Every step toward the line of trees was too swift, too light, too soon carrying me to whatever torment and misery awaited. I didn’t dare look back at the cottage.
We entered the line of trees. Darkness beckoned beyond.
But a white mare was patiently waiting- unbound-beside a tree, her coat like fresh snow in the moonlight. She only lowered her head-as if in respect, of all things-as the beast lumbered up to her.
He motioned with a giant paw for me to mount. Still the horse remained calm, even as he passed close enough to gut her in one swipe. It had been years since I’d ridden, and I’d only ridden a pony at that, but I savored the warmth of the horse against my half-frozen body as I climbed into the saddle and she set into a walk. Without light to guide me, I let her trail the beast. They were nearly the same size. I wasn’t surprised when we headed northward-toward faerie territory-though my stomach clenched so tightly it ached.
Live with him. I could live out the rest of my mortal life on his lands. Perhaps this was merciful -but then, he hadn’t specified in what manner, exactly, I would live. The Treaty forbade faeries fr o m taking us as slaves, but-perhaps that excluded humans who’d murdered faeries.
We’d likely go to whatever rift in the wall he’d used to get here, to steal me. And once we went through the invisible wall, once we were in Prythian, there was no way for my family to ever find me. I’d be little more than a lamb in a kingdom of wolves. Wolves-wolf.
Murdered a faerie. That was what I’d done.
My throat went dry. I’d killed a faerie. I couldn’t bring myself to feel badly about it. Not with my family left behind me to surely starve; not when it meant one less wicked, awful creature in the world. The beast had burned my ash arrow-so I’d have to rely on luck to get even a splinter of the wood again, if I was to stand a chance of killing him. Or slowing him down.
Knowledge of that weakness, of their susceptibility to ash, was the only reason we’d ever survived against the High Fae during the ancient uprising, a secret betrayed by one of their own.
My blood chilled further as I uselessly scanned for any signs of the narrow trunk and explosion of branches that I’d learned marked ash trees. I’d never seen the forest so still. Whatever was out there had to be tame compared to the beast beside me, despite the horse’s ease around him. Hopefully he would keep other faeries away after we entered his realm.
Prythian. The word was a death knell that echoed through me again and again.
Lands-he’d said he had lands, but what kind of dwelling? My horse was beautiful and its saddle was crafted of rich leather, which meant he had some sort of contact with civilized life. I’d never heard the specifics of what the lives of faeries or High Fae were like-never heard much about anything other than their deadly abilities and appetites. I clenched the reins to keep my hands from shaking.
There were few firsthand accounts of Prythian itself. The mortals who went over the wall-either willingly as tributes from the Children of the Blessed or stolen-never came back. I’d learned most of the legends from villagers, though my father had occasionally offered up a milder tale or two on the nights he made an attempt to remember we existed.
As far as we knew, the High Fae still governed the northern parts of our world-from our enormous island over the narrow sea separating us from the massive continent, across depthless fjords and frozen wastelands and sandblasted deserts, all the way to the great ocean on the other side. Some faerie territories were empires; some were overseen by kings and queens. Then there were places like Prythian, divided and ruled by seven High Lords-beings of such unyielding power that legend claimed they could level buildings, break apart armies, and butcher you before you could blink. I didn’t doubt it.
No one had ever told me why humans chose to linger in our territory, when so little space had been granted to us and we remained in such close proximity to Prythian. Fools-whatever humans had stayed here after the War must have been suicidal fools to live so close. Even with the centuries-old Treaty between the mortal and faerie realms, there were rifts in the warded wall separating our lands, holes big enough for those lethal creatures to slip into our territory to amuse themselves with tormenting us.
That was the side of Prythian that the Children of the Blessed never deigned to acknowledge- perhaps a side of Prythian I’d soon witness. My stomach turned. Live with him, I reminded myself, again and again and again. Live, not die.
Though I supposed I could also live in a dungeon. He would likely lock me up and forget that I was there, forget that humans needed things like food and water and warmth.
Prowling ahead of me, the beast’s horns spiraled toward the night sky, and tendrils of hot breath curled from his snout. We had to make camp at some point; the border of Prythian was days away. Once we stopped, I would keep awake for the entirety of the night and never let him out of my sight. Even though he’d burned my ash arrow, I’d smuggled my remaining knife in my cloak. Maybe tonight would grant me an opportunity to use it.
But it was not my own doom I contemplated as I let myself tumble into dread and rage and despair. As we rode on-the only sounds snow crunching beneath paws and hooves-I alternated between a wretched smugness at the thought of my family starving and thus realizing how important I was, and a blinding agony at the thought of my father begging in the streets, his ruined leg giving out on him as he stumbled from person to person. Every time I looked at the beast, I could see my father limping through town, pleading for coppers to keep my sisters alive. Worse-what Nesta might resort to in order to keep Elain alive. She wouldn’t mind my father’s death. But she would lie and steal and sell anything for Elain’s sake-and her own as well.
I took in the way the beast moved, trying to find any-any-weakness. I could detect none. “What manner of faerie are you?” I asked, the words nearly swallowed up by the snow and trees and star-heavy sky.
He didn’t bother to turn around. He didn’t bother to say anything at all. Fair enough. I’d killed his friend, after all.
I tried again. “Do you have a name?” Or anything to curse him by.
A huff of air that could have been a bitter laugh. “Does it even matter to you, human?”
I didn’t answer. He might very well change his mind about sparing me.
But perhaps I would escape before he decided to gut me. I would grab my family and we’d stow away on a ship and sail far, far away. Perhaps I would try to kill him, regardless of the futility, regardless of whether it constituted another unprovoked attack, just for being the one who came to claim my life-my life, when these faeries valued ours so little. The mercenary had survived; maybe I could, too. Maybe.
I opened my mouth to again ask him for his name, but a growl of annoyance rippled out of him. I didn’t have a chance to struggle, to fight back, when a charged, metallic tang stung my nose. Exhaustion slammed down upon me and blackness swallowed me whole.
I awoke with a jolt atop the horse, secured by invisible bonds. The sun was already high.
Magic-that’s what the tang had been, what was keeping my limbs tucked in tight, preventing me from going for my knife. I recognized the power deep in my bones, from some collective mortal memory and terror. How long had it kept me unconscious? How long had he kept me unconscious, rather than have to speak to me?
Gritting my teeth, I might have demanded answers from him-might have shouted to where he still lumbered ahead, heedless of me. But then chirping birds flitted past me, and a mild breeze kissed my face. I spied a hedge-bordered metal gate ahead.
My prison or my salvation-I couldn’t decide which.
Two days-it took two days from my cottage to reach the wall and enter the southernmost border of Prythian. Had I been held in an enchanted sleep for that long? Bastard.
The gate swung open without porter or sentry, and the beast continued through. Whether I wanted to or not, my horse followed after him.