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The Ever Queen: CHAPTER 4

THE SONGBIRD

The woman, flanked by two guards in silver bracers and blue tunics, led us down a narrow corridor. Rafters that came to a point overhead were draped in satin banners with curious constellations glittering in the light.

My toes hardly touched the woven runners, always ready to race away, always spinning about, looking for the wretched grin on Larsson’s face. One I’d considered friendly not so long ago.

“We’ll walk alone, Dorsan,” the woman said to the guard on her right. He was young in the face, but stern as stone.

One tilt to his head and the second guard halted in the doorway, giving us freedom to enter a forest pathway that carved through bowers of trees and shrubs.

Verdant canopies of branches intertwined like knobby fingers. Glossy black ferns lined the path, trapped midnight woven in the velvet leaves, and serpentine wooden walkways honeycombed throughout the forest, up slopes and down into ravines.

Each walkway lifted over stilts lost beneath water with no current. Stagnate tides were left to gather foamy green blossoms over the surface until the black water looked like a meadow of grass.

“Follow that path”—the woman gestured inward—“and you’ll meet the swamplands. Beautiful, but dangerous should you not keep to the path. However, sun wings are friendly enough to light safe steps should they find you appealing enough.”

“Sun wings?”

The woman flicked her fingers in front of her face. “Tiny insects that flicker with gold. Rather beautiful, but wholly suspicious little things.”

Milky blossoms were carried on the breeze, a collision of sweet and silk buried under the brine of the nearby sea. Cerulean tides glowed like fire beneath the setting sun.

“You may want to flee,” she whispered, “but your enemies crafted a rather sturdy spell cast while you slept. It binds you to their presence, so if they remain on the shores, so do you. I assure you the Otherworld will call should you try to leave.”

“Exactly the thing a captor would say.” I angled for another path, ready to sprint through the trees.

A hand curled around my arm. “Be still. I will take you.”

This had to be a jest, some sort of trick, but without protest, the woman carved through the trees, directed at the shore.

One glance over my shoulder, one weary breath, and I followed.

By the time trees thinned and only spiked leaves of strange shrubs irritated my ankles, my strange companion held out an arm. “Wait. There is a ward buried deep here” She reached for a knobby branch, fallen in the foliage, and tossed it over the border of the wood.

Once the limb landed, the sand and pebbles swallowed it until only one sharp end was not submerged. Earth hardened, trapping the limb in place.

The woman sighed. “A snare spell. Not deadly, but I’ve no doubt the sea witch feels a bit of resentment toward you and would let you rot in the sun should you be caught.”

Despair cinched in my chest.

“I can take it,” said the woman. “This is not a blood spell.”

“Take it?”

“Yes.” The barest of grins twitched in the corner of her mouth. “I have ways to take matter as I please. Spell casts, affinities, all magic is matter unseen. If you wish to prove my words at the sea, I will take it so we may cross.”

“Why would you help me?”

“In truth?” The woman smoothed her slender hands over the folds of her gown. “I’m rather irritated by all the spell work on my isle. We can hardly walk anywhere without snares or sharp edges protruding into our flesh, trying to stop us. And”—another hesitation—“there is a disquiet in my heart. I’m not satisfied with the tales I’ve been told as to why you are here.”

Perhaps I was naïve in the art of war and battle and enemies. My sheltered, love-soaked life had lent few opportunities to truly face deception from those I knew. She could be lying, could be leading me toward a trap. Still, there was a softness to her features. A nudge from somewhere in my veins—fury magic or instinct—that urged me to keep calm at her side.

“Prove your words then,” I said. “Get us to the shore.”

“Hold steady. We’re close enough you may be caught within the removal.” She splayed her fingers over the shrubs and sand.

In the next breath, I was bound in cold, a breeze like frost. Speckles of damp misted over my face, tossing me this way and that until I landed face down on the forest floor.

I coughed and sat up. Nothing seemed to have changed. The sea remained fifty paces away, the forest unmoved.

“It’s gone.” Behind me the woman stood, hands clasped, starlight hair whipping around her features. A sheen of mist recoiled into the lines of her palms. With her chin, she pointed at the limb she’d tossed.

Hells, where it had been sunk in hardened earth, now it was free and coated in soft sand as though it had fallen there with intent.

Without pause, we stepped from the trees and onto the shore.

“You broke the ward?” The question came as a whisper, more a musing for myself, but the woman nodded.

“Now we’ll be able to cross from the trees to the shore without incident.” The woman strode toward the water’s edge. “Well, prove what I say. Give it a go.”

Tucked in the back of my skull, I knew, logically I knew, she was being truthful. There was no way I would be allowed to flee. Still, I could not resist; there was nothing I wouldn’t risk to get back to Erik Bloodsinger. I darted for the sea. When water struck my knees came the sharp jolt of pain.

I screamed and fell back into the lazy lap of waves.

Gentle hands scooped under my arms, lifting me from the sea. “As I said. The first thing that was done when you entered the borders of Natthaven was ensuring you remained within them.”

