Chapter no 11

A Dawn of Onyx

N“o way in the Stones,” I put my foot down hard for emphasis.

Kane rolled his eyes. “Suit yourself,” and strolled toward the


His men were mounting their horses around us. It was a rare, sunny day that hinted at the coming of summer. A welcome warm breeze wafted through the pine trees of the woods, filling the horse stables with a now familiar sweet and refreshing scent. Though I trained with Dagan each morning, the nature of the lessons left little room to appreciate my surroundings. I hadn’t had any real time to enjoy the outdoors in weeks and I longed for the feel of grass between my toes and sun on my face.

Not to mention I had somehow succeeded in charming Kane into taking me into the woods with him, which was the only way I was going to find the burrowroot residue. This was my chance—I couldn’t squander it over a single, unpleasant horseback ride.

I made a face at the Stones above to grant me strength, and followed behind Kane.

“Fine!” I called after him. “Fine. But I’ll have you know I have ridden many a horse in my day. I don’t know why you’re treating me like a child.”

He said nothing but stood patiently, waiting for me to mount the creature. I did so with ease, nearly kicking the king in the face on my way up. I thought I heard him chuckle before he hopped on, but all thoughts fell out of my brain as soon as he was seated behind me.

His warm, impressive form now enclosed me from behind, like a broad hand around a tiny pebble. A heady mix of fir, leather, and mint filled my nose as his strong muscled arms wrapped around me to grasp the reins. I

leaned back into his unintentional embrace. Really, there was nowhere else for me to go.

“Comfortable, bird?” he murmured beside my ear. I closed my eyes without thinking.

“No,” but the drowsy huskiness of my own voice had my eyes flashing open in alarm. Kane laughed, a sensual sound that conjured bedsheets and soft hums, and brought our horse alongside the other men.

Stones, he was always so self-assured. I hated it.

Griffin appraised us with a frown. “You two look cozy.”

“I told him I could ride alone.” I don’t know why I felt the need to justify my position to these men—they all knew my hatred for the king. Had seen my outburst in the throne room. But I didn’t want them to think of me as weak.

It was a thought I hadn’t ever had before and was now having all the time.

“And I told her if she could protect herself, she’d be welcome to have at it. Let’s go.”

I wondered if he knew about my morning lessons with Dagan. But before I could ask, Kane and I took off at a fast clip and the men followed behind us in formation through the Shadowhold gates.

I braced myself for the horrific creatures and deadly twists and turns of the Shadow Woods—but the gnarled trees weren’t as frightening in the bright light of day. I wondered why the forest had appeared so terrifying to me before, and hoped it had nothing to do with the legends surrounding the staggeringly lethal man flush against my back. Every time my anger bubbled up at him, I reminded myself of the plan—be agreeable, find the burrowroot, make it through today, then ignore Kane for the rest of eternity. I kept an eye out for the burrowroot’s shimmery residue while trying to memorize everything around me.

I’d still have to make it out here again the night of the eclipse, which meant eventually, I’d have to tell someone my plan—even if the woods weren’t as terrifying as I expected, I couldn’t risk my family’s safety by

breaking my deal with Kane and sneaking out. But that was a problem for two months from now. Maybe someone would have killed him by then. A girl could dream…

Lofty pines and willows, knotted elm trees forming hidden nooks and crannies, and baby blue wildflowers, were all rooted in the verdant grass and tufts of moss scattered along the forest floor. Little creatures scurried about as we rode through the woodland, and pockets of sunshine dappled through the dense tree leaves.

It was nothing like the forest of my home in Amber, which was golden and rusty scarlet all year round. Our leaves fell like rain each morning and crunched under my feet each night. I had never seen this much green before

—it nearly hurt my eyes.

Kane had been quiet on our ride despite the intimate position. I had been awaiting lecherous jokes and revolting touches, but he had been almost… uncomfortably reserved. I wanted to break the tense silence, but couldn’t think of a single pleasant thing to say. It was odd being pressed so close to someone I felt such loathing for.

Especially because his arms wrapped tightly around my middle were like iron bands of heat, and I desperately needed to take my mind off of them.

“Do you often take leisurely afternoon jaunts into the forest?” I finally asked.

“I’m a little busy for such distractions.”

I rolled my eyes. “Busy with what exactly? Bedding women and killing people for sport?”

