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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 42

The Captive

Dusk fell in blue shadows once we found the place, the Monastery of Poems.

Not long after leaving the bloody river, the peaks took a leisurely slope, and carved into one of the rocky sides was an arched wooden door. Great, stone pillars were alight in strange fire on either side of the door, like a flame both black and red.

I doubted it ever died.

“We’ll stop and ready our blades,” Bo instructed.

“You would be wise to unbind our wrists,” Frey snarled.

“No.”

“Yes,” Rune said, glaring at his brother in arms. “We do not know what we face, and we all are at the point of staying alive now. Once we have what it is they’ve come to collect, we bind them.”

“Well thought, Rune,” Ari said with condescension.

Rune ignored him and went about untying the ropes on our wrists. Bo watched with frustration but didn’t stop him.

Ari and Stieg leaned over their knees when the fury bindings were removed from their wrists. Frey wasn’t Night Folk, and helped brace his brothers as they fought the need to retch for a pause before color again returned to their faces.

“I hate those things,” Ari said, wiping a bit of sweat from his brow.

“We protect our Lady Astrid at all costs,” Bo told the last remaining guards.

“I wish you wouldn’t.” A jest I’d expect from Ari, but this time, it came from Frey.

I couldn’t keep the laugh in, and I wasn’t certain if it surprised me or Frey more. We’d never been friendly; Frey and Stieg more or less ignored me. I understood it. I was the bane for their ambassador. Naturally, they would not make nice with such a woman.

Still, it added a new layer of warmth in my thawed heart. The idea of friendship, the sort I could finally return, was a notion I wouldn’t mind exploring if we lived through this.

We stripped the fur coats, most soaked in sweat or blood, and everyone was handed a blade. When one of the Borough guards hesitated in handing me a dagger, Ari stepped in front of him, a scowl on his face, and took it from him by the blade.

“Ari.” I sighed in exasperation, dabbing the blood off his palm. “You have a king’s temper, you know. Demanding and overly ridiculous when you’re trying to prove a point.”

“I will rage and draw blood, even my own, if they keep disrespecting you.”

“Says the man who calls his wife a menace.”

He smiled as I wrapped his palm. “We have sharp tongues, but I think I’ve shown you how much mine respects you in a few other ways.”

My face heated, and it only made him laugh.

“They do not disrespect you,” he said firmly. “Or the next draw of blood will not be mine.”

He left me for a moment to work with Frey on the best way to approach a magically protected door.

“I do not know if you’ve cast a spell over him, since he will not speak of your glamour, but I’ve not seen him like this before.” Stieg came to my side, arms folded.

“You think I mean him harm?”

“I hope not. I knew Ari as the rebel king, and even as a prisoner of his, I knew he had an honorable heart. A man who’d suffer the hells for those he let in.”

“You were his prisoner?”

Stieg smirked. “Oh, yes. Along with our king before we knew he was our king. It goes to say something that I would give my life for a man who once had me under guard.”

It seemed we all had been prisoners at one point in our lives. I supposed it was why Frey, Stieg, and Ari didn’t waffle over the enemies at our backs. They behaved like they were used to it.

It gave me a little thread of kinship to the Northern warriors.

“Why are you saying this?” I asked.

“Ari has the same look that Valen Ferus had when he brought war to our kingdom for the love of his queen. I have never seen it in my friend’s eyes, and I want to see that it stays. That it is not only felt by him alone.”

I feared the admission of love. With Astrid so near, with Bo and Rune, with shadows listening, but perhaps I could offer him something.

I held his gaze, unwavering, as a show of the respect he was afforded. “I give you my word on pain of death, I wish I could tie that man to a tree and leave him there so his neck would not come anywhere near the risks we’re about to face. If you have any ideas how it might be done, I am all ears.”

Stieg held a look of stun for a long breath, then belted a deep, booming laugh. He clapped a hand on my shoulder, as though I were one of his warrior brothers.

“What is this talk of tethering me to a tree?” Ari returned, the folded map in his hand, glaring at us. “Unless you plan to tie me naked and have your way with me. In that case, I am inclined to see this through immediately. Honestly, it must be done now that the idea is in my head. The others will simply have to wait until you finish with me before we can continue.”

