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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 1

The Captive

No one would search for his body when I finished with him. In the rare chance someone tried, it wouldn’t matter. I’d make certain he was never found.

My fists clenched at my sides; my gaze locked on the satin pleats of the audacious gown. Three layers of skirts, with strategically cut slits in the sides, were sprawled out over the narrow straw mattress. It was hideously stunning. A thing perfect for the royal revel, and wholly wrong for a woman like me.

The loft room I called mine was nothing grand. Small, a little musty from the nearness to the swamps of the Mossgrove wood, and partly used as storage for grain the cooks used in their morning bread.

There was nothing garish or elegant on my walls but an empty sword sheath since I was not permitted a seax. The blade I’d used for turns as a warrior was kept under the watchful eye of the master of the house. There was mistrust between us, naturally, and he likely kept the blade so on such nights as this, where violence toward him reigned supreme in my thoughts, I could not slash up his beautifully handsome face.

Another side of my mind considered that he kept the blade merely to flaunt his control over me.

The room was made of thick rafters that created the perfect place for web weavers to spin their silken homes. A matted, bear fur rug covered most of the floorboards. And the corners were occupied by my neatly stacked boots and tunics on a few cedarwood shelves.

Simple and obscure. The reason my eyes locked, at once, on the ornate, tawny gown.

The shimmer of satin and silk was fit for a courtier, and terribly out of place. The sight of it twisted my insides into a newly acquired temptation to pluck out a particular pair of amber eyes.

He was horrid. The plunging neckline was mortifying. Purposefully done. He’d taunted me more than once on my modest tunics and my aversion to bare skin. I’d be better off walking into the Borough nude than wearing this gown.

Gaudy, mountain wolf fur puffed up on the sleeves in horrid mats, and was that . . . I sniffed the crimson thread stitched in a pattern of runes over the bust. A tickle irritated the back of my throat until I heaved a throaty sneeze.

Shrill screams of loathing raged in my skull.

I dragged one deep breath in through my nose until my chest could take no more. When I exhaled, a wave of violent plans to bury him piece by piece across the grassy knolls brought a touch of solace.

The threads shaping the rune pattern were worse than the revealing gown. The bastard knew, he knew that my eyes watered and my nose ran incessantly around the hairs of highland goats. Yarn made from the finely spun fibers was a specialty in the Court of Hearts, but for me, I’d stick to basic threads.

Oh, I could see it now. The way he likely chortled—because he was too ridiculous to laugh respectably—as he directed the seamstress to thread the otherwise lovely pattern with the yarn. By the hells, he would probably laugh in his cups all night at my dripping nose and flushed rash that would spread across my cheeks.

To use the yarn was a decision that would earn my master a slow death.

Ari Sekundär. Insufferable. Intolerable. A man who strutted the corridors like the gods’ gift to faekind, when the truth of it was he was wholly forgettable.

True, he entertained some of the stupider folk with his wit and glib talk, but there was no loyalty there. Should he simply disappear into the nothingness, they would not lift their knobby fingers to search him out.

A friend to kings? I snorted in disgust. Friend was a strong word. He was useful to the king of the North. Useful did not amount to loyalty or love.

The villainous Eastern king felt indebted, since the soon-to-be-dead ambassador played a miniscule role in keeping his shadow queen protected during the Eastern skirmishes last frost season.

I supposed indebtedness was a slight motivation to look for his corpse. To avoid trouble with the terrifying Eastern king, I’d simply need to be clever about where I hid Ari’s body.

“Late!”

Blood rushed through my veins at the voice. I whipped around. The loft room wasn’t large, but a new door and wall had been built to keep me shunned from the lower hall in the ambassador’s longhouse. With the wall, I rarely heard footsteps until someone invaded my solitude.

“Hodag.” I frowned at the black, beady eyes of the troll. “What do you want?”

The troll woman huffed and propped her leathery fists on her thick hips.

Dammit. The troll could dig great lengths below the surface. No mistake, she’d be the only one who’d search out my murdered master. Hodag seemed genuinely fond of the fool. Funny that his only true friend might be a troll who could not stop mothering the helpless men of this longhouse.

“Late,” Hodag repeated, her voice gruff and rough like she’d swallowed pebbles. “Meant to be there tolls ago.”

