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Den of Blades and Briars: Chapter 8

The Captive

Astrid was humming inside the abandoned cottage deep in the Mossgrove.

I closed my eyes, considering it might be a perfect moment to flee. Until she whispered, “We should end him then. The prophecy is too great a risk to leave unanswered.” A chill lifted the skin on my arms as she added in a quick hiss. “It will be swift. Why let him live if the potential of power is there? It could be a risk.”

The darkness licked my skin like a phantom there to torment me. Somewhere inside me I knew the darkness, as though I’d experienced it before. Whenever I tried to think too long on it, my mind ached.

Maybe I was inherently dark. I hardly remembered the faces of my own folk after my heart turned to ice, but I might’ve been evil once.

Astrid’s low voice went on, “If he should discover his role, he could upend everything.” Another pause. “But why does he have purpose?”

My pulse quickened as the night seemed to shift into an unforgiving shade, as though an unseen power grew with a silent anger.

Astrid’s voice was softer when she spoke again. “Forgive me. Yes, I agree the time to move is now, and I will see it done, but I see trouble should we allow him to live any . . .”

A pause. I should run, but the roots of her forest cottage stoop seemed to tangle around my ankles, sensing me. They kept me in place. Forced to obey.

“I will stay my hand. For now. Yes. I’ll be prepared to move,” Astrid said. “We are not alone.”

Heavy steps shuddered over the floorboards until the door flung open.

“You’re late.” Astrid glared at me.

“As long as he is a friend to the isles, I serve the house of the ambassador,” I retorted, hatred laced like poison in every word. “It is not so simple to leave when my bond with my new master is made of stronger things.”

Astrid’s lips glistened as though red wine dripped from the corners. That or blood. She was one of the horridly beautiful fae. Silken hair, pale eyes, sharp features. Some said her face was lovely, like polished silver. I thought it was cold, like ice.

The former queen wore satin in a black that devoured the slightest glimmer of candlelight. The neckline was draped in crow feathers, and on every finger was a bone ring, said to be shaped from bones of her lovers.

I despised her.

“You make futile excuses, little one.”

“To you, perhaps, but they are no less true.” I lifted my chin, refusing to cower. “I’ll be expected back soon, so let us get on with it.”

The instant the last word slipped out, the lash of fire and stinging pain coiled around my neck.

Astrid’s face was contorted in a sneer, made worse from the dancing shadows reflected from the strand of spitting fire in her hand. The flame stretched and coiled like a rope made of husk or twine, but this rope bit like jagged teeth.

The former queen curled her slender fingers around the fire rope end. She muttered words to keep the power of it strangling me until I stumbled to my knees. Her glamour was made of heated light, much like the sun. Somewhere in her long life, she’d discovered how to fashion her fiery light into binding ropes, impossible to break but for a few powerful artifacts, or by her own word.

I had no powerful artifacts.

The fire rope dug into my skin, choking away the air, scorching my flesh, until the meaty scent of it burned my nose.

“You dare to think anyone owns you more than I?” She stepped off her stoop. With each pace, Astrid wrapped more of the fire rope around her wrist and palm, tugging me closer. Once I was an arm’s length away, she gripped my hair with her other hand and forced my brow to hers. “You are my birthright.”

My penance for my royal brother losing a war was having my fallen royal ass bound to the queens of the isles as it’s shifting creature.

Astrid was the daughter of the first queen to own me, and had taken the bond to a crueler place. After a complicated glamour spell, she’d found a way to force me to bend and break every second night. A way to keep me vulnerable and submissive, I supposed. She could control me so often, I hardly had time to consider the fading bond to her bloodline.

Still, there could be no denying my heart was in a thaw. I felt, I cried, I raged, and all of it drew me further away from the queen’s power and closer to the man I was bound to serve.

Ari viewed me as a traitor for standing with Astrid in the East, but he didn’t know there had been little choice. A spell compelled me to bend to her whims, but I’d, at least, had enough strength in my heart to rebel.

