The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 19

THE SONGBIRD

Clean rain, a touch of leather and salt, soothed my heart. I nuzzled the warmth of his skin, drawing in a long, greedy breath.

Gods, there was nothing so euphoric as lying beside the naked body of the Ever King. His laughter, deep and rough, rumbled from his chest when my foot threaded around his calf, like a needle pulling thread, and tugging it closer.

“You’ll break your toes if you keep doing that, love.”

“Then stop trying to sleep with such distance between us.”

“Distance.” Erik laughed again and rolled onto his shoulder, his weight sliding me across our bed, until my chest was smashed against his. The shock of his crimson eyes sent my pulse fluttering. His callused fingertips traced my jaw, as though restoring a memory of every line, every curve. “I am as close as I can be without being inside you.”

“Ah, but that is the trouble here, Serpent.” I brushed my lips across his throat. Heat pooled in between my thighs when Erik palmed my ass, rolling me on top of his strong body. “Why are you not inside me?”

He brushed my hair off my brow, tucking it behind my ears. “Gods, you’re beautiful.”

There was a broken edge to his voice, like a shard of glass. Through the shattered pieces, something dark and dreary pounded in my head. A distant memory, breaking through my beautiful illusion.

This wasn’t real.

“Find me, Erik,” I whispered.

“I am trying, love.” His palms slid down my spine, touching each divot, until they came to rest on my thighs, straddled over his waist. “Tell me, at least, this moment means you are safe. For now.”

I closed my eyes, afraid I would destroy the peace, yet desperate to recall what was going on around me. “I am hidden.”

Erik’s fingers glided along my inner thighs, close to the heat of my center, but like a damn villain, he’d pull his hands back before he touched. By the bleeding grin on his mouth, he knew exactly what he was doing. “You’re so flushed, Songbird.”

He was a villain, but I knew how to bring a villain to his knees. I reached between my legs and wrapped my fingers around his swollen cock.

Erik drew in a sharp breath. “Woman.”

“Yes?” I stroked my hand up the shaft, grinning. It felt so real, so close.

Erik removed his hands from my legs, pressing his palms to his face, and groaned as his hips slowly started to buck against my touch. After a moment, he let out a rough sound, a sort of growl, and gently urged my palm off his length.

Erik pressed my fingertips to his lips. “I cannot hear you.”

“Nor can I.” I knew what he meant. Wherever reality lived, back there we were not this. Not close. Torn.

“I know how to find you, Songbird, and I will.”

Call it the dream, where rules of understanding did not apply like they did in the waking world, or perhaps it was a bit of fate pulling us together in this moment, but I spoke without thinking. As though somewhere, deep in my mind, I knew what he was doing. As though I could still hear him through remnants of our broken bond.

“Aim for the heart, Erik.” I pressed a palm over his scarred chest. Beautiful lines of his strength, his resilience. I kissed several before lifting my gaze. “You’ll find me in the heart.”

Bleak dawn greeted me when my eyes fluttered open. The space beside me was not the warm silk of our bed at the palace. Only dried leaves, damp twigs, and cold soil remained. Erik had never been there.

I rolled onto my side, running my palm over the place I wished he’d be, and let a steaming tear land on a brown leaf. There, the dagger and knife from Gavyn were still hidden in brambles.

After I’d fled from the beach, I’d found refuge in a natural bower of trees, but this was not the same structure I’d claimed last night. Now, the branches were bowed in a dome around me.

I’d built something similar as a girl. Alek and I would set up our war camps in the wood behind my family’s castle, playing Rave heroes, and I’d crafted us quite an impressive forest longhouse once.

Over the turns, Mira, Jonas, and Sander, the lot of us, added touches to it—a leather pelt for a door, windows with clay edges, even a table and sleeping mats to rest our weary warrior heads.

I gaped at the arched branches now, then my palms, studying each finger like they were new to my hand. Had my fury commanded Natthaven? Heat from fury magic dripped beneath my skin. Whispers, imagined or real, breathed into my lungs—you are the Ever Queen.

I was not powerless, no matter how Larsson and Fione tried to make it seem.

With my king, we’d cleared knolls and townships, rocky vales and deep ravines of blight when not even the Lady of Witches could find a cure. I was born of warriors, a daughter of earth fury, and I was not powerless.

