Hello, my lovely readers. I’m off in a foreign land on travel, but it’s amazing how ubiquitous the Internet is nowadays. Since the publication of the Omnibus Edition of The Fae War Chronicles included a sneak peek of The Lethe Stone, I’ve decided to post the same sneak peek here for everyone. I hope you enjoy the new perspective, and as always I’d love to hear what you think!
Queen Mab, ruler of the Unseelie Court and all its lands, monarch of the Night and the Winter, once the most powerful being in any world, was not accustomed to helplessness. She glanced down at the marble-smooth, pale skin of her hands – hands that had seen centuries, yet bore no sign of age. Hands that had held a blade against the greatest enemy of her time, yet bore no scars. Hands that had once embraced her sister lovingly, and braided the princess’ midnight-dark hair with motherly affection. Hands that now could do nothing to heal the fractured mind and broken body of the rescued Crown Princess.
Her Vaelanbrigh’s voice broke her reverie and she raised her eyes, taking in the sight of the young Knight who had risen to become one of her Three despite his trace of mortal blood. She had become almost fond of Ramel on the long journey through the Deadlands, and he had proven his worth ten times over during the battle in the Dark Keep. At first, she had been wary of this cool affection, cautious that the Knight did not glimpse her increasing favor – for what higher favor could there be other than becoming one of her Three – and seek to use it to his own advantage. When she had first baptized him, Ramel’s steadfast loyalty reminded her with a distant pain of Finnead’s fidelity, like an old wound prodded relentlessly. But that similarity had faded with the realization that Finnead had deserted her. No, not deserted…betrayed. He had betrayed her sister, and then he had betrayed Mab by serving the new High Queen. She swallowed against the bitterness rising in her throat like bile.
“My lady,” said Ramel again in a slightly gentler voice. The light of the taebramh orbs – a habit that, despite Mab’s annoyance, her Court had picked up from the Northwoman’s – ignited coppery sparks in her Vaelanbrigh’s hair. He’d let it grow longer than his custom during the past weeks of travel, yet another vice of the Wild Court that had filtered into the Unseelie ranks, like insidious ink spiraling through still water. She took a deep, composing breath.
“What news?” Mab finally said, her voice as smooth and cold as ice.
“The Crown Princess is sleeping,” said Ramel in that same half-gentle tone, like a rider trying to calm a spooked mount.
“Is she sleeping, or is she unconscious from the potions applied by the healers?” A harsh undercurrent, dangerously close to a growl, lurked in the Unseelie Queen’s voice. She clenched her hands reflexively, one hand finding the hilt of her sword since she did not have the cool, carved arms of her throne to grip beneath her grasping fingers.
“My Queen, the healers labor day and night,” replied Ramel, “and they are tasked not only with the Crown Princess, but with hundreds of gravely wounded warriors who fought under our banner.” He bowed his head slightly in deference even as he reminded Mab that her sister was not the only distressed soul in their camp, though she might be the one farthest beyond any help of their healers.
Mab tightened her hold on her sword hilt until the delicately woven details of the grip dug into her palm and her knuckles felt as though they would burst through her skin. She felt the cold fury rising; at the periphery of her senses, she noted the sudden sharp chill in the air. The plush rug beneath her feet stiffened with frost. Her Vaelanbrigh still stood firm despite the glacial wind pushing at his shoulders, the ruby in the pommel of the Brighbranr glimmering darkly, like a cupped palm full of mortal blood.
“My Queen,” he said again in that gentle but firm tone. “The healers are doing all they can, and both Queen Titania and Queen Vell have sent their best – ”
“Out,” she snarled, ice swirling across the tent as the mention of the other two Queens snapped her control. She’d be damned if a healer sent in pity from one of their Courts would help her sister. “Get out!”
