فصل 4

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Chapter 4

I didn’t know how the wooden hilt of my hunting knife had gotten into my hand. The first few moments were a blur of the snarling of a gigantic beast with golden fur, the shrieking of my sisters, the blistering cold cascading into the room, and my father’s terror-stricken face.

Not a martax, I realized—though the relief was short-lived. The beast had to be as large as a horse, and while his body was somewhat feline, his head was distinctly wolfish. I didn’t know what to make of the curled, elk-like horns that protruded from his head. But lion or hound or elk, there was no doubting the damage his black, daggerlike claws and yellow fangs could inflict.

Had I been alone in the woods, I might have let myself be swallowed by fear, might have fallen to my knees and wept for a clean, quick death. But I didn’t have room for terror, wouldn’t give it an inch of space, despite my heart’s wild pounding in my ears. Somehow, I wound up in front of my sisters, even as the creature reared onto its hind legs and bellowed through a maw full of fangs: “MURDERERS!” But it was another word that echoed through me:

Faerie.

Those ridiculous wards on our threshold were as good as cobwebs against him. I should have asked the mercenary how she’d killed that faerie. But the beast’s thick neck—that looked like a good home for my knife.

I dared a glance over my shoulder. My sisters screamed, kneeling against the wall of the hearth, my father crouched in front of them. Another body for me to defend. Stupidly, I took another step toward the faerie, keeping the table between us, fighting the shaking in my hand. My bow and quiver were across the room—past the beast. I’d have to get around him to reach the ash arrow. And buy myself enough time to fire it.

“MURDERERS!” the beast roared again, hackles raised.

“P-please,” my father babbled from behind me, failing to find it in himself to come to my side. “Whatever we have done, we did so unknowingly, and—” “W-w-we didn’t kill anyone,” Nesta added, choking on her sobs, arm lifted over her head, as if that tiny iron bracelet would do anything against the creature.

I snatched another dinner knife off the table, the best I could do unless I found a way to get to the quiver. “Get out,” I snapped at the creature, brandishing the knives before me. No iron in sight that I could use as a weapon—unless I chucked my sisters’ bracelets at him. “Get out, and begone.” With my trembling hands, I could barely keep my grip on the hilts. A nail—I’d take a damned iron nail, if it were available.

He bellowed at me in response, and the entire cottage shook, the plates and cups rattling against one another. But it left his massive neck exposed. I hurled my hunting knife.

Fast—so fast I could barely see it—he slashed out with a paw, sending it skittering away as he snapped for my face with his teeth.

I leaped back, almost stumbling over my cowering father. The faerie could have killed me—could have, yet the lunge had been a warning. Nesta and Elain, weeping, prayed to whatever long-forgotten gods might still be skulking about.

“WHO KILLED HIM?” The creature stalked toward us. He set a paw on the table, and it groaned beneath him. His claws thudded as they embedded in the wood, one by one.

I dared another step forward as the beast stretched his snout over the table to sniff at us. His eyes were green and flecked with amber. Not animal eyes, not with their shape and coloring. My voice was surprisingly even as I challenged: “Killed who?” He growled, low and vicious. “The wolf,” he said, and my heart stumbled a beat. The roar was gone, but the wrath lingered—perhaps even traced with sorrow.

Elain’s wail reached a high-pitched shriek. I kept my chin up. “A wolf?”

“A large wolf with a gray coat,” he snarled in response. Would he know if I lied? Faeries couldn’t lie—all mortals knew that—but could they smell the lies on human tongues? We had no chance of escaping this through fighting, but there might be other ways.

“If it was mistakenly killed,” I said to the beast as calmly as I could, “what payment could we offer in exchange?” This was all a nightmare, and I’d awaken in a moment beside the fire, exhausted from my day at the market and my afternoon with Isaac.

The beast let out a bark that could have been a bitter laugh. He pushed off the table to pace in a small circle before the shattered door. The cold was so intense that I shivered. “The payment you must offer is the one demanded by the Treaty between our realms.” “For a wolf?” I retorted, and my father murmured my name in warning. I had vague memories of being read the Treaty during my childhood lessons, but could recall nothing about wolves.

The beast whirled on me. “Who killed the wolf?”

I stared into those jade eyes. “I did.”

He blinked and glanced at my sisters, then back at me, at my thinness—no doubt seeing only frailness instead. “Surely you lie to save them.” “We didn’t kill anything!” Elain wept. “Please … please, spare us!” Nesta hushed her sharply through her own sobbing, but pushed Elain farther behind her. My chest caved in at the sight of it.

