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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 66

IT WAS OVER

Sometime later, I woke to find myself entangled with Poppy. She was still using my arm as a pillow but had turned herself while asleep, so her back was against my chest. My other arm was already at her waist, and one of my legs was nestled between hers.

I lay there in the quiet of the chamber, still lit by the gas lamp. The fire had died down a bit, but the space was warm. I couldn’t have been asleep that long, and I had no idea what had woken me. I’d never slept this close to anyone before. I usually wanted my space. But this was comfortable. More than that. More than pleasant. I could sleep like this, with her body pressed to mine, for an eternity.

A quiet knock came. Frowning, I lifted my head. It had to be the middle of the night, so I doubted whoever was at the door brought good news. Could I just pretend I didn’t hear it?

No. I couldn’t.

Biting back a curse, I glanced down at Poppy. Reluctant to leave her but not wanting continuous knocking to wake her, I slipped my leg out from between hers as I skimmed my hand down her arm and across the soft skin of her waist. Grabbing hold of the blanket, I drew it up to her shoulders. I eased my arm out from beneath her and placed her head on the pillow as I rose. Thrusting a hand through my hair, I scanned the floor, spotting my breeches. I tugged them on and went to the door before the knocking started up again.

Magda stood there. “Three things. Two of the guests have been dealt with.”

She was speaking about the guards. “The others?”

“Working on it,” she answered, keeping her voice low. “The second thing is that Elijah needs to see you.” She lifted the bundle she held, expression bland. “And thirdly, I have the Maiden’s clothing.”

I took Poppy’s clothes. “Elijah can’t wait?”

“No.” Magda tilted her head to the side, trying to see around me. I shifted, blocking her. “There’s been word from home.”

I stiffened. “I’ll be right out.”

Magda nodded, still trying to see around me, a look of concern on her face.

Closing the door, I sat the bundle of laundered clothing on the chair. Word from home. That likely didn’t bode well. I turned.

Poppy was awake.

Silent, I went to her side and reached down, catching that same piece of hair that always made its way onto her face. I tucked it back.

Hi,” Poppy whispered, eyes closing as she pressed her cheek against my palm. “Is it time to get up?”

“No.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Everything is fine. I just need to go handle something,” I told her, dragging my thumb across her cheek, just under the scar. “You don’t need to get up yet.”

“Are you sure?”

I grinned at her sleepy yawn. “I am, Princess. Sleep.” I tugged the blanket back up. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Poppy had fallen back to sleep before I’d even finished pulling on my sweater and boots. I went to the door once more and then stopped, wanting to look back at her, to make sure she was comfortable, but I stopped myself. If I did, I’d likely say fuck it all and climb back into bed with her.

I quietly left the chamber, not liking the idea of leaving her alone, even though Kieran was only two doors away and would hear anything of concern.

Not bothering with the steps, I placed a hand on the railing and leapt over it. Cold, night air and flurries reached up, swallowing me. Landing in a crouch, I rose. My boots swept through the snow as I crossed under the roof of the second-floor hall and entered through a side door. The keep was quiet as I made my way back to the study.

Elijah was there, once more behind the desk. Delano was with him. There was a good chance neither of them had left, but another had joined them. A fair-haired man who worked alongside Alastir. Irritation pricked at my skin as he turned to me, issuing a stiff bow. Delano raised his brows at me as he took a drink from the same glass of whiskey he’d likely been nursing for hours.

“Orion,” I greeted the Atlantian with a handshake. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“No, you haven’t.” Orion smiled tightly. “It’s been quite some time since you were at the capital.”

“It has.” I crossed my arms. “Didn’t expect to see you in this neck of the woods.”

“I’d rather carve out my heart than be here, but I’ve been sent to deliver a letter of the utmost importance.” Orion reached inside his cloak and pulled out a folded piece of parchment.

I took it, turning it over as Elijah asked Orion about his travels. The golden seal bearing the Atlantian crest—the sun with a sword and arrow—had me feeling some kind of something. Nostalgia for home? Maybe. But the faint line cutting through the center of the seal told me it had been broken and the wax remelted.

Smiling tightly, I glanced up at Orion as I broke the seal. He returned my smile as he answered Elijah’s question. Not a single part of me was surprised he’d read it. He was, after all, loyal to the Crown and Alastir, and he would want to know what Emil had to say to the Prince of Atlantia.

Unfolding the letter, the muscle in my jaw started ticking the moment I read the first line. I gave the rest a quick scan. The letter was written in a way that most wouldn’t understand. Clever Emil had encoded it, but it was clear to me. He had done his best to run interference with Alastir, but somehow word of my whereabouts and plans had still managed to make it back to the Advisor’s ears.