Ramel bowed and turned, exiting with graceful steps, treading carefully on the now-icy ground. Mab clenched her teeth on the sound of pain and fury that frothed up into her throat, instead letting the arctic wind howl through the tent, dagger-sharp icicles puncturing the nebulous forms of the taebramh lights with satisfying ferocity. The Unseelie Queen stood in the cold darkness of her tent, gripping her sword, rage and agony coursing through her, feeding the whirling blizzard that screamed through the Unseelie camp.
She had raised her blade against the enemy, and won; but she did not bear the scars of the battle. Despair threatened to overwhelm her as she felt, for the first time in centuries, sorrow borne out of the love for another. While her Court drew their cloaks tightly about them and wordlessly endured the biting cold of the furious, unnatural tempest, only a handful of them suspected that the true cause of their Queen’s anguish was not her anger, but the pain of a thawing – and broken – heart.
When the three Queens rode into the City, the commanders of their great army – Gray, Gawain, and Ramel – had already established a place for the wounded in the remnants of what could have been a great cathedral or palace. Even through her exhaustion, Tess gazed up in wonder at the magnificent ruins that rose around them as their small party wound its way through the great army into the city. The widest causeway that passed through the center of the White City had been cleared of the corpses of Dark creatures. When the wind shifted, the scent of smoke drifted over them. Gray informed them that they were still burning the dead creatures in huge pits a small distance outside the City. The Sidhe dead had already been placed on their funeral pyres with honor. It was hard to reconcile the fact that so much had taken place while they were fighting their way through the courtyard in the Dark Keep and facing Malravenar.
The Queens and their warriors rode to the great building used as the healing ward. Its pillars reminded Tess of Greek pantheons, but the skeletons of graceful arched windows, all the glass long since broken, whispered of great cathedrals. It was some sort of cross between Brightvale, Darkhill and the Hall of the Outer Guard, all the most beautiful aspects of Seelie and Unseelie styles blended harmoniously. The white stone bore centuries of grime, and most of the elegantly carved statues had suffered the loss of limbs or heads during the occupation of Malravenar’s creatures. Against this backdrop of savaged magnificence, the commanders had erected a great tent in the cavernous main hall.
“The structure is sound, so do not fear it crumbling,” Gawain assured the Queens and the Bearer as they crossed the great threshold, “but all the light and heat would be lost into the reaches overhead if we did not have a canopy.”
Inside the tent – one of the High Queen’s sorcery-enhanced creations with nearly unlimited space – the cries of the wounded and the smell of blood and healing herbs enveloped the Queens and the Bearer. Titania immediately swept forward to conference with a fair Seelie healer, and white-haired Maeve paused in her direction of dozens of healers to bow to Vell and make her report to the High Queen. Mab stood silently, the star on her diadem subdued as her eyes swept over the multitude of wounded, long rows of furs and other makeshift bedding stretching down the length of the tent. It was like a miniature city in its own right, hundreds of healers moving purposefully through the ranks of their patients. Tess’s mind couldn’t comprehend the numbers before her eyes. It felt as though she were surveying the great army from the air with Wisp again, seeing it stretch to the horizons and beyond; but this time, the sight of so much broken beauty and loss stole her breath. She felt cold.
The able-bodied fighters who had traveled into the Dark Keep began to carry the wounded from the Queens’ party into the healing ward, with other healers and warriors from the main army streaming outside to help. Tess watched dumbly as two Unseelie carried their Vaelanseld into the tent on a makeshift stretcher. Some of the numbness began to fall away from her body. She thought vaguely that she should make herself useful, but gradually the work of moving the wounded was taken over by the healers and their apprentices. Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed Finnead carrying the Unseelie Princess, still cloaked, into the tent. Her shrouded figure seemed much smaller than when she’d stood before the black altar, pouring blood onto it to break the bindings on the Great Seal.
Tess lost sight of Vell and the other two Queens in the industrious activity. Everyone moved so quickly, parting around her like rushing waters of a stream slipping around a rock. The Sword sat silently on her back. She flexed one of her hands, watching the dried blood on her palms crack with the movement. New abrasions crossed the mottled landscape of her scars. Her breath sounded loud to her own ears and a sudden wave of dizziness overtook her. She swallowed and shut her eyes for a moment, willing herself not to pass out or retch. Both would be equally embarrassing.
