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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 43

The Ambassador

Crumpled leaves dusted over my boots when we stepped into the cavern. A wall of damp parchment and mold burned the back of my throat.

The space was smaller than I expected. A round cavern with a few jutting rock walls. There was nothing but a few ever-glow lanterns casting shadows, and a round fountain built into one wall.

“I already don’t like this,” Frey muttered.

“There is nothing.” Astrid shoved into the space once she realized we hadn’t been slaughtered. “Lives were lost for nothing.”

“Don’t pretend you care, and you did not need to join us,” I said, dragging my fingers along one wet wall. I didn’t notice anything useful. Only rock. “In truth, I wish you hadn’t. You’ve been a bit of a dead weight.”

“There is something written here,” Rune said before Astrid could behead me.

He gestured to the fountain. The wall connected to the basin was flat, and a slow trickle of water constantly ebbed from an unseen source at the top. Behind the water was an old scrap of parchment. How the words remained with the water, I didn’t know. I stopped trying to understand curses and different magicks long ago.

I leaned over the fountain bowl. The water was clear, and on the bottom was a glimmer of something silver. A white horn was hooked on the side, but desperation fueled my movements. Without thinking, I dipped my hand beneath the surface.

Clear as I knew a heart was in my chest, I could see the bottom of the fountain. But no matter how far I stretched my hand, it never reached the end.

I pulled back, shaking off the water. “There must be a way to drain it.”

“There is,” Saga said. Like Rune, she pointed at the parchment.

A final show of honor.

Unwilling, and drink for the land’s blood becomes bitter.

Done from a willing heart, becomes the sweetest taste.

Idly done, life drains. To live, make haste.

I lifted the white horn.

“No.” Saga shook her head. “No, Ari.”

“Saga.” I dipped the horn in the water. “It’s clear, the water must be consumed.”

“I should do it.”

“It is not meant for you.” I pointed at the words ‘drink for the land’s blood’. “This is a sacrifice on your behalf.”

“It could be poisoned.” Her brow wrinkled. “No.”

This could end poorly, but my life was on a countdown no matter what. With each step, I could feel the tug of Astrid’s cursed wound.

I rested a palm on the side of her face. “We don’t have a choice, or we are trapped here anyway.” I leaned closer, my lips against the shell of her ear, so my words would only be given to her. “Your brother did this to be certain the one who joined you came with honor. He did not want you to be hurt ever again, and I happen to agree with him. I’m willing, Saga.”

“I’m not.” She clung to my tunic.

“There are ways around this,” I said. “Do you think your brother would want to break your heart? Willingly done, it is sweet.”

“Yes, and did you miss the part where it says, ‘to live, make haste’? This will kill you.”

“I’m not so easily killed,” I said, placing her hand over the scar on my chest. “You know how hard others have tried.”

“And he does not have a choice.” Astrid stood between Rune and Bo. “If he is to drink it, then either he does it willingly, or we force open his mouth. Gods know we could do with some quiet.”

The ways I would kill that creature.

I tugged Saga away. “We can do this.”

She tried to hide the quiver to her lip and failed. “If you die, I will go back to hating you.”

I laughed softly and kissed her. Unwise, perhaps, there were threats all around us, but it was an unbidden need. If this was the end, I needed to leave with her taste on my lips.

Saga took the horn, hands trembling, and dipped it into the fountain. I held her gaze when I tipped the first drink to my lips. The water was cool, a faint hint of the smooth sweetness of tart blackberries.

I took another drink, then another.

Saga watched, giving me time to swallow. The water turned tasteless, nothing but cold in my throat.

“Ari, you look ill,” she said, a break in her voice.

“Keep going.” My chest was too tight, but I wouldn’t let on. “I’m fine.”

Each swallow added lead to my blood. The water was half drunk when I fumbled trying to reach for the horn.

“Ari.” Saga knelt beside me. “It’s too much.”

“It’s too late,” I whispered. “We must finish it.”

A tear slid down her cheek when she helped me tip the horn to my mouth. Gods, we needed to go faster.

“Give some to me.” Stieg sat at my side. “Tell me where it is written only one may be willing. If you are devoted to Ari, then I am devoted to you.”

