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Two Twisted Crowns: Part 3 – Chapter 44

Ravyn

The knobs of Ravyn’s spine collided with tree roots. He wheezed and spat out a curse, his vision blurring. When it focused, the twin alders loomed above him. He turned on bruised ribs, scanning the hilltop for Jespyr.

She lay several feet away, caged in the Nightmare’s arms.

“Are you all right?”

The Nightmare didn’t reply. He was dragging the tip of his boot over the ground—over a fresh layer of white, powdery snow. Only then did Ravyn note how cold it was. Far colder than it had been when they’d entered the alderwood.

The Nightmare set Jespyr on the ground—drew his sword. He slid his palm over the edge of the blade. When the cut bled, he swiped it over both alder trees. “What day is it?”

The day of the long night, came their horrid, dissonant reply.

The Nightmare’s yellow gaze crashed into Ravyn. “How long were you using the Twin Alders Card?”

“I don’t know.” Ravyn looked up at the sky, snowflakes brushing his face. It was night. But the hour, he could not tell. He rose to his feet, panic thinning his voice. “It’s not—it can’t be Solstice.”

More than it has ever been, said the pale alder.

Less with every passing moment, said the other.

Ravyn felt sick. “How long were we on that shore?”

Twenty-four turns of the sun. Hurry back to your chamber, Taxus, said the dark alder. You have until midnight to unite the Deck.

The Nightmare gnashed his teeth. On a crashing rumble, he reached for Jespyr—flung her over his shoulder—and fled the hill.

Ravyn tore after them.

His descent was reckless. Twice he tripped on the rocky hillside and caught himself with bruising effort. When he got to the bottom and the valley that waited, the mist bloomed with bones and corpses.

Forward, always forward.

Out of the rotting valley, into the ravenous wood. Trees swung at them and thorns hungered for a bite, the song of the wood a discordant call of wind, screeching through branches. Animals stalked and lunged. They clambered over roots—swung their swords at beasts of prey. The Nightmare kept Jespyr in his arms and Ravyn shielded them, taking the brunt of the branches that managed to land their blows.

Ravyn had not eaten for what felt like an age, but he was not hungry. He’d been afforded centuries—walked with the Spirit of the Wood through time. And now that he was back, he knew only one urge.

To outrun the clock.

The wood hunted them through the night. Then, like a candle in the darkest room, a pale light shone ahead. The Nightmare saw it, too, and his pace quickened. The light came from a small gap in the trees. It beckoned Ravyn just as strongly as the mist had beckoned Jespyr into the alderwood.

Dawn.

Nothing is free, the trees called after them. Nothing is safe. Magic is love, but also it’s hate. It comes at a cost. You’re found and you’re lost. Magic is love, but also—

“For mercy’s sake.” The Nightmare spat phlegm onto roots. “Shut the fuck up.”

They shot out of the alderwood into pale gray light. When Ravyn looked back, the gap in the trees had closed. He took in a full breath, the air bereft of rot. It washed down his lungs, so pure it made him cough. They stood in the aspen grove they’d slept in last night. Only, it hadn’t been last night. It had been nearly a month ago.

Then Ravyn remembered Petyr.

His gaze darted left, then right. He called his friend’s name. “Petyr. Petyr!”

“He wouldn’t have waited this long.” The Nightmare panted, his arms still wrapped firmly around Jespyr. “A clever man—which is giving him a deal too much credit—would have returned to Castle Yew.” He hurried west. “As must we. And fast.”

Ravyn’s stomach plummeted into his boots. “The Cards,” he gasped. “Even if we get to Castle Yew before midnight, we can’t unite the Deck. I—I don’t have all the Cards.”

The Nightmare stopped so abruptly Jespyr fell from his shoulder. He caught her before her head could hit soil. She groaned, eyelids flickering.

Ravyn staggered forward, put his hand on his sister’s overwarm forehead. “Jes?”

Bleary brown eyes opened. Jespyr reached for Ravyn, her fingers grazing over his face, his swollen nose. “What happened?”

It hurt, the place her fingers trailed. A sharp, consuming pain touched Ravyn’s face. He drew back. “I’ll explain everything soon. But we’ve got to get home.”

“Home,” Jespyr said, eyelids dropping once more. She rested her head against the Nightmare’s chest. “Tell the Shepherd King…he needs a bath.”

She slipped unconscious, and the Nightmare pressed her over his shoulder once more. When he glanced back at Ravyn’s face, his yellow eyes widened.

By instinct, Ravyn touched where the Nightmare was looking. His nose.

