Chapter no 3

A Dawn of Onyx

“Someone left in quite the hurry.”

A rough voice scraped down my back like a dull knife.

It came from the menacing man lounging in front of me, his muddy boots propped up on the table Ryder had painstakingly carved so many summers ago.

Horror so crushing I could hardly think of anything else overtook me. My mouth was too dry to force a swallow. I didn’t waste a moment assessing the rest of the scene in front of me—I turned on my heel and prepared to run for my life. But a young soldier with a pockmarked face yanked me backward by my hair with ease.

My scalp ached and I yelped in pain.

The door slammed behind me as the soldier dragged me inside and the metallic smell of blood met my nostrils. My eyes swept over my home—in the corner, bleeding out onto our wood floor was a bald soldier, in an ill-fitting Onyx uniform clearly too small for his large frame. He had a gaping wound practically bisecting his torso, and two stoic soldiers beside him were packing it with cloth to no success. The broad soldier moaned in agony and the power in my fingers twitched with the urge to help him despite his creed and colors.

I tried not to think about what kind of convoy nearly loses a man and continues to break into homes, apprehending young girls by the hair like it’s nothing.

Each soldier was clad in black leather armor, some with studded silver embellishments. A few wore dark helmets that resembled hollowed, threatening skulls and shimmered in the still-dwindling candlelight of my

kitchen. Others had no helmet at all, which felt all the more frightening as I looked into their bloodied, cold faces.

None of the soldiers seemed at all bothered by the gruesome scene unfolding in the corner. Nothing like our Amber men, they made our soldiers look like little boys—which, in fairness, they were. These were menacing, brutal warriors who were never drafted to fight but rather trained their whole lives to kill and only to kill.

And what else was to be expected? The wicked King of Onyx was known for his cruelty, and his army was built in his likeness.

“What’s your name, girl?” asked the same soldier that spoke first. He was one of the men whose leather armor was adorned with small silver studs. He wore no helmet, had a square face, small eyes, and no discernable smile lines to be found.

I recognized this type of man instantly.

Not in appearance, but rather his snarl, his cold confidence. The rage that simmered behind his eyes.

I had grown up with him.

A shaky breath rushed out of me. “Arwen Valondale. And yours?”

The men tittered, spite and cruel pity rolling off them in waves. I shrunk in on myself without meaning to.

“You can call me Lieutenant Bert,” he said, lip curling. “How do you do?”

They laughed harder now, encouraged by their leader. I bit my tongue. There was something about them that I could not put into words. Power seemed to be rippling off them. I trembled, my knees knocking together in a discordant rhythm. It was no surprise that these monsters had killed Ryder’s convoy easily. I silently thanked the Stones that he had somehow made it out alive.

“Let me make this quick for you, which is more than you’d be offered from some of my comrades. We followed a young man back to this house. He stole a great amount of coin from us, and we’d like it back. You tell us where he is, we kill you swiftly. Sound fair?”

I pulled my knees together and choked back a gasp.

“I don’t know the man who lives here.” I swallowed hard, racking my brain for any damning evidence that might be in the home and could link me to Ryder. “I was just coming by to borrow milk. I saw they had a cow.”

Bert’s mouth pressed into a thin line. The seconds ticked by while he debated his next move. I knew he knew I was lying. I was a terrible liar. My heart spun inside my chest.

He gave me a smile with dead eyes, then nodded to the scarred man who still had my braid wrapped around his fist. “Kill her, then. She’s no use to us.”

The soldier behind me hesitated briefly, but dragged me back toward the front door.

“Wait!” I pleaded.

The soldier stopped short, looking down at me. Nothing but cruelty danced in his dark brown eyes.

I had to think very, very fast.

“Your man there,” I said directly to Bert, “is going to die within minutes if he doesn’t get help.”

Bert barked out a wet cackle. “Whatever gave you that idea? Perhaps his intestines hanging out?”