“No.” Astrid snapped. “Stand back. He goes on, and if he dies, then we shall use you as our spare.”

Vaguely, I was aware of Frey and Stieg cursing the queen. I blotted out their voices and tried to hold onto all the sweet things in life. I wanted to go with those in mind. Not pain, not nightmares, I wanted to hold fast to the nights spent curled behind Saga’s warm body. I wanted to think of her in my arms. I wanted to think of what could’ve been.

“One more,” Saga whispered. I hadn’t realized she’d wrapped her arms around me. She kissed the crook of my neck. “One more.”

The cool lip of the horn wetted my mouth. Saga tipped the water down my throat. A touch of ripe berries soaked my tongue. Sweet.

The horn clattered.

“Do not touch it!” Astrid’s cry rattled my hazy mind. “You will give what is in that basin to me, or I end him now.”

Saga ignored her. Good. I would be disappointed if she hadn’t. In a mad dash, Saga reached her hand into the fountain.

“Wake up, Ari.” Stieg smacked my face.

I groaned a few mumbled curses. The man did not know how bleeding strong he was.

“Stay awake.” He commanded it of me. Stieg shook my shoulders. “Look at this.”

I put all my focus on the fountain, on Saga. The haze seemed to ebb slightly, and in the fog, a gleam of silver curled around Saga’s forearm. Like a needle pulling thread, the shimmer dug in and out of her skin until the shine settled, leaving a silver shape on her arm.

“You should not have done that, little one,” Astrid screamed. “Kill him!”

The two Borough guards hesitated, but only for a moment before they lifted their blades, taking a step for me.

My wits were slowly returning. I staggered to my feet, ready to take aim, but Saga stepped in front of me. “You won’t touch him. You won’t touch any of them.”

“Kill them!” Astrid’s palms sparked; she would ready her fire ropes. “You belong to me, little one.”

“I was never yours.” Saga’s arm still had a faint glow of silver under her skin. She crouched and gingerly gathered a few pieces of moss in her hands. She drew the moss close to her lips and hummed a sweet sound, soft and gentle. I did not understand the words she said, but a rush of power shuttered through my chest.

In the next breath, the moss throughout the cavern stretched and thickened and spun into damp vines. Shape shifting into something new, some alternate form like the one who’d ordered it could do.

The land was hers to claim and command.

The Borough guards were caught around the ankles, the knees. Moss vines wrapped around them until they were caught in a web of twisted knots, face down on the stones.

Saga slammed her hand against the flat stone where the water trickled down. She closed her eyes and whispered a few words, then Frey cried out, lifting one foot as though something reached up and bit his ankle.

Water bled from the stones, seeping around our feet. The bound guards wailed in fear when a new flow of ever-rising water touched their mouths. They’d drown with only a little more.

“You have no power to claim me,” Saga shouted. As she spoke, the walls of the cavern shuddered. Light spilled in. I stumbled against the fountain when the ground shifted. Water still rose, but Saga looked only at Astrid. “You have no claim on this land. Never again, Davorin.”

She plunged her hands in the ankle-deep water still flowing, then clenched her fists. From the shallow surface, Saga pulled a spike made of ice. Her glamour was the legend of fae tricks of the earth. Flowers would bloom in sweet blossoms for her, but I had no doubt their petals would turn to deadly poison if she asked.

Astrid’s eyes were the color of hate; blue, like ice with flames burning behind her constricted pupils. She slashed her hands over her body until thick chains of fiery glamour coiled around her wrists in snapping whips.

The former queen lifted her arm, but Saga cried her rage. Arms open wide, Saga raised the spike of ice, along with dozens of tiny shards of cold glass, then pushed her hands forward.

Ice rained down on Astrid’s fire ropes. The glamour couldn’t withstand Saga’s demand. Then, one by one, the shards sliced over Astrid’s cheeks, her arms, her skin. A small, narrow piece of ice lodged into one eye. She screamed, but it was quickly cut off in a wet gasp when the large ice spike found rest in the center of her chest.

Saga’s shoulders rose and fell in harsh breaths when she lowered her arms. Astrid wobbled on her feet for a long moment, then fell backward.

Dead in the water.