“What do you mean you don’t have all the Cards?” the Nightmare demanded.

Ravyn kept running his hand over his face, looking for injury. He felt nothing—no swelling, no pain, just a lingering tingle where Jespyr’s fingers had grazed his skin. “The Deck is divided between the Cards hidden in the stone in your chamber and those I have in my pocket. We have all but the Scythe, which is with—”

“The Princeling.” Sounding of a serpent’s hiss, the Nightmare’s breath came fast. “Then we must find him. This is the only chance we have. Emory will not live to see another Solstice.”

“I know that well enough.” Ravyn reached for Jespyr. “Here, let me—”

No,” he snarled. “I will carry her.”

Crows cawed overhead. Ravyn and the Nightmare continued west. They found a small stream and drank deeply, only for Ravyn to spit most of the water back up on a sprint through a glen.

The Nightmare never let go of Jespyr. Even when he spoke to the trees, asking for the way, he never set her down. Never let her go.

Dawn slipped into day, then dusk. The path wasn’t easy. At times, there was no path at all, just rocks and thorns and dense underbrush.

Ravyn tripped, panting. “Need—to stop.”

The Nightmare kept going, pulling in rasping breaths. “Elspeth says if you do not get up, she’ll never kiss you again.”

“That’s—not—what she—said.”

“Get up, Ravyn.” The Nightmare’s oily voice echoed through the wood. “Get up.

Ravyn dragged himself off his knees and followed. He’d never pushed this hard, not in a decade of training. Not even when his opponents were fitted with Black Horses and he had only his strength to rely upon. He’d never needed so badly to keep—going—forward.

The underbrush was gone, and suddenly his boots were clogging with mud. Ravyn looked up.

The lake.

Night had fallen, darkness pressing down onto the water’s eerily still surface. The last time they’d crossed, the lake had been a pale silver. Now, it bore the color of the blackest of inks.

Ravyn stood next to the Nightmare on the shore’s muddy lip and put a hand into his pocket. His fingers brushed the velvet of five Providence Cards—Black Horse, Maiden, Mirror, Nightmare, Twin Alders. If he drowned, the Cards would be lost at the bottom of the lake.

“Will there be more monsters in the water?”

“No. That barter was already paid.” The Nightmare tightened his grip on Jespyr. He waded up to his knees into the lake. “Hurry.”

Water filled Ravyn’s boots. But before either of them could dive—

Salt filled his nose, only to retreat a moment later. Ravyn knew that feeling. Someone had tried to use a Providence Card he was immune to against him.

His hand fell to his dagger. A moment later he heard it: the thunderous sound of a cantering horse.

It came from the path behind them, bearing two riders. The horse, white with gray speckles, Ravyn recognized at once. It was Elm’s horse.

The first rider dismounted with a booming curse before the animal could reach a full stop. “Where the bloody hell have you lot been?”

Petyr ran full speed at Ravyn. “I’ve never been so happy to see your ugly face.”

Wind soared from his lungs, his friend’s arms a vise around his chest. “Likewise,” Ravyn managed. He looked over Petyr’s shoulder, eyes widening.

Ione Hawthorn wore a tattered gray dress and stood next to Elm’s horse. Her chest heaved, eyes darting between Ravyn to Jespyr to the Nightmare—lingering upon the latter. “Elspeth?”

“She’s with me.” The Nightmare rolled his eyes. “And she is very loud in her enthusiasm to see you, yellow girl.”

Petyr pulled back. “What the hell happened—is Jes all right?” He tripped over himself, getting to the Nightmare. He reached for Jespyr.

I’m carrying her—”

“Shove off, you ancient windbag.” In one impressive maneuver, Jespyr was in Petyr’s arms. “You still with us, princess? Want to hold my lucky coin?”

She stirred in his arms. Grimaced. Her brown eyes opened a sliver. “You smell worse than he did.”

Petyr barked a laugh. “I haven’t wanted to go near strange bodies of water for some reason.” He glanced up at Ravyn. “You’ve been gone an age.” His nodded at Ione, lines drawing across his weathered face. “Much has happened.”

Ravyn’s eyes were still on the horse. For every breath he took, dread twisted his stomach. “Where’s Elm?”

Ione’s face crumpled. Ravyn forgot his exhaustion. “Where is he?

Ione opened her hand. Nestled in the folds of her palm was a Scythe Card. “He’s at Stone.” Her hazel eyes rose to Ravyn’s face, laden with fury. “With Hauth.”


It had happened weeks ago.

Hauth, healed by the Maiden Card.