“I’m a healer,” I said, mustering false courage. “They’re packing his wound all wrong. He’s going to go into sepsis.” It was true. The man was convulsing, rivers of red dribbling from his abdomen and soaking into the wood of my home.

Bert shook his head. “I don’t think he can be saved even by the likes of you.”

But he was wrong. “Let me fix him in return for my life.”

Bert chewed the inside of his cheek. I prayed to all the Stones that this broad, doughy, dying man was of some value.

Minutes passed.


“Everyone out,” Bert finally barked at the rest of the men.

I let out a long slow breath, and the hold on my hair released. I rubbed at the back of my head, which felt bruised and tender. It was the least of my


The soldiers lumbered out one by one. Even the two who were tending to the injured man stood without question and filed through the door, faces expressionless, leaving me, Bert, and the patient on the floor all alone. The lieutenant hauled his feet off the table and stood with a sigh. He cracked his neck, seemingly exhausted by this turn of events, then nodded me over to the dying man.

My legs moved like lead in water until I knelt beside him, and Bert hovered behind me.

“It would have been a real shame, anyway,” Bert said, closer to my face than I would have liked. “Such a sweet, soft girl. Dead so quickly. Before anyone had used her well.” He smelled like ale and I recoiled, which only delighted Bert all the more. “Fix him, and we’ll see how generous I’m feeling.”

I turned to the wounded man, his face a mask of dread. I could relate. “It’s all right, sir.”

Two of his ribs had been shattered at an awkward angle and the flesh of his chest cavity was shredded and pulpy as if something had ripped right through him. This was neither a sword nor arrow wound, and there were no burns to imply a cannon or explosion.

“What happened?” I breathed, without really thinking.

Broad Man tried to speak—a gruesome croak—but Bert cut him off. “There are grislier things out there than me, girl. Things you couldn’t imagine.”

I hated his voice, like the rattle of an empty gin bottle, and the way his eyes crawled over my body, eyeing my chest with no shame.

“I need alcohol and clean fabric. Can I walk around the house? See what I can find?”

Bert shook his head with a gleam in his eye. “Do you take me for a fool?” He pulled out a flask from his boot and handed it to me. “Here’s your alcohol. You can use your tunic. Looks very clean to me.”

With false coolness I took the flask from his hands, his knuckles caked in dirt, and looked over to the injured soldier.

I had gone my whole life keeping my power hidden. Never letting anyone see exactly what I was able to do. My mother had told me years ago that there would always be people who would try to take advantage of my gift, and that was before the war. Now everyone was suffering all the time, and my ability was even more valuable.

There was no way to heal this man without using my abilities. He would be dead in the next hour, if not sooner. But I couldn’t use my power without Bert seeing. Even if I faked an incantation, my power didn’t look like witch magic. There was no earthy wind, no static. It just seeped out of my fingers. Even if he wasn’t leering behind me, if this broad soldier stood and walked out of the house after an injury like this, I wouldn’t be able to credit

my excellent surgical skills.

A furious shiver ran up my spine at the choice in front of me.

But it wasn’t really a choice at all—I couldn’t let this man die, nor could I let them kill me too.

I steeled myself.

“This will hurt,” I said to Broad Man.

He nodded stoically, and I poured the spirit on his bloody wound and my hands. He groaned in agony but held still.

Then I held my hands over his chest and breathed deeply.

Humming while my senses pulsed through the soldier, I felt his organs fuse back together, blood pumping slower, heart rate lowering. The fabric of his skin weaved into fresh, new flesh which bloomed under my palms.

My own heart rate slowed, too. Adrenaline cooling in my veins, and tension unfurling in my stomach. My eyes fluttered open and connected with Broad Man’s. They were stunned, watching as his body put itself back together like a broken toy. The man’s breathing returned to a less frightening pace, and the gash became an ugly, ragged pink scar across his abdomen.

