After a tense dinner during which Tamlin hardly spoke to Lucien or me, I lit all the candles in my room to chase away the shadows.
I didn’t go outside the following day, and when I sat down to paint, what emerged on my canvas was a tall, skeletally thin gray creature with bat ears and giant, membranous wings. Its snout was open in a roar, revealing row after row of fangs as it leaped into flight. As I painted it, I could have sworn that I could smell breath that reeked of carrion, that the air beneath its wings whispered promises of death.
The finished product was chilling enough that I had to set aside the painting in the back of the room and go try to persuade Alis to let me help with the Fire Night food preparations in the kitchen. Anything to avoid going into the garden, where the Attor might appear.
The day of Fire Night—Calanmai, Tamlin had
called it—dawned, and I didn’t see Tamlin or Lucien all day. As the afternoon shifted into dusk, I found myself again at the main crossroads of the house. None of the bird-faced servants were to be found. The kitchen was empty of staff and the food they’d been preparing for two days. The sound of drums issued.
The drumbeats came from far away—beyond the garden, past the game park, into the forest that lay beyond. They were deep, probing. A single beat, echoed by two responding calls. Summoning.
I stood by the doors to the garden, staring out over the property as the sky became awash in hues of orange and red. In the distance, upon the sloping hills that led into the woods, a few fires flickered, plumes of dark smoke marring the ruby sky—the unlit bonfires I’d spotted two days ago. Not invited, I reminded myself. Not invited to whatever party had all the kitchen faeries tittering and laughing among one another.
The drums turned faster—louder. Though I’d grown accustomed to the smell of magic, my nose pricked with the rising tang of metal, stronger than
I’d yet sensed it. I took a step forward, then halted on the threshold. I should go back in. Behind me, the setting sun stained the black-and-white tiles of the hall floor a shimmering shade of tangerine, and my long shadow seemed to pulse to the beat of the drums.
Even the garden, usually buzzing with the orchestra of its denizens, had quieted to hear the drums. There was a string—a string tied to my gut that pulled me toward those hills, commanding me to go, to hear the faerie drums …
I might have done just that had Tamlin not appeared from down the hall.
He was shirtless, with only the baldric across his muscled chest. The pommel of his sword glinted golden in the dying sunlight, and the feathered tops of arrows were stained red as they poked above his broad shoulder. I stared at him, and he watched me back. The warrior incarnate.
“Where are you going?” I managed to get out. “It’s Calanmai,” he said flatly. “I have to go.”
He jerked his chin to the fires and drums.
“To do what?” I asked, glancing at the bow in
his hand. My heart echoed the drums outside, building into a wilder beat.
His green eyes were shadowed beneath the gilded mask. “As a High Lord, I have to partake in the Great Rite.”
“What’s the Great—”
“Go to your chamber,” he snarled, and glanced toward the fires. “Lock your doors, set up a snare, whatever you do.”
“Why?” I demanded. The Attor’s voice snaked through my memory. Tamlin had said something about a very faerie ritual—what the hell was it? From the weapons, it had to be brutal and violent
—especially if Tamlin’s beast form wasn’t weapon enough.
“Just do it.” His canines began to lengthen. My heart leaped into a gallop. “Don’t come out until morning.”
Stronger, faster, the drums beat, and the muscles in Tamlin’s neck quivered, as if standing still were somehow painful to him.
“Are you going into battle?” I whispered, and he let out a breathy laugh.
He lifted a hand as if to touch my arm. But he lowered it before his fingers could graze the fabric of my tunic. “Stay in your chamber, Feyre.”
“Please.” Before I could ask him to reconsider bringing me along, he took off running. The muscles in his back shifted as he leaped down the short flight of stairs and bounded into the garden, as spry and swift as a stag. Within seconds he was gone.
I did as he commanded, though I soon realized that I’d locked myself in my room without having eaten dinner. And with the incessant drumming and dozens of bonfires that popped up along the far hills, I couldn’t stop pacing up and down my room, gazing out toward the fires burning in the distance.
Stay in your chamber.
But a wild, wicked voice weaving in between the drumbeats whispered otherwise. Go, that voice said, tugging at me. Go see.
By ten o’clock, I could no longer stand it. I followed the drums.
The stables were empty, but Tamlin had taught me how to ride bareback these past few weeks, and my white mare was soon trotting along. I didn’t need to guide her—she, too, followed the lure of the drums, and ascended the first of the foothills.
Smoke and magic hung thick in the air. Concealed in my hooded cloak, I gaped as I approached the first giant bonfire atop the hill. There were hundreds of High Fae milling about, but I couldn’t discern any of their features beyond the various masks they wore. Where had they come from—where did they live, if they belonged to the Spring Court but did not dwell in the manor? When I tried to focus on a specific feature of their faces, it became a blur of color. They were more solid when I viewed them from the side of my vision, but if I turned to face them, I was met with shadows and swirling colors.
