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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 20

The Ambassador

We’d walked through another day, then camped in an empty troll burrow for another night. I might’ve dreamt it, but I thought Saga had slipped away for a time after I’d gone to sleep.

Impossible. If she’d left our tight quarters surely I’d notice.

My thoughts of Saga slipping out in the night faded when, at dawn, I woke with her head on my chest, hair a mess, and one hand had slipped under my tunic to rest on my bare stomach.

By now, when such things happened, Saga and I woke, stretched, and never mentioned how we always woke tangled in each other’s limbs. She never mentioned her palm on my skin, and I said nothing as I pulled my fingers off the underside of her full breast.

On the fourth morning after leaving the tavern, I was growing quite accustomed to the intricacies of the Mossgrove. We had to walk slowly through uncharted paths in the grove, but it allowed me time to learn the secrets of the deep woods.

White clay meant rocky ledges were nearby. Thicker trees always meant streams and creeks could be used for washing or drinking. Should we hear a hum, we’d find a new route, or we’d walk into a nest of poisonous stinging insects.

The grove stretched across the whole of the kingdom. Throughout the trees, small townships littered the land. We avoided most roads that would lead us toward cottages or farms. Occasionally we’d slip past a few wooded shanties or longhouses. There were solitary folk who preferred toadstools to interaction with speaking things.

We walked well into the afternoon with few words spoken. The upset at the tavern had sobered our journey, but I thought there was something more binding our tongues. Saga had pulled me away from the battle. I’d exhausted my fury to defend her. It was as if there was some forbidden alliance we’d formed between us, and neither of us seemed to know how to traverse this new truth.

My first instinct was to push back, to keep her at a distance. That meant silence or cruel words.

Silence would have to do. Why she said nothing and avoided my gaze, I could only guess.

Two paces at my back, Saga stumbled over a damp root jutting through the soil. On instinct, my hand flew out to catch her. Those gray stone eyes narrowed, and she yanked her arm away from me.

My mouth tightened. I took a long step, all at once desperate to put a great deal of space between us.

I was weak. My resolve to keep my heart indifferent to this woman was growing clouded with concern. It slithered between the cracks of outrage and bitterness. Concern for the way she winced when she stepped wrong. Concern for the cruelty of others spewed her way. When she stared off into the distance, as though lost in a thousand thoughts, I found myself too concerned with what burdens she carried.

Then, she’d look at me with such venom, and I’d be back to imagining how I could wring her slender neck. I wanted to toss her into the fjords, waving as the undertow tugged her out to sea.

I wanted to see her writhe and groan, and I wanted my hands on her while she did it.

Frey was right. I needed to take up with a huldra to get a meddlesome creature out of my damn blood. Something meaningless, something purely physical and devoid of the heart. The way I’d been handling such things since I was a young rebel in the North.

Better for everyone if such things remained unchanged.

“Bleeding roots.” Saga grunted and kicked another root buried beneath slick leaves.

“To walk, one must simply pick up their feet,” I said. “Pity your mother never taught you properly.”

“Hard to do when she took her last breath as I took my first,” Saga snapped.

A jab of something like remorse struck me in the chest. “May the gods comfort her as she watches her clumsy bloodline fumble along a simple forest path.”

Saga paused, a bemused look on her face. “Where do you think of the things you say?”

“I do not need to think. Beautiful musings simply come out.”

“Tell me, Ari,” Saga said snidely, “does the woman who brought you into this world swoon with pride that her son is a man who berates, taunts, and genuinely has nothing of much worth to say?”

“No, she is not proud. We share the same misfortune and are motherless in this cruel world.”

All gods, I’d not said those words since I saw my mother’s lifeless body on the berm outside our shanty.

Like always, when memories slid into my skull, blood boiled in my brain; the world seemed to spin. I felt the rush of my breath as my lungs twisted and wanted to fight me until I could not breathe at all.

No. I clenched my fists. Not here. Not with her.

Should she ever see the rush of panic, the suffocating pressure that stole my breath when I thought of the faces I’d betrayed, then Saga would, no doubt, use it wholly against me.

Saga tilted her head and studied me. I was giving away too much.

“If you’re finished bonding over our personal tragedies,” I said in a low, cruel tone. “May we continue? Or shall I be forced to drag you behind me?”

For once, Saga said nothing, but she kept a more distinct distance.

Paths were narrow and littered in brush. I had to remove my seax once or twice to cut through thick vines. When the sun was high, I passed Saga a few strips of herring jerky and half the millet roll from my pack without a word. In turn, once we passed through a rocky ravine, Saga tapped my shoulder and dumped a handful of cloudberries into my palm I hadn’t seen her gather.

The warmth of her palm lingered on my shoulder for longer than necessary. When she noticed, she lifted her chin and stalked a few paces ahead without a word.

I’d lost track of how many tolls we’d been walking. Where the day had been bright and warm, now angry clouds blotted out the sun as sea storms moved in.

The path widened and smoothed. My hand rested on the hilt of my blade when more than one side road came into view. We were stepping too close to the townships on the border of the Court of Hearts. The moment the thought came to mind, the scrape and rumble of wooden wheels over the pebbles came around the bend.

Dammit.

A hunched fae man with silver hair and a beard to his belly stepped into our path. At his side was a woman, arms filled with a burlap sack, chatting in his ear.

The woman flicked her gaze to us. Her brows were thick like furry worms, and her nose hooked severely on the end.

I opened one palm at my side.

“Ari,” Saga’s voice was soft, but unease quivered beneath the surface.