She opened her eyes. Robin paused in his supervision of the two healers moving Sage.
“We’ve got him,” the smaller female healer tucked under Sage’s good shoulder reassured him.
“I told Sage I’d watch over him,” the Bearer said tiredly.
Robin stepped toward her. “Well, come on then.”
“Aren’t you hurt at all?” she asked as they followed Sage and his healers. It took her a moment to realize that Robin had encircled her waist with one arm, gripping her belt firmly, but she found that she didn’t much care. She actually felt grateful for the guidance, since she was fairly certain that she couldn’t have walked a straight line under her own power.
“We’re all injured in some way or another,” replied Robin, “but not all of us dipped into our life-force to break and bind the enemy.”
“Is that why I’m so tired?” she mused.
“That and we fought for three days and three nights,” said Robin with a little bit of a smile.
“Ah, is that the Lady Bearer? Back here, if you please,” said Maeve, bustling past the pair and directing Robin to steer Tess toward a curtain marked with a white rune.
“I don’t want any special treatment,” she protested, noticing in slight surprise that her lips felt oddly numb. She shivered. The cold she’d noticed only a moment ago now seemed glacial. “Sage…”
“You can take that up with the High Queen at a later time, and you’re in no shape to watch over anyone right now,” said Maeve firmly. “I assume you’re comfortable with your red-haired friend here?”
“Comfortable…?” she repeated dazedly as they entered the small compartment. A low table covered with a cloth served as an examination table, and Maeve motioned her toward it.
“It would save us time if he removes your armor while I gather supplies and an assistant,” replied Maeve.
Robin maneuvered Tess over to the table and kept his arm about her waist until she was safely seated. “I think we’ll manage just fine,” he said to Maeve, his deft fingers already finding the strap of the Sword across her breastplate. When Tess didn’t contradict him, Maeve nodded and walked away, her small figure radiating purpose.
“Sage,” Tess murmured, watching with detached interest as Robin laid the battered sheath of the Sword reverently beside her on the table. The emerald in the pommel didn’t flash with that conscious power. It looked like an ordinary emerald in the pommel of a very ordinary, well used weapon. A wave of dizziness swelled over her again. “And Liam. Someone should tell Liam…”
“He’s one of Vell’s Three now,” said Robin as he worked on the straps of her breastplate. She winced as she moved her arm, the movement pulling at the wound across the top of her shoulders that she’d nearly forgotten. “So I suspect that he’ll know where you are, because she knows where you are.”
“Such a tangled web we weave,” she said dreamily. She noticed that her feet didn’t touch the floor; she swung her legs a little, experimentally, her head feeling very light.
“Hold still,” admonished Robin. He finished unbuckling the other side of her breastplate. As he moved the two pieces of armor that had protected her torso during the battle, the dried blood pasting together her shirt and the interior of the armor pulled with sudden bright pain against her shoulders. She hissed and grabbed at the table, clenching the fabric in her fists. The hot throbbing pulled her roughly back into her body, banishing the floating sensation. She swallowed thickly. Robin held the back piece of the armor in place and carefully removed the breastplate.
“I’m being a baby,” Tess said roughly, more to steel her own nerves than anything else.
Robin leaned over her, inspecting the bloody seam between her armor and shirt. “I think Maeve will forgive me if I wait for her guidance. It would be a pity for me to get in trouble so soon after our momentous victory.”
“Or it might just be in character,” she responded, eliciting a chuckle.
“Your sarcasm survived the duel with Malravenar,” he said. “That’s a victory in itself.”
