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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 62


We arrived in New Haven at dusk, and I knew Poppy had to be tired. We’d been riding for almost twenty-four hours, taking minimal breaks, and there was definitely no more cheese to be found. But as soon as we entered the city, Poppy sat straight and looked around, taking in everything with an expression damn close to wonderment. She probably hadn’t expected much from the small trading town, especially since the mortal elite didn’t flock to the distant city. That benefited us. The Ascended had no reason to check on Lord Halverston, who had once overseen the city, so New Haven was run entirely by Descenters and mortal descendants of Atlantia—unbeknownst to the Blood Crown. That was why the Rise was in good condition, and the rows of homes we rode past were well-kept and far more spacious than what one saw near the Rise in Masadonia.

Since we’d arrived at suppertime, I’d hoped to make it to the keep unnoticed.

We didn’t.

Doors and windows opened, and there were smiles and waves. A small horde of children followed our progress, smiling up at us. Poppy gave a short, jerky wave, bringing a grin to my face.

She leaned back into me and whispered, “This is a little odd.”

“I don’t think they get a lot of visitors,” I said, squeezing her waist.

“This is an exciting day for them,” Kieran commented drolly, knowing damn well they recognized us. Me.

“Is it?” I eyed Kieran.

“They behave as if royalty is among them,” Poppy murmured.

“Then they truly must not get many visitors,” I replied.

Kieran gave me a long, sideways glance.

“Have you been here before?” Poppy asked.

“Only briefly,” I told her, smiling at the young girl with dark braids and deep brown skin waving from one of the second-floor windows of a golden-doored home.

Poppy turned to Kieran. “You?”

“I’ve passed through a time or two.”

More like a time or two dozen, but luckily the greenish-gray stone of the two-story Haven Keep appeared ahead, framed by the heavy woods that separated the town from Whitebridge. The structure was old, built before the War of Two Kings, and it looked it.

Snow began falling as we crossed into the keep’s yard, and I spotted several guards in black. To Poppy, they likely looked like normal Rise Guards. They weren’t.

I relaxed a little at seeing a few familiar faces as I led Setti toward the stables. Once inside the lamplit barn, I swung down, giving the horse a quick pat before lifting my arms to help Poppy.

She looked at my hands, arched a brow, and then slid off the other side of the saddle.

I sighed, and Poppy grinned as she rubbed Setti’s neck, who was busy sniffing the straw.

Grabbing the saddlebag, I draped it over my shoulder and went to where she stood. “Stay close to me.”

“Of course.”

My eyes narrowed on her. That was a far-too-quick agreement. She clasped her hands together, fixing what she likely thought was an innocent look on her face, but it only made her appear impish.

Kieran and the others joined us as we left Setti’s stall, where he’d found fresh hay in the racks. Outside the stables, the snow was coming down harder. We’d made it just in time. Poppy tugged her cloak around her as we crossed the yard. Catching the eyes of several of my men, I nodded. Their expressions were a mixture of relief and anticipation.

I felt the same.

But didn’t.

The doors of the keep opened, and godsdamn, it was good to see the tall, blond wolven in the entryway. It had been far too long since I’d last seen Delano Amicu.

“It’s good to see you.” Delano clasped Kieran’s hand as he glanced at me, then at Poppy. His gaze lingered a second or so on her and then returned to Kieran. “It’s good to see all of you.”

“Same, Delano,” Kieran answered as I placed my hand on Poppy’s lower back. “It’s been too long.”

“Not long enough.”

I cracked a grin at the deep voice booming from inside the keep. A second later, the massive, bearded, dark-haired Elijah Payne strode out, hand resting on the short sword strapped to his side. Not that the mountain of a man needed it. I’d seen the half-Atlantian pick up a Craven and throw it like it was nothing more than a sack of potatoes.

Kieran smiled, and I saw Poppy do a double-take. “Elijah,” he drawled. “You missed me more than anyone else.”