I sighed as I closed my eyes, just long enough to gather some courage. All he needed now was a bandage, and I was not going to let the piggish lieutenant humiliate me. In one swift movement, I pulled my tunic over my head, leaving me in a thin, sleeveless camisole. I tried to ignore Bert’s

searing gaze on my breasts.

I wrapped the blouse around the Broad Man’s injury and tied it tightly.

Bert stood up behind me and paced contemplatively through my kitchen.

He was deciding my fate.

I could hardly breathe. I had never felt fear like this. Fear that shook my jaw, my hands, my very bones.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Broad Man rasped, but Bert was still lost in thought. Broad Man turned one weak eye toward me.

“And thank you, girl.”

I nodded my head imperceptibly.

“How did you do that? Are you a witch?”

I shook my head. “How are you feeling?” My words came out so soft I wasn’t sure if I had really spoken.

“A lot less close to death.”

“All right,” Bert snapped. “Let’s go find the kid. We’ll take the girl with us.”

No, no, no, no—

But I couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe—too much terror was coursing through me; it was making my heart race so fast I was close to vomiting on the broad soldier beneath me.

I couldn’t let them find my family. Bert couldn’t be within a foot of Leigh. I shot a begging, pleading stare to Broad Man, who had the decency to look even more pained than he had when he was dying.

But two soldiers were already coming back in to help carry him out. I scanned the kitchen. Bert had walked out.

If I was going to run, this was likely my only shot.

Pulse thrumming in my ears, I sprang up and sprinted for the bedrooms. I had a better shot of making it out of a window than the front door, with all the armored men waiting outside. The two soldiers shouted at me to stop, their voices deep bellows that rang through my bones, my teeth—but I kept moving, dodging one outstretched hand after another. Around the hearth, past the kitchen table, until I threw my mother’s bedroom door open.

There was the window.

Right above her bed, sheets and blankets still rumpled. It smelled like her

—sage and sweat and ginger.

I was so close.

So close—

But I was also so tired. Between healing Mr. Doyle, Ryder’s shoulder, and the Broad Man’s entire abdomen, I was dizzy and fatigued, my limbs weak, my breath uneven. I pushed my legs as hard as I could, vision blurring, and my fingers finally, finally, just barely grazed the checkered cloth curtains that framed the window—

Until a calloused hand wrapped around my shoulder and yanked me back with immeasurable force, slamming me into his chest.

No. No.

“She’s a right quick one, isn’t she?” he said to the panting soldier whom I had narrowly dodged around the hearth.

“Stones, yeah,” he heaved, hands on his knees.

A scream flew from my throat—furious and wild and dripping with fear. “Enough of that,” the soldier snapped, throwing a dirt-caked hand over

my mouth and nose. I couldn’t breathe.

My arms thrashed wildly, and he released his hand from my face to hold my arms with both hands.

“Don’t make me knock you out, girl. I don’t want to, but I will to shut you up.”

I bit down on my tongue, hard enough to hurt. I had to get a hold of myself. Had to—

The two soldiers guided me outside, where the rest of the Onyx men had gathered with their horses. Bleeding Stones, even their horses were terrifying. Pure jet black, with wild and unruly manes and eyes with no pupils.

I couldn’t bring myself to look over at where we kept Bells and Hooves. I didn’t want to know if these cruel men had left them alive. I thought of Leigh and my mother. What they might see if they came back for me. The blood on the floor…

I wrestled away from the soldier behind me—kicking and panting.

“Come on, girl. You’ve had your fun, that’s enough,” The soldier behind me pinned me to him until I fell still.

So depleted, so cold—

I just couldn’t let them go after Ryder, my mother, Leigh…

I whipped my face away from the soldier behind me and called out to Bert, who sat atop one of the midnight-black horses.

“Let my family be, and I’ll go with you willingly.”

Bert laughed and the gruesome noise rang through the night.

“Do I look scared of you putting up a fight? Just wait until the king sees you.” His wretched smile gleamed in the pinpricks of moonlight that filtered through the trees, exposing all his yellowed teeth. “Besides, I thought you didn’t know the kid.”

