Chapter no 33

The Ballad of Never After (Once Upon a Broken Heart, 2)

Evangeline’s already-light head started spinning. If Jacks’s name was on this wall along with the other members of the Merrywood Three, then he must have been telling her the truth all this time. He wasn’t one of the Merrywood Three.

She felt a shock that Jacks had been so honest. But there was also a swirl of disappointment that she had been so wrong. But maybe she hadn’t been entirely wrong. Even if Jacks hadn’t been a member of the Merrywood Three, they had clearly been friends. They must have all taken holidays here. And maybe whatever had happened in the past still had something to do with why he wanted to open the Valory Arch.

To open this arch, Jacks had upended her life, he’d brought her to the North, he’d cursed someone so she’d get married, he’d turned her into a fugitive, and he’d no doubt done countless other things, and she wanted to know why.

He’d never answered her before, so she doubted he’d tell her now. But maybe she could get him to reveal something that might give her more of a clue as to what he wanted. “Can you tell me about the names carved into the wood?”

Jacks’s fingers stilled. “I forgot those were here.”

His wrapping of the bandages grew rougher. Evangeline winced as he pulled on the cloth.

But she wasn’t going to be deterred. “Why are those names here?” she pressed.

“We used to measure our heights on this wall.”

“I gathered that, Jacks. I’m curious who all of you were to one another. You said you weren’t part of the Merrywood Three, but you didn’t mention being friends with them.”

“I was only friends with Lyric and Castor.” “What about Aurora and the Archer?”

“Aurora was a pest, and I wouldn’t say that the Archer was my friend.” Jacks finished with the bandage, tying it tight enough to make her catch her breath.


“You should go to sleep now,” Jacks cut in. “I’m not tired anymore,” she lied.

He gave her a withering look. “You were just flayed.”

“Exactly, and I’m feeling very awake.” She was actually feeling a flood of fatigue. With Jacks’s hands no longer on her, there was not quite so much adrenaline. But somehow she managed to smother a yawn with a smile as she said, “If you want me to sleep, tell me a bedtime story.”

“This isn’t a bedtime story, Little Fox.” “Most fairytales aren’t.”

The frown lines around Jacks’s mouth deepened. “This isn’t a fairytale, either. Fairytales have heroes. But all the heroes in this story died that day at Merrywood Manor.” Jacks looked back at the notches on the wall, his gaze turning far away and a little lost, making her think that the past was not a place he visited very often. “We were all a little like you back then, stupid enough to believe that if we did the right thing, it would all work out. Lyric was good, Castor was noble, and I—”

He paused and shook his head darkly, as if he didn’t think much of his former self.

“I tried to be the hero that day at Merrywood Manor when Vengeance attacked. I wasn’t there when it happened. When I arrived, everyone was dead except for Castor.”

Evangeline watched regret wash over Jacks’s face.

“He’d been stabbed in the back, and I foolishly thought I could save him. His mother, Honora, was the greatest healer in all the North. And I believed if I could just get him to her fast enough, then she could mend him. But…” He trailed off. She could see on his face he hadn’t been fast enough. “Life is not a kind storyteller. And I’m not meant to be a savior.”

Jacks turned to go.

“You’re wrong.” Evangeline reached out and grabbed his hand. Her grip wasn’t as strong as she would have liked. Exhaustion was starting to take a deeper hold on her, but she held as tight as she could. She wanted to remind him that he’d held her as she’d cried, he’d carried her as she’d bled, he’d bandaged her wounds. But her head was growing so heavy, all she managed to say was “Tonight, you saved me.”

“No, I stopped you from dying. That’s not the same thing.” Jacks pulled away and abruptly left.



Evangeline didn’t remember closing her eyes, but when they opened again, the loft in the tree was dark, and she feared she was alone. She didn’t know if Jacks had even returned to check on her after taking the supplies. She wanted to think he wouldn’t leave her when she was injured like this, but he’d done similar things before.

“Jacks,” she whispered.

When he didn’t respond, she tried it louder. “Jacks?”

The floor beneath her creaked, but there was nothing else. It was just Evangeline, a pile of blankets, and lingering pain.