His voice was like a deep, satisfied purr. “Don’t tempt me, bird.”

I swallowed against my heart which had lodged itself in my throat. I didn’t want to know which of the two was tempting to him.

Agreeable, right.

“So, what is the purpose of today’s excursion?” I tried. “Why did you even ask to come if you didn’t know?”

A fair question. I tried for half-honesty. “I needed to get out of the castle.

I was feeling a bit cooped up.”

“You get that way a lot, don’t you?”

So, the self-involved king was observant. “Yes. I don’t like to be trapped.

I have an… unpleasant response.”

“I remember—your first night in the cells.”

I tried not to spasm from the weight compressing my chest that accompanied the memory. Or of Kane when he was pretending to be someone else. It was infuriating, still not understanding why he had lied to me for so long.

Agreeable, agreeable, agreeable.

Ryder had been charming for nineteen years. I could do it for a single afternoon.

“I never thanked you. For moving me into the servants’ quarters and letting Barney off his post.”

“Seemed a smart punishment for trying to run away.” I could hear the wry smile in his voice.

“In all fairness, I did warn you I was thinking about it.”

“No,” he chided. “You were looking for help. You told me as a friend.”

The reminder of my foolishness was like being doused in ice water. And something else… a small, strange hurt pinched in my heart. For the closeness I had felt to him that final night before I fled, and learned the truth.

“Yes,” I admitted. “We were almost friends, weren’t we?” “Mhm,” he murmured. “Friends.”

“Why did you come to my cell that night, still hiding your true identity?”

His voice took on a razor’s edge. “Maybe I wanted to see if you were still planning to run.”

“If you had wanted me not to, you could have kept me better guarded,” I snipped.

“Right. How easy it is to keep someone who is deathly afraid of being confined from escaping.”

Traitorous surprise bloomed in my chest at the thought of him struggling to keep my anxiety at bay. I looked out at the forest ahead of us, the sunbeams filtering through emerald leaves. If there was an ounce of kindness in this man that I had missed, I’d have to find a way to use it to my


“Didn’t matter, anyway,” he continued. “You never even made it to my sentries.”


“I had guards waiting at the perimeter of the woods each night after your confession in the infirmary. If you had made it there, they would have stopped you. But, of course, you didn’t.” His knuckles went white with tension on the reins, while his body stiffened behind me.


Minutes of piercing silence stretched while we rode through the towering trees, branches entwined as if woven together.

“Dare I ask where Bert is now?”

“I wouldn’t,” he said, his low voice like a dagger’s caress against my cheek. But I felt him shift even closer, his hand splaying taut across my stomach, holding me to him.

The ride was long, and I was growing tired of our proximity. But I couldn’t hold myself ramrod straight any longer—my back was beginning to ache, my knees and thighs sore from gripping the horse to hold me upright. I gingerly leaned back into Kane, just a little, and let my head rest on his chest.

He flinched and I wanted to say, I don’t like it any more than you do, but feared his undoubtedly cocky response.

Finally, Griffin’s horse overtook ours. He shot a pointed glare my way as he passed and I sat up self-consciously, my back aching in protest.

When Kane spoke, his voice was a little hoarse. “Don’t mind him.” “I think he hates me,” I joked, but it came out without humor.

“It’s not you he’s upset with, bird.”

I wanted to ask what he meant, but we had arrived at a clearing.

The open glade was brighter than our journey to it—bathed in rays of sunlight that highlighted insects and fluttery things lazily drifting through the breeze.

But Kane had gone stiff behind me, and in the distance, I saw why.

It looked to be the aftermath of some kind of attack. Dirt and rocks were

flung about as if someone had been dragged back and forth. We drew nearer, and I noticed blood coating the grass. I prayed the muddied, fleshy masses amid the leaves weren’t viscera, but I had worked with war injuries long enough to know it was a waste of a prayer.

Kane reined our horse in, while Griffin dismounted. The other men came to a stop behind us.

“What happened here?” I breathed.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” said Griffin, stalking closer to the scene amid the tall, muddied grass.

Kane and the rest of the men climbed off their horses to get a closer look.

I followed suit, listening as the men assessed the scene in hushed tones.

My stomach fell further the closer I looked at the gore below us.

Mari hadn’t been kidding about creatures lurking in these woods. I had no idea what could have mauled a person so thoroughly to leave a sight like this behind.

