Ryder and Halden were probably dead.
I wasn’t sure what was making me feel sicker, finally admitting that truth to myself, or my aching, burning lungs. The misery of the latter was, admittedly, self-induced—this section of my morning run was always the most brutal—but today marked one year since the letters had stopped coming, and while I’d sworn not to think the worst until there was reason to, the epistolary silence was hard to argue with.
My heart gave a miserable thump.
Attempting to slip the unpleasant thoughts under the floorboards of my mind, I focused on making it to the edge of the clearing without vomiting. I pumped my legs, swung my elbows back, and felt my braid land between my shoulder blades as rhythmic as a drumbeat. Just a few more feet—
Finally reaching the expanse of cool grass, I staggered to a halt, bracing my hands on my knees and inhaling deeply. It smelled like the Kingdom of Amber always did—morning dew, woodfire from a nearby hearth, and the crisp, earthy notes of slowly decaying leaves.
But deep breaths weren’t enough to keep my vision from blurring, and I collapsed backward onto the ground, the weight of my body crushing the leaves beneath me with a satisfying crunch. The clearing was littered with them—the last remnants of winter.
One year ago, the night before all the men in our town were conscripted to fight for our kingdom, my family had gathered on the grassy knoll just behind our home. We had watched the pink-hued sunset fade like a bruise behind our town of Abbington all together, one last time. Then, Halden and I had snuck away to this very glade and pretended he and my brother,
Ryder, weren’t leaving.
That they’d be back one day.
The bells chimed in the town square, distant but clear enough to jar me from the melancholy memory. I eased up to sitting, my tangled hair now littered with leaves and twigs. I was going to be late. Again.
Or—shit. I winced as I stood. I was trying to swear less on the nine Holy Gemstones that made up the continent’s core. I didn’t care so much about damning the divinity of Evendell’s creation, but I hated the force of habit that came from growing up in Amber, the Kingdom that worshipped the Stones most devoutly.
I jogged back through the glade, down the path behind our cottage, and toward a town just waking up. Hurrying through alleyways that could barely accommodate two people heading in opposite directions, a depressing thought filtered in. Abbington really used to have more charm.
At least, it was charming in my memories. Cobblestone streets once swept clean and sprinkled with street musicians and idle merchants were now strewn with garbage and abandoned. Mismatched brick buildings covered with vines and warmed by flickering lanterns had been reduced to crumbling decay—abandoned, burned, or broken down, if not all three. It was like watching an apple core rot, slowly turning less and less vibrant over time until one day, it was just gone.
I shivered, both at the thoughts and the weather. Hopefully, the chilly air had dried some of the dampness from my forehead; Nora did not like a sweaty apprentice. Pushing the creaky door open, ethanol and astringent mint assaulted my nostrils. It was my favorite scent.
“Arwen, is that you?” Nora called, her voice echoing through the infirmary’s hallway. “You’re late. Mr. Doyle’s gangrene is getting worse. He might lose the finger.”
“Lose my what?” a male voice squawked behind a curtain.
I shot Nora a withering look and slipped inside the makeshift room, separated by cotton sheets.
Mr. Doyle, an elderly bald man who was all forehead and earlobes, was in his bed, cradling his damaged hand like a stolen dessert that someone aimed to take from him.
“Nora’s only kidding,” I said, pulling up a chair. “That’s her fun and very professional sense of humor. I’ll make sure all fingers remain attached, I promise.”
With a skeptical huff, Mr. Doyle relinquished his hand, and I got to work carefully peeling away the layers of rotting skin.
My ability twitched at my fingertips, eager to help. I wasn’t sure I needed it today; I liked the meticulous work, and gangrene was fairly routine.
But I would never forgive myself if I broke my promise to cranky Mr.
I covered one hand with the other, as if I didn’t want him to see how gruesome his injury was—I had gotten very good at finding ways to sneak my powers into patients. Mr. Doyle closed his eyes and leaned his head back, and I allowed a flicker of pure light to seep from my fingers like juice from a lemon.
The decaying flesh warmed and blushed pink once more, healing before my eyes.
I was a good healer. A great one, even. I had a steady hand, was calm under pressure, and never got squeamish at seeing someone’s insides. But I could also heal in ways that couldn’t be taught. My power was a pulsing, erratic light that poured out of my hands and seeped into others, spreading through their veins and vessels. I could fuse a broken bone, give color back to a flu-ravaged face, stitch a gash closed with no needle.
