I awoke with a start at the bells that chimed midnight.
It was now or never.
My mind was still bathed in the fog of restless sleep, but adrenaline pumped steadily through my veins, forcing me up to my feet. Wrapping myself in the stranger’s fox fur, I tied my long hair back in a loose braid and made sure the pack was secured tightly to my hip. I didn’t need anything getting in my way if I had to run from something or someone.
I opened my cell door with a creak and swept my attention over the hallway dotted by crumbs of light from flickering lanterns—eerily silent and empty, as always. I tiptoed down the corridor and toward the spiral stairs. When I reached the bottom, I braced myself with a deep breath. It was a terrible plan. The worst plan anyone had ever tried in the history of the continent. I had no faith in it whatsoever, but it was all I had.
One more deep breath, then— “Help!” I yelped upward.
My stomach threatened to crawl into my throat. I fisted and released my hands.
Silence stretched through the night. “Hello? Help!” I yelled again.
A few grumbles from fellow prisoners, irked by the jarring disruption to their sleep.
But nothing else.
I called out one last time and then sprinted up the stairs until I reached the slatted wooden door of the dungeon. I held myself to the wall behind it and tried not to breathe.
I waited and waited, so long it felt like years were passing by. My lungs were burning.
My heart—racing like the wings of a hummingbird.
I waited until the door pushed open, pinning me to the stone wall, and a guard still bleary with sleep sauntered right past me and down the stairs.
No air in or out of my lungs. None—
“Oi, shut up whoever you are,” he called down.
Once he cleared a full spiral, I slipped out and hurried into the night, never stopping to catch my breath.
The castle was frozen in a deep and silent slumber. I sped along the same path I had taken that first night I arrived, through the field, alongside the soldiers’ painted camps.
I wished I had known about Jaem earlier—once out of my cell, this wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be. If Jaem successfully got me through the Shadow Woods to Willowridge, I might just—
Voices rang into the night and I froze.
But it was just a few soldiers telling stories into the late hour beside dying, dancing firelight. My chest caved in with relief, and I kept moving, blanketed by darkness and staying close to the tents to keep out of sight. Carefully edging through mazes of sleeping soldiers, my back flush against canvas, peering around each corner before I turned. My slippers squashed in the cold, wet mud. I winced as icy water soaked between my toes.
Finally—I spied Jaem’s cart pulling up at the end of the dirt road ahead of me. His horse nickered softly, and I could just make out a wagon filled with dried meats and pelts. If I sprinted now, I would make it to the cart right before Jaem reached the main gates of the keep.
I took a step forward and a tin cup clanged beneath my foot. I silently cursed men and their inability to pick up after themselves and looked around for any sign that someone had heard. When nobody came for me, I puffed out a breath and turned to make my sprint for the wagon, and ran face-first into a large, sweaty body.
Just as surprised to see me in his camp as I was to see him.
My heart thumped loudly in my eardrums as his disbelief warped into sinister delight.
“Look what I found. Little magic girl out here all on her own,” he hissed. “All the coin in Evendell says you aren’t supposed to be out of your cell in the middle of the night.”
My throat constricted with a silent scream. I wouldn’t be able to reach the shears in my pack in time. Even if I could, I wasn’t sure I had the strength
—mentally or physically—to plunge them into his heart, his neck. But I could outrun him. He was inebriated and wearing a heavy suit of armor, and I was fast.
Even faster with fear on my side.
But if I ran, would he call after me and alert all the other sleeping soldiers? I didn’t like my odds of outrunning hundreds of Onyx’s men.
“You’re wrong,” I said, mustering false courage. “The King knows I’m here.”
Bert let loose a low rumble of a laugh, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes. Something in my gut shifted, souring my stomach. I suddenly knew with absolute certainty that I should run. I turned on my heel just as I felt his rough hand grip around my elbow.
“Then I’ll take you right to him,” he said more to himself, hauling me backward.
My entire body shook so hard I thought I’d vomit.
I had to get away from him. Before he brought me into his tent. I had to
“Let go of me!” I hated how shrill my voice sounded, how scared. I tried to pry his fingers off my arm, but he only grasped tighter, his nails digging into my skin and drawing blood. “I am a prisoner of the king’s!”
A sinister laugh slithered out of him. “Exactly. Prisoner. What is it you think that means?”