Which meant my father, the King, was also aware of what I was doing. That I sought to capture the Maiden.

I couldn’t be shocked that word had finally made it back to Alastir. However, I didn’t expect to read the last part.

My father, the King, was en route to New Haven.

Fucking gods.

“Glad to hear you made it here before the storm,” Delano said. “But I’m confused.”

I glanced up, gaze flicking from Delano to Orion.

Orion raised a brow. “What are you confused about?”

“Well, maybe confused isn’t the right word,” Delano mused, setting his glass on the table. “I suppose awed is a better choice. I’m awed that you would show up with a missive for the Prince the same day he arrived in New Haven.”

I slowly folded the letter.

“Now that leaves me in awe,” Elijah added, his booted feet on the desk and a big-ass smile on his bearded face. “Perfect timing.”

“It truly was,” Orion stated blandly. Nothing about his tone hinted at deceit, but the corner of his right eye twitched. “I suppose I’m lucky.”

“I suppose you are.” Delano smiled, and his blue eyes brightened. “Oh, wait. There is something both Elijah and I are confused about. You arrived shortly after the Prince did.”

“And yet you waited until now to summon me?” I asked.

“I rode long and hard to get here, Your Highness.” Orion lifted his chin. “I was hungry and needed a moment to collect myself.”

“Well, we all need moments to collect ourselves.” I smiled. “When did my father leave for New Haven?”

Elijah’s gaze shot to me, the smile slipping from his face.

“I’m sorry?” Orion frowned.

“Let’s not pretend you didn’t read this missive and then attempt to conceal that fact.” I tossed the letter onto the desk.

Orion’s shoulders stiffened. A moment passed. “It is my duty to keep Alastir informed, therefore the King and Queen informed—”

“Yes. Yes. I know. You were just doing your duty. Now, do it again,” I said. “When did my father leave?”

“I imagine shortly after Alastir sent me. He will likely arrive within a day or so, depending on the track of this storm,” Orion told us. “I’m to rejoin him at Berkton.”

I hid my shock. Berkton was about half a day’s ride from here if one pushed it—a village on the cusp of the Dead Bones Clan’s woods and long since forgotten. No Rise existed there any longer. The homes had all turned to rubble, but the manor still stood and was often used as a hideout. One unfit for a King and the Crown’s Advisor, because if my father came, so would Alastir.

Fucking gods, this was a highly problematic development. One I would have to deal with shortly.

I eyed Orion. I didn’t know the man well, but I did know Alastir. He was like a second father to me. The only reason he’d let Orion deliver a missive from Emil was because it fed him additional information. Alastir always liked to know more than what he was told. He’d sent Orion to snoop, which was why he would be rejoining them at Berkton instead of waiting for them to arrive here, where much nicer accommodations awaited.

“Oh, no,” Delano murmured. “He’s got that look.”

Orion frowned as he glanced at the blond-haired wolven.

“Yep.” Elijah nodded. “He does.”

Delano leaned forward. “Do you know what that look means?” He gestured with his chin in my direction.

My tight smile remained.

The Atlantian shook his head as he looked me over. “No, I don’t.”

“I’ve seen it, well, a time or a hundred,” Delano went on. “That smile you see? It’s always a warning.”

Orion’s inhale was swift as his gaze darted between us.

“It usually comes right before a lot of blood is spilled,” Delano said.

“A lot,” Elijah added.

“They speak the truth.” My smile grew, baring a hint of fang. “I’m going to make something very clear to you, Orion. I know you’re serving Alastir, therefore the Crown, and you must be a terribly loyal man to travel alone into vampry-infested lands.”

“I am very loyal.” His chin lifted a notch.

“Here’s the thing, though. I don’t care about your loyalty to Alastir or my father. Here?” I spread my arms wide. “I am not my father’s son. I’m not your Prince. I’m just a man not to be fucked with, so I will only ask you this once. What do you plan to tell the King when you return to them?”

Orion’s lips thinned as he locked his amber eyes on me. “I will tell them that the rumors are true. That you have captured the Maiden, and she is here with you.”

“I imagine that should make my father very happy,” I murmured. “I assume he already has plans for her.”

Orion relaxed. “He does.”

My head cocked. “And what are the plans?”

“I’m unaware of the details,” he said.

“But I’m sure Alastir is aware of them,” I countered. “Which means you are. What are his plans?” I paused. “That, I am asking as your Prince.”

Orion’s laugh was as thin as ice. “It’s interesting how you use your title only when it suits you.”

I smirked. “Isn’t it?”

