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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 40

The Ambassador

Sunlight struck glacier ponds, reflecting off each glassy surface in crashes of white. Several clock tolls ago, the forests of the isles grew thin, along with the air. Raggedy evergreens with brown needles dotted the sharp ledges along the serpentine paths, but for the most part, we were exposed.

Irritation grew potent enough to taste the dry ash of it on my tongue when my gaze fell on Saga. Tonight her curse would force her to shift, and with Astrid being the one who’d caused it, we did not know what that would mean. Saga would be more vulnerable as a raven. The guards would know, they might kill her out of fear, use her as the army’s pet. I didn’t know, but every idea only soured my mood.

All of it was made worse that once morning came, they kept us apart.

I was kept in the back with Rune and the skinny guard, Rolf, who walked like he was always preparing to take a leap through the air like a bleeding fawn. Still, he wasn’t terrible. Even seemed amused by the comradery between me and the warriors.

But I wanted to be near my bleeding wife.

Truth be told, it was maddening to not understand this sort of magic. If some shadow demon side of this Davorin lived within Astrid, how much was him and how much was the former queen?

The answer didn’t matter. Davorin abused Saga. Astrid compelled her. They both had sinned too greatly against her to keep breathing. If they lived within one heart, all the better. It would take out the last of our bleeding enemies in one killing blow.

“Drink.” Bo gestured at the ponds. A sheen of sweat glazed his brow from his constant running up the slopes, tracking the best route. “Then dress in these. It grows too cold.”

He tossed bundles of furs and knitted hats at our feet.

“Goes against the point of keeping warm when you drop them into the damp frosts,” I called to his back as he strode away.

Rune watched it all. A glance went to his fellow guard, the next came back to us. I held his stare as I added a thicker coat to my back. A silent reminder the torment he felt mattered. He turned his back on me and shoved a pair of leather gloves over his fingers.

“The path has ended,” Rolf said. He had a mop of sweaty, blood red hair that curled around his face. Much higher, and icicles would take shape on the coils. He shoved a fox-fur cap over his head and tapered ears.

“It ends?”

“The map says it should continue, but the path fades into nothing but rocky ledges. He can’t track it.” Rolf shrugged, even aided Hodag with a muff on her wide hands, and I was beginning to think he’d forgotten we were prisoners here.

He could not track it because this place was guarded by a brother desperate to keep his sister safe.

I glanced over to the huddle where Saga was trapped to the side, where Bo paced near Astrid. We’d freeze if we kept wandering. Provisions would grow scarce. Tempers would flare. It was no secret poor outcomes were had by prisoners when their captors grew desperate.

I strode toward the group but was stopped when Rune shot out one arm. “Stay back.”

“We will die a slow death if you keep reading that map without me.”

“What do you know of bleeding maps?”

“A great deal. I was the son of a royal cartographer, one who specialized in fury-made maps. I doubt a glamour-made route will be much different.”

“Ari’s father was a cartographer?” Frey whispered, likely to Stieg, at my back.

I didn’t turn for the reply. Such a simple detail, but one I’d shared with Saga alone. Seemed almost ridiculous. I might’ve been more useful for the Night Folk had they known.

“Move aside,” I said. “If you want to live and not bleeding freeze our way into the Otherworld, I need to speak with my wife.”

Astrid’s eyes were black as the deep sea, but after moments with nothing but the whistle of frosted wind in our ears, she gestured for me to look at it.

Bo’s gaze was made of steel and fire. His mouth was set, and a bit of red tinted his ears, not from the cold. Must’ve made him deliriously agitated to know his worth as a tracker was worthless on some paths.

I caught Saga’s eyes as I rounded to the boulder they’d used as a table. I studied the lines for the pathway. Symbols marked landscapes and common sights, but there was more, there had to be more. I lifted the parchment against the light of the sun. A trick my father had taught me when spells, invisible ink, or mystical marks needed to be revealed.

It took a moment, but soon a grin spread over my face. Hidden in plain sight markings and hidden words came into view.

I folded the map and handed it to Bo. “We are not making progress, for we are on the wrong path.”

“That is not true,” Bo insisted. “I have studied this map all night. This is the way.”

“Very well. If you say so, let us keep wandering.”

“You can reveal a new path?” Astrid made her annoyance known and huffed. “Like with the chest below. Do it.”

“I’m glad you asked so kindly. But no. Not yet.”

“I could kill you.”

“You could. Then you certainly won’t make it off this damn peak.”

