Chapter no 9

A Dawn of Onyx

“You’re poutier than usual today.”

Dagan eyed me, and I shifted to stare sullenly out the window at the woods, thinking of all I had lost in so little time.

The chambers I was taken to last night in the servants’ quarters were nothing special, but larger than the room Leigh and I had shared back in Abbington. The thought depressed me for more than a few reasons. But the white linens had been cool on my skin, and a small fireplace emanated a low, temperate heat. Despite my worry that anxiety-driven nightmares would keep me up all night, sleep had come for me swiftly. Thoughts of darkened dragon scales, bloody fingernails, and careless gray eyes had followed me into a dreamless slumber.

Yesterday, I had thought it would be my last afternoon in this apothecary. Now, it was a lifetime. Dagan’s tense mood paired well with mine, and the two of us only highlighted the coldness of the castle. While I could appreciate the keep’s impressive towers, delicate chandeliers, and expensive textured furniture, all I could think of as I had walked to the apothecary this morning was an entire existence spent here against my will.

“I had a long night,” I said.

Dagan waited for me to continue. I very much did not want to talk about this, but he also had never cared before to get to know me—if we were to continue working together, I felt like I should take advantage of his interest. “I found out someone had been lying to me. And I was roughed up a bit.

By the lieutenant. I’m fine though.”

Maybe I expected the same protective, furious anger that I had felt from the king, but Dagan just continued to wath me, expressionless.

“He tried to assault me,” I said, finding myself looking for an outraged reaction. I wanted to know what Dagan thought of Bert. Of King Ravenwood. Was he not upset by this? Did nobody in this Stones-forsaken castle have a conscience? “But the king stepped in… and sentenced him to death.”

Still nothing.

“By torture,” I glared at the older man.

Dagan huffed and closed his book, reaching under the cabinet. “Thanks for your concern,” I said, under my breath.

He pulled out a parcel wrapped in burlap and rounded the counter for the door. I must have really been boring him today.

“You coming?”

I stared at him, stunned. Coming? With him?

“Where are you going?”

“Only one way to find out,” he said, more bored than anything.

I looked around the apothecary. I was never going to learn any more about this castle—this kingdom—stuck in here each day. And if I had learned anything last night, it was that knowledge was power, and I was powerless unless I pushed my fear aside and braved the rest of this keep.

I followed him out into the gallery without another question.

We strolled silently through the castle, passing corners shrouded in shadow, and soldiers speaking in hushed tones. When I felt their inquisitive eyes on me, I sped up to keep closer to the old man.

My freedom from Barney’s watchful eye felt eerie—almost too good to be true. But I allowed a single splinter of hope to pierce my heart. Maybe the king intended to keep his promises, and my independence in the castle was the first.

Instead of taking the route I had grown so accustomed to—down the sprawling stairs, through the hall of oil paintings and out the front doors to the dungeon—we made an unexpected left and filed down a hallway dotted with statues. A pale marble woman in the throes of ecstasy wrapped in sheer fabric made me blush, while a wolf frozen in obsidian with teeth

bared felt almost too lifelike to be art. The passage ended in a wooden door that a single guard opened for us.

Misty morning air filled my lungs.

We trudged silently down a damp, stone staircase until I couldn’t hold my unease in any longer.

“Where are we going?”

Of course, he didn’t answer me. I should have expected as much.

This staircase led down to a grand lawn behind the castle—vast and emerald green. As I stood at the precipice of the expanse I took in the wide, open space and inhaled dewy pine and freshly cut grass. It reminded me of my morning runs in Abbington, though far greener and more damp. My feet squished in the cold lawn as I followed Dagan down through the clearing and noted the way the trees and wildflowers ringed the field walled in stone.

It was like an arena.

Lost in my appreciation for the textures and colors of the glade, I almost didn’t notice Dagan stopping short in the middle of it, as he dropped the wrapped parcel in front of me. It landed with a metallic clang. He gestured toward it, my pulse skittering at the invitation.

I knelt down slowly to inspect the parcel’s contents, and my mouth fell open like a book.

Inside were two massive, glittering silver swords. The blades glistened with the early sun which filtered through the burlap. The grip and pommel of one were covered in intricate metalwork that resembled the vines of a dense forest.

I bristled with horror.

“What are you going to do to me?”

