Title: White Hart
Series: White Hart, book 1
Author: Sarah Dalton
Age Group: Young Adult
Publication Date: March 5, 2014
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Mae never asked to be craft-born. She never wanted that burden.
The realm needs magic again, and the the King of Aegunlund has been waiting for the first craft-born girl to marry his son, Prince Casimir.
In Mae’s town of Halts-Walden, the ambitious miller claims his daughter Ellen is craft-born. Mae knows this is a load of hogwash, but she’s glad Ellen will have the unfortunate pleasure of becoming queen instead of her. All she has to do is sit back and wait until Casimir and Ellen are married, then she will finally be free of the threat of her fate. But on that day an event so shocking and terrible occurs that Mae finds herself entering the neighbouring cursed forest on a quest she never thought she’d have to follow.
Join Mae as she rides her white stag through the Waerg Woods with a pampered prince at her heels. She’s out for revenge and nothing, no one, will get in her way.
After Ellen has been presented to the prince, the villagers gather in the Fallen Oak for a feast. Unbeknownst to Father and me, the villagers have been fattening the farm animals for weeks in preparation for the meal.
“How come we’re the last to know about these things?” I take an apple from a nearby table, ignoring a glare from one of the farmer’s wives. All the seats are taken in the tavern, and we stand at the back of the dingy room with the rest of the vagabonds that no one wants to associate with. “We work hard. We trade. Why doesn’t anyone like us?”
“You know why,” he replies.
The sight of the food makes my mouth water, and I finish my apple as quickly as possible. Father gnaws on a chicken leg.
“The Waerg Woods,” I murmur. I still can’t shake the feeling that I need to be amongst the trees with Anta. “But even before we started taking wood from there, they paid no attention to us.”
“We’re poor, Mae. Poor people aren’t given anything. We have little to contribute to them and so we are of little use.”
I hate it. I hate the thought that we don’t matter. What about our hearts? Don’t they matter? Tears unexpectedly spring into my eyes. If I wasn’t so hungry, I’d shun them, too. I’d refuse to eat the food, and I’d never speak to any of them again. Dismissing another harsh glare, I steal a slice of meat pie and disappear from the room, shoving the delicious pastry and gravy into my mouth, meat juices dripping down my fingers.
“Enjoying that, are you?”
I whip around, almost dropping my pie, to see Prince Casimir standing with his head cocked to one side.
“Your manners are about as delicate as your character. Dis-gusting.”
“What do you want?” I snap. As I wait for him to reply, I finish my food and lick my fingers clean.
“I have a bone to pick with you.” He steps forward, and the glow of the sunset warms his features. Orange light finds the highlights in his hair. His grey eyes contrast against his skin, as silver as the moon. For some reason I find my throat dry and am aware of every part of my body.
“I… I don’t know what you mean.”
Casimir moves closer to me than any of the villagers ever get. “Yes you do. You told me that Ellen is a pig. Well, she isn’t. She’s quite beautiful.” That dreamy expression comes back, and Casimir stares out towards the setting sun with his eyes glazed over. “Her skin is soft like a peach. She has the most delightful way of pronouncing her words—”
“Are you going to annoy me to death?” I exaggerate an eye-roll, trying to ignore my temper bubbling below the surface, as though my blood is simmering. Why should Ellen be the one swooned over by this prince? “I think I’d rather you had me executed for insolence and be done with it. Anyway, what are you doing out here alone? I thought you were joined permanently to the soldiers in there. Aren’t you afraid I’ll exact my revenge for you trying to hunt Anta?”
“Who’s Antle?” he replies.
“It’s Anta. He’s my stag.”
The prince tilts his head back and laughs. “You’re not still trying to convince me that you own a stag, are you? You’re deranged if you think I’m falling for that one.”
“No, I’m not trying to convince you. I’m simply stating a fact: I own a stag called Anta.”
“Then prove it,” he says. He moves even closer, and his silver eyes flash. “Show me your stag.”
“I can’t,” I say.
The prince snorts. “I thought as much. You’re a compulsive liar, and a bad one to boot.”
Now my skin is on fire, with my blood boiling underneath. “Oh, I am not a liar. I was simply protecting you because we’ll have to enter the Waerg Woods.”
He glances towards the setting sun. “But it’s almost dark. That’s madness.”
I shrug. “I’m in there all the time. It isn’t dangerous. Anta roams through the trees until I call him. It’s the only way I can prove it to you. That is, unless you’re scared of getting in trouble.”
Casimir’s eyes dart from me to the dense trees below the village gates, and then back to me. “Fine. We’ll go.”
