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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 23

The Captive

Wake up, little raven.

My eyes snapped open. A hunched, hag-like woman hummed a sweet tune in a round room. Her dark hair was streaked in starlight silver, and her nose was bent like it had been broken more than once. The color of her lips was a bloodless gray, but her eyes were strangely soft, two tarnished coins of green and gold.

She carried a tray holding a cup filled with floating cloves and mint leaves in steaming water over to me.

“Drink,” she said in a raspy voice. “Helps with the bolt poison.”

Bolt poison. What was the last thing I remembered? The ravine, Ari irritating me, then . . . blood fae. All hells, we were in the Court of Blood, and not the way we’d planned. They’d taken us like prisoners. Why? How did they even know we were seeking them out?

Things were not right here.

My fingers surrounded the cup, but I didn’t drink. I planned ways to escape.

“Where is my companion?”

The woman blinked a few times, then grinned. “Sleeping. Took the brunt of the bolts. Dense Aren. The boy fired twice into him after My Lord specifically said to handle you both with care.” The hag snorted and rolled her eyes. “Them young warriors always looking to prove themselves to My Lord. I expect your love will wake by the evening.”

“He’s not my—”

She was already shuffling out the door. I slumped back against the down pillow covered in rabbit fur. How was I going to get out with a poisoned Ari?

I glanced around the space. Large as the room was, it was furnished simply. A small table, two chairs, and fire pit with a smoke hole in the roof. Only a few embers flickered with life, but they warmed the room well enough. I padded my hands down my body. A few scratches dotted my wrist. The pattern in which they fell was strange, almost like the web of a fate bind rune, meant to be written when two paths of fate were destined to cross. But more concerning than new scratches was that someone had dressed me in a black, silk nightdress.

My clothes. Where were my clothes?

“Don’t fret. I dressed you.” At the door, Sofia leaned against the frame, grinning.

“Sof?” Relief croaked in my throat.

Sofia crossed the room and pulled a chair to the side of the bed. She was dressed in travel clothes, but a new, healing gash was carved over her throat.

“Gods, Sofia, what happened?”

Her fingers touched the wound. “The other fae made off worse. Folk have gone mad in the isles, Saga.”

“You were attacked.”

She grinned. “I survived. And don’t fear, I’ve also made certain no one else saw you.”

I rubbed a hand to my forehead. “What are you talking about? Why are you here?”

“Many of us are,” she said. “Bracken, the Northern warriors with their prince and Eryka. Bracken had sent an official missive to Gorm after Eryka told him you were seeking out the Court of Blood. He wanted the blood fae to welcome you. But they apparently grew anxious and sought you out. Bracken arrived when Dunker and Hodag tracked the scent of you here.”

I blew out a long breath. “The king is here? He can’t take Ari, Sofia. There is something wrong in the isles and—”

“We’re not taking Ari. Bracken knows something is shifting here. We only wish to aid you on the journey.” She leaned back in her chair, almost sneering at me. “You know, I’ve always loved ravens.”

I froze. The blood halted in my skull and pounded like an axe to a tree. “You saw?”

“As I said, I made certain no one else did, but I helped dress you when your form shifted again.” Sofia grinned. “You scared the piss out of some of the blood knights.”

“You do not seem surprised.”

Sofia’s smile faded. “I always knew you kept a secret from me. Sensed it. Would it help you now if I asked you a thousand questions?”

It wouldn’t, and in truth I was glad she held such an oddly calm demeanor.

“You’re a raven,” Sofia went on. “You are rare, and should you tell too many folk, it could detract from your purpose now.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, keeping the truth that Rune knew on the tip of my tongue. Best not to add another thing to fret over.

Sofia crossed a leg over one knee. “Of course, I can only speak for myself. Gorm, on the other hand, was quite captivated and expressed the need to speak with you. He was quite insistent.”

“Is that a code for he might kill me? Shape shifters are blood fae, and he might see it as a threat.”

“No. Gorm doesn’t mince words. He wants to speak with you.”

“Ari didn’t see?”