“You should be at home, Casteel.” Orion took a step toward me. Over his shoulder, I saw Elijah’s lips purse. “Your father and your mother need you there. Alastir needs you. The kingdom needs you.”

“What do you think I’m doing here, Orion?” I said.

“I know what you think you’re doing. So do your parents and Alastir, but if you want to save your people? You should do so at home, where you belong,” he implored, shaking his head. “The crown should’ve been passed onto you years ago—”

“The crown belongs to my brother,” I cut him off. “Prince Malik is the heir.”

“Prince Malik is—”

“I wouldn’t finish that sentence,” Delano warned.

Orion clamped his mouth shut.

I forced the building fury down. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

Orion shoved his cloak aside, placing a hand on his waist. “He plans to send a message to the Blood Crown.”

Everything in me slowed, but the rage… I could taste its hot bitterness. “And the message is?”

“The Maiden,” he answered. “He will return her to them. Her head, that is. Then, our armies—”

I struck, punching my hand into Orion’s chest. Bone and cartilage cracked and gave way.

“Welp,” Delano murmured.

Hot blood spurted as Orion’s eyes went wide. His mouth dropped open as my fist snapped his ribs. He spasmed as my fingers dug into his heart.

Smiling, I jerked my hand back. “Perhaps I will send this back to my father in place of you.”

Slowly, Orion’s chin lowered as he looked down at the gaping wound in his chest.

A bloody, wordless breath escaped him as he dropped to his knees and then fell forward.

“But I won’t do that.” I turned, tossing the Atlantian’s heart into the fire. Flames crackled and whirled, spitting embers. “I have more class than that.”

Delano’s lip curled as he stared at the fireplace. “That’s kind of disgusting.”

“Well,” Elijah drawled, picking up his glass of whiskey and finishing it off. “Was not expecting to learn that our King would arrive.” He then leaned over, swiping a meaty hand across the desk. Taking Delano’s drink, he downed what was left in the glass. “Also didn’t expect to see a man’s heart tonight.”

“But here we are.” I knelt, using Orion’s cloak to wipe the blood and gore from my hand. Didn’t do much good. I rose. “Unfortunately, our loyal courier will have met an untimely demise on his return to Berkton.”

“Understood,” Elijah replied as Delano snorted. The wolven rose, going to the credenza. The chair behind the desk creaked when the half-Atlantian leaned back once more. “The King is really in Solis?”

“Sounds like it.” The flames calmed.

“And you think that’s what your father really plans?” Elijah asked. “I mean, that’s brutal. Even more so than that.” He nodded at Orion’s prone body as Delano picked up a pitcher of water. “He was a smug bastard—like far too many of you elementals. No offense.”

I snorted. “None taken.”

“But taking the Maiden’s head?” He blew out a low whistle. “She’s just a girl.”

Just a girl.

Poppy wasn’t just anything. “My father isn’t a cruel man,” I said as Delano came to me, a wet towel extended. “Thank you,” I murmured, taking it to clean my hand. The irony of me having done a similar thing earlier tonight was…well, it was something. “Years ago? Before everything? He wouldn’t have considered that.” Especially if he had spent any time with Poppy and saw that she hadn’t chosen this life. “But after what was done to me? To Malik? And all those who have been taken by the Blood Crown?” I rubbed at the blood on my hand. “He is capable of anything.”

Delano took his seat. “And what are you going to do with her, Cas?”

Tossing yet another stained towel into the fire, I laughed, and it sounded just like the spitting, hissing flames. “I don’t plan to do that.”

“No shit.” Elijah snorted. “I figured keeping her head on her shoulders fell under the whole no-one-touches-or-harms-her warning from earlier.” He smirked at Orion’s body. “But I suppose he was too busy collecting his thoughts to have heard that.”

“You knew he was here?” I stepped over Orion’s legs as I went to the credenza, feeling a sudden dull twinge of discomfort in the side of my stomach. It came and went fast.

“I knew he was here, but I didn’t know who he was. Only that he was Atlantian,” Elijah said. “You going to Berkton?”

Pulling the cork from the whiskey, I took a swig. The liquor was smooth. “I have to.” I took another drink and waited for that fleeting sensation to return. It didn’t. “What is the condition of the Berkton manor?”

“We keep it together and stocked with supplies,” Elijah said.

“Good.” They would have to make use of those supplies because I could not allow my father to come here. Not yet. “I’ll leave in the morning. Make it there by the afternoon and then come back.”

“You’ll have to ride fast to beat this storm. It looks like nothing right now, and there will be weaker bands, but once it gets going, it’ll be a big one,” Delano said, resting his elbows on his knees.