“So take it away as you did the other. Please.”

A shadow burdened her features. “Blood spells are another sort of matter. They are always removed with pain, anger, cruelty, all manner of viciousness. I cannot take in such a way. This ward—” She faced the sea again. “I dare not touch.”

I shook her off. Seated in the shallows, I hugged my knees to my chest, and screamed—pain, rage, despair. All of it rose to the pink clouds. Throat ragged, I reeled on the woman. “Why are you doing this? Let me go, and I swear to you, the loyalty of the Ever will be yours. We will help you.”

Without a care for the water, the elven sat with me. Her knees and gown hugged against her chest much the same. Almost friendly.

She studied the bloody gleam on the horizon, the last remnants of day, as purple dusk with the earliest stars speckled the upper skies. “Natthaven is a peaceful isle. Some have even named it the fading isle.”

“Why is that?”

“The isle can fade into the mist.” The woman smiled. A touch of pride crinkled the corners of her eyes. “A gift from the gods, I like to think. Should we be threatened, we can take the whole of our clan to safety. Or, I suppose, if we are . . . forced to relocate . . .” She hesitated, smile fading. Something about the last words seemed to grate at her. “Natthaven will shift elsewhere.”

“The land itself holds magic?”

“Doesn’t every land?” She tilted her head. “I am told your ability comes from the soil. You’ve accomplished feats in your realms and the sea. I would believe there is magic in all lands.”

A wicked curl pulled at my lips. “Perhaps I will destroy yours with my fury if it gets me free of here.”

“I think Natthaven would be rather offended should you try. You’d be better suited to call to the gentility of the affinity in our soil to aid you, rather than destroy it. Magic is fickle across realms, is it not? Offend it, and it seems content to punish for the sin. Take your sea kingdom’s blight as proof.”

“How did you know?” I shook my head. It didn’t matter how she knew things, not really. “That was a sea witch curse that lost control.”

“Oh, true. In a sense,” she said, almost indignantly, “the witch and Larsson were not ready for the consequences of their dark spells. Like I said, blood spells and dark magic create a different sort of physical matter, or remnant. The blight you see is a dreary remnant of what was done to bring us to this moment.”

“What was done?”

The woman considered me for a breath. “I told you, fae. This is not an attack that has been built on a whim. It has been planned, executed for turns, and the sea kingdom is no simple thing to overthrow. Dark spells, clearly, were needed.”

The darkening was potent, damn near painful, when my fury slid into what was done to cause it. Death, agony. I’d known something in the soil spoke to me whenever I dug deep with my fury. It made a bit of sense that wretched magic would leave behind cruel remnants that ached.

“You speak like it is nothing, yet I see the disgust in your eyes.”

She hesitated. “I may disagree with some actions of others, but I’m in no position to fret about your troubles when I have my own folk to consider.”

I shook my head, agitated. I didn’t understand the woman’s kindness, yet refusal to truly help. If she was a prisoner here, then she had found her greatest ally.

“So, what I know of your isle is it is small but can fade into the mists.” I looked over my shoulder. Dark spires of a stone palace rose over the treetops. “You can take away spells through your magic?”

“Affinity,” she corrected. “I can take any physical matter. Stone, wood, flesh, if I truly focus.”

“But not blood spells.”

Her jaw flexed. “It is to the benefit of everyone if I avoid taking anything that brings the darker sides of the heart—greed, pain, hate—such things as those. Blood spells are crafted through dark desires, through death, through greedy motivations, after all.”

The way she spoke, so plainly as though everything was so damn obvious, was amusing. “Ah, well, I have not one bit of confusion any longer.”

“I’m not the greatest teacher of explaining affinities when I truly only ever speak to my folk.” A pinch to her mouth hid a smirk. “Think of my power as a summons. Shadow elven can use their gifts like me in most ways.”

“What do you mean, most ways?”

Her eyes went glassy. “I will tell you this, fae. There are gifts—perhaps more curses—the gods saw fit to bestow upon me that ought never be used.”

Hair lifted on my arms. I wanted to press her more, but she’d already shifted back to her lighthearted, deliberate tone, silencing my curiosity.

“Some elven do not darken what they take like me. Some gather light, and it is clearly written upon their palms as they use their gifts. Certain elven can even carve through gleams in a room and walk through them to other areas of light in a structure. Difficult and terribly exhausting.”

“Seems odd for shadow elven to use light.”

“I did not say it was my folk who used the light. There are clans.” Her shoulders stiffened. “Light elven—or Ljosalfar—use light and fire. You will see for yourself soon enough.”

“Why does it feel like you keep alluding to things, yet you never speak plainly?”

“Why, indeed?”

Gods, she was irritating. I studied her. Lovely, a little mischievous whenever she grinned. It struck me in the next breath. I was bound here. What if she faced the same fate? It was possible she could not tell me much of anything.

Yet, if that were true, here she was, a stranger, subtly attempting to help. This was a way to help.