Dagan’s brows furrowed. “When I was growing up, what nearly happened to you last night happened to more girls than not, and there weren’t any kings around to save them.”

My blood ran cold as I thought of the girls who had not been as lucky as I had. Was he going to finish where Bert had left off?

“I taught the few I could with that same blade.”

In an instant, fear melted into relief which gave way to confusion.

He walked toward me and lifted both swords, handing the smaller, less elaborate one to me.

“We’ll start with a basic strike from above. Evenly distribute your body weight between your feet, leading foot in front, and face your opponent.”

I nodded but still made no move to lift my sword. “Any day now.”

He was going to teach me? To wield a sword? I wasn’t even very good with a butcher knife.

But his eyes were shifting from stern to irritated, and with the metal weapon in his hand, I didn’t wish to make the old man angry. I tried the stance, and he lifted my elbow slightly.

“Hold your sword at shoulder level. Good. First, close the line between your opponent and yourself by bringing your sword forward, like this.” He demonstrated for me, his movement fluid like water flowing over a smooth rock. “Then, step toward your opponent and a little to your right, to avoid a counterattack. Then you can bring down your blade in a straight line to strike.”

I was mirroring his movements, watching my feet placement, and running through about a hundred ways to take the sword and race for the wall behind me that separated us from the woods, when he snapped, “Now, look alive.”

Before I could exhale, he charged me. The man had to be in his seventies, but he moved like a jungle cat. I must have screeched as I dropped my sword like a hotcake and sprinted in the opposite direction. I heard Dagan bark out a genuine laugh before I turned around and stared at him, stupefied.

“What in the Stones was that!” I gasped. “Let’s try again.”

Dagan backed up and waited for me to pick up my sword. This time when he charged at me, I dodged to the left, still holding my sword but dragging it behind me like a dead weight. He really was… teaching me. And maybe messing with me, a little.

“Good. Hold your sword upright. It’s a weapon, not a broomstick.”

“You wouldn’t say that if I was a man,” I huffed, lifting the sword into the air. Its weight pulled at my wrists and forearms. I would be sore tomorrow.

Dagan repeated the move, but this time when I ducked, he swung the sword back in my direction. I bobbed and then backed up, but he stayed on me. I continued to skirt his blows, swinging the way he had instructed, but eventually his sword made contact with my shoulder. I braced for pain but found just a tap in its place. I assumed it took some skill to swing with such precision and vigor, but make sure the blow was slowed just in time.

“Good,” he breathed. “Again.”

We continued for the next forty minutes or so, moving into how to block and the basics of a parry. He corrected my stance, my elbows, the direction my feet pointed. By the end I was dripping sweat, my face hot and salty.

The familiar ache in my muscles, in my joints, was more welcome than I could have anticipated. I hadn’t gone this long without running in years, and expelling some of my pent-up energy was almost as calming as healing.

“Well done,” Dagan conceded as he wrapped up the swords in their parcel. “Again tomorrow, same place and time. We’ll do this each morning before the apothecary opens.”

“All right.” I wasn’t going to fight him when he was quite literally teaching me to defend myself from the very men that kept me in this castle. And the practice had brought me… joy. I was terrible at it, but there was something about holding the weapon and moving with it that was invigorating. I pictured ramming my sword into King Ravenwood’s arrogant face and a thrill thrummed in my veins.

I fought to catch my breath as we walked back to the castle in oddly comfortable silence. The dark sky above us promised a day of welcome rain, and my overheated body craved it.

“Dagan?” I asked eventually, “You’re a skilled swordsman. What are you doing running an apothecary?”

He squinted up at the heavy clouds above us. “I was in the Onyx army.

Some years back.”

I shook my head, “No, I’ve seen soldiers. That was something much more. You’re a master.”

“I had a worthy teacher in my father,” he said, looking down.

“Well, thank you for trying to teach me. I’ll give it the best I’ve got.” He hiked up the stairs, a grin twitching on his lips.

Later, back in the apothecary, I realized that had been the only time I’d ever seen him smile.


If I wasn’t too sore to walk after a morning spent attempting to outmaneuver a master swordsman, the hike up the stairs to the library was sure to be the end of me. Keeping the oath I had made to myself this morning to discover more of the castle and build up a defense of knowledge, I had decided to start somewhere that scared me the least— visiting Mari where she worked. I hoped she might have more information on the king, the seer, and the castle itself. But also, I just liked the girl.