Elijah proved just how strong the fucker was, capturing Kieran in a hug. He lifted the heavy-ass wolven off his feet as his golden-brown gaze landed on Poppy and me.

A half grin appeared on Elijah’s face as he dropped Kieran. He strode forward, giving Kieran only a heartbeat to move out of the way. “What do we have here?” Elijah asked.

“We’re in need of shelter for the night,” I said.

Elijah threw back his head, laughing. I stifled a sigh as he said, “We have plenty of shelter.”

“Good to hear.” I sent Elijah a look of warning as I guided Poppy into the keep’s foyer.

The space was packed. I kept my hand on Poppy’s back, knowing the looks of distrust coming from some of them were simply because they didn’t recognize Poppy or the guards who traveled with us, but it made me tense. I needed to make sure none of them would be a problem, especially if any happened to figure out who Poppy was. She kept looking around, and I bet she searched for the Lord or Lady in charge of the city.

She would not find either.

“We do have a lot of…catching up to do.” Elijah clapped Kieran on the shoulder, causing him to stumble again. Elijah’s grin spread. The fucker loved to mess with the wolven like a child who kept poking a sleeping bear.

A flash of forest green tunic and a cream shawl caught my attention. I turned to see the true lady of the keep striding forward, her raven-hued hair swept back from her face, and her knee-length tunic and breeches seeming to snag Poppy’s attention. That wasn’t what held mine. It was the growing belly of Elijah’s niece.

Little Magda was pregnant? Again?

Well, she wasn’t exactly little anymore, but it was hard not to think of her as the long-limbed, pigtailed girl who could throw punches just as well as her uncle.

Who currently eyed Poppy, looking like he was seconds away from saying something that didn’t need to be said.

“I must speak with a few people, but Magda will show you to your room.” I glanced at Magda, who I trusted to be far more circumspect than her uncle. “Make sure she has a room to bathe in, and she’s sent hot food.”

“Yes—” Magda started to dip into a curtsy but stopped herself. Her cheeks turned pink as she sent me an apologetic glance before turning to Poppy. “Sorry. I’m a little off balance some days.” She patted her stomach. “I blame baby number two.”

“Congratulations,” Poppy said, her cheeks flushed. She turned to me. “Hawke—”

“Later,” I said, hating to cut her off like that, especially surrounded by strangers and with how out of her element she was. But I had to because Phillips was now inside the keep, and things…some things would begin to happen quickly.

Resolved, I joined Elijah. “Where are the others?”

“Making sure the outside is secure,” Phillips answered, his attention trained on Magda and Poppy.

Elijah chuckled. “The outside can’t be any more secure.”

Phillips turned dark eyes on the man, giving him the once-over. “We’ll see that for ourselves, sir.”

The smile on Elijah’s face grew as I briefly met Kieran’s gaze. “Whatever makes you happy.”

Kieran stepped forward, clasping Phillips’ shoulders. “Let’s see what we can get from the kitchens while we get a better idea of the layout here.”

Phillips hesitated, still watching the side door that Poppy had disappeared through. “Should she be alone with that woman?”

“That woman?” The smile faded from Elijah’s face.

I moved between the two. “I’ve been told these are good and trustworthy people. Let’s not offend them,” I suggested, more than aware of Elijah glowering behind me. “Plus, Poppy is not helpless.”

“Yes, but—”

“She is fine,” I cut in. “Go with Kieran so I can make sure everything we need here will be provided.”

His lips pressed into a thin line, but he went with Kieran this time.

“Are we going to kill him?” Elijah asked. “I hope the fuck so.”

I sighed, facing him. “We need to talk.”

“That we do.” Elijah looked over at the crowd of people. “Y’all get going. You got stuff to do. Do it.” He held up a hand. “And do it quietly. We have guests.” He paused. “Special guests.”

Delano briefly closed his eyes, shaking his head as there were a few grumbles. A giggle or two. Still, the crowd dispersed, most disappearing into the numerous rooms or heading for the dining hall. All except for one. A tall, rich-brown-skinned Atlantian.