“Fucking wolven,” Elijah laughed, shaking the table. “They’re like your own little forecasters.”

Delano ignored that. “It’s blowing in from the east, so if you spend just an hour too long in Berkton, you’ll get stuck there or in between.”

“I won’t.”

“I’ll go with you,” Delano said.

“No. I want you here.” I put the cork back on the whiskey. “To guard her.”

“The message has been sent and received by those in Haven Keep,” Elijah assured, staring pointedly at the floor. “No one here would be foolish enough to cross you.”

“I’d rather not risk that.” I scratched my fingers through my hair. “By the way, her name is Penellaphe. It would be better to call her that instead of the Maiden.”

“Yeah.” Elijah nodded, chuckling softly. “It would be.” He pulled his boots off the table. “Magda said she was nice if a bit nervous.”

“She is—” I turned at the sound of pounding footsteps. “What the hell now?”

The door swung open, and Naill burst in. “We have a problem.”

I raised a brow at the crossbow he held. “What kind of problem?”

“The remaining guards are attempting to run off with your Maiden,” Naill answered, frowning at the body on the floor.

“What the fuck?” I spat, snapping into action. I stalked forward. “Where are they?”

“In the stables,” Naill answered, and Delano and Elijah rose, their long-legged gait keeping pace with mine as I entered the hall. “Cas, we have a bigger issue than just the guards trying to run off with her,” Naill added. “They saw Kieran.” Bright golden eyes met mine. “In his wolven form.”

“Fuck,” Delano rasped.

Ice drenched my veins. “How? How did that happen?”

“From what I could quickly gather from what I saw, Phillips tried to take her. She put up a fight, and Kieran intervened. He was wounded—he’s okay,” Naill quickly added.

That odd sensation earlier—

“But he shifted,” Naill continued. “He’s at the stables. They barred the door from the inside.”

They.

Poppy.

For a moment, I was frozen where I stood in the hall of the keep. I couldn’t move. Something akin to terror exploded in my gut. I could’ve told her. I should have told her. It would’ve prevented her from finding out this way, but it was too late. It was over. Everything with Poppy. The closeness. Her warmth. The ability to be in the now and not the past, not the future. The peace I’d found with her. I knew it immediately. It was over. I moved then, staggering back under the weight of the pain. It felt like a hand had gone through my chest and ripped my heart out. I looked down just as Orion had, but there was no gaping wound. Still, I felt pure agony.

“Kieran couldn’t control it if he was wounded,” Delano said, and I looked at him somewhat dumbly. He was eyeing my fists. Worry filled his tone. “It kicks in our instinct.”

I knew that.

“You didn’t tell her anything, did you?” Elijah asked.

Finally, I found my fucking voice. “No. I didn’t get…I didn’t get the chance.”

“Okay, then what’s the game plan?” Elijah’s eyes were narrowed, alert—watchful and knowing. “Do we let them make a run for it? Get them out there? We can have Kieran lay low for a while, play it off as if we had no idea what he was. That would give you time to deal with your—”

“No.” There was no point in doing that. It was over. “They will not take the Maiden. She stays here.”

I shut it down like I had under the willow—all of it. The pain. The guilt. The terror that she would forget that what we shared wasn’t a lie. That it was real. I had to pull it together. There would barely be time for any explanations, let alone a convoluted lie to temporarily soothe Poppy. I put all those emotions behind a wall so thick that I couldn’t even feel them. Ice filled my chest and gut, and I felt nothing when I took the crossbow from Naill’s hands. That wouldn’t last, but right now…

I was nothing.

“Delano, circle around the back of the stables.” I glanced at Naill. “Go with him.”

Both nodded.

“They won’t be able to get the horses through the back doors,” Elijah told me. “If they plan to make a run for it, they’ll need to be on horseback.”

“If any of them have truly discovered who we are, they’ll go on foot,” I said, then turned to Naill and Delano. “Take out the guards, but do not touch her.”

“Understood,” Delano answered.

Pivoting, I prowled out of the keep and onto the frozen ground. The snow had stopped. The night was quiet, except for the sound of wood cracking coming from the stables. My jaw locked.

“Hold on,” Elijah said.

I kept walking. The stables came into view, the windows glowing with the yellow light of lanterns. A large fawn-colored wolven was at the entry, clawing and digging at the door.

“Dammit.” Elijah grabbed my arm. “Give me a sec.”

I stopped, looking down at where his hand was around my arm. Slowly, I lifted my gaze to his.

“Yeah, I know. I just saw you tear a man’s heart out. I probably shouldn’t be grabbing you, but you need to listen to me,” Elijah said. “I don’t know what the hell is going on between you and that girl, but it ain’t nothing. Don’t even bother telling me it is. I know better.”

