فصل 14

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Chapter 14

Western woods. Grove of young birch trees. Slaughtered chicken. Double-loop snare. Close to running water.

I repeated Lucien’s instructions as I walked out of the manor, through the cultivated gardens, across the wild, rolling grassy hills beyond them, over clear streams, and into the spring woods beyond. No one had stopped me—no one had even been around to see me leave, bow and quiver across my back, Lucien’s knife at my side. I lugged along a satchel stuffed with a freshly dead chicken courtesy of the baffled kitchen staff, and had tucked an extra blade into my boot.

The lands were as empty as the manor itself, though I occasionally glimpsed something shining in the corner of my eye. Every time I turned to look, the shimmering transformed into the sunlight dancing on a nearby stream, or the wind fluttering the leaves of a lone sycamore atop a knoll. As I passed a large pond nestled at the foot of a towering hill, I could have sworn I saw four shining female heads poking up from the bright water, watching me. I hurried my steps.

Only birds and the chittering and rustling of small animals sounded as I entered the still green western forest. I’d never ridden through these woods on my hunts with Lucien. There was no path here, nothing tame about it. Oaks, elms, and beeches intertwined in a thick weave, almost strangling the trickle of sunlight that crept in through the dense canopy. The moss-covered earth swallowed any sound I made.

Old—this forest was ancient. And alive, in a way that I couldn’t describe but could only feel, deep in the marrow of my bones. Perhaps I was the first human in five hundred years to walk beneath those heavy, dark branches, to inhale the freshness of spring leaves masking the damp, thick rot.

Birch trees—running water. I made my way through the woods, breath tight in my throat. Night was the dangerous time, I reminded myself. I had only a few hours until sunset.

Even if the Bogge had stalked us in the daylight.

The Bogge was dead, and whatever horror Tamlin was now dealing with dwelled in another part of these lands. The Spring Court. I wondered in what ways Tamlin had to answer to its High Lord, or if it was his High Lord who had carved out Lucien’s eye. Maybe it was the High Lord’s consort—the she whom Lucien had mentioned—that instilled such fear in them. I pushed away the thought.

I kept my steps light, my eyes and ears open, and my heartbeat steady. Shortcomings or no, I could still hunt. And the answers I needed were worth it.

I found a glen of young, skinny birch trees, then stalked in ever-widening circles until I encountered the nearest stream. Not deep, but so wide that I’d have to take a running leap to cross it. Lucien had said to find running water, and this was close enough to make escape possible. If I needed to escape. Hopefully I wouldn’t.

I traced and then retraced several different routes to the stream. And a few alternate routes, should my access to it somehow be blocked. And when I was sure of every root and rock and hollow in the surrounding area, I returned to the small clearing encircled by those white trees and laid my snare.

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From my spot up a nearby tree—a sturdy, dense oak whose vibrant leaves hid me entirely from anyone below—I waited. And waited. The afternoon sun crept overhead, hot enough even through the canopy that I had to shrug off my cloak and roll up the sleeves of my tunic. My stomach grumbled, and I pulled a hunk of cheese out of my rucksack. Eating it would be quieter than the apple I’d also swiped from the kitchen on my way out. When I finished it off, I swigged water from the canteen I’d brought, parched from the heat.

Did Tamlin or Lucien ever grow tired of day after day of eternal spring, or ever venture into the other territories, if only to experience a different season? I wouldn’t have minded endless, mild spring while looking after my family—winter brought us dangerously close to death every year—but if I were immortal, I might want a little variation to pass the time. I’d probably want to do more than lurk about a manor house, too. Though I still hadn’t worked up the nerve to make the request that had crept into the back of my mind when I saw the mural.

I moved about as much as I dared on the branch, only to keep the blood flowing to my limbs. I’d just settled in again when a ripple of silence came toward me. As if the wood thrushes and squirrels and moths held their breath while something passed by.

My bow was already strung. Quietly, I loosely nocked an arrow. Closer and closer the silence crept.

The trees seemed to lean in, their entwined branches locking tighter, a living cage keeping even the smallest of birds from soaring out of the canopy.

Maybe this had been a very bad idea. Maybe Lucien had overestimated my abilities. Or maybe he had been waiting for the chance to lead me to my doom.

My muscles strained from holding still atop the branch, but I kept my balance and listened. Then I heard it: a whisper, as if cloth were dragging over root and stone, a hungry, wheezing sniffing from the nearby clearing.

I’d laid my snares carefully, making the chicken look as if it had wandered too far and snapped its own neck as it sought to free itself from a fallen branch. I’d taken care to keep my own scent off the bird as much as possible. But these faeries had such keen senses, and even though I’d covered my tracks— There was a snap, a whoosh, and a hollowed-out, wicked scream that made my bones and muscles and breath lock up.

Another enraged shriek pierced the forest, and my snares groaned as they held, and held, and held.

I climbed out of the tree and went to meet the Suriel.

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Lucien, I decided as I crept up to the faerie in the birch glen, really, truly wanted me dead.

I hadn’t known what to expect as I entered the ring of white trees—tall and straight as pillars—but it was not the tall, thin veiled figure in dark tattered robes. Its hunched back facing me, I could count the hard knobs of its spine poking through the thin fabric. Spindly, scabby gray arms clawed at the snare with yellowed, cracked fingernails.

Run, some primal, intrinsically human part of me whispered. Begged. Run and run and never look back.

But I kept my arrow loosely nocked. I said quietly, “Are you one of the Suriel?”

The faerie went rigid. And sniffed. Once. Twice.

Then slowly, it turned to me, the dark veil draped over its bald head blowing in a phantom breeze.