“Keep walking.”

“But—”

“Walk,” I snarled.

Saga dipped her head. I didn’t know what had her so unnerved. I was the one whose neck was on the line.

As we strode by the old fae couple, I waved. “Pleasant day.”

The woman huffed, her voice a pitch too high. “Pleasant? Sonny, another storm be brewing. Be the jötunn folk playing tricks, suppose?”

I laughed easily. Southern fae lived and breathed their old lore. “Likely. We all know how they enjoy their ice and snow.”

“Too right,” the wizened man said, clicking his tongue and glancing in the direction of the distant peaks. “Always the same, when the blooms try to break out from the frosts, them icy folk try to chase it all back underground. Careful now, season changes be when the tricksters step out to torment us all.”

“Many thanks,” I said. “We’ll watch our backs.”

“What’s the matter with her?” The fae man nodded toward Saga so the wrinkled points of his ears flapped.

“Oh, her?” I turned over my shoulder, biting back a laugh when Saga lifted her face. “She has such a simple mind and decided to fiddle with a wrathnettle shrub.”

Saga’s brow furrowed, but I could not contain the laugh when the two old fae jumped back.

“Call upon the gods,” the man gasped.

“Oh, simple child. Simple, foolish child.” The woman rubbed the bridge of her hooked nose before she patted my arm with sympathy. “Might want to consider letting the forest take her. Might be a mercy for such a lost mind.”

I let out a heavy sigh and patted the top of the old woman’s hand. “I fear the poor thing is my sister. Had I not made a vow of honor to care for the girl to our blind mother before the Otherworld called her back, I would do just that. Maj always had such high hopes she would grow wise, but alas, the gods don’t favor her.”

I did not need to turn around to know Saga was plotting my death. Her disdain was like a heavy cloak, pressing against my shoulders, searching for a way to throttle me.

The two old fae kissed their fingertips, aghast, perhaps praying this simpleton wouldn’t curse them with her ailments.

“A man of honor.” The old woman patted my cheek. “May the skies shine down on you.”

“Thank you,” I said as if each word touched me to the center of my heart.

“Get to cover before the howls of storms,” the woman said. “Night rains play with the mind until the Mares take you to the hells.”

I chuckled again. Back wood fae spoke in riddles, lore, and were mightily hard to follow with logic. I loved it.

With a wave, the two old fae scurried away, keeping a wide berth from Saga.

She followed them, then wheeled on me, striking my arm. “What in the hells was that? Why did they look like I was made of poison? Wait, what is on your face?”

I smirked and closed my fist, relieved to release my fury. After the tavern skirmish, my illusions still ached.

Saga patted her face and let out a little shriek. “What did you do to me?”

“Shielded you from recognition.”

“Ari, you bastard.” Her fingers roved over the lumps and weeping pustules across her chin, nose, and the ridge of her cheeks. “Change me back.”

Her lips had grown so plump they nearly curled. Her eyes were red, and pus oozed down her forehead.

I grinned and gripped her chin. Saga’s breath caught. Each time my touch drew out her surprise, I found I enjoyed it a little more. I leaned closer. “Beg me.”

“Never.”

I stroked my finger down one side of her cheek. “Beg me to change you.”

“I would rather die.” Saga didn’t pull back, but she held my stare. A challenge. A promise of a constant fight.

I stroked the other side of her face until the illusion faded back to her smooth, sun-kissed skin. Before I released her face, I whispered, “I promise, my sweet menace, someday I shall have you begging for me, one way or another.”

Saga shoved me back. “You’re utterly insufferable. The only begging I shall ever do is to plead with you to step off a cliff.”

I pressed a hand to my chest. “Yet again, words that are meant to wound simply . . . don’t. Keep your chin up, keep trying, you’ll get there someday.”

“I hate you.”

Saga tried to walk away, but I tugged on her arm, pulling her against my chest. Her eyes were glassy, they were wide and mingled in panic and desire. A look I’d started to crave along the way and didn’t know how to stop.

“You hate me,” I whispered. “Because you don’t. And you can’t stand it. You want to detest me, yet you’ve found I’m not entirely unbearable.”

“Is that so? You think you fill my thoughts? My most intimate dreams?” Saga sneered and slid one palm up my chest, higher, and higher until she curled her smaller hand around my throat.

By the gods.

She didn’t squeeze, she didn’t threaten. It was worse than all that. She rubbed her thumb across the pulse point of my neck, her fingertips brushed over the line of my jaw. A damn near tender touch, and I wanted more of it. I wanted to flee from it.

“If you wish to know what I really think, Ambassador Ari,” she said softly. “I think you are well-liked by others, no mistake. But the reason you taunt me, trying to get me to admit I think of you at all, is because it torments you to know someone does not enjoy your presence. Are you so desperate to be loved that you cannot stand the idea of having an enemy?”

I fought the urge to flinch. There was no reality where I’d give her the satisfaction.

I released her chin and took a fistful of her hair, tilting her head back. “I have no desire to be loved, although, to their detriment, there are folk who do.”

Saga’s brows furrowed. “To their detriment?”

“Yes.” I released her and stepped back, ashamed of myself for cracking a bit and showing too much. “I assure you, loving me brings nothing but misery. I tire of this conversation. It’s dull, and I would rather be anything but dull. Pick up those feet now, we need to take cover from the storm.”

I turned and strode down one of the narrower roads that would take us deeper into the Mossgrove, but as I went, there were more cracks in my carefully placed armor.


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