فصل 49

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CHAPTER

49

I awoke, warm and rested and calm.

Safe.

Sunlight streamed through the filthy window, illuminating the reds and golds in the wall of wing before me—where it had been all night, shielding me from the cold.

Rhysand’s arms were banded around me, his breathing deep and even. And I knew it was just as rare for him to sleep that soundly, peacefully.

What we’d done last night …

Carefully, I twisted to face him, his arms tightening slightly, as if to keep me from vanishing with the morning mist.

His eyes were open when I nestled my head against his arm. Within the shelter of his wing, we watched each other.

And I realized I might very well be content to do exactly that forever.

I said quietly, “Why did you make that bargain with me? Why demand a week from me every month?”

His violet eyes shuttered.

And I didn’t dare admit what I expected, but it was not, “Because I wanted to make a statement to Amarantha; because I wanted to piss off Tamlin, and I needed to keep you alive in a way that wouldn’t be seen as merciful.”

“Oh.”

His mouth tightened. “You know—you know there is nothing I wouldn’t do for my people, for my family.”

And I’d been a pawn in that game.

His wing folded back, and I blinked at the watery light. “Bath or no bath?” he said.

I cringed at the memory of the grimy, reeking bathing room a level below. Using it to see to my needs would be bad enough. “I’d rather bathe in a stream,” I said, pushing past the sinking in my gut.

Rhys let out a low laugh and rolled out of bed. “Then let’s get out of here.”

For a heartbeat, I wondered if I’d dreamed up everything that had happened the night before. From the slight, pleasant soreness between my legs, I knew I hadn’t, but …

Maybe it’d be easier to pretend that nothing had happened.

The alternative might be more than I could endure.

We flew for most of the day, far and wide, close to where the forested steppes rose up to meet the Illyrian Mountains. We didn’t speak of the night before—we barely spoke at all.

Another clearing. Another day of playing with my power. Summoning wings, winnowing, fire and ice and water and—now wind. The wind and breezes that rippled across the sweeping valleys and wheat fields of the Day Court, then whipped up the snow capping their highest peaks.

I could feel the words rising in him as the hours passed. I’d catch him watching me whenever I paused for a break—catch him opening up his mouth … and then shutting it.

It rained at one point, and then turned colder and colder with the cloud cover. We had yet to stay in the woods past dark, and I wondered what sort of creatures might prowl through them.

The sun was indeed sinking by the time Rhys gathered me in his arms and took to the skies.

There was only the wind, and his warmth, and the boom of his powerful wings.

I ventured, “What is it?”

His attention remained on the dark pines sweeping past. “There is one more story I need to tell you.”

I waited. He didn’t continue.

I put my hand against his cheek, the first intimate touch we’d had all day. His skin was chilled, his eyes bleak as they slid to me. “I don’t walk away—not from you,” I swore quietly.

His gaze softened. “Feyre—”

Rhys roared in pain, arching against me.

I felt the impact—felt blinding pain through the bond that ripped through my own mental shields, felt the shudder of the dozen places the arrows struck him as they shot from bows hidden beneath the forest canopy.

And then we were falling.

Rhys gripped me, and his magic twisted around us in a dark wind, readying to winnow us out—and failed.

Failed, because those were ash arrows through him. Through his wings. They’d tracked us—yesterday, the little magic he’d used with Lucien, they’d somehow tracked it and found us even so far away—

More arrows—

Rhys flung out his power. Too late.

Arrows shredded his wings. Struck his legs.

And I think I was screaming. Not for fear as we plummeted, but for him—for the blood and the greenish sheen on those arrows. Not just ash, but poison—

A dark wind—his power—slammed into me, and then I was being thrown far and wide as he sent me tumbling beyond the arrows’ range, tumbling through the air—

Rhys’s roar of wrath shook the forest, the mountains beyond. Birds rose up in waves, taking to the skies, fleeing that bellow.

I slammed into the dense canopy, my body barking in agony as I shattered through wood and pine and leaf. Down and down—

Focus focus focus

I flung out a wave of that hard air that had once shielded me from Tamlin’s temper. Threw it out beneath me like a net.

I collided with an invisible wall so solid I thought my right arm might snap.

But—I stopped falling through the branches.

Thirty feet below, the ground was nearly impossible to see in the growing darkness.

I did not trust that shield to hold my weight for long.

I scrambled across it, trying not to look down, and leaped the last few feet onto a wide pine bough. Hurtling over the wood, I reached the trunk and clung to it, panting, reordering my mind around the pain, the steadiness of being on ground.

I listened—for Rhys, for his wings, for his next roar. Nothing.

No sign of the archers who he’d been falling to meet. Who he’d thrown me far, far away from.Trembling, I dug my nails into the bark as I listened for him.