“The ambassador was already well under the effects of the bolts,” she said. “You were as well, but your raven form still took hold. No one else will know.”

What would Sofia think if she knew I’d once donned gowns and gold rings, or that my brother had cursed me, and now a voice in the shadows was harassing me like a wicked ghost?

My blood came from a fallen royal line, true, but there was nothing royal about me.

I would rather avoid revels where nobility yearned for them. My palms sweated and my heart raced when too many folk gathered in one area. And to hide all my disquiet I lashed out with a blade and sharp words.

Hardly the suitable combination for a princess. Instead of answering, my tongue tied in knots, and I fell into my uneasy silence when others tried to poke and prod at me too much.

“You don’t trust me.” Sofia leaned back in her chair.

I didn’t trust anyone. “Sofia, try to understand. I am bound to Ari, think of the risks if he discovered I’d been hiding a secret such as this. Think of what he might do to me.”

It was a stretch. Ari would probably look on me with horror and send me back to Bracken to deal with. Try as I might, I could not truly envision a reality where Ari abused me the same as Astrid.

“You ought to trust the ambassador. I can’t help but notice you’ve mentioned him several times,” Sofia said. “I think he means something to you. Have you bedded each other yet?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose, desperate to forget how my body had ached often to know more of him. “We are forced to be together. That’s all.”

Sofia looked at me, bemused. Almost like she didn’t believe a word of it, or that she hoped I was lying to save face. Since returning from the battle in the East, she’d been more fixed on the notion of me falling in love. Lately, she’d homed in on a non-existent romance with Ari Sekundär.

The floorboards outside the room creaked. I held a breath in the back of my throat when the Blood Lord filled the doorway.

Gorm was imposing. A man carved from stone and turns of battle. His eyes were like ice with tight black centers, and the points of his two canines slid over his lips slightly.

“Sleep well?” His rough, rasp of a voice sent a shiver down my spine.

I could not help but notice the way his large palm gripped the hilt of his blade. Gorm smiled—no, he sneered—when he stepped into the room.

“I do hope so,” he said. “For we have much to discuss.”

I stiffened as Gorm approached the bedside. Thoughts whirled about that blade sheathed to his hip. Was it all a lie? Had he taken us as prisoners? Had he taken that blade to Ari’s heart?

“You need not fear me, and I have not slaughtered your companion. In fact, he rests in a comfortable cottage this very moment,” Gorm said, interrupting my thoughts. He tapped the side of his head. “I hear thoughts. Most of them.” Gorm’s eyes flicked toward Sofia as she scooted nearer to my side.

“Do you wish me to stay?” Sofia whispered.

I didn’t want to speak with anyone, but I nodded. Having a familiar face brought a sense of security. More so now after discovering the damn Blood Lord could read minds.

Gorm was followed by two others. One was his captain, Bjorn. What most folk did not know was Bjorn was the brother of the fallen Blood Lady, Gorm’s wife.

Lady Ernaline was said to be so lovely it hurt to look upon her. The tale went that Ernaline journeyed for the shore after Cuyler’s birth to give thanks to the gods for her son, but found a swift fall off one of the steep cliffs in Hells Pass instead.

Due to his constant presence, folk conjured the rumors that Bjorn was Gorm’s lover, some even said they plotted the death of the Blood Lady to be together. Folk could think as they wished, but I favored the idea Bjorn was less lover to Gorm and more loyal to the one who’d loved his sister best.

Cuyler was the last to enter the room. His smile was absent the fangs of his father, and his eyes locked on Sofia. “Perhaps we could speak with the lady alone.”

Sofia painted a soft smile on her face. “Saga asked me to remain at her side. Whatever you have to tell us, I’ve no doubt will make us all stronger.”

The Blood Lord studied her for a moment, almost angry the way his thick brows tugged to the center of his forehead, but he did not say a word to her. He faced me. “Tricks and games abound in the isles. Some too familiar to put my heart at ease. Speak plainly when I ask my next question, so I may know you are true and may remain a guest in my court.”

