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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 22

THE SONGBIRD

Fione’s knife stopped midair, the point a finger width from my nose.

The witch’s eyes went wide. “How . . .”

Roots and vines coiled in front of me like a wooded guard bursting forward to take the strike in my stead. Boughs and tree limbs had shot forward and cocooned her knife, halting it at a safe distance from my face.

I rolled my palm, so the trees aimed the steel at the ground. My fist clenched, and so too, did the branches tighten their grip around the knife until the blade snapped under the pressure.

I dropped my arm to my side, and the trees released the jagged pieces of the knife in a heap on the sand.

From my handcrafted grass sheath, I took hold of Gavyn’s dagger in my grip, with a distinctive hilt—the amethyst stone and etched runes. Fione’s gaze widened. A rose flush filled her cheeks.

“Are you realizing, perhaps, I have not been so alone?” I smirked. A mask, a ruse, to conceal the fear growing taut in my chest.

Fione’s coldness grew ever colder. She cupped sand and gritty pebbles in her palms and shouted to any guards concealed nearby that I’d been found. Then, she tossed the pebbles into the air. She moved swift and furious like a violent sea. I hardly realized what she was doing before her sweet hum struck my ears.

When next the pebbles landed, instead of dark smooth stones and flakes of black sand, they sprouted into cruel posts and beams, encircling me. Trapping me.

I shrieked and slammed my fists against the stones, rattling a new cage. Voices, grunts, they grew closer. Through the trees, a dozen men and their swords stepped onto the beach.

Fione flashed a quick grin. “I think I’ll request you are bound to the bed from now on. Limbs spread. Simpler to gouge the flesh, if ever I require blood for a cast. I wonder how long you’ll live before you’re drained?”

I dropped to my knees, palms splayed over the rocky beach, fury hot in my veins.

Today. I was leaving today.

This moment proved my place as queen, this moment brought me closer to my king, or sent me to the Otherworld, a light in his darkness until he found me in the hall of the gods.

Sorrow lived in this soil. The deeper I dug with my own magic, the greater the memories of Natthaven consumed me.

A cruel hand throttled my throat like a vice, digging in and holding me in place. In my mind, steel clanged and vibrated. Smoke and scorched flesh burned my nose. Tears of loss. Wars had battled over these shores. But there’d been joy too. Comfort, smooth as silk, bloomed in my chest. A trill of laughter echoed through my ears. Revels. Dancing. Music.

Natthaven devoured my fury, revealing its pain and glee with each pulse I leveled into the shore. I didn’t know what I was seeking from the earth. All I could conjure in my thoughts was today.

I was leaving today.

“Take her,” Fione snapped, but her tone shifted. “What is this? No, take her!”

Muscles in my arms trembled. I slowly stood, still surrounded by Fione’s bewitched stone bars. But sand and pebbles shuddered underfoot. Fione reached for the pouch, digging for a new spell, a new attack.

The shore split.

From the sea, stalks of slimy, wet leaves burst like sprouting blooms. Serpents of green and black coiled and writhed around the pebble stone posts of my cage. Elven guards halted. Some gathered light in their palms from lanterns, the way Arion burned with candlelight against Skadi.

They never had a chance to strike. Forest roots and growing limbs stampeded from the wood in an opposing assault from the vines of the land and weeds of the sea. Knobbed roots toppled elven guards. Thin branches shackled wrists. Men cried out in stun, batted at the foliage attack, then drew blades. Swords met bark and bramble.

I screamed, fatigue burned through my forearms.

Today! I was leaving.

Sea plants began their retreat to the water, but as they went, the grip around the stone pillars holding me captive tightened. The scrape of stone cracking mingled with the shouts of the guards.

Over and over, the sea plants tugged and battled with Fione’s cursed bars until they shattered.

Dust, debris, and salt lined my lungs. I covered my head against the rain of pebbles and broken rock.

When it settled, I took up Gavyn’s dagger, arms only as sturdy as damp grass, but I readied to fight. Should the Otherworld claim me, I would plead with the gods to burn me bright in the skies of the Ever. Let Erik see me night after night, until he, at last, found me again. My Nightfire.

But I stumbled back.

Fione’s cage had crumbled. Tracks of pulp from sea leaves scarred the shore, but from wood to water’s edge had grown a twisted, ever-moving wall of roots, vines, and tree limbs.

Elven sliced at the barrier. Where one limb would splinter, another slithered into its place. Alive. The wall was alive, a barrier of snakes made of wood and thorns. Through the wall, Fione hissed, making every attempt to break through the spreading wall. Elven shouted commands through a touch of disbelief. Tower bells rang out.

On my side of the new wall, nothing but forest and night were at my back.

Breathe. Focus.

A flash brightened the horizon, then faded into the night. I squinted, searching the sea, until the sound of splintering wood shook me back to the present. My writhing fury wall was weakening. Guards hacked at the twigs, and now, there was none to replace them.

The wood was retreating.

“Take her! Now!”

Larsson. Through one of the gaps in my barrier, his face contorted in rage. I spun on my heel and staggered for the wood. Trees bowed away from me, as though the forest, yet again, beckoned me into its sanctuary. Dagger limp at my side, I ducked beneath the leaves and bowers, jaw set.

This was not over, but it would be. Whether by sea or by death, I was leaving this isle.


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