One by one, my fingers unfurled over a drooping stem of a closed bloom. The petals slept against the chill in the dawn, but beneath my hand, a spark of life unfolded each satin piece awake until the face of the blossom reached for the sullen sky.

Not powerless.

Today. I would leave this damn isle today.

I yanked a thick blade of nearby milkweed and fashioned a pitiful sheath, fitting each blade against my shin. Once the knife and dagger were settled, I fisted the skirt of the nightdress in one hand, offered a silent thanks to the trees of the isle for shielding me, then aimed my step for the shore.

If I could command the soil as a daughter of fury, could I command the sea to bring me home as the queen of the Ever?

I slipped through two evergreens and whimpered when my battered, bare feet landed atop frosted roots. A thorn snapped off in my heel. I limped to a fallen log and sat, carefully removing the pointed tip.

A flicker of soft light drew my gaze. Once, then twice, a small bulb of gold would break against the dim light. Sun wings. Littered amidst the mist-soaked trees, the creatures seemed to align, fashioning a fluttering thread that wove through the wood, as though leading me forward.

Stunned, a little uncertain, I followed the first bulb. A soft hum of rapid wings ghosted by my ear, until the creature faded into the darkness, speeding to another place in the line.

There wasn’t time to question. Skadi once said should the creatures trust, they would aid in journeys through swamplands and treacherous ground.

On and on, the sun wings led me forward, twisting and turning through trees, across bramble-coated wooden paths, and over knobs of jutting tree roots in the murky waters.

At long last, after a steady trek down a slope, my legs trembled from fatigue. Air burned like a flame, but the mist had lessened, a pale beam of sunlight fought mightily to break through the ominous cloud cover. Each gust of wind was heavy in sea and sand.

I was close.

With care, I leveraged over a fallen log, keeping my steps cautious when the path took a severe slant. I slipped and skidded on my backside several paces until I rolled onto flattened earth.

What seemed to be the swing of a lantern in hand, drew closer through the trees. Hidden this long, I ought to have known the isle would be coated in guards, likely anxious for blood once they found their fallen warriors. Whether one or a dozen elven guards approached, it mattered little.

Today. I was leaving today. Even if I had to fight.

I leveraged to my knees and yanked the dagger free of the grass tie on my shin as another figure stepped into my refuge.

Not a guard, but Fione. Hooded, with a long, stiletto dagger in one hand, the sea witch sneered down at me. “I thought I heard clumsy feet. Our escaped queen. You’ve been sorely missed.”

Dammit. I scooted away. Fione didn’t pursue, merely watched my movements with a bemused grin.

“You are rather pathetic.” Fione wrinkled her smooth features in mock pity. “The Ever is no place for free earth fae.”

Branches snapped in the darkness of the trees. A horn rattled the solace of the wood, and humphs and grunts of commands drifted closer. Elven were coming for me. Whatever search had been made to find me—they’d succeeded.

“I am not returning with you, Fione.” Heat gathered in my palms. The trees shuddered at our backs. For a moment, I was captivated by the motion. Then, a silky sort of darkness took up space in my chest. Like a cloak of night shielding the tender, kinder parts of my heart from what it planned to do.

Fione took a slow step forward. “Be good, now, and return to your room, or I will keep you locked and shackled in the cold cells of this palace. And next time, I won’t stop Larsson when he tries to have his way with you.”

“You know what he tried to do, you know what he is like, yet you stand by him.”

I cried out in stun when Fione lunged. She caught me by the hair, drawing my face close.

The sea witch lightly dragged the point of a crooked knife down the side of my face. “What did I tell you, earth fae? When you are a woman in the Ever, it is better to know your place.”

“It was changing,” I snapped. “Erik made me his queen. Will Larsson do the same, or will you only be a body in his bed to burst with his heirs?”

For a moment, Fione’s confident snarl faltered. “Better to be a body in the bed of a king than nothing at all.”

I was not dying here, not without setting eyes on Erik, on my family, my friends, at least once more. The ground shuddered with life, vibrant and vicious. Vines emerged from the ferns, creeping onto the shore like dark, thorned serpents.

Within my chest, something tightened. Something cruel, something savage. I held out a palm, and the trees quaked.

Fione staggered back, stunned. Hesitation lasted a mere moment before the sea witch flicked her knife so the blade pointed at the sky. I had no time to think on it before she threw the blade at my heart.

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