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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 55


Never in my life did I think I would be so thrilled by another’s inability to ride a horse on their own.

But with Poppy seated in front of me and little, if any, space between our lower bodies, I thought perhaps I needed to give a prayer of thanks.

I swallowed a groan as Poppy moved in front of me. With the saddle flat and having no seat, the curve of her ass was pressed fully between my thighs, and when she squirmed, which was a lot, that lovely ass of hers brushed my cock.

Which made what would normally be a boring ride through the empty lands quite intriguing and a bit challenging for my self-control.

And this was only day one.

We hadn’t headed straight into the Blood Forest. It would’ve been the quickest route, but it would’ve also meant traveling through the thickest section. No one, not even Kieran and I, wanted that. So, we were skirting that, riding more toward Pensdurth, where the Blood Forest thinned out. We would enter there.

Watching where Kieran rode ahead with Phillips, one of the more seasoned guards, Poppy wiggled again.

I shifted, sliding my arm through the opening of her cloak and clasping her hip.

She stilled.

I tipped forward, lowering my head to hers. “You doing okay?”

“I can’t really feel my legs.”

I laughed. “You’ll get used to it in a couple of days.”

Her sudden inhale as I moved my thumb across her hip brought a grin to my face. “Great.”

“You sure you ate enough?” I asked. She’d only had a little of the cheese and nuts earlier, and I knew she wasn’t accustomed to eating and riding at the same time.

She nodded. “Are we stopping?”


“Then why are we slowing?”

“It’s the path—” Airrick cut himself off as he caught my glare.

For once, he managed to stop himself from calling her the Maiden. My promise to knock his ass off his horse likely helped with that. I saw Poppy grin at the young guard.

Airrick just may end up being knocked off his horse either way.

“The path gets uneven here,” Airrick continued. “And there’s a stream, but it’s hard to see through the growth.”

“That’s not all,” I said, moving my thumb in a circle on Poppy’s hip.

“It’s not?” she asked.

“You see Luddie?” I said, referencing the quiet Huntsman who rode beside us. “He’s keeping an eye out for barrats.”

Her lip curled. “I thought they were all gone.”

“They’re the only thing the Craven won’t eat.”

Poppy shuddered. “How many do you think are out here?”

Likely thousands, but I didn’t think she needed to know that. “I don’t know.”

She looked at Airrick.

The young guard quickly averted his gaze. Smart man.

Poppy was, as always, undaunted. “Do you know how many, Airrick?”

“Eh, well, I know there used to be more,” he said, his gaze flicking toward me. I raised my brows. “They didn’t used to be a problem, you know? Or at least that was what my grandfather told me when I was a boy. He lived out here. One of the last ones.”

“Really?” Interest filled Poppy’s voice.

Airrick nodded. “He grew corn and tomatoes, beans and potatoes.” A small smile formed. “He would tell me that the barrats used to be nothing more than a nuisance.”

“I can’t imagine rats weighing nearly two hundred pounds being only a nuisance,” Poppy stated.

“Well, they were just scavengers and more scared of people than we were afraid of them,” Airrick explained. “But with everyone moving out, they lost their…”

“Food source?” she surmised.

Airrick nodded, scanning the horizon. “Now, anything they come across is food.”

“Including us,” she murmured, glancing at Luddie.

I nudged Setti forward, putting some distance between us and the others. “You’re intriguing.”

“Intriguing is your favorite word,” she replied.

“It is when I’m around you.”

Poppy grinned. “Why am I intriguing now?”

“When are you not intriguing?” I replied. “You aren’t afraid of Descenters or Craven, but you’re shuddering like a wet kitten at the mere mention of a barrat.”

She huffed. “Craven and Descenters don’t scurry about on all fours, and they don’t have fur.”

“Well, barrats don’t scurry,” I told her. “They run, about as fast as a hunting dog locked onto prey.”

She shuddered once more. “That is not helping.”

I laughed. “You know what I would love right about now?”

“For there to be no talk of giant, people-eating rats?” she suggested.

I gave her a quick squeeze. “Besides that.”

Poppy snorted, and I liked when she did that. It was a cute little sound.

I frowned at myself. “Do me a favor and reach into the bag by your left leg. Be careful, though. Hold onto the pommel.”

“I’m not going to fall off.”


She listened, though. Holding on, she reached the bag and lifted the flap.

I eyed her closely as she rooted around. I knew the exact moment she found it. She frowned and pulled out the red leather-bound journal.