I pressed a hand to my chest and pouted my lips. “Oh. Was the bast—I mean master—worried?”

Hodag frowned and tossed her dark, wiry hair off her shoulder. “Sharp tongue, dark sweetling.”

I forced the sharp tongue often when it came to Ari. Truth be told, I would not be able to stay away long. The bond High King Bracken had forced upon us was one of supreme irritation when the distance between us grew. Hells, I spent two full weeks in bed with aches and agony when Ari had returned home to Etta for a time.

With my damn master a few lengths away at the Borough, I was already feeling the dry itch prickling across my limbs like sharp fingernails dragged lazily back and forth over my skin.

I untethered one of the leather bands keeping my braid tied off my neck. My hair was straight, and such a deep black it almost gleamed blue in the sunlight. My jaw tightened as Hodag forced me to sit on the rickety twig chair in front of a cracked mirror with finger smudges over the surface.

“Need to tie your locks,” the troll said. She snorted and huffed about, brushing the tangles from my hair, muttering about what a horrid sweetling I was to upset my master. In the mirror, Hodag pointed the bristles of the brush at my reflection. “Lovey was here, pacing the floor, asking about where you was. Took too long, dark sweetling. Too long. Tis an honor to join the Borough.”

“Oh, the grandest honor.”

Truth be told, I’d rather tear off my own fingernails than spend a night being paraded around in a gown fit for nobles while harsh words from others left lashes across my heart. It was a mockery. To have me at his side was Ari’s cruel way of punishing me for standing on the losing side of the war in the Eastern Kingdom.

I bristled and buried my own disquiet, desperate to harden the pulpy, vulnerable thing in my chest. Never let down the defenses, and nothing will ever harm you.

Hodag sighed and returned to braiding my hair in a crown around my head. Next, the troll fitted the points of my ears with dainty silver chains from the tip to the lobe. “Dress, now.”

Perhaps I could feign illness. Send word to Ari his little trick of goat yarn sent me into a deathly fit of convulsing. It’d ruin his whole damn night if I was fortunate.

“You’re going, Saga.” Sofia leaned one shoulder against the doorframe. Her hair shone like ripe strawberries and draped over her slender shoulders in smooth waves. She was dressed in a pale, woolen gown that hid the tufts of her huldra tail, and had a blade sheathed to her waist. The only ostentatious thing about her was the silver chain strung around her head like a band of starlight.

Sofia was on the winning side of the battle, and remained the only one who still treated me decent.

“Oh?” I glanced at her over my shoulder. “Do I have the choice to stay behind?”

“You don’t.” Sofia sat on the edge of my bed. Huldrafolk were naturally lovely, and Sofia was no exception. Her bright eyes always seemed to sparkle like sunlight on a blue lagoon, and regardless of blood, battle, or peace, a gentle smile always teased her mouth.

She’d grown bolder with me since returning from the battles. We’d always been cordial, but for some reason, after returning home, Sofia seemed to want to know me like a . . . friend. As though she had a true concern about my life, always pushing me to find humor and silver edges in my situation with Ari.

Sofia tilted her head, watching as Hodag finished pinning my crown of braids in place. “But your lack of choice is not for what you think.”

Hodag snorted once, pointing at the gown, then shuffled toward the door. She paused to pat Sofia’s cheek, then left us with a hefty slam to the door.

I adjusted one of the silver chains in my ear. “So, my master hasn’t summoned me to do his bidding?”

“He hasn’t, not to me, at least. am the one forcing you.” Sofia playfully flicked her brows. “You’re rather late, you know.”

“Not my fault. I was doing my duty and seeing that the borderland gates were secure for tonight’s revel.” I laced my fingers in my lap. “Master Ari ought to manage his time better if he desires his little serf’s presence.”

The gates of Alvheim, the royal city of the Court of Hearts, were opened to each court across the kingdom for the next month in constant revels and debauchery to celebrate of the union of a foreign prince and a Southern princess.

Gunnar Strom was a son of two kingdoms, but more thief than prince. Still, he was honorable in his love for Eryka, the princess of the Court of Stars.

Bitter as I was toward the Northern Ambassador, I did not wish ill on the formal announcement of their betrothal. I’d been thorough in my inspections at the gates. No one with malice would break through. I knew every crevice, every alcove, where assassins might perch.

