Chapter no 9

These Hollow Vows (These Hollow Vows, 1)

NOT A WOLF. EVEN IN A CROUCH, this animal’s head is nearly as high as I am tall. A tongue darts out between long, fanged teeth, and it prowls toward me one slow step at a time.

I have no weapons but my fickle magic and nowhere to hide but in a forest this creature undoubtedly knows better than I do.

The branches of an oak tree flare out above me, but the ones within my reach are spindly and look too weak to hold my weight. Several feet away is maple tree with sturdy lower branches. If I sprint and jump, I might be able to climb high enough before the wolf-thing can reach me.

A low snarl, and it creeps closer, as black as night, the promise of death in its eyes.

Take a deep breath and run, Brie.

Turning, I sprint forward, then cut to my left as fast as my dress will allow. The creature lunges toward me, moving too fast for something so massive. I jump, reaching as high as I can even as the feel of the beast’s breath warms the skin on the back of my neck. My fingertips brush the branch, and the bark bites into my skin as I grapple for a better grip.

I curl my fingers to claws, trying to hold on, but I slip. Time moves in slow motion as I fall toward to the forest floor and the beast’s snapping maw.

I kick hard, aiming to dislocate the creature’s jaw and barely moving it.

Pain sears through me as those teeth sink into my calf, and I scream as the muscle is torn away. I’m in over my head. I’m nothing against this place.

Low growls sound behind the creature, and two wolves pounce on it. For one pain-blurred moment I think they might be trying to protect me, but I’m delirious, and the rational part of my mind knows they’re probably fighting for territory.

Or fresh meat.

I try to stand as the smaller wolves work together to attack the beast, but the moment I put weight on my injured leg, I collapse to the forest floor.

I use the tree to pull myself back up, and a horrific roar rips through the forest. The wolves’ attention snaps away from the beast for one long beat before they turn and run . . . leaving me alone with the black, snarling


It moves slower now—blood oozing from bites on its back—but not slow enough to make up for my maimed leg. I scramble backwards, trying to put all my weight on my good side and crying out when I collapse again.

The beast lunges, jaws wide, and I know it’s coming for my neck. Before it can reach me, an invisible wind lifts it from the ground and throws it into a tree across the clearing.

The creature screeches and collapses on the forest floor with one final cry.

“Abriella.” Sebastian is here, breathless. He scoops me up like I’m weightless and cradles me in his arms. “Brie? Are you okay?”

I nod against his chest, but I’m not okay. The pain in my leg is so blinding, nausea rolls through me, but it’s nothing compared with the defeated ache in my chest. I am so unequipped to take on this vicious world.

“Brie, your leg.” He shifts me in his arms, and I jerk away as he reaches for the wound. “Shh. Be still.” With a touch of his hand, the pain disappears.

I’m shaking so hard, and I take deep breath after deep breath to calm myself.

Sebastian smooths my hair off my face, tucking the loose strands behind my ears, and I realize that he’s the one who’s shaking. “I wanted to give you space, but I should have come after you. I’m so sorry I didn’t come sooner.”

I swallow. He looks . . . devastated. No matter how much his deception hurts, this is still Sebastian. He’s broken my trust, but my feelings for him haven’t disappeared because of who his mother is. They haven’t vanished because he can wield magic from within himself more effectively than

anything he learned from Mage Trifen. “I’m okay.”

He runs a finger across my cheek, and when he pulls it away, I see blood. “I’m taking you back to the palace to see my healers.”

The pain is gone, but I feel off, as if I am losing my balance and slipping from existence, whether from Sebastian’s magic or a reaction to the

creature’s bite. I need help. I need healers. I nod and cast one last look toward the body of the beast.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” Sebastian says again. “I’m so sorry.”

He carries me out of the forest to a clearing where a white stallion waits in the moonlight. Sebastian’s big hands are gentle—reverent—as he lifts me onto the horse. When he climbs on behind me, I relish the solid strength of him and the reassuring heat of his skin through his tunic. If I close my eyes, I can pretend we’re back in Fairscape and nothing has changed.

He wraps one arm around me, and taking the reins with his other hand, he urges the horse into a gallop.

With his breath in my ear, the steady beat of his heart against my back, the rhythm of the horse beneath me, my eyes grow heavier with every step.