Gorm pinched his fingers over his thumb and tightness gathered in my chest.

“What are you doing? If you can read thoughts, then read them.”

“Thoughts are not always clear or known, even by the one to which they belong. Indecision hinders my glamour, but I can command many things,” Gorm said. “The tongue and truth being one.”

“Is that all you do?” I asked, an irritating quiver in my voice. “Slip into the heads of others and command them? What a pity your glamour can do nothing of note.”

All hells, I’d been around Ari too much.

“My glamour does a great deal,” Gorm said, unruffled. “You have pointed out the feats it can do just now.”

Cuyler smirked and clapped a hand on his father’s shoulder. “She is being ironic, Father.”

Gorm seemed a little confused, but he cleared it away swiftly and looked to me. “My word is obeyed should it need to be, but I am a fair lord. I know how dangerous such power might be if I were a cruel hearted leader. I care for my court and these isles. Simple. Nothing more. But there is too much at risk to deal with imposters. I must know the truth from you, are you of House Revna?”

I licked my lips, fighting the waves turning in my stomach. “Yes, but I am connected to House Ode through my brother. We had different fathers.”

“You are cursed.”

I blinked at Gorm in stun. I’d been thinking of Riot’s curse in the moment. How did anyone think anything private around the blood lord? “Twice over.”

Gorm inhaled, closed his eyes, but all too soon his face contorted into a snarl. “You’ve been forced to shape shift. It ought not be forced.”

“Agreed,” I whispered. “It is terribly painful.”

“I have a poisoner who might be able to create an elixir to dull the curse, for at least a few nights.” He gestured at Bjorn, who leaned out the door and spoke with someone in the corridor. Gorm glared back at me. “Not permanent, but it might give you a bit more time.”

A grateful smile spread over my lips. “Thank you.”

“Tell me of the curse of your cold heart.” Gorm leaned over his large legs. “You wish for it back, and I find such thinking odd.”

“To suffer the thaw is almost worse,” I whispered.

From the corner of my gaze, I noted how Sofia’s lips turned into a grin.

“A thawed heart is a stronger heart,” Gorm said. “One that feels, that hurts, that knows what it might lose, those are hearts that fight. Those are hearts that are true to convictions. How do you see this as suffering?”

Because it ached. Gods, it ached. Fear and love and pain and hate. How did anyone live with a beating heart?

“It is overwhelming to feel.” Bjorn was the one who spoke. He tapped Gorm’s other shoulder. “All you must do to understand is recall the day your heart learned of Erna’s death.”

Gorm’s face shadowed, but he nodded as if the idea of the ache a heart could bring finally made sense.

Bjorn’s yellow eyes met my stare. “You are in luck, My Lady. Lord Gorm is one of the guardians of knowledge and artifacts of House Revna. Your star seer was wise to send you here.”

“Artifacts?”

“Yes.” Gorm grinned, flashing his fangs. “We’ll get to all that. First, you must accept your heart has been awakened. It will be key.”

“That is what you call it? An awakened heart.”

“There are many folk tales and poems of such romantic notions,” Gorm said. “A kiss of the truest love, a vow of honor. So, I will ask you, have you experienced an awakening?”

My mouth went dry. I nodded, but prayed he would not ask for more.

“Who did the awakening?” Sofia pressed, but Gorm held up his hand.

“It is not necessary to know,” he insisted, glaring at her. “We can merely be grateful it was done and our lady is free.”

“I am no longer a lady, but a serf, Lord Gorm.”

He grunted, mouth open like I’d slapped him. “A serf? The heir of the raven line, a serf?”

“Our folk lost the battles long ago.”

“Your history is wrong.”

I shook my head. “Why do you say that?”

“Father, she is uneasy,” Cuyler said, then smiled at me. “Show her.”

“Yes. It seems curses have muddled your memories.” Gorm sniffed and removed a weathered looking piece of vellum from inside his tunic. It was rolled and tied with a black ribbon. “Allow us to correct them and give you the answers you might not know to seek. We will show you the truth.”


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