When I reached the top of the near-endless stairs, I was met by books upon books sprawled across spirals and rows of shelves. I’d never seen so many of anything in my life. The library was all warm shades of tea and tan, with worn reading desks and antique velvet chairs strewn throughout. By the time I found Mari in the ‘Gnomes and Sprites’ section, I still had just barely caught my breath.

“Hello,” I squeaked, irrationally afraid of disturbing the books’ peace.

The room felt like a temple—reverent in its silence.

“Arwen,” she beamed, flitting over to me. “I can’t believe you actually came up here. It’s quite the climb, isn’t it? Papa said no job is worth the trudge up those stairs each day, but I don’t mind.”

“The view must be unbelievable way up here.”

Mari gave a knowing smile and walked us over to one of the stained-glass windows that looked down onto the forest below. The pines and oaks looked even more foreboding from above, filtered through the colored glass. Acres upon acres of deep, crisp, greens and gloomy black. A crack of thunder made me jump, and Mari turned, getting a better look at me.

“What’s with you? You look terrible!”

I slumped against the window. “Thanks.”

She leaned even closer, inspecting my face. “Ugh, and you’re sweaty!”

“This is going to sound bizarre—” I started, but realized I wasn’t sure how to finish the sentence. If I was going to live here, at least for the time being, I needed one person I could open up to. Last night had been—

I couldn’t sit alone with all the feelings much longer.

“…Yes?” she prompted, going back to putting books away.

Pushing off the glass, I followed her and scanned the library. An older, bespectacled woman was reading in a corner to our left, and two men who looked like generals were perusing the maps section.

Keeping my voice low, I started small, to test her out. “I spent the morning learning to swordfight with Dagan.”

Mari whirled to face me. “What? Why?”

And here was the hard part… Could I trust Mari? My instincts were never this strong, and they were pushing me to open up to her. She had only ever been kind to me, sought out my friendship, tried to make the transition— though she didn’t know the whole truth of it—easier for me.

I blew out a breath.

“I came here because my brother was going to be sentenced to death for theft, and I offered to work as a healer to pay off his debt. I spent my first night in the castle dungeon and the king was in the adjoining cell, pretending to be a prisoner in his own keep.” When her face contorted, I cut in. “I would tell you why, if I knew.”

“You met King Kane Ravenwood? And spoke to him? What was he like?”

“Horrible,” I snapped. “And miserably handsome. An awful combination.”

Mari laughed, “That does seem to be the consensus throughout the kingdom. How does that lead to a swordfight with Dagan?”

I told Mari everything. King Ravenwood’s lies, the awful lieutenant, my attempt to run, our wretched agreement, and my exchange with Dagan this morning. I told her of my mother, my siblings, my childhood in Abbington.

Everything except for Powell’s abuse.

Mari sagged against a tall bookcase beside me. She actually seemed at a loss for words for the first time since I had met her.

“I’m so sorry you’re stuck here,” she finally said. “Shadowhold isn’t that bad, though. It’ll grow on you, I’m sure of it. I’m even more sorry about your mother’s ailment. I can’t imagine what it would be like to see Papa suffer in such a way.”

My heart hurt when I thought of my mother, attempting a journey to safer lands in her condition, and without her medicine as I never made it back with it that night. “The healers in my town weren’t ever able to figure out what it was. We tried every single potion, ointment, and therapy we knew. Eventually they told me to stop trying to heal her and just keep her comfortable while we waited for the inevitable.” I thought back to the day Nora gave me the stern talking to. I had never felt so defeated.

“I am so sorry, Arwen. At least your small town had a healer, there are many that have to travel for medical help. In Serpent Spring, on the border of Peridot, there aren’t any healers for miles. Once a man had his arm lopped off by a windmill and had to be flown via wyvern to Willowridge. Why he was up there, I don’t even want to know.”

“Mari, how do you even know that?”

“I read it in a medical text,” she shrugged.

This woman was a wealth of knowledge. She— My breath caught in my throat.

A medical text.

Could that be it?

I searched the shelves around me until I saw it, and made a beeline for the section marked ‘Medicine.’ Our small town had none of the resources of this castle, such as a library like this that must have been imported from the bustling capital, and surely other cities over the decades, too.