Tess didn’t have another witty reply ready, so she focused on breathing slowly and trying to ignore the growing fissure of pain at the top of her shoulders. Now that the hot adrenaline of the battle had ebbed away, she felt oddly deflated, the numbness slowly transitioning into a dizzying emptiness laced with a keen awareness of her injuries. She rested her hands, palms up, on her thighs, remembering the feel of peeling her hands from the hilt of the Sword. Breaking and binding Malravenar…it had been mere hours since she’d stood before the greatest evil the Fae world had known, and already it felt like a fantastic dream. Had she really defied him and struck him through with the Caedbranr? Had they really bound his shrieking shade into the four gleaming river stones? She pressed the back of one hand against her grimy belt pouch, feeling the shape of the smooth oblong stone through the supple leather.
Maeve swept back into the compartment, trailing an assistant behind her…an assistant with a mane of glinting golden curls that swayed about her head as she moved. Moira raised an eyebrow in question as she placed a steaming bowl on the other table in the room, where Maeve was already busily selecting herbs. Tess managed a lopsided, tired smile in reply.
“Before you chastise me,” Robin said, preempting Maeve as she glanced at him with lips pressed into a thin line, “I didn’t finish my task because there’s a bit of a problem with the backplate of her armor. Or rather, not a problem with the armor, but with what’s beneath it.”
“It’s from the battle in the courtyard,” Tess said tiredly. “I didn’t even see what kind of creature.” She remembered the blur of its grisly, matted fur and shivered at the recollection of its rank breath against her neck as she waited for its teeth to pierce her skin. “Chael killed it.”
“So it’s been almost three days since you took the wound,” Maeve said. “No wonder it’s clotted to the shirt and armor.” She pressed the back of one hand to Tess’s forehead in a poignantly mother-like gesture. “Doesn’t feel like you have a fever yet.”
“The Sword might have burned any poison out of me,” Tess said.
“You don’t give yourself enough credit, Lady Bearer,” said Maeve, dipping a cup of water out of the steaming basin and tossing powdered herbs into it. “You are strong in your own right.” Tess watched the healer’s quick, efficient movements with hazy interest. It was like watching a masterful artist mix paints as Maeve selected different colored leaves, crushed them in her fist and filtered them into the water. After a moment, she slid the cup toward Moira, who was waiting with a linen cloth already in her hand.
“This might sting a little,” Moira warned softly as she soaked the cloth in the steaming liquid. Tess replied with a sigh, steeling herself. The warm wet cloth felt both soothing and painful at once, loosening the gore-encrusted shirt and armor from her skin but igniting waves of hot pain from the gash as the clots softened, reopening the wound. She clenched her jaw and shuddered. Robin and Moira conferred in quick, quiet words, and the armor slid away from her back. Tess swallowed down bile, shutting her eyes as dizziness enveloped her again. Robin gathered her head onto his shoulder, free from holding the armor in position. She leaned gratefully against him as Moira cut away some of her shirt, still bathing the wound with the wet cloth.
“This is for the pain and the shock.” Maeve pressed a rolled leaf into her hand. “Tuck it into your cheek, don’t chew it,” the master healer said, turning back to her table of alchemy.
Tess obediently tucked the bundle of herbs into her cheek, too tired to fight against the welcome relief from pain. It tasted like mint and lemon. Robin offered his shoulder again, one of his hands gliding feather-light over her hair as she leaned forward, giving the healers access to her back and giving in to the exhaustion sliding over her limbs. With the herbs in her cheek, the pain of her back receded to a dull discomfort and a warm glow chased away the cold emptiness spreading through her body.
“I should be helping everyone else,” she murmured into Robin’s shoulder.
“You just helped the Queens imprison Malravenar,” he replied in a quiet voice, one hand finding her hair again, “and that’s quite enough help for a good long while, I think.”
“One successful quest…doesn’t give me an excuse to be lazy,” she said, the words coming slowly. Her mind generated the phrase as sarcasm, but weariness pressed any humor from her voice.
“You’re not being lazy, Tess,” Moira said in gentle rebuke. “It’s called taking a moment to gather everything back together. Stitch your wounds, sleep, and let your warriors do the same. There are more than enough hands about to do the work that you think you