Rich and soft and toe-curling, his lips moved over mine in an unhurried caress that feathered everywhere.
Sooner than I’d thought I’d like, he released me. His eyes were slow to open, and when they did, they fixed on mine for a stretched moment as if waiting for something, and then he was stalking off toward the house.
Breathless, I rode to the gate, my gloved fingers rising to my mouth as my mind tried to make sense of why and how that felt different, brand new, when I’d lost count of all the times we’d kissed before.
His aunt curtsied, but her face still held that detached quality so much like her nephew.
I nodded, thanked her for the hospitality in a crisp tone, and then joined my guard.
We stopped at a glen at noon, allowing the horses to rest and hydrate as we ate the dried fruits and meats that Zad’s cook had sent us off with.
Rocks surrounded the shallow stream of water, making silence hard to achieve as our boots crunched over them. We were not foolish enough to discuss battle strategy or what we knew we would soon face. One of the first things my mother taught me as a child was that the trees had ears, and the wind was the messenger.
Even before these tense times, peace for a millennia didn’t mean we were not the type to play power games, seek information, and try to one-up each other in every way we could.
Certain creatures and dwellers of the forest never evolved, and they were neither friend nor foe. It was never personal. They straddled the line between, and only played games that could be of advantage to them.
With eyes on the forest looming at our backs, the northwest sprawl of the Winding Woods stretched up ahead in a curtain of darkness barely breached by sunlight, we drank and we ate and then we made haste to the city.
Ridlow, a young guard who’d only just completed his training, saw them first.
Though seeing them didn’t quite matter when I felt my very blood seize and tremble, then lower to a quiet hum. It was as though someone had reached inside me and turned out all the lights, leaving me with only natural, sluggish strength.
Panic sluiced through our group as murmurs and huge eyes were cast to the towering trees that had swallowed us.
Shadows formed around us in a semi-circle. Globs of darkness that materialized the closer they came, a glowing substance within their hands.
“Run,” Ainx cried, his stallion rearing as he drew his sword.
I knew he was talking to me, urging me to flee, but the shock, the anger that arose held me prisoner and refused to let me.
I unsheathed my sword and spurred Wen to the left. “Cut them down.”
A hooded figure appeared before me, a stone between their cupped hands.
My veins throbbed, pounding beneath my skin. I felt something trickle from my nostril, but I pushed forward and struck them through the ribs.
A scream filled the air as she fell back, the hood falling away from cream-colored hair, revealing thinned blue eyes. The stone rolled to the grass, and she panted, staring up at me with gritted teeth as she tried to staunch the wound in her side.
I pressed the blade to her frantic pulse, Wen huffing and skittish beneath me. “Who are you?”
Blood coated her teeth as she forced a smile. “Your end.”
A cry came from above, from the trees, and I fell from Wen, who galloped away, toward the fissures of light of the woods.
Groaning, I smacked at the ground for my sword as the world spun and heard Azela scream my name. I swung as a hand yanked my hair back, but whoever it was knocked my sword loose, then kicked it away.
“Now, now,” a female voice urged as I reached for them to no avail. “Be a good little queen for once in your life, and maybe you’ll live long enough to see another meal.”
I screamed as one of those pulsing rocks was set by my head, and then I blacked out.
I woke three times before I could finally manage to keep my eyes open long enough to see I was in some type of cage, then I let blackness engulf me once more.
I moaned, forcing my eyes open again, but everything was too blurred, and my head felt like it was going to either catch fire or explode.
I shut them again.
“Audra, wake up.” Berron’s voice slithered into the dark space I’d been locked inside.
My eyes sprang wide, a silent scream left me as the pounding in my head increased, the world hazy and filled with unrecognizable shapes. Moaning, I gripped my head. “Berron?”
“Yes.” A clang sounded. “It’s me. Open your eyes, stay with me. It gets more bearable the longer you keep them open.”