Yet, it wasn’t common witchcraft. I had no witches or warlocks in my family heritage, and even if I had, when I used my powers there was no uttered spell followed by a flurry of wind and static. Instead, my gift seeped from my body, draining my energy and mind each time. Witches could do endless magic with the right grimoires and tutelage. My abilities would fizzle out if worked too hard, leaving me depleted. Sometimes it would take days for the power to come back fully.
The first time I exhausted myself on a particularly brutal burn victim, I
thought my gift was actually gone for good—an inexplicable mix of relief and horror. When it finally returned, I told myself I was grateful. Grateful that when I was growing up, covered in welts, or had limbs cracked at odd angles, that I could heal myself before my mother or siblings could notice what my stepfather had done. Grateful that I could help those around me who were suffering. And grateful that I could make a decent amount of coin doing it when times were as tough as they were now.
“All right, Mr. Doyle, good as new.”
The older man shot me a toothless grin. “Thank you.” Then he leaned in conspiratorially. “I didn’t think you’d be able to save it.”
“The lack of faith hurts,” I joked.
He moved gingerly out of the room, and I followed him into the hall.
Once he had left, Nora shook her head at me. “What?”
“Too chipper,” she said, but her mouth lifted in a smile.
“It’s a relief to have a patient who isn’t on death’s door.” I cringed. Mr.
Doyle was actually quite old.
Nora just snorted and refocused on the gauze in her hands. I slunk back over to the cots and busied myself sanitizing some surgical tools. I should have been thrilled at how few patients we had today, but the quiet was making my stomach twist.
Healing took my mind off of my brother and Halden. Helped to quell the misery that churned in my gut at their absence. Like running, there was a meditative quality to healing people that calmed my chattering brain.
Silence did the opposite.
Still, I’d never expected to be thrilled about a case of gangrene, but it seemed like anything that wasn’t certain death was a win these days. Most patients of course were soldiers—bloody, bruised, and broken from battle— or neighbors I’d known my entire life, shriveling away from parasites found in the meager food scraps they could get their hands on. That, at least, was a better fate than starvation. Parasites could be healed in the infirmary. Endless hunger, not so much.
And through all this pain and suffering, loved ones lost, homes destroyed
—it was still a mystery why the Onyx Kingdom had started a war with us in the first place. Our King Gareth was not one for the historical tomes, Amber land was not known for anything but its harvest. Meanwhile, kingdoms like Garnet were rich with coin and jewels. The Pearl Mountains had its ancient scrolls and the continent’s most sought-after scholars. Even the Opal Territories, with their distilleries and untouched land, or The Peridot Provinces, with their glittering coves filled with hidden treasure, would all have been better places to begin the gradual crawl toward power over all of Evendell. But so far, every other kingdom had been left unscathed, and lone Amber was trying to keep it that way.
Still, no other kingdom fought beside us.
Meanwhile, Onyx was dripping in riches, jewels, and gold. They had the most land, the most stunning cities—or so I had heard—and the biggest army. Still, even that wasn’t enough for them. Onyx’s king, Kane Ravenwood, was both imperialistic and insatiable. But worst of all, he was senselessly cruel. Our generals were often found strung up by their limbs, sometimes flayed or crucified. He took and took and took until our meager kingdom had little left to fight with and then inflicted pain for the sport of it. Cutting us off at the knees, then the elbows, then the ears just for fun.
The only option was to keep looking on the bright side. Even if it was a dim, blurry kind of bright side that you had to bribe and coax to come out. That, Nora had claimed, was why she kept me around. ‘You have a knack for this, you’re optimistic to a fault, and your tits entice the local boys to donate blood.’
Thank you, Nora. You’re a peach.
I peered up at her, putting away a basket filled with bandages and ointments.
She wasn’t the kindest associate, but Nora was one of my mother’s closest friends, and despite her prickly exterior, she’d been thoughtful enough to give me this job so I could take care of our family once Ryder left. She even helped with my sister, Leigh, when Mother was too sick to take her to classes.
My smile at Nora’s kindness faded as I thought of my mother—she had
been too frail to even open her eyes this morning. The irony that I worked as a healer and my mother was slowly dying from an ailment none of us could identify was not lost on me.
Even worse—and maybe more ironic—my abilities had never worked on her. Not even if all she had was a paper cut. Yet another sign that my powers were not that of a common witch, but something far stranger.