I’d slide off this horse if he weren’t holding me. My muscles refuse to

work. I melt into his heat, his protective embrace, and I resent myself for the weakness.

By the time we arrive at the castle, keeping my eyes open is a losing battle.

He positions my hands on the stallion’s neck. “Hang on right there for a minute,” he instructs. He swings off the horse and hops to the ground, immediately reaching for me. Even half conscious, with a numb leg, I’m

aware of every point of contact as he pulls me into his arms. He smells like the salt of the sea and the leather of his vest and pants. I jostle against his

chest as he runs through the castle doors with me in his arms.

“Am I dying?” I ask against his chest, but I’m so tired there’s no urgency behind my words.

“The Barghest’s saliva is slowing your heart rate. If we don’t get you the antitoxin quickly . . .” He runs faster, and I close my eyes, unable to muster the energy to worry. I’m vaguely aware of the sound of people around us, quick steps on stone and doors opening and closing.

“A Barghest got her in the forest—” he says. “Call the healer.”

I open my eyes as a set of double doors opens before us and Sebastian

carries me to a large four-poster bed. The layers of soft white bedding look like something from a dream. I curl onto my side. I don’t care about

anything but sleep right now.

When I close my eyes, I see Jasalyn’s smiling face, and grief rips through me.

“Tell Jas I’m sorry,” I whisper.

“Don’t—” He grips my shoulder in his warm, callused hand. “Don’t talk like that.”

But doesn’t he know it’s true? I can feel death in the poison snaking its way through my veins. I open my mouth. I need to speak but can’t find the energy.

Promise me you’ll find her.

My mouth won’t form the words.

Sebastian grips my shoulder harder. “Hold on, Brie.”

I don’t know how long I lie there, fading in and out of consciousness. I hear Sebastian talking to someone. Maybe many someones. Commanding them to action, shouting when they move too slowly.

“She’s lost a lot of blood,” an unfamiliar voice says. “And the toxin is spreading. She might not be able to drink.”

“Abriella . . .” Sebastian says. That hand on my shoulder again. So warm.

So strong. My one safe place to land. Even now. “Abriella, I need you to drink this.”

Glass against my lips. Warm liquid spills onto my tongue, down my chin. “Swallow, dammit! You have to swallow.”

I choke, gag, and finally manage to swallow before my energy flags again and I go limp in his arms.

“Good,” Sebastian murmurs. “Good girl.”

“I need to heal this leg before she loses any more blood,” the unfamiliar voice says.

“Do it,” Sebastian snaps.

The scorching heat of healing hands pulls me back in time. Then and now blur together. Mom’s voice. Sebastian’s. Wind chimes at midnight. A stranger’s promises.

My bedroom is ensconced in fire—my body wrapped around Jasalyn, protecting her from flames that feel like they are eating me alive.

I’m barely aware of Mother’s voice. Please save herThere’s a cost.

I’ll pay it. I want to open my eyes and tell her it will be okay, but I can’t. Her desperate silence is broken by a gasp that makes my heart ache. There has to be another way.

I do this for you.

My mother’s sobs fill my ears, and then the numbness fades away with the heat of healing hands on my burns.

Pain. Lashing, blinding, terrible pain.

A spool of cool relief. And . . . life—pumping through my veins and rushing through my limbs.

I spy my mother looking both relieved and wretched. As if she’d sold a part of herself.



When I open my eyes, I almost expect to see my mother as she was the day I woke up nine years ago, healed from my burns. But she’s not the one who sits in the chair by this unfamiliar bed. It’s Sebastian, with his pointed ears and delicate fae grace. He’s covered in blood, and his eyes are closed.

“Bash?” My throat is ravaged, and his name comes out broken.

Sebastian jerks awake and releases a long breath as he studies me. “It’s okay,” he says softly, resting a hand on top of mine. “You’re going to be okay. I’m here.”

He’s here. And curse me but it feels good to know so completely that it’s true. For this moment at least, for this set of struggles, I’m not alone.

“Thank you.” My voice sounds scratchy. “How long was I out?” “Only a few hours. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.” My stomach churns at the sight of the blood on him. Not on me, though. I’m in a clean, light blue sleeping gown of the softest cotton.

Sebastian catches me studying the gown. “We tried to save your dress, but it was covered in blood and shredded in places.”

