Just one day after the ridiculous window escape, a miracle happened—I found my way out.
And his name was Jaem.
Jaem was the butcher’s son. Today, he had come in with two mangled fingers. While trying to hammer a cut of pork, he had caught the eye of a lovely young woman named Lucinda. With her long, fair hair and narrow nose, she took Jaem’s breath away, and he had hammered right down onto his own hand. Poor kid. While I fit the digits that looked more like ground meat into a splint, he told me he was hoping to bring something back from town tomorrow for Lucinda. He went into the capital once a week to sell the keep’s leftover meats and hides and didn’t tell his father so that he could keep the extra coin. He left each week at midnight.
Tonight, I was going to sneak onto his cart.
I had realized my cell lock was rusted on my first morning here, but I’d yet to find a way to use that to my advantage—until now. Once inside the Onyx capital, I could get to a port city and find safe passage on a ship. I had a little coin still on me from the night we had tried to leave Abbington hidden in my skirt pockets, and I hoped that would be enough to pay for travel from the Onyx coast to Garnet. As long as I could navigate the capital, and whatever creatures or villains lived within its walls… But my unease about being in Willowridge was nothing compared to my fear of the Shadow Woods. If I could get through them safely in Jaem’s cart, I could manage whatever was in the city.
The fear that Barney or Bert or—Stones forbid, the King himself—might realize I helped the prisoner escape the other day was a constant rattle in my
mind. Each day there was a new, more pressing reason why the sooner I got out of this keep, the better.
Still, I found I had replayed my conversation with the stranger more than a hundred times in my head. What could possibly have kept him in Shadowhold after finding a way out of his cell? Why had he disappeared before hitting the ground? Surely my eyes had played some kind of trick on me.
That, and the conversation with the king I had overheard, spun in my mind on a constant loop each night when I was locked in my cell—they were all that distracted me from the clawing, dripping fear.
“Does the myrtle leaf go here?” I asked Dagan, pulling myself back to the herbs in front of me.
A slow nod.
I should have known. It was all I ever got from the older man. He seemed to despise me for some reason, and I tried to keep my mouth closed when around him as much as I could. We worked in silence as the final hours of the day crept by.
Now that I knew midnight meant I might be able to leave, the day was kicking and screaming its way toward dusk.
“Hi, you two! What a party it is in here.”
Mari’s chipper sarcasm as she bounded through the apothecary door was a welcome reprieve from the monotony.
“What’s that?” I asked by way of greeting, pointing to the leathery book in her hands.
“A witch’s grimoire. I think it’s over a hundred years old. I’ve translated as much as I can, but Dagan, I thought you might be able to help with the rest?”
Dagan huffed but I could tell he was pleased with the request. Maybe he was just as bored as I was. The thought made me laugh. He took the book from Mari and went into the closet, presumably for something to help him translate.
I whispered to Mari while he was out of earshot. “I think he’s said about six words to me today. Not a chatty fellow. Who is he, exactly?”
Mari giggled. “He used to be an advisor or something to the king before Kane Ravenwood, and before that, I think he served in the Onyx army, but now he just works in the apothecary. Some of the younger kids think he’s a warlock and that’s why King Ravenwood keeps him here, but I’ve never seen him use any magic.” She tapped her fingers on the wood counter in thought. “He pretends I annoy him, but I can see right through it. I know he loves to help me with old texts and my research on Fae and witches. He’s just a lonely old man. I’m not sure he ever had a family or anything.”
A twinge twisted in my heart for Dagan.
“I have to get back to the library, but maybe we can have supper together tonight? It’s the brisket I told you about.”
I wasn’t sure why I felt guilty turning Mari down again. I didn’t even know her that well. But it had been a long time since I’d had an invitation of friendship from anyone. Plus, I had avoided the great hall for the week I had been here. I had avoided everything except this room, the infirmary attached to it, and my cell.
Even if I was daring and decided to brave the rest of the shadow-filled castle, I didn’t see Barney approving of a dinner date with a new friend.
“Tomorrow?” I wouldn’t be here then, Stones-willing.
