The group hadn’t come this way, but there was a boot print in the mud, half hidden by twigs and leaves. If Hale had gone the other way, who did this print belong to?
“I don’t see them here,” she said. “We must’ve passed them.” She covered the boot print with leaves, wondering if this weren’t some sort of test. Little Whipple would have known if there were anyone else in the wood today. She would have told them to be watchful. No one enters Cutter Wood without an assignment. If this were a test, Macy would surely pass without the aid of the Lady of the Ax.
Lochlin gave Macy a curious glance that was too polite to be a frown. “Well, if you’re certain, you should follow them.” She pointed toward a spot midway between the direction Clever Hale had gone and where Macy stood. “I’ll make my own search this way.”
“Agreed,” Macy said, with as much seriousness as she could muster. She was certain Little Cowle probably thought her daft, but Macy was too pleased to have the boot print all to herself to care. As she watched Little Cowle and her red hood disappear into the trees, Macy wondered if this wasn’t Little Whipple’s plan all along, a chance for Macy to redeem herself and show Fray Cole and everyone else that she was the one meant to be Lady of the Ax. For the first time since that horrible miscarriage of justice, when Lochlin Cowle stole the ax and the title out from under her, Macy allowed herself to imagine how good she would look in that red cloak. Red really was her color. It did nothing for Lochlin’s pasty complexion except to make her seem even pastier. She pictured her cloak next to Clever Hale’s green stripe. The contrast between the two would make them one of the handsomest couples in town. Macy could already feel the admiring glances as they walked hand and hand down Centre St.
But first, she had to win that cloak. As soon as Little Cowle was out of sight, Macy uncovered the boot print. She was certain they belonged to the fox. Macy thought of the way one of the wolves had been disguised as Little Lee during the Hunt. Macy would’ve won Lady of the Ax had she only discovered it and gotten to the ax first. It hardly seemed fair. Macy killed almost all the mimic wolves herself. Lochlin got only one. The one that looked and acted just like her best friend.
Macy would never admit it to anyone, but secretly she’d spent the last few nights wondering if she’d have had the courage to swing that ax full-strength at the neck of Teagan or Charlotte. She wondered if maybe that willingness to sacrifice and trust your gut was the real qualification for being a Lady of the Ax. And buried deep below those thoughts was one she kept hidden, even from herself. The thought that maybe the Elder Frays had gotten it right. Maybe she didn’t have what it takes to be a Lady of the Ax.
Now was not the time for pondering though. Macy straightened and pulled her cloak tighter around her to block the chill. She looked in the direction the boot print was pointed and realized she could see a trail. Little bits of fresh leaves on the ground where they’d been knocked off low limbs. Bent branches and cracked sticks showed her the way when foot prints did not.
Macy began to feel quite proud as she followed the trail of the fox deep into Cutter Wood. Soon she reached the clearing, and there in the center of it sat a large fox. Just as her note had described, it was larger than any fox she’d ever seen in real life. It had to be a mimic. Still, it was not too large to survive Macy’s blade. And Macy was as good at knife-throwing as she was at wielding the ax.
The clearing was silent. Macy listened for the sound of Little Cowle or Clever Hale approaching but heard no one. She was the first to find the fox. Perhaps she really was a Lady of Cunning as well as a Lady of the Ax. She couldn’t wait to see the defeat on Lochlin Cowle’s face when she brought the fox tail to Little Whipple and Lochlin stood empty-handed.
Macy crouched down and crept toward the edge of the clearing. She needed to get within throwing range, which for her, she thought smugly, was still quite far. The fox would not even see her before the knife pierced its hide. Macy took one last slow, deep breath and as she exhaled, she threw. The knife caught the fox in the neck and it dropped like a stone. She could not keep the shout of victory from her lips as she ran into the clearing. She would have to be quick now to get the tail. Clever Hale and Little Cowle would be headed her way now that she’d made her location clear.
It was the sound that caught Macy’s attention first. An unexpected whoosh , and then the clearing looked wrong. The fox too far away. It took a moment for the rest of her senses to catch up, before she felt the rough rope of the net. She was trapped. Dangling in a net two feet off the ground. Macy watched in utter astonishment as the fox disappeared in a poof of cinnamon scented air. “What?” She asked the space where the fox had lain, her brain still not catching up with her circumstance.
Laughter pierced through Macy’s confusion. Clever Hale and Little Cowle emerged from the trees together. It was Hale who was laughing, his easy smile now garish. Macy couldn’t believe she’d ever found him attractive. Lochlin was as serious as ever.
“Get me down!” Macy shouted. She knew her face had to be as red as Lochlin’s cloak, which only made her more furious.
“This was too easy,” Hale said, still grinning. “Even a real fox wouldn’t have fallen for this.”
Lochlin shook her head sadly. “Do you not remember rule number one, Little Bridges? Little Red didn’t fight for glory. Hopefully, you will remember this now.”
Macy burned with rage. She thought of her note, assist in its capture. How could she not have seen? The trail so easy to follow. The fox, just sitting there waiting to be killed. The shame of it all made her sick to her stomach. She would not let Lochlin or Clever Hale see that though. “Get. Me. Down.”
“I’m sorry,” Lochlin said from somewhere behind Macy, “I really am.” Then Macy felt a sharp tug as Little Cowle pulled her ponytail tight, and cut it off.
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