“Naill,” I said, meeting him halfway. I clasped his arm. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Too long.” His grip was as tight as mine as he smiled, the skin crinkling at the corners of his golden eyes. “Glad you made it here.”

“Same,” I said.

“I’m kind of sad I didn’t get the same welcome,” quipped Delano.

Laughing under my breath, I turned to the pale-haired wolven. “Might be a wee bit suspicious if I know every single one of you.”

“I know.” Delano came forward. “I just wanted to complain.”

I took hold of his arm. “It is good to see you.”

Wintry blue eyes met mine. “I was worried we wouldn’t…” He forced a smile. “You good?”

Yanking the younger wolven in for a hug, I cupped the back of his head. “I’m good.”

“Oh, fuck,” Elijah muttered. “You’re going to make him an even bigger marshmallow.”

“Marshmallow?” I repeated, pulling back.

Delano rolled his eyes. “Yeah, he says I’m like a marshmallow, all gooey and soft on the inside.”

“Am I wrong?” Elijah threw up his hands.

“You’re going to realize just how not soft I am when I knock your ass through that stone wall,” Delano warned, pointing at said wall.

“You wouldn’t dare.” Elijah chuckled, motioning us to follow him to one of the closed wooden doors. “Wanna know why? You’d be all kinds of sad afterward for hurting me.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Delano muttered, but he did so as he grinned.

Smiling, I shook my head as I followed them into a study. I’d missed them—fucking missed them all. It had been a year since I’d seen some of them. Years for others. It was so damn good to hear them rib one another. All we were missing was my brother. My chest tightened, and I forced myself to inhale and hold the breath until I felt the knot loosening. Only then did I exhale. Malik would be with us soon.

Holding that close to my heart, I looked around as Naill closed the door behind us. Gas sconces cast a faint yellow glow throughout the study. An ancient-looking oak desk sat in the corner. The walls were bare except for a credenza stocked with liquor, and a faded painting of Haven Keep above the fireplace. Several chairs were situated near the lit hearth.

“Want anything to drink?” Elijah walked behind the desk, taking a seat there as Delano went to the credenza. “Got some whiskey and, well, more whiskey.”

“I’m good.” Unhooking my cloak, I dropped it over the back of a chair. “But help yourself.”

Naill shook his head when Delano glanced at him, and then Elijah asked, “So, that’s her? The Maiden?”

“It is.” I adjusted my baldric strap as Delano poured a glass for himself and Elijah. “I want to thank you again, Elijah, for taking the risk to house us.”

“I would do anything for you and our Prince,” he said, tone serious. “Anything to stop those bastard Ascended. There is no risk too great.” He took the glass from Delano, giving him a nod of thanks. “And there’s not anyone here, in this keep or this town, who isn’t willing to take the risk.”

“I know, but being willing to take the risks isn’t the same as living them,” I told him. “The Blood Crown will likely send a division of their armies. Their Royal Knights.”

“And we’ll be ready for them if they do.” Elijah leaned forward. “We all know what is ultimately at risk here. Not just what we’ve carved out in New Haven, but our lives. Our futures. Our children’s futures. And if we’ve got to bleed for that, we will. Look, we all know that everything we built here can come crashing down on us at any moment,” he said, speaking the truth. “And if freeing your brother and preventing this whole damn land from breaking out into war is what does it? Fucking hell of a way to go, if you ask me.”

My respect for the man—for all of those here—knew no limits.

“All of this has been such a long time coming.” Disbelief colored his tone. “Almost can’t believe we’re here. That you have her and Malik’s freedom within our grasp.”

I had a hard time believing it myself, and there was all this anticipation and determination to see it through, but also an undercurrent of unease. Guilt. And a rising sense of loss I couldn’t shake.

“I’m not asking to be an ass,” Delano said, drawing me from my thoughts, “but what happened to her?”

One thing I could count on was Delano never being an ass. “She was attacked by Craven as a child.”

