Copyright © 2017 Hope Ann
Published by Writing in the Light Publishing
Cover design Copyright © Hope Ann, 2017
Cover image retrieved from Pixabay.com
Cover designed by Kate Flournoy
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Dedicated to my mother who started me on the path to writing, and to my father who always encouraged me in it.
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A rebellion, a Separation, a promise, and an Oathkeeper who will save those he doomed, no matter how long it takes.
Stieg Der: Steeg D-er
They were coming. They never stopped coming.
He stood still, wrapped in the cold shadows before dawn, only the faint twitch of a muscle in his cheek revealing he was more than a statue. A gust of wind slashed down from the enclosing mountainsides, tearing at his hair and twisting his thick cloak.
He didn’t move.
A wolf howled, the call rising to an eerie pitch before dropping, hurtling downward. The echo had barely faded when another howl replied.
His jaw tensed. His fingers whitened over the hilt of the great sword resting in his hands, the weapon’s point piercing the turf. Always… Always, forever, and yet again, they would come.
The wind returned, buffeting him from behind. From the side. Sweeping out before him, then circling around, retreating from a rose resting in the center of a sprawling patch of vines.
Other roses carpeted the ground, brushing upward against iron trellises, but his eyes remained focused on the one. No wind brushed its petals, which trembled against the tossing of blossoms and leaves at either side.
His breath slipped between his teeth and he finally lifted his gaze as the wind hurtled off, whistling through the narrow pass that led outward. Out into the forest. Out into Aslaria.
And he waited.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love…
“You will be careful, Eldric, won’t you?” I raised my eyebrows as my older brother fastened his faded cloak.
“Am I ever not?” His brown eyes glittered in the light that knifed through open shutters. He winked at the two younger girls clinging to my skirts, then shifted his cloak to free the hilt of the sword strapped to his back. Stepping forward, he wrapped his arms around me.
I returned the embrace, ignoring the rigid sheath digging into my arm. His black hair brushed my forehead as I rested my cheek on his shoulder. “Get back quickly.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “If there is any truth in the rumors to the south, we’re going to need you, not to mention there is the added danger of your trip there and back.”
“You’re speaking of danger, Elissa? It must be serious.”
“Stop it.” I pushed him away. “It is serious.”
“I shall use extra caution, you may be sure,” Eldric said.
He crouched down and held out his arms to the girls. “You shan’t have another chance for at least a week,” he warned.
Helene didn’t hesitate and threw her arms around his neck. “You’ll bring us back food?”
“Do we need some?” Eldric ran his fingers through her long, auburn hair and raised one eyebrow in mock surprise.
“Sweet food!” Helene expounded, shifting from one foot to another. “Candies!”
I pressed one hand to my mouth to mask a smile. To be that age again…
“Ah.” Eldric nodded. “We’ll see what is left after I buy the spring supplies. I’ve had time for a few extra carvings this winter.” He held out his other arm. “No words of farewell, Klara?”
Helene’s twin blinked. “You can’t bid two people farewell properly at once. I was biding my time for Helene.”
I choked on a laugh while Eldric fell into a fit of coughing. Rocking back on his heels, he masked his face in the crook of his arm and recovered quickly. Moving Helene to his side, he held out both arms and wrapped them around Klara’s slim figure. She pressed her cheek against his.
After a long moment, she pulled back and regarded him with wide eyes, as only a seven-year-old can. “You’ll be home for our birthday?”
“A whole nine days away? Of course I’ll be back.” Eldric ran one finger down her cheek. “I can guess what you want for a present. Another of those books, don’t you? Or would you prefer pencils?”
Klara bit her lip, twisting a strand of flaxen hair about her finger. “I don’t know. They would both be so nice.”
Eldric lifted a helpless gaze to meet my own. “They’ll make a pauper of me: that’s what they’ll do.”
I crossed my arms and smirked as he rose. “Serves you right for spoiling them. You don’t have to get me anything, if that’s a comfort.”
“Are you sure?” He slung his knapsack of choice carvings over his back and twisted concern into every angle of his face. “No diamonds or sapphires or flowing gowns?”
“A lean, black-haired trader with a penchant for lingering even though the sun rose an hour ago would fill anything I need.”
Eldric raked his fingers through his hair and straightened his shoulders. “I’ll see what I can do about that, shall I?”
My chest tightened. “You’d better.”
Helene clung to Eldric’s cloak. “You have to get her something.”
“He’ll get her a rose.” Klara retreated a step, her hand folding into mine. “He always does, you know.”
“Traitor.” Eldric scowled at Klara. She laughed.
I bit my lip. “If you don’t leave soon, night is going to take you while you’re still in the Blackwood.”
Eldric shrugged. “The wraiths and wolves have yet to trouble the main path. Never you fear.”
Never you fear, indeed. An ache wrapped around my throat. As if he understood. Of course he understood. He just… he had…
I blocked the thoughts as Eldric scanned the room, searching for anything to delay him further. I strode across the threshold and unlatched the door. A gust of cool, spring air, heavy with the promise of rain, rushed inward. I turned and inclined my head. “In a week, Eldric.”
He grimaced. “In a week.” His hand closed over mine. “I’ll be back from Corivan before you know it. Seriously, be careful here. If the rumors—”
“Now who’s worrying?” I shook my head. “You do this every time. Go on.”
“The King will protect you,” Eldric spoke the words like a prayer.
Where did he find such conviction? I forced a smile. “And He’ll protect you.”
Eldric’s eyes wandered over my face and dropped to the two little ones. Abruptly, he turned away and hurried down the path. At the gate, he turned once and waved before striking onto the rutted road that turned into a small wood. The track twisted through the lower slopes of the mountains until it rose to cross a distant pass.
My fingers traced the beginnings of a scar at my wrist as I stared after him. A web of iron mesh constricted about my chest. The King would keep him safe, if He cared to.
“What did he say about wraiths and wolves?” Klara asked.
I blinked, my breath catching as the empty road refocused under my gaze. I touched the dagger at my waist. “Nothing. Come along. Time for chores.”
The promised rains didn’t begin until the lengthening day faded into the dark clouds. Klara huddled against me as we sat by the small fire, her head against my knee, her book unnoticed in her hands. The rain rattled against the shingles and the wind moaned outside. Helene knit a stocking and my needle flashed in and out of a new dress meant for whichever girl happened to tear hers first.
I rose as the lights dimmed. The door was latched. The windows shuttered. I checked each one before placing my dagger on the headrest of my bed. Klara and Helene crawled under the blankets on either side of me and we drifted off to sleep to the lullaby of the rain.
A week passed swiftly, anticipation growing tenser with each dawn. Spring cleaning; early planting… none of it barred the whisper of rumors that reached even us. Rumors of war, mixed with the howl of wolves each night.
I crouched in the garden the eighth day after Eldric left, stabbing seeds into the earth. Beside me, Helene stiffened. “Someone is coming!”
She pointed down the road and I sprang to my feet, tugging my sleeve over a long scar slicing from my wrist to my elbow. Brushing my hands against my skirt, I squinted as a horse cantered up, its sides dark with sweat. The man on its back bowed over the saddle, mud and stains of a darker hue intermixing on his clothing and cloak.
Darting forward, I caught the horse’s bridle as it stumbled to a stop. “Helene, fetch some water!” I ordered. The man swayed and I gripped his knee to steady him.
His head shot up. “By the blackened rose.” He rubbed his hand over his eyes. He was young—couldn’t be much older than Eldric. “Where did you spring from?”
I glanced down the road, half-expecting dark riders to break from the forest in pursuit. “I could ask the same of you. Has something happened?”
“Something?” The man raised his eyebrows. “You’ve not heard? Uprisings, all over the land. Bands of robbers, declaring freedom from the King’s law. Haxron to the south…” his breath hitched. “The harbors are burning; Corivan… there were even rumors of rebellion at Zahava, though I’ve no doubt the King’s soldiers were more than a match for that rabble.”
My fingers clenched around the horse’s bridle. “Corivan? Rebels are there?”
“They were a few hours out when I passed them.” The man dragged a hand over his brow. A dirty bandage peeped from under his sleeve. Helene brushed my side and I took the water, offering it to the man.
He drank, sighed, and inclined his head, handing the cup back. Beside me, Helene’s fingers traced the horse’s damp coat, then she darted away. “I’ll get some for him too!”
The man’s gaze followed her. A wistful smile twisted his lips. His gaze flicked back to me, studying, probing. “Are you alone out here?”
I tensed, but there was no need for a stranger to know Eldric was gone. “I have a brother.”
“Good.” The man’s eyes scanned the low wall surrounding our cottage and came back to me. “I’m headed to warn Bruen. The village is north of here?”
“Half a league down the road,” I confirmed, then bit my lip. “The rebels… is it a sporadic uprising or are the rumors true they have a leader?”
The man’s eyes stabbed through my own. They were so sharp, so blue. “No leader has been revealed, as of yet, but it seems likely. Some rumors place him as a servant of the King Himself. Perhaps a steward or a general in His army.”
I stiffened. Let the King tend to His own if He could. If He cared to. What did it matter to us? Helene panted behind me. I pivoted and took the wooden bucket of water. Rebels, Corivan… where was Eldric? As the horse drank, I stared into its dark eyes, my pale face reflecting back at me.
“I don’t know if the rebels will come this far north.” The man spoke in a low voice as I handed the bucket back to Helene. “But you’d best be careful.”
I swallowed hard. “There will be war, then?”
The man nodded. “The rebels aren’t leaving peaceably, and there are too many for a quick suppression.”
My chest tightened until I could barely breathe but I forced my lips into a smile. “Thank you for the warning. I’ll be sure to speak with my brother.”
“Good.” The man straightened. His left arm bent stiffly and he winced.
“Ask for Mother Karlin in the village,” I said. “She knows more about wounds than any other around here. Tell her Elissa sent you and she’ll help you, no matter how much she might grumble.”
“I thank you, Elissa.” He lifted his good arm in a salute. The hilt of a sword gleamed from beneath the folds of his cloak. “If you are ever in need, be assured Captain Dachs will aid you in any way he can.” He winked and slapped the reins against his horse’s neck.
I watched the captain vanish, then turned.
Helene clutched the bucket to her chest as she stared at me, wide-eyed. Beyond her, a book hanging from her fingers, Klara leaned against the doorpost.
“This is hardly the first time we’ve heard news of rogue outlaws and rebel uprisings.” I stepped forward, taking the bucket from Helene. “Eldric will be back today or tomorrow.” I forced a smile. “Like as not, the rumors will die before a week is past.”
That night, the wolves howled closer than I’d heard them in months, their calls mingling with distant cracks of thunder. I squeezed my eyes shut. They couldn’t enter the cottage. Couldn’t reach us. Reach me. My fingers clasped about my wrist.
The next dawn was heavy with the threat of a storm. Dark clouds built against the mountains. Shadows deepened over the road—an empty road.
“He’ll come, you’ll see.” I tried to smile. I left the window by the door un-shuttered and placed a lamp on the sill. I shivered as the wind lashed against the windowpanes.
But Eldric didn’t come and the new dawn only brought Dachs’s swift passage back south, with a grim face and grimmer words.
“Can’t we save our birthday until tomorrow?” Klara asked as dusk fell. Her chin quivered. “Eldric will be home then, won’t he?”
I swept her into an embrace. Helene forced herself under my other arm. I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath. “You heard the Captain earlier. Eldric probably had to go out of his way to avoid the rebels and I doubt the storm helped conditions. He’ll be here soon. He might be on the road even now.”
Klara looked up at me, her eyes bright. “You really think so?”
“I hope so.”
“He’ll bring candy. And gifts.” Helene grinned and I chuckled.
“The King will protect him, after all,” Klara said softly. She gazed up at me. “The King will protect Eldric, won’t He?”
I bit my lip. “Of course, Klara. The King will protect him.”
I tucked the girls in, then sat alone, the lamp once more burning in the window. The night was broken by the quivering flame that cast stark shadows over the walls. The rain was now reduced to a heavy patter. I exhaled softly. No footsteps. No lifting of the latch.
A howl broke through the retreating storm. I stiffened, clenching my dagger’s hilt. Nothing.
I closed my eyes. Darkness thickened, drawing me downward. White gleamed—glittering snow in the moonlight. The white of ice and gleaming fangs and bloodless cheeks. Lips curled back revealing rows of teeth, inches from my face.
Something pounded, a dull thud against the starless sky.
I gasped as I jerked upright. The lamp flickered, its golden glare barely touching the shadows where I sat. I pressed my palms against my eyes. The rumblings had faded along the valley, and the rain eased—dripping, dripping, dripping off the eaves. Even the wind had lulled, but in my sleep had there been… knocking?
I blinked. It couldn’t have been Eldric; he knew how to lift the latch from the outside. I forced myself to my feet. It was a dream, nothing more. Stilling the trembling in my hands, I swept up my bow and notched an arrow before creeping across the floor.
I pressed my ear to the door. Silence. No scuffing of boots or scraping of claws. I flung up the bar and wrenched the outer door open.
There was no one there. I bit the inside of my cheek. Of course not. Eldric was safe in a tavern somewhere, staying up late and sharing stories of escape from wolves and rebels. I shoved against the door, then froze. Golden light glinted off damp, red petals lying on the threshold. I stared into the night, still moist with rain, before crouching and tilting my head. A rose? A strange night for a lover to be out.
Quivering drops of water beaded on the velvety petals, glittering like tears as the rose shivered in the wind. I peered into the night, then reached out, my fingers closing about the stem.
Light blazed through my mind, searing my sight as a cold chill rushed up my arm. I gasped, staggering backward. The bow clattered from my hand and echoed loudly. A mist clouded my gaze; gray, tinted with red. The red of roses. The red of blood.
My breath rasped in my ears. The picture cleared, distant and yet sharp. Marching soldiers. Rebels, falling in place under the command of a man in a black mask. Cities burning. Villages on fire. Eldric…
Eldric struck off on a faint path to circle a camp of rebels. The night closed in, thick with tangled shadows, until I could barely see. He was on a path, deep into the Blackwood. Where was the main road? He should be back on it. Where was the path? He stumbled through the brush now, the pouch on his back thudding against him at every step. Lightning crackled. Thunder crashed above the trees.
My throat tightened.
Eldric was drenched, his face pale in the brilliance of each bolt of lightning. A valley opened up, spilling him from the forest. Eldric huddled under a ledge, his arms wrapped around himself as he shivered.
Then he was starting forward again, more quickly. A ghostly, gray fortress rose from the edge of the valley. Or perhaps it was built into the cliffs—it was hard to tell. Gaping windows stared into the storm while others were shuttered tightly. Then Eldric was inside. The door thudded shut behind him and a warm glow spilled into the corridor.
He hurried forward. The room was lit with several lamps and a meal laid out for one. He hesitated in the doorway and glanced to either side. I heard his calls as from a distance. Something flickered once in the shadows, but no one replied. Eldric hunched close to the fire, waiting. As the hours passed and the food cooled, he finally rose and ate.
I blinked as he stretched himself on the hearth. In a flash, it was morning. Another meal was set at the table. Eldric ate and scribbled a note of thanks before leaving the room.
His boots splashed through the damp grass. Sunlight set stray drops glinting in the dawn. A wind spiraled past him, ruffling his hair, carrying a sweet scent.
A faint smile twisted his lips as he pivoted, his gaze finally resting on a pool of roses in the center of the valley. Another blink and he was among them, caressing their petals. They brushed themselves against his hands, but I followed his gaze to a luscious crimson bloom in the center of the patch. He reached out.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. He plucked the rose with my name on his lips.
A guttural growl shattered the silence. Eldric spun to meet the glittering blade of a tall man. His face was cloaked in shadow, but I could see the anger blazing in his eyes. Pale scars gleamed over his hand.
For a long moment, Eldric and the figure stared at each other, then the figure raised his blade.
All went black.
I gasped as a cold wind washed over me. Wooden walls closed in on each side. The familiar couch. The lamp flickering in the window. The door swinging in the wind.
I stumbled to my feet and slammed it shut. My breath rattled and I sank down against the wall, my knees to my chest, my gaze fastened on the rose lying several paces away.
What… what the stars had just happened?
Of all the inconveniences…
He scowled, standing on the top step and staring into the wet gloom that smothered the predawn garden.
How many wolves had he fought off? How many nights had he watched and waited? Only to have the rose picked by some young trader who’d taken refuge from a storm. The idiot had already taken his supper and written a very pretty thank you for breakfast. Then he strode into the morning and undid over two hundred years of guarding.
His grip clenched about the hilt of his sword and he pivoted inward, slamming the door behind him. Faint shouts, coupled with pounding on wood, drifted up winding corridors.
The man was persistent, he’d give him that much. Perhaps he’d even be of some use. The rose was picked. Stolen away in the night by Tauscher himself, to add insult to failure. King only knew what he wanted with it. But war was coming, and perhaps it was best the rebel be unveiled.
His jaw tightened and he closed his eyes for a long moment.
He’d stayed here long enough. It was time to go.
I flung the rose on the table, my breath coming in heated gasps as I sank onto the couch. Oh, Eldric. What had he done? Was he even—?
No. He had to be alive. I’d know if he wasn’t.
I shivered as cold drafts coiled about my feet like chains. Lamp-light flickered off my bow and arrows and I stared at them, unblinking. Rebels. Cloaked figures. Roses. Eldric.
A howl echoed outside. I tensed until my shoulders ached. My fingers dug into my palms as I traced the jagged shadows flickering across the wall. I pressed my face into my hands. Breathe. Just breathe. I could do this. I always did.
Soft steps padded across the floor and a hand touched my arm.
I jerked and met Klara’s green eyes.
Her gaze met mine. “Eldric isn’t home?”
I bit my lip. “Not… not yet.”
Klara shivered. I held out my arms and she clambered onto my lap, curling against my chest. I swallowed the ache in my throat and wrapped my arms tightly around her. The gray dawn seeped through the window. Her cool fingers slipped up my sleeve.
I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my face into her fair hair. The rebels were the ones who caused Eldric to leave the road in the first place. Were they still advancing? There were caves to take refuge in, but Eldric…
We needed him back. I would get him back.
Klara’s breathing slowed and I propped my chin on her head and stared at the rose. Its petals rustled in a soundless wind. Helene darted into the room, took one look at us, and leapt up to tuck herself against my side. As like as not, I’d dreamed up the whole event. How could I leave?
How could I not?
Outside, moisture dripped from the eaves. Birds twittered. A fist pounded on our door.
I jumped, smothering a startled cry. Klara’s nails dug into my forearm while Helene pressed closer, staring at me with wide eyes.
Holding a finger to my lips, I detached myself from the little ones. My hand wrapped about the comfort of my dagger.
The hammering came again, this time accompanied by a loud voice. “Elissa?”
I exhaled shakily. “It’s just Captain Dachs.” But… hadn’t he left?
I released the latch and pulled open the door.
The captain’s cloak was awry, his clothing covered with mud.
“What’s happened?” I demanded.
“Rebels…” the word slipped between ragged pants as he leaned one hand against the doorframe. “They’re less than a league to the south.”
So close. My stomach twisted and my heart hammered in my ears. “They’re coming here?”
“I don’t know.” Dachs looked over my shoulder toward the girls. “They may pass by, but…” his voice trailed off as his eyes met mine. He gave a small shake of his head. “I wanted to offer my services as an escort to the village, if your brother wasn’t present to offer is protection.”
Protection? Escort? My nails dug into the wood of the door. I gave a short nod. “I thank you. If we could have ten minutes?”
“Five, then.” I spun toward Klara and Helene. “We have to leave.”
“What about Eldric?” Klara protested.
I met her eyes for a long second, then looked quickly away. “He’ll find us, never you fear.” Or I’d find him. We would get him back.
I slung my quiver across my back and cradled my bow while the girls scurried for cloaks and boots. What little food was prepared, I swept into a small bundle.
Eldric… There had to be a way to find him. Maybe Dachs? No. There was no reason to expect his aid. No way I’d be able to repay it.
I seized the rose on my way out. My fingers tingled but the pictures didn’t return. Instead, a hum settled in the back of my mind, tugging at my feet. I frowned, handing up a bundle to the girls after Dachs swung them onto his horse. The hum persisted, dragging at my mind as we started toward the village. I drew a soft breath and glanced over my shoulder. Perhaps… I shook my head and tucked the rose into my cloak. Not yet. The little ones first, then I would focus on my brother.
