فصل 20

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CHAPTER

20

Rhysand winnowed us into a wood that was older, more aware, than any place I’d been.

The gnarled beech trees were tightly woven together, splattered and draped so thoroughly with moss and lichen that it was nearly impossible to see the bark beneath.

“Where are we?” I breathed, hardly daring to whisper.

Rhys kept his hands within casual reach of his weapons. “In the heart of Prythian, there is a large, empty territory that divides the North and South. At the center of it is our sacred mountain.”

My heart stumbled, and I focused on my steps through the ferns and moss and roots. “This forest,” Rhys went on, “is on the eastern edge of that neutral territory. Here, there is no High Lord. Here, the law is made by who is strongest, meanest, most cunning. And the Weaver of the Wood is at the top of their food chain.”

The trees groaned—though there was no breeze to shift them. No, the air here was tight and stale. “Amarantha didn’t wipe them out?”

“Amarantha was no fool,” Rhys said, his face dark. “She did not touch these creatures or disturb the wood. For years, I tried to find ways to manipulate her to make that foolish mistake, but she never bought it.”

“And now we’re disturbing her—for a mere test.”

He chuckled, the sound bouncing off the gray stones strewn across the forest floor like scattered marbles. “Cassian tried to convince me last night not to take you. I thought he might even punch me.”

“Why?” I barely knew him.

“Who knows? With Cassian, he’s probably more interested in fucking you than protecting you.”

“You’re a pig.”

“You could, you know,” Rhys said, holding up the branch of a scrawny beech for me to slip under. “If you needed to move on in a physical sense, I’m sure Cassian would be more than happy to oblige.”

It felt like a test in itself. And it pissed me off enough that I crooned, “Then tell him to come to my room tonight.”

“If you survive this test.”

I paused atop a little lichen-crusted rock. “You seem pleased by the idea that I won’t.”

“Quite the opposite, Feyre.” He prowled to where I stood on the stone. I was almost eye level with him. The forest went even quieter—the trees seeming to lean closer, as if to catch every word. “I’ll let Cassian know you’re … open to his advances.”

“Good,” I said. A bit of hollowed-out air pushed against me, like a flicker of night. That power along my bones and blood stirred in answer.

I made to jump off the stone, but he gripped my chin, the movement too fast to detect. His words were a lethal caress as he said, “Did you enjoy the sight of me kneeling before you?”

I knew he could hear my heart as it ratcheted into a thunderous beat. I gave him a hateful little smirk, anyway, yanking my chin out of his touch and leaping off the stone. I might have aimed for his feet. And he might have shifted out of the way just enough to avoid it. “Isn’t that all you males are good for, anyway?” But the words were tight, near-breathless.

His answering smile evoked silken sheets and jasmine-scented breezes at midnight.

A dangerous line—one Rhys was forcing me to walk to keep me from thinking about what I was about to face, about what a wreck I was inside.

Anger, this … flirtation, annoyance … He knew those were my crutches.

What I was about to encounter, then, must be truly harrowing if he wanted me going in there mad—thinking about sex, about anything but the Weaver of the Wood.

“Nice try,” I said hoarsely. Rhysand just shrugged and swaggered off into the trees ahead.

Bastard. Yes, it had been to distract me, but—

I stormed after him as silently as I could, intent on tackling him and slamming my fist into his spine, but he held up a hand as he stopped before a clearing.

A small, whitewashed cottage with a thatched roof and half-crumbling chimney sat in the center. Ordinary—almost mortal. There was even a well, its bucket perched on the stone lip, and a wood pile beneath one of the round windows of the cottage. No sound or light within—not even smoke puffed from the chimney.

The few birds in the forest fell quiet. Not entirely, but to keep their chatter to a minimum. And—there.

Faint, coming from inside the cottage, was a pretty, steady humming.

It might have been the sort of place I would have stopped if I were thirsty, or hungry, or in need of shelter for the night.

Maybe that was the trap.

The trees around the clearing, so close that their branches nearly clawed at the thatched roof, might very well have been the bars of a cage.

Rhys inclined his head toward the cottage, bowing with dramatic grace.

In, out—don’t make a sound. Find whatever object it was and snatch it from beneath a blind person’s nose.

And then run like hell.

Mossy earth paved the way to the front door, already cracked slightly. A bit of cheese. And I was the foolish mouse about to fall for it.

Eyes twinkling, Rhys mouthed, Good luck.

I gave him a vulgar gesture and slowly, silently made my way toward the front door.

The woods seemed to monitor each of my steps. When I glanced behind, Rhys was gone.

He hadn’t said if he’d interfere if I were in mortal peril. I probably should have asked.

I avoided any leaves and stones, falling into a pattern of movement that some part of my body—some part that was not born of the High Lords—remembered.

Like waking up. That’s what it felt like.

I passed the well. Not a speck of dirt, not a stone out of place. A perfect, pretty trap, that mortal part of me warned. A trap designed from a time when humans were prey; now laid for a smarter, immortal sort of game.

I was not prey any longer, I decided as I eased up to that door.

And I was not a mouse.

I was a wolf.

I listened on the threshold, the rock worn as if many, many boots had passed through—and perhaps never passed back over again. The words of her song became clear now, her voice sweet and beautiful, like sunlight on a stream:

“There were two sisters, they went playing,

To see their father’s ships come sailing …

And when they came unto the sea-brim

The elder did push the younger in.”

A honeyed voice, for an ancient, horrible song. I’d heard it before—slightly different, but sung by humans who had no idea that it had come from faerie throats.