My mother had been sick since I was old enough to talk, but it had worsened these past few years. The only thing that helped were the little remedies Nora and I would put together—
concoctions made of the white canna lilies and rodanthe flowers native to Amber, blended with ravensara oil and sandalwood. But the relief was temporary, and her pain grew worse each day.
I physically shook my head to rattle the unpleasantness away.
I couldn’t focus on that now. The only thing that mattered was taking care of her and my sister as best I could, now that Ryder was gone.
And might never be coming back.
“No, you didn’t hear me right! I didn’t say he was cute, I said he was astute. Like, smart or worldly,” Leigh said, throwing a log on the dwindling hearth fire. I bit back a laugh and pulled three small bowls from the cupboard.
“Mhm, right. I just think you have a little crush, that’s all.”
Leigh rolled her pale blue eyes as she turned around our tiny kitchen, gathering cutlery and mugs. Our house was small and rickety, but I loved it with my whole heart. It smelled like Ryder’s tobacco, the vanilla we used for baking, and fragrant white lilies. Leigh’s sketches hung on almost every wall. Every time I walked in our front door, a smile tugged at my lips. Perched on a little hill overlooking most of Abbington and with three well-insulated, cozy rooms, it was one of the nicer houses in our village. My stepfather, Powell, had built it for my mother and me before my siblings were born. The kitchen was my favorite place to sit, the wooden table put together by Powell and Ryder, one summer back when we were all young
and Mother was healthier.
It was uncanny, the warm memories tied to the bones of our home, in such contrast to those that swam in my head, in my stomach, when I thought of Powell’s stern face and clenched jaw. The scars on my back from his belt.
Leigh squeezed in beside me, jarring me from cobwebbed memories and handing over a handful of roots and herbs for Mother’s medication.
“Here. We don’t have any rosemary left.”
I peered down at her blonde head and a warmth bloomed in me—she was always radiant, even with the misery of wartime that surrounded us. Joyful, funny, bold.
“What?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at me.
“Nothing,” I said, biting back a smile. She was just starting to see herself as a grown-up and no longer tolerated being treated like a kid. Loving stares of adoration from her older sister were clearly not allowed. She liked it even less when I tried to protect her.
I swallowed hard, throwing the herbs into the bubbling pot over our hearth.
Recently, rumors had been swirling in the taverns, schools, and markets. The men were all gone now—Ryder and Halden had likely given their lives
—and we were still losing to the wicked kingdom in the north.
The women would have to be next.
It wasn’t that we couldn’t do what the men could. I had heard the Onyx Kingdom’s army was filled with strong, ruthless women who fought alongside the men. I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t take someone’s life for my kingdom, couldn’t fight for my own. The thought of leaving Abbington at all raised the hair on the back of my neck.
But it was Leigh I worried about. She was too fearless.
Her youth made her think she was invincible, and her hunger for attention made her loud, risky, and brave to the point of recklessness. The thought of her golden curls bouncing onto the front lines made my stomach twist.
If that wasn’t bad enough, both of us being carted off to fight against
Onyx meant Mother would be left alone. Too old and frail to fight, she might avoid the draft but wouldn’t be able to take care of herself. With all three of her children gone, she wouldn’t last a week.
How was I supposed to protect either of them then?
“You couldn’t be more wrong about Jace,” Leigh said, pointing a fork at me with faux assuredness. “I’ve never had a crush in my life. Especially not on him.”
“Fine,” I said, searching through a cupboard for carrots. I wondered if Leigh had purposely distracted me—if she could tell I was worrying. I usually was, so it would have been a fair guess.
“Honestly,” she continued, plopping down at our kitchen table and folding her feet underneath her. “I don’t care what you think. Look at your taste! You’re in love with Halden Brownfield.” Leigh made a disgusted face.
My pulse raised at his name, remembering the date, and my anxiety from this morning. I shook my head at Leigh’s accusation.
“I am not in love with him. I like him. As a person. We’re just friends, actually.”
“Mhm, right,” she said, mocking my earlier sentiments about her and Jace.
I popped the carrots in a separate pot for dinner, beside mother’s medication. Multitasking had become one of my strong suits since Ryder left. I opened the window above the hearth, letting some of the heat from both pots billow outside. The cool, evening breeze washed over my sticky face.
“What’s wrong with Halden anyway?” I asked, curiosity getting to me.
“Nothing, really. He was just boring. And fussy. And he wasn’t silly at all.”
“Stop saying ‘was,’” I said, with more bite than intended. “He’s all right.
They both are.”
Not a lie. Just that same bright side thinking that could occasionally border on denial. Leigh stood to set the table, gathering mismatched mugs for our cider.