I shoved the thought from my mind.

While the men were distracted, I needed to survey the woods for the burrowroot. I hadn’t seen any residue on the ride here, but I could probably locate it much better now that I was on the ground. How hard could it be? Find the residue, remember the spot, find a way back here safely for the eclipse.


I slipped behind a handful of trees and inspected the forest floor. The grass was high and unkempt, and it was hard to see among all the clovers and dead leaves and tiny crawling bugs that looked like little seeds.

But around the corner of one thick oak, something reflected a ray of sunlight. I flicked my eyes back to Kane, but he and Griffin and the others were still looking around the area of the attack, discussing what they thought had happened.

I ducked behind the oak and knelt to the ground. Sure enough, slimy, shimmering goop was slathered over the roots of the tree. Unless this was the scene of some kind of unicorn intimacy that I did not want to be privy to, burrowroot would grow here the night of the eclipse. Adrenaline zipped

through my system. After all these years, I had finally found something that could actually help to heal my mother.

I stood up and tried to memorize the area. About twenty paces off of the clearing, below the largest oak tree, and the clearing was thirty minutes on horseback into the forest, to the east of the keep.

I could find this spot again.

“I think we’re done here,” I heard Kane say. “Arwen, what are you doing?”

I stiffened and rounded the oak. “Just looking at the flowers.”

The soldiers heeded orders and hopped back atop their steeds. I let out a sigh at the realization that I was headed back to Shadowhold. It was a gorgeous day, the woods no longer felt so terrifying, and I would give almost anything to skip another spring afternoon spent in my room.

Kane’s gaze held mine. “What is it?”

My face flushed. What a silly thing to concern myself with. “Nothing.” I made my way back to our horse. But Kane stayed put.

“Try me.”

I observed him cautiously. He had been uncharacteristically kind to me today. I was sure it was a ploy of some sort, but maybe, just maybe, my attempt at charm had worked better than I hoped.

Here went nothing. “I wanted to… stay. For a bit.” “Stay,” he repeated. “In the woods?”

I nodded brightly. “It’s beautiful out. And nice and warm, finally. Do you think there’s a pond somewhere around here?” I spun around and listened for the telltale gurgling of a babbling brook.

Kane’s mouth twitched up at the corners. He was weighing, debating. Then, he said simply, “Fine, let’s go find you a pond. Griff, we’ll meet you back at the keep.”

Griffin made no move to leave.

“Don’t worry, I’ll bring him back in one piece,” I said with a grin. I couldn’t help the spark of joy from my gamble paying off.

“I should bloody hope so. We only have one king,” he said. There wasn’t a trace of humor. There never was with the commander.

He held firm, staring at the two of us until Kane said pointedly, “You heard the woman. I’ll be in safe hands.”

Griffin’s hard face was a mask of reluctance, but still, he turned his horse and trotted off, leaving Kane and me alone in the woods.

Melodic, chirping birds swooped overhead, and a warm breeze brushed my hair into my face. I combed it back self-consciously.

Kane’s eyes lingered on me.

The clearing was suddenly far too small for the both of us.

I fidgeted under his gaze. I had no idea what to do with my hands. I wondered if he could tell.

This had been a truly terrible idea. What was I thinking?

“Come on.” He broke the strange energy with a laugh, and headed off through a worn path in between the trees. I followed close behind him, my heart still thundering in my chest.

I turned back to spy his horse grazing in the glade where we left him. “Will your horse stay put there?”


“What if one of the creatures that live out here finds him?”

Kane stepped over a protruding tree root and motioned for me to do the same. “He’ll be fine. He’s very fast.”

“What if one of them finds us?”

He stopped short before spinning to face me. “You have a lot of questions all of a sudden. Are you nervous?”

Yes. “No, why would I be nervous?”

“I thought you were terrified of me,” he said, his eyes gleaming.

I am. But… “If you were going to hurt me, I think you would have already.” The truth of the words surprised me.

He flashed a knowing smile, before trudging ahead. He was too pretty. What a disaster.

Time to change the subject. “What was that back there in the clearing?”

I felt his energy change like a dense cloud passing over a summer sun.

His pace slowed but he didn’t look back at me as he spoke.

“Two of our men never made it back from where I sent them. A guard

found their remains this morning.”

Fear coiled in my gut, slick and slippery.