Ash arrows. Poisoned ash arrows.

The forest grew ever darker, the trees seeming to wither into skeletal husks. Even the birds hushed themselves.

I stared at my palm—at the eye inked there—and sent a blind thought through it, down that bond. Where are you? Tell me and I’ll come to you. I’ll find you.

There was no wall of onyx adamant at the end of the bond. Only endless shadow.

Things—great, enormous things—were rustling in the forest.

Rhysand. No response.

The last of the light slipped away.

Rhysand, please.

No sound. And the bond between us … silent. I’d always felt it protecting me, seducing me, laughing at me on the other side of my shields. And now … it had vanished.

A guttural howl rippled from the distance, like rocks scraping against each other.

Every hair on my body rose. We never stayed out here past sunset.

I took steadying breaths, nocking one of my few remaining arrows into my bow.

On the ground, something sleek and dark slithered past, the leaves crunching under what looked to be enormous paws tipped in needle-like claws.

Something began screaming. High, panicked screeches. As if it were being torn apart. Not Rhys—something else.

I began shaking again, the tip of my arrow gleaming as it shuddered with me.

Where are you where are you where are you

Let me find you let me find you let me find you

I unstrung my bow. Any bit of light might give me away.

Darkness was my ally; darkness might shield me.

It had been anger the first time I’d winnowed—and anger the second time I’d done it.

Rhys was hurt. They had hurt him. Targeted him. And now … Now …

It was not hot anger that poured through me.

But something ancient, and frozen, and so vicious that it honed my focus into razor-sharpness.

And if I wanted to track him, if I wanted to get to the spot I’d last seen him … I’d become a figment of darkness, too.

I was running down the branch just as something crashed through the brush nearby, snarling and hissing. But I folded myself into smoke and starlight, and winnowed from the edge of my branch and into the tree across from me. The creature below loosed a cry, but I paid it no heed.

I was night; I was wind.

Tree to tree, I winnowed, so fast the beasts roaming the forest floor barely registered my presence. And if I could grow claws and wings … I could change my eyes, too.

I’d hunted at dusk often enough to see how animal eyes worked, how they glowed.

Cool command had my own eyes widening, shifting—a temporary blindness as I winnowed between trees again, running down a wide branch and winnowing through the air for the next—

I landed, and the night forest became bright. And the things prowling on the forest floor below … I didn’t look at them.

No, I kept my attention on winnowing through the trees until I was on the outskirts of the spot where we’d been attacked, all the while tugging on that bond, searching for that familiar wall on the other side of it. Then—

An arrow was stuck in the branches high above me. I winnowed onto the broad bough.

And when I yanked out that length of ash wood, when I felt my immortal body quail in its presence, a low snarl slipped out of me.

I hadn’t been able to count how many arrows Rhys had taken. How many he’d shielded me from, using his own body.

I shoved the arrow into my quiver, and continued on, circling the area until I spotted another—down by the pine-needle carpet.

I thought frost might have gleamed in my wake as I winnowed in the direction the arrow would have been shot, finding another, and another. I kept them all.

Until I discovered the place where the pine branches were broken and shattered. Finally I smelled Rhys, and the trees around me glimmered with ice as I spied his blood splattered on the branches, the ground.

And ash arrows all around the site.

As if an ambush had been waiting, and unleashed a hail of hundreds, too fast for him to detect or avoid. Especially if he’d been distracted with me. Distracted all day.

I winnowed in bursts through the site, careful not to stay on the ground too long lest the creatures roaming nearby scent me.

He’d fallen hard, the tracks told me. And they’d had to drag him away. Quickly.

They’d tried to hide the blood trail, but even without his mind speaking to me, I could find that scent anywhere. I would find that scent anywhere.

They might have been good at concealing their tracks, but I was better.

I continued my hunt, an ash arrow now nocked into my bow as I read the signs.

Two dozen at least had taken him away, though more had been there for the initial assault. The others had winnowed out, leaving limited numbers to haul him toward the mountains—toward whoever might be waiting.

They were moving swiftly. Deeper and deeper into the woods, toward the slumbering giants of the Illyrian Mountains. His blood had flowed all the way.

Alive, it told me. He was alive—though if the wounds weren’t clotting … The ash arrows were doing their work.

I’d brought down one of Tamlin’s sentinels with a single well-placed ash arrow. I tried not to think about what a barrage of them could do. His roar of pain echoed in my ears.

And through that merciless, unyielding rage, I decided that if Rhys was not alive, if he was harmed beyond repair … I didn’t care who they were and why they had done it.

They were all dead.

Tracks veered from the main group—scouts probably sent to find a spot for the night. I slowed my winnowing, carefully tracing their steps now. Two groups had split, as if trying to hide where they’d gone. Rhys’s scent clung to both.

