فصل 11

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PART TWO

CURSEBREAKER CHAPTER

11

The cold was what hit me first.

Brisk, crisp cold, laced with loam and rotting things.

In the twilight, the world beyond the narrow cave mouth was a latticework of red and gold and brown and green, the trees thick and old, the mossy ground strewn with rocks and boulders that cast long shadows.

We emerged, blades out, barely breathing beyond a trickle of air.

But there were no Autumn Court sentries guarding the entrance to Beron’s realm—none that we could see or scent.

Without my magic, I was blind again, unable to sweep a net of awareness through the ancient, vibrant trees to catch any traces of nearby Fae minds.

Utterly helpless. That’s how I’d been before. How I’d survived so long without it … I didn’t want to consider.

We crept on cat-soft feet into the moss and stone and wood, our breath curling in front of us.

Keep moving, keep striding north. Rhys would have realized by now that our bond had gone dark—was likely trying to glean whether I had planned for that. Whether it was worth the risk of revealing our scheming to find me.

But until he did … until he could hear me, find me … I had to keep moving.

So I let Lucien lead the way, wishing I’d at least been able to shift my eyes to something that could pierce the darkening wood. But my magic was still and frozen. A crutch I’d become too reliant upon.

We picked our way through the forest, the chill deepening with each vanishing shaft of sunlight.

We hadn’t spoken since we’d entered that cave between courts. From the stiffness of his shoulders, the hard angle of his jaw as he moved on silent, steady feet, I knew only our need for stealth kept his simmering questions at bay.

Night was fully overhead, the moon not yet risen, when he led us into another cave.

I balked at the entrance.

Lucien merely said, voice flat and as icy as the air, “It doesn’t lead anywhere. It curves away in the back—it’ll keep us out of sight.”

I let him go inside first nonetheless.

Every limb and movement turned sluggish, aching. But I trailed him into the cave, and around the bend he’d indicated.

Flint struck, and I found myself gazing at a makeshift camp of sorts.

The candle Lucien had ignited sat on a natural stone ledge, and on the floor nearby lay three bedrolls and old blankets, crusted with leaves and cobwebs. A little fire pit lay in the sloped center of the space, the ceiling above it charred.

No one had been here in months. Years.

“I used to stay here while hunting. Before—I left,” he said, examining a dusty, leather-bound book left on the stone ledge beside the candle. He set the tome down with a thump. “It’s just for the night. We’ll find something to eat in the morning.”

I only lifted the closest bedroll and smacked it a few times, leaves and clouds of dust flying off before I laid it upon the ground.

“You truly planned this,” he said at last.

I sat on the bedroll and began sorting through my pack, hauling out the warmer clothes, food, and supplies Alis herself had placed within. “Yes.”

“That’s all you have to say?”

I sniffed at the food, wondering what was laced with faebane. It could be in everything. “It’s too risky to eat,” I admitted, evading his question.

Lucien was having none of it. “I knew. I knew you were lying the moment you unleashed that light in Hybern. My friend at the Dawn Court has the same power—her light is identical. And it does not do whatever horseshit you lied about it doing.”

I shoved my pack off my bedroll. “Then why not tell him? You were his faithful dog in every other sense.”

His eye seemed to simmer. As if being in his own lands set that molten ore inside him rising to the surface, even with the damper on his power. “Glad to see the mask is off, at least.”

Indeed, I let him see it all—didn’t alter or shape my face into anything but coldness.

Lucien snorted. “I didn’t tell him for two reasons. One, it felt like kicking a male already down. I couldn’t take that hope away from him.” I rolled my eyes. “Two,” he snapped, “I knew if I was correct and called you on it, you’d find a way to make sure I never saw her.”

My nails dug into my palms hard enough to hurt, but I remained seated on the bedroll as I bared my teeth at him. “And that’s why you’re here. Not because it’s right and he’s always been wrong, but just so you can get what you think you’re owed.”

“She is my mate and in my enemy’s hands—”

“I’ve made no secret from the start that Elain is safe and cared for.”

“And I’m supposed to believe you.”

“Yes,” I hissed. “You are. Because if I believed for one moment that my sisters were in danger, no High Lord or king would have kept me from going to save them.”

He just shook his head, the candlelight dancing over his hair. “You have the gall to question my priorities regarding Elain—yet what was your motive where I was concerned? Did you plan to spare me from your path of destruction because of any genuine friendship, or simply for fear of what it might do to her?”

I didn’t answer.

“Well? What was your grand plan for me before Ianthe interfered?”

I pulled at a stray thread in the bedroll. “You would have been fine,” was all I said.

“And what about Tamlin? Did you plan to disembowel him before you left and simply not get the chance?”

I ripped the loose thread right out of the bedroll. “I debated it.”

“But?”