If I was successful tonight, I’d likely never see her again. The somber thought surprised me. I hoped she wouldn’t think it had anything to do with her.
Her expression told me she knew I was holding something back. “What’s wrong?”
“Just a little homesick. That’s all.” Another half-truth.
“All right. We’ll see how you feel tomorrow.” Mari gave my arm a squeeze before turning to leave.
Dagan and I continued to work, with only a few other patients—all soldiers—coming in throughout the day. He let me do all of the healing, checking on me once in a while to make sure I hadn’t made any obvious mistakes. I tried not to take it personally.
I was just cleaning up in the infirmary after an unusually gory javelin
wound when I heard a gruff voice that made my stomach swirl with unease. “Dagan, welcome back.” Bert said, “Commander tells me Jade was a bust. Pity.” The sound of boots scraping toward me was slow and persistent,
like the dread unfurling in my chest. “Where’s the girl?”
Shit. I couldn’t be this close to freedom and fall into Bert’s hands now.
Silently, carefully, with such gentleness my hands shook, I closed the infirmary door, then pushed the daybed up against the lock.
I had to get out of here before Dagan brought Bert in here to take me. But my heart pounded so loudly in my ears, I couldn’t think.
If the stranger could do it with the wound he had, I could too.
My fingers reached the glass before I had full awareness of it, and I pushed and pushed and pushed.
The latch wouldn’t budge. The latch wouldn’t budge and I was stuck in here, like a mouse in a trap.
Had it been sealed since the day the prisoner had fled? I slammed myself into the frame over and over, pain searing through the muscles and bones in my shoulder and forearm.
Sweat beaded at my brow, at my hairline.
I licked my lips and strained with the effort, teeth clenched, ears ringing. Come on, come on, come on.
Finally, it gave with a pop. Thank the Stones.
I lifted it up, and a cool breeze kissed over my face. My vision narrowed on the view beneath me. The soldiers milling about. The blacksmith slamming his hammer like an executioner. My palms itched at the sight—I would never make it to the stables. I would probably never make it at all. It was a steeper drop than I was expecting, even from the second floor. I still had no idea how the prisoner had done it.
The doorknob to the infirmary jiggled and I hoisted myself up. “Arwen? Why is this locked?” I pulled in a sharp inhale.
It was Dagan.
I listened for Bert’s voice, one foot dangling out the window, wind
snapping at my ankle—but didn’t hear anything. “Arwen?”
I hadn’t heard Bert’s voice again. The banging continued, and I said a silent prayer to the Stones that this was the right decision before pulling myself back inside.
By the time I moved the bed away and opened the door, Dagan was red in the face.
“What were you doing in there?”
I cradled my bruised arm. “I… got stuck.”
Dagan shook his head and retreated into the apothecary.
I followed him, asking, “Did I hear the lieutenant?” I tried to sound casual, but it came out two octaves too high.
Dagan made a disgruntled sound. “Unfortunately.” “Not a fan of his?”
A smile twitched at my lips. “How’d you get him to leave?”
Dagan gave me a pointed look. “I did not have what he was looking for.”
A huge exhale found its way out of my lungs. I hadn’t even been aware I was holding my breath.
Relief had my eyes on the clock—it had to be midnight by now, right? I needed to leave Shadowhold more than I needed my heart to beat or my lungs to breathe.
But it was only dusk.
“Dagan… I’m not feeling too well. I think my porridge was a bit off this morning. Do you mind if I head out a little early?” I grasped at my stomach a beat too late to sell the story.
He looked at me, suspicion in his eyes. “If you must.”
“Thank you.” I almost said that I’d see him tomorrow, but I felt like I’d done enough lying for a lifetime.
Barney walked me back to the cells in uncomfortable silence. Clearly something was on his mind, but I didn’t care to know what. I had a single mission this evening. I had plotted all day as I stitched and mended, and now it was time to see if I had learned anything from a lifetime growing up
with Ryder. It was all I could do not to fall apart at the enormity of the danger that stood before me if I succeeded.