The sun was halfway up the sky by the time we reached the village. I inclined my head to Dachs as he lifted the girls from his horse. “I thank you for your trouble.”
“Trouble?” He raised an eyebrow. “There was no trouble at all.” He lifted his hand in a quick salute, sprang on his mount and bent for a few hurried words with several of the village men. His gaze snapped back to me as he straightened, then he kicked his horse into a trot and spun away from the sturdy stone cottages of the village.
He vanished and I crouched before Helene and Klara. Behind me, the alarm bell began to ring. “Can you be very brave?”
Helene bit her lip and nodded.
Klara stared at me. “You’re leaving.”
“I’m going to find Eldric.” I locked my gaze with each girl in turn. “I’ll take you to Mother Karlin and you’ll stay with her until we get back.”
Helene threw her arms around my neck. “You will come back?”
My eyes burned. “Of course I’ll come back.”
The village healer leaned against the doorpost of her house, watching the villagers already streaming up the road.
“You’re leaving too?” she asked as I paused before her.
I nodded. “Not with the others, though.”
Her eyes flicked over our party and refocused on my face. “Eldric?”
I bit the inside of my cheek. “I need… I am going to fetch him.”
Mother Karlin nodded. “The girls will be safe with me.”
“Thank you.” A thread of tension unwound in my chest. I let Klara’s small hands pull me down and cling about my neck for a long moment. She pulled a crimson ribbon from her hair and tied it around my wrist. “So you remember to come back.”
Blinking, I nodded and pulled away. “I’ll find Eldric,” I promised them. “I’ll find Eldric, and I will be back.”
I slipped from the village, avoiding the mud-churned roads and blocking my ears to the shouts and laughs of the children for whom danger was nothing more than an abstract reason to hike higher in the mountains.
As I struck the main road again, well below the village, I drew the rose out. A chill raced up my arm. This was a foolish idea. Completely mad. And with rebels on the loose too.
My steps quickened. I passed our cottage with nary a glance. The forest closed about me, branches tangling overhead like the meshes of a great trap. Mud and water drenched my skirt and cloak and squelched in the soles of my boots. No rebels yet. I pressed on warily—down into the valley, then up again, through woods covering the pass. I caught myself against a tree as my foot slipped. My breath rasped in ragged pants. The web of branches choked out most of the mid-afternoon sun, but the heavy air clung to my skin, plastering my hair against my neck.
Closing my eyes, I slumped against the trunk. This was ridiculous. I would get myself killed and my sisters would be alone. I shoved the thought aside and took a quick drink from my waterskin. Pressing my head against the rough bark, I stared balefully at the rose. I ought to at least try tracking. What did it matter how many valleys there were? I’d walk all the way to where I’d seen Eldric leave the path, if I needed to, and track him from there. Clenching my jaw, I started forward.
Thorns tore at my dress and a branch snapped underfoot.
I jerked back. Why wasn’t I on the path? I spun around. The dark line of the road still stabbed through the Blackwood. The humming in my mind quickened and my feet dragged as I stepped in the direction of the road. The rose rustled in my hand.
I glared at it and took a step deeper into the forest. The tension eased. I scowled at the blossom. “You do realize how completely… completely… I’m talking to a rose!”
The petals winked between mottled shadows and green-hued light.
Shrugging, I sighed and gave in. I’d come this far. My steps grew firmer, faster, choosing a path of their own whatever the reasoning of my mind.
Underbrush clawed at me. Branches snagged at my cloak. Vines wound about my ankles, tripping me. I gritted my teeth, shoving through briars and thorns. Wind rattled the branches like broken swords and last year’s moist leaves muted my steps.
My chest compressed. If You are there, and if You care. I broke off the prayer with a scoff. As if the King had time for a ragged peasant girl during the confusion of a rebellion. I struggled through a net of undergrowth, then muffled a cry as the trees opened. One last vine caught my ankle and sent me tumbling to the smooth turf.
I scrambled backward, pulling from the grasp of the forest. Stumbling to my feet, I spun around and retreated a step.
Golden light spread a thin sheen over grey cliffs that soared to meet the sky. Roses spilled across the stone wall opposite me, winding about yawning windows and a great door. A cloying scent rippled with the wind and my gaze stuttered at a pool of crimson spreading from the center of the valley. More roses, rising upward, spilling downward, catching the gleams of the setting sun in velvety splendor.
Roses—red as glowing embers. Red as…
I swallowed hard, my gaze again rising to the house—a fortress, rather. Eldric wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be. I tucked the blossom inside my cloak and nocked an arrow on my string instead. The windows gaped like wide, unblinking eyes, frozen in breathless waiting.
Pressing my lips in a tight line, I strode across the valley and tromped up the shallow steps. I hesitated the fraction of a second before yanking the doors open with my free hand. Whoever had done this; whoever had made me trek all this way to find my brother, and all because of a stupid rose… I blinked, my gaze flitting back and forth through dusty shadows, searching for movement or any sign of life.
I scowled. “Not ready to face me?” I muttered. The words echoed through the room, bouncing along the arched ceiling in hoarse whispers. My fingers whitened over my bow. Well then…
Where would Eldric be? One sweeping staircase led up. Another corridor stabbed inward, straight as an arrow’s shaft. Blocks of warmth glinted from hidden windows and a single lamp cast a soft glow. I bit my lip and turned toward it.
The light spilled from its central stand to curved walls. Blue and gold tiles spread outward as I stepped into the circle. A corridor opened on each side of me and another continued straight on ahead. I turned, my frown deepening. This would take forever.
“Hello!” My voice echoed, reverberating off the stone. I inhaled deeply, every muscle tensed. “Face me, whoever you are! Face me and tell me what you have done to my brother!”
A whisper replied from behind me. A sigh or a step. When I spun around, there was nothing.
“Face me!” I shouted. My fingers fumbled inside my cloak and I held out the rose. “Is this what you want? Take it, and have done. Just give me my brother back!”
Nothing. No, wait…
Something thudded distantly. A faint shout. My pulse quickened and the blood rushed through my veins. I sprinted to the left, leaving the echoes to mask my absence as I flitted along darkened corridors. The shouts grew louder.
Eldric. My chest tightened painfully.
A staircase wound into darkness.
The pounding on wood and another shout met my ears as I stumbled down the steps.
“Eldric?” I called the name out loud this time.
Silence crashed over me.
I choked back a sudden sob. “Eldric.” I sprinted toward the voice. A single light spilled from a torch and bars covered the upper half of a thick door.
“Elissa, what are you doing here?” Eldric demanded. His hands seized mine as I clutched the bars.
“I came for you, of course.” My eyes roved the door, searching for a lock. There it was. A great iron hole. “Do you know where the key is?”
“Key?” Eldric stared at me. A large bruise stained the side of his head, but his eyes were clear. “You have to get out of here, Elissa. Now!”
I blinked. “What in all of Aslaria do you mean? I just got here.”
“And now you’re going to leave.” Eldric’s hand tightened over mine. “If you are even able to. You’ve not seen the master of this place. He’s…” A muscle twitched in his jaw. “I don’t know what he wants, but the girls need you.”
“No, the girls need you,” I said. My eyes fastened on his. “The rebels are advancing.”
Air hissed between Eldric’s teeth. “Still?”
“Yes. We all need you and I’m not leaving without you. Where is the master of this place, because I fully intend—” The hair on the back of my neck prickled.
Eldric stared past me. “Run, Elissa. Run and don’t come back.”
“Never.” My breath tore at my throat and I turned around.
The figure I’d seen in the vision looked even taller in the confinement of the corridor. A cloak of gray and white fur swept about his frame and a hood shaded his face. One leg was cocked behind the other as he leaned against the wall. A glinting sword hung from his hand.
My fingers clenched over my bow. “You’re the master here?” I asked.
He inclined his head ever so slightly but didn’t make any move to approach. Or speak.
I lifted my chin and motioned to the cell behind me. “This is my brother, and I want him back.”
The man studied me.
I pulled the rose from under my cloak. “Is this what you want?” This time I had the satisfaction of seeing the figure stiffen, accompanied by a quick inhalation. “Take it.” I hurled the blossom at his feet. “But let my brother go. We need him. His younger sisters need him.” I took a step forward. “Let. My. Brother. Go.”
The figure bowed his head, but when he looked up, the flicking torchlight glinted in his eyes. He shook his head sharply. With a flicking motion of his arm, he pointed to the stairs. Long, white scars gleamed across his skin.
I shook off the constriction of icy thorns. “What is it? Why do you even need a prisoner?”
The eyes still watched me.
I crossed my arms with a sigh. “If you need someone, how about an exchange? Let me stay here and let my brother go.”
“What are you thinking?” Eldric hissed. “I’m not leaving you here with that… with that thing.”
I glared at him. “If the rebels come, the twins need a protector. You can keep them safer than I.”
“At your expense? The danger here is very present, not some rumor of rebels.”
“The rebels are on the move and if they reach the village…” My throat constricted as a blur of movement jerked my gaze. The figure’s strides were almost too swift to see, but now he was on my side of the corridor, the width of the cell door between us. His blue eyes bored into mine. I stared back. They were icy, intense. An ancientness lurked there, veiled in layers of hardened pain.
“Well?” I demanded.
“No,” Eldric breathed out. His hand squeezed painfully over mine. “She has nothing to do with this.”
I scowled, still staring at the cloaked figure. “I’m not leaving, so either you let my brother go or you’ll be saddled with both of us.”
“Don’t you even dare.” Eldric glowered at the man. “My sister leaves—”
The man sighed and his hand slipped through the bars, closing about Eldric’s neck, just below his throat.
“Eldric!” I sprang at the figure, but his other hand caught my shoulder and held me back. Eldric slumped to the ground.
I jerked away as the figure produced a key. “What are you… what have…? You could have the courtesy of answering me!”
The figure shook his head and pulled the door open with a squeal.
“Wait!” I blinked. “You can’t talk, or you won’t?”
I followed the man as he strode into the cell, crossed his arms and stared at Eldric, who now lay sprawled on the ground. I didn’t wait for an answer as I dropped to my knees beside my brother. He still breathed softly and I glared at the man.
“Mind telling me what is going on?” I asked. “Are you letting me stay instead of Eldric, then? Is this really about that rose? Do you even care you are splitting up a family?”
The figure’s gaze pierced my own. He jerked back his hood. Disheveled hair hung over pale scars that covered his skin. One creased his cheek. Another curled the edge of his bottom lip at a strange angle, slicing downward through his jaw. His lips formed a single word.
Stooping, he threw Eldric over his shoulder, then strode from the cell, slamming the door behind him.
“Wait!” I sprang forward and grabbed the bars. “You can’t leave me here! Where are you taking Eldric? Let me out.” I kicked the door, jerked my foot back, and winced. “Come back here, you renegade. You traitor. You… you beast!”
The figure didn’t turn as he vanished around the corner leading to the stairs.
Of all the ways for the day to have gone… He scowled as he strode into the forest through the growing dusk. The inert figure of the young man hung limply over his shoulder.
The brother would have worked better. He could have fought. He could have been left behind. He might have even come around and seen sense. How had the girl even found his valley? Or the rose? It hardly mattered. But those eyes…
He scowled as he deposited the body near the path. The girl be hanged. She’d not have left, and he’d not have laid a hand on her to force her off, however much he should have. It was Tauscher’s doing, like as not, but she’d be safer there. Safer.
A wolf howled as he turned away. He paused. A low growl rumbled in the back of his throat and he glared at the figure sleeping where he’d left him. Another wolf howled. Closer.
With a scowl, the figure pulled the cloak back over his head, loosened his dagger in its sheath, and waited.
He didn’t come back until dawn.
Even with my cloak wrapped around me, the chill of the stone floor seeped to my bones. My bow and quiver lay abandoned by my side as I watched the growing patch of grayness spread over the cell floor, spilling to my feet and brightening into something like light.
Where had that man taken Eldric? I gritted my teeth and my throat was hoarse from shouting. Earlier, my feet had ached from kicking the door, but now they were numb with cold. I tucked my arms more tightly around myself and shivered.
Helene… Klara… had the rebels come? Were they at the village even now? What if— I jerked the thoughts short, glaring at the rough wood of the door, then shifting my gaze upward. My breath caught in my throat.
There he was, staring at me, his arms crossed and his hood veiling his gaze. Shards of light reflected off pale scars.
“Stars above!” I shoved myself to my knees, snatching up my bow. My fingers fumbled for an arrow, but it clattered to the floor.
With a sigh, the man stepped forward and twisted his key in the lock. He yanked the door open and I staggered to my feet, pressing back against the cell wall, the arrow clutched in my fist.
What did this beast even want? I shuddered. Where had he got all those scars? And was that blood staining his dark tunic beneath the furs? My throat constricted, but the man stood to the side, inclining his head toward me and holding his hand outward.
I bit my lip, staring at him. “What do you want?”
He straightened, one eyebrow lifting as he watched me. His lips parted, then he grimaced.
“You really can’t talk, can you?”
The man glared at me but shook his head.
Great. Just my luck. A captor who couldn’t even speak.
“What have you done with my brother?”
The man’s eyes narrowed as he tilted his head. With one hand he motioned outward, then turned and strode away, leaving the door open. The smooth wood of the bow curved against my palm. A steady hand, a quick draw. No. Like as not he’d be able to spin and catch the arrow or something unnatural of that sort.
Scowling, I hurried from the cell and sprang after the figure. He didn’t even pause. The… the beast. The name fit his scars. Fit the wolf skins cloaking his broad frame. I muffled a sharp cry as my ankle knocked against a stone step. The beast didn’t even turn.
My jaw clenched and I strode after him. He led the way up the steps, retracing my earlier steps. When we passed through the circle of corridors, the beast continued straight on.
I hesitated, glancing to my right. Great wooden doors rose up; the same ones I’d entered by. I stared after the beast’s retreating figure then turned and sprinted toward the entrance. I’d offered an exchange. Keeping me here was up to the beast.
Flinging the doors open, I drew in a cool breath of air as the morning sun flooded the valley floor. Light glittered from a thousand points of dew, flying upward from my boots as I fled across the grass.
Don’t look back. Don’t hesitate. Just run. Run… The cliff walls narrowed. The forest beckoned, stretching out welcoming arms. It swept about me, the shadows wrapping me in concealment. There! Only several trees spanned the distance between the cliff faces that narrowed to an entrance before spreading out into the Blackwood. The Blackwood and freedom.
I sprang forward, then stumbled back, crashing to the ground as energy rebounded against me, lacing needles of ice beneath my skin.
Gasping, I shoved myself to my feet. On either side, the rocks loomed high, framing the entrance of the valley. I lurched forward and slammed against the invisible frigidness. I staggered back a step and my boot caught on a vine. My arms flailed. A strong hand gripped my shoulder, steadying me.
I jerked away, spinning to face the beast as he leaned back against a tree. His hood still covered his face.
I glowered at him. “Do you have something against being seen?”
He shrugged, pulling down the hood and brushing dark hair from his eyes. Wariness mingled with amusement in his gaze. The morning light revealed more scars than those I’d seen the night before. Some were faint, triple or quadruple lines like… claws? Others were darker. Deeper. The man cocked one eyebrow, then glanced beyond me. His lip curled slightly.
“Did you know that was going to happen?” I demanded.
He didn’t reply, merely studied the entrance.
I frowned. “What is the good of a barrier when it doesn’t keep anyone out?”
The beast lifted his hands and turned away.
“Wait!” I strode after him. “That’s it? You expect me to come back with you?”
He glanced at me pointedly.
I scowled. “You are a beast, aren’t you? Is my brother still here then? Can you get out?”
He didn’t answer. Of course. With a huff, I glared after his retreating figure. Fine. I could camp here then. There was no need to go into his home.
A wolf howled in the distance, and my head snapped toward the forest. The beast’s step faltered. When I turned back, he was watching me intently.
I grimaced, then sighed and strode toward him, resisting the urge to look over my shoulder. The beast nodded to himself and turned back to his home.
The beast headed up the stairs this time, instead of leading me back to the circle of corridors. I hurried after him, my boots slapping against polished tiles. A banister curved along the edge of the passage, open to the anteroom below. To my left were doors. So many doors.
The beast rounded one corner, then another. The light was dimmer here, spilling from transoms high above. Fractals of captured sun flashed from hidden crystals. A gleam struck the wall and flashed outward into a million pieces, dancing over the stone.
I exhaled softly, a faint smile tugging at my lips as I watched the light. My gaze shifted, then jerked to the beast studying me. Heat crept up my neck. I glared at him. “What?”
He shrugged, pulled open a door and motioned me inside. I glanced at him and edged past, springing into the center of the room. My eyes widened. Sunlight slanted through the window and roses curled over a stone sill. An elegant bed rested in one corner while a small fire blazed on the hearth, warming the tapestries that hung from the walls.
I spun on the beast. “So…”
He motioned outward toward the room, then pointed to me. Even without speech, the gestures were clear.
“This is my room?”
He nodded, his lips forming two words. For now.
“On terms of good behavior, is it?” I muttered. My gaze darted about the chamber. The bed was large enough for Helene, Klara, and me. Forget the bed—Helene would sleep on the floor if she had rugs such as these and if Klara got hold of the pencils sitting on the table… I blinked and pivoted toward the beast. “Did you need something else? Because you might have gotten a good sleep last night, but that cell was not comfortable. I’d like some rest.”
The corner of his mouth curled upward, though the smile didn’t reach his eyes. Heavy eyes, darkened with deep lines. Maybe my capture was on his conscience. I almost smirked and caught myself just in time. “Well, is this my room or not?”
The beast snorted and turned away, but he didn’t leave. Instead, he settled down against the wall on the opposite side of the corridor and pulled a parchment from his cloak. Splaying it out on a tile he pressed against his knee, he dipped a quill into the ink he’d retrieved from another pocket and started writing.
I blinked and stared at him for several long minutes, then sprang forward and slammed the door, cutting off the scratching of quill on paper. I dropped the latch and retreated a step. Wrapping my arms around myself, I sank down by the small fire. What was I doing here? And how…? I yanked off my boots and let my cloak drop in a muddied pile, then shoved myself to my feet and rounded the room.
It was simple and yet luxurious. I scowled. What did the beast expect me to do? Enjoy myself here? A second room opened into a closet full of clothing and a dressing room. A basin. A pitcher of water. An empty tub with—was that a pump? I raised my eyebrows. The beast had city conveniences, did he?
There was a scuffle outside the door. Something white slipped under it. Footsteps retreated down the hall.
I swept up the parchment and skimmed the firm, flowing script.
From the one whom you chose to call Beast,
To… Beauty. As you have given me a title, I assume I am allowed to give you one as well. Especially because I suspect you’ve no intention of telling me your real name.
From the way you slammed the door, I assume you find your quarters satisfactory. At least more so than my presence, such as it is.
I can assure you, I have no intention of harming you, and if you’d put up your bow without sending murderous glares my way every time you see me, it would be appreciated. If it’s any comfort, there are much stronger forces that would kill me if they could. As they currently can’t, you must content yourself with my company.
Also, as you so astutely observed, I cannot speak at this time. I can hear all your mutterings though, even if I don’t choose to acknowledge them. If you need anything, you can ask. I don’t suppose you can read lips?
Anyhow, I’d rather your brother be a captive than force you to stay here, but from what you said, he was needed elsewhere. I’m sure you are too, but for the moment you can’t leave, as you discovered earlier. I can’t explain it all right now, but once that rose was picked, the one who did the plucking had to stay inside these walls until—
You took your brother’s place and now you are. I’m not even sure how you found this place, or how he found it, for that matter. Normally the entrance is invisible. It must have had something to do with the rose, which should never have left this valley in the first place.
To sum it all up, I am the current master here and have lived on my own for quite some time. You are now the mistress, but I must ask you to stay indoors at night. It isn’t safe.
Also, I would invite you to dinner in the hall at six o’clock tonight.
The Beast of Rosen Den
Rosen Den? So that’s what he called his palace? I raised my eyebrows. But eat dinner with him? Did he really think I’d consent to that? My stomach rumbled. Exhaustion swept over me, clouding my mind. No sleep the night before, fitful sleep the past week.
I stumbled to the door, checking the latch. It was strong. Solid. Rubbing my eyes, I collapsed onto the bed. For a few moments, I stared upward at the light tracing its way across the ceiling. My eyes closed of their own accord and darkness swept me away.