“He’s lying,” said Bo.

“I suppose it wouldn’t be hard to find out. Go ahead and kill me.”

“Ari,” Saga warned.

“Fine.” Astrid tightened her white fur cloak around her shoulders. “How can we cater to you, Ambassador, so you will lead us onward?”

“Again, how blessed I am that you asked. I have stipulations. Really, only one. It’s simple: Saga stays with me the rest of the way. Either I walk beside her, or she joins us in the back where she will enjoy eating the dirt you kick up as much as we have.”

“No.”

I shrugged one shoulder. “Then I will not save any of you seats when we all greet the Otherworld. Except you, wife. Oh, Frey and Stieg and Hodag, you as well. You may join me at my godly table. Rolf, perhaps you.”

The skinny guard almost smiled. I suspected he would’ve if Astrid had not looked so murderous.

“You think you are clever,” she snarled.

“Oh, very much.” I leaned forward, no smile on my face. “I might talk a lot, Lady, but I am well-schooled on how to be a formidable foe.”

“For now.” Astrid smirked. “I find it amusing you think we’d allow you to plot against us.”

“We’re already plotting against you now. One more person would not change that. Trust me, Saga is plotting against you too. It is practically demanded of a captive to plot against their captors.”

Astrid looked ready to toss herself off the peaks. “So be it.”

“Good.” I held out my hand for Saga and tucked the map under my arm. “Shall we continue, wife?”

“Would you laugh at me if I said I didn’t want to?”

“Never.” I squeezed her palm. “The ink revealed in the sun repeated the words band by band again. Ready?”

Saga swallowed with effort, but the same as we did in the swamps, we took hold of the other’s hand so the vow bands connected just right. Again, a shudder of some forcible power, some alteration to a path into a new route shook beneath our feet.

I saw no path carving up the side of the peak. There were no mystical trees which sprouted from nothing.

“Well?” Astrid said, her lip curled into a snarl. Fitting. She was nothing but a wolf in a queen’s body.

Our next move would bring a threat ever closer to Saga’s power. It would put her life at risk, and I knew it. To my core, I knew it. But I was improvising with each length we gained on the journey, and all I could do was pray to the gods when we reached the end, we’d be blessed with a moment long enough to stuff a knife down this imposter’s throat.

Whatever we found, I would not let Astrid, or the creature I believed to be inside her, touch what had been hidden for Saga turns ago.

I’d die first.

“Something shifted,” Rune muttered, drawing me back to the moment. He went to stand beside Bo. “You felt it, right?”

Bo seemed emotionless, hardly aware his companion, his closest friend in the guard, had spoken. I might’ve imagined it, but I almost saw a touch of hurt on Rune’s face.

They didn’t matter.

I turned toward the granite peak wall, the images from the map reeling through my head. “We are looking for a hidden path. It will be entirely concealed. Likely a key or incantation or rune will open the way. We must search for anything out of the ordinary.”

“They’re going to use this as a moment to escape.” Bo glared at me, his grip tight on his blade.

Their words were exhausted long ago. “If you are so worried, pair us with a guard as we search. But search all the same. It should be within fifty paces on either side.”

After a few more questioning, hateful stares, they relented. Each of us was placed with a guard and we went about searching the cliffside for anything oddly placed.

The wind cooled as the sun began to fade. Gusts lifted a fog of dusty snow and I wasn’t certain I had lips any longer. We dug through snow and jagged ice. One guard climbed a pair of spindly trees.

Bo had been paired with me and when he lifted his hands I took note of the crimson streaks left behind. I stared at my fingertips. They were bloody much the same. Long ago numb, I hadn’t even noticed.

“I think I found it. Gods, I think I found it! My lady.” Rolf was balanced precariously on a jagged stone twenty paces away. Frey was his partner.

He found me in the crowd and nodded. “There is a stone with a face indented into it.”

My pulse quickened. This had to be it.

“I think we are to fit a face within it,” Rolf said, a wide grin of relief on his young face.

All at once, the guard leaned forward as if he were going to do just that. My heart shot to my throat. There were rules and risks on journeys as this. Concealed caves or hidden powers were not handed over easily. If something seemed obvious, like sticking one’s face in a divot in a stone, one must never do exactly that.

“Rolf, wait!” I shouted and tried to scramble for the young warrior.

Rolf fitted his forehead on the stone, he hardly had time to scream before the iron spike shot from the oblong mouth of the face indentation and never stopped until the bloody point pierced through the back of Rolf’s skull.


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