Gray morning light cast long shadows of the heavy four-poster bed across the small chamber. The heavy furniture was too large for the space it occupied, leaving little room to move around. The dark wood bed, oversized wardrobe, and writing desk with matching chair were all that was needed, logically, but Lexanna did not enjoy being cramped and felt she would spend little time in her temporary home.
Sitting up in the bed, she noticed the wardrobe was left open. A selection of new garments in a rainbow of colors hung patiently waiting to be selected. It was difficult not to feel guilty when such generosity was being bestowed, while she was being unappreciative of having been taken in for no other reason than to be married to the best candidate.
“I’ll just have to make the best of it,” she whispered
Selecting a dark blue skirt and matching peplum fringed jacket, along with a crisp white high collared blouse, Lexanna dressed herself with some difficulty cinching and tying her corset alone. Thankfully, she also found an array of hats, one for each of the ensembles. Hopefully, what was on her head would draw attention away from her poorly secured waistline.
She stood before a mirror in an oversized gold frame that hung on the wall to brush and twist her black hair into a neat bun, then pinned hat and all in securely in place. Examining herself she decided that it felt strange to be dressed in a fashion she had been accustomed to after weeks of borrowed clothes. Although her life had been spent dressed in finery, her reflection appeared alien.
Upon exiting her bedchamber, she found the apartment empty and cold in its silence. The heels from her boots pounded loudly on the wooden floor as she crossed to the staircase, and she was relieved to descend the stone steps.
Her mission was to find the apprentice dining hall and breakfast. The Ossuary was a daunting labyrinth of corridors and she was dismayed to realize she did not remember the way back to the foyer. Good fortune was with her, however; as a group of young men and women dressed in pale blue robes were all walking together and conversing in jovial tones.
Lexanna followed behind them at a modest distance and was pleased to discover they had led her where she needed to go. The dining hall was located in the newer part of the Ossuary. The stark white walls towered above into the peak of a vaulted ceiling run through with dark wooden beams. Along the left side of the room, large windows overlooked the courtyard. Rows of heavy wooden tables and chairs ran in two columns down the length of the room, with the kitchen at the far end. The apprentices lined up along the wall to collect their breakfast. Lexanna joined them and was fully aware of the odd looks cast in her direction.
She did her best to smile and appear pleasant. Never had she imagined how many students were being trained at the Ossuary. She always believed the gift of magic was a rare one, but possibly one hundred men and women were in attendance.
“It’s not as frightening as you may think,” a male voice whispered from behind, and she jumped. “Magicians only bite when they aren’t well fed.”
A tall, slender young man stood in line behind her, smiling at his perceived cleverness. Dressed in a pale blue robe like all the others, he must be an apprentice. For a brief moment, she wondered if he would be a contender for her hand, then disregarded it. Hilena wouldn’t marry a magicless girl to a real magician, apprentice or otherwise.
“I don’t find it frightening at all.”
“Your expression said otherwise.” He took a moment to look her over and cocked an eyebrow. “Are you new to the Ossuary? Or did your robes have a laundering accident?”
“I’m not a student. My name is Lexanna Nidkren and Hilena Grasen has taken me in as her ward.” She knew what dropping her last name would accomplish, and she was not disappointed.
“Nidkren? As in Grivwald and Morianne Nidkren?” His smile faded and the cracks in his charm became apparent.
“That’s right.” It was her turn to smile, although she tried to hide it.
“Perhaps you would allow me to show you around the city once my tasks for the day have been completed?” He spoke with such haste he stumbled over his own words.
She was surprised at the offer. “I’ve introduced myself yet you remain a stranger.”
It was fun to watch him become flustered by his misstep in etiquette. “I apologize. Gareth Orbern, at your service.” He bowed his head to her politely. She did her best to contain her amusement at his awkwardness.
The name Orbern was vaguely familiar, although she couldn’t recall any close acquaintances to her parents from that family. They arrived at the head of the line and she turned her attention away from him to an impressive array of fare stretched the length of a long buffet. She liberally filled her plate without concern of what the other students might think.
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” she said politely to Gareth before retreating to the empty end of a table near the dining hall door.
She turned to discover he had chosen to follow her and sat across from her. Didn’t he have any friends? Lexanna tried to smile.
“It must be a great honor to be Hilena’s ward,” Gareth said before taking a bite of his food.
“My parents are dead.”
Gareth choked and coughed around toast he had just put in his mouth. Lexanna waited patiently for him to compose himself.
“I apologize, I was unaware.”
“I assumed the news of the demon attack on Shirgrand would have made it this far north by now.”
“Yes, of course. I did not know your parents were among those…” he trailed off.
“I was going to say, slain.” He grimaced. “My offer still stands. You may need a friend right now. Everyone knows the Magician Major isn’t the warmest woman in Rathelas.”
“And what does my friendship earn you? I have no fame to offer. I was born without magic, making us an improper match. The Magician Major is not a friend of mine; she’s merely doing her duty. I couldn’t elevate you in any way.”
Gareth’s expression became sheepish as red crept into his cheeks. “To be honest, I’m not overly talented myself. I’ve been here a year and find it exceedingly difficult to make friends. All these others care about is position and status, and when you’re a bumbling buffoon, well, it puts a damper on your popularity. When I saw you in line dressed as you are, I was hoping you were new and that I’d have an opportunity to show I’m worthy of friendship before the others got their talon in you, so to speak.”
Lexanna was surprised at his self-depreciating comments. Upon reconsideration his fumbled introduction, it was a fitting tale. She ate in silence and observed him, noting his growing agitation under her gaze. His obvious desperation for companionship could be an annoyance, but in her current situation, he may be exactly the friend she required.
“Very well, Gareth Orbern, I’ll take you up on your offer to show me around town today.”
“You will?” His face lit up once more. “That is most fantastic. I should be finished with my tasks just before lunch. Shall we meet in the foyer? We could eat here? There is a spectacular café nearby and it would be my treat if you prefer.”
Lexanna hesitated for a moment then said, “That would be lovely, I’m sure.”
Escaping her fate meant escaping the city, and that would require knowledge of her surroundings. Who better to guide her than an unwitting young man with no friends?
Thank you for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed The Hunted this far. If you have any feedback or comments please feel free to leave them in the comments.
I am also publishing The Hunted on Wattpad.