My father climbed to his feet, grunting at the pain in his leg as he bobbled, but before he could limp toward me, I repeated: “I killed it.” The beast, who had been sniffing at my sisters, studied me. I squared my shoulders. “I sold its hide at the market today. If I had known it was a faerie, I wouldn’t have touched it.” “Liar,” he snarled. “You knew. You would have been more tempted to slaughter it had you known it was one of my kind.” True, true, true. “Can you blame me?”

“Did it attack you? Were you provoked?”

I opened my mouth to say yes, but—“No,” I said, letting out a snarl of my own. “But considering all that your kind has done to us, considering what your kind still likes to do to us, even if I had known beyond a doubt, it was deserved.” Better to die with my chin held high than groveling like a cowering worm.

Even if his answering growl was the definition of wrath and rage.

The firelight shone upon his exposed fangs, and I wondered how they’d feel on my throat, and how loudly my sisters would scream before they, too, died. But I knew—with a sudden, uncoiling clarity—that Nesta would buy Elain time to run. Not my father, whom she resented with her entire steely heart. Not me, because Nesta had always known and hated that she and I were two sides of the same coin, and that I could fight my own battles. But Elain, the flower-grower, the gentle heart … Nesta would go down swinging for her.

It was that flash of understanding that had me angling my remaining knife at the beast. “What is the payment the Treaty requires?” His eyes didn’t leave my face as he said, “A life for a life. Any unprovoked attacks on faerie-kind by humans are to be paid only by a human life in exchange.” My sisters quieted their weeping. The mercenary in town had killed a faerie—but had attacked her first. “I didn’t know,” I said. “Didn’t know about that part of the Treaty.” Faeries couldn’t lie—and he spoke plainly enough, no word-twisting.

“Most of you mortals have chosen to forget that part of the Treaty,” he said, “which makes punishing you far more enjoyable.” My knees quaked. I couldn’t escape this, couldn’t outrun this. Couldn’t even try to run, since he blocked the way to the door. “Do it outside,” I whispered, my voice trembling. “Not … here.” Not where my family would have to wash away my blood and gore. If he even let them live.

The faerie huffed a vicious laugh. “Willing to accept your fate so easily?” When I just stared at him, he said, “For having the nerve to request where I slaughter you, I’ll let you in on a secret, human: Prythian must claim your life in some way, for the life you took from it. So as a representative of the immortal realm, I can either gut you like swine, or … you can cross the wall and live out the remainder of your days in Prythian.” I blinked. “What?”

He said slowly, as if I were indeed as stupid as a swine, “You can either die tonight or offer your life to Prythian by living in it forever, forsaking the human realm.” “Do it, Feyre,” my father whispered from behind me. “Go.”

I didn’t look at him as I said, “Live where? Every inch of Prythian is lethal to us.” I’d be better off dying tonight than living in pure terror across the wall until I met my end in doubtlessly an even more awful way.

“I have lands,” the faerie said quietly—almost reluctantly. “I will grant you permission to live there.”

“Why bother?” Perhaps a fool’s question, but—

“You murdered my friend,” the beast snarled. “Murdered him, skinned his corpse, sold it at the market, and then said he deserved it, and yet you have the nerve to question my generosity?” How typically human, he seemed to silently add.

“You didn’t need to mention the loophole.” I stepped so close the faerie’s breath heated my face. Faeries couldn’t lie, but they could omit information.

The beast snarled again. “Foolish of me to forget that humans have such low opinions of us. Do you humans no longer understand mercy?” he said, his fangs inches from my throat. “Let me make this clear for you, girl: you can either come live at my home in Prythian—offer your life for the wolf’s in that way—or you can walk outside right now and be shredded to ribbons. Your choice.” My father’s hobbling steps sounded before he gripped my shoulder. “Please, good sir—Feyre is my youngest. I beseech you to spare her. She is all … she is all …” But whatever he meant to say died in his throat as the beast roared again. But hearing those few words he’d managed to get out, the effort he’d made … it was like a blade to my belly. My father cringed as he said, “Please—” “Silence,” the creature snapped, and rage boiled up in me so blistering it was an effort to keep from lunging to stab my dagger in his eye. But by the time I had so much as raised my arm, I knew he would have his maw around my neck.

“I can get gold—” my father said, and my rage guttered. The only way he would get money was by begging. Even then, he’d be lucky to get a few coppers. I’d seen how pitiless the well-off were in our village. The monsters in our mortal realm were just as bad as those across the wall.