My jaw locked.

“And I don’t care about that right now. What I do care about is you—what you’ve been working toward for years. Not just your brother. What you have going on here and at Spessa’s End. It’s been working because these men and women are loyal to you. They believe in you,” he said, his face inches from mine. “And right or wrong, they will only see the Maiden for what they know her as: a symbol of what has taken so much from them.”

His stare held mine. “And while they will follow your orders, more than a few brows were raised when they heard about what you did to Jericho. And more than a few tongues were wagging after you all arrived, with how you were acting with her. This keep is big but not so big they don’t know where you spent several hours tonight.”

Fucking gods.

“And I’m betting that was also what Orion was being fed before he decided to bring his ass to my study,” he said, the wind catching the snow on the ground and whipping it into a frenzy. “You go in there, treating her like anything other than what she is supposed to be? With your father making his way here? Wanting her head?” Over his voice, Kieran rammed the wood. “The people here will even stand against their King for you, but if they think you’ve gotten yourself wrapped around the godsdamn Maiden, you run the risk of losing their support. You don’t want that.”

Elijah was absolutely correct. My father was coming. He wanted her head, and he was the King. His command superseded mine, except for here. In Solis, they were loyal to me. It was the only reason I was even standing where I was. But if I lost their support?

Poppy lost her life.

That panic and pain threatened to return, but I didn’t allow it. I would do anything to make sure that didn’t happen. Anything. Even if it meant becoming what she loathed the most.

The Dark One.

“I know,” I told him.

Elijah nodded and dropped my arm. I turned and rounded the corner of the keep.

Kieran backed off from the barn doors, his head whipping toward me. His growl was low and furious.

“It’s okay.” I ran my left hand over his back as I passed him. Fury at the scent of blood and the sight of it matting the fur on his leg and waist broke through the ice encasing my insides.

I let that anger in as I went up to the barn doors. I wasn’t keeping my strength in check as I leaned back, kicking the center of the door. Wood splintered and gave way. The doors swung open, and all I allowed myself to feel was the anger as I quickly took in what was playing out in front of me.

I saw the guards. The rearing horses. Fucking Jericho. And Poppy. I saw her, brave and bold as ever, the bloodstone dagger in her grasp.

“Hawke!” Poppy cried out, relief evident in her voice, and I didn’t let myself feel a damn thing. She started for me. “Thank the gods you’re okay.”

Phillips lurched forward, grabbing her arm. “Stay back from him.”

My gaze swiveled toward him—toward his grip on her arm. Poppy tugged herself free.

She turned to Jericho. “Kill him!” she shouted, “He was the one—” Her eyes went wide, having caught sight of Kieran coming up behind me. “Hawke, behind you!”

Phillips grabbed her again, this time around the waist.

“It’s okay,” I told her, lifting the crossbow and pulling the trigger.

The bolt slammed into my target, knocking Phillips back from Poppy with such force that the guard was impaled on the pole behind them as Poppy toppled forward onto her knees.

I lowered the crossbow as she looked to where Jericho stood, the shaggy-haired bastard smiling. Then she saw Phillips’ fallen sword lying among the straw. I knew the exact moment she saw the blood dripping onto it—saw Phillips. She jerked.

Luddie, the other guard, shouted, lifting his sword as he charged forward. “With my sword and my—”

Delano fired a bolt as he stepped out of the shadows of the stalls, catching Luddie from behind and taking him to the straw-strewn ground.

The last guard made a run for it. I couldn’t remember his name.

Kieran was faster, leaping into the air. He landed on the mortal, his claws digging into his back as he clamped his powerful jaws around the Huntsman’s neck, snapping it.

There was silence.

That didn’t last either.

Jericho strode forward, smirking as he looked down at Poppy. “I’m so glad I’m here to witness this moment.”

“Shut up, Jericho,” I bit out, the wind whipping at my back.

Poppy lifted her head, her eyes locking with mine. Her braid had fallen over her shoulder, and that one strand of hair was in her face, as always. I realized she wasn’t wearing her cloak. Had Phillips planned to take her out unprotected in the weather? She would’ve frozen or become ill. I didn’t feel a smidgen of guilt for killing the imbecile.

“Hawke?” she whispered, her empty hand grasping at the damp straw.

I felt nothing.

Poppy recoiled, her chest rising rapidly.

I was nothing.

“Please tell me I can kill her,” Jericho said. “I know exactly what pieces I want to cut up and send back.”

“Touch her, and you’ll lose more than a hand this time,” I warned him, my gaze never leaving hers. “We need her alive.”


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