When I awoke, golden beams lanced across my room from the opposite direction. Bells chimed from a rose-shaped clock on the wall. What was it with the beast and his roses? I blinked and dashed the sleep from my eyes.
Quarter to six.
Right. He wanted to dine with me.
I scowled and pressed my hand to my stomach. The room swayed as I stumbled up. I caught the bed post. When had I eaten last? Yesterday at breakfast? The chamber wavered out of focus, then stilled beneath my feet.
I muffled a groan. Dinner it was, then.
It only took a handful of minutes to scrub my face. Another minute to brush back my hair. The dresses stashed in the closet were another matter. It wasn’t that they didn’t fit, but they were all too fine. Dresses for a princess. Yet my own was so stained I could hardly wear it. Finally, I chose a muted yellow outfit which flared at the waist. It looked fetching enough, I admitted as I spun before the mirror. I tucked the ribbon Klara gave me into a small pocket and drew a soft breath.
The clock was chiming the hour when I slipped from my room. A warm meaty scent floated up the stairs and my steps quickened despite the meager willpower I thought I had left.
Light spilled from a door on the main floor and I hesitated in the shadows. The beast stood inside, his broad frame outlined in the lamplight. The wolf-skin cloak was gone and his shoulders stooped as he fingered something about his wrist.
Biting my lip, I stepped forward.
The beast spun, dropping his hand to his side. Even from across the room, I heard his quick inhalation as he stared at me, his eyes sweeping over my gown, then back to my face.
I hesitated, glancing between him and the small table behind him. Steam rose from several dishes. The beast blinked, shook his head, and motioned me forward while pulling out a chair. My hand crumpled a portion of skirt between my fingers as I advanced, but the beast rounded the other side of the table and took his seat.
My gaze fell to the table and I stared at the crimson rose by my plate. Was it…?
I tilted my head and glanced at the beast. His gaze fell to the rose, then he scribbled on a piece of parchment by his side.
The damage is done now. It would be a pity to waste it.
A pity to waste it? Such a romantic gift. I smothered a smile. The rose was unlike any I had ever seen. The velvety petals. The fragrant scent. I left it where it was as the beast bowed his head, raising the tips of his fingers to his forehead.
My brow furrowed. He was… praying?
He straightened, his expression unchanged as I stared at him, and deftly served out the meal. I watched, unblinking, as he deposited a potato, meat, and gravy onto my plate and more on his. Long fingers. Scars lacing up his hands. Others on his arms until they vanished under his tunic. I forced my fingers from my wrist. How…? Surely they couldn’t all be from them.
My stomach grumbled and I attacked the meal with relish. It was delicious: the meat savory, the potatoes soft.
“Who made this?” I asked.
The beast motioned to himself.
I raised my eyebrows. “You?”
His quill scratched on parchment as he continued eating. He held up the paper.
Do you see anyone else here?
I opened my mouth, then shut it again, unsure if it was the clear sarcasm or the fact he’d actually taken the time to write such a retort down.
“What about my brother.” I speared a bite of meat. “What did you do with him?”
The beast raised his quill again, but I stopped him. “Couldn’t you do it in the air?”
The beast’s brow furrowed.
“Draw in the air with your finger. I had an uncle once who couldn’t talk and did that.”
The beast shrugged, laying the pen aside. Narrowing his eyes, he moved his finger up and down. I tilted my head.
I. Took. Your. Brother. Away.
“Away?” I blinked.
Out. His fingers quickened, blurring letters together.
I held out my hands. “Wait a minute. Slowly. And without the flourishes.”
The beast rolled his eyes but complied. Left him by the road. He’ll be safe with your sisters by now.
Safe with my sisters. My throat tightened and I stared at my meal. My hunger vanished.
I excused myself soon after and hurried back to my room, the corridors now barely lit with fading sunlight. Latching the door behind me, I collapsed onto my bed and wept soundlessly.
When I finally slept, the howls of wolves echoed through my dreams.
He waited in the center of the valley, the roses spread at his feet. A howl echoed through the forest, then another and yet another. Overhead, a falcon glided across the moon and swooped downward.
He shifted his sword to his shoulder, his gaze flitting across the shadows of the forest that broke onto the turf. The rose was gone, but there was a more important treasure to protect now.
She’d be safe in the fortress. He hoped. The wolves would come.
Just like before, they’d come again and again.
This time, he might not be able to hold them off.
Eyes flashed through the night. Great horrible eyes. Gleaming fangs. Snarls echoed in my ears. Pain laced up my arm. My eyes flew open as I gasped and pulled my blankets to my chin.
Shadows flowed around me, veiling my bed.
Pressing my lips together to hold back a faint whimper, I traced the long scar slicing up my arm. Up and down. Down and up. I closed my eyes. Breathe, just breathe. It was a dream. Nothing more. Not this time. Just a dream.
One by one, I forced my muscles to relax and rolled to face the room. The crimson petals of the rose glimmered back at me. I glared at the blossom. Why had I even taken it from the beast? I didn’t want it. Didn’t want any of it.
All I wanted was the warmth of the twins on either side of me. Eldric’s heavy breathing drifting from the room next to our own. Lamplight spilling across rough walls.
I swallowed hard. I’d get back. The web of grayness shifted and wavered. Whatever it took, I would get out of here. I twisted Klara’s ribbon around my fingers as the growing light transformed my chamber from predawn gloom to the glitter of full morning. The smell of grease and eggs drifted beneath my door. I pushed myself up with a groan.
The beast was in the kitchen when I dressed and made my way downstairs, following the sizzle of oil and slight haze drifting down the main corridor.
He waved smoke from a skillet of bubbling oil and scooped out several golden-brown pastries. He glanced over his shoulder and his teeth flashed a quick smile, though the dark lines under his eyes were even more pronounced than before. With one hand he gestured to a shelf lined with bowls, plates, cups, pots, and pans. Hazarding a guess, I pulled off two plates and let him fill them with eggs and pastries.
“So,” I hesitated as we ate, leaning against the counter in the kitchen. “Where do you get this food?”
The beast jerked his thumb at a cupboard behind him, his lip curling slightly.
I rolled my eyes. “And before that?”
A garden. He traced the words in the air. Hunting. Villages and farms.
So he could leave, then. Of course he could if he’d brought Eldric out. “You steal it?”
Do you think I live in a castle and can’t pay for my keep? He swirled the question mark and punctuated it with a jab of his finger.
I raised my hands. “Sorry I asked. What about me? What am I supposed to do here?”
The beast stared at me, blinked once, then shrugged and turned away, placing his dishes in the sink and pumping water over them.
“On my own then?” I muttered. “I’ve no objections.”
He didn’t glance up when I left several minutes later, but I still cast a glance over my shoulder as I stepped from Rosen Den. The sun beckoned, drawing me out. Slowly relaxing, I circled the valley. Shadows stretched down, lingering under protrusions of stone. Vines wound over the cliff faces. Trees spread outward from the entrance, the gloom cloaking me in a cool breeze as I passed among them.
Rock walls towered above me, and I stared at the entrance for a long minute before taking a deep breath. I threw myself forward. The invisible barrier hurled me back and I slammed into a tree. Muffling a whimper, I stumbled upright. There had to be a way. Some way. Cradling my arm, I glared at the entrance before stalking back out into the open. This time I rounded the perimeter, noting the plots of dark earth. Already sprouts of green pushed through the soil, basking in the sunlight.
Were the girls caring for our garden? Was our cottage still there? If the rebels— I pressed my hands to the side of my head. No. Don’t think. Not about that. Not here.
The sun was nearly overhead when I made my way indoors.
The halls were still. Deserted.
I stepped toward the kitchen. The shoes I’d found earlier whispered against the tiles. The dishes from breakfast were returned to their shelf, and I drifted around the room, peering into cupboards.
A soft exhale touched my ears. I spun, my blood surging through my veins. The beast was slumped between the counter and the wall, his eyes closed, his head angled rakishly to the side. A quill hung from his fingers and several parchments lay scattered over his chest, rising and falling with each breath.
I crossed my arms and bit my lip, then tiptoed closer. My fingers closed about a parchment, and it rustled as I lifted it. Dark lines smeared the surface. Oath… the King… payment… The words were interspersed with scribbles and dark blots.
Letting it flutter to the ground, I pressed my hands to my hips as I watched the beast, studying his face. How old was he, beneath those scars? When he looked at me, the eyes held a depth of age I’d never seen. But asleep; if the scars were smoothed away, he couldn’t be much older than Eldric.
No. He had to be older. Some of his scars were faded with age while others overlaying them were faded as well. I pivoted away. What did I care if he was covered with scars or apparently didn’t have any place better to sleep than the kitchen floor?
I pulled a bowl from the rack and sifted through the ingredients from the shelves—flour, sugar, salt, butter, and milk.
The beast didn’t stir when I slid the biscuits into the oven. My chin on my hands, I sat at the counter in the center of the kitchen, staring at him. Eldric’s face replaced the beast’s. I could see him; see him climbing the mountains, Helene clinging to his back and Klara in his arms. See him with his sword across his knees, keeping watch at the entrance of a secluded cave. I twisted the crimson ribbon. They’d be safe. They had to be safe. I’d get out of here, whatever the cost.
The beast stiffened, jerking in his sleep. My eyes refocused as air hissed between his teeth, then he lurched upright. His gaze spun about the room and landed on me. For a long moment our eyes met. His lips formed a soundless exclamation and he fumbled to pick up the scattered parchments, crumpling them into his pocket. Screwing the lid onto his bottle of ink, he shoved it into his tunic, stumbled to his feet, and raked his fingers through his hair.
“Not get much sleep last night?” I questioned innocently.
He glared at me, shaking out his gray and white cloak and frowning at several new stains.
I blinked. “Conscience keeping you up? Because you could let me go, you know.”
The beast scowled, his fingers traced out a single word.
I stiffened and turned quickly to check my biscuits. “Is there any place those creatures don’t go?”
No. The beast was still watching me when I straightened. He sighed and sank into a seat at the table. The wolves are everywhere.
After eating, the beast vanished and I set out to explore the castle, starting in the circle of four corridors. The left led to a swath of rooms. Most were abandoned and dusty. The cellars were much more interesting. The cell that held Eldric captive was not the only one, but the others were stocked full of food, wood, and other supplies. I’d hardly even dented the labyrinth of lesser corridors before the beast found me and motioned it was time for dinner.
The light was fading by the time we were finished. I excused myself and took refuge in my room. The next day passed as the first, and then the next and the next. The castle was endless. Always there was a nook or cranny to discover. Vaulted rooms. Great empty chambers. Others were covered with tapestries. Threads wove a tree of roses; a white rose, turning black; wolves and battle and death. I shuddered and passed on.
More often than not, the rooms were locked, and I nagged the beast until he handed me a ring of keys with the observation that the locked rooms held no interest. For the most part, he was right. I suspected only the handful of keys he’d kept to himself contained anything exciting.
It was nearly two weeks after I first arrived when I came across the beast, sprawled on the turf next to the garden, fast asleep. I shook my head. Did he never sleep at night?
Something glinted. I tilted my head, a slow smile creeping over my face. Keys. Or one, to be more exact. Holding my breath, I crouched beside him, loosened the iron piece from his belt, and sprang back a step. He didn’t stir.
For a moment, I stared at my hand. When he woke up— but no. He’d given me no cause for alarm so far. My hand closed around the warm metal. There was only one room I’d seen him lock with regularity.
Sprinting back inside, I turned down the right corridor and darted along the tiles, finally pausing before a great oaken door. Quickly, I slid the key into the slot. It clicked, and the door swung open soundlessly.
I blinked, inhaling softly.
“By the rose…” I stepped inside, staring at the towering shelves rising to either side. “He has a library?”
Finally, a place I’d enjoy. I scowled at myself and fingered the ribbon I’d tied about my wrist. Not as if I were staying.
Dust motes floated through the air, dancing along golden beams sliced between the books—rows of books, arching upward. Rolling ladders leaned against several shelves. I traced my fingers along the spines of ancient tomes as I wound my way inward. Light filtered through a great window and fell on a table as I rounded a final corner. I stopped, tilting my head.
Parchments cluttered the table. Others crumpled about the floor while blank paper and ink were clustered in piles and rows. I glanced over my shoulder, then crept around the desk and picked up a parchment. The flowing letters seared golden words into my mind.
Who hath believed our report? The Oath of the King shall never fail. His promise to those who rebelled will stand completed…
I blinked, the words ringing a dim chord in my memory. Father used to speak words like that. And Eldric… The Oath of the King…?
I picked up another parchment. The same swirls filled the page. The same paragraph, again and again.
…The price shall be paid. The Prince will give it willingly; no enemy shall take it from him…
Another page, and yet another. How could the beast waste his time on such… such legends?
…From whence has it been heard, or who hath done such a thing? Yet the King shall grant His enemies this victory, and the Prince shall rise up…
A scarred hand tore the paper away, and I spun with a gasp, meeting the beast’s glare. His jaw was clenched, his gaze set. His fingers crumpled the parchment and tossed it to the side while he held out his other hand. Fumbling, I handed over the key and retreated a step.
“I just… I wanted to see. How can you keep all these books to yourself? And the writing. What is…”
My words faltered as the beast advanced a step, glowering. I pressed back around the desk, moving to keep it between us. With a quick snap of his hand, the beast flung a gesture outward, toward the door.
“Why?” I demanded. “Why can’t I…”
The beast sprang over the desk with a snarl, sending papers rustling in all directions.
Stifling a scream, I turned and fled, dashing down the corridor and out into the valley. I didn’t stop until the trees wrapped their welcome shades about me.
Sinking down against a trunk, I hugged my knees to my chest and covered my face with my hands. My shoulders trembled as I drew great, ragged breaths. What was I thinking? What was the beast thinking? What did he even care for, beyond roses and scribbled legends?
A branch snapped. I lurched to my feet. My fingers curled around my dagger. If the beast even dared… But this noise was coming from outside the entrance. I peered around the trunk as a figure strode through the trees. Through the entrance— My eyes widened and he jerked to an abrupt stop, blue eyes staring at me.
“Dachs?” I gasped.
“Elissa? You’re here?”
“As you see me.”
He sprang forward, his hand clasping mine. “Your brother is worried out of his wits and your sisters—”
Dachs nodded. “For now. The rebels didn’t stay long.”
I leaned weakly against the tree. “Thank the King.” As if He had anything to do with it.
“Yes.” Dachs grimaced. “With full-scale war on our hands… but why are you here?” He glanced past me.
I scowled. “I can’t leave. The beast won’t allow it.”
Dachs’s eyes snapped back to mine. “There really is a beast?”
“No,” I shook my head. “At least…” I glared back toward the fortress. “No. He’s not a beast like that. He’s not harmed me, but I’m not allowed to leave. I can’t leave. I’m not even sure how you got in here.” My eyes narrowed as I stared at Dachs.
“It doesn’t matter,” Dachs said. “Come with me. I can bring you back to Eldric and the others.”
“I don’t think you quite understand—”
Dachs grasped my hand and stepped back. I jerked to a halt against the invisible barrier as he passed through.
I swallowed. “See?”
Dachs’s brow furrowed. He raked his fingers through his hair as he stepped back. “You can’t just stay here!”
I glared at him. “Do you think I want to?”
“I…” He closed his eyes. “Sorry. There must be a way out.” He took my hand again and peered into my eyes. “I will find a way. Any way.”
I blinked once. Dachs? He hardly knew me. “Perhaps if you could find Eldric…”
Dachs bit his lip. “I don’t think… I can try. But he’ll not be able to see the entrance a second time, I fear.”
“Why? And you will?”
I pressed my fingers to my temples. The man was making no sense. “Just… tell him I’m safe, could you? And where I’m at. He’ll find me.”
“If that is your wish.” Dachs inclined his head, then jerked and glanced over his shoulder. Distant snaps crunched through the forest.
My eyes widened. “Are there others with you?”
“After me, rather.” Dachs scowled. “I’ll be back. I promise. And,” he hesitated. “Be careful here. There are rumors about the beast.”
Dachs’s eyes met mine. “Wolves. He talks with them. Can become one of them. Or so the stories claim.” Behind him shouts filtered through the trees and he retreated beyond the barrier. “Just be careful. I’ll be back.”
They still came. Why did he still send them?
He balanced his sword as he stood in the pool of roses and stared into the night. Heavy wings beat overhead, then a shape flickered out of the corner of his eye as feathers brushed his cheek. The Messenger Falcon swooped around and landed on his shoulder.
And that girl. That infuriating girl. Stealing a key and finding his writing. She wasn’t ready. If she knew who he was. What he was…
He gritted his teeth. Who could ever be ready for that? For the part she would be expected to play.
But Tauscher was coming. He’d seen it already. The burnings and the slaughter. He’d be there by late spring; maybe summer. The King’s steward revealed as the rebel leader. Already he’d grown so strong in secret, the unveiling did little to hinder his plans. Tauscher was coming. Coming there. Unless his power was broken and the words were spoken.
He couldn’t leave, not with her here. Which left the ability to break the twisted use of Tauscher’s gift in her hands.
He grimaced. There was no one else. His outburst probably wasn’t the best start, but he couldn’t waver. Not anymore. There was no time. There was little enough as it was.
He would love her if it killed him. Hopefully, she’d love him back. Love him enough to pay the price.
It was the only way.
A wolf howled and I shivered. My fingers crept about my wrist as glittering moonlight skittered across the ceiling.
Wolves. He talks with them. Can become one of them.
I shoved myself up as another wolf howled. No. As ornery as the beast was… I scowled. A shapeshifter with evil intentions would be much more accommodating to lure me to carelessness.
I pulled a thin robe about my shoulders and crept to the window overlooking the valley. It lay still and silent under the silvery beams of the moon. Another howl echoed from cliff face to cliff face.
I shuddered. A shadow shifted below me. I froze as a tall figure, cloaked in wolf skins, stepped from the circle of roses.
I shrank into the shimmering curtains. Another howl, this one lower, nearer. Shadows broke from the forest, their hateful padding whispering through the night as they advanced. My fingers whitened over my dagger.
With low growls, the creatures circled the patch of roses. The figure didn’t shift. Didn’t move. Then I saw the other one.
A tall man separated from the gloom and strode over the turf. Wolves paced about his feet, rubbing their heads against his legs. He ignored them, not pausing until he reached the rim of the roses.
The beast advanced a step, his posture erect. A glittering blade dangled from each hand. The figure inclined his head and the beast stiffly repeated the gesture.
So others beside Dachs could cross the borders into this valley. Not as if the beast ever thought to share that with me.
The cloaked figure held out his hands and, even under the wolf skins, I saw the beast’s posture grow rigid. He was shaking his head. The stranger laughed, a single peal that rang from the stones and froze the blood in my veins.
The beast’s blade flashed, but the figure sprang backward. For a long moment, the two regarded each other, then the cloaked figure turned and strode away. The wolves hesitated. The beast waited.
The figure was halfway across the valley when he lifted one hand. A hoarse call shattered the silence of the night. With snarls, the wolves sprang toward the beast.
I gasped, my fingers gripping the side of the window frame.
His blade flashed—one wolf crumpled while another flew backward. A third wolf was on his back, its fangs sinking into the beast’s arms. The beast muffled an unintelligible cry, his dagger slicing toward the creature. Already two more leapt from the opposite side.
I spun from the window, yanking on my boots as my throat constricted. I couldn’t face the wolves. Not again. What did I think I was going to do?
I snatched my bow, slung my quiver over my shoulder and dashed from the room.
What did I even care? It wasn’t as if the beast was anything more than a captor. Anything more than the one who separated me from my brother and sisters.
My boots skidded on the tiles. I yanked the front door open. My fingers nocked an arrow as I sprang into the night.
A cool wind curled under the hem of my skirt and traced a shiver up my spine. Stilling the trembling in my hand, I drew a deep breath and pulled back the string of my bow. I sighted down the shaft and let fly.
A wolf springing for the beast’s arm crumpled with a yelp. The fight jolted, the gleaming eyes of several beasts turning toward me. Already I was fitting another arrow on the string.
A second wolf fell as the beast slammed the hilt of his sword between its eyes and spun around. His gaze blazed under the hood of his cloak and stains streaked his cheeks and hands. His eyes widened and his lips moved soundlessly. The flurry of paws jerked my attention to the wolves racing toward me—three of them.
My next arrow struck the foremost wolf in his shoulder. He stumbled. Another fell as I let loose again. The last wolf was too close. I dropped the bow and yanked my dagger from its sheath, but the wolf collapsed several paces from my feet, the worn wooden handle of a knife protruding from its back. The beast’s shadow rose from a crouch a score of steps away.