Gingerly, she pushed up on two arms. Her entire back smarted at the movement, but it wasn’t horrible, and she couldn’t ignore the pressure inside her that said she needed a bathing room.

Another push to her knees and—

She remembered her lack of clothing. There were only the bandages around her chest and a blanket that had just fallen from her hips.

Jacks had clearly returned at some point. He must have removed her blood-soaked dress entirely while she’d slept. She couldn’t blame him. But suddenly, she was very relieved he wasn’t there as she fumbled around with the bedding until she found something soft that felt like a shirt. He must have left it. It smelled of him; of apples and magic and cold, moonlit nights.

He really did smell good.

She slowly put the garment on and then rose on shaking legs. There were no burning candles to guide her, but thankfully, there were the starry lights outside. It wasn’t much, just whispers of gold, but it was enough to make out the edge of the loft, where an old rope ladder led to another darkened room below.

She felt better than she would have expected, but she was still terribly sore and not anywhere close to strong enough to climb down a loose ladder.

That left the outside bridge Jacks had carried her across.

She prepared for the chill of the snow against her bare legs, the dark of the night, and the terror of crossing a sky-high bridge she could barely see. But she wasn’t prepared for the wonder of all the little lights that looked like stars. A midnight army of sparkles. They warmed the air and tickled her skin and made her feel as if an adventure was about to begin.

She only hoped this adventure involved a bathing room, because she had no idea where she was going when she reached the doors at the end of the bridge.

Unlike the tree loft, the inn was still bright and as warm as she remembered. There were happy flickering candles on the walls, and she could feel the rising warmth of the roaring fire burning in the hearth of the open entry that lived below the many levels of rooms.

She didn’t know what it was about this place, if it was just the sparkly lights outside or the reassuring crackle of fire, but with every step she took, she felt as if she’d left the pages of the traumatic story that was her life to visit a lost fairytale land where time and troubles both stood still.

She knew she couldn’t stay here forever. But for a strange second, she was glad she was injured and that she needed to rest—because she wasn’t ready to leave.



Evangeline felt even better after taking care of a few needs in the bathing room. It felt incredible to wash her hands and her face and run a comb through her hair, although it didn’t do much to tame the torrent of pink and gold. But she could hardly worry about her hair when she was traipsing around in nothing but a shirt. It looked like the same one Jacks had worn the night of the costume party. Although the dark sleeves he’d rolled up to his elbows were hanging past her hands, while the hem made it down to just past her thighs.

She needed to get back to the loft before someone saw her in her state of undress—because surely there had to be someone else here tending the fires.

The hallway outside the bathing room smelled once again of spiced apple cider and warm loaves of bread, making her stomach rumble. The scent must have come from the tavern downstairs next to the entrance.

Evangeline bit her lip. Although she was feeling better, it would hurt to climb up and down four flights of stairs—not to mention, she was practically naked. But the bread and the cider smelled amazing enough to push aside those concerns.

After making her slow descent, she found a lovely entry on the first floor. She could see the rounded door that Jacks had carried her through last night. It was carved with decorative mushrooms like the ones that she’d seen on the roof. Above it, someone had carved the words The Hollow: Inn for Travelers and Adventurers.

To the left of the door were the stairs she’d just climbed down. Next to them was the wall with the roaring fire she’d seen from above. There were also notches and hooks shaped like branches, where it appeared travelers could hang cloaks and weapons—it seemed swords and knives weren’t allowed in the tavern, which was to the right of the main door. The entry was open, and Evangeline could smell the sweet, spicy cider wafting through.

First, she stepped closer to the peculiar clock she’d noticed last night. She’d thought perhaps she’d imagined it in her daze, but it was just as she’d remembered. Bright and colorful and labeled with foods and drinks instead of numbers. The golden hour hand currently pointed to Dumplings, the minute hand pointed to Cider, and the second hand pointed to Honey Pie.

Evangeline felt a sudden craving for honey pie, but once again, she found herself distracted by another sight. Right next to the meal clock, carved into the wood, were two names: Aurora + Jacks.

Her stomach dipped down to her toes. “Having fun snooping?”

You'll Also Like