I was surprised to find someone already in the apothecary the next morning when Barney escorted me over. I studied the man reading behind the
counter; he had gray hair with a few strands of black still woven throughout, a patchy beard, and a long lean build. He looked up at me with stern eyes, and I noticed dark bags underneath them.
“You must be Arwen.” “Dagan?” I asked.
He gave a curt nod before going back to his book. “Do you work here too?”
He looked up at me as if I were bothering him. Which, I probably was. My cheeks went warm with the feeling of being a nuisance.
“Sometimes,” he mumbled, before losing interest in me once again.
Lovely. I made myself busy sorting some of the dried herbs and reading a new healing text.
All I had been able to think of last night was the conversation I had overheard. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I were smarter, I could use some piece of information from the king’s private argument to my advantage—to aid my escape plan. My very poorly constructed, not really existent yet escape plan.
All I had gathered was that the king was clearly searching for something, and that time was running out…
I didn’t know what to think about the mention of a seer. Yet another thing I had thought was only fable. The power to see the future, to decree the Stones’ will to us mere mortals. It was more than I could really comprehend.
My eyes flit to Dagan. He looked like he had lived in Onyx all his life based on his menacing scowl and comfort behind the counter. Maybe I could ask him, very subtly…
“Do you,” I swallowed awkwardly. “Do you know—”
“I’ll be back shortly,” he said before heading for the door. Oh. Great.
“All right,” I sighed, confused. Remembering yesterday I added, “I think Mari was hoping to come see you today. If she comes by while you’re gone, shall I tell her you’ll be back?”
Dagan looked like years had been taken off his already long life. I had a feeling he barely tolerated Mari’s chaotic energy.
“No.” And with that, he was off.
About an hour after that, my herbs had been sorted not only by color and place of origin, but also by how handsome I thought they would be as boys
—cardamom clearly took the win there—and my boredom had become excruciating.
I stood up and clasped my hands together, bringing them over my head and leaning forward to stretch my back after hunching for so long over the dried leaves.
My hum of pleasure at the release was abruptly interrupted by the husky clearing of a throat.
“I hate to complain about the view, bird, but I fear I’m in need of some assistance.”
My stomach felt like it had tripped over a cliff. I knew that voice. I snapped up.
Before me stood my alarmingly handsome cellmate. Not dead after all, but not far from it. He was in nothing but a pair of trousers that had been shredded at one calf and were caked in dirt. His hair was stuck to his forehead with sweat and grime, and he held himself against a shelf with one arm.
It was a terrible time to notice, but his chest and abdomen were brilliantly sculpted. Shiny with sweat and dusted with a few fine dark curls. His cut arms flexed as he gritted his teeth and held himself upright. Despite his
clear pain, he gave me a self-assured smile, which was both charming and infuriating at once. He had definitely caught me gawking.
I tried to avert my eyes—like a lady—when I saw it. His other hand pressed tightly to his right side. Sticky blood seeping in between his fingers and down his rib cage, pooling over his hip bone and into his waistband.
I rushed to his side, but thought better of wrapping my arms around his hulking form—even injured, he looked like he could crush me with one hand if he wanted to—and instead guided him lightly onto the infirmary bed and slammed the door shut behind us. His body felt like chilled steel against my hands. The lack of heat radiating from him worried me. Too cold and clammy.
He’d lost a lot of blood.
The stranger closed his eyes with a pained grunt.
“What happened?” I asked as I filled a bowl with warm water and antiseptic. How in the world was he out of his cell and wandering the castle? With guards at every turn, in every nook and corridor?
“Just a tussle. I’m sure it’s fine.”
Anxiety crawled up my neck like spiders. “Can you show me?”
He released his hand from his side with caution, and I was instantly grateful for the wartime horrors I had witnessed these past few years back in Abbington—not so much for the medical experience, but so I knew not to gasp out loud at the gore and frighten my patient.
Keeping him calm was as important as stitching him up.
A massive chunk of flesh had been torn out right between his ribs. I could almost see the bone beneath the muscle.
“Is it the worst you’ve seen, bird?”
“Not by half. As you said, just a tussle. I’ll have you stitched up in no time.” I kept my voice relaxed as he opened his eyes and watched me gather my supplies.
He recoiled a little when my cloth first touched the wound. I could tell from the dozens of other scars on his arms and torso that this wasn’t his first tussle. Still, when he flinched again, I felt the need to distract him, as he had done for me that first night in the dungeon.
“How did you get out?” I asked as I cleaned the gash. “I thought maybe something had happened…”
“Aw, bird. Were you worried about me? Scared you’d find my head on a stake?”
My mouth twitched, but I couldn’t think of a witty barb fast enough. I actually had been worried about him, or at least what his fate meant for my own. His brows quirked up, and he quickly averted his eyes. But the flicker of disbelief I had seen in them surprised me.
Regardless, he had dodged my question, clearly uninterested in sharing his escape route.
“Do they know you made it out of the castle… or back into it? Why are you even still here?” I asked.
“Once I got this nasty thing, there weren’t too many other places for me to go.” He winced as I scraped dirt out of a particularly thrashed section of his side.
“So you doubled back to the keep you just escaped from? I figured someone like you would just keep running.”
“So, someone very stupid?” “You said it, not me.”
But I couldn’t stop checking the infirmary door. Would Barney or Bert or another soldier barge in at any moment and kill him? Or me, for helping him?
I had to work very, very quickly.
“In case you missed it, bird, there aren’t any towns or villages for miles.
What odds would you give me running for days with this kind of injury?” “Aren’t you worried they’ll catch you back here?”