“But I think letting his court collapse around him is a better punishment. Certainly longer than an easy death.” I slung off Tamlin’s bandolier of knives, leather scraping against the rough stone floor. “You’re his emissary—surely you realize that slitting his throat, however satisfying, wouldn’t win us many allies in this war.” No, it’d give Hybern too many openings to undermine us.

He crossed his arms. Digging in for a good, long fight. Before he could do just that, I cut in, “I’m tired. And our voices echo. Let’s have it out when it’s not likely to get us caught and killed.”

His gaze was a brand.

But I ignored it as I nestled down on the bedroll, the material reeking of dust and rot. I pulled my cloak over me, but didn’t close my eyes.

I didn’t dare sleep—not when he might very well change his mind. Yet just lying down, not moving, not thinking … Some of the tightness in my body eased.

Lucien blew out the candle and I listened to the sounds of him settling down as well.

“My father will hunt you for taking his power if he finds out,” he said into the frigid dark. “And kill you for learning how to wield it.”

“He can get in line,” was all I said.

My exhaustion was a blanket over my senses as gray light stained the cave walls.

I’d spent most of the night shivering, jolting at every snap and sound in the forest outside, keenly aware of Lucien’s movements on his bedroll.

From his own haggard face as he sat up, I knew he hadn’t slept, either, perhaps wondering if I’d abandon him. Or if his family would find us first. Or mine.

We took each other’s measure.

“What now,” he rasped, scrubbing a broad hand over his face.

Rhys had not come—I had not heard a whisper of him down the bond.

I felt for my magic, but only ashes greeted me. “We head north,” I said. “Until the faebane is out of our systems and we can winnow.” Or I could contact Rhys and the others.

“My father’s court lies due northward. We’ll have to go to the east or west to avoid it.”

“No. East takes us too close to the Summer Court border. And I won’t lose time by going too far west. We go straight north.”

“My father’s sentries will easily spot us.”

“Then we’ll have to remain unseen,” I said, rising.

I dumped the last of the contaminated food from my pack. Let the scavengers have it.

Walking through the woods of the Autumn Court felt like striding inside a jewel box.

Even with all that potentially hunted us now, the colors were so vivid it was an effort not to gawk and gape.

By midmorning, the rime had melted away under the buttery sun to reveal what was suitable for eating. My stomach growled with every step, and Lucien’s red hair gleamed like the leaves above us as he scanned the woods for anything to fill our bellies.

His woods, by blood and law. He was a son of this forest, and here … He looked crafted from it. For it. Even that gold eye.

Lucien eventually stopped at a jade stream wending through a granite-flanked gully, a spot he claimed had once been rich with trout.

I was in the process of constructing a rudimentary fishing pole when he waded into the stream, boots off and pants rolled to his knees, and caught one with his bare hands. He’d tied his hair up, a few strands of it falling into his face as he swooped down again and threw a second trout onto the sandy bank where I’d been trying to find a substitute for fishing twine.

We remained silent as the fish eventually stopped flapping, their sides catching and gleaming with all the colors so bright above us.

Lucien picked them up by their tails, as if he’d done it a thousand times. He might very well have, right here in this stream. “I’ll clean them while you start the fire.” In the daylight, the glow of the flames wouldn’t be noticed. Though the smoke … a necessary risk.

We worked and ate in silence, the crackling fire offering the only conversation.

We hiked north for five days, hardly exchanging a word.

Beron’s seat was so vast it took us three days to enter, pass through, and clear it. Lucien led us through the outskirts, tense at every call and rustle.

The Forest House was a sprawling complex, Lucien informed me during the few times we risked or bothered to speak to each other. It had been built in and around the trees and rocks, and only its uppermost levels were visible above the ground. Below, it tunneled a few levels into the stone. But its sprawl generated its size. You might walk from one end of the House to the other and it would take you half the morning. There were layers and circles of sentries ringing it: in the trees, on the ground, atop the moss-coated shingles and stones of the House itself.

No enemies approached Beron’s home without his knowledge. None left without his permission.

I knew we’d passed beyond Lucien’s known map of their patrol routes and stations when his shoulders sagged.

Mine were slumped already.

I had barely slept, only letting myself do so when Lucien’s breathing slid into a different, deeper rhythm. I knew I couldn’t keep it up for long, but without the ability to shield, to sense any danger …

I wondered if Rhys was looking for me. If he’d felt the silence.

I should have gotten a message out. Told him I was going and how to find me.

The faebane—that was why the bond had sounded so muffled. Perhaps I should have killed Ianthe outright.

But what was done was done.

I was rubbing at my aching eyes, taking a moment’s rest beneath our new bounty: an apple tree, laden with fat, succulent fruit.

I’d filled my bag with what I could fit inside. Two cores already lay discarded beside me, the sweet rotting scent as lulling as the droning of the bees gorging themselves on fallen apples. A third apple was already primed and poised for eating atop my outstretched legs.