“How could I have been so stupid to only think of this now?” I said to Mari, who trailed behind. It should have been my first thought in a castle such as this one.

“Think of what?” Mari called after me, before being met with a loud hush

from the woman in spectacles.

But I had already found what I was looking for. Row after row on various illnesses, ailments, and their cures. If there was anything that could help my mother, it was within these pages.

It wasn’t even as terrible a plan as some of my others this week had been

—do a decent job here, heal the soldiers, learn to fight. And all the while hunt for a cure for my mother. Once I found it, I could insist King Ravenwood get it to her, or I’d threaten to stop working for him.

“Mari,” I spun to her, true hope alight in my chest for the first time since I left Abbington. “Will you help me? I know it’s a lot but—”

“There are three things I love in this world. Reading, a challenge, and proving others wrong.”

I laughed, bright and loud. “And helping people?” “Sure,” she shrugged. “That too.”


The afternoon had crept into night as we flipped through over half the books in the section. When my eyes had become so tired of medical jargon that I could barely hold them in a squint, and we hadn’t found anything of use, I stood on wobbly knees and promised Mari I’d come back tomorrow morning before my work in the apothecary. Then I had made the treacherous walk down the stone stairs.

When I reached the hallway of oil paintings, I spontaneously turned right, inspired by my dedication to leave no stone in the castle unturned. Actively exploring the castle in pursuit of any knowledge that could help me had felt much better than cowering in the apothecary.

The new, darkened hallway was aglow with iron candlesticks and chandeliers, and I willed myself to be brave. Shadows couldn’t hurt me. Neither could ornate stonework or hushed whispers from hidden enclaves.

One foot in front of the other—that was all I had to do.

At the end of the winding passage stood lofty, night-dark doors that were flanked by four sentries.

A curse bellowed through them and into the hall, stunning me and

stealing the air from my lungs. That low voice was all too familiar, and I couldn’t help the undiluted terror that pinched in my gut at the sound. Even the guards in their leather-harnessed armor and skull-like helmets flinched.

Every cell in my body urged me to run in the other direction. Away from that lethal roar. But maybe I could hear another snippet of the King’s struggles with the seer if I stood by and listened…

I’d just take a few steps closer…

The massive black stone doors swung open and a sobbing, blubbering mess stormed out and barreled directly into me. I stumbled backward, my ankle rolling in on itself.

“Vengeful bloody monster is going to get every last one of us fucking killed.”

The force of the whimpering man nearly sent me to the ground—he was huge. At least six feet tall, built like a stack of bricks, and sniveling like an overtired toddler. I was not going to stick around to find out what King Ravenwood had done to reduce this mountain of a human into a puddle of tears.

I turned on my heel before hearing the king’s voice boom out into the corridor. “Well, look who it is.”


Despite the acid burning in my veins, I knew better than to run away from him. The looming threat of the dungeon was only a fraction of what he was capable of.

I turned and lifted my chin.

Walking into King Ravenwood’s throne room was like stepping inside a thundercloud. Black and gray stonework made the room feel cavernous, and the twisted throne he sat upon was a monolith of carved black vines. Torches lit the room in columns of flickering light, but there was no hiding the harshness of the space, which was only amplified by the King’s dark expression.

I forced a simple curtsey at King Ravenwood’s feet, despite the way it soured my stomach.

He arched a single brow, his usually sparkling eyes weary this evening.

“What were you doing out there? Miss me already?” “So, not such an insightful king,” I mumbled.

I really had to get a lid on my anger, but I couldn’t help the fire that raged inside of me every time he spoke. And today was especially painful. He was in such a position of power—legs spread, jaw relaxed, a hand adorned in silver rings slung casually over one arm of his throne.

The self-satisfied prick was practically begging for my barbs.

But the guards behind him fell deadly quiet, and I recognized the blond soldier who snapped at me in the infirmary step forward with lethal intent, his green eyes promising murder.

I swallowed, considering the young, stoic soldier. He had chased his own King down that day, though Ravenwood hadn’t actually been an escaped prisoner… Why had he run after him?

“You may want to watch your tongue,” King Ravenwood drawled. “Commander Griffin can be a little sensitive about name-calling.”