I exhaled, trembling, then spun to my right as a sudden stench swept over me. The wolf with the wounded shoulder sprang for my throat, fangs bared. I hurled myself out of the way, burying my dagger in its chest.
Metal sliced through fur and flesh. Warmth spilled over my hands. I yanked the dagger out, staggering back a step as the creature crumpled. A strong grip steadied me and I spun to meet the beast’s eyes, tight with concern. His gaze skimmed over me as I searched behind him for any other attackers. The wolves were gone, slunk away into the shadows except for the bodies lying still on the grass.
“I’m fine…” My breath came in ragged gasps as I finally met the beast’s gaze. I clasped one arm across my chest, trying to still the trembling that swept across me. My gaze fell to the new tears and stains on the beast’s cloak and skin. I touched his shoulder. He jerked back with a hiss.
I nodded to myself. “You, however, are not fine. Get inside.”
The beast swayed slightly and motioned toward the bodies of the wolves.
I raised my eyebrows. “You’re not taking care of them now. Come on.”
As the beast shrugged off his thick cloak, I lit the lamps in the kitchen, stirred up the fire, and warmed some water. The beast motioned to a side cabinet and I pulled it open, revealing bandages and salves.
I shot a quick glance at the beast and laid them out on the table.
What were you doing up? the beast motioned as I turned back to him.
“I couldn’t sleep.” I glanced away. He spoke with the wolves indeed. I should have known better than to give credit to Dachs’s rumors. “But you… Don’t tell me you do this every night.”
He shrugged, then winced. They don’t attack all the time.
Air hissed between my teeth. “But you’re awake?”
Standing guard. He affirmed. This is the largest attack since you’ve been here.
“There’ve been others?” I asked. No wonder… I frowned as I tested the water. “What exactly is the use of a barrier that keeps your valley concealed from all but your enemies and strange, cloaked figures with wolves?”
The beast stiffened and peered at me beneath loose strands of hair. I ignored him as I rolled up my sleeves. “Let me see your wounds. All of them.” I added firmly. “I know you were bitten on your shoulder. And your arm.” I crouched down. “Did they get your leg too?”
Out of practice. The beast traced the words with a scowl.
“As if others would have done much better when faced with…” I broke off. “You did fine.”
The beast snorted and yanked up the leg of his trousers.
I grimaced as I washed the blood from a long gash, revealing ages of crisscrossing lines, some faint, some red, one barely healed.
“Are… are these all from wolves?” I asked as I fastened a bandage around his leg.
The beast nodded once.
My chest clenched, but I turned my attention to his shoulder. His cloak had taken the worst of the wolves’ mauling. There were more mended rents than whole furs in the piece now that I examined it. Two puncture wounds glared from the beast’s shoulder. I cleaned them as best I could, spread salve over the injury, then moved to the beast’s arm.
His fingers closed about my wrist and twisted my arm upward. His gaze traced the long white scar that ran from my wrist to my elbow. His brow narrowed and he looked at me.
I pulled away, focusing on the bandages. “Wolves.” My voice was low. “Whatever they have against you, there are others they attack as well.”
The beast’s gaze darkened and he stared at the opposite end of the room. I bit my lip and wrapped his arm, then grasped the palm of his right hand where several nicks oozed blood. My fingers pressed against hard ridges. I turned his hand over and blinked at red scars, thin, but deep—crimson despite being crossed by paler white lines.
No wolf made these. The beast’s gaze refocused and he jerked his hand away, closing his fingers in a protective fist.
He rose to his feet and inclined his head. Thank you.
He hesitated a moment more, his dark eyes staring into mine. His gaze dropped to my arm, then he bit his lip and spun away. A trembling breath shuddered through my body. My fingers closed about the ribbon at my wrist, then I gathered the remaining bandages, stuffed them away, and hurried to my chambers.
When I awoke, the valley was empty. No bodies. The torn turf was repaired and cleared away. Maybe it was only a dream. But when I opened my door, four arrows lay clean and polished on the stone.
Swallowing hard, I went in search of the beast. I found him inside one of the caves in the cliff side I’d yet to explore, a needle flashing in and out of the sunlight as he stitched a tear in his cloak. Five new wolf furs adorned the walls behind him, tacked out alongside a score of others. I wrinkled my nose.
He followed my gaze and bit off a piece of string, then shrugged the cloak back over his shoulders. His eyes twinkled as he held out one arm.
I shook my head. “Please, lead the way.”
He snorted but tramped back to the house.
After breakfast, he beckoned for me to follow him. I raised an eyebrow. He strode away without looking back. An incredulous laugh fell from my lips. Did he really expect me to just follow? I cut the sound short and hurried after him. The corridors wound about with familiarity until we arrived at the one I’d visited the day before.
The beast sighed, one hand on the door of the library. I held my breath. Finally, he looked at me. I’m sorry. He traced the letters in the air. Yesterday. I overreacted slightly. He hesitated. Perhaps.
The beast frowned and pulled out the key. He unlocked the door and motioned me inside. The grandeur of the towering books was no less magnificent because I knew what to expect. I turned in a full circle, staring at the volumes upon volumes. I could spend months in here. No. I jerked myself from the thought as my fingers slid beneath the scarlet ribbon at my wrist. I’d be going home soon. I would be going home. All the wolves in the Blackwood wouldn’t stop me, nor the rebels either.
I spun toward the beast, but he held out the key and motioned outward to the room. Yours.
To use. He amended. I can still read here too, of course.
“Of course.” I repressed a sudden urge to smile. My eyes met the beast’s, who was watching me intently. “Thank you.”
He nodded and retreated, leaving me to myself.
The rest of the day I spent in the library, doing nothing but searching out the varied options and reveling in the choices set before me.
And I stood for a long minute staring at the desk in the center of the room.
It was empty.
The books would keep her happy, even if she rejected him for the moment. Though she hadn’t quite rejected him. He smiled faintly as he locked himself in the small room. She’d get used to him. Already she seemed to be warming up. Maybe one day she would even— He bit his lip and shoved the thought aside. There was no time for such things now.
He swallowed hard and pressed his palm against the smooth surface of a mirror.
A mist cleared, followed by rapid pictures of flaming villages and marching rebels. Everywhere disordered troops fled from grim lines of treasonous soldiers.
Tauscher. The unbidden image cleared to one face. Iron blue eyes staring straight at him, just as they had from under the dark hood the night before. The gaze so triumphant. The curve of the lip so full of the assurance of victory.
He yanked back his hand and gritted his teeth.
There were powers other than Tauscher’s. There was still the Oath. Still a chance.
He straightened and drew a deep breath. A chance, yes, but time was running short.
Four weeks. I scowled at the rose that lay on my dressing room table. Four weeks since Eldric’s capture by the beast, and I was still stuck in this castle smashed against a mountainside. I’d not seen the wolves return, but when I looked out in the light of the moon I often caught a glimpse of the still figure, standing guard. Four weeks of cleaning and cooking, eating and reading. There’d been nary a sign of the beast’s writing.
What of Eldric? Helene and Klara? I tossed aside a quill and stared at the parchment spread on the table. I’d promised them I would return. I’d promised.
“If you ever cared, my King,” the words fell dully from my lips. I stood and yanked aside the curtain of my window. The beast waded among green shoots of the garden. Wheat and corn. Potatoes and carrots and turnips. I pressed my lips tightly. What business did I have to call the King ‘my King’? I’d prayed to Him that one night, so many years ago. Pled with Him. Little good it did me. Or my parents.
I spun, glaring at the rose again. It was full and lush, like the day it first arrived on my doorstep. What had the beast said when he gave it to me? The damage was already done? I would welcome much more damage so long as I could leave this stifling valley.
I swept the up, twisting the stem between my fingers. The deep red velvetiness held a dusky shimmer. I stepped to the mirror and fastened it to my hair.
The letter I’d written I folded and slipped beneath my bodice. How many letters had I already written and burned? Dachs had not returned. Not yet. Nor Eldric either. Words were cheap; why had I expected the scout to fulfill his own? And yet…
I hurried outside. The sweet, moist heat of spring wrapped itself around me, lifting tendrils of my hair. The beast glanced up as I passed. He lifted one hand. I inclined my head but didn’t slow my pace until deep within the welcoming embrace of the trees.
Why did I still wait? Eldric would have come long ago if he was able to find the place. Maybe Dachs had lost it as well. It wasn’t as if the scout owed me anything. He had his own duties. His own life. I shoved through the underbrush and stared at the taunting forest spread beyond the cliff faces. Rebels and wolves and wraiths. I’d face them all if only they’d give me the chance. Gritting my teeth, I slammed against the invisible boundary. It hurled me backward.
“You really ought to stop doing that, you know.”
I gasped and sprang to my feet, brushing off my skirt as I spun to face Dachs. He leaned against a nearby tree, dark lines shadowing his eyes. “You’re back!”
“I promised I’d come, didn’t I?” His smile tensed as he stared at the rose in my hair and faded as he took my hand in his. “How have you been?”
He was back. He’d actually come back. I blinked quickly.
“Elissa?” He peered into my eyes.
“Fine… I guess. I mean…” I pulled my hand away and wrapped my arms around myself. “How are the others?”
“Safe, the last I saw. Eldric is still searching. I’ve given him the best directions I could, but there was no time to bring him here directly.”
I swallowed hard. “And the war?”
Dachs glanced away.
My brow furrowed. “You’ve not driven the rebels back yet?”
“Not quite.” He avoided my gaze.
My stomach twisted. “It’s that bad?”
Dachs finally looked at me. “They’re gathering; the rebels. Moving from the south. By summer—fall at the latest…” he shook his head. “We’re not going to have a chance unless aid comes.”
I sank back against a tree. Aid. Like what? The King’s Oath and the promise of the Prince’s coming? My jaw tightened. Small chance we had of that.
“There’s no need to look quite so despairing,” Dachs said. “All hope isn’t lost. Here.” He dug into his pouch. “I found this in one of the villages.” He pressed something cold and hard into my hand.
I ran my thumb over the black stone oval. Silver lines traced the outline of a rose.
“It’s silly, I suppose.” He glanced over his shoulder. “But I wanted you to have something of the outside world. Something to remind you that you aren’t alone, even if I can’t remain here like I’d wish.”
I bit my lip. “There is nothing I can give in return.” I watched him. “If I could… but I can’t. I don’t have—”
“Hush.” He placed a finger over my lips. “I come because I care, and I care because I wish to, isn’t that enough? Although.” He retreated a step. “If you spared a thought for me on occasion, I can’t say I’d be sorry.”
I choked on a laugh as my fingers curled around the stone. “That much you have already.”
He inclined his head. “Then I count myself fortunate indeed.”
A blush crept up my cheeks and I glanced away as I pulled out the letter I’d written earlier. “If you happen to see Eldric or the girls…”
“Of course.” He tucked it into one of his pouches. “It would be my pleasure. I’ll bring your brother if I can. But now,” he hesitated, glancing out into the forest. “Scouts have been following me for the past day or two. I need to leave.”
“You could hide here, for a time,” I said.
He shook his head. “How would I be worthy to aid you if I can’t even do my duty?”
I smiled faintly. “You’ll be back?”
“As soon as I can.” Dachs traced a winding crack along the bark of a nearby tree. “I’ll leave a letter for you if your brother has one in return. If not, I’ll leave a mark in passing. You’re not alone here. You never will be.”
He pulled away and stepped through the barrier I couldn’t pass.
He lifted one hand. I drew a trembling breath as he vanished into the shadows. Closing my eyes with a sigh, I slid down against the tree trunk. Helene’s merry laughter echoed in my ears. I could almost feel Klara’s small hand slipping up my sleeve or Eldric’s arms around my shoulders.
Eldric. I bit the inside of my cheek. Dachs’s assurances would only heighten his anxiety.
Leaves rustled distantly. I ignored them.
The rustling grew louder and I lifted my gaze.
“Eldric?” I shoved myself to my feet. “Eldric!”
He didn’t turn. Didn’t flinch. His dark clothes blended into the shadows. A sword hung at his side and his bow dangled from his hand. His gaze swept the mountain face, skimming past me without a sign of recognition.
I threw myself against the barrier, staggered back, then sprang forward. My fingers strained at the warm energy holding me back.
“Eldric, please.” The words came out as a whimper as my brother passed within feet of me, his eyes searching every crevice of stone.
“Elissa…” I heard my name on his lips. “Elissa, you blazing idiot.”
“Eldric, I’m right here!” I slammed my hand against the unyielding barrier. Again and again. Eldric didn’t stop. Each step carried him farther away. Farther, still farther. Why couldn’t Dachs have waited a few minutes longer? How could he see and pass through the barrier that was invisible to my brother? Perhaps the scout could have shown him the entrance. Perhaps… The shadows swallowed Eldric as he rounded a spur of stone. I choked back a sob and sank to my knees.
At least Eldric was alive.
My eyes burned, and I closed them, resting my forehead against the warm energy that hovered in the air. It swept over me, tingling through my blood, wrapping me with warmth and— No!
I jerked back with a hiss and curled against a tree, resting my cheek against the mossy bark. Gold lanced through the leaves and heralded the coming evening before I pulled myself to my feet. I stumbled back to the valley. The beast was among the roses now. Two fingers stroked a falcon resting on his wrist as he stared at the flowers.
I stalked toward him, aching bands still wrapped around my throat and chest.
“How long is this going to go on?” I demanded. “I can’t stay here forever.”
The beast held out his hand and the bird sprang into the air. He brushed a strand of sweat-matted hair from his eyes, leaving a trace of earth in its place.
You won’t. His gaze was dark. It will end.
“When?” I demanded. “When the armies have overrun all of Aslaria and my family is lost in the confusion?”
The beast glanced at me sharply. His gaze hardened as it shifted to the forest behind me.
“I saw my brother.” I choked. “Outside the valley. He was searching for me.” I advanced a step. “He’s looking for me, but he can’t even hear when I call to him. For what? A rose?”
The beast’s gaze snapped back to me, resting on the blossom fastened in my hair.
It is… more than a rose. His hand faltered.
“More? How?” I demanded. “Enough to tear someone away from their family? From all they ever loved? Do you even know what that is like?”
Suppressed fire flickered in the beast’s eyes. Yes. The strokes forming the letters were tight and quick. Yes, I do.
I turned away and stared at the opposite side of the valley. The setting sun burnished the garden in bronze. Our garden would look like that now if the girls had tended it. Though with Eldric in the army… did our house even stand, or had it fallen prey to the first wave of rebels?
“What is it with the roses?” I spun back to the beast. “First the one my brother picked and still you care for the others. How can they be so important?”
Roses stand for a promise. The beast traced the words out. An Oath. Love.
“Love?” I laughed incredulously. “Like the kind keeping me from my family?”
The beast stared at me. You know of the Steig der?
I blinked. “The rose some idiot picked at the time of the Separation? The reason the King closed off the valley and that supposedly allowed death, sickness, and all the rest?”
The beast winced, but his hand was steady. It wasn’t just a rose. It was disobedience. Rebellion.
“Or so the legends claim.” I sighed and tilted my head. “Though what a sign of rebellion has to do with love is beyond me.”
The beast raised his eyebrows. The rebellion wasn’t the end. There was, he hesitated, then shook his head and pulled parchment and ink from his pocket. One paper was already covered in writing, and he shoved it back before placing a small board and blank parchment on his knee. For a long minute, I waited as his quill scratched against the page.
His head tilted as he leaned close to the paper. His lips parted, his eyes following the rapid movements of his fingers.
He finalized a rapid flourish and looked up swiftly. Heat crept up my neck and I glanced away. He paid no heed and held the parchment toward me.
I took it gingerly and skimmed the glistening ink.
There was the rebellion—disobedience when the rose was plucked. Death was the punishment, for everyone. The King granted a stay of execution. He gave us an Oath. A promise. A promise that one day the Prince would come and take the punishment every person in Aslaria deserves. That… that is love. That is why I keep the roses. Because the Prince comes.
Also, I had hoped the patch would protect the single one I wanted to keep safe. Numbers and all. Apparently, no one told your brother that. Though I suppose it was what was meant to be. The time is right, after all, if only…
Your own rose; it was given to me years ago and is the sign of the beginning of the end. Or rather the end of the beginning. The rebellion now raging started years ago, but the Prince is coming. He will come. He will save us all.
My brow furrowed. “Is this supposed to make sense or give me more questions?”
The beast tilted his head.
“All this about beginnings and endings. Can’t you tell me what the stars is going on?”
The beast gave a sharp shake of his head. Not yet.
I scowled. “Roses and legends, all of it. The King is good. The King is loving.” My voice caught as my nails dug into my palms. “The Oath, the promise. Where is this Prince? It’s been weeks since the rebels appeared. I’ve not seen any sign of rescue or of this King’s care!”
The beast regarded me thoughtfully.
“The King does as He pleases, without regard for any who might live or die.” I flung the parchment at the beast, but the wind seized it and tossed it into the air.
Strong fingers closed about my wrist.
I jerked, but the beast’s grip tightened as he rose to his feet. His eyes burned into my own. The legends do not tell the half of what the King did for us. They are true, Beauty. True and much more besides. Don’t you ever doubt them.
My breath caught in my throat. I pulled away as he loosened his grip.
“You forget.” I flung a final jab over my shoulder as I hurried back toward the castle. “To doubt something, I need to believe it to start with.”
He paced back and forth down the narrow room.
How had she known? The war. The advances… There were few who could pass into the valley. A very few.
The air was suddenly cold.
What had he thought? That wolves would be the only danger to protect her from? That the rose and her presence wasn’t part of some larger plan? A dangerous game. The final twist of the dagger.
Still Tauscher’s army advanced.
He cast his gaze upward. How much longer would it take?
The silence echoed with the answer, and he shivered. It would be like before, but the roles would reverse. It didn’t matter. The result would be the same. He closed his eyes. There could only be one end.
If that was what it took… he hesitated. Love and the shattering of Tauscher’s power. Her safety or the curse. It wasn’t his choice, in the end. All he could do was show her.
He stared at the opposite wall. If that was what it took, then so be it. She would be worth it; she already was.
I wore a winding path along the edge of the valley and into the forest as the weeks slipped into months and spring sped along on dusky wings. One could almost forget a war was raging. Almost forget the troubles of the outside world. Almost.
I saw Dachs occasionally. More often I saw only his mark, carved into the trunk during the night. Sometimes there was even a letter. Eldric wrote once, in swift, jerky script. He was a scout in the army gathered to resist the rebels. They’d managed to press them south, but it was merely a matter of time before the rebels consolidated under their leader, a former servant of the King who’d been revealed only months before and barely escaped from Zahava.
The girls were safe with Mother Karlin. That was something to be thankful for. They looked for my coming every day. Eldric would find me, that much he promised. He was searching every moment he could, even if the map Dachs drew him led to nothing but more cliffs. The scout had promised to lead Eldric to me, but the war had so far swept away any time for such a trek. I clenched the smooth stone, pressing my fist to my lips. Closing my eyes I traced the worn gashes Dachs left in the tree trunk by the barrier. It was a week and a half since the last one. A week and a half.
What if he died? What if one day he was wounded and I never knew? Or if he lost whatever it was that allowed him to see and pass through the entrance?
I swallowed hard and turned away. Eldric, Dachs, the twins… I was stuck here. Useless. Helpless. When so much needed to be done. They needed me.
I clenched my jaw, striding into the warm afternoon sun. It was nearly summer now. The falcon I’d seen several times before was circling overhead again.
The beast straightened from the roses when I passed him. I didn’t glance his way. It was his fault, whatever he might say about the rose and some sort of power over this place. His fault he’d forced Eldric to stay. His fault I couldn’t leave after exchanging places with my brother.
I hesitated outside the door of the fortress, my hand on the open latch. Shadows veiled the crystal light, and I looked back.
The beast’s head was bowed as he bent over the flowers again. His movements were sure. Methodical. His scarred fingers brushed the petals gently.
He turned, glancing in my direction. Heat crept up my neck, and I hurried inside, slamming the door behind me. Leaning against it, I brushed my sweat-dampened hair from my face. Let the beast say what he pleased about love and loss. Any power could be broken, and I would break this one if it killed me.