We arrived at my cell and Barney closed the door behind me, pushing the iron key into the lock.
“Barney,” I asked, grasping his hand through the bars. He flinched slightly but met my gaze as he waited for me to continue.
“I just wanted to say. I am so grateful to you. For your kindness and your bravery.”
As I spoke, my heart spun inside my chest. Using my foot, I slowly pulled the cell door inward, toward me, inch by inch. So careful, to make sure he didn’t notice the rusted lock would only close properly if it was pulled tight. So subtly, that I could hardly tell if I had actually moved it at all. So slight, that he would never have noticed the misalignment of the deadbolt to the strike.
“You’re so thoughtful and have made me feel so at home here. To be honest,” I looked down demurely and thought I saw Barney blush. “You’re… the only thing getting me through this difficult time. I just wanted to say thank you.”
Barney regarded me with painfully uncomfortable silence and pink cheeks. “…All right.”
He shook his head in confusion and finished turning the key before heading back up toward the spiral stone steps, faster than I’d seen him move before.
Once he was gone, I released an exhale I felt like I had been holding for a hundred years. I had been hoping to charm him but making him aggressively uncomfortable had worked just fine too. My hands wrapped around the iron bars with care, and ever so slowly I inched the cell door open with a creak.
It was open. Not locked.
Barney had turned the key into the rusted lock, and the deadbolt had slid right past the strike.
I was free.
But I couldn’t celebrate yet.
I pulled the food and supplies that I had pilfered from my few days in the apothecary out of my skirt pocket and found the paper with a rough map I had drawn of the outer courtyard inside one of the empty buckets. I had everything I needed, including a small pack I had swiped from a snobbish noblewoman’s wife who came into the infirmary with a scratchy throat. Who knew I was such a good little thief? Must run in the family.
Now came the hardest part. Sitting in my open cell, knowing I could leave at any moment, but waiting for midnight, for Jaem, for the chime of the bell.
I was jostled out of a half-sleep by groaning.
A prisoner so bruised his face looked like a plum was dragged along the wet cobblestones before me and brought back to his cell from the sealed-off annex at the end of the dungeon’s passageway. Night after night of tucking my head under the fox fur to hide from weeping, gurgling, and wailing had told me exactly what went on in there.
Three fingers were missing from his hand, and he had a festering wound where his ear had once been. A terrible gasp slipped out of me.
He was bloodied and retching, almost skeletal, and barely able to take three steps forward. Finally, the soldiers reached his cell and threw him in with the sickening slap of skin against stone. It was the cell two over from mine, directly next to where the handsome stranger had been kept. I was certain now that the pulp of a man had been who the stranger had argued with on my first night.
Dusk slipped into night, and my mind never stopped racing. After one uniquely unpleasant imagined scenario in which I only made it steps out of my cell before a soldier found me and sliced me in half for my treason, I turned on my side and released a pent-up groan into my cloak.
His voice did something to my heart that I didn’t want to look at too closely—an uncanny blend of relief and excitement and genuine fear. When
I turned around, the stranger was standing across from my cell, leaning back against the cool, lantern-lit stone of the dungeon, face awash in blue light. One foot up against the wall behind him, and arms crossed, he was the picture of leisure.
I gripped my hands around my knees to keep them from shaking.
“What are you doing in here?” I said, my voice a mere rasp. There were no prisoners in the cells directly next to me, but there were a few that could likely hear us farther down.
“What a lovely cell you have. Much nicer than mine was. A bench, a bucket. How’d you sway the tall oaf to set you up so nicely?” He gave me a lazy smile and leaned closer. “Did you bribe him with your gorgeous, pouty lips?”
I didn’t attempt to hide my disgust. “Get your mind out of the gutter. He’s a kind soldier. One of the rare few here, it seems.”
His eyes sparkled as he walked right up to my cell and peered down at me.
My instincts had clearly been right about him—to be slipping in and out of the castle so easily, and with such cool, unnerving calm. He must have been more cunning, more dangerous than I had even realized.
I just didn’t trust him.
