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Two Twisted Crowns: Part 3 – Chapter 43

Elspeth

The Nightmare stood in silence upon the shore. Ravyn had not returned. And Jespyr—the darkness nestled in her veins had stemmed. But her eyes remained closed, and her breathing was slow. Labored.

The Nightmare peered down at her. Then, hunching over himself, he slowly curled into the sand and pulled Jespyr into his arms like she were a child. He looked into her face, his whisper no louder than the waves upon the shore. “When I look at her, I do not know if she reminds me more of Ayris or Tilly.”

Like the gilded crown he’d once worn atop his head, time was a circle. Ravyn, Jespyr—Taxus, Ayris. Five hundred years was nothing, there on that pale, listless shore.

I already knew the answer. Still, I asked. Did your sister die in the alderwood?

Yes. His voice was low, soaked in regret. I tried to carry her body home. I made it halfway, but I was so tired. I wanted to preserve my strength—to remember everything the Spirit and trees had told me about how to unite the Deck and make a charm. I—

He said nothing for a long time. I set Ayris down in a quiet glen. Walked away.

What did Brutus Rowan do when you returned and his wife was gone?

Broke my nose. Waited three months.

Then killed you and your children.

Yes.

I didn’t know what to say to him, now that all of his secrets had finally bled into me. He had always been the keeper of great magic—of knowledge—and I his destitute ward, greedy for any crumbs he might share with me.

But the tide always turns, and the truth always outs. He’s said as much himself, once. I had no way to hold him. But I pressed my consciousness against the wall of our shared mind. Whispered to him. No more riddles, my friend. What is it you truly want?

To keep on rewriting things, he said. Eleven years I took from you, Elspeth Spindle. When I go, I aim to leave you a better Blunder than the one I forged as King.

I turned my name over in my mouth. Elspeth Spindle. I’m not sure who that is without you.

You will learn. You’ll meet yourself—without me—soon enough.

I didn’t know why, after so many years of wishing him gone, his words struck sadness in me. When?

After the Deck is united, come Solstice.

It will not unite with Ravyn’s blood, I said. He will not die, bleeding over your Cards. I will not allow that, Nightmare.

Nor will I.

Then whose blood will unite the Deck?

I have a plan.

I probed into the darkness of his mind—and found nothing. Just images, and all of them blurry. Ravyn’s face. Elm’s as well. Then, clearer than them both, Brutus Rowan’s.

Well? I demanded. Care to enlighten me?

His teeth clicked together in a familiar lullaby rhythm. I find it strangely comforting, even with our minds threaded together, that I must endlessly explain things to you, Elspeth.

Perhaps if you didn’t speak in half-truths and intimations, I might not PESTER you so.

You would pester me no matter what I said or thought.

I sighed. I dislike you greatly.

But do you trust me?

Do I have a choice?

He said the same thing to me he’d said in my chamber at Spindle House—just before he took over my mind. My darling, you’ve always had a choice.

Silence crept over the beach.

The Nightmare noticed it and put a protective hand over Jespyr. The wind strengthened, and the tide withdrew.

When a tall, cresting wave heaved, Ravyn was in it. He broke the water’s surface and pushed to the shore, his chest rising and falling with swelling breaths.

The sea was heavy upon him, his clothes waterlogged. When he pushed wet hair off of his brows and stepped onto the beach, his gray eyes were bright. He seemed taller than before he’d left. Less tired. Wherever he had gone, whatever he had seen, it had fortified him.

The Nightmare met him at the water’s edge. “Well?”

Ravyn towered over him, shoulders broad. “Is Jespyr—”

“Alive. The Twin Alders Card?”

Ravyn held out his hand. A brilliant green light appeared, emanating between his calloused fingers.

I let out a gasp. He’s done it.

The Nightmare’s voice went low. “Your barter?”

“All it cost me was my name.”

“Your name?”

“You know it already.” Ravyn looked deep into the Nightmare’s eyes. “It’s yours, after all.”

The dark chamber I occupied went utterly soundless.

Ravyn cleared his throat, his voice quieter, as if he was taking pains to soften it. “You might have told me the Mirror and Nightmare Cards I keep in my pocket belonged to your son, Taxus.”