I heard the wolves howling that night. Cold light danced over the ceiling, sending faint fractals in all directions. I turned away from the window, pulled my pillow over my head, and finally drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Gleaming eyes and snarling fangs invaded my dreams. Cold and ice. A bow in my hands and a cry on my lips. Figures, crumpled in the snow. Wolves circled round, snarling. Closer and still closer. A figure, lurking in the gloom of the forest. Another shadow rose, this one outlined in ragged fur while a great blade glittered in the moonlight.
The mansion was silent when I awoke. The day was gray, the faintest light reflecting from crystal to crystal.
I dressed and pulled aside the curtain. The valley was still and undisturbed. Muffling a sigh, I strode downstairs. The kitchen was empty when I entered, the ashes cold.
My brow furrowed as I pressed one hand against the doorframe. Biting my lip, my other hand slid to my dagger as I glanced over the room. After several months, we’d come to some sort of understanding, the beast and I. He made breakfast. I cared for lunch. Dinner was a combined work.
I slipped back to the corridor. “Hello?” There was no reply.
Of course, there was no reply. I scowled at myself and pulled a lamp from the wall. Muddy tracks led from the door and my frown deepened as I traced them to the dining hall.
The room was dark, but I froze. My gaze fastened on the figure slumped over the table. I crept closer, my feet whispering over the tiles.
The beast was asleep, his head resting in the crook of one arm, a quill hanging limply from his fingers. Parchments lay scattered about him, some empty, others full of scribbles, and a few graced with line after line of flowing script.
I scowled at myself as I rounded the table.
My breath caught at the streaks of blood staining his face. A triple row of deep scratches. Rusty brown smeared across the parchment and who knew what the new tears in his cloak hid? That cloak… something seriously needed to be done about its ragged state.
I darted to the kitchen and stirred up the fire. After heating water to a lukewarm temperature, I gathered bandages and ointments and slipped back into the dining room.
The beast’s regular breath stirred the parchments as I placed the bandages on the table and hesitated. Glancing once more at his face, I lifted a paper filled with writing and skimmed the now familiar script.
Who hath believed our report? The Oath of the King shall never fail.
My eyes narrowed.
His promise to those who rebelled will stand completed. The price shall be paid. The Prince will give it willingly; no enemy shall take it from him…
Still the King’s Oath. Did the beast think of nothing else? I picked up another parchment and another. The same words flowed over all of them.
From whence has it been heard, or who hath done such a thing? Yet the King shall grant His enemies this victory, and the Prince shall rise up to their defeat. Until the end, this word shall stand. Let him who hears believe and accept the payment the Prince offers freely to all.
I bit the inside of my cheek. The beast, of all people, should know the truth. Where was his King when the wolves attacked him, night after night? Where was the Prince? Where were They when the wolves—
The beast was studying me, unblinkingly.
I started and bit my lip to suppress a yelp.
“You were… asleep.” I glanced at the paper I held in my hand.
The beast straightened with a muffled groan, ran his fingers through his hair, then stared at the dark stains dried on his hand. Gingerly, he reached up to touch his face.
“Yes. You’ve managed to hurt yourself again.” I pulled his hand away and dragged the water across the table. He swept the parchments to one side, out of danger of the sloshing liquid, and gave me a quick glare.
“I’m being careful,” I protested. I squeezed out a rag. “More careful than you, apparently.” The levity fell from my voice as I dabbed at his face. “Wolves again?”
No. His quill scratched on the parchment, the penmanship flawless even though his head was tilted away. Just some mice looking for cheese.
I smothered a chuckle. “Why do you do it? Surely the castle is protection enough. Do you really have to stand out there, night after night?”
The beast stared at me until I turned my attention back to the gashes. “Well, there’s not much I can do. Keep your hand down. I’m sorry if it stings, but I’m being careful. It’s better than an infection. I could stitch them shut but…” I tilted my head. The beast raised his eyebrows with a snort.
“Yes.” I agreed with the look. “You’d never allow that, would you? So, where else?”
The beast glanced away.
I crossed my arms. “Tell me.”
With a sigh, he rolled up his sleeve, baring bloody fang marks.
My breath hissed between my teeth. “This is ridiculous. How long have you been fighting wolves?”
The beast’s lip twitched upward slightly. Two hundred and fifty years, more or less.
“Two hundred and fifty years,” I said. “Yet, you look no older than my brother.” My brows narrowed, then I shook my head. “What about these?” I gestured to the parchments. “It’s not the first time I’ve seen you writing.”
The beast’s expression closed over. His free hand scratched out five words.
It is the King’s Oath.
I rolled my eyes. “I know it’s the King’s Oath. Or is said to be the King’s Oath. Though with legends, of course…”
My voice trailed off as the beast raised his eyebrows.
“Anyway.” I reached for the salve. “It’s just… it’s legend. The Oath of the King—the coming of the Prince. If it were true, really true, where has the King been all this time?”
Beneath my fingers, the beast tensed. I kept my focus on his arm, wiped my fingers clean and pulled out a bandage.
“On and on you go about the King’s love.” I pressed. “This Oath proves nothing. A pretty story, nothing more.” I raised my gaze, daring him to answer me. “Followers of the King have died for years. Now it is even worse. The war is advancing. The rebel came from His Own courts, or so the rumors go—yes, I do hear the rumors even here. Now would be an ideal time for the Prince to come, if he ever intends to.”
The beast’s lips parted, then pressed tightly and he looked away. I tied off the bandage. He rose stiffly to his feet. Steadying himself against the table, he swept the parchments into a pile and tucked them inside his tunic.
I brushed a strand of hair behind my ears. “You’re welcome.”
The beast blinked, then sighed, leaning both palms against the table, his head bowed. After a moment he straightened.
It’s not you. His fingers signed the words quickly. I’m just… he hesitated, leaving the phrase unfinished as he shook his head. Other matters have been occupying me.
“Here I was, worried I was upsetting you,” I said dryly. “As if you care what I think of you, or I care what you think of me. We are both prisoners here, is that it?”
The words stuck in my throat. He could leave. At least he claimed the ability and our full larders attested to the fact even if I never noticed any marked absence. Why did he stay?
The beast looked at me keenly.
I shrugged, glancing away. “As if I care. Though if you ever bothered to tell me what was really going on here…” I looked sideways at him. “Perhaps I could give you more aid against those thieving mice and let you know if I ever find a way to escape.”
The beast’s lip twitched and a low chuckle escaped his lips.
I scowled at him.
“You think it’s funny, do you? Cheese is very precious.”
The chuckle became a laugh, and I stared at the beast. An amused snort I was used to, but this? Never. Yet the beast’s eyes twinkled as they met mine, and his rolling laugh filled the room.
My lips curved upward until they broke into a wide grin then a laugh of my own. I bit my cheek, trying to stifle it. It wasn’t even that funny, but there was something about the beast’s mirth…
He smirked, sobering as he wagged a finger at me. We will suffer their minor nuisance for a short time longer, then all will be well.
“Really?” My smile faded. “All will be well?”
The beast’s eyes studied me for a long minute, then he nodded.
Yes. All will be well.
When would she see? She would see, he’d no doubt. But when?
He clasped his hands behind his back, staring into the polished surface as she emerged from the forest, angling her path toward the cave where he cured the wolf skins. She’d requested—demanded was more like it—the use of a few skins several weeks ago. She’d used many more than a few, but at least she’d not discovered his second cave.
His eyes shifted back to the forest. Sometimes she sat against a tree, staring through the invisible barrier. Other times he couldn’t see her at all.
His jaw clenched. She was in more danger than she knew. The price she would pay—the price he would pay before she realized the truth.
An ache wrapped around his chest and he drew a deep breath. Why should she care? For him? For any of it? Perhaps in another time, another place… Perhaps it was best. She’d be safer, this way. Safer, if she didn’t care.
The picture shifted to formless armies. The rebels had broken through. Again. Again halted. Again advancing. All summer they had pressed on, always moving northward. How many leagues away were they now? Thirty? Twenty?
They were close.
The last grains of time were dissolving away.
Coolness whispered through the afternoon breeze. The first hint of fall, perhaps? Or the signal of a coming storm. I held out my arms, letting my hands rustle through green leaves.
The barrier rose before me. I pressed my fingers against it, testing its strength, its presence. The warm energy was as resilient as ever.
I grimaced as I leaned against the invisible pressure, resting my palm on nothingness. I closed my eyes and rubbed the black stone in my pocket.
I’d not seen Eldric again. Dachs told me he’d moved to the front with the army. I bit the inside of my cheek. War and death stalked the nation. Who was I to complain that both scouts were so hard pressed Dachs hadn’t been able to bring Eldric to me? At least my brother was still alive. Dachs brought spidery letters from Helene and Klara. It had been a week since his last mark on the tree. Perhaps he’d come this afternoon.
But he didn’t come. Not that day, or the next. I could feel the beast’s eyes follow me every time I trod the path around the valley, pausing in the smelly cave to retrieve another wolf skin for the secret project that now took as much time as my reading. I ignored him as best I could. He got his information about the war from somewhere, perhaps from the forays he made when leaving the valley. Why did he come back? I’d see him, staring up at the cliffs in the dusk like a caged falcon. The rose he’d guarded for so long was gone. The rebels were coming. There was nothing left for him here.
I yanked at the scarlet ribbon about my wrist. Why couldn’t we exchange places, if he was so set on staying? The girls were safe, for now, but they needed me. I needed…
An ache wrapped thorny vines about my throat as I bit off a long strand of thread and rose to examine the completed project that had taken so many afternoons. With a faint smile, I tucked it away and slipped from the library. The trees opened to welcome me. I sank against a trunk, staring unblinkingly at the dancing flecks of light flirting with the shadows.
I didn’t see the worn, muddied boots until they planted themselves directly in front of me.
“Dachs!” I sprang to my feet.
His lips curved, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes as he took my hand. “Elissa.”
My stomach tightened. “What is it?”
Dachs frowned. “Finally together and you want the bad news right away?”
“I can’t focus on any good news if I don’t know the bad.” I searched his eyes. “The rebels are advancing again?”
Dachs rubbed one hand over his face and nodded. “It won’t be long now. Soon Tauscher will have the whole of Aslaria in his grasp.”
I bit my lip. “And then?”
Dachs glanced away. “Fates only know. Perhaps it won’t be so bad. It isn’t as though the King has been involved in Aslarian affairs for centuries. Tauscher wants power but he also cares for the land.”
“But… they’re rebels.” My voice faltered under Dachs’s clear gaze.
“You think the King will save us, then?” There was no accusation in his eyes. No disagreement. Just a question. “You think the legends are true?”
“I never…” I glanced away. The Oath of the King shall never fail. Those were the beast’s words. The words of legend. The King didn’t save those I cared for, but surrender all of Aslaria to Tauscher? Live under rebel rule?
I shoved the thought away.
The furrow in Dachs’s brow eased. “I do have good news, though.”
My gaze sprang back to him. “A letter?”
He shook his head. “The war is drawing nearer as the rebels advance. I’ll be able to visit here more often and I ought to be able to bring Eldric here soon.”
I stared at him. “They’re that close?”
“The war will be over in a few weeks. Maybe a month. Maybe sooner” Dachs watched me. “I will find a way to get you out of here.”
I swallowed against an ache in my throat. “After it is too late.”
“No, not too late.” Dachs grasped both my hands. “Don’t you see? Tauscher can’t alienate all the people of the land. He will offer pardons to those who accept him. He might even have a way to defeat the beast.”
I pulled away. “Defeat the beast? What makes you think the power holding me here is the beast’s doing?”
“How do you know it isn’t? Tauscher was a Servant of the King. He has power. Surely he can tear down this barrier. Something the King Himself ought to have done months ago.”
“You’re speaking treason.” My eyes narrowed. “You do realize that.”
Dachs’s gaze didn’t waver. “I’ll not betray the King or His cause as long as there is hope, but a prudent man plans for possible defeat. Especially when he has something so precious to live for.” He took my hand again, staring deep into my eyes. “I’ll bring Tauscher here myself if I need to.”
“Don’t. You can’t…” I didn’t pull away. “Not… Not yet.”
“Not yet,” Dachs agreed. “But be ready.”
I bit my lip. “And the beast?” I motioned back toward the fortress.
I crossed my arms. “He’ll wear himself to the bone if there is no one to watch him.”
“As if that is any concern of yours.” Dachs scowled. “After all, he has—”
“Oh, hush.” I placed my fingers on his lips. “He’s not as bad as all that.”
“He’s not remotely worthy of being with you all the time either,” Dachs said. He reached out, brushing a strand of hair behind my ear. “I will get you out of here, Elissa. I will. By the rose, you are beautiful.”
The last word fell from his lips in a low voice, and I shivered as a sudden thrill tingled my blood. Dachs lifted my hand, kissed it quickly, then released me and retreated through the barrier.
“I will return when I can. Maybe even tonight.” He forced a smile. “Farewell, my Beauty, for a short time.”
My fingers dug against the energy of the barrier. My other arm clasped around my stomach as I watched him go.
He was going to get me out. He was lodged nearby. The war was ending. He would get me out! My breath quickened, my lips curling upward. Tauscher… yet what had the King ever done for me? For those I loved? For the beast even; what had the King done to deserve such devotion? If the rebel leader truly could, and would, destroy the barrier…
What would the beast say?
What did it matter? I’d be free. He would be too, if he chose to leave. Whatever he thought; whatever he would say; if that was the price, still I would be free. Free to return to Eldric and my sisters. Free…
My smile lingered as I strode toward the castle. The beast glanced at me as we set to work on dinner. My hands plunged into flour and dough as he turned meat on a spit and thickened the gravy. Soon. Soon I would leave. My brow furrowed as I studied the beast when he turned back to the fire. The shadows under his eyes were darker than normal. His movements less deft. I tilted my head, trying to judge if there was another hidden wound or if it were merely weariness. Maybe he’d come with me. Leave this place. Travel higher in the mountains where the wolves attacked less often. He glanced at me again. I looked away as he chuckled.
I tried to suppress the smile hovering on my lips as I laid out biscuits, but fresh hope flickered through my chest. What did a few more days here matter now? A few more meals? We’d leave, soon. At least, I would leave. I studied him as we ate our dinner. The beast was staring at me again. Or rather staring through me, a distant look in his eyes, his fork hanging from his fingers.
“Hey.” I waved my hand before his face. “If you go to sleep here, I’ll eat your food.”
He snorted, his gaze refocusing.
He blinked. Normal.
“That’s why there is a new tear?” I motioned to the gash in the wolf-skin cloak thrown over the chair next to the beast.
His eyes narrowed. I shook my head. “This won’t do, you know.”
I’d like to see you stop me.
I repressed the sudden urge to grin. “So would I.”
The beast mopped up the last of his gravy with his bread. Shall I give you a chance?
I raised my eyebrows. “Hmm.” I rose from my chair, considering. Better now than later. Dachs could return soon. It would be a pity to let all my work go to waste and besides… “Maybe, but not yet. Come along.”
I strode from the room, pausing in the shadows outside the door until I heard the faint scrape of a chair against the floor as the beast rose.
My lips curved upward as I led the way down the corridor, turned, and pushed open the library door. Maybe I’d even tell him—no. He’d never understand. Not if Tauscher tore down the barrier. Afterward, perhaps…. Yes, afterward.
Are you going to read me into submission? The beast signed.
I smirked. “Not a bad idea, but not this time.” I led him toward the center of the room. “I need your cloak.”
The beast arched his eyebrows.
I crossed my arms. “Do it.”
He hesitated, then shrugged, wincing at the hitch in his shoulder. I’ve been wanting to see how you look in wolf skin.
“Indeed?” I took the cloak, wrinkling my nose as I held it at arm’s length. “Do you know what this is? It’s pure embarrassment.”
I sprang around the desk as the beast snatched for it, holding the cloak out of his reach. “Look at the poor thing.” I motioned toward it. “Unrepaired tears in three, no—four places and bloodstained and is this mud?”
I’ve washed it. He protested. I’ll mend the tears.
“Like you mended these ones?” I flipped one skin over, running my fingers across rough stitching that puckered the worn leather. “No, no, no.” I lifted my eyebrows. “This isn’t worthy of a great, wolf-slaying beast, let me assure you.”
The beast crossed his arms, glaring at me. I suppressed a smirk as I discarded the tattered collection of skins and reached under the desk. “This, on the other hand…” I shook out a flowing gray and white cloak, the wolf skins seamlessly sewed together, the colors melding one into the other. A great hood hung back and a dozen pockets and sheaths were sewn about the waist. “This at least looks the part.”
The beast drew a soft breath, his eyes roving the garment before coming back to me, a blend of awed admiration and stunned surprise. I choked on a laugh. “Go on.” I held it toward him. “You didn’t think I was letting all those wolf skins go to waste, did you?”
The beast’s lips twisted upward, then he paused as he gazed at me again—a deep gaze that sent heat creeping up my neck. I frowned. “Are you going to try it on or not?”
Are you so critical of your skill that you fear it won’t fit? But he reached out, his scarred fingers stroking the fur before he took it from my hands. With a flick of his wrist, he spun it over his shoulders. The fur fell over his arms, the hood shadowing his face as he folded the flowing cloak over his whole body.
I clapped my hand to my mouth as I leaned back against the desk. “Perfect. I mean much better. I expect you to keep it nice, you understand?”
The beast chuckled, pushed the hood from his face and unwrapped himself from the folds to let it hang loosely from his shoulders. Come. He signed. I have something for you too.
It was his turn to not reply as he led the way from the room and wound up the stairs. Down one long corridor, up another one. The beast paused, pulling aside a tapestry of a tree covered in white roses.
“Wait, you have secret rooms?” I demanded as he motioned me into a hidden passage, lit dimly with reflected crystal light.
He smiled faintly. I raised my eyebrows.
“You do realize this means I’ll be checking behind every tapestry in the whole castle,” I said.
Why do you think I’ve never brought you here before?
I scowled. “Can’t I know what the castle I live in contains?”
For the most part. The corridor continued on, but the beast paused at a door, the dark oak blending into the wall. Now you get to discover something new. He pushed the door open, motioning me ahead of him.
I stepped inside a narrow room, lit only by a ray of evening light from an invisible window high above. The door sighed shut, and I spun around as the beast leaned against it.
An icy strand tightened around my chest and throat. “An… empty room?”
The beast motioned past me. Not quite empty.
I glanced over my shoulder, then turned and stepped toward the smooth silver disc at the opposite end of the room.
No. A mirror. That’s what it was. I tilted my head, smoothed my hair, and brushed out my dress. Behind me, the beast’s lip angled upward as he advanced a step.
“I assume it does more than allow me to look at myself?” I asked. “Is it the opening to another secret passage?”
The beast shook his head and pressed his hand against the surface. The clear reflection vanished, replaced by a vision of marching men. The beast looked at me, then at the mirror again. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, the picture shifted.
“Eldric!” I clapped my hands over my mouth as I stared at my brother, hunkered in the dark, overlooking a camp glittering with firelight. “Are… are those the rebels?”
The beast nodded.
“So, this is how you get your information.”
The beast retreated a step. Touch it, and think.
I raised my eyebrows, but this was one chance I’d not waste. Taking a deep breath, I splayed my fingertips on the smoothness.
Helene and Klara appeared, sitting near a fire. Helene knit while Klara’s needles fell from her hands. Her head rested against Mother Karlin’s knee. The healer stared into the fire, her lips moving soundlessly. Or perhaps not soundlessly…
“Can you hear through the mirror?” I asked.
The beast snorted. Of course not. It’s sight only. Why would you be able to hear?
“I don’t know. Maybe because one can see through distance on something that should only show a reflection?” I bit my lip and ran my thumb under the ribbon about my wrist. I should be there. The warm fire. The twins laying their heads on my lap. Singing. Eldric carving. Another figure leaning against the door, watching… Dachs? Except he was wearing a wolf-skin cloak and white scars glimmered in the shadows.
I blinked. The vision faded. I shook my head. “How do you make it stop?”
The beast pressed his hand against the glass as Mother Karlin’s head snapped up at some unheard sound. I hesitated, my hand lingering on the rim of the mirror.
You can come in here whenever you wish. The beast signed. It won’t be long now.
I froze. “Long until what?”
Indeed. Perhaps it would come even swifter than he expected. I forced a smile. “Well then, what do you say we spend the time we have left in the library where it’s cozy?”
The beast hesitated, considering me for a long moment before he strode from the room. I glanced at the mirror one last time, then followed.
Back in the library, he bent over the desk and scratched quickly on a scrap of parchment. He held it out to me.