“You dressed me?” A silly question, really, given everything else. But the thought of him dressing me in sleep clothes and cleaning the blood off me

. . .

He shakes his head, and then his eyes go wide as he realizes what I’m asking. “One of the handmaids changed you. I didn’t—it wasn’t—I

wouldn’t . . .”

If I weren’t so exhausted, I might laugh at the red creeping up his neck.

“I wasn’t worried about that,” I say softly. He’s taken such good care of me. “Were you hurt?”

“No.” He waves a hand to indicate the bloodstains on his tunic. “This was all yours, courtesy of the Barghest. Luckily, my healer was available when we arrived.”

The room spins. I squeeze my eyes shut to still it, but the smell of blood fills my nose. Seeing it puts me back in that forest again. That wolflike

creature lunging toward me. “Barghest? That’s what that thing was?” “Some call it the death dog.”

“Is it from the Unseelie Court?”

“There are death dogs in all courts, but some of the more powerful

Unseelie have them as familiars—animals that have been magically tied to them and can do their unholy bidding.”

Did Mordeus send that Barghest after me? No. That doesn’t make sense. If he truly wants me to retrieve the stolen artifacts for his court, he wouldn’t try to kill me with some mind-linked monster. But Finn . . . Did Finn attack me because I wouldn’t work with him? “Was that one bonded to an


Sebastian shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

“If those wolves hadn’t shown up . . .” I would have been dead. I catch another whiff of my blood and have to turn my face into the pillow. “I’m sorry . . . Do you have something you could change into?”

He mutters a curse and jumps out of the chair. “Of course. I’m sorry.” He turns his back to me as he works the buttons on his shirt.

“We need to talk,” I say. “About what happens next.”

Sebastian looks over his shoulder and meets my eyes. “You should rest first.”

I shake my head and force myself to sit up. I’ve shown more weakness

since coming to Faerie than I have in the last nine years, and it needs to stop now. “I’m fine.”

“You’re still recovering from a major injury. Don’t push it.” He turns to me, bare-chested and . . . beautiful.

The room spins again.

I want to hate him like this—his true self—but despite everything, I still find Sebastian as alluring as I did that first day I saw him training in the


I force myself to look away from his sun-kissed skin and sculpted arms. “I’m well enough to talk, I think.” I hear the sound of a drawer opening,

and when I turn back to him, he’s pulling a fresh shirt over his head.

I watch as the soft white fabric falls over his perfect golden skin. I hate that this attraction didn’t fade alongside the trust I lost when I found out the truth.

If my emotions were a mess before he rescued me in the woods, they’re a disaster now.

He settles back in the chair by the bed and leans forward, elbows on his knees. “Okay. We can talk, if that’s what you want.”

“You saved me.” I swallow. The memory of my terror is still too close to the surface, and I shove it down. “Thank you.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner.”

“I didn’t expect you to come at all.”

He flinches, as if I’d just smacked him. Then hangs his head. “I know you don’t like who I am, but it doesn’t change how I feel about you.”

My guts twist. “I don’t like that you lied about who you are.”

His jaw hardens. Blowing out a breath, he smooths back his white hair

and ties it with a strap of leather. “When should I have told you? I couldn’t let anyone in Elora know the truth—I’d have been crucified. And by the time we were friends and I knew you well enough to trust you with the information, you’d made it clear how you felt about my home and my kind.” He swallows. “Maybe it was selfish, but I couldn’t stand the idea of giving you up.”

“Were you ever going to tell me? Or were you going to lie to me forever?

Was that the real reason you begged me not to go after Jas? Because you didn’t want me learning the truth?”

“I wanted to tell you. So many times. But my reasons for wanting you to stay on your side of the portal were honest. This is a dangerous place for you.” His gaze drops to my leg, and even though I’m healed, in clean

clothes, and covered by blankets, I know he’s seeing the damage the

Barghest did. “Do you see now? Do you understand why it terrifies me to have you wandering around my world looking for your sister?”

When he lifts his eyes back to mine, I hold his gaze. “I won’t abandon her.”

“I’m not asking you to. I’m asking you to allow me to find her.” When I don’t answer, he takes my hand and squeezes my fingers against his palm.

“I’ve canceled my obligations for the day, and after you get some sleep, I’ll be escorting you home.”

I jerk my hand away. “No.”