It seemed there were some secrets that had not bled out of him after all. Nightmare, I said, a vicious whisper. What does he mean?

His voice thinned, like smoke up a flue. Gaze narrow, he peered up at Ravyn. “Seems you’re less stupid than I thought.”

“And you’re just as horrible as ever.”

The corner of the Nightmare’s lip tugged. “Yes, well, it took me longer than it should to recognize you. I imagine it was Bennett who revised our family name. But magic, and degeneration, runs in bloodlines. Your inability to use the Cards—that, I did recognize.” Warmth stole over his mind. “Along with your nose.”

The past and present marked themselves over my eyes. There had always been something so terribly familiar about Bennett, lost in the inky darkness of the Shepherd King’s memories. Bennett—who’d peered at me through gray eyes, not yellow. Bennett, who’d stood in his father’s library, birdlike the way he tilted his head, the same Cards Ravyn held in his pocket twirling between his fingers. I saw it now—the truth grasping me around the throat.

Bennett. He looked like Emory—like Ravyn.

Blunder families have always taken the names of the trees, I whispered. But I have never heard of a tree called Taxus.

That’s because it is an old name, came his oily reply. For an old, twisted tree.

Like the last line of a poem, the truth fell into place. A yew tree.

Ravyn searched the Nightmare’s eyes. “Does Elspeth know?”

“Only just.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Would you have believed me, monster and liar that I am?”

Ravyn’s pause was answer enough. “The Spirit showed me your death.” He heaved a sigh. “I can guess what it is you want from me, Taxus. But I am not the dark bird of your revenge. I will not be another Captain who steals the throne. I will unite the Deck—but I will never be King of Blunder.”

I watched Ravyn, weighing words that he—a man who uttered so few—had offered.

“Our walk in the wood,” the Nightmare replied, “was about more than the Twin Alders Card, Ravyn Yew. There was five hundred years of truth to unravel. And now that you and Elspeth know it—” His sharp laugh echoed over the water. “You still do not understand. My revenge is not merely a sword. It is a scale. It is balance. I will take the throne of Blunder back. But not for you.” He straightened his spine, fixing Ravyn in his unflinching gaze. “For Elm.”

Ravyn’s eyes tightened at his cousin’s name, emotion settling over them like glass.

“The Scythe I created has been used for unspeakable crimes. Infected children have been hunted—killed. Physicians have turned to murderers. The Old Book of Alders has been defiled by Rowans to justify their every whim. Pain is Blunder’s legacy. It has perforated the kingdom for centuries, and would continue to do so if your family—my rightful heirs—were to forcibly take it back. There would be terrible unrest. You and I are Blunder’s reckoning, Ravyn Yew. Not its peace.”

His voice softened, as if he were easing a child to rest with a story. “I had five hundred years to imagine my revenge. Hauth Rowan tasted it, that night at Spindle House. But poetry is as judicious as violence. And wouldn’t it be poetic to undo the Rowans from within? To take that legacy of pain, and watch one of their own grind it under his heel? To carve the way for a Prince who never used the Scythe for violence? Your cousin Elm has done more than Brutus Rowan or I ever could. He has looked pain in the eye—and refused to let it make a monster of him.”

The air thinned. Before Ravyn or I could speak, thunder rolled.

The sky went an inky black, and the Spirit of the Wood returned. She walked upon the water to the shore, her lips peeled back in a sneer. “You are clever, Shepherd King.” Her silver gaze turned on Ravyn. “As are you. But if you wish to rewrite history and unite the Deck—to strip Blunder of my fever, my mist—you must be quick about it.” When her eyes dropped to the Twin Alders Card in Ravyn’s hand, her sneer curled into a smile. “You’ve been using that Providence Card for a long time.”

The corners of my dark room seized. Ravyn’s face drained of color. He fumbled—tapped the Twin Alders.

The world tugged at the seams, the pale shore quaking, then leaching away to darkness. The Nightmare lunged for Jespyr, caught her in his arms.

Then he was falling.

His head hit something hard. When the world came back into focus, I looked up through the Nightmare’s gaze, the branches of two trees tangling above him. One pale, the other dark.

We were back in the alderwood. Only now—

There was snow on the ground.


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