The King, murdered.

Elm, framed and presumably kept alive so Hauth might trade him for the Twin Alders. But as to the condition he was kept in—

Ravyn could only guess.

Fingers wrapped into fists, his mind went somewhere so dark and terrible he had to look away as Ione explained to them what had happened. All he really heard was ElmElm was alone, at Stone.

With Hauth.

Ione’s skin was red all over, tears and rage marking her face. She told them how Elm had compelled her to flee and remained behind to confront his brother. She’d ridden to Castle Yew, pounded upon on the door at midnight—begged to know where Ravyn and Jespyr and the Shepherd King had gone.

Fenir had readied himself to go with her into the wood, but Ione hadn’t waited for him. “I shot into the wood behind Castle Yew like an arrow—and was immediately lost,” she said, looking out over the lake. “All night and into the morning I rode, calling out. No one was there. But then, I found a path. It was as if the trees—” Her brow knit. “As if the trees had moved. I know that sounds strange.”

“It doesn’t,” Ravyn said, urging her on.

“I rode to the lake, then crossed. The horse was frightened and hurried through the water, like he was afraid of it. We reached the other side, but I had no idea where to go. I got lost again. Only this time, it cost me days.” A faint smile touched her mouth. “When the crows found me, I thought they were going to eat me. Or that I might try to eat them, I was so hungry. But not an hour later women wearing masks of bone came out of the trees.” Her eyes went glassy. “My mother and brothers were with them.”

“She found me two days later,” Petyr finished. “I’d gone back to—” His voice clogged. “To bury Wik. I was wandering, waiting for you all to come out of that wood. And now that you have—” He swallowed. “Do you know what day it is?”

“Solstice.” The Nightmare cocked his head to the side, his eyes dropping to the Scythe in Ione’s hand. “I am very pleased you’re here, yellow girl. For now we have all twelve Cards.”

“Not yet,” Ravyn reminded him. “Six await in the chamber. We need to get back before midnight—then we can unite the Deck.” He set his jaw, and did not say the words haunting his tongue. With my blood.

The Nightmare’s knowing gaze swept over his face. They looked at each other, two liars struggling with the truth. “Regarding that, and the Princeling—I have a plan. But time—”

“Is short.” Ravyn looked out over the lake. “We’ll speak on your plan. But first, we swim.”

They put Jespyr on Elm’s horse and waded into the water. It was so much colder than when they swam last. The Nightmare pushed ahead, and Ione held the horse’s face—spoke into its ear—and led it through the water, breath pluming out of her mouth. Petyr was pale as death, muttering to himself about never leaving home again.

Ravyn swam last. Not even his burning fury for what had happened to Elm could keep him warm against the water’s bite.

No lake monster came to claim him. The only things that fought Ravyn now were his own straining muscles. Somewhere near the middle of the lake, his left leg cramped. He compensated with his right and kept going. But just as he neared the shore, his right leg seized as well. Ravyn dipped into darkness, a path of bubbles fleeing his mouth.

No. He’d gone to hell and back. Found a Providence Card five hundred years lost. Destroyed parts of himself to get it. He wasn’t going to drown on Solstice, mere miles from home.

He’d pretended so long to be strong—but he wasn’t pretending now. On powerful arms, Ravyn breached the water’s surface and sucked in a breath. His legs met slippery mud and he hauled himself onto the shore, heaving heavy breaths until the war drum in his chest quieted to a rhythmic march.

It was night. There was no light to see their way home. But Ravyn had entered the wood a Destrier, a highwayman. He was used to traveling in the dark. On trembling foot, he stepped with the others into the forest.

The wood was just as the Nightmare had left it—cleaved. The path was open to them, swaddled by mist.

When moonlight cut through the edge of the wood, Ravyn let out a shaky breath. It wasn’t trees on the horizon, but Castle Yew’s towers.

Home.

He pushed ahead of the others, stepped out from the wood into the meadow—

And smelled smoke.

The Nightmare wrenched him back, clasping a hand over Ravyn’s mouth. He put a finger in the air, gesturing for the others to halt.

Ahead, just on the other side of the trees, voices sounded in the meadow. One was louder than the others, echoing with harsh clarity, both brutish and cold. Ravyn’s skin went clammy, then fiery hot. He knew that voice.

It belonged to his cousin Hauth.

A smile haunted the Nightmare’s silken timbre. “How poetic. I couldn’t have asked for a better Solstice.” He put his mouth to Ravyn’s ear. “Now, stupid bird, will you listen to my plan?”


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