A dark smoke smoldered from her chest, floating to the top of the cavern in a big plume. Saga screamed at it. Wild, justice-filled rage. My heart sang in a rush of heat and rapid thuds as I watched the smoke filter to the top of the cavern until it turned to nothingness.

Saga spun around, a bit of blood spatter across her cheeks from the gore. Her hands were on my face in the next breath. “Ari, he’s . . . he’s . . . did you see?”

I laughed and kissed her hard enough our teeth clacked. I didn’t care. The only complaint was I could not do it longer.

She pulled back, lips swollen, then inspected my body. “Are you able to stand?”

My hand was heavy as I touched her cheek, but I hid the weakness with a smile. “It’s fading. You’re terrifying and mesmerizing. Was it him?”

Saga blinked, she stared at her hands. “I-I don’t know. I think so.” She lifted her wrist close to her eyes, then beamed. “The band compelling the shift, it’s gone.”

Thank the bleeding gods. There was a lightness in my own cursed wound. Still there, but fading, perhaps? Time would tell.

Wet gurgles drew our eyes to the drowning guards. Saga touched one of the moss vines and they slithered like earthy serpents back to smooth moss coatings on the stones. The guards spluttered and coughed.

Rune and Bo still had blades leveled at us but looked at the fallen queen with horror.

“What . . .” Rune gaped at Saga. “What did you do?”

“You know what this is, Rune,” she said gently.

“What you saw was the claim of the land as she bleeding said at the serpent court, you idiot,” Stieg roared, stepping forward. “You see it with your own eyes, this woman commands this kingdom’s land, yet you’re still questioning.”

The Borough guards were stiff. Bo’s fingers were purple and discolored.

“This is wrong,” Bo said, but for a moment it was as if he was grappling for some clarity.

“We don’t have time to wait.” Frey lifted his gaze to the roof of the cavern. “Whatever we’ve done here, this place is caving in. Go. Now!”

I grabbed Saga’s hand and ran for the door without a thought for Astrid’s body, nor the guards.

For a moment, no one was an enemy of another. We all scrambled to be free of the cavern. The mirrored land was fading. Like an illusion turning to mist, the peaks disappeared into the air, revealing the true paths, the true mountains.

The ever-spring forest had more frost on the leaves. From here I could make out the bend in the river, a river filled with greener water than before, and no fanged creatures. No stone guardian.

“This was protected by a curse,” I puzzled out loud. “There is no need for it now.”

“But we have altered something,” Saga said. Such a simple statement raised the hair on my arms. She faced me, a wildness in her eyes. “Do you feel it? There is a power in this land that was not there before.”

“You.”

“I feel an undeniable connection,” she said, staring at the silver on her forearm, “but there is something familiar. Like the isles are shifting back to powers that were once here but lost. Ari, there is a feeling of urgency in my heart. Something has changed and we must return to warn Bracken. We must find the prince and princess. I fear they are not safe.”

“You . . . you’ll return with us, Saga.” Bo tugged on the hilt of his blade, gasping from the sprint. Davorin was destroyed with Astrid, but maybe it would take time to drain the folk of the violent plague.

“I don’t have time for you.” Saga scooped up a handful of the damp soil and sang a sad tune, then whispered softly, “Let them sleep.”

She blew a soft breath over the earth, and gilded flecks of dust struck Bo, Rune, and the two living guards in the face. They spluttered, rubbing their noses, then began to fumble as if they’d had too much ale.

“What . . . what—” Bo started, but never had a chance to finish before he fell face down on the rocky ground near the cavern.

“You can make the earth do anything you want?” Frey said.

“It is the duty of my family. We honor the earth, and in times of need we serve each other.”

“Like an earth bender?”

“This is different than your king’s gift,” she said. “I speak the language of the earth and it becomes what I need. It is not the twisting and bending of bedrock or plants.”

“It’d be a damn wonder if she and Valen worked together,” Stieg muttered.

She faced me. “I remember my power. My brother sang the songs of fate for our people, and I sang the songs of the land. I watched over it from the skies.”

“You use the same seidr,” I said.

Saga nodded. “In a way, and I must trust it now. Something is beginning. We must go to the king and ready ourselves.”

“The kingly is there.” Hodag pointed down the jagged slope.