“And Halden is silly and interesting… and fussy,” I conceded. “I’ll give you that one. He’s a little tightly wound.” Leigh smiled, knowing she’d gotten me.
I considered my sister. She had grown up so much in so little time that I wasn’t sure what information I was protecting her from anymore.
“Fine,” I said, stirring the two pots simultaneously. “We were seeing each other.”
Leigh raised her brows suggestively.
“But truthfully, there was no ‘in love’ to speak of. By the Stones.” “Why not? Because you knew he would have to leave?”
My gaze landed on the hearth, watching the meager flames flicker as I thought about her question in earnest.
It was shallow, but the first thing that came to mind when I heard his name was Halden’s hair. Sometimes, especially in the moonlight, his blond curls looked so pale they nearly glowed. It was actually what first drew me to him—he was the only boy in our town with fair hair. Amber mainly produced chocolatey brunettes like me or dirty blonds like Leigh and Ryder. I had fallen for that ice-blond hair at the determined age of seven. He and Ryder had become inseparable right around then. Certain I was going to marry him, I didn’t mind trailing their every adventure and clinging to their scraped-knee-inducing games. Halden had a smile that made me feel safe. I would have followed it anywhere. The day word of conscription came to
Abbington was the only time I ever saw his smile falter.
That, and the day he first saw my scars.
But if I’d been enamored with Halden since I was little, why didn’t it feel like love when he finally saw in me what I had seen in him for so long?
I didn’t have a good answer, and certainly not one fit for a ten-year-old. Had I not loved him because I’d never seen it go well for anyone, namely our mother? Or because sometimes I’d ask him what he thought of Onyx’s expansion of their already sprawling land, and his dismissive responses would make me feel prickly for some reason I couldn’t quite place? Maybe the answer was far worse. The one I hoped wasn’t true but feared the most
—that I wasn’t capable of such a feeling.
There was nobody more deserving of it than Halden. Nobody else whom Mother, Ryder, or Powell would have wished me to be with.
“I don’t know, Leigh.” It was the truth.
I swept my attention back to the dinner preparation and sliced vegetables in silence, Leigh sensing I was finished with that particular line of questioning. When Mother’s medicine was done boiling, I moved it to the counter to steep. Once it cooled, I would fill a new vial and place it in the pouch by the cupboard as always.
Maybe I could do this—take care of them all on my own.
The savory aroma of stewing vegetables mixed with the medicinal notes of Mother’s medication drifted through the home. It was a familiar scent. A comfortable one. Amber was surrounded by mountains, which meant the valley we were nestled in always had chilly mornings, crisp days, and cold nights. Every tree wilted brown leaves year-round. Every dinner was always corn, squash, pumpkin, carrots. Even the harshest of winters brought only rain and bare branches, and the hottest summer I could remember had a mere two trees of green. For the most part, it was brown and blustery here every day of the year.
And after twenty of them, there were days when it felt like I’d had enough corn and squash for a lifetime. I tried to imagine my life filled with other flavors, landscapes, people… But I’d seen so little, the fantasies were blurred and vague—a cluttered constellation of books I’d read and stories I’d heard over the years.
“It smells divine in here.”
My eyes found my mother as she hobbled in. A bit worse for wear today, her hair was tied back in a damp braid at the nape of her neck. She was only forty, but her thin body and sallow cheeks aged her.
“Here, let me help you,” I said, walking to her.
Leigh hopped off the table, leaving one candle unlit, to come to her other side.
“I’m fine, I promise,” she clucked at us. But we ignored her. It had become a well-choreographed dance at this point.
“Roses and thorns?” she said, once we had seated her at the table.
My sweet mother who, despite her chronic fatigue, pain, and suffering, always genuinely cared about what happened in our days. Whose love of flowers had made its way into our nightly routine.
My mother had come to Abbington with me when I was nearly one. I never knew my father, but Powell was willing to wed her and take me in as his own. They had Ryder less than a year later and Leigh seven after that. It was rare in our traditional town to be a woman with three children, one with a different father than the rest. But she never let unkind words cloud the sunshine she radiated daily. She worked tirelessly her whole life to give us a home with a roof, food in our bellies, and more laughter and love each day than most children get in a lifetime.
“My rose was saving Mr. Doyle’s finger from being amputated,” I offered. Leigh made a retching sound. I left my thorn out. If they hadn’t realized it yet, I was not going to be the one to share that our brother hadn’t written to us in a year.