A single word glistened.
“Adrian,” I whispered, then stared at him. “Your name is Adrian?”
Did you really think it was Beast?
I snorted. “No, but…” I stared at the name again.
Adrian. The beast had a name.
He began to turn away, but my fingers caught the folds of his cloak. “Wait.”
He raised his eyebrows.
My hand fell to my side. “I… my name is Elissa. If you really wanted to know.” I spoke before I could think better of it.
The beast—Adrian, inclined his head slightly. It suits you. Though I may still call you Beauty, for a Beauty you are.
I gave a sharp laugh. “Are you trying flattery now, Beas— Adrian?”
He waved a hand. Call me Beast; I’ve grown used to it. As for flattery, I suppose I could do better.
Adrian smirked and settled down at the desk. I shook my head, laughing. “Don’t you dare.”
His eyes twinkled at me, then sobered as he hesitated. This is different.
“Really?” I leaned back against a bookshelf as his quill scratched the paper. On and on it rasped, pausing frequently as the beast bit his lip, all merriment drained from his gaze.
Finally, he lowered his quill, stared at the parchment for a long minute, and lifted his gaze to me.
I blinked. “Surely it can’t be as bad as all that.”
He shook his head. This is serious. As serious as I’ve ever been.
My hand clenched in the folds of my skirt. What? He folded the parchment in half and handed it to me.
I swallowed hard. My fingers tingled as they closed about the note and I turned away to read undisturbed.
My dearest Beauty,
The band about my chest compressed.
Or Elissa, if that is what you prefer, but honestly, Beauty does suit you, in more ways than one. Anyway, there’s no easy way to say this. I ought to say it, but since I can’t speak, I must write it. I hope you hear, or read, me out all the same.
Beauty, I want to marry you.
I stiffened, the air leaving my body in a sharp breath. No, please. Not this. Not…
I love you, Beauty. My love for you is second only to my love for the King.
Why? I was going to leave soon! Dachs would get me out of here.
What I said earlier is true. One way or another, the end is coming. In victory or defeat, this valley will open. You will be free to leave. Alone, if you wish. But if you would consent to marry me, to let me be by your side when you return to your family—
I blinked as the lines blurred.
Dachs’s warm kiss burned against my hand. His clear eyes. His promises.
Soon, the beast promised. Soon wasn’t enough. I needed to get out. To get back.
A hand touched my shoulder, and I jumped. The beast watched me intently. His fingers began to sign, but my hands closed over them, stopping him.
“No. I’m sorry,” my voice broke. Another time; another place; but I was leaving. I would be leaving. And the beast… “I can’t… I can’t marry you.”
The beast’s brow furrowed, and he took a step toward me, but I shook my head.
The parchment slipped from my hand and I fled the room.
He watched her go.
A deep sigh shuddered through Adrian’s frame as the last light of evening blinked out from the transoms high above.
Had he really expected her to accept? Yet there was a promise. An Oath.
He would succeed.
He stared into the shadows where she’d vanished. The beginning was still ending. The way of the enemy lay open. It was better this way. He knew, now.
Every muscle tensed. Closing his eyes, he exhaled softly, then bent over the table and scribbled a line on a scrap of parchment.
She still didn’t understand. She couldn’t. The King would make a way, but she would be safe. And he would show her the truth before the end, whatever the cost.
He strode to the window and flung open the shutters. Wings rippled the air, then a great, golden-brown falcon swooped to his wrist. Adrian fastened the parchment about its leg and met its beady gaze. For a long moment, it stared back, then sprang into the air and glided away through the night.
I flung open the door and sprinted into the darkness as my breath rasped in my throat.
The beast… the beast had asked me to marry him! Marry him!
Six months, and now this? My hand slipped into my pocket and clenched the stone Dachs gave me. What did the beast think a marriage would gain him? I already helped at the castle. Already cared for his wounds whenever I discovered them. It was because of him I was here instead of with my family. Because of him I couldn’t leave, couldn’t protect them.
My boots thudded over the ground. Leaves stung my cheeks and arms as I plunged into the forest. I didn’t stop, didn’t pause until the warm energy of the barrier hurled me backward onto the ground. The beast could leave, yet he didn’t. I couldn’t leave, yet I had to. There must be some way. Dachs promised.
I curled on my side, one hand pressed over my mouth to smother choked sobs. The beast’s gaze seared my thoughts. An ache tightened about my chest, working its way around my throat and burning behind my eyes. What did I care what he thought? What he hoped? I couldn’t marry him. I just…
I gritted my teeth. It wasn’t proper, and I’d not agree to anything while I was trapped here. Perhaps if I was free. If we were free…
“Elissa!” Dachs dropped to his knees beside me. “What happened? Did he hurt you? Did—?”
I shoved myself into a sitting position, glad for the gloom that hid the heat creeping up my cheeks. “No, I just… I’m fine.”
“You don’t look it.” Dachs’s brow furrowed. He rose and held out one hand.
I grasped it and pulled myself upward. “I needed some air.”
Dachs lifted his eyebrows but didn’t inquire further. “Whatever the case, I’m glad you’re here. I didn’t expect you to be.”
“Nor I you.” My eyes narrowed. “What has happened? Did you bring Eldric?”
Dachs glanced over his shoulder. “No, I couldn’t. I…”
“It’s… it’s the beast.” He brought his gaze back to me, his brows knit with worry. “I don’t want you going back there.”
I clenched my skirt in my fist. “Do you have a way to release me at once?”
Dachs sighed. I turned away, squeezing my eyes tightly.
“Don’t go.” Dachs’s arm reached in front of me to block my way.
I rested my head against the rough bark. Dry moss tickled my cheek. “Well?”
Dachs took a deep breath. “I heard something from a nearby village.”
“I know you trust the beast.” Dachs met my gaze. “But the stories claim he’s been around for decades, maybe centuries. Flitting through the shadows with that wolf-skin cloak, invisible in the night, wooing unmarried maidens who are never seen again.”
My jaw clenched. No. That, at least, could not be true.
“Who do you think made the valley invisible?” Dachs asked. “Why do you think he cannot speak?”
My gaze jerked to him. “What?”
“Perhaps the King did care. Enough to keep him contained at least.” Dachs watched me behind strands of hair falling across his eyes. “But does he know of your family yet? Your line?”
My brow furrowed and I retreated a step. What was the scout talking about? Had he finally gone mad?
Dachs rubbed his neck. “Your ancestry. I told you I’ve done some searching. More than a little. Records and legends and such. Your family is ancient. It traces back to the Separation.”
My lips quirked. “As does everyone’s.”
“Yes, but yours is different. Mother to daughter, in each generation. All the way back to Chriselda, the betrothed of the one who plucked the rose and caused the split between the King and the people of Aslaria.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Indeed?” Why did everyone care about the legend of the Separation so much? The Stieg der. The King’s Oath. We’d enough problems as it was.
Dachs glanced away. “I’m not the only one who has wondered such things. Your beast seems obsessed with that time. In all the stories, guess which family he has been spotted nearby? Which family wolves attack with the greatest regularity? Which family—”
“Stop.” I retreated a step. He was speaking too fast, his gaze too erratic. “That cannot be the only reason you are here. You’ve warned me before and you’d not come again just for that. Either you discovered a way to get me out or…” My eyes narrowed and my chest suddenly clenched. “Dachs, what else has happened?”
Dachs glanced away. “It’s your village.”
“Bruen?” I gasped.
“Tauscher’s sights are set there. He will take it, and he will burn it to the ground.”
“And Eldric? The girls?”
“Eldric is far afield. The girls might be safe, but…” Dachs hesitated. “Tauscher doesn’t give up his prey for nothing.”
I blinked. “You’ve seen him!”
“No!” Dachs didn’t meet my eyes. “But word has a way of slipping out. I may have a friend or two who joined the rebels instead of the King. And I know what he wants; why he is here.”
My breath froze in my throat.
“Elissa.” He finally met my gaze. “Tauscher wants the beast.”
I choked. “What?” No. That was… there was no reason…
I muffled a groan. What had he said, the very first day? There were much stronger forces than I who wanted to kill him?
“Tauscher is coming here, then?”
Dachs bit his lip. “No, not in force. Like I’ve said before, very few men can see the entrance.”
“You still haven’t told me how you can see it.”
He ignored me. “The rose, do you still have it?”
“It is the key to the barrier. If you hurl it through, the entrance will open. Tauscher’s men will enter and take him away.”
“Tauscher’s men!” I interrupted. “If you think I am betraying the beast—”
“He has held you captive for months!” Dachs raised his voice. He dragged a hand across his face. “Do you think he hasn’t known of this way out? Do you think he stays here for pleasure, or because the sealed entrance is the only way to ensure his safety?”
I pressed my lips tightly.
Dachs lowered his voice. “I will not tell you what to do, but if you open the entrance and let Tauscher take this beast, to whom you, I might add, owe no loyalty, Tauscher would leave.”
“The girls would be safe,” I whispered. I glared at Dachs. “And you? Would this make you safe too?”
“No.” Dachs bowed his head. “I will have to find my own way. And not yet. I’ll stay with the King’s army to the last. This is for you. For your family.”
I still scowled. “Then I thank you for the information.”
Dachs retreated a step. “Be careful, my Beauty. Because the rebel isn’t one to care who suffers so long as he gains what he wishes.”
I wrapped my arms around myself. “I’ll be careful.” That much, at least, I could promise.
The inside of the castle was dim when I reentered it. A lone lamp lit the solitary figure of the beast sitting on the bottom step, his elbows on his knees, his chin on his hands. He glanced up as I slipped inside the house, but didn’t move, his eyes watching me. I returned the gaze, sifting, probing.
The rose? All this time. For what? There had to be more. More than just his safety. Whatever he was, he was no coward.
“I’m… sorry.” I faltered. “Maybe if… when this valley is free…” my voice trailed off.
He rose. I retreated a step, but he didn’t move, just looked, his gaze so deep, so full. He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut with a grimace.
I swallowed hard. “Why can’t you talk?”
He blinked. Tauscher.
A gift, twisted and used for evil. Yet even his power can be broken. He hesitated, then pivoted and strode down the passage toward the circle of corridors. I followed him with my gaze, then raced up the stairs.
I didn’t pause at my door but darted along the corridor until I swept aside the tapestry and turned into the mirror room.
I closed my eyes, touching the mirror and focusing on Bruen.
The glass misted over. Golden light spread across the surface, flickering in angry red and lurid orange.
Bruen was in flames.
It was over. Almost.
Adrian strode into the study, slumped at the desk, and buried his face in his hands. Years of death, of watching, of refusing to give in, no matter the cost.
The enemy was clever. Always so clever. All that was left was the final wrench of the blade. There was only one way. Beauty would only have one choice. Pray the King his earlier message hadn’t been too late.
She had to know, before the end. A love to resist the cruelest fear, that was the price to be paid for the breaking of Tauscher’s power. He couldn’t ask it of her, whatever the cost. But she had to know. Know the truth of the King’s love. Know the power of His Oath.
Adrian stared at the scribbled parchments scattered about him. Then, pulling out a fresh sheet, he began to write.
“No, no, no, no.” I stared at the flames surging from thatched roofs and shattered doors. The rebels weren’t that close! They’d be here soon, yes, but Dachs said…
Yanking at my thoughts, I focused on my sisters. Shadows swirled about them, accenting their wide eyes and pale, tear-stained cheeks. Ropes wound about their wrists and arms. Boots tramped on all sides. I clenched my fists in my skirt.
What could Tauscher want with them?
Vines wound around my chest and I pressed my hands against the smooth surface.
Eldric appeared, shrouded in gloom, his face grim, his eyes blazing as he slipped a scrap of parchment into his cloak. A dagger glinted in his hand, and a sword, bow, and quiver hung over his shoulders. I searched outward. Wings swept across the moon, but there was no sign of a road or the torches surrounding my sisters. He was scouting, then, oblivious to what had just happened.
Strangling a cry, I shoved myself to my feet and burst through the door. Running, running… Deeper and deeper down this new net of corridors. My eyes burned and gasping sobs tore themselves from my throat. My foot caught on a protruding tile and I stumbled. Rolling to my side, I hugged my knees to my chest and huddled against the wall just inside a narrow room.
It was happening again. It couldn’t be happening again. Not to the girls. Not to Helene and Klara.
I muffled a sob, squeezing my eyes tightly. Snow glistened through my memory. My father’s farewell. My mother’s laugh.
I yanked at my thoughts. No, not again. I would not be helpless.
Tauscher won’t stop until he has the beast. Dachs’s words throbbed through my mind.
No! No, I couldn’t betray the beast. But the girls…
The beast for my sisters. My captor for my family. A stranger—and yet not such a stranger.
I pressed the back of my hand against my mouth. It wasn’t fair. It was so horribly not fair. What did I care about the beast? About the King or Tauscher or the rest? The beast’s freedom for mine. He didn’t have to stay. He never had. He’d given me the rose. Maybe he would help. I couldn’t ask. Not now. Yet if there was a chance…
Each beat of my heart pounded the blood to my head like the tolling of mourning bells. There had to be a way. The King help us all. The King—
The snow-lit night swept back over me. Figures of my parents faded into the shadows of the night. The howl of wolves. A scream.
Running, running as hard as I could, my bow clenched in one hand, each breath a whispered prayer. Shadows closed in. They whispered and surged and swirled about me, writhing, growing louder, shriller, transforming into the howl of wolves.
The cries ceased.
Wolves padded on all sides, their thick paws whispering in deep snow. Blood shone dark under the moon, spreading outwards from two torn figures.
Too late. Too late…
My name echoed in the distance, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. The wolves growled. Blue eyes fastening on me, black lips curling over white teeth.
The voice was closer now, more urgent.
A wolf sprang. A scream tore from my throat as pain lanced up my arm from a searing fang. Snow filled my mouth and eyes as a crushing weight slammed me to the ground. Hot breath swept over my neck. The weight was gone, replaced by snarls. Steel against flesh and bone.
The voice was drawing near, but battle raged around me. Ice clogged my veins. For the briefest moment, I caught sight of a tall figure, outlined by the forest, a dagger clenched in one hand, a sword hanging from the other.
Already the wolves were fleeing with whimpers. The figure spun about, crouching next to the two figures. A sound, almost a groan, escaped his lips, then he turned towards me. A dark hood covered his face and I cowered against the ground, squeezing my eyes shut. I could hear him, breathing softly. Smell the blood and… roses? His warm, strangely ridged hand closed over mine, squeezing it gently. Then, in a rush of cool wind, he was gone.
“Elissa?” Eldric’s voice dimmed as the echoes of his steps slid to a stop. A moment more his arms were tight about me, my head against his chest, my suppressed sobs mixing with his rasping breath.
Mist swept about us. I clung tighter to Eldric, but the thud of my pulse quickened, faster, harder, like the pounding of a hundred marching boots, surrounding me, sweeping me away.
I jolted from the memory with a gasp and staggered to my feet.
The King hadn’t helped then. He wouldn’t help now. Six months the war had raged. The rebel had been revealed and cast from the palace when the rose was plucked, yet where was the Prince? The beast trusted in the King. Perhaps the King would save him.
A groan tore itself from my lips.
Starlight and moonlight glittered from crystal to crystal as I dashed my hand across my eyes.
I’d have to speak to him, to the beast. Convince him to flee with me.
He might help. Or perhaps he would destroy the rose—the rose he gave me. No, he wouldn’t. Perhaps… I shivered, shoving my hair from my face, then froze.
Wraith-like figures stared down at me from all sides of the narrow room I’d stumbled into. Tapestries, stitched in white and gold, glinted in the moonlight. Pale reflections. Intense eyes. Roses, white and red. Trees and wolves. Flashing fangs and glittering blades. And there, amid the confusion stood… me.
She bore the same likeness. The same lithe frame. The hair was golden instead of dark, but her gray-green eyes glittered with light. Like my own. Like my mother’s.
My hand curled against my throat as I stared. My gaze spun about the room. It was small, but well lit by reflective crystals. Dried roses, coated in dust, spilled over a small table beneath another picture of the woman. This one was rougher, yet the eyes were more vivid. Filled with pain and peace.
I turned in a slow circle. The murals on the wall. Dusty roses. The familiar flowing script, telling some kind of story. Parchments lay scattered over the room, and I picked one up. These swirling phrases were no repetition of the King’s Oath. Sorrows. Hopes. Watching. Passion…
I dropped the parchment as though it were made of flames and stumbled back a step.
The beast… It was true then? All his talk of the King and the Oath and he’d only wanted me? This was what he’d been working for?
I spun from the room, springing down the corridors, twisting and turning until my surroundings became familiar.
Each corner, each shadow, I searched for the beast. Every step pounded faster as I waited for hands to grab me. None did. I slammed the door to my room, panting, every nerve wound, ready to snap at the touch of a feather.
My rose gleamed in the moonlight. I stared at it for a long moment. My freedom to reveal the beast. A chance to rescue my sisters from the wrath of a vengeful rebel. I snatched it up and dashed from the room. Along the corridor. Down the steps. Out the door. I fled over the damp grass. My other hand clenched the stone Dachs gave me, pressing it to my chest.
The beast could take care of himself. He could stay here with dust and roses and scribblings until the age came crumbling down, but I’d not do the same. I needed to be free. To find Helene and Klara. What did it matter what the beast thought of me? What I thought of him? My duty was to my family; to my sisters.
The shadows of the forest closed about me, clinging to me, suffocating me.
The warm energy of the barrier hummed softly. I stared at the shadows. Helene and Klara’s faces glimmered through my memory. Their pleading gaze. The tears spilling over their eyes. The tears reflected another picture, one that grew larger and larger. A figure, battling wolves that leapt from all sides.
My throat burned and I sank to my knees.
I couldn’t. I had to. Tauscher never kept prisoners for long. I needed to find them. I needed…
“You call yourself King, and yet You care nothing for us!” I flung the words into the night. “This is what you offer. Wolves and pain and death. The beast claims to care for You. He claims You will send Your Prince. So save him, if You are so strong.”
I flung the rose at the barrier.
It glowed, passing through and falling into the dried leaves. The light gleamed brighter, stronger.
I sprang forward. The barrier quivered, weakening as the glow began to fade.
Pressing back against a tree, I dashed the tears from my eyes.
A moment more then. I’d be through. I’d find them. I’d—
That is when I heard the first wolf howl.
He stood at the window. Watching. Waiting.
The light died away.
His jaw tightened. It was only a matter of time now.
Resolution braced his veins.
Then the howl of a wolf shattered the determination into icy fear.
I stumbled back, my fingers digging into the bark. It was nothing. There are always wolves in the forest at night. There are always—
A low snarl echoed behind me.
My breath seared my throat. My hand closed on my dagger.
Another howl, and another, closer, near the entrance of the valley. Was that the pad of feet?
I spun, yanking out my blade. Gray and black fur rippled in the shadows. I strangled a cry. The wolf’s fangs gleamed as it crouched, and its eyes glittered.
Soft pads and echoing growls betrayed the presence of more wolves on all sides. Please, no. Retreating a step, I pressed against the tree.
There were three of the creatures now, or four
“Please…” The whimper left my lips before I could stop it.
The wolves sprang.
I slashed toward the nearest beast, but the dagger skimmed the wolf’s shoulder. I ducked, and it twisted mid-leap, barely avoiding the tree behind me. I struck again. This time, metal pierced fur and flesh and the wolf snarled. His teeth tore against the top of my arm.
I jerked backward with a cry, my fingers somehow keeping a grip on the dagger. Fiery pain closed about my ankle as teeth sliced through my boot.
My knees buckled, my dagger still clenched in my hand. A shuddering sob wracked my body. What had I thought? What had I ever been thinking? To venture out alone. To betray one who had never given me cause for grief. Another wolf leapt—
A shadow slammed the creature against a nearby tree.
My breath tore from my throat as I sank to the ground. My whole body ached in one haze of burning pain. I could see them all. Mother. Father. Snarling fangs and glittering eyes. The wolves turned on the beast, and his blade flashed, cutting down one after another.
Heat swept against my face. I gasped and rolled to the side. Surging upward, I thrust with my dagger.
The wolf snarled, his eyes raging. Another blade descended. The spark vanished from the wolf’s gaze. The beast’s boot shoved him aside.
The forest was silent. Blurred. Dark with shadows and pain and death.
The beast pressed my hair from my face, his worried eyes inches from mine as his gaze pierced my own. It shifted downward as his fingers swept my arms, touching my wounds.