They’d taken his clothes, then. Because they’d known I’d track them, seen me with him. They’d known I’d come for him. A trap—it was likely a trap.

I paused at the top branches of a tree overlooking where the two groups had cleaved, scanning the ground. One headed deeper into the mountains. One headed along them.

Mountains were Illyrian territory—mountains would run the risk of being discovered by a patrol. They’d assume that’s where I would doubt they would be stupid enough to go. They’d assume I’d think they’d keep to the unguarded, unpatrolled forest.

I weighed my options, smelling the two paths.

They hadn’t counted on the small, second scent that clung there, entwined with his.

And I didn’t let myself think about it as I winnowed toward the mountain tracks, outracing the wind. I didn’t let myself think about the fact that my scent was on Rhys, clinging to him after last night. He’d changed his clothes that morning—but the smell on his body … Without taking a bath, I was all over him.

So I winnowed toward him, toward me. And when the narrow cave appeared at the foot of a mountain, the faintest glimmer of light escaping from its mouth … I halted.

A whip cracked.

And every word, every thought and feeling, went out of me. Another whip—and another.

I slung my bow over my shoulder and pulled out a second ash arrow. It was quick work to bind the two arrows together, so that a tip gleamed on either end—and to do the same for two more. And when I was done, when I looked at the twin makeshift daggers in either hand, when that whip sounded again … I winnowed into the cave.

They’d picked one with a narrow entrance that opened into a wide, curving tunnel, setting up their little camp around the bend to avoid detection.

The scouts at the front—two High Fae males with unmarked armor who I didn’t recognize—didn’t notice as I went past.

Two other scouts patrolled just inside the cave mouth, watching those at the front. I was there and vanished before they could spot me. I rounded the corner, time slipping and bending, and my night-dark eyes burned at the light. I changed them, winnowing between one blink and the next, past the other two guards.

And when I beheld the four others in that cave, beheld the tiny fire they’d built and what they’d already done to him … I pushed against the bond between us—almost sobbing as I felt that adamant wall … But there was nothing behind it. Only silence.

They’d found strange chains of bluish stone to spread his arms, suspending him from either wall of the cave. His body sagged from them, his back a ravaged slab of meat. And his wings …

They’d left the ash arrows through his wings. Seven of them.

His back to me, only the sight of the blood running down his skin told me he was alive.

And it was enough—it was enough that I detonated.

I winnowed to the two guards holding twin whips.

The others around them shouted as I dragged my ash arrows across their throats, deep and vicious, just like I’d done countless times while hunting. One, two—then they were on the ground, whips limp. Before the guards could attack, I winnowed again to the ones nearest.

Blood sprayed.

Winnow, strike; winnow, strike.

Those wings—those beautiful, powerful wings—

The guards at the mouth of the cave had come rushing in.

They were the last to die.

And the blood on my hands felt different from what it had been like Under the Mountain. This blood … I savored. Blood for blood. Blood for every drop they’d spilled of his.

Silence fell in the cave as their final shouts finished echoing, and I winnowed in front of Rhys, shoving the bloody ash daggers into my belt. I gripped his face. Pale—too pale.

But his eyes opened to slits and he groaned.

I didn’t say anything as I lunged for the chains holding him, trying not to notice the bloody handprints I’d left on him. The chains were like ice—worse than ice. They felt wrong. I pushed past the pain and strangeness of them, and the weakness that barreled down my spine, and unlatched him.

His knees slammed into the rock so hard I winced, but I rushed to the other arm, still upraised. Blood flowed down his back, his front, pooling in the dips between his muscles.

“Rhys,” I breathed. I almost dropped to my own knees as I felt a flicker of him behind his mental shields, as if the pain and exhaustion had reduced it to window-thinness. His wings, peppered with those arrows, remained spread—so painfully taut that I winced. “Rhys—we need to winnow home.”

His eyes opened again, and he gasped, “Can’t.”

Whatever poison was on those arrows, then his magic, his strength …

But we couldn’t stay here, not when the other group was nearby. So I said, “Hold on,” and gripped his hand before I threw us into night and smoke.

Winnowing was so heavy, as if all the weight of him, all that power, dragged me back. It was like wading through mud, but I focused on the forest, on a moss-shrouded cave I’d seen earlier that day while slaking my thirst, tucked into the side of the riverbank. I’d peeked into it, and nothing but leaves had been within. At least it was safe, if not a bit damp. Better than being in the open—and it was our only option.

Every mile was an effort. But I kept my grip on his hand, terrified that if I let go, I’d leave him somewhere I might never be able to find, and—

And then we were there, in that cave, and he grunted in agony as we slammed into the wet, cold stone floor.

“Rhys,” I pleaded, stumbling in the dark—such impenetrable dark, and with those creatures around us, I didn’t risk a fire—

But he was so cold, and still bleeding.