My stomach threatened to empty itself all over the ground.

“He’s my brother. But you have plenty of coin—how many healers? Willingly means I’ll help you. Heal you and your men. Can your stolen coin do that?”

Bert didn’t respond, and the soldiers turned to him expectantly. His silence bolstered my courage.

“If you go after them, I’ll never work for you. You can torture me, kill me

—I won’t do anything if they are harmed.” I wasn’t sure if it was a bluff or not.


It was all he said.

So abruptly that I almost forgot to feel relief.

Before I realized what he was doing, the soldier behind me tied my wrists together in front of me. The twine was sharp and scratchy on my skin, and my breaths began to come in strange, sharp bursts.

I did not like feeling trapped.

Heart and head whirling, I was in such shock I couldn’t even cry. I was leaving Abbington. But not for Garnet, with my family.

No, to go to Onyx.


The single most dangerous kingdom on our continent. With a herd of the deadliest men I had ever encountered.

I wondered absently if the king even knew about his errant lost coin. It seemed doubtful. This felt like a personal mission, orchestrated by a greedy lieutenant, who would return now with a new healer and boast his findings.

Acid rose in my throat.

The soldier tugged me behind him as our lethal caravan filed into the night, some on horseback, some on foot. The only thing I could hold onto was the knowledge that my family was going to be safe. They had enough coin now to build a beautiful, safe, new life, and that was all I could possibly want. They deserved it.

I trembled again at the enormity of what I’d surrendered myself to. The horrors Bert alluded to. Most likely I was going to be raped, tortured, or killed, if not all three. What in the Stones had I done?


The cool evening air assaulted my frame, and I remembered how little I was wearing. My face flushed, but with my hands pulled in front of me I couldn’t cover up.

We had been walking in silence for hours. At every hitch of someone’s breath or errant comment among the men, my stomach dropped—sure they’d decided to kill me after all. Once in a while, one of the soldiers would actually say something to another that I strained to hear, but these men were like well-trained beasts.

I’d stopped recognizing anything and all the trees and branches were beginning to look the same. I had also stopped wondering if these men ever planned to set up camp for the night. I’d seen a handful of maps in my life, especially when I was young and in classes, and from what I recalled Onyx was as far across the continent as was possible without crossing the Mineral Sea. I could only imagine we would be traveling for months, and my feet protested at the thought.

Yet none of them seemed tired at all. They were truly a different breed.

But one thing didn’t make sense. These men had no gear, no campsite, no

carriages. How would they survive? How would I?

The soldier that bound me had taken to dragging me along behind him as my fatigue set in. Mentally I was exhausted, and physically I was getting there. When I stumbled over a few dead branches, he looked back at me with what was either pity or disgust. It was hard to tell through his helmet of bone and steel.

“Soon,” was all he said.

It only made me feel worse.

When I was sure my body was mere minutes from giving out, we came to a glade. It must’ve been well past midnight. The stretch of dirt and hay was coated in a dim haze of night, and I had to squint to see where I was going. My feet and ankles and calves protested at each step, so sore that even standing still ached. The men came to a stop and looked around at one another in anticipation before I heard it.

A thunderous sound akin to the bang of a mighty drum or the crash of waves on an angry sea pierced the night. I startled and scanned the clearing for whatever monster must have made such a noise but saw nothing in the surrounding trees. The thuds grew louder, a deafening beat, reverberating in my skull like a war drum.

The wind spun around us, blowing dust into my hair and eyes. With my hands tied, I could only screw my eyes shut and listen with unbridled fear as the noise grew even louder. I was almost grateful to be surrounded by these men who felt more like weapons. Not that anyone’s first intention would be to save me, but I had a better shot at surviving whatever this thing was with them around.

I heard a resounding thud as the creature landed on the grass ahead of us, lifting dirt up around me in clouds. I coughed, the rumble from the ground reverberating through my weakened knees and ankles. The woody blend of smoky ash and crisp cedarwood stung my nose. When the dust settled, I opened my eyes.