The ploy to vow Princess Signe with the dead Eastern heir had been nothing but an attempt to claim a throne, to take hold of the cruel masquerade and magic trade of the fallen East.

I’d borne Astrid’s symbol on the battlefield, but I’d fought against the queen—not so drastically that she or anyone else had noticed. By small moves, ones that cut at her ankles, like a snake in the grass.

Astrid clenched her fist, glaring at me. “No foolish glamour my reckless son gives will ever break what you owe me.”

I swatted at the rope. Air was fast becoming a coveted commodity.

Astrid didn’t seem to mind. “You are not the same gods-gifted creature, and I want to know why. Why have you been resisting? You are bound to serve my blood, yet you force my hand against you.”

For so long, I’d been unable to fear, to feel, to hate, but in this moment, fear was crushing.

Astrid took such pleasure in watching me bend. “Why fight me? As I rise, so shall you. When the Draugr returns me to the throne, if you obey, no longer will you walk the streets constantly glancing over your shoulder for the next attack from folk who once loved you.”

She was wrong—no one loved me here. The ones who once did were dead.

A chill sliced down my spine. The former queen called the voice in the shadows Draugr, and there was, no doubt, a darkness rising in the isles. A sort of power I could not see, but it boiled in my veins, an omen of wretched things to come. Like a forgotten nightmare that was slowly returning, bit by bit.

At long last, Astrid recoiled her fire rope. I coughed and hacked as cruel air rushed into my throat, swelling my lungs in harsh gasps.

“You’ve sold your loyalty to a demon,” I said in a rasp.

Astrid grinned, wide and frightening. A smile that reminded me of a wolf about to shred the skin off a forest hare. “We all make our bargains, I made mine. My one consolation prize from the shameful battle. My bargain will make me queen once again. The Draugr has power, but I hold the ropes that bind him.”

She waved her fingers, so a flash of her fire flickered over her fingertips.

Most folk did not realize the strength of Astrid’s glamour. The shadow king in the East had been wise to bind her when they’d overthrown her caravan. Of course, Kase Eriksson hadn’t known I’d been the one to pass the anonymous missive to a member of his guild. A note left as they plotted their moves of war that told of the holy man whose lover was his servant.

A shameful thing in the East for a man of the gods to love an enslaved woman, and I’d known it could be used as a bribe and piece to their plan.

From there, the Nightrender had done what he did best: schemed, bribed, threatened. He arranged for the holy man to betray Astrid, and was handed the opportunity to overthrow the queen before Signe was to be vowed with the Black Palace.

Without Astrid being held prisoner away from the battle, she would’ve had the power to compel a great number to her whims for longer than their magic could’ve fought against her. If Astrid discovered my role in her imprisonment and ultimate failure, I was not certain she’d let me live, bond or not.

But this beast she now claimed, this dark power, thrived on violence. As if it followed her home from the bloodshed, and these last months it had grown stronger than she realized.

I did not think such a presence would not have one or two tricks to play. Astrid was too greedy and power mad to see it. She might’ve compelled the power, might’ve made fae deals with cantrips and spells so the voice guided her like a dangerous whisper, but I was not convinced she pulled all the strings.

There was a reason this darkness was growing, a reason it had aligned with Astrid. There was a reason it wanted power.

What frightened me most was when I began to hear it in my head. As if it had sought me in the dark and found me, yet the voice never revealed what it wanted with me. Only that we were close to the end.

“The isles are changing, little one,” Astrid said. “They deserve a strong leader to bear the crown. My son is not fit for what the future holds. We are the homeland of the fae, the birthplace of magic. We deserve to reign over it all. When I am secured on the throne again, I will fix what was broken in the East, and take that throne as once planned. Then, to the North.”

“We would be stronger if we were allies, not dominators.”

Astrid slapped me. I spat blood onto the hard ground.

“So weak. So shortsighted. This is why the fates removed the raven folk from power.” She gripped my jaw and forced me to look at her. “The king of the North has the power to sink us into the sea. Do you suppose a man like him will never bring war to our shores? Why do you think he has already sent his influence?”