I willed my eyes to shift again, and my throat tightened at the damage. The lashings across his back kept dribbling blood, but the wings … “I have to get these arrows out.”

He grunted again, hands braced on the floor. And the sight of him like that, unable to even make a sly comment or half smile …

I went up to his wing. “This is going to hurt.” I clenched my jaw as I studied the way they’d pierced the beautiful membrane. I’d have to snap the arrows in two and slide each end out.

No—not snapping. I’d have to cut it—slowly, carefully, smoothly, to keep any shards and rough bits from causing further damage. Who knew what an ash splinter might do if it got stuck in there?

“Do it,” he panted, his voice hoarse.

There were seven arrows in total: three in this wing, four in the other. They’d removed the ones from his legs, for whatever reason—the wounds already half-clotted.

Blood dripped on the floor.

I took the knife from where it was strapped to my thigh, studied the entry wound, and gently gripped the shaft. He hissed. I paused.

“Do it,” Rhys repeated, his knuckles white as he fisted his hands on the ground.

I set the small bit of serrated edge against the arrow and began sawing as gently as I could. The blood-soaked muscles of his back shifted and tensed, and his breathing turned sharp, uneven. Too slow—I was going too slowly.

But any faster and it might hurt him more, might damage the sensitive wing.

“Did you know,” I said over the sound of my sawing, “that one summer, when I was seventeen, Elain bought me some paint? We’d had just enough to spend on extra things, and she bought me and Nesta presents. She didn’t have enough for a full set, but bought me red and blue and yellow. I used them to the last drop, stretching them as much as I could, and painted little decorations in our cottage.”

His breath heaved out of him, and I finally sawed through the shaft. I didn’t let him know what I was doing before I yanked out the arrowhead in a smooth pull.

He swore, body locking up, and blood gushed out—then stopped.

I almost loosed a sigh of relief. I set to work on the next arrow.

“I painted the table, the cabinets, the doorway … And we had this old, black dresser in our room—one drawer for each of us. We didn’t have much clothing to put in there, anyway.” I got through the second arrow faster, and he braced himself as I tugged it out. Blood flowed, then clotted. I started on the third. “I painted flowers for Elain on her drawer,” I said, sawing and sawing. “Little roses and begonias and irises. And for Nesta … ” The arrow clattered to the ground and I ripped out the other end.

I watched the blood flow and stop—watched him slowly lower the wing to the ground, his body trembling.

“Nesta,” I said, starting on the other wing, “I painted flames for her. She was always angry, always burning. I think she and Amren would be fast friends. I think she would like Velaris, despite herself. And I think Elain—Elain would like it, too. Though she’d probably cling to Azriel, just to have some peace and quiet.”

I smiled at the thought—at how handsome they would be together. If the warrior ever stopped quietly loving Mor. I doubted it. Azriel would likely love Mor until he was a whisper of darkness between the stars.

I finished the fourth arrow and started on the fifth.

Rhys’s voice was raw as he said to the floor, “What did you paint for yourself?”

I drew out the fifth, moving to the sixth before saying, “I painted the night sky.”

He stilled. I went on, “I painted stars and the moon and clouds and just endless, dark sky.” I finished the sixth, and was well on my way sawing through the seventh before I said, “I never knew why. I rarely went outside at night—usually, I was so tired from hunting that I just wanted to sleep. But I wonder … ” I pulled out the seventh and final arrow. “I wonder if some part of me knew what was waiting for me. That I would never be a gentle grower of things, or someone who burned like fire—but that I would be quiet and enduring and as faceted as the night. That I would have beauty, for those who knew where to look, and if people didn’t bother to look, but to only fear it … Then I didn’t particularly care for them, anyway. I wonder if, even in my despair and hopelessness, I was never truly alone. I wonder if I was looking for this place—looking for you all.”

The blood stopped flowing, and his other wing lowered to the ground. Slowly, the lashes on his back began to clot. I walked around to where he was bowed over the floor, hands braced on the rock, and knelt.

His head lifted. Pain-filled eyes, bloodless lips. “You saved me,” he rasped.

“You can explain who they were later.”

“Ambush,” Rhys said anyway, his eyes scanning my face for signs of hurt. “Hybern soldiers with ancient chains from the king himself, to nullify my power. They must have traced the magic I used yesterday … I’m sorry.” The words tumbled out of him. I brushed back his dark hair. That was why I hadn’t been able to use the bond, to speak mind to mind.

“Rest,” I said, and moved to retrieve the blanket from my pack. It’d have to do. He gripped my wrist before I could rise. His eyelids lowered. Consciousness ripped from him—too fast. Much too fast and too heavy.

“I was looking for you, too,” Rhys murmured.

And passed out.

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