“Sure you don’t need your bodyguards?” I tease.
Casimir’s jaw tenses, and he avoids my eyes. “I’m very well without them, thank you. Now if you would lead the way, my lady.” He gestures with a flourish.
I hitch up my skirts and trudge through the mud, still damp from the overnight heavy rain. A soft wind caresses the curls at the nape of my neck like a whisper. The sun drifts into its bed below the stars, casting the village and the forest below in a dreary gloom the shade of lead. Casimir stays close to me with one hand on his sword. We’re about to enter the darkest forest in Aegunlund, and the silence hangs between us like frozen air. My heartbeat quickens. This is a mistake.
We’ll go a few feet into the woods, and I’ll call Anta. If he comes, we can leave swiftly. If not… well, I’ll decide what to do when the time comes.
My right boot crosses the threshold first. The temperature seems to drop, and I pull my arms around my body. It’s dark. The trees sway above, yielding to the will of the wind.
“Where is he?” Casimir’s voice is a rasp.
“Anta!” I call. “Give him time.”
Prince Casimir positions himself next to me so that our arms almost touch. I jolt back away from him, and he turns to me with a furrowed brow.
“What’s the matter?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I reply. How strange that it is a prince who is the first to treat me as equal. I’m used to the wary stares and purposeful distances kept by strangers. I’m Mae Waylander, the girl the cursed woods treat kindly, the one who might spread that curse to them if they aren’t careful. After all, my mother came from those very same woods.
I’ve always been different, and poor, which makes me strange to most who meet me. Yet this boy doesn’t appear bothered at all. If anything, he’s too curious.
Somewhere deep in the forest comes the wailing moan I’ve been dreading. It’s low, so low it almost reverberates through the air like a foghorn. It’s him. He’s calling to me.
“Anta!” I say urgently.
The swaying branches, rustling leaves, and darkness fade. My fear is gone in an instant. I have to run to him. I have to run as fast as my legs can carry me.
“Wait!” Casimir shouts behind me.
I continue, dodging through the birches, relying on the few inches I can see. Only slivers of moonlight make it through the dense trees.
“Would you stop?” Casimir tries to catch me, almost tripping. “What are you… Oh.”
He halts abruptly next to me, because Anta stands ahead, his head held high with flared nostrils. The white stag’s coat shines brightly against the dark, illuminated by a beam of moonlight. He paws the ground with a hoof, and Casimir unsheathes his sword.
“Put that away,” I snap. “Anta, it’s all right, boy. It’s me.”
He snorts, and a substantial puff of steam exits his nostrils. I hold out my hand and step forward gently. What has made him so agitated? My eyes skim his flank and find a long stream of red. He’s been hurt. I knew it. My heart leaps into my mouth.
“I’ll slay the beast,” Casimir leaps forward, and I push him down into the mulch of fallen leaves.
“You will not.” I shake my head. Stupid prince. Now Anta is even more worked up. “Come on, boy. You know me.”
The stag lowers his head, and his twisted antlers catch the moonlight. They cast shadows shaped like curled branches against the tree trunks behind him. He sniffs my fingers as I step closer, placing a hand on his neck, soothing with clucks. He lets me examine his cut—a flesh wound, no deeper than the breadth of piece of string—and I stroke his withers until his trembling stops.
“I should have you arrested for that.” Casimir brushes the dirt from his tunic and picks up his sword.
“You won’t kill him,” I reply, ignoring his threat. “No one will.” After a thorough examination to check he is in good health apart from the cut, I propel myself onto his back using the strength in my arms and Anta’s withers as a handhold.
Casimir stares at us, open mouthed. “So it’s true. You have tamed the beast.”
“He’s not a beast. I don’t know if I’ve tamed him. He allows me to ride him, but I don’t know if he will ever let others ride him.” An owl hoots in the distance, and the swaying branches continue their song. “We should leave the forest. Someone has tried to hunt Anta. These cut could be from an arrow. It’s not safe here.”
I ease Anta along with my legs, and the prince walks behind. Once we leave the Waerg Woods, I will feel more at ease. There is something brewing in the dark tonight. I can feel it.
About the Author
Sarah grew up in the middle of nowhere in the countryside of Derbyshire and as a result has an over-active imagination. She has been an avid reader for most of her life, taking inspiration from the stories she read as a child, and the novels she devoured as an adult.
She is the author of the popular YA dystopia series ‘Blemished’ and the gothic novella ‘My Daylight Monsters’. Her latest series is called White Hart – a YA fantasy about a girl who hides magical powers from everyone around her.
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