Stieg and I glanced at each other and grinned.

“It is time to move or one of us might be forced to take a new form soon.” Astrid’s shrill voice broke the moment. She pointed to the stars, a curl to her lips. “Amongst the starlight. Move.”

“Last chance to stay back and let me play the hero, husband,” I whispered.

“Not a chance, wife.”

We discovered a stone staircase that led us to the flat, cobbled ledge where the door was carved into the mountainside. There was nothing of note, nothing threatening, only a door without a knob.

“There is no way in. No keyhole, nothing,” Bo said.

“Repeat the verse from the guardian.” Ari rubbed his brow.

“Amongst the starlight bring you two hearts, strong and true,” Frey repeated. “Twice the blood given, brings back what was lost to you.”

“What does it mean?” Astrid snapped.

“Well, the last time I was at this impenetrable monastery of legends, the verse was different,” Ari shot back without a second thought.

“We must work it through.” I curled my lip at Astrid. “So silence is best.”

I’d pay for it. If I did not find a way to sever the compulsion bond, I had few doubts fire ropes would be loosed the moment we ended our journey.

“What do we know?” Ari said to me alone. “This was hidden for you, so what do we know?”

I closed my eyes. Riot would do all he could to ensure his seidr song brought me to this place. But how did the guardian’s verse offer directive from the stipulations of my brother’s song?

Amongst the starlight.

I lifted my eyes. Crystal specks lit the sky.

Bring you two hearts, full and true.

Literal? I looked around at our miserly group. Were we to sacrifice two hearts? It was possible. This task was laced in brutality, but if Riot was the curator of this strange journey, it did not make sense. What if it had only been me?

No, it couldn’t have only been me. I would not have known the feather existed if my heart had never been awakened . . . by another.

I looked to Ari. Bring you two hearts, full and true. A true heart could mean loyalty. A full heart. What filled a heart?

I smiled. Love.

Fate’s songs were love songs. I would not have found the feather without someone worthy of my heart. If they were loyal, they would be here. With me. Two hearts.

“You look like you’ve discovered something,” Ari said.

I took his hand and went to the door. “‘Two hearts, full and true.’ Riot planned every step of this to be done with the one to whom I was vowed.”

Ari’s grin spread slowly. “Am I to understand I fill your heart?”

I sighed. “With so many things. Most of which is agitation.”

“All right,” Ari said, sobering just enough to focus on the next line. “‘Twice the blood given brings back what was lost’. Blood always seems to be a requirement. The gods and Norns are rather bloodthirsty.”

“Us.” I gripped his arm. “Two hearts, twice the blood. It’s our blood needed unless I do not fill your heart. If that is the case, this will be terribly uncomfortable.”

Ari gave me a look like I was ridiculous. “I have been trying to weasel into your whole damn soul from your declared hate at first sight.”

“Any luck?” Frey crouched beside us.

“Yes, we think we know how to open it,” Ari said. “Frey, the claim that is in there belongs only to Saga. I can’t explain it all now, but it is vital no one prevents her from taking it.”

Frey gave a nod of understanding without likely understanding anything and left us again.

Ari took out the dagger he’d been given and unwrapped his healing palm; barely touched the gash, and watched as it opened again. He reached for my hand. “Now you.”

“Ari,” I whispered. “If this works, if Davorin is nearby, you will become his greatest threat to the feather.”

Without care to any of the eyes watching, Ari cupped a hand behind my neck. “If he does not already know what you mean to me, then on top of being a dead man, he is a blind fool.”

He slid his hand away. I kissed his palm as it passed my mouth. Both our palms bleeding, all eyes on us, we placed our hands to the smooth door.

With the otherworldliness of this cursed place, I expected the door to shape into a giantess or some fearsome creature. It was unremarkable. A click came from behind the door, and the hinges that were not there a moment ago groaned as it opened.

We stood, hand in hand.

Ari looked at me. “Let us go get your crown, Saga.”


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