The man looked awfully young to be the commander of the Onyx Army. I understood a young King like Ravenwood, likely twenty-five or twenty-six. Royalty had no control over when their parents passed, leaving the crown to them.

But Commander Griffin looked to be about the King’s age. I wondered how he had risen within the ranks so quickly.

The man in question rolled his eyes but kept his stance next to the king, watching me as if I were a threat. The thought made me smirk.

“Something funny to you, bird?”

“Not in the slightest,” I said, schooling my face. “If anything, the mood seems quite… somber.”

The king rolled up the ornate sleeves of his black shirt and crossed an ankle over his knee. His forearms were golden from sun and corded with lean muscle as they rested on either side of him.

“If you must know, it’s been a horrible fucking day.” “Tragic,” I mused. Not rude, but not… polite either.

His answering smile was feral, and the wooden arms of his throne

groaned beneath his grip. When had I become so bold?

“So easy for you to mock, isn’t it? When you know absolutely nothing about what is going on around you. When you have so little awareness of the sacrifices kings and queens have to make for their subjects, the lives lost, the choices that can’t be reversed.”

I tried not to scoff as anger built inside me. He was waging a war on one of the feeblest kingdoms in all of Evendell. He was a bully, not a martyr.

“I struggle to find sympathy,” I admitted through clenched teeth. I needed to leave this room before I said something I regretted.

But the king’s expression only intensified. Simmered under thick, furrowed brows.

“You have no idea how dangerous things are becoming. How precarious the fate is of every single person that you know. That you’ve ever met. That you love.”

I scowled at his attempts to scare me, but couldn’t stop the shiver that slipped down my spine.

“So tell me,” I said. “What’s really at stake for you, King Ravenwood? Or are you scared that I might know the truth? That the only thing which matters to you is your own greed?”

His face hardened into a mask of cruel calm and he stood, stalking closer. I fought the urge to flinch as his face drew near my own and he murmured in my ear. “Firstly, you may call me Kane. King Ravenwood is a

little formal from someone I’ve made blush as many times as you.”

Punishing embarrassment burned my cheeks. The guards behind the king shifted behind him. I opened my mouth to protest his outrageous claim, but he continued. “Secondly, Arwen, having only lived a ‘tiny, suffocatingly safe life’ for twenty years, never having seen anything, been anywhere, felt any man…what could you possibly know at all?”

Without a second thought, I reared back and the flat of my palm connected with his smug, male face.

I waited in still silence for his anger. His fury.

But King Ravenwood had the audacity to look oddly pleased, a strange smile spreading across his face.

As soon as the stark noise had resonated through the room, Commander Griffin was behind me and had my arms in a vise grip.

A wave of panic crashed inside my chest and my heart slammed against my throat.

I yanked away in earnest, but the commander was absurdly strong and pulled me backward. His rough hands dug into my skin.

“Unhand her,” the King snapped, rubbing his jaw and turning back to his throne. “She’s nothing more than a nuisance.”

His words stung. I hoped the slap had too. How dare he throw my own words back at me? Words I had shared with him in confidence, when I had thought he was someone else. It was a low blow, aimed to elicit a response from me.

The commander did as he was told and let me go without another word.

“Can I leave?” I asked the king, trying not to sound like Leigh when she wanted to be excused from supper.

“By all means,” the King said and gestured toward the door.

I raced back to my bedroom in the servants’ quarters, shame and rage warring inside of me. I couldn’t believe I had stooped to his level. Crawling under a woven blanket, the firm mattress dipped slightly under my sore limbs. The day had started so promisingly, with Dagan, and Mari, and my new outlook. The first ray of light in a never-ending chasm of darkness that had enveloped my life.

And now I just wanted it all to be over. Again.

Try as I might to fight it, the king’s words had struck a chord of shame in me so sensitive, so personal, it had felt almost invasive. Like he could see right through me and had reached inside my hollow rib cage to fish around for the thoughts I had hidden in the deepest corners of my heart.

had started to resent my home in Abbington. All the ways my life there had underserved me. And I still hated Shadowhold, even more now that I knew I’d likely be here forever. It didn’t leave many options for anywhere I truly belonged. Somehow, despite the many long, empty days of my childhood, or the recent nights spent in a leaky, stone cell, I had never felt more alone.

You'll Also Like