Home > Besotted (The Fairest Maidens #3)

Besotted (The Fairest Maidens #3)
Author: Jody Hedlund







Hunger raged through my stomach like a boar on an attack. I plucked a handful of red currants and stuffed them into my mouth, but the tart berries couldn’t begin to sate my appetite.

“We need to hunt today.” I reached for another plump bunch, and the ripe berries slid off their stems into my palm.

Jorg stood beside me, feasting ravenously on the wild currants. “We should have hunted yesterday instead of frolicking with Walter’s daughters.” He spoke through a mouthful, even as he shoveled in more berries. His ragged garments hung loosely on his tall, lean frame, elbows and shoulder blades protruding sharply. His overgrown dark beard couldn’t hide his sunken cheeks.

Guilt chopped into me like a back-cut threatening to fell me.

We’d grown thinner over the past four months of travailing in the wilderness, bearing witness to the hardships we’d endured since I’d started my Testing. But Jorg fared worse than me to be certain.

“You’re right,” I said. “As usual.”

“Of course I’m right.”

“But we had a jolly good time, did we not?”

“Yes, that we did.”

I dumped more berries into my mouth, as did he, and we lapsed into silence. The trilling of hawfinches filled the early morning air along with the distant squawk of blackbirds. Though I preferred the commotion and busyness of court, I’d adjusted to life in the lonely forest, and the quietude and slower pace wasn’t as stifling as it once had been.

A ray of sunlight slanted through the leafy ceiling and touched upon a dew-drenched spiderweb, glistening like a diamond crown. Thick moss cloaked the stately trees like kingly robes. And ground elder covered the forest floor like a royal carpet rolled out for a prince.

Except here I wasn’t a prince. I was a lowly woodcutter without crown, robe, or carpet. I didn’t have a home to call my own. I hadn’t had a roof over my head or a bed to sleep on since early May when I’d arrived in Mercia and the vast, overgrown Inglewood Forest.

Only two months until I finished my Testing and could return to Scania. Fifty-eight days to be exact. But who was counting?

I snorted, earning a raised brow from Jorg.

I shook my head and remained silent. My scribe had already heard enough of my complaining about how much I disliked being in the forest and living as a pauper. No sense in saying more.

I was under no illusion that I had any prospect of winning the Testing and becoming the next king of Scania. I’d never had a chance, not when lined up next to Vilmar and Mikkel, who could both do no wrong in my father’s eyes. Instead, to him, I was a disappointment, falling short of being the man he wanted me to be.

The truth was, I hadn’t wanted to join the Testing, hadn’t seen the purpose in subjecting myself to harsh deprivations when the kingship was out of my grasp. Nonetheless, I’d endured the past months for the sake of tradition and honor. I couldn’t spurn the Testing, not when every Scanian prince underwent the challenges and had done so for centuries.

My stomach gurgled from the sour berries—and with a craving for meat. If I’d been home in the great hall in Trommen Castle, our summer residence, I would have been sitting down at the morning hour to hot, salty porridge and sizzling bacon slabs.

The growling in my stomach rumbled louder. “Never mind porridge and bacon to break my fast. Give me a feast of roasted venison, stuffed duck, and a loin of veal.”

“Is that all?” Jorg asked wryly.

“Not in the least. I’d also like a bowl of plum custard as well as a hundred cherry tarts.”

“Perhaps we should do some fishing first this morn before the woodcutting?”

“Yes, maybe you’re right.” I tossed a last handful of currants into my mouth, then reached for my sack containing all the possessions I’d carried with me during my homelessness. The contents didn’t amount to much—a change of garments, blanket, flint, fishing net, a couple of traps, and the special scarf my mother had given me. I might not be my father’s favorite child. But at least my mother cared.

“You may have to forfeit everything else for the Testing,” she’d said to me on my last night in Bergen when she handed me the scarf. “But your family will be with you always, no matter how far apart we may be.”

I wanted to believe her—had tried to believe her—but I’d never felt as though Mikkel or Vilmar had much interest in me, except when they needed something from me.

“Where shall we fish?” Slinging my sack over my shoulder, I startled at a red squirrel darting out from underneath a cluster of tall ferns and scurrying up a fine mature oak free of scars and rot, one that in a few years would be ready for cutting.

Though we’d witnessed no signs of any basilisks in the area, we could not help but be wary of every movement of every creature nonetheless.

Jorg draped his sack over his shoulder and followed me. “We had good fortune the last time we fished along the ravine. Do you want to return there?”

It was a distance of several leagues from our woodcutting domain, the section of the forest Walter Matthews had assigned to us when we applied for our woodcutter’s licenses. We would waste precious work time traveling to and from the river. But I didn’t know how we would last the day without more sustenance than the berries and roots we scavenged.

“Yes, the fish there are plentiful, and we shall catch enough to last us a few days.” I changed my course to the northwest, having grown accustomed to the forest paths nearly invisible to the untrained eye. I’d also learned to be ever alert for the basilisks, watching for the telltale signs of their presence, namely the patches of barren, blackened, and scorched land surrounding their burrows.

Growing up, I’d heard tales of the deadly king serpent with a finlike crest upon its head, glistening scales covering its body, and a sharp, pointed tail. But I hadn’t believed the miniature dragon-like creature existed any more than I believed in the large fire-breathing dragons of legends.

However, Jorg and I had lived in the woodland only a day before we nearly stumbled upon one. Thankfully, we’d been traveling with another young woodcutter who noticed the barren area and warned us to cover our mouths and noses so we didn’t breathe in the basilisk’s poisonous vapors.

We glimpsed the basilisk at the base of a hollowed-out stump, standing on its two spindly legs, hissing at us and spewing its venom into the air. Not only did the vapors have the power to wither and scorch vegetation, but they had the power to dull the mind and cause prey to fall unconscious, allowing the basilisk to creep up and strike with a poisonous bite.

Our companion also instructed us not to look the basilisk in the eyes lest we become victims of its lethal gaze. We heeded him and attempted to put a safe distance between ourselves and the serpent.

Now, after many weeks, we’d grown adept at staving off basilisks and learning where those in the vicinity made their homes. However, traveling any distance was never without risk, including for hunting or fishing.

Jorg was indeed correct that we should have hunted yesterday on our day of rest. Instead, we’d lingered in the hamlet of Birchwood after delivering our quota to Walter and receiving our compensation.

As warden of the eastern region of the forest, Walter divided up the deliveries of deadwood and white fuel amongst the peasants and tradesmen. He was also tasked with ensuring only licensed woodcutters labored under his supervision, swiftly punishing poachers.

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