“Mine was when Jace told me—”
“Jace is the boy Leigh thinks is cute,” I interrupted and gave my mother a conspiratorial nod. She shot back a dramatic wink, and Leigh’s eyes became slits aimed at both of us.
“His cousin is a messenger in the army, delivering plans directly from King Gareth to his generals where even ravens can’t reach them,” Leigh said. “The cousin told him that she saw a man with wings in the Onyx capital.” Her eyes went big and blue as the sea.
I looked to my mother at the absurdity, but she just nodded politely at Leigh. I tried to do the same. We shouldn’t poke so much fun at her.
“How curious. Do you believe him?” Mother asked, resting her head on her hand in thought.
Leigh contemplated this as I sipped my stew.
“No, I don’t,” she said after deliberating. “I guess still-living Fae are a possibility, but I think it was more likely some kind of witchcraft. Right?”
“Right,” I agreed, even though I knew better. The Fae had been completely extinct for years—if they had ever been real at all. But I didn’t want to burst her imaginative bubble.
I smiled at Leigh. “I see why you’re so in love with Jace. He’s got all the good intel.”
My mother bit back a smile. So much for not poking fun. Force of habit.
Leigh frowned and launched into a tirade about how she obviously didn’t have any romantic feelings for this boy. I grinned, knowing that song and dance all too well.
Stories like Jace’s cousin’s were always floating around. Especially in relation to Willowridge, Onyx’s mysterious capital city. The night before Halden left, he had told me it was rumored to be filled with all kinds of monstrous creatures. Dragons, goblins, ogres—I could tell he was trying to spook me, hoping I might nestle myself into the safety of his embrace and allow him to protect me from whatever was beyond our kingdom’s barriers. But it hadn’t frightened me at all. I knew how those tales went. Men, built up in story after story, twisted by retellings into some horrific beast, wielding unknown powers and capable of untold torment. In reality, they were just… men. Evil, power-hungry, corrupt, debauched, men. Nothing more, nothing less, and none worse than the one who had lived in my own home. My stepfather was more vicious and cruel than any monster from a
I didn’t know if that truth would have brought Halden more or less fear on the day he and Ryder were sent off to war. It definitely wouldn’t help me if Leigh and I were forced into battle next.
Truth was, our King Gareth was doing the best he could, but Onyx had a far superior army, better weapons, stronger allies, and I’m sure countless other advantages I knew nothing about. I could promise that Onyx wasn’t winning this war because of some big bad that went bump in the night.
My mother’s sigh brought my thoughts back from wicked, winged creatures to our warm, wooden kitchen. The last dregs of daylight were slipping across the room, leaving the dancing flames of the hearth to cast her sallow face in shadow.
“My rose is this stew, and my two beautiful girls sitting in front of me. My kind, responsible Arwen.” She turned to Leigh, “My bold, brave Leigh.”
I gulped. Ice ran through my veins. I knew what was coming next.
“And my thorn is my son, who I miss so, so dearly. But it’s been a year since we’ve heard from him. I think,” she breathed. “I think it’s time we accepted that he—”
“Is fine,” I interrupted her. “Ryder is fine. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to get a letter out in the conditions he could be in.”
“Arwen,” my mother started, her voice warm and comforting and making my skin itch with its gentleness.
But I babbled over her. “Can you imagine trying to send a letter to a small town like ours from a jungle? Or, or… a forest? From the middle of an ocean? Who knows where he is?” I was starting to sound hysterical.
“It makes me so sad too, Arwen,” Leigh’s little voice was even harder to bear. “But I think Mother may be right.”
“It’s healthy to talk about it,” Mother said, taking my hand in hers. “How much we miss him, how hard it will be to continue on without him.”
I bit my lip; their serious faces were cleaving me in two. I knew they were right. But saying it out loud…
As soothing as her touch was, I pulled my hand away and turned to face the window, letting the evening breeze whisper over my face, and closing my eyes to the cool sensation.
My lungs filled with dusk air.
I couldn’t be the one to make this harder for them.
Wrapping my hands around my bowl to quell their shaking, I turned back to face my only remaining family.
“You’re right. It’s unlikely he’s—”
The deafening sound of our front door slamming open caused the bowl I was holding to jump from my hands and shatter on the floor. Bright orange splattered everywhere like fresh blood. I spun and saw my mother’s face go slack with shock. In front of us, breathing heavily, face bloodied and leaning into the door frame to support a twisted arm, stood my brother, Ryder.