Poppy gasped. “Oh, my gods.” She shoved it back into the bag.

Her reaction undid me. A laugh burst out of me, loud enough that Kieran and Phillips both looked over their shoulders.

“I can’t believe you.” She twisted in the saddle. Some of the heat faded from her tone. “How did you even find that book?”

“How did I find that naughty diary of Lady Willa Colyns?” I grinned. “I have my ways.”

“How?” she demanded.

“I’ll never tell.”

Poppy smacked my arm.

My grin went up a notch. “So violent.”

She rolled her eyes.

“You’re not going to read to me?”

“No. Absolutely not.”

I dipped my head closer to hers, unable to stop myself from teasing her. “Maybe I’ll read to you later.”

Her chin lifted. “That’s not necessary.”

“You sure?”

“Positive,” she muttered.

I laughed, enjoying the warmth that invaded her cheeks. “How far did you get, Princess?”

She stubbornly mashed her lips together. I waited for an answer. It came with a sigh. “I almost finished it.”

Surprise flickered through me, along with something hot and smoky. That was much, much further than I thought she would have read. “You’ll have to tell me all about it.”

Her nose scrunched. The corners of her lips twitched, and then it happened.

Poppy smiled, and it was wide, crinkling the skin at her eyes. It was beautiful.

Then she laughed, and it was no quiet chuckle, but a deep, throaty one.

And I…I lost my breath for the second time in my life. The nape of my neck tingled. I’d never seen her smile like that. I’d never heard her laugh like that. And there was another clenching sensation in my gut. I was…enchanted.

It took me a few moments to realize that Poppy had relaxed into me. She had been sitting straight, keeping her back rigid, but not anymore. She leaned into me, her head resting against my chest and fitting rather perfectly against my body. Again, I couldn’t help but think like I had before I took her to the Duchess. That in a different life, I would’ve been built for this. My arm tightened around her.

The ease in which she sat—how she allowed me to hold her—didn’t last. Not with the sun setting. Not with what I could now see in the distance.

A horizon of red.

Our pace picked up, and it wasn’t long before Poppy saw it. She tensed, then sat straight as each step carried us forward, until all any of us could see was the gray, twisted bark and leaves the color of dried blood.

We were on the outskirts of the Blood Forest now. There was no teasing. Hands were at the ready, including Poppy’s. Hers had fallen to the hilt of her dagger. All of us were on alert. The only sound was the horses’ hooves passing over rock, and then the crunching of something much more fragile.

Poppy started to look.

“Don’t,” I warned her. “Don’t look down.”

But, of course, she did.

I glanced at her, seeing her face pale as she stared at the dull, scattered bones along the path.

Gasping, she jerked and face forward. “The bones…” She swallowed. “They’re not all animal bones, are they?”


Her left hand went to my arm. “Are they the bones of Craven who died?”

“Some of them,” I said, knowing I shouldn’t coddle her. This was far more dangerous than barrats. I felt her tremble, and I cursed beneath my breath. “I told you not to look.”

“I know,” she whispered.

I kept scanning the spaces between the trees, but mostly the ground. We were good. So far. There was no mist.

The ground became a tangle of exposed roots and larger boulders, forcing us to slow and ride in a tight line. Airrick’s mount reared, catching the scent of something it didn’t like. Kieran had caught it, too. His head turned to the north, his jaw tight. As we traveled farther, and the temperature dropped, I picked up on what they had already scented. The faint stench of decay.

“No leaves,” Poppy whispered.

I saw that she was staring at the forest floor. She then looked up at the thick canopy of red leaves above us. They had glistened in the fading sun. Not anymore. Now, they were dark as puddles of blood against the rapidly approaching night.

“What?” I leaned into her, speaking low.

“There are no leaves on the ground,” she said. “It’s just grass. How is that possible?”

“This place is not natural,” Phillips answered from ahead of us.

“That would be an understatement.” Airrick wrinkled his nose.

That, I could agree with. I leaned back. “We will need to stop soon. The horses need rest.”

Poppy’s hold on my arm tightened. I could feel the press of her fingers through the sweater I wore beneath my cloak. She didn’t protest or complain nor lose her nerve. No one would’ve blamed her if she did. The rest of us had been in the Blood Forest before. She hadn’t. And with her experience as a child?

Poppy had to be afraid, but she wasn’t terrified. I knew that by her easy breathing, the calm way she kept an eye on our surroundings, and that right hand steady on her dagger.

I smiled.


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