It was true. I did not know Valen Ferus personally, but his magic to bend the earth frightened me. “You failed at an alliance with the East,” I said. “Their fated queen took the throne. It is too late.”

“I faced her nightmare king. He is nothing but darkness, but now we have our own. I look forward to slitting his throat.” Astrid grinned. “He bound me in a swindler’s camp, and I plan to make his so-called fated queen watch as I destroy him much the same.”

Astrid released her grip on me. “You will help me. There will come a time when you will kill the ambassador you serve. We must spark a new war, and each kingdom seems to love him. Though, I cannot fathom why.”

My chest tightened. “I am bound to him. Such an act will kill me.”

I hoped I sounded indifferent and the shudder in my voice couldn’t be detected.

“I will find a way to sever the bond. You should thank me.”

I didn’t. “Ari Sekundär is nothing. He bears a pretty title, but galivants about like a feckless boy. There is nothing of note to tell of the ambassador but that he drinks too much and circulates women through his bed. I would not be surprised if he had at least a dozen littles running about.”

When I became such a skilled liar, I didn’t know. But lies rolled off my tongue in great, sour swells.

Lies like Ari could hardly walk straight by the time the moon rose because of his love of ale. One, two, sometimes three lovers bedded him each night. He hardly knew the laws of his own land, why worry? I lied and said his folk in the North, his companions in the East, never wrote; they didn’t care as much as she thought.

Astrid narrowed her eyes. “Do you favor him?”

“No. I detest him.”

“Then when the time comes, you will kill him.”

“Why him? Why must he die?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Why would I not eliminate threats to my throne?”

I chuckled darkly. “You’re afraid of Eryka’s prophecy. Don’t be foolish, her words are never clear.”

They were horrifyingly unnerving, but I was desperate to turn Astrid’s eyes off Ari, and I didn’t know why it frightened me so much to have him in her sights.

The queen slapped me again. I drew in a deep breath through my nose, hardly flinching when she gripped my hair to the roots. “I will know if you are lying to protect the man, little one.”

If I had more brains, I would tell her the truth of Ari Sekundär. How he rose before the sun, not to be productive, but to watch the sunrise. As if he did not believe the light would chase away the darkness and had to see it for himself.

He treated his fellow Northerners with respect, but I could not puzzle if he considered them true friends. From what I had observed, Ari seemed open, but was not truly vulnerable with anyone. There were moments his eyes grew haunted, and he stared off to the horizon. His wit was quick, his mind sharp, and his loyalty unquestionable. But he wore secrets like a mantle on his shoulders. Secrets no one else noticed except a woman who carried her own.

The man was skilled with cartography, mapping interesting routes which shaved off time and risk. Routes no one else could see. The ambassador was well-read. If I could not find him, most often it was because he’d holed away with books or journals or letters.

As to his lovers, many a head turned to follow Ari. Night Folk fae were broad and strong and lithe. They moved like a song on the wind. Their eyes were crisp and filled with depth. More than one courtier in Bracken’s court had whispered into Ari’s ear, no mistake, with offers of pleasure. It was possible I did not care enough to notice, but I’d heard and seen nothing but the ambassador in his bedroom.

I ought to give it all up and save myself pain, but I already knew it wasn’t enough. At this point, I believed it was almost a new compulsion of my own making to secretly sabotage Astrid.

Compelled to serve her as I was, I could still lie. She could not bind my tongue. Another conundrum. Her glamour was powerful enough to force my truth, yet she couldn’t. She’d tried. I liked to think the block was part of the protections Riot had placed over me.

“New power is coming, little one.” Astrid chuckled. “Your false master’s blood will one day stain your hands. Do your duty, and you will have prestige in my army.” Astrid cracked the fire rope in her hands, grinning when the sparks sizzled and hissed. “But you are not forgiven for ignoring my summons last night.”

I didn’t plead. Not anymore. It did nothing but fuel her cruelty. I simply removed my tunic, the spell over my autonomy demanding it of me, and bared my back to her.

With my hair falling into my face, Astrid never saw the tears on my cheeks that flowed with every deep, burning lash.


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