My ability to see the land from different angles better than anyone else in the fae isles was a secret I’d take to the Otherworld.

“I have a theory about your reluctance tonight,” Sofia said. “Hear me out. You should soften your spine and dance with at least a dozen men. Even Ari. He makes plenty of courtiers laugh when he takes them for a turn.”

A strange feeling spread through my middle. One like scorching water simmering in an iron skillet. It only worsened the more I imagined Ari pinned in some dark alcove with a courtier’s hands in his trousers, her tongue in his mouth.

I was not accustomed to feeling much, but the man seemed to spark every distasteful, horrific emotion the gods created.

He was terrible.

“I’d rather dance with Dunker than Ari.”

Sofia snickered. Dunker was the troll steward for Ari’s longhouse. Where Hodag was motherly, Dunker was gruff and all-too fond of using his heavy knuckles to strike the crown of the head.

“It’ll be entertaining tonight, I swear to you,” Sofia said. “If not dancing, you ought to know I promised to sneak Princess Signe some of the secret honey wine Bracken tries to hide.”

No doubt it would brighten the princess’s night. While I was certain Sofia secretly loved Bracken, I believed Signe felt the same about Sofia.

“A skinny thing like Signe will be waltzing until dawn with a mere drop.”

“Exactly. Can you imagine Bracken’s face? He’d go red with frustration.”

“Unless he is looking at you all night.”

“Ah, one can only hope.”

I shook my head, adding a silver ring to one middle finger. Two ravens pointed their beaks toward each other while the wings made up the curve of the band. “It will be that way for you, but alas, I am nothing but a servant.”

“Hells, you’re making this difficult.” Sofia said the words soft enough I wasn’t sure she meant to say them out loud. Her eyes flashed, and the levity returned. “If you mean nothing, I wonder why you would be left a gown, and why Hodag would be sent to tend to you. Give him the chance. I have a feeling he might make you feel something . . . new.”

Oh, if only she knew, I did not feel anything until I saw his beautifully frightening face. I wouldn’t try to explain what it meant to anyone, not even Sofia, lest I be thought of as a madwoman.

I offered a simple nod, and appeased, Sofia spun out of the loft to give me space to dress.

My fingers trembled when I stripped from my tunic and dusty hosen. I kicked the scuffed leather boots to the side. The dress taunted me, no mistake. What Sofia saw as generosity from a master to give me such a garment, to me was a subtle cruelty. A small way Ari Sekundär reminded me he had a chokehold on my existence for the next century.

My mouth dried once I faced the mirror. Naked and pale in the moonlight, the scars littering my flesh seemed harsher. Each divot, each mark was a reminder my life had never been my own. Even though there were parts I could not remember, the scars were proof others had laid claim on my flesh and body for the whole of my life.

What was another hundred turns?

I clenched my jaw in a touch of defiance and took up the gown. Ari mocked my modesty; doubtless he thought me prudish or timid and wanted to force a bit of provocation. He wouldn’t get the satisfaction of winning tonight. I wouldn’t bend, not on this. There were some secrets I did not need others to see.

On instinct, my fingertips brushed over a taut ribbon of scarred skin that ran the length of my ribs. To endure the stares, the questions . . . I’d rather take a thousand punishments than allow folk to see the truth.

I dressed in a rush. Once on, I had to admit the gown was beautiful. The fabric hugged my figure nicely. A slit revealed the curves of my legs on either side, and the back was made of satin ribbons, crisscrossing down my spine.

A silver mirror hung on one wall. Nearly every mark written on my surface would be visible if I went out like this. I touched the rune mark in the center of my forearm. A cherished memory of a brother who’d tried to protect me to his final breath. I never learned how Riot died, only that he had when our folk lost the old wars.

The ink on my skin was the last bit of proof someone had loved me once. It was enough. There was no point in opening the heart to anyone else; the risk of losing them was too great. I’d never allow myself to love anyone only to be left with a rune tattoo as a memory again.

I slid a fur coat over my shoulders and chuckled at the clash of garments. One sleek and lovely, the other used for frosty morning hunts.

To Ari, the coat would be an act of defiance. To me, it was a shield. One I would never surrender.

After all, no one could get hurt if I let no one in.


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