A burn of new hope took hold in my chest. “I have a heartbond, a connection with my king. Did the spell casts shield that in the same way?”

“The spell casts concealing us are strong enough to keep us locked away from the whole of the world if we wished,” she said almost dreamily, as though simply spouting off words from a bit of parchment.

“There must be a way to break them.”

She shook her head. “Not these blood spells. Only those marked may step foot on Natthaven now. And only the sea witch does the marking.”

“It’s possible to leave then.”

“They’ve only marked one other soul who steps foot off the isle. Larsson bears the ability to cross through the wards, but he will not leave. Not yet. You are connected to the witch, fae. However, if you were, let’s say, forced from the isle, it would shatter the spell casts. But that would be wretchedly painful, and of course, deadly.”

I would risk death to be free of this damn place.

“Naturally, death of the spell caster brings the end of some magic.”

“So, kill Fione? Gladly.”

“You do not understand. There is no killing any who stand against you.” The elven’s expression twisted into something dark, almost fearful. She looked over her shoulder for a moment, then lowered her voice. “Forbidden spells made them your enemies, and once the forbidden has been tasted, it corrupts until it is no longer forbidden.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You cannot kill them,” she whispered. “Bonekeeper is shielded by the sea witch. He cannot die so long as that spell holds. And she has shielded herself so fiercely she cannot be ended without a white iron blade.”

“What is that?”

Another glance into the trees. “Elven made. A blade that does not kill from the strike, does not even draw blood. But it rots the heart, draining magic from the pores, until the lifeblood ceases to flow. A painful death.”

“Elven made!” I shrieked. “If you have these blades, why in the hells have you not used them?”

“Why, indeed?” The woman’s mouth tightened, her lips bloodless.

She couldn’t. Something had her trapped from acting against anyone, that or she was being threatened. What had she said? She cared more for the good of her people. What if Larsson had harmed someone she loved?

“How did they overtake your isle?”

“It was not overtaken. Bonekeeper is known among elven clans, so I did not think much of it when he was in the travel party.”

“Known?”

“He is part elven,” she said, slightly befuddled, as though stunned I hadn’t known.

Bleeding hells. “He tricked you, then. Came as a friend, then betrayed you.”

“I cannot say he betrayed anything,” she muttered, trailing her fingers in the tides. “He did not do much talking. Although, I did not take kindly to the sea witch and the sea fae who joined them.”

Them. Were there more sea fae here? Larsson had sent assassins to kill Erik once, but I’d not paused long enough to think he might have more support than I knew.

“Is there someone else besides Larsson and Fione?”

“There is.” A throaty timbre came at our backs.

There, at the edge of the trees, a man with hair like the sunset sneered at the two of us.

“Skadinia.” He grinned—snarled, was more fitting—at the woman. “What is all this?”

She stood swiftly and stepped from the tides. “Arion. Our arrangement lent me the task of tending to her wellbeing.”

“You are to keep her alive, not stroll along the shore.”

“The fae was distressed. I chose to orient her to Natthaven. Nothing more.”

“Why, then, did you speak so poorly of my cousin, chridhe?”

I didn’t know the term he’d used, but it caused Skadinia’s nose to wrinkle. “I spoke plainly of Bonekeeper. If you consider that poorly, then perhaps he should think again on his actions.”

Arion was a broad man. Ears sharply tapered and capped in gold. His brows were thick and expressive, but it was his eyes that unsettled me. For the warmth of his complexion and hair, the deep brown of his eyes was cold and distant. Like hope would be drawn in and left to die.

This was what she’d feared, no mistake. All this time, Fione, even Larsson, hardly shifted Skadinia’s tone. Only when she hinted of more did she ruffle. Arion, he’d brought Larsson to her isle. This was the man who’d trapped her somehow.

Another elven.

Dammit. If it was true, if Larsson’s folk were elven, then his connections were of no small means.

“It is time,” he said. “Bring her to the hall. And, Skadinia, do it silently.”

I choked on my own stun when Arion waved his hand and a golden fissure split through the fading skeins of sunset until it seemed as though the firmament divided and he walked through, abandoning the shore.

Breathe. Focus.

“Come,” she whispered, taking hold of my arm. “I’ve shown you all I can of Natthaven.”

“Skadinia—”

“Skadi,” she said, voice low. “Only one other calls me by my full name, and he is not Prince Arion.”

Prince? Another damn royal.

“Skadi,” I said. “Clearly, something is keeping you bound to them, but we can—”

“You cannot help me,” she said with venom. “You do not understand the elvish ways. Listen to me, fae. There is nothing more I can do for you, so long as Arion holds to agreements made, he is the voice of Natthaven.”

So many words were being left unspoken. I wanted to shake her, wrench them from her throat, but in the next breath, we were met with the two guards we’d left at the doors.

Skadi’s shoulders slumped. “I will be by your side. He seeks blood, fae. Not your life.”

She linked her arm through mine, much like Mira or Celine might do, and gently nudged me up a serpentine path where Larsson Bonekeeper awaited.


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