After what the Hybern royals had done, I should have sworn off apples forever, but hunger had always blurred lines for me.

Lucien, sitting a few feet away, chucked his fourth apple into the bushes as I bit into mine. “The farmlands and fields are near,” he announced. “We’ll have to stay out of sight. My father doesn’t pay well for his crops, and the land-workers will earn any extra coin they can.”

“Even selling out the location of one of the High Lord’s sons?”

“Especially that way.”

“They didn’t like you?”

His jaw tightened. “As the youngest of seven sons, I wasn’t particularly needed or wanted. Perhaps it was a good thing. I was able to study for longer than my father allowed my brothers before shoving them out the door to rule over some territory within our lands, and I could train for as long as I liked, since no one believed I’d be dumb enough to kill my way up the long list of heirs. And when I grew bored with studying and fighting … I learned what I could of the land from its people. Learned about the people, too.”

He eased to his feet with a groan, his unbound hair glimmering as the midday sun overhead set the blood and wine hues aglow.

“I’d say that sounds more High-Lord-like than the life of an idle, unwanted son.”

A long, steely look. “Did you think it was mere hatred that prompted my brothers to do their best to break and kill me?”

Despite myself, a shudder rippled down my spine. I finished off the apple and uncoiled to my feet, plucking another off a low-hanging branch. “Would you want it—your father’s crown?”

“No one’s ever asked me that,” Lucien mused as we moved on, dodging fallen, rotting apples. The air was sticky-sweet. “The bloodshed that would be required to earn that crown wouldn’t be worth it. Neither would its festering court. I’d gain a crown—only to rule over a crafty, two-faced people.”

“Lord of Foxes,” I said, snorting as I remembered that mask he’d once worn. “But you never answered my question—about why the people here would sell you out.”

The air ahead lightened, and a golden field of barley undulated toward a distant tree line.

“After Jesminda, they would.”

Jesminda. He’d never spoken her name.

Lucien slid between the swaying, bobbing stalks. “She was one of them.” The words were barely audible over the sighing barley. “And when I didn’t protect her … It was a betrayal of their trust, too. I ran to some of their houses while fleeing my brothers. They turned me out for what I let happen to her.”

Waves of gold and ivory rolled around us, the sky a crisp, unmarred blue.

“I can’t blame them for it,” he said.

We cleared the fertile valley by the late afternoon. When Lucien offered to stop for the night, I insisted we keep going—right into the steep foothills that leaped into gray, snowcapped mountains that marked the start of the shared range with the Winter Court. If we could get over the border in a day or two, perhaps my powers would have returned enough to contact Rhys—or winnow the rest of the way home.

The hike wasn’t an easy one.

Great, craggy boulders made up the ascent, flecked with moss and long, white grasses that hissed like adders. The wind ripped at our hair, the temperature dropping the higher we climbed.

Tonight … We might have to risk a fire tonight. Just to stay alive.

Lucien was panting as we scaled a hulking boulder, the valley sprawling away behind, the wood a tangled river of color beyond it. There had to be a pass into the range at some point—out of sight.

“How are you not winded,” he panted, hauling himself onto the flat top.

I shoved back the hair that had torn free of my braid to whip my face. “I trained.”

“I gathered that much after you took on Dagdan and walked away from it.”

“I had the element of surprise on my side.”

“No,” Lucien said quietly as I reached for a foothold in the next boulder. “That was all you.” My nails barked as I dug my fingers into the rock and heaved myself up. Lucien added, “You had my back—with them, with Ianthe. Thank you.”

The words hit something low in my gut, and I was glad for the wind that kept roaring around us, if only to hide the burning in my eyes.

I slept—finally.

With the crackling fire in our latest cave, the heat and the relative remoteness were enough to finally drag me under.

And in my dreams, I think I swam through Lucien’s mind, as if some small ember of my power was at last returning.

I dreamed of our cozy fire, and the craggy walls, the entire space barely big enough to fit us and the fire. I dreamed of the howling, dark night beyond, of all the sounds that Lucien so carefully sorted through while he kept watch.

His attention slid to me at one point and lingered.

I had never known how young, how human I looked when I slept. My braid was a rope over my shoulder, my mouth slightly parted, my face haggard with days of little rest and food.

I dreamed that he removed his cloak and added it over my blanket.

Then I ebbed away, flowing out of his head as my dreams shifted and sailed elsewhere. I let a sea of stars rock me into sleep.

A hand gripped my face so hard the groaning of my bones jolted me awake.

“Look who we found,” a cold male voice drawled.

I knew that face—the red hair, the pale skin, the smirk. Knew the faces of the other two males in the cave, a snarling Lucien pinned beneath them.

His brothers.

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