“Let me go right now,” I demanded, but my words were a strangled wheeze, and tears pricked at my eyes. “Let me go or I’ll scream.”
“Be my guest,” he whispered up against my ear, his breath hot and stale. “You think you’d be the first?”
I didn’t let my shock keep me silent for long. I would have rather been caught and spend the rest of my life in that dungeon than experience whatever it was Bert had planned for me. I sucked in a deep breath to call for help but Bert clamped his meaty hand over my mouth and held it tight. I tried to shove him away, off of me, gagging with fear and disgust and nausea—but he was so much stronger than me. I thrashed and bit, straining for breath, but he dragged me further toward his tent.
“If your mouth feels this good on my palm, I can’t wait until you’re on your knees. Magic girl with the magic mouth.”
Tears had begun to pour down my cheeks in earnest. I choked on a single, mangled sob.
He took us to the opening of his tent, and I could see the pallet and pelts inside. My stomach roiled.
No, no, no.
I struggled, pushed, and writhed, anything to get away— I couldn’t go in there.
He couldn’t make me do this. I wouldn’t let him. I—
“What the fuck is going on here?” growled a low voice behind us. Cold as death and just as violent.
Bert spun us to face the man, but I already knew who would be standing there.
I knew his voice like my own by now.
“No,” The word fell from my mouth. Bert would surely kill him.
The prisoner’s familiar, towering frame, blazing silver eyes, and a more mercenary expression than I had ever seen stared back at us. Fury simmered in his gaze—fury and the promise of death.
But he didn’t move to draw a sword or rush the lieutenant.
Instead, for no reason at all, Bert released me and I fell unceremoniously to the ground.
Confusion rang through my chest alongside my relief, my heartbeat still pounding with residual adrenaline.
Bert stumbled and arched a bow before the stranger. My hammering heart stopped cold.
“My King,” Bert sputtered, face aimed at the dirt beneath him.
My vision tunneled until all I could see was the prisoner standing before me. The weight of realization like a boulder on my chest, crushing, horrifying—
I had no air. I wasn’t breathing. I—
His grey eyes didn’t meet my gaping stare. They were too busy, too focused flickering with white-hot rage, like burning liquid silver, directed at the hunched lieutenant.
I could feel Bert wobble beside me, trying in vain to hold his bow.
A cold rush of humiliation flooded my veins as I took one small inhale.
“You?” The words came out far too hoarse. I cleared my throat. “You’re the… you’re King Kane Ravenwood? How?”
“Questions later,” the king bit out, but his seething tone was directed at Bert.
I watched from the mud as he stalked forward, like shadowed death incarnate, and put both his hands on Bert’s still bowed shoulders, kneeing him with so much force it reverberated through the ground beneath me.
With a wet crunch, Bert flew backward and landed with a sickening thud. He moaned in agony, his nose clearly shattered at a hideous angle, lip busted, and one eye already swelling shut. I thought I might have even seen the moonlight glint off a few teeth in the wet grass.
For once, I felt no inclination to heal.
The king crouched over him and spoke so quietly, it was almost a whisper
—a sinister sigh alongside the night’s fog. “You disgusting piece of filth—a festering blemish in my army and among men. You will regret every single step that led you to this moment. You will pray for death.”
Bert just groaned, and then fell back into the grass, unconscious. The King stood up, brushed some mud from his knees, and turned to face me. His expression was a careful mask of calm, as if he knew that if he either softened toward me, or revealed the depths of his rage, I might fall into hysterics.
And he would be right. I was mortified and sick with fear. I couldn’t form a single coherent thought around the resounding roar of betrayal whirring through my ears.
A handful of soldiers had clearly heard the commotion. They rushed out of their tents, some with glinting metal swords at the ready, others sleep-addled and still pulling on pants—but each one bowed when they saw their king.
“Take this sack of shit to the dungeons,” he said to them. “And tell Commander Griffin,” King Ravenwood nodded toward Bert’s mangled face, “I want him to suffer.”
The soldiers didn’t hesitate, picking Bert up from the muddy ground and carrying him off toward the castle.
The rest of them stood by, ready for further orders from their king. Their king.
“As you were,” he spat, sending the men scattering back into their tents and leaving us alone beneath the shining night sky. Horror swirled in my gut like blood in water as I regarded King Ravenwood myself.
He took a tentative step forward and offered me his hand. His eyes still burned like ice.