“My ankle,” I forced out the words. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” The beast placed a finger over my lips and his gaze darkened as he touched my boot. I gasped, unable to smother a cry of pain.
Straightening, the beast slid his sword into his sheath, then bent down, one arm wrapping around my shoulders and the other hooking beneath my knees. I bit back a scream as my ankle jarred when he lifted me. He strode toward the fortress, the shadows falling away on either side as the moon’s silver beams swept about us.
The beast wavered in and out of focus. We were at the door. In the library. I sank into the divan by a blazing fire. Deft hands wrapped a wolf-skin cloak about my shoulders.
A pungent smell assaulted my nostrils and I gasped, my surroundings surging back to full wakefulness.
The beast grunted, tossing the smelling salts on the table, then unlaced my boot. Gently he pulled the bloodstained leather from my foot. I gritted my teeth, my fingers digging into the cushions. He glanced up sharply, his eyes searching mine.
By the stars above, what were you thinking, out there at such a time? He traced rapidly, before pulling off my stocking. Warmth trickled down my foot. I gasped as the beast pressed a damp cloth against the incisor wounds to stanch the flow of blood. My stomach twisted, and I bit my lip against the pain.
Faces flashed. Eldric. Helene. Klara. The beast was watching me again, and I glanced away.
He bent over my ankle, his fingers wrapping the bandage about the wound, then moved to my arm. Why were you out?
I bit my lip, tears burning behind my eyes. “Tauscher…” my voice faltered. “Tauscher has my sisters.”
The beast stiffened, but he continued washing the blood from my arm, baring the gashes so similar to his own scars.
“I saw them in the mirror.” I pressed my lips together, dashing hot tears from my eyes and willing my voice to remain steady. “Eldric is out somewhere, scouting. He can’t help. Tauscher has them. Six months I’ve been here, safe from the war, trying to get out. Trying to get back. You said it was almost over,” my voice choked. “But it is too late now. Too late.”
Too late. It was over. Tauscher… I buried my face in my arm, draped in the extra folds of the cloak. Silent sobs shuddered my whole body. “I… the rose…” I choked. What had I done?
The beast’s hand gripped my shoulder, then his fingers closed about my chin, turning me back to face him.
We will get them back.
I blinked. “Get them?” I choked. “You need to leave. The entrance, this place…” I pulled away and buried my face in my arm again. “They’ll find it now. They are coming. I used the rose…”
A tremor ran through the beast’s fingers, but they didn’t hesitate until the bandage was tied off. I forced my gaze back toward him.
He was watching me. You still don’t know why I am here, do you?
I shook my head.
The beast reached to the table beside him and handed me a cup of tea. When had he prepared that? I clutched at the warmth, pulling my arms close to my chest.
Finally, the beast’s fingers moved in the air. I am the Oathkeeper.
I blinked, my brow furrowing. Oathkeeper? I opened my mouth, but he shook his head, silencing my questions before they began.
You know of the Oath of the King. The one I write. It is no legend, Elissa. I was there. His eyes blazed into mine. I was there, two hundred and fifty years ago. When the rose was plucked. When the separation occurred. His jaw tightened. The King gave the Oath to me, to keep the memory alive until I presented it before Tauscher, calling on its fulfillment.
“The fulfillment?” My mind spun. “The Prince’s coming?”
The beast was silent.
I pushed myself up. “The Oath promises the Prince’s deliverance, but he can’t, or won’t, come until you’ve spoken?” My voice caught. “The King has left us to care for ourselves?”
You’re alive, aren’t you? Faint amusement sparked in the beast’s eyes. He touched the white scar on my forearm. This isn’t the first time Tauscher’s wolves tried to kill you.
“How…” I met his gaze. He didn’t blink, his eyes steady. My stomach twisted, a half-formed guess solidifying into fact. “It was you?”
He bowed his head. I was too late for your mother. He studied me. Did you ever wonder why so many of your family died from wolves, down through the generations?
You are of Chriselda’s line. The beast traced the words slowly. Again that name. Chriselda. It is true I loved her once, but the Separation cut off more than the valley. Yet still Tauscher remembers, and he uses her line. A death, every generation or two, if I refuse to give up the Oath.
I stared at him. “Wolf attacks, because of you?”
He didn’t meet my eyes. I do what I can. Sometimes… sometimes I arrive in time.
My breath caught in my throat. Stories. Fragments of ancient legends. Of a shadow who fought wolves; one who saved and vanished into the night. I reached out, touching one of the beast’s scars.
My fingers clenched into a fist. “But why? You… All the wolves. The attacks. Still you claim the King’s love is true? That His Oath will come to pass?”
The King cares for His people. The Prince is not bound by the Oath but waits for it as part of the cost. A proving and testing.
“Then why haven’t you spoken—?” I jerked myself to a stop.
He glanced away and motioned toward my tea. I took a sip. My nose wrinkled at the strange tang. What had he put in it?
As I said, Tauscher. I cannot speak until the Oath is spoken. Until, he paused and stared at me, pain flickering deep in his eyes. He moves north. Coming here. Coming for me. He couldn’t kill me before, though he wished to. But if he has accomplished his rebellion, then the Oath becomes void. He can do as he pleases. Or so he thinks. The beast let his hand drop.
I stared at him, trying to focus.
The rebels cannot be defeated without the aid of the Prince.
Visions of my sisters flashed before my eyes. My throat ached until I could barely breathe. “Yet you stay here.”
I was guarding the rose; the one your brother picked. Then it was the safest place for you. But now…
Shall we go find your sisters?
My eyes burned. “You forget. I cannot leave.”
The beast studied me curiously. I think you might be able to now.
I blinked as he blurred before me. Heated talons tore through my chest. Dachs. Tauscher. The beast.
What had I done?
“I can’t. You have to leave. Flee.” I tried to stand, but pain shot through my ankle. “It’s not safe here. Not now. Tauscher… I… I’m sorry. I was trying…” The beast pressed me back. My words slurred. Glass slid from my fingers, and distantly I heard the cup shatter against the floor. The tea… what had he put in it?
Even further, as though from the end of a tunnel, came a series of crashes. Was that thudding on the outer door?
“You have… to get… out.” I grasped at the beast’s hand. “I’m sorry. I thought…”
The beast placed a finger over my lips once more, pressing me back against the cushions and spreading the cloak over me.
Every muscle was heavy. My eyelids drooped. My hand fell limply as the beast pulled away. I couldn’t move, couldn’t think… I forced my eyes to stay open as the beast pulled the fur over my face, leaving only the barest sliver of sight.
He had to leave. To get out. To escape.
Tauscher was coming. Tauscher would—
The rending of wood shattered the night. The beast rose, spinning toward the door.
“Beast,” I murmured. “Adrian.”
His step faltered, but barely. He was almost to the door when it was hurled open. I glimpsed black-armored soldiers between the knife-edge gap separating the cushions and cloak. Spears. Flashing blades. The beast’s sword glinted. Now it was gone. The soldiers swarmed forward, dragging him to his knees, slamming him into the ground. Ropes lashed his arms as blood streamed down his face. Shouts and blows. Calls and orders and the tramping of feet. The figures blurred, growing distant, slipping away.
One thought echoed through my mind as my eyes drooped close.
They had taken the beast.
They had taken Adrian.
Every muscle ached, and blood pounded through his temples. Adrian smiled grimly as rough hands jerked him across the valley and into the forest.
She’d tried to tell him, no matter how late the warning had come.
She was safe. Tauscher would leave her be, so long as she left. The brother would find and protect her.
It was best this way, whatever the King had in store. Adrian had hidden for long enough. Voice or no, he would stand before Tauscher before the end. The night swept deeper, thicker. On and on again. How much further, now? How much—
The leaves whispered nearby. A breath. A sense.
Adrian stiffened. Slowly, with care born of an age of stealth, he turned to glance between his captors on either side as the first soldier collapsed in the shadows.
Darkness surrounded me when I awoke. Darkness, and a deep, looming dread. I rubbed my eyes, shoving a heavy covering off me.
Fur? Why was I covered in the beast’s cloak? Why was my arm so stiff? I swung my legs over the edge of the seat, then gasped as pain shot through my ankle.
Wolves. Helene and Klara. The rose. The beast’s capture.
An ache constricted around my throat like thorns as the pictures surged over me. The fire was dead, the room dark. The moon cast long shadows over the floor, glinting off broken glass and spilt tea. How long had I slept?
I stared at the dark bodies sprawled near the door. The blurred picture of rebels slamming Adrian to the ground seared my mind. My shoulders bowed forward and I buried my face in my hands.
Why hadn’t he left? Escaped while he could? Saved his care for a time it would do some good?
Hot tears burned my skin, the saltiness moistening my lips.
My fingers curled, my nails digging into my palm. No. It couldn’t end this way. What about Helene and Klara? About Adrian? The whole of Aslaria, even. If Tauscher won… I bit my lip and stared at the desk, lit by faint gleams of moonlight. Stacked parchment, clean and blank. Bottled ink. Sharpened quills. It was Tauscher’s men and my own betrayal that dragged Adrian away. I was the one who bared him to their attack, not any action of the King’s. It was me; my fault.
I dragged on my bloodied boot and shoved myself to my feet. Pain sank sickening barbs into my stomach. I swayed. My fingers clenched about the cloak the beast had concealed me with. I clutched it close as I hobbled across the room, gripping the shelves to ease the weight on my foot. Out into the corridor. Up the stairs.
My breath came in sobbing gasps by the time I reached the top, but I kept on, brushing aside the tapestry and stumbling through the door into the mirror room. With a muffled groan I sank to my knees next to the silvery disc and pressed my forehead against the cool surface.
When I lifted my gaze, Klara and Helene were huddled together. In a tent, perhaps? There were no others around them that I could see. No prisoners. Only the occasional passing boots.
Eldric was surrounded by night, a bloodied dagger in his hand as he pressed against a tree. I swallowed hard.
The mirror blurred but didn’t clear. I pressed my fist to my lips. Where was he? Where was Adrian? The mirror wouldn’t show him, either.
“I thought he said You cared!” I hurled the words into the shadows. “He was Your Oathkeeper, yet You let Tauscher take his voice? Capture him? Is he dead now?”
Silence was the only reply.
Covering my face with my hands, I huddled inside the great cloak and wept. Pain pounded behind my eyes when I finally dried my tears. When I stared at the mirror again, it revealed nothing more than my bloodshot gaze and disarrayed hair. The beast was still gone. I was still alone. Wounded. Tauscher stood on the cusp of victory, the one prophesied to call on the Prince firmly in his grasp.
Would wolves overrun the land, when Tauscher won? Did the King care? Did He even see? I wrapped my arms tightly around myself.
Paper rustled somewhere among the fur. I plunged my hand into one of the many pockets and pulled out a folded parchment. If it was another copy of the King’s Oath… I dashed the back of my hand across my eyes and held the parchment up to a ray of moonlight.
My dear Elissa,
I caught my breath.
I know what you have done. Or what you will have done, if you are reading this now. I do not deny the pain it will cause, but I must face Tauscher sooner or later. The King will work all things out. He didn’t give me the Oath merely for me to die silently at Tauscher’s hand.
Whatever happens, know that I love you. Yes, I knew of the way you could use that rose. I knew you’d discover it one day. But you were safer here. Tauscher could not harm you himself, once you were within this valley. It was a risk he was willing to take to keep me here as well. As it was, I considered you my only chance. Alsaria’s only chance. Now I suspect what I ought to have known all along; that the King’s way is higher and better than any I have imagined.
There is a room I keep, to remind myself of that. You would not have understood before; maybe you will now. Just beyond the mirror room, there is a story told along the walls. My past. Memories of what we lost due to our rebellion. A hint of the price the Prince will pay to rescue us. For he will come.
I bid you farewell. If you are reading this, we may meet again, or we may not.
Know this, the King’s love will save you. It will save us all, despite reason or logic. Despite what has happened and what we may suffer. The King is with us, and the Prince will come.
Take heart. Wait for your brother. He is coming.
I pressed my hand to my lips. He knew. Adrian knew. Knew what I’d done before he rescued me from the wolves. I clenched my jaw, shoving the letter into the cloak. And Eldric? How did Adrian know he was coming?
Stumbling to my feet, I clung to the wall. Pain lanced up my leg, then settled into a dull throb. I limped a step. The bite in my ankle licked flames through my blood, but I pressed on, my hand closing around Dachs’s stone in my pocket. I glanced to the left. That room—the one with the roses and the writing. Chriselda. All he had lost… I’d come back to read it if I survived. I turned away.
Down the steps. Out the door. The scuffed and trampled ground marked a wide swath into the forest. Snapped sticks and scattered leaves were enough once inside the trees, even with the mere light of the moon. They hadn’t even tried to cover their tracks.
I paused at the entrance of the valley, staring into the night. Tentatively, I stretched out my hand. No warmth. No tingle. Nothing.
I limped forward. Another step. I was past it now. Past the entrance. Out of the valley. My breath rushed from my chest, and I pressed the back of my hand against my mouth. I was out. Free at last. Yet more a captive than when I’d been inside.
A sweet scent enveloped me and my throat tightened. The rose lay in my path, trampled, yet still gleaming a soft red. I picked it up and cradled the blossom as it disintegrated into a handful of petals. A breeze swept past me, catching them up and spinning the flecks of red into the night like drops of blood.
Every step was agony. Keep going. Keep walking. I had to go on. There had to be something I could say, something I could do. I stumbled over a sprawled figure, warm and covered with hard ridges. Armor? A body. I jerked back. Another of Tauscher’s soldiers lay several dozen paces further. Then another.
The tracks exploded into what must have been a scuffle, leaving several more bodies and half a dozen scattered routes.
Somewhere, a wolf howled.
I shivered and picked the path that seemed the most traveled. Eventually, it too ended in a body.
I sank against a tree, a sob catching in my throat. Another wolf howled behind me. Nothing to stay for. Nothing to return to. Pressing my lips together, I limped forward, then paused.
What was that? A voice? No, a murmur. A murmur of voices, mixed with the tramp of feet and clash of arms. Dawn hovered over the forest as I stumbled up a slope and the trees fell away. A sharp breath whistled through my teeth. Tents sprawled into the wood, separated by winding paths where armored men tramped through mud or built up fires. Barely visible on the opposite side of a broad field was another camp. A white rose fluttered on the pale standard across the way. Nearer at hand, a black flag snapped over the encroaching tents.
“Lost, are we?” A heavy hand fell on my shoulder. I spun with a small yelp.
A soldier he glanced over me. “Well, what have we here?”
I yanked away. “I have come to speak to Tauscher.”
“Indeed.” The soldier raised his eyebrows. “And where does a lass like you get a cloak like that?”
I blinked, looking down at the wolf skins I still wore. “I—”
“Leave her be.” The familiar voice sent a thrill through my veins.
“Dachs!” I sprang forward, then staggered as my wounded ankle twisted. Dachs caught my arm, steadying me.
“Careful.” He retreated a step and for the first time I noticed the men who’d appeared behind him, waiting in the shadows of the forest. Why were they on this side of the clearing? Surely Tauscher’s sentries weren’t that inefficient. My fingers closed about the stone in my pocket as I searched Dachs’s face.
He stared back steadily. Almost coldly. “Where is Adrian?”
“Adrian?” I blinked.
“The beast.” He waved one hand. “Where is he?”
“I…” I stared. No wonderment I’d left the valley? No flicker of concern? “They took him.”
“Indeed.” Dachs studied me. “Yet he escaped. I don’t suppose you had anything to do with that?”
“Me?” My eyes roved Dachs’s face and my pulse quickened. Adrian had escaped! Maybe… Dachs’s gaze didn’t flicker. “I’m here because Tauscher captured my sisters.”
“Right, the girls. I forgot.” Dachs interrupted with the wave of his hand. “You still don’t know who I am, do you?” He bowed his head. When he looked back up, I gasped.
His face was the same, and yet so different. The eyes steely and hard. The jaw cruel instead of firm. The stance of a leader. The stance of…
My lips moved, but they didn’t make a sound.
“Yes, my dear.” Dachs smiled. “I have many gifts. Tauscher, at your service.” He inclined his head. “Pleased to meet you.”
“You… you…” My stomach twisted.
“I’ve been called worse names than anything you can think up.” Tauscher drew his blade. “But I’ve nothing against you so long as you help me regain the one I’ve lost.”
My fingers clenched around the stone he’d given me as I glared at him. The sneaking, lying, treasonous… I ought to have known better. Ought to have seen. A scout who could pass the barrier. A scout who cared for me for no reason. I drew back my arm and hurled the stone at his face. He dodged it easily. “Traitor!”
“I am the original rebel and traitor, so the title is a bit lacking in sting.” He swooped up the stone and pocketed it. “Thank you for holding this for me. It’s been very useful.”
I glowered at him.
He raised an eyebrow. “How do you think I knew where to find you? I’d ask if you wished to help, but I think your answer is fairly evident. I suppose it’s not worthwhile to take you down to the camp.” He lifted his blade.
Each thud of my heart pulsed to my fingertips. But Adrian was free. It wasn’t over yet, the war. He’d find some way to proclaim the Oath. Some way to summon the Prince, if Prince there was. I lifted my chin.
Behind Tauscher, the east was growing pale and cold. A bird twittered. Dew shimmered on leaves like bittersweet tears. I inhaled deeply, letting the cool air flow through my lungs. Maybe Adrian would find the girls. Or maybe Eldric—
Tauscher’s blade descended.
It clashed against steel.
I gasped as a figure sprang between me and the blade.
“Ah, there you are.” Tauscher’s eyes glinted. “I wondered if you’d be back.” He twisted his blade. Adrian staggered backward. Tauscher retreated a step and flicked his hand. The rebels advanced warily, but Adrian spun to face me, his hand gripping my arm.
Blood smeared his face, yet his eyes… Fierce, fractured with pain, deep and full of intensity, wonderment. Love.
The soldiers slammed Adrian’s blade from his hand. He staggered to one knee. They forced him down, binding his arms behind his back. I stumbled backward, but Tauscher’s fingers closed over my arm like steel jaws, holding me upright. Why had Adrian come back? What had he thought he could do? What of his precious Oath now?
“Take her down to the camp.” Tauscher shoved me into the grip of another soldier. I stumbled, stifling a cry. “She’ll be handy until he’s bound securely.”
My injured ankle buckled, and I collapsed, landing on my palms and knees. A rough hand twisted through my hair and dragged me back up. Tears blurred my vision, and I bit my lip until a metallic taste flooded my mouth. Why? Adrian muffled a gasp as he was wrenched to his feet. Poisoned claws tore at my chest. He should have stayed away. Should have bided his time, waited. What had the beast been thinking? Adrian. My Adrian…
They released me on a small rise a dozen paces from Tauscher’s pavilion. I sank to my knees, my fingers digging into the turf. My leg throbbed, the ache coursing through my body, drawing a haze over my eyes. Adrian; where…? Dimly, I saw them tying him to a tree next to the tent, their dusky forms becoming more distinct with the growing dawn.
The bustle of soldiers surrounded me. Boots, orders, twanging bows and swords snapping in sheaths. Movement flickered from the Aslarian camp across the field. I shoved myself upright and stared at the distant tents, willing the men to advance. To fight. To… what did it matter? They’d already fought; were still fighting. Still Tauscher advanced and the Prince—
I squeezed my eyes shut, pressing my face into my hands. Why did Adrian come back? Why did he have to come back?
He would die now. So would I. Yet still, he’d returned.
My fingers clenched around the ribbon at my wrist. He owed me nothing. Yet he did it all the same.
“Elissa!” The small voice jerked my head up. Tauscher approached, his fingers closed about the upper arms of two girls.
“Helene.” My voice caught. “Klara!”
Tauscher released them, and they stumbled toward me. I almost fell as they rammed into my chest. I knelt, clutching them, as their arms wrapped around my neck. They buried their faces in my hair and cloak.
Klara’s hand slid up my sleeve. “Where were you?” she sobbed. “You said you’d come back. You promised.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I pressed my face in their hair as I closed my eyes and drew their trembling bodies close. “I’ll get you out of this. I promise. It will be all right. It will be…”
The words froze on my tongue as a snarl echoed in my ears. I lifted my gaze.
Five wolves crouched in a half circle between myself and Tauscher, who stood before Adrian. His low voice carried indistinctly through the growing dawn. Adrian’s eyes were tight with concern, then he… smiled?