“You could have died tonight. How would that’ve helped Jas?” He

shakes his head. “When I find her, don’t make me tell her that she’s lost her only family.”

“Bash—” I close my eyes, remembering. “Sorry. I mean, Prince Ronan.” “Don’t.” He shifts from the chair to the edge of bed, his warm thigh

against my side. “Call me Sebastian. Like you always have. It’s still my name—the one I prefer, at least. No one calls me Prince Ronan but my servants and my subjects.”

The modest apprentice I mooned over for two years has servants and


I take a breath. Remember your deal with Mordeus. Remember what

you’re here to do. “Okay . . . Sebastian. I can’t go home. Gorst’s men are

after me, and it’s not safe for me there. Please let me stay. I’ll be careful, but don’t make me go home. There’s nothing for me there.” Even if Gorst’s men weren’t looking for me, I wouldn’t go home without my sister, but maybe if I put the emphasis on my protection rather than rescuing Jas, he’ll agree.

“I can’t protect you outside these palace walls.” But he did tonight.

Against all odds, he was there when I needed him. “I understand,” I whisper.

“Brie . . .”

I can sense that he’s grasping for another argument to send me home. I look around his opulent bedchamber as if seeing it for the first time, as if I haven’t already explored nearly every inch of this castle. I’ve been in here before. I just didn’t know this was his room when I was searching it. “This is a big place, and I won’t get in the way. Can’t you find a little room for me? Isn’t there some way I’d be allowed to stay?” I can practically see him thinking it through. I hold my breath.

“There’s only one way,” he says. “I don’t think you’ll like it.”

I school my face into a mask of curiosity. I already know where this is going, and it’s exactly what I need. “Tell me.”

“This morning I will select a dozen women to stay at the castle. Twelve women who want to . . . marry me.” He nearly coughs on the words.

“Perhaps if I presented you to my mother as a potential bride . . .” I see it on his face. He’s waiting for me to shoot him down. He has no idea about my deal with King Mordeus or that I need access to this castle, so of course he’d think I’d hate the idea.

“What would I need to do?”

He blows out a breath. “Learn about the court, go to some fussy dinners, maybe a party or two . . .” He gives a shy smile, and for a moment he looks so vulnerable that I forget he’s not the human boy I fell for. “Pretend you like me.”

Part of me wishes I would have to pretend, but my conflicting emotions are all too real. “If I acted like one of these potential brides, would I stay in the palace?”

“Yes. You would be in the guest wing with the other girls.”

“And while I’m here”—while I look for the artifacts the king requires

“you’ll look for Jas?”

“Yes, of course. Whether you stay or return to your home, I’ll search for her.” He brushes his thumb across my knuckles, then rests it there. “You have my word.”

I stare at his hand on mine for a long time, pretending to think about his offer. In truth, it will chafe to watch him choose his bride, and being here will be a constant reminder of his deception and my feelings for him, however misguided. But it will all be worth it when I turn the relics over to the shadow king and take Jasalyn home. “I want to stay.”

His brow furrows.

“What’s that look about?” I ask.

“After you learned who I was and ran away, I didn’t think you’d want

anything to do with me. I thought I’d lost you forever. You staying here . . .” He shrugs. “Maybe it seems too good to be true.”

I force myself to smile, but part of me is curling up in shame. If I stay, if I do this, I’m not just deceiving some random prince. I’ll be deceiving my friend. I have reasons for my lies, but he had reasons for his too, and it didn’t make it hurt any less when I found out the truth.

I shake my head, trying to shrug off the tangle of emotions.

“Take the night,” he says. “Rest. Think it through. If you’re at my palace, I can’t allow you to sneak out and search for Jas. You have to decide if you can handle that.”

“I’ll be a prisoner?”

“You’ll be protected.” He toys with my hand, and the light touch of his fingertip against my palm sends a needy shiver through me. I blame it on conditioning, on habit. My body doesn’t understand that Sebastian isn’t who I thought he was. “I know it’s not your style to step back and let

someone else do the work, but I can’t bend on this. It’s too dangerous. If you’ll promise not to search for Jas—to leave that to me—I’ll keep you here as long as I possibly can.”

“Okay,” I whisper. “Thank you so much, Sebastian.”

He tucks the blankets around me, but I can tell his thoughts are already elsewhere. “Now sleep.”

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