I stared at his palm before pushing myself up off the grass without his help.
My breathing had gone so shallow. None of my thoughts were coherent, and I was shaking in awkward, jarring spasms. I didn’t want to be touched by anyone at this moment, least of all him.
The King flexed his outstretched hand and pocketed it as if he didn’t know what else to do with the appendage. “Are you all right?”
Was I all right?
“No.” I wiped the cool, drying tears from my face.
King Ravenwood looked physically pained as his eyes followed my hands on my cheeks. “I swear he will not live to touch another woman.”
Emotions warred inside my heart. Shame at how I had so easily been played for a fool, fury at his betrayal and toward his twisted lieutenant— how close he had come to hurting me… and terror. Such terror of the
wicked king of legend who stood before me, I thought I might faint.
Fury—the easiest to grasp and harness in my mind—won out, and I glared at him.
He rubbed a hand down his face like a long-suffering children’s teacher. “Arwen—”
I made a noise that was somewhere between a scoff and a gasp. I had to get out of here.
But Jaem was long gone, so my feet began to carry me back toward the castle. The gorgeous, threatening deceiver followed me closely.
He looped in front of me, and I stopped short. Our chests were a single breath apart.
I cowered back from his broad form. From the wicked, predatory power that seeped from him.
“I was going to tell you.” He surveyed me from head to toe, seemingly checking for injury.
What would he do to me now? Now that I had tried to escape?
He must have seen the horror on my face because a bitter smile replaced his frown. “I’m not going to torture you for your failed attempt to run, though that would be fitting of the merciless king you think I am.”
“Thank you,” I whispered dumbly.
King Ravenwood pressed his lips into a thin line.
“I need to know if you’re all right,” he said firmly. “Did he hurt you?” It was like the words were blades in his mouth.
“Why were you chained up in your own dungeon?” I asked. It was all I could force out.
His jaw clenched. “I had to talk to someone down there. And not as… myself.”
I remembered the hushed argument that first night. The husk of a man that had been brought back to his cell this evening.
“Are. You. Hurt?” His words punched through clenched teeth. “No,” I said, low and quiet. Lower than a whisper.
He nodded, eyes softening with relief.
“Why… continue to lie to me in the infirmary?”
His brows furrowed. “Maybe you wouldn’t have healed me if you knew who I was. All I had taken from you.”
It wasn’t true, but I wondered if he knew that. Or if this was another one of his many lies.
I didn’t know why I even bothered to ask—it wasn’t like I could trust a word he said. Alongside my fear, searing humiliation funneled through me. I had allowed a monster to lie to me, deceive me, and coax some of my deepest truths from my lips. It had all been a nasty, dirty trick. The red haze of anger that veiled my vision intensified.
I was weak and stupid—first with Bert, and now with King Ravenwood. “Are you really going to kill him?” I asked.
The King’s jaw tightened. “Yes. I am going to kill him,” he said measuredly.
“Of course,” I looked down, but my tone had conveyed my disgust.
“You are impossible. I just saved you from a fucking rapist. Now you judge me for how I wish to punish him for hurting you?”
“He was your own corrupt lieutenant!” I bit my tongue. I was too angry to be near him. I would surely say something that would get me killed, too.
“Yes, and that will haunt me for a long time, Arwen. I had no idea… who he was.” He sighed. “They should have told me. My men. About him. I don’t know why they didn’t.”
“Maybe the other kingdoms aren’t the only ones that fear the Onyx King.”
His eyebrows creased together as he looked down at me, and I wondered if it was shame that played across his face. Whatever it was, it hardened into something cruel and cold and glinting with intrigue.
“And what about you, bird?”
I stayed silent. He was too smug…I knew where this was going. He leaned against the wall beside us. The corner of his mouth perked up just slightly.
“Do you fear me?
His teeth gleamed like a wolf’s in the moonlight.
“Yes,” I wouldn’t be able to lie convincingly. I knew my fear was written plainly on my face.
“Good. Maybe then you’ll listen when I ask you to do something for me.”
My stomach heaved at the thought of what he might ask. He must have seen the revulsion on my face because a muscle in his jaw ticked.
“No, nothing like that, bird. I wouldn’t say you’re exactly my type.” My face flushed with the sting of his words. “I had warned you that escape would be dangerous. Yet you tried anyway. I know you wish to return to your family, but I ask that you stay here in Shadowhold and continue your work as a healer. Consider it payment for your brother’s debt.”