I listened for another moment, trying to hear anyone else. But there was only a clatter and thrum of some sort of device, and the Weaver’s song.

“Sometimes she sank, and sometimes she swam,

’Til her corpse came to the miller’s dam.”

My breath was tight in my chest, but I kept it even—directing it through my mouth in silent breaths. I eased open the front door, just an inch.

No squeak—no whine of rusty hinges. Another piece of the pretty trap: practically inviting thieves in. I peered inside when the door had opened wide enough.

A large main room, with a small, shut door in the back. Floor-to-ceiling shelves lined the walls, crammed with bric-a-brac: books, shells, dolls, herbs, pottery, shoes, crystals, more books, jewels … From the ceiling and wood rafters hung all manner of chains, dead birds, dresses, ribbons, gnarled bits of wood, strands of pearls …

A junk shop—of some immortal hoarder.

And that hoarder …

In the gloom of the cottage, there sat a large spinning wheel, cracked and dulled with age.

And before that ancient spinning wheel, her back to me, sat the Weaver.

Her thick hair was of richest onyx, tumbling down to her slender waist as she worked the wheel, snow-white hands feeding and pulling the thread around a thorn-sharp spindle.

She looked young—her gray gown simple but elegant, sparkling faintly in the dim forest light through the windows as she sang in a voice of glittering gold:

“But what did he do with her breastbone?

He made him a viol to play on.

What’d he do with her fingers so small?

He made pegs to his viol withall.”

The fiber she fed into the wheel was white—soft. Like wool, but … I knew, in that lingering human part of me, it was not wool. I knew that I did not want to learn what creature it had come from, who she was spinning into thread.

Because on the shelf directly beyond her were cones upon cones of threads—of every color and texture. And on the shelf adjacent to her were swaths and yards of that woven thread—woven, I realized, on the massive loom nearly hidden in the darkness near the hearth. The Weaver’s loom.

I had come on spinning day—would she have been singing if I had come on weaving day instead? From the strange, fear-drenched scent that came from those bolts of fabric, I already knew the answer.

A wolf. I was a wolf.

I stepped into the cottage, careful of the scattered debris on the earthen floor. She kept working, the wheel clattering so merrily, so at odds with her horrible song:

“And what did he do with her nose-ridge?

Unto his viol he made a bridge.

What did he do with her veins so blue?

He made strings to his viol thereto.”

I scanned the room, trying not to listen to the lyrics.

Nothing. I felt … nothing that might pull me toward one object in particular. Perhaps it would be a blessing if I were indeed not the one to track the Book—if today was not the start of what was sure to be a slew of miseries.

The Weaver perched there, working.

I scanned the shelves, the ceiling. Borrowed time. I was on borrowed time, and I was almost out of it.

Had Rhys sent me on a fool’s errand? Maybe there was nothing here. Maybe this object had been taken. It would be just like him to do that. To tease me in the woods, to see what sort of things might make my body react.

And maybe I resented Tamlin enough in that moment to enjoy that deadly bit of flirtation. Maybe I was as much a monster as the female spinning before me.

But if I was a monster, then I supposed Rhys was as well.

Rhys and I were one in the same—beyond the power that he’d given me. It’d be fitting if Tamlin hated me, too, once he realized I’d truly left.

I felt it, then—like a tap on my shoulder.

I pivoted, keeping one eye on the Weaver and the other on the room as I wove through the maze of tables and junk. Like a beacon, a bit of light laced with his half smile, it tugged me.

Hello, it seemed to say. Have you come to claim me at last?

Yes—yes, I wanted to say. Even as part of me wished it were otherwise.

The Weaver sang behind me,

“What did he do with her eyes so bright?

On his viol he set at first light.

What did he do with her tongue so rough?

’Twas the new till and it spoke enough.”

I followed that pulse—toward the shelf lining the wall beside the hearth. Nothing. And nothing on the second. But the third, right above my eyeline … There.

I could almost smell his salt-and-citrus scent. The Bone Carver had been correct.

I rose on my toes to examine the shelf. An old letter knife, books in leather that I did not want to touch or smell; a handful of acorns, a tarnished crown of ruby and jasper, and—

A ring.

A ring of twisted strands of gold and silver, flecked with pearl, and set with a stone of deepest, solid blue. Sapphire—but different. I’d never seen a sapphire like that, even at my father’s offices. This one … I could have sworn that in the pale light, the lines of a six-pointed star radiated across the round, opaque surface.

Rhys—this had Rhys written all over it.

He’d sent me here for a ring?

The Weaver sang,

“Then bespake the treble string,

‘O yonder is my father the king.’”

I watched her for another heartbeat, gauging the distance between the shelf and the open door. Grab the ring, and I could be gone in a heartbeat. Quick, quiet, calm.

“Then bespake the second string,

‘O yonder sits my mother the queen.’ ”

I dropped a hand toward one of the knives strapped to my thighs. When I got back to Rhys, maybe I’d stab him in the gut.

That fast, the memory of phantom blood covered my hands. I knew how it’d feel to slide my dagger through his skin and bones and flesh. Knew how the blood would dribble out, how he’d groan in pain—

I shut out the thought, even as I could feel the blood of those faeries soaking that human part of me that hadn’t died and belonged to no one but my miserable self.

“Then bespake the strings all three,

‘Yonder is my sister that drowned me.’ ”

My hand was quiet as a final, dying breath as I plucked the ring from the shelf.

The Weaver stopped singing.

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