak with Taresa . . .
An eruption of barks sunk those hopes. A blast from a hunting scout ensued. Audemar, tilting his head toward the sounds, motioned the pack of barons and royals to follow his lead.
“Death to the red and white!” he proclaimed, stabbing the air with his javelin. “Death to the fox! Marlish, to me!”
Audemar clipped his heels into his horse, sending it into a gallop. The mount shot into the forest by way of a game trail. King Felix gave chase, while Xain galloped after.
Gerry, a prince suddenly upstaged by a duke, froze. He did not have to look over his shoulder to know the eyes of the nobles and attendants were upon him, waiting to see how he would handle this slight. What would Symon do? he asked himself.
The answer having dawned on him, he turned his horse to face them and smiled. “Our friends from Ibia enjoy a good hunt, don’t they men?!”
The nobles nodded. A few said, “Aye.”
Gerry shook his head. “I said, ‘Our friends from Ibia enjoy a good hunt, don’t they men?!’” This time, he thrust his javelin into the air, just as his father had done.
The nobles, catching on to his cue, mirrored his motion in unison. This time, they roared as one as they exclaimed, “Aye!”
“Aye!” Gerry echoed. “But who enjoys hunting foxes more? Ibia? Or Marland?!”
A chorus rang from the barons. “Marland! Marland! Marland!”
“Am I surrounded by maidens?” Gerry jested. “I thought I posed a question. Who enjoys hunting foxes more?!”
With all their might, the noblemen strained their voices as they shouted, “Marland! Marland! Marland!”
Gerry waved them forward with his javelin as he clipped his mount. The stallion beneath him spurted forward, with Gerry barely managing to hang on.
He, along with the column of barons, weaved between oaks and pines. The forest in this part of Marland provided thin veins of dirt as paths, for the trunks of the trees stood as giants compared to those of the capital, with some so wide they could be hollowed out and tunneled. With each round of the bend, more of the gargantuan guards became visible, providing an obstacle course for Gerry and the other riders.
The prince managed to take all of it in stride. Emulating his brother had emboldened him. His feet remained firm in their stirrups as he gripped the reins, his horse at ease with his command.
Ahead, the outline of his father, Grand Duke Xain and King Felix prompted Gerry to raise his hand and signal a slowing of the column. Beyond them, two hunting scouts leaned back, using their momentum to keep their leashed hounds at bay. Gerry came up beside his father, who pointed to the thick, exposed roots of giant sequoia.
“There,” Audemar pronounced, pointing. “You see, son? That winding, gnarled root to the right. Beneath is a foxhole.” Audemar then motioned to the left of the tree. “We spotted another at that end, which we suspect leads to the same den.”
“Your father sent a squire to light a small fire and smoke it out,” King Felix added. “It should not be long now.”
Gerry spotted a lad of twelve years stalk through the ferns and shrubs with a pile of kindling in his hands. His steps, ever quiet, slowed as he neared the leftmost root of the tree.
The prince shifted in his saddle. Just the idea of a fire being lit – and the fox or foxes within being overwhelmed with ash and smoke – was enough to jostle his innards. For beyond that, he knew what was to come.
Gerry glanced at his father as another squire came to his side to offer a wineskin. Audemar snatched it from the lad to empty the contents within three gulps. He has worked up a thirst. He always does on these hunts, towards the end, when we have cornered the red-and-white. He wants blood.
“When will Jameson show us how it’s done?”
Gerry perked at the mention of his name. He turned his horse to face Xain as the Grand Duke’s mouth curled into a devilish grin.
“Your Grace,” Gerry began. “Marlish tradition dictates that we offer our guests the first . . . kill.”
“Ah, yes,” Xain replied, leaning back in his saddle. “But Ibian tradition encourages our people to allow our hosts the first of anything: the first bite of food, sip of wine, even the first kill. Is that not right, Uncle?”
Felix looked upon his nephew, his brow raised. “Tis true,” he conceded. He turned to Audemar. “All the more so does this tradition apply when the host has been most gracious, as you have.”
“Plus, your father has been regaling my uncle with grand tales of your prowess at hunting,” Xain added.
“Then it is settled,” Audemar said. He slapped Gerry on the back. “Go and gather a fox pelt on behalf of our guests. Another gift, I insist, from Marland to Ibia.”
Audemar tilted his head to Felix, who nodded in kind.
Gerry, the weight of the decision upon him, dismounted. He reached for his hunting bow and quiver, fighting to keep his hands steady.
“No,” Audemar said. “The javelin.”
Gerry winced. While he could nock his bow with another arrow if he missed, he could not afford that luxury with a shaft and spearhead, for taking more than one javelin when the prey was so close would signal weakness.
“Aye, Father,” he said, drawing a hunting javelin from the saddle sheath.
Gerry trudged from the row of horses. His feet, as heavy as millstones, cracked twigs and bent branches. The noise would have cautioned any hunter, prompting even a green one to lift his legs a tad higher. Gerry chose not to heed the sounds of his own feet, though. In fact, he wanted his motions to alert the creatures around him, to spur the fox from its den and run off before he had a chance to approach.