I hadn’t been expecting that.
It had dawned on me a day or two ago that there were far fewer people in need of healing here than I expected. If the king was so desperate for my healing abilities, wouldn’t I have been more useful on the front lines? I had more patients back in Abbington.
“Why do you want me to stay here? You don’t even have many patients.” “Perhaps I am… intrigued by your particular skills.”
My face flushed. I didn’t want to be his trophy—to be kept here like one of the jarred creatures in the apothecary.
“And, in return for your commitment to Onyx, I will find your family and make sure they are safe,” he added, like the only thing that mattered to me in this world was simply an afterthought.
I knew I couldn’t trust him, but the relief at the thought of their safety was like a cold gulp of water filling my chest. The king would have the resources to find them. Spies and messengers, a dragon to cross the seas faster than a thousand ships. He could probably track them down in mere weeks, while it might take me years. A lifetime, even.
Maybe he knew I’d always keep trying to run unless he bribed me otherwise.
“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” My voice had gained a semblance of strength.
Humor danced in his eyes as he ran a hand through his tousled, dark hair. “I realize how this sounds, but you may just have to trust me.”
The very thought turned my insides cold. Stupid—that’s what I had been to even consider it. I couldn’t form words, so I continued my hasty walk toward the dungeon. The King easily fell into step beside me. Damn those long legs.
“Is that a yes then?” I shuddered. “No.”
“Well then you’re headed in the wrong direction, I fear.” I went still as death. “What do you mean?”
He grinned a feral smile that made my blood freeze in my veins.
“You think I’m going to allow you the luxury of the cell you just slipped out of when you have no intention of heeding my warnings about escape or accepting my deal? No, I think I’ll place you somewhere a little less… comfortable.”
I went stiff as a corpse.
The annex. Where all the screams and wails were born.
Blood was rushing in my ears as delight at my torment danced in his eyes.
“You said you wouldn’t.” I sounded like a petulant child, and the words turned to ash on my tongue.
He shrugged. “Did I? Must’ve changed my mind. The stretcher can be very effective, you know.”
Oily dread coated my mind, my heart—my very soul.
He was taking too much pleasure from my horrified expression. I hoped he saw how much I hated him. More than I had ever hated anyone. Even Powell. “You are everything I thought you were, and so much worse.”
His slate eyes twinkled. “Perhaps so. Still, your pick.”
The idea of spending the rest of my life here was enough to make me physically sick. But what were my options, really? Endure whatever he had planned to force me into submission? Images of racks and ripped-out fingernails danced in my mind. And then what? I’d be weaker and more traumatized and even less likely to successfully escape. Wasn’t agreeing to stay and letting him at least find my family the better of two evils? And the more likely one that I could work to my advantage?
“Fine,” I said, biting down on the nausea turning over inside me. “But I have,” I swallowed hard. “I have a request.”
The King took a step closer and looked down at me with curiosity. Curiosity and… something else. Something… hungry. I froze. When I didn’t continue, he murmured, “Let’s hear it, bird.”
“You find my family now. Not eventually. And deliver a letter to them, with proof that they received it,” I forced out.
His face softened, “Done.”
“And you must swear not to harm my brother,” I breathed. “I am serving his sentence.”
“Of course,” he said, though his mouth soured.
“And… I want out of the dungeons. If I am going to live here, I cannot sleep in a cell forever. I need to be allowed to roam the castle freely. No more Barney hovering over me.”
He looked at me, lethal and unforgiving. “Fine. You can have all of your requests, but hear me, bird. You will not run again. If you do, your family, once I find them, will suffer for it.”
Blood leeched from my face, but I nodded in silence as still as death.
“It’s dangerous out there,” he added. “If you can believe it, I don’t wish to see you harmed.”
Despite everything that had happened, I exhaled a long slow breath. If he kept his word, I would be able to get a message to my family. Maybe I’d even see them again one day, if I behaved. And if he was lying, I’d know soon enough, when he had no proof of my family’s safety, and I could try to escape again then, once I had made him believe I had no intention of doing so.
Still, bitterness coated my tongue. I couldn’t help the words that flew from my mouth at him as our eyes met under the twinkling light of the moon.
“I wish whatever attacked you in the woods had succeeded.” Eyes laced with deadly power gazed back at me.
“No, you do not.”