The beast sneered. “How much is your daughter’s life worth to you? Do you think it equates to a sum?”

Nesta still had Elain held behind her, Elain’s face so pale it matched the snow drifting in from the open door. But Nesta monitored every move the beast made, her brows lowered. She didn’t bother to look at my father—as if she knew his answer already.

When my father didn’t reply, I dared another step toward the beast, drawing his attention to me. I had to get him out—get him away from my family. From the way he’d brushed away my knife, any hope of escaping lay in somehow sneaking up on him. With his hearing, I doubted I’d get a chance anytime soon, at least until he believed I was docile. If I tried to attack him or fled before then, he would destroy my family for the sheer enjoyment of it. Then he would find me again. I had no choice but to go. And then, later, I might find an opportunity to slit the beast’s throat. Or at least disable him long enough to flee.

As long as the faeries couldn’t find me again, they couldn’t hold me to the Treaty. Even if it made me a cursed oath-breaker. But in going with him, I would be breaking the most important promise I’d ever made. Surely it trumped an ancient treaty that I hadn’t even signed.

I loosened my grip on the hilt of my remaining dagger and stared into those green eyes for a long, silent while before I said, “When do we go?” Those lupine features remained fierce—vicious. Any lingering hope I had of fighting died as he moved to the door—no, to the quiver I’d left behind it. He pulled out the ash arrow, sniffed, and snarled at it. With two movements, he snapped it in half and chucked it into the fire behind my sisters before turning back to me. I could smell my doom on his breath as he said, “Now.” Now.

Even Elain lifted her head to gape at me in mute horror. But I couldn’t look at her, couldn’t look at Nesta—not when they were still crouched there, still silent. I turned to my father. His eyes glistened, so I glanced to the few cabinets we had, faded too-yellow daffodils curving over the handles. Now.

The beast paced in the doorway. I didn’t want to contemplate where I was going or what he would do with me. Running would be foolish until it was the right time.

“The venison should hold you for two weeks,” I said to my father as I gathered my clothes to bulk up against the cold. “Start on the fresh meat, then work your way through to the jerky—you know how to make it.” “Feyre—” my father breathed, but I continued as I fastened my cloak.

“I left the money from the pelts on the dresser,” I said. “It will last you for a time, if you’re careful.” I finally looked at my father again and allowed myself to memorize the lines of his face. My eyes stung, but I blinked the moisture away as I stuffed my hands into my worn gloves. “When spring comes, hunt in the grove just south of the big bend in Silverspring Creek—the rabbits make their warrens there. Ask … ask Isaac Hale to show you how to make snares. I taught him last year.” My father nodded, covering his mouth with a hand. The beast growled his warning and prowled out into the night. I made to follow him but paused to look at my sisters, still crouched by the fire, as if they wouldn’t dare to move until I was gone.

Elain mouthed my name but kept cowering, kept her head down. So I turned to Nesta, whose face was so similar to my mother’s, so cold and unrelenting.

“Whatever you do,” I said quietly, “don’t marry Tomas Mandray. His father beats his wife, and none of his sons do anything to stop it.” Nesta’s eyes widened, but I added, “Bruises are harder to conceal than poverty.” Nesta stiffened but said nothing—both of my sisters said absolutely nothing—as I turned toward the open door. But a hand wrapped around my arm, tugging me into a stop.

Turning me around to face him, my father opened and closed his mouth. Outside, the beast, sensing I’d been detained, sent a snarl rumbling into the cottage.

“Feyre,” my father said. His fingers trembled as he grasped my gloved hands, but his eyes became clearer and bolder than I’d seen them in years. “You were always too good for here, Feyre. Too good for us, too good for everyone.” He squeezed my hands. “If you ever escape, ever convince them that you’ve paid the debt, don’t return.” I hadn’t expected a heart-wrenching good-bye, but I hadn’t imagined this, either.

“Don’t ever come back,” my father said, releasing my hands to shake me by the shoulders. “Feyre.” He stumbled over my name, his throat bobbing. “You go somewhere new—and you make a name for yourself.” Beyond, the beast was just a shadow. A life for a life—but what if the life offered as payment also meant losing three others? The thought alone was enough to steel me, anchor me.

I’d never told my father of the promise I’d made my mother, and there was no use explaining it now. So I shrugged off his grip and left.

I let the sounds of the snow crunching underfoot drive out my father’s words as I followed the beast to the night-shrouded woods.

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