“You think they were killed by something that lives out here? An animal?” A monster?

“It’s complicated.”

Another non-answer. I don’t know what I expected. I wished I could see his face as I followed him down the narrow path. Aside from the rustling of leaves and chirping of birds the forest was blanketed in a quiet calm. The tension that had been twisting along my nerves since Griffin and his men left intensified.

I breathed deeply through my nose. I couldn’t ask to go back now; it would show too much weakness.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “About your men.” But he didn’t answer me.

We hiked in silence until the steep, leaf-shrouded pathway finally gave way to an opening. A long, rolling field dotted with soft pink thistle and lavender stretched before us. In the distance, tucked up against a rocky, mountainous wall, was a glittering, turquoise pool.

My heart leaped, anxiety momentarily forgotten. It was more beautiful than anything I had seen in Abbington. In my life, really.

I peered up at Kane, sweaty from our hike. I wanted to cut through that smug exterior more than I could explain. “Race you there?”

Kane’s eyes widened and he laughed—a real, booming peal that seemed to surprise even him. “Should we make it interesting?”

Though my heart spun at his words, I tapped my finger to my lips in playful thought. His eyes followed my finger to my mouth intently. “If I win, you have to answer any one question I ask with complete honesty.”

He pulled his shirt overhead and then removed his boots. His broad chest was even more magnificent than it had been that day in the infirmary. When our eyes met, my stomach flipped on itself.

Bad, bad, bad.

I dipped my eyes down to my heavy, dark clothing, and unlaced my corset.

“I must say I admire your determination,” he said, squinting up at the blue sky. “Fine. But if I win,” he flicked his gaze to me, “you tell me why you really wanted to come out here.”

I halted mid-pulling off my boot, and gaped at him.

“I am not quite as gullible as you seem to think I am,” he added with a smirk.

Shit. Now I really had to win.

“A truth for a truth,” I said. “Sounds fair.”

Kane looked positively delighted, and I let confidence color my gaze back at him. Matching his arrogance sent a surge of exhilaration through me. We stood there grinning at each other in determination like idiots.

“We go on the count of three. First one to hit the water wins?” I nodded.

“One. Two. Th—”

“Wait!” I stopped him. I couldn’t run well in this thick, wool dress, and our wager had left me feeling bold. I wanted dreadfully to see him cave, or falter in some way. I slipped the heavy dress over my head leaving me in a sleeveless chemise and thin undergarments.

A soft breeze kissed over my body, and I stretched like a cat in the sun.

I felt Kane’s eyes on me and peered over at him. His shadowed eyes traveled over my bare toes, up my exposed calves and thighs, roamed my silk-covered stomach and breasts, and landed on my face.

He looked pained.

“You all right over there?”

He shook his head. “Wicked little bird.” I tried to conceal my smile.

I wasn’t sure what was going on—he had always been attractive. As a prisoner, as an infirmary patient, and even as a wicked king. But some of my searing hate had begun to slip through my fingers…

He cleared his throat. “All right, before you kill me. One. Two. Three.”

We both took off with blistering speed. I pumped my arms at my sides as the balls of my feet landed lightly on the mossy grass. I felt like I was running on air. The wind pulled my hair back and cooled my sunshine-

warmed limbs. It had been too long—the sprint felt like coming home. I breathed in fresh, pine-laced air.

A wave of euphoria crashed over me and spurred me on faster.

To my right, Kane kept pace. His muscles flexed with each pump of his powerful arms, and he looked about as happy as I felt.

But he was picking up speed.

I dug deeper, upping my pace and leaning forward. This was the only thing I knew I was great at. Whenever I felt trapped, alone, pathetic… running reminded me that I could be strong. That all I needed were my own two feet and I could go anywhere. I gained on Kane with ease and saw a look of shock register on his face.

It was delicious.

We were only yards away from the water now and still almost neck and neck. I pushed harder until my lungs were burning, my shins were aching, and my heart raced in my ears. I thought of Kane’s face when he saw me undress and felt even stronger. I leaped into the air just a second before him and landed in the cold water with a splash.

“Aha!” I yelped, surfacing and wiping water from my face. “I won.”

Kane shook his hair out like a dog and attempted to knock some water from his ear. “Yeah, yeah, I saw,” he said, catching his breath.

