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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 13

THE SONGBIRD

Voices rumbled around the corner like a slow flow of the tide coming to swallow me up. My heart stuck to the back of my throat, pulsing and throbbing with every step down the corridor.

“Here.” Gavyn shoved my shoulder, sliding us chest to chest, into a tight alcove ten paces from a coiled staircase.

Notches were cut into the walls, a sort of storage space of sorts. Vials, rope baskets, and leather pouches filled with savory spices lined every level.

“Get behind the basket,” Gavyn said in a hiss through his teeth. He left me no room to protest before bending and twisting my limbs like I might be made of string. A slow, gentle hum broke the silence before Gavyn formed into a small puddle after pulling a bit of damp from the moss on the stones.

It was rather remarkable how little water he needed to shift into the tides, and no wonder many sea folk held a bit of fear for a seeker.

Steps joined the voices. Heavy and thundering, as though they already stomped over my skull. All my senses were heightened, flashing in heat and cold from one breath to the next. Fear battled with viciousness; panic collided with boldness.

“Said what I said,” came the rasp of a man who’d indulged too much in harsh herb smoke. A painful sounding voice, as though every word took a great deal of effort. “A man came from nowhere, then turned to nothing but water whenever we tried to cut at him.”

Another voice grunted and sniffed. “Any of Idun’s vatska in your blood? She brewed a new batch three sunrises ago and—”

“I have my wits, you sod. I’ll prove to you . . .”

I held my breath, holding a hand to my heart as though they might hear the beat against my ribs, when two darkly clad guards hurried past the alcove.

I didn’t emerge from my position until the water on the floor began to swirl and thrash, shaping Gavyn like he was a statue carved from the sea.

“Come, hurry.” He snatched my hand again, tugging me back into the corridor. “We’re on a rocky point. This palace or fort or whatever it is seems to be built half into a mountainside like the palace in the royal city.”

Gavyn urged me to keep my back to the wall and tapped my wrist until I had the point of the dagger outstretched. “Below is a forest. We need to make it to the shore.”

“All right.” I spoke in tight, rough gasps. “I’ve gone through the wood with the elven before. I . . . I think I could guide us again.”

“We may need to draw more blood.” Gavyn paused once we reached the lower step. “You with me, Livia?”

What he meant was, would I be sturdy enough to see this through? I could remain here, letting fear and unease paralyze me until Larsson found me, or I could get far enough out of sight until I could find a way back to Erik.

You are the queen of the Ever. I spun the dagger like my Uncle Tor taught me. “I’m ready.”

Gavyn kicked open the door into an open entryway that would lead outside, and as expected, we were met with new blades.

The guards were few enough we stood a chance to escape, but three men to two remained a barrier we might not cross intact.

“The fae’s gotten loose!” a man shouted.

Steel cut free of sheaths. Elven swords were broad, lined in bronze and silver from hilt to point. Each seemed crafted for its wielder and was as formidable as it was deadly.

Turns sparring my father, my uncles, the first knight of our kingdom had lent me a fair bit of stealth and speed when I lunged at the guard nearest to me. In a lithe motion, he used his thick arm to shield against my strike, knocking my blow to the side. With one hand, the guard gripped my hair and pinned me to the wall. Before the guard took his strike, Gavyn rammed the point through the elven’s spine. The bone lord clapped a hand over the man’s mouth to muffle his cry, then twisted his head with a sick crack.

The guard slumped over, his neck arched at a sharp angle.

I snatched my fallen dagger and hurried after Gavyn as he faded into mist in one breath, only to take shape in the next, directly behind one of the remaining guards.

Without an uttered sound, Gavyn ripped his blade across his throat.

Another man faced me. His eyes locked with mine, amber with skeins of red, like a fiery sky. Almost sea fae, almost earth fae, but the wicked perfection of his jaw, the smooth, sun-darkened tint of his skin, the lustrous shade of his hair, proved he was elven.

I dropped to the ground, level with the thin flap shielding his cock, a spot where leathers from the thighs tied to the guarders over the belly and waist. A place with vulnerabilities. My father, my mother, Sewell, Erik, the ways they’d taught me to be swift and sure with every strike filled my head.

I tilted away from the edge of his sword and thrust the point of my blade into the crevice where leg met body. A splatter of blood burst from the wound, spilling over my fingers.

The guard wailed in agony and dropped to one knee. Steel struck stone in a violent echo once his sword clattered to the ground. I ripped the blade free, and with his head lowered, stabbed the point through the back of his throat.

The guard spluttered. One heartbeat, two, and he slumped face down on the floor.