It was magic—some kind of glamour put on me, meant to prevent my viewing them properly, just as
my family had been glamoured. I would have been furious, would have considered going back to the manor had the drums not echoed through my bones and that wild voice not beckoned to me.
I dismounted my mare but kept close to her as I made my way through the crowd, my telltale human features hidden in the shadows of my hood. I prayed that the smoke and countless scents of various High Fae and faeries were enough to cover my human smell, but I checked to ensure that my two knives were still at my sides anyway as I moved deeper into the celebration.
Though a cluster of drummers played on one side of the fire, the faeries flocked to a trench between two nearby hills. I left my horse tied to a solitary sycamore crowning a knoll and followed them, savoring the pulsing beat of the drums as it resonated through the earth and into the soles of my feet. No one looked twice in my direction.
I almost slid down the steep bank as I entered the hollow. At one end, a cave mouth opened into a soft hillside. Its exterior had been adorned with flowers and branches and leaves, and I could make
out the beginnings of a pelt-covered floor just past the cave mouth. What lay inside was hidden from view as the chamber veered away from the entrance, but firelight danced upon the walls.
Whatever was occurring inside the cave—or whatever was about to happen—was the focus of the shadowy faeries as they lined either side of a long path leading to it. The path wended between the trenches among the hills, and the High Fae swayed in place, moving to the rhythm of the drumming, whose beats sounded in my stomach.
I watched them sway, then shifted on my feet. I’d been banned from this? I scanned the firelit area, trying to peer through the veil of night and smoke. I found nothing of interest, and none of the masked faeries paid me any heed. They remained along the path, more and more of them coming each minute. Something was definitely going to happen— whatever this Great Rite was.
I made my way back up the hillside and stood along the edge of a bonfire near the trees, watching the faeries. I was about to work up the courage to ask a lesser faerie who passed by—a bird-masked
servant, like Alis—what sort of ritual was going to happen when someone grasped my arm and whirled me around.
I blinked at the three strangers, dumbfounded as I beheld their sharp-featured faces—free of masks. They looked like High Fae, but there was something slightly different about them, something taller and leaner than Tamlin or Lucien— something crueler in their pitch-black, depthless eyes. Faeries, then.
The one grasping my arm smiled down at me, revealing slightly pointed teeth. “Human woman,” he murmured, running an eye over me. “We’ve not seen one of you for a while.”
I tried yanking my arm back, but he held my elbow firm. “What do you want?” I demanded, keeping my voice steady and cold.
The two faeries who flanked him smiled at me, and one grabbed my other arm—just as I went for my knife. “Just some Fire Night fun,” one of them said, reaching out a pale, too-long hand to brush back a lock of my hair. I twisted my head away and tried to step out of his touch, but he held firm.
None of the faeries near the bonfire reacted—no one bothered to look.
If I cried for help, would someone answer? Would Tamlin answer? I couldn’t be that lucky again; I’d probably used up my allotted portion of luck with the naga.
I yanked my arms in earnest. Their grip tightened until it hurt, and they kept my hands well away from my knives. The three of them stepped closer, sealing me off from the others. I glanced around, looking for any ally. There were more nonmasked faeries here now. The three faeries chuckled, a low hissing noise that ran along my body. I hadn’t realized how far I stood from everyone else—how close I’d come to the forest’s edge. “Leave me alone,” I said, louder and angrier than I’d expected, given the shaking that was starting in my knees.
“Bold statement from a human on Calanmai,” said the one holding my left arm. The fires didn’t reflect in his eyes. It was as if they gobbled up the light. I thought of the naga, whose horrible exteriors matched their rotten hearts. Somehow,
these beautiful, ethereal faeries were far worse. “Once the Rite’s performed, we’ll have some fun, won’t we? A treat—such a treat—to find a human woman here.”
I bared my teeth at him. “Get your hands off me,” I said, loud enough for anyone to hear.
One of them ran a hand down my side, its bony fingers digging into my ribs, my hips. I jerked back, only to slam into the third one, who wove his long fingers through my hair and pressed close. No one looked; no one noticed.
“Stop it,” I said, but the words came out in a strangled gasp as they began herding me toward the line of trees, toward the darkness. I pushed and thrashed against them; they only hissed. One of them shoved me and I staggered, falling out of their grasp. The ground welled up beneath me, and I reached for my knives, but sturdy hands grasped me under the shoulders before I could draw them or hit the grass.
They were strong hands—warm and broad. Not at all like the prodding, bony fingers of the three faeries who went utterly still as whoever caught
me gently set me upright.
“There you are. I’ve been looking for you,” said a deep, sensual male voice I’d never heard. But I kept my eyes on the three faeries, bracing myself for flight as the male behind me stepped to my side and slipped a casual arm around my shoulders.
The three lesser faeries paled, their dark eyes wide.
“Thank you for finding her for me,” my savior said to them, smooth and polished. “Enjoy the Rite.” There was enough of a bite beneath his last words that the faeries stiffened. Without further comment, they scuttled back to the bonfires.
I stepped out of the shelter of my savior’s arm and turned to thank him.
Standing before me was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.