Tauscher’s rough chuckle faded. He spun away and stepped toward me. The wolves bowed their heads to rub against his knees.
I shuddered. Helene buried her face in my cloak with a whimper while Klara pressed even closer.
“You have done what was needed, Elissa dear.” Tauscher crossed his arms, studying me. “Leave.”
Leave? The word echoed inside my mind, and I blinked.
“Leave.” Tauscher jerked his head. “There is nothing more for you to do.”
“And Adrian?” I asked. A wolf snarled.
Tauscher’s lips curved upward. “What did you ever care for Adrian? You were only ever needed to keep him from wandering off. Now take your sisters and go.”
My nails dug into my palm and I shook my head. “And Dachs? The whole masquerade?”
“I could hardly let you spend all your time with Adrian, or let him sway you to his view. Besides, the plucking of the rose tampered with the barrier, such as it was. I needed you to lower it again, one final time.” He smiled and held out a hand. “Your sisters and your life are fair enough trade for your service, though it is a life I owned anyway thanks to the Stieg der and the Separation.”
I pressed my lips together, pushed myself to my feet, and held the girls close.
Tauscher’s brows narrowed as he took a step closer. “Adrian told you he was there at the Separation, did he not?” He caressed the head of one of the wolves. “When the Stieg der was plucked, and I was given the power of life and death over all of Aslaria. But did he tell you who picked the rose?”
I glanced at Adrian. He met my gaze. Something shifted in the shadows behind him.
I muffled a quick inhalation as my eyes snapped back to Tauscher.
He lowered his voice. “It was your precious beast, Elissa. He was the one who plucked the rose for Chriselda, so many years ago.”
“And that matters?” I asked. “Everyone in the valley was in agreement. There is a reason the punishment involved all that lived, then and now.” Words of legend, yet never had they seemed so true.
Tauscher inclined his head. “Perhaps. Yet he did the deed, and the rebellion is mine to punish. Now leave.” His wrist flicked and the wolves advanced several paces, snarling. The girls clung to me. “Leave, or die with him, and your sisters as well.”
I closed my eyes. My breath mingled with the thud of my heart. Our village was burned, but I could escape. Find a place to wait for Eldric.
Then what? What happened when the war was over? When Tauscher won? Adrian… My hands tightened around Helene and Klara. His love, his care; there had to be a reason. He trusted the King. The Prince. I bit my lip. I couldn’t let them die. I couldn’t leave.
It wasn’t my choice. It wasn’t even about me. There was so much more. It would be for the King, if we died. For the King, if we lived.
I opened my eyes and met Tauscher’s gaze. The Oath was from legend, yet so was Adrian.
“Well?” Tauscher asked.
The Oath was from legend, yet it was enough. Enough for Adrian. Enough.
I drew a deep breath. “No.”
Tauscher stiffened. Behind him, Adrian tensed.
“I’ll not abandon my friend.” I motioned toward Adrian, then froze as the shadowy figure behind him took on a familiar shape. No, it couldn’t be.
Tauscher’s gaze narrowed. His wolves snarled at his feet. Slowly, he began to turn, to follow my gesture and stare. I could see the shadow clearly now. But how? How could my brother be here?
“Who hath believed our report?” I spoke in a measured voice, repeating the words I’d seen so many times from Adrian’s hand. The words that would signal the end of the rebel’s power, somehow, someday. Tauscher’s gaze snapped back to me. “You may hold the Stieg der,” I said, “but we are not yours. The price will be paid. King has given us His Oath.”
I pressed my sisters close, but my voice strengthened. “Who hath believed our report? The Oath of the King shall never fail. His promise to those who rebelled will stand completed.”
Eldric shifted from behind Adrian, crouching to cut the ropes at his feet.
“The price shall be paid.”
Tauscher lifted his hand.
“The Prince will give it willingly; no enemy shall take it from him.”
Adrian stumbled free. The wolves sprang forward. I didn’t flinch.
“From whence has it been heard, or who hath done such a thing?” The wolves were upon us. Turning, I flung my cloak over the girls and threw myself between them and the oncoming beasts.
The wind was rising, growing, intertwining with Elissa’s words.
The last rope sliced free. The wind wrapped around Adrian, mingled with the Oath, filtering strength and life through him.
“From whence hath it been heard, or who hath done such a thing…”
Adrian stepped forward, holding his arms out wide. A cool breeze swept about him, easing his wounds, touching his scars. Icy fingers dissolved from his throat, releasing his voice. The golden words, burned into memory for an age past, spilled at last into the morning.
“Yet the King shall grant His enemies this victory.” The words fell from his tongue. The wolves paused and spun toward him. “And the Prince shall rise up to their defeat. Until the end, this word shall stand. Let him who hears believe and accept the payment the Prince offers freely to all.”
Tauscher’s hand clenched over his blade as he advanced a step.
Adrian let a grim smile cross his lips. “The Oath has been spoken, Tauscher.” His fingers closed around the sword Elissa’s brother pressed into his hand. “This is the end.”
Every muscle tensed as I held the girls close, but the sharp claws never came. A new voice completed the oath.
A thrill swept my veins.
“The oath has been spoken, Tauscher. This is the end.”
The snarls of the wolves paused, held in thrall by the voice. For a moment, silence hung over the battlefield.
I straightened. Adrian stood just beyond the pavilion, a blade in his hand. His gaze darted to me. Behind him was Eldric, his eyes fastened on mine, his body rigid. An arrow was nocked on his bow.
Around us, soldiers of Tauscher gathered, watching, waiting.
Tauscher glanced over his shoulder, his gaze fastening on mine. The wolves answered his unspoken summons, spreading in a circle around me.
Adrian paled. Eldric’s jaw clenched, but his hand trembled. Tauscher pivoted on his heel toward them. His laughter shattered the morning.
“You’re too late, Adrian. Too late, like so many times before.” He shook his head with a sigh. “One strand of power is broken. I have been revealed for many a month. The Oath is spoken. Yet I will kill you anyway. Where now is this Prince in whom you place your hope?”
“He is here.” The voice was low, full, throbbing through the morning as the first flashes of dawn broke above the horizon, sending fragmented shadows fleeing to the forest.
I spun and stared at the figure outlined by the rising sun. He stood alone, between the soldiers of Tauscher and an indistinct gathering behind him. Armor and blades glittered in the web of morning mist. The Aslarian army.
The Prince strode forward, his sword resting on his shoulder. Life itself seemed to hold its breath. Silence echoed in my ears as the rebels gave back. The Prince was a score of paces away. Now a dozen.
“I am here, Tauscher.” The Prince’s voice echoed clearly. “Here to fulfill the King’s Oath, fully and completely. I am here to lead Aslaria’s army. I am here to destroy the power of the Steig der.”
“That is not something even you can do,” Tauscher spat. “Your Father is the One Who declared the cost of the rebellion in the first place.”
The Prince didn’t answer. Didn’t shift his blade. He just stood. And waited.
Tauscher spun back on Adrian, his eyes flashing, his voice so low I barely caught the words. “The Prince may have come, Adrian, but my reign is not over yet.”
He flicked his wrist. The wolves leapt at me from all sides.
A scream tore itself from my throat as I collapsed under their weight, shielding the twins with my cloak and body as best I was able.
Distantly, I heard Tauscher shouting words of attack and the ringing calls of the Prince and the Aslarian army. Adrian and Eldric’s voices rose as Helene and Klara sobbed and cried. Wolves snarled. Their teeth tore through the cloak, sharp jaws snapping at my arms, my legs. A claw swiped across my brow. Blood blinded me, streaming down my face.
“My King.” I gasped. The Prince was here. The beginning of the fulfillment. The Prince had come. For us. For me. He’d face Tauscher. Would destroy him and his power. A haze blurred my consciousness. The King was with me. The Prince…
Fangs sank into my leg, then tore free with the sudden release of weight. Shouts were closer now. Or were they further? Who was yelling and why was there crying?
Light streamed through my vision, blurred and tinted red. Strong arms rolled me over, cradling me, wiping the blood from my eyes.
Eldric hovered at my side, one hand clasping the girls close, the other bearing a bow. Another face bent over mine. Scarred and bloodied; tight with fear.
My name echoed in my ears, repeated by that new voice. A voice that brought comfort even as shuddering agony overwhelmed me.
Pain. Everything was one throbbing wound. Light and dark blurred, shifting back and forth in my mind. Wolves and roses and flashing blades. Trembling hands, cool water, distant weeping. A small hand in mine.
My fingers closed over it as all else faded into a gray haze, replaced by white and gold. The pain eased, the gold melding into green and blue, crimson and silver.
The vision shuddered, but I clung to it.
The voice was soft but irresistible.
The azure faded to blue. A shadow bent over me. Warm hands framed my face.
I blinked, wakefulness returning fully at the command. Wakefulness, but not pain.
I stared upward into brown eyes. So deep. So ancient and intense. Full of power, of love, of sorrow, of determination and firmness. They stared through me, paring the layers of doubt, of fear, of bitter disdain. I shrank from them, but there was nothing left to hide behind. Nothing to veil my unworthiness.
Words rasped from my throat as though from a distance. “My Prince.”
He smiled, joy dancing in his gaze as he brushed the hair from my face. “Death will come to everyone, Elissa. All is not restored yet, though the end is now beginning. The final price is yet to be paid but my Oathspeaker will not die today.”
I stared at him. His smile widened as he straightened and looked beyond me. “Give her water.”
I turned my head as Eldric crouched beside me. Ignoring the skin he held, I threw my arms around his neck. His embrace wrapped around me, and I closed my eyes, relishing the protection of his hold as the twins clung to us.
Finally, Eldric released me.
Klara squeezed herself on my lap and traced her finger down my face. “What is this?”
My hand flew up, touching ridges raised against my skin and coursing across my cheek. Lifting my hands, I stared at the white scars lacing my arms beneath the bloodstained skin and torn fabric.
“Badges worth more than any medal.” The Prince pressed a hand against mine, then rose to his feet. “Wear them with honor.”
I blinked, staring after him as he strode off, then spun my gaze outward. I was under the eaves of the forest now. Tauscher’s pavilion was collapsed. The midmorning sun gleamed over a blood-torn battlefield. Aslarian soldiers gathered in groups and others tended to the wounded. Except for several clusters of prisoners, there was no sign of Tauscher or his men.
“Fleeing, all of them.” Eldric followed my gaze, a smile breaking out over his face as he held out the waterskin again. This time I drank eagerly. “Fleeing to the south. With the Prince at our head, they will continue to flee.”
“And Adrian?” I turned, scanning my surroundings again. “He didn’t…” I stared at my brother with alarm.
Eldric shook his head. “He’s fine. Reasonable enough, I suppose. He sent me a message to fetch you and I arrived to find Tauscher’s men dragging him off. By the time we returned to the fortress, you were gone.” He frowned and jerked his head toward the trees. “He slipped away once the Prince healed you.”
“Where to?” I scrambled to my feet.
“Careful!” Eldric held out a hand to support me.
“I’m fine. The Prince healed me completely.”
He grinned. “I see you’re unchanged.”
“Perhaps not unchanged.” My smile faded as I stared into the shadows. Perhaps not. “I need to find Adrian.”
He nodded. “Be quick about it. I won’t be able to keep the girls for long.”
I inclined my head, then hurried through the trees. A score of steps and I caught sight of the broad figure just inside a small clearing. His arms were crossed, his head bowed.
I slipped off the wolf-skin cloak I still wore and draped it over his shoulders as I stepped up behind him. “I am sorry I couldn’t keep it in better shape. I’m afraid it’s worse than your old one now.”
“A good thing I’ll no longer need it.” Adrian turned to me. His voice washed over me, so low and… right. He took my hand and touched a scar running along the back of it. “Oathspeaker. Who would have guessed?”
I hardly heard the words as I drank in the undulating tone, vibrating with a depth I’d not imagined ever coming from his lips.
“I was the Oathkeeper,” Adrian explained. “I expected to speak it as well, but…”
“But I spoke it,” I said. His words finally focused into clarity. “Part of it, at least. Tauscher got it wrong.”
“We all got it wrong. All of us except the Prince.”
“And now?” I looked up.
He shrugged. “I could return to the fortress.”
I stared at him.
“Then again, it was merely lent to me by Tauscher.” He studied me. “I’ve no great love for the place. I have heard of a village that was recently burned. I was considering offering my help to rebuild it. Help your brother. Perhaps even build my own home.”
His eyes twinkled. I caught my breath.
“I don’t want to do it alone, though. I’d need help. A… wife.” He raised an eyebrow. “You objected to being held captive, but you are free now.”
My pulse quickened, but I kept my face expressionless. “I’m not hearing the question.”
Adrian’s brow furrowed, then cleared as his eyes twinkled. “An unforgivable mistake, but easily rectified.” He took my hand, his gaze holding mine. “Beauty… Elissa. Will you marry me?”
Behind me, I heard the quick steps of my sisters.
A smile crept across my face, growing broader before it turned into a laugh. “Yes. Yes, it would be my honor.”
“Honor indeed.” Adrian snorted. “It is my honor.” He reached out, tracing the scars coursing down my face. “It is my honor, my Beauty.”
I bowed my head, my lips curving upward. The girls broke from the trees and rammed into my waist. Adrian steadied me with his arm, and I closed my eyes as I rested my head on his chest.
There was much to do. Much to rebuild.
But the Prince had come. The Oath was spoken. Tauscher’s days were numbered. The Prince would pay the final price.
A vision of a crimson rose fluttered through my mind, and I exhaled softly. Opening my eyes, I watched Eldric approach. He held out his hands to the girls and I tilted up my head to meet Adrian’s gaze.
A slow smile spread over my face. “Let’s go home.”
Adrian nodded, his arm shifting to my shoulders. “Yes. Let us all go home.”
I have a problem. You see… I want a dragon. Now there is a rumor that Amazon is raising a select number of these majestic beasts, but they don’t just let anyone buy them. Instead, they award golden doubloons to authors for every ten book reviews the author receives. So, if you enjoyed this book (or even if you didn’t) I’d be indebted if you lend me your aid by leaving an honest review. With your help, I can slowly save enough gold to… well, who knows? Maybe I’ll be a dragon rider after all!
Behind every beast, there is a curse.
Behind every curse, there is a promise.
Behind every promise, there is a sacrifice.
Two hundred years before Beauty was born, blood and tears wove a legend of hope and sorrow. A timeless tale of a forbidden rose and the smooth voice of a masked stranger. A story of rebellion and despair and love. A story of a promise given and of a hope received.
The story of the Oathkeeper.
A Rose of the Oath prequel!
What is love? A mere emotion that comes and goes as it wishes? Nothing could be further from the truth. Emotion does mingle with love, but love is so much more than an emotion. Love isn’t warm, fuzzy feelings or a deep-seated affection. These might be signs of love but love is, ultimately, a choice. It is a decision one makes and does not depend on the recipient for completion.
God loved us while we were sinners. While we were still His enemies, Christ died for us. True love does not need to be loved back. True love gives, without asking for anything in return. It pours itself out, even unto death, simply because it has made the choice to love. Love is not logical, or reasonable with gains or losses. It simply is.
True love such as this, a love that sacrifices all simply because it chooses to, is found and based in God. He loved us without reason. He died for us even when there was nothing we could give. We can rest secure in His love, knowing it was not for any act of our own that He saved us. It was because of His love that He paid the price on the cross, and it was because of His mercy that we are now saved. There is nothing we can do to shake that love. It is freely offered to all who will accept.
It is because of this love that we can love others, truly and fully like we ought. Because we are loved, and because we love Christ and look to Him for our example, we ought to show this love to others around us. We choose to love, be it family members, neighbors, friends, or enemies. Our love for others should not be dependent on what they can and will do for us. Rather we chose to love, and we sacrifice our own desires and pleasures because that is what Christ did for us. Romantic love, love for family, love for friends… these all ought to be ranged under a true love that gives of one’s self, no matter what. We love God because He first loved us, rest on Him for strength, and love others because His love is in us.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
We love him, because he first loved us.
1 John 4:19
Mentioned references: Romans 5:8; Titus 3:5; Philippians 4:7
Hope Ann is a speculative fiction writer who lives on a small farm in northern Indiana. She has self-published three Legend of Light novellas and writes regular articles for Kingdom Pen as the Writing Team Captain. Reading since the age of five, and introducing herself to writing at age eight, she never had a question that the author’s life was the life for her. Her goal is to write thrilling Christian fantasy and futuristic fiction — stories she longed for while growing up. After graduating from homeschool, Hope now teaches writing to several of her eight younger siblings. She loves climbing trees, archery, photography, Lord of the Rings, chocolate, and collecting shiny things she claims are useful for story inspiration.
You can visit Hope’s blog at , or follow her on [+ Facebook+], , , or .
A glittering sword. An ancient oath. A living melody. Can Evrard rescue his sister before it is too late? This is a retelling of Rapunzel that you won’t want to miss.
Defeat was bad enough.
Refusal by the Prince to deal with those who rebelled was worse.
Haydn detests the pardon that has been declared. A pardon that refuses to punish the rebels threatening his village. Threatening his sister.
With enemies closing in on all sides, a pardon that refuses punishment, and nightmares of murder and fire haunting his every thought, will Haydn recognize the truth or will his fear condemn everything he loves to destruction?
Coming autumn 2017!
Finally a copy you can hold! A printed collection of the first three Legends of Light:
Rose of the Oath
Song of the Sword
Shadows of the Hersweald
To get notices about Hope’s new releases join her Legend Seekers below!
Legend Seekers receive monthly missives, and receive a free novelette that tells how Adrian became the Oathkeeper
As a writer, I am so grateful for beta readers and other writers who have helped me both in my writing journey and in each individual book.
Special thanks to Kate Flournoy, a good friend whose critique, encouragement, and friendship have aided and strengthened me in more ways than one.
I’d also like to thank my wonderful beta readers, who helped me refine and polish Rose of the Oath: Kate Flournoy, Katherine and Sarah H., Audrey Caylin, Rebecca Morgan, Cela Day, Sara Willoughby, Esther, Erudessa Aranduriel, Jessi, Lena, Adora, Bria Snow, Sarah Wiens, and Elle.
Many thanks to my editor, Arielle Bailey, for correcting the grammatical mistakes I make.
Some of you might have also noticed familiar wording in the King’s Oath. Yes, I took inspiration from the first verses of Isaiah 53 and wove them into the prophecy about the Prince’s coming. I love finding portions of prophecy or Psalms to include in my writing.
And, of course, I have to mention my family. My thankfulness to my father who makes time to read my work. My mother and sister, Joy, who encourage me whether they’ve had time to read or not. My brothers, Noah and Luke, whose eagerness to read anything I give them is encouraging. And my other siblings who are just… around. And whose noisiness gives me a good excuse to slip on my headphones and delve into a world of my own.
They were coming. They never stopped coming. A wolf howled, the call rising to an eerie pitch before dropping, hurtling downward. The echo barely faded when another howl replied. Always… Always, forever, and yet again, they would come. His breath slipped between his teeth and he finally lifted his gaze from the crimson rose as the wind hurtled off, whistling through the narrow pass that led outward. Out into the forest. Out into Aslaria. And so he waited. Meanwhile, war clouds the horizon and rebels gather under a mysterious leader. Alone, with her two younger sisters, Elissa watches the mountain road desperately for her brother’s return. Instead, she receives news of his capture by a strange figure covered in scars and cloaked in wolf skins. With rebels drawing nearer, she sets off to find her brother. To save him. There is no one else who can. Yet she soon finds the rose that granted her warning now holds her captive in safety. Outside the valley, war threatens those she loves most. Though her strange host claims the ancient promises of the Prince’s return and victory over the rebels, Elissa knows the blood-drenched truth. She is on her own. Elissa will do anything to keep her family safe, but more than one kind of wolf stalks the Blackwood and danger lurks closer than she could ever imagine. Perfect for those who love fantasy, but don’t have the time to sit down for a full-length novel, this first novella in the Legends of Light series presents the story of Beauty and the Beast as you have never read it before. Danger, sacrifice, and treachery combine a thrilling retelling of a favorite fairy tale. Each Legends of Light novella focuses on one of the nine aspects of the Fruit of the Spirit while also following the conflict between the Prince and Tauscher and retelling popular fairy tales in a clean, exciting, and inspiring manner. Note: A novella is not a full-length novel. At 107 pages, this novella is a fairly quick read which can be finished in two or three hours.