“Holy shit,” Elijah breathed. “She survived a Craven attack as a child? Damn me.” He chuckled, taking a drink. “Maybe she is Chosen.”

I thought of what she’d done for Airrick.

“Gods,” Delano murmured, leaning against the desk. “She’s lucky.”

“Or unlucky,” Naill commented, sitting near the fire. “All things considered.” He looked over at me. “You run into any problems on the way here?”

I filled them in on the Blood Forest, leaving out the part about Poppy. “Other than that, it’s been pretty smooth.”

Elijah eyed me over the rim of his glass. Most of his whiskey was already gone. The man could drink any of us under the table. “So, you’re down a few guards already. What about the rest?”

“I will handle them,” I told him.

Delano lowered his glass. “None of them can be swayed to join our side?”

I smiled faintly at his optimism. “I don’t believe so.”

“See? Marshmallow.” Elijah leaned back, kicking his feet up onto the desk. “First thing he asks? How did the Maiden get scarred? The second thing?” He finished off his whiskey as Naill hid his smile behind his hand. “Can any of the guards be saved? Soon, he’s gonna ask—” He cursed as Delano turned, knocking his legs off the desk with a swipe of his arm, nearly toppling Elijah out of his chair. He righted himself with one hand. “My apologies.”

“Uh-huh.” Delano turned. “Want a refill?”

“Does today end in a Y?” Elijah countered, chuckling as Delano took his glass. “I’m guessing we gotta handle the others with quickness.”

“The sooner, the better,” I told him.

“I know you said you’d take care of them yourself, but we got it.” Naill tipped his head back to look at me. “Even the resident marshmallow.”

Delano sighed, handing the glass to Elijah.

“I don’t want that blood on your hands,” I said. I’d brought the guards here. They were my responsibility.

“You shouldn’t be the only one getting your hands dirty,” Delano argued. “We got this, and we’re not going to take no for an answer.” He paused, a sheepish grin appearing. “My Prince.”

I snorted.

“Seriously. We have this.” Naill’s eyes met mine. “We will take care of it.”

My jaw worked as I took in their resolute faces—well, Delano’s and Naill’s, anyway. Elijah just looked eager, which made me want to laugh.

“They’re not your responsibility,” Naill said, knowing where my mind was with this. Not surprising. Besides Kieran and his family, Naill had known me the longest. “You’ve done enough.”

But I hadn’t even begun. Still, I nodded. I didn’t thank them. This wasn’t something you expressed gratitude for.

“Speaking of bloodied hands,” Elijah began, his feet back on the desk, “I see Jericho is missing one.”

My gaze flicked to the half-Atlantian. “He earned that.”

“No one in this room is surprised to hear that,” Delano remarked.

“He hasn’t said what made you take it. Neither has Ivan or Rolf,” Elijah said, referencing the two who had been with Jericho in Masadonia. “You going to key us in on what caused that? Dying to know.”

“He was told not to harm the Maiden. He did. So, I took his hand,” I explained. “And the same goes for all of you and all who reside at New Haven. No one is to harm her.”

“Understood,” Delano said when my stare met his. Naill nodded.

“Your wish is my command, as always,” Elijah said with a cheeky grin. “But I got questions.”

“I’m sure you do.”

He lifted one large shoulder in a shrug. “I’m nosy, what can I say? I’m assuming the Maiden is unaware of who you are—who we are.”

The knot returned to my chest. I nodded. “At this time, yes.”

Elijah’s bushy brows lifted. “At this time?”

“She expects that we will only be here for the night,” I explained. “When we don’t leave in the morning, she’ll start asking questions.”

“And?” Delano asked.

“I will tell her what I can of the truth. Who I am. Who the Ascended really are,” I said, knowing that conversation was coming, likely by the time the sun set tomorrow.

Elijah met my stare. “I’m also assuming she isn’t going to handle it well.”

No, she likely wouldn’t.

“Then what?” Naill asked.

“I will handle her,” I told them, chest icing over. “No one else will.”


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