A face that looked like it had been crafted from dried, weatherworn bone, its skin either forgotten or discarded, a lipless mouth and too-long teeth held by blackened gums, slitted holes for nostrils, and eyes … eyes that were nothing more than swirling pits of milky white—the white of death, the white of sickness, the white of clean-picked corpses.

Peeking above the ragged neck of its dark robes was a body of veins and bones, as dried and solid and horrific as the texture of its face. It let go of the snare, and its too-long fingers clicked against each other as it studied me.

“Human,” it said, and its voice was at once one and many, old and young, beautiful and grotesque. My bowels turned watery. “Did you set this clever, wicked trap for me?” “Are you one of the Suriel?” I asked again, my words scarcely more than a ragged breath.

“Indeed I am.” Click, click, click went its fingers against each other, one for each word.

“Then the trap was for you,” I managed. Run, run, run.

It remained sitting, its bare, gnarled feet caught in my snares. “I have not seen a human woman for an age. Come closer so I might look upon my captor.” I did no such thing.

It let out a huffing, awful laugh. “And which of my brethren betrayed my secrets to you?” “None of them. My mother told me stories of you.”

“Lies—I can smell the lies on your breath.” It sniffed again, its fingers clacking together. It cocked its head to the side, an erratic, sharp movement, the dark veil snapping with it. “What would a human woman want from the Suriel?” “You tell me,” I said softly.

It let out another low laugh. “A test? A foolish and useless test, for if you dared to capture me, then you must want knowledge very badly.” I said nothing, and it smiled with that lipless mouth, its grayed teeth horrifically large. “Ask me your questions, human, and then free me.” I swallowed hard. “Is there—is there truly no way for me to go home?”

“Not unless you seek to be killed, and your family with you. You must remain here.” Whatever last shred of hope I’d been clinging to, whatever foolish optimism, shriveled and died. This changed nothing. Before my fight with Tamlin that morning, I hadn’t even entertained the idea, anyway. Perhaps I’d only come here out of spite. So, fine—if I was here, facing sure death, then I might as well learn something. “What do you know about Tamlin?” “More specific, human. Be more specific. For I know a good many things about the High Lord of the Spring Court.” The earth tilted beneath me. “Tamlin is—Tamlin is a High Lord?”

Click, click, click. “You did not know. Interesting.”

Not just some petty faerie lord of a manor, but … but a High Lord of one of the seven territories. A High Lord of Prythian.

“Did you also not know that this is the Spring Court, little human?”

“Yes—yes, I knew about that.”

The Suriel settled on the ground. “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Dawn, Day, and Night,” it mused, as if I hadn’t even answered. “The seven Courts of Prythian, each ruled by a High Lord, all of them deadly in their own way. They are not merely powerful—they are Power.” That was why Tamlin had been able to face the Bogge and live. High Lord.

I tucked away my fear. “Everyone at the Spring Court is stuck wearing a mask, and yet you aren’t,” I said cautiously. “Are you not a member of the Court?” “I am a member of no Court. I am older than the High Lords, older than Prythian, older than the bones of this world.” Lucien had definitely overestimated my abilities. “And what can be done about this blight that has spread in Prythian, stealing and altering the magic? Where did it come from?” “Stay with the High Lord, human,” the Suriel said. “That’s all you can do. You will be safe. Do not interfere; do not go looking for answers after today, or you will be devoured by the shadow over Prythian. He will shield you from it, so stay close to him, and all will be righted.” That wasn’t exactly an answer. I repeated, “Where did the blight come from?”

Those milky eyes narrowed. “The High Lord does not know that you came here today, does he? He does not know that his human woman came to trap a Suriel, because he cannot give her the answers she seeks. But it is too late, human—for the High Lord, for you, perhaps for your realm as well …” Despite all that it had said, despite its order to stop asking questions and stay with Tamlin, it was his human woman that echoed in my head. That made me clench my teeth.

But the Suriel went on. “Across the violent western sea, there is another faerie kingdom called Hybern, ruled by a wicked, powerful king. Yes, a king,” he said when I raised a brow. “Not a High Lord—there, his territory is not divided into courts. There, he is law unto himself. Humans no longer exist in that realm—though his throne is made of their bones.” That large island I’d seen on the map, the one that hadn’t yielded any lands to humans after the Treaty. And—a throne of bones. The cheese I’d eaten turned leaden in my stomach.

“For some time now, the King of Hybern has found himself unhappy with the Treaty the other ruling High Fae of the world made with you humans long ago. He resents that he was forced to sign it, to let his mortal slaves go and to remain confined to his damp green isle at the edge of the world. And so, a hundred years ago, he dispatched his most-trusted and loyal commanders, his deadliest warriors, remnants of the ancient armies that he once sailed to the continent to wage such a brutal war against you humans, all of them as hungry and vile as he. As spies and courtiers and lovers, they infiltrated the various High Fae courts and kingdoms and empires around the world for fifty years, and when they had gathered enough information, he made his plan. But nearly five decades ago, one of his commanders disobeyed him. The Deceiver. And—” The Suriel straightened. “We are not alone.” I drew my bow farther but kept it pointed at the ground as I scanned the trees. But everything had already gone silent in the presence of the Suriel.

“Human, you must free me and run,” it said, those death-filled eyes widening. “Run for the High Lord’s manor. Do not forget what I told you—stay with the High Lord, and live to see everything righted.” “What is it?” If I knew what came, I could stand a better chance of—

“The naga—faeries made of shadow and hate and rot. They heard my scream, and they smelled you. Free me, human. They will cage me if they catch me here. Free me and return to the High Lord’s side.” Shit. Shit. I lunged for the snare, making to put away my bow and grab my knife.

But four shadowy figures slipped through the birch trees, so dark that they seemed made from a starless night.

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