Before me stood the most terrifying animal I had ever seen. Not an animal, but a beast. A monster—

A full-grown, pitch-black dragon, covered in pointed, shimmering scales.

More frightening, ancient, and powerful than anything I could have conjured from a book or children’s story. It stretched its massive, bat-like wings, tipped by silver talons, exposing a glittering silver underbelly. A barbed, sable tail swung softly back and forth across the dirt.

The lieutenant approached the beast with no fear, and to my shock appeared to speak to the gargantuan creature.

I gawked.

Not a monster then, but a… pet. The Onyx Kingdom had pet dragons?

I considered the other men, but nobody seemed frightened or even surprised. They made their way onto the creature’s back, which was long enough to have fit double the group if necessary.

When the soldier pulled me forward, I let out a small whine and dug my feet into the ground. I didn’t even realize I was doing it—I wished I was a brave, dragon-climbing girl but alas, the night’s event must have drained my reserves of courage. He yanked me closer despite my protests, until I was beside its sprawled right claw. The four sharpened nails were stained with a rusty red that I was going to pretend wasn’t blood.

I willed my eyes to look anywhere else.

“It’s all right. The beast won’t hurt you,” Broad Man said from his prone position on the back of the dragon, one hand pressed to his wound.

I nodded, but my mouth tasted like acid.

The soldier finally untied my wrists so I could hoist myself up. “Don’t try anything smart, girl.”

I was too exhausted to run anyway. “Not really anywhere for me to go.”

The dragon’s scales felt cool and smooth under my palms as I hauled myself up the creature, getting a better look at its reptilian eye—blazing orange and ringed with gray. The dragon’s gaze shifted to me and seemed to soften imperceptibly. It blinked once and cocked its head slightly. The simple act was so innocuous, so disarming, that I relaxed ever so slightly.

Once settled I rubbed my aching wrists, which were torn and bleeding where the twine had been. My eyes landed on the back of the creature, toward the tail, where a huddled lump was wrapped in burlap, dotted with scarlet stains. A single Onyx boot stuck out from underneath.

Unease twisted low in my stomach.

There was a dead body on this beast with us.

I looked to Broad Man again. Something horrible must have happened tonight. Somewhere between Broad Man’s wound, the blood on the dragon’s claws, and the corpse aboard, was a story that I did not wish to piece together.

I tried to be grateful that at least nothing had punctured my torso. Yet.

Once all the soldiers had boarded, I barely had a moment to look back at my town—my entire life—before the beast shot into the air. All of the breath ripped from my lungs as we plunged upward. The air was thin and icy, and my eyes filled with water as cold night whipped at my face. I held onto the creature’s ridged scales for dear life and hoped I wasn’t hurting it with my vise grip.

The wind stung my eyes and I looked away from the skies and back to the soldiers. They seemed at ease now, some laying back against the dragon’s outstretched wing, others with a casual arm wrapped around a talon. My gaze landed on Bert, only to catch him watching me with intent. Not just sexual, though his eyes were lascivious, too. But it felt more like he was boring into my soul. Like he was mesmerized. A furious shiver ran up my spine—he had seen my powers. That left me even more exposed than the camisole.

I shrank in on myself and trained my eyes away from his nasty face.

We sailed higher and higher, rising above the clouds. From up here, my world seemed even smaller than I had thought possible. This must be how the Onyx soldiers got around the continent so easily. I wondered how they didn’t catch my brother sooner. The thought of him, and the rest of my family, made my heart seize up.

I was never going to see them again.

I clenched my jaw, teeth straining—I could not break down right now.

I had to hold it together until I had the right opportunity, and then I would allow myself to fully fall apart.

Now would be a great time for that optimism I’d been told I had in spades.

I feared there was no positive spin for flying via massive, horned dragon as a prisoner into enemy territory. I looked down at the land below me, cloaked in darkness, and watched the only life I’d ever known disappear from sight.

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