We hurried to the edge. Such a distance from the summit, but at the borderlands of the Court of Serpents there were four black canvas tents, and at least three wagons.

“A war camp?” Stieg looked at me.

“If Bracken heard news of his mother acting beyond his command, he might’ve come,” Frey offered.

“I will go see,” Saga said. “Stay in the crags to keep warm. I won’t be long.”

I glared at her. “Not alone.”

She chuckled and stepped toward the ledge, clearly not listening to a word I had to say. “Worried about me, Ambassador? Speak true.”

“A great deal, and it is a terrible look on me.”

She smirked. “I will be back before the next toll. Stay here, and I will find you.”

Saga didn’t wait for me to protest before shedding her skin for glossy black feathers and diving over the edge.

“Almighty gods.” Stieg stumbled backward.

Frey closed his eyes and lifted his face to the sun. “I want to go home.”

“Raven girly.” Hodag’s square jaw was slack, like a heavy weight pulled it down. Then she punched the air, grunting in frustration. “Knew it! Knew she had the powers to collect. A raven girly! I’d take great care of her.”

I chuckled, but followed Saga’s advice and helped position the lot of us in a narrow crag in the peak. It helped fight the bite of high winds, but my teeth chattered all the same.

The ground near the doorway had a fracture in it, and the monastery door was leaning to one side. It was strange, but there was nothing mystic about the place any longer. It was merely a cave in the mountain. The curse had lifted, and now we would pay the consequences.

Favorable or ill.

“Your wife is a raven.” Stieg sat beside me.

“Yes. I’m aware.”

“You have been followed by a raven.”

“Again. Very aware.”

He scoffed. “Wasn’t it Elise who told us a raven guided you to the safety of Hodag’s burrow in the East?”

“It was.”

“Ari. Tell me.”

I looked at him. “Our queen owes her life to Saga. She was no traitor.”

To ignore the irritating ache growing in my side, I told Stieg and Frey about my raven. I told them about Astrid. I told them the truth of her bloodline, and the feather she’d taken was less like a feather and more like a key to the gods-chosen claim to the isles.

“By the hells, Ari. You said you never wanted to don a crown again, and here you are vowing with the bleeding blood heir.”

I scoffed. “Neither of us have a desire for a crown. The courts rule themselves and Bracken is a fine enough High King. I do want Saga’s name cleared, though, and I want Astrid shamed for her deceit.”

“Valen and Elise will want to honor her. As will Kase and Malin,” Stieg said. “You know Elise will drag her into everlasting friendship. Saga should get ready.”

I laughed. It was true. Elise was formidable, but had the capacity to collect lost souls and give them a home better than anyone I knew.

“And that strange smoke rising off Astrid, you think that was the last of this phantom consort?”

I nodded, a small grin in the corner of my mouth. “She is finally free.”

“We’ll want to go to the Court of Blood and meet Gunnar. He’ll be waging war if we do not hurry.”

I chuckled. “That is where you hid the prince? With Gorm?”

“He was quite willing. I think he has a fondness for Eryka’s way of speaking.”

The flutter of wings drew my attention to the sky. Saga had returned and landed on Bo’s sleeping back. She pecked at the dark cloak he wore around his shoulders. I stood with a wince as the muscles in my ribs wrenched, hurried over to her, then held up Bo’s cloak.

Saga shifted, and I wrapped her naked body in the cloak.

“I look forward to being alone with you tonight. We will be,” I said, kissing her lips softly. “I insist. Any more trouble will just have to wait.”

She grinned and secured the cloak around her body. “Bracken is down there. I saw him and Sofia with a small unit of guards.”

“Then we go to him as quickly as we can.”

“Faster with me.” Hodag reached into the soil of the path leading away from the monastery.

I arched a brow. “If you dig us a burrow to the camp, Hodag, you cannot keep Saga inside. I’ll need you to swear to it, none of us will be collected.”

The troll frowned and let out a huff, but gave her word we could enter, then exit when we arrived at the camp. We made her swear she’d burrow straight there and not take ten turns to get us down the hill. Bartering with fae was intricate and sly.

Only once I was confident we wouldn’t be stored underground did I step into the tunnel.


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