He grimaced while I worked, lifting his left shoulder in a shrug. “I’m not the soldiers’ top priority. We are at war, you know.”
I swallowed thickly, hoping he was right.
He raised a curious brow in my direction. “You don’t have to worry. They won’t punish you for stitching me up.”
“You don’t know that,” I hissed, my eyes darting to the door once more. “So then why help me? If you think it could be your death sentence?” My face flushed. He was right. This was a terrible idea.
“Because. You’re hurt. And I’m a healer.”
His gaze raked over my face. “You’re very moral, bird. What’s someone like you doing in an Onyx dungeon?”
Reluctance pulled my bottom lip into my mouth in thought. But he had successfully escaped his cell. I had been looking for a way out, and here it was. Maybe he would trade a secret for a secret. It seemed a worthy currency for a kingdom such as this one.
“My brother stole something from the king, and I made a deal to save his life,” I said, eyes still on his wound.
After a too-long silence, I peered up to see the man’s face had hardened. “Why?”
Defensiveness flooded me. “What do you mean, why? He’s my brother. I couldn’t let the Onyx bastards kill him.”
His eyes bored into mine. A mix of coldness and curiosity.
“Why did you think your life was worth less than his?” His words were not at all what I was expecting.
“I—I didn’t… It’s not like that.” For some reason, my face had flushed.
Growing up, I had always envied Ryder. Men wanted to be friends with him, women wanted to be with him. Powell and my mother adored him. In their eyes, he could do no wrong. With that came an incredible sense of self-assurance that in turn only made him more successful at everything he attempted.
Maybe I had felt like if someone had to make the sacrifice, better it was me than him. Shame coated my tongue, rang through my ears. My cheeks felt hot. I looked down at the wound I was cleaning. The sooner I could get him out of here the better. The prisoner watched me carefully, and I hid from his prying eyes and finished my work.
Once the wound was clean and dressed with ointments, I began to stitch him up. He lay still, barely flinching as I sewed through his skin.
It was now or never. I was almost done—
I thought of the lieutenant, the fact that King Ravenwood was somewhere in this castle, and weighed my next words carefully. I only had one chance at this.
“I could use your help.”
His eyebrows shot up, but he waited for me to continue. I turned around the truth in my mind. I couldn’t trust this man, of course, but time was running out. As soon as he was healed, he’d be gone, and with him, my only chance at freedom.
As if he saw me debating whether to open up, he said, “You’ve helped me quite a bit—let me return the favor.”
I swallowed against the bile burning in my throat.
“Help me escape. You’ve clearly had success in doing exactly that. Take me with you, please.”
His brows pulled together, but he didn’t say anything. I finished my last stitch and began wrapping the wound in bandages.
“Can’t. Sorry. I still have some business to attend to here.”
“You’re a fugitive,” I said, a laugh that was more shock than anything else slipping out. “What business do you have other than getting out of this Stones-forsaken place alive?”
Maybe it was his ego—maybe he needed me to beg him for help. I wasn’t above that. I’d do whatever I had to do. He grinned and sat up, taking the last few bandages from my hands and finishing the job himself.
“A fair point from a wise woman, but sadly I can’t tell you much more, except that the woods around Shadowhold are fierce and filled with creatures I wouldn’t advise you to face alone.”
“So I’ve heard. Is that how you got this injury? Something took a bite out of you on your way out?”
A laugh breezed out of him, and he winced. “You’re not so far off.” He swung his legs around and stood up gingerly.
“Wait,” I motioned back to the bed. “I wasn’t done. One last ointment.”
His brow furrowed but he gestured toward himself as if to say fine, hurry up then.
I grabbed a healing salve and crossed the room to stand beside him. Stones, he was tall. He towered over me. Even misted in sweat and pale from blood loss his beauty was painful. Heartbreaking.
And he really needed to put a shirt on. I took a tentative breath and slipped my hands under the bandages with the guise of applying the ointment. His breath hitched at my touch, and I let droplets of my power spill out into his skin and pull his ripped flesh together, reinforcing the stitches and calming the swelling.
“Why won’t you help me? I won’t be a burden to you. I promise.” I peered up at him.
His eyes were soft, but wounded. Maybe he was just in a great deal of pain from his injury.
“I’m sorry, bird. I fear you’re needed here.”
I pulled my hands away and his gaze dragged over me, slow and savoring and shockingly intimate. The space between us crackled.
Using my powers always drained me a little, and I could feel a slight fatigue beginning to set in. His eyes narrowed and he stepped even closer, his bewitching woody scent filling my senses.
“Are you all right?” “Just tired.”
He nodded. “Happens to me too.”
My brows knit inward. “You… get tired?”
It almost looked like his cheeks were flushing, but before he could respond the loud slam of the apothecary door swinging open in the next room pulled his gaze from mine. Without missing a beat, the man shot me an apologetic smile and hoisted himself out the window.
“Shit!” I whisper-shrieked, running around the table to the windowsill, but he was out with a grunt before I could stop him. I looked down at the dusty ground below and drew in a true gasp.
He was gone.
I spun around right as a handsome man with honey hair and clear green eyes like sea glass came barreling into the room.
My chest expanded as I tried to remember to breathe. Adrenaline still simmered in my veins.
“Where is he?” The broad-shouldered man was almost as tall as the prisoner, and possibly stronger. He wore an Onyx uniform with glistening studs along the black leather harness. Turning in circles, he inspected the small room. Then, his threatening, vicious gaze dragged over me.
I swallowed hard, shifting under his unflinching eyes. “I’m Arwen, the new healer. Who are you looking for?”
He shot me a devastating glare and I cowered. Without saying anything further, he turned on his heel and slammed the door behind him.