I grinned and fell back into the pond, letting the chilly freshwater tickle over my scalp.

He studied me with amusement. “You are fast. Like a gazelle or something.”

“Thank you.”

“It must be because you’re so small. Less for your legs to carry,” he gestured at his broad torso.

I rolled my eyes. “Are you bragging, King Ravenwood? About your muscled form?” I tutted in mock disappointment.

“I’m touched you noticed.”

I knew we were flirting. It was despicable. But I was having a good time.

It had been a very long while since I’d done anything of the sort.

He studied me, sparkling water raining into his eyes. “What are you


I was sick of the half-truths. “That I am having fun. Somehow.”

The expression on Kane’s face said it was a better answer than he could have hoped for.

I waded through the pond, stretching my limbs and avoiding rocks and skinny, orange fish.

“You have plenty of fun I’m sure, but it’s been a little while for me. Not so lovely back home in a town reduced to the used handkerchief of war. Or, trapped in a cell in a foreign kingdom without your loved ones…”

I hadn’t meant to sound so bitter, but once the truth gates were opened it was hard to pull them shut.

Kane studied me with wary interest and something like pity settled on his face.

“I can only imagine what you think of the choices that I’ve made.” He swam closer to me, intensity brewing in his silver eyes. “Actually, I don’t need to imagine—you’ve told me, haven’t you?” I swallowed hard and waded away from him. “Just know… they are not made without understanding the sacrifice. The loss, as I told you in the throne room. I don’t have as much fun as you think.”

It must have been the cool water breaking gooseflesh out across my limbs. I forced my gaze away from his, the sincerity there too raw. Too intimate.

“What did you do for fun when you were younger, then?” I missed how I felt mere minutes ago. How light and airy our conversation had been.

“I liked to play the lute. My mother taught me. It was something we did together.” It seemed like a happy memory, but when I lifted my eyes to him, he had gone still, and his expression was almost distraught.

So much for light and airy.

“Was that your hard-won question?” he asked, brow quirked. “Seems a bit of a waste for the insatiable curiosity I’ve come to expect from you.”

Kane waded closer to me, his broad chest rippling with each movement, hair dripping gleaming beads of water onto his face. He pushed it back as he looked down at me.

“No, I—”

I couldn’t be so close to him. He was too beautiful and magnetic and threatening. But he stalked toward me, the pond rippling around the defined vee at the base of his hips. I scrambled backward, feet slipping over the mossy bottom of the pond until my back pressed against the stone behind me. The waterfall from the rocks above trickled down my back like rain. Kane placed his hands on either side of my head and leaned forward so that the water sprinkled along his hands and forearms, sparkling droplets like falling stars twinkling around us.

His eyes were all pupil as they flared at me. That earlier sincerity and sorrow were replaced by a singular, burning attention that landed on my mouth. I was sure he could see my thrumming heartbeat pulse along my neck. I was near trembling. From fear, but also—

Finding my footing, I stood up, to gain some ground, to steady myself—

But the pond was shallower by the rocks. I felt my milky white chemise go flush against my breasts, soaked and clinging to my body. I covered my pointed nipples with crossed arms, peering up at Kane. His jaw was tight, but he had already averted his slate-gray eyes and was gazing at the falls above us.

“Don’t worry, bird. I’m not looking.”

Once again, where I expected insult, teasing, cruelty, instead I found consideration. Even kindness—

The words spilled out of my mouth before I could catch them. “Set me free,” I breathed.

“What?” he said, his eyes pinning mine.

I felt my face flush red. But I had already said it.

“Please,” I begged. “I don’t belong here. You barely need me. Let me go back to my family.”

Kane’s jaw had gone rigid, his slate eyes simmering. He pushed himself off the rocks and moved away from me.

“I can’t do that,” he bit out.

“Why not?” I waded after him. I had never felt so small. So vulnerable.

Not since I was a little girl.

But I was not above begging for my life. He had shown me kindness today. Maybe there was a part of him that had empathy—that might be swayed.

“Please,” I asked again.

He opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it, and shut it once again.

Tears began to prickle at my eyes.

Now that the adrenaline from the run, my plea, and… other things, was subsiding, I noticed the sun skulking behind the trees, and felt my limbs ripple with goosebumps in the cold water.

“Let’s get back,” he finally said, eyes on my shivering shoulders. “You can ask me your question on our way home.”

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