I scooted away, hot, sticky crimson stained across my nightdress.

“Livia.” Gavyn skidded on his knees in front of me, hands on the skirt. “Yours?”

I shook my head, gulping air until my heart slowed. “I-I-I’m not injured.”

Satisfied with my reply, Gavyn took hold of my hand again, and raced us into the wood.

Our steps were swift and hard, pounding over the wooden planks of the crisscrossing walkways. After a time, Gavyn ignored my protests to remain on the path, insisting he could taste the sea in the air, and bolted through the raw forest.

All around were lush trees, ferns with glossy black leaves that looked like pieces of the night sky. The deeper we ran, the more shrubs with thorns as thick as fingers grew. On every branch were amber berries bursting at the skin with silken juices. Air grew thicker with floral perfumes, then layered with a hint of brine and a taste of sand.

My legs screamed, and my lungs felt as though they would combust in flames by the time Gavyn slowed our pace, and drew us between two trees with twisted roots like eels flailing on the surface of the sea.

Mutely, Gavyn peered over a ledge. “The shore is not far, but it places us in the open.”

“Then we run fast,” I said.

Gavyn’s teeth flashed, his brutality on display. “As you say, My Queen.”

The hillside was rocky and twisted around trees perched along edges that dropped into deep ravines.

Our pace was slower than before, but as the trees thinned, I kept my focus on the black glass of the sea, as though I might see crimson sails approaching.

Cool air stung my cheeks, a wind carried the scent of damp leaves and bark, and a strange flicker of seafoam green lights twinkled in the treetops like stars. The glimmers appeared whenever I was at least five strides away, then they’d dull as I ran by.

Like a bit of magic guiding me forward.

Almost the way I imagined the stars leading Nightfire to his lost love in the sky.

The thought breathed new life into my lungs; I took it as a bleeding sign from the damn Norns of fate that this was my path to find the love robbed from me by the cruelty of others.

When the wind thickened with a faint bit of salt and moss, tears squeezed from the corners of my eyes. The sea. Gentle waves crashed over long, curved sandbars stocked with bits of crystal, so with every pass of the tide, the beach looked like a reflection of the stars above.

“Hurry,” Gavyn urged.

My bare feet kicked up sand with every furious step.

“It will be uncomfortable,” Gavyn said, without facing me. “The shift. I’m told by my sister it is like little nicks of a blade during the travel.”

I cared little if it felt like my bones were being ripped free from my body. If I was free of here, if I was back in the arms of the Ever King, I would pass through the three hells without an uttered complaint.

From the tower of the palace, a bell, booming and furious, rang out in the night. In the darkness, shouts, horns, more ringing alarms sounded off.

“Make ready,” Gavyn shouted. His heavy steps broke the water’s edge.

My body slammed backward. For too many agonizing breaths, I thought my skin might melt off my bones. The sharp tang of blood spilled over my tongue. A haze boiled in my brain. I blinked through the stun to muffled cries.

There, knee deep in the water, Gavyn kept ramming his shoulder against an unseen barrier, like he was trying to break through a door. “Livia, it’s pushing me back. I can’t get through.”

Fear lived in the dark shade of his eyes. I tried to race for the shore again, but a blast of fire shot down my arm. I fell forward, breathing in damp sand. Blood dripped from my palms. The flesh looked as though I’d fisted burning coals.

“Gavyn.” My voice cracked. “I cannot leave. I . . . cannot follow.”

“No.” His voice was as though he’d drifted underwater. “No. Try again.”

I held up my battered palms. “It’s the spell. The elven told me it . . . it’s fatal, Gavyn.”

His mouth twisted like he wanted to shout his anger, curse the wretched luck, perhaps plead for me to try again.

“Go,” I said gently. He shook his head. “Please, Gavyn. Find Erik. I will try to find a way to break free of this place. Do your part and bring my king to me, and I shall do mine.”

“I can’t leave you,” he said, slamming his fists against the invisible wall between us.

“You can, and you will. We have no other choice.”

His jaw tightened. Red, cruel rage lived in the kind lines of his face. He roared a curse once more. “Hide. No matter how long you must hide, do not let them find you. Promise me.”

“I am well versed at using the earth, Bone Lord.”

“You better be.” Then, at last, Gavyn faded into the tides.

Serpent, I love you, I whispered through my heart, knowing it would never reach the king.

The warning bells still rang into the night. Soon the shore would be filled with guards, or worse—Larsson. I peeled away from the empty black tides and sprinted toward the shadows of the wood.


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