His desires and actions produced no line of rustled ferns nor shaking of shrubs. The forest before him remained pristine and undisturbed. Every needle stayed untouched, every tree as still as though captured in time by an artist’s brush. All prevailed against motion and disturbance, except for the foxhole to Gerry’s left, where a squire collided flint with stone. The clapping railed against the heights of the nearby sequoias and pines, eerily signaling the death to come.
Finally, a spark caught the kindling. The fibers ignited, growing brighter as the squire blew onto them over and again. Each gust of breath that stoked the flames spawned puffs of smoke. When the gray clouds became columns the squire took a stick to shove the fiery mass into the hole, which he continued to feed with any fuel within reach.
“Good luck, my Prince!” shouted one of the barons.
A few claps followed. “May Mar grant you fine fortune!” yelled another.
Gerry wished he had not heard that. The gaze of every baron the woods could fit, along with those of a foreign king and his father, weighed heavily on him. The pressure tired him, so that he found himself fumbling to grip his javelin and lift it above his head. As he readied his arm and stance, he kept his eyes on the foxhole before him, which began to bellow wisps of smoke from the opposing fire.
Please, Mar, please. I beg of you.
From his position, Gerry spotted the black tip of a nose, the white hairs of a chin and the red ones of a snout. A pair of beady eyes appeared next, reflecting the low light that showed through the canopy to the woodland floor.
Gerry stared at the animal. Crouched low, still in its hole, the fox looked right back at him.
Stay, by Mar, stay. Or run. Just do not–
Then it did. Exactly that which Gerry had hoped it would not. The fox emerged, raising its head from the cover of its hole, for all to see.
For a bit, nothing happened. Neither horse nor hound nor noble moved. Nor did any with a voice call or shout, bark or neigh. Not so much as a breeze blew, so that the smoke which had a moment before bellowed became suspended.
The fox, perhaps out of boredom, combed over its snout with one of its paw. It yawned. Then, finding no reaction or scene of interest, it twisted around to stroll under the arch of a projected root.
“Son!” Audemar snarled. “Kill it!”
Gerry blinked. The animal pressed on past fern and branch, nearly disappearing from his sight. He figured he had one chance to strike, to put his apprehension aside and throw.
That moment passed. The fox ducked under another fern to vanish.
Gerry, his luck spent, aimed at the fern, throwing anyway.
The spearhead struck an unseen rock, clanking against the stone before hitting the forest floor with a thud. Gerry, watching the shaft of his javelin roll down a small incline, winced. He debated whether to pounce on the javelin and try his hand again, or to run back to his horse to give chase to the red-and-white. Either option proved disastrous, for he had shown himself to be a man of inaction, a hesitant sovereign-in-waiting.
Gerry, resigned to his fate, nearly turned. As he pivoted, a blur cut off his line of sight, flashing as it sped past. Gerry, eyes widening, had nary a moment to comprehend what occurred when a yelp erupted from a fern-covered patch of ground.
He ran. Not back to his horse. Nor to his father or the line of barons. His legs, with a mind all their own, sprang lightly over wood and stone to carry him forward. His heart raced as he came upon a javelin shaft projecting upward, its thin line of cedar illuminated by a ray of sunlight.
The pace of his heart and legs abated as he reached the javelin. The weapon, expertly thrown, had found its mark. For impaled between air and dirt laid the fox, the javelin shaft flanking each side of its torso.
As painful as the strike had been, the fox remained alive, albeit barely. Its beady eyes, once alert and provocative, resided in their sockets with resignation, in acceptance of the inevitable.
Gerry’s breathing quickened, on its own, uncontrolled. His heart beat faster and out of rhythm, so that he had to fight the urge to grip his chest. The surface of his skin flared, signaling the coming beads of sweat that would certainly follow.
Eclipsing all his emotions and fears were the coming footfalls of one.
Gerry stared down at the fox, determined not to lift his head, not to face he who approached. Perhaps it was a squire, a lowly attendant who fancied himself better now that he witnessed the cowardice of a prince. Or maybe it was a baron, a noble intent on rubbing his nose in this most absolute of failures. More likely than any, though, Gerry feared the footfalls to be those of his father.
The ring-decorated hand, with one of the pieces bearing the signet of an Ibian cedar, told him otherwise. Gerry tilted his head, his gaze looking from the hand to the shoulder and all the way up to the face of the one who mocked him silently: Grand Duke Xain.
Xain wrapped his fingers around the javelin. He raised his heel. In one swift motion, he brought his foot down on the fox and twisted the weapon from its body. The creature yelped once before falling silent forever.
The Grand Duke balanced the javelin in his hand, showing off his sense of ease. He laid the shaft of it across one shoulder as he bent to pick up the carcass.“Like I said earlier,” Xain stated. “My cousin deserves better.”