And clearly, the feeling was mutual. He hadn’t been interested in telling me anything about his escape. Irritation pricked at my skin. This stranger couldn’t help me, but he had ample time to stroll through the dungeons and come bother me?
“Your healing skills are top-notch, bird,” he purred. “I feel like I’m in one piece again.” He lifted his shirt, showing me a slice of dazzling, near-carved, golden-brown torso, with a single stitched line across it.
I scowled. “You must have a death wish. Why are you back down here?”
Remembering my cell was open, I crawled toward the door until my feet were pressed up against it, holding it closed. A sinking feeling snaked through me at the thought of him being this close without a real partition between us. He was much more menacing tonight than he had been in the infirmary. I wondered if it was the clammy pallor that had come with his
pulpy chest wound. The look in his eyes when he feared for his life.
“I told you, I have a few things to attend to. Some of which are down here in this dungeon.” He pulled his gaze from me and peered down the dark corridor. “Don’t worry,” he continued, looking back at me with a gleam in his eye. “I won’t get you in any trouble.”
The clock tower outside struck, sounding that it was only two hours until Jaem would ride for Willowridge, and I’d need to slip out of my cell.
“Right,” I said, but I wasn’t really listening anymore. Fear and self-doubt were creeping in like they always did. I couldn’t do this. I wouldn’t make it out alive. I—
“What’s wrong?” His voice had lost its playful purr. “What? Nothing.”
I trembled, anticipation and anxiety physically shaking my body. My bones. The sun was setting, and I had no real plan for getting past the dungeon guards at the top of the stairs. What was I thinking, attempting this? Maybe I had a death wish, too.
“Hey,” he said more sharply, crouching down and slipping a large hand through the bars to grasp my arm. “Talk to me.”
I winced at the pressure on my forearm. I hadn’t healed myself in hopes of retaining all my power, all my energy, for tonight. He released me instantly, his face contorting in horror. “You’re hurt. Why didn’t you say something?”
“It’s nothing, just a bruise.”
Anger simmered in his eyes. “Who did this to you?”
“I stupidly did it to myself, I was trying to—” What? What was I trying to do? I wasn’t going to tell him I was trying to throw myself out the same window that he did.
He waited for me to continue.
“Doesn’t matter. Why are you down here talking to me? Are you going to tell me anything about yourself, how you escaped? Or just keep irritating me at inopportune times?”
“Is there a more opportune time you would prefer?” he asked, arching a playful brow. “Maybe in the middle of the night? When you are all alone
down here, thinking of me?”
I shook my head in exasperation.
He huffed a quiet laugh. “In truth, bird, your cell is the last place I should be, but,” he sighed. “I can’t seem to keep away from you.”
A shiver kissed up my spine.
“Well,” I searched for the right words. “It is nice to not feel completely alone.”
His brows lifted slightly. “I can’t imagine a woman like you feels alone often.”
I shot him a look. “Excuse me!”
“That came out wrong,” he said, dragging a hand over his face to hide a smile. I had to force myself to look down. The dimples. They were killing me.
“I only meant that you are warm and funny and very pleasant to be around. I would assume you are rarely left alone by men or women.”
His words were like a loaf of bread, rising in my chest. Warm and gooey and soft.
But they soured quickly. “You would assume incorrectly. I haven’t had too many friends in my life. Certainly no men. My town was small, very few children my age. Everyone was close to my brother, and I sort of just… tagged along.”
“Then they’re all halfwits. Sounds like a blessing, leaving that collection of huts.”
“Maybe. Sometimes… I don’t know.” “Tell me. Sometimes what?”
Why did I feel the words bubbling out of me? Words I had folded so deeply inside myself, for so long I had almost successfully forgotten they existed. I forced a slow breath into my lungs.
“Sometimes, I wished for more.”
His eyes flickered, waiting for me to continue.
“Growing up… I didn’t learn much, or meet many people, or try many things. It’s shameful, frankly, how little I know about the world.” I thought about Mari. How much she had seen and learned and lived in her twenty
years. I’d bet she was even well-versed in the mysterious, far corners of the continent. Kingdoms I knew nothing of like Jade and Citrine. I shook my head. “In just a few days, I’ve met people here who have seen and done so much more than me. It makes me feel like I’ve barely lived.”
“Why didn’t you leave?”
Fear. Constant and cloying fear that dripped down my neck like thick syrup each and every day.
“I had a lot of responsibilities. I couldn’t,” I said instead. “That sounds like a load of shit to me.”
I stiffened. “You’re foul.” “I’m honest.”
My fingers pinched the bridge of my nose. Forget foul—this man was maddening.
“Never mind, I’m going to sleep.”
I made to crawl back to my corner, but he grasped between the bars and wrapped a strong hand around my bare ankle. His touch was firm enough to hold me in place, but gentle around the sensitive skin. A chill ran up my calf and settled between my legs. I shivered.
“Come on, bird. You’ve got no reason to lie to me. Why did you stay?” “Let go of me.”
He did so at once and without hesitation.
“I told you. My mother was ill. My sister was young. Even before my brother had been sent off to fight in your king’s war, someone had to help take care of them.”
He shook his head and an uncomfortable silence stretched between us like a long and unending sea.
“And I had a person there that I cared about.”
The stranger’s full brows quirked up in interest. “I thought you said no men.”
Halden wasn’t a man. He was… Halden. It was—
I didn’t need to explain myself to this stranger. I opened my mouth to say exactly that.
But he just shook his head. “Nah.”
I crossed my arms. “What do you mean, ‘nah’?” He shrugged. “He wasn’t much to you.”
“You don’t light up when you speak of him. You clearly never think of him. Try again.”
“You’re so dismissive. How could you possibly know that?”
“Trust me, I know these things.” His eyes bored into mine. “Why did you
Ugh. Enough already. What did it matter, anyway? “I was scared.” “Of what?”
“Of everything!” I gestured wildly at the bars surrounding me where I was held against my will in the most treacherous kingdom in Evendell. “Look what happens when you take one step out of your tiny, suffocatingly safe life!”
Why did I feel so guilty saying it out loud?
“Fair point, bird. Prison’s not the ideal result of adventure, I’ll give you that.”
I laughed hard—drained and frustrated and so, so tired. I heard a grunt from a cell farther back and quieted myself.
“All right, so maybe I traded one prison for another. I will say, at least I’m constantly learning here. There are herbs and medicines in that apothecary I’ve never even heard of, let alone seen in person.”
“Your positivity baffles me.” I lifted a brow in question.
“The way you look at things. It’s just…” His hand disappeared in his dark locks. “Refreshing.”
I considered him. Perfect, dark hair curling over his forehead and down at the base of his neck. The tiniest bit of scruff along a jawline that rivaled jutting cliffs. Those clear, slate eyes. My heart was thrumming.
“What?” He said with a roguish grin. No. Not the teeth. The full smile was arresting. It was uncanny, seeing someone so stunning, so clearly powerful, so dangerous, share something as intimate as a smile. Knowing any attempt at a lie would be abysmal, I tried to cover with something
“Just trying to understand you.”
His smile faded and he lifted his eyes to the ceiling in thought. Then he stood abruptly.
“Time for me to go.” He tried for lighthearted. “I promised you no trouble, right?”
I nodded, but struggled to find words.
He turned back to me before leaving. “Keep your chin up, bird. You’re not alone here.”
“Well, I will be, when you finally finish whatever it is that keeps you hanging around Shadowhold.”
I sounded so pathetic my toes curled inside my shoes.
But he just regarded me with those cursory eyes and an elegant smile. “I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
And with that, he slipped down the passageway like a shadow, and up the stairs into the night. I almost felt bad—I hadn’t told him that even if he was planning on staying here, I wasn’t.
I curled up in the corner. The journey ahead of me would be more dangerous and unpleasant than anything I had ever experienced. And that was if I even made it out tonight alive. I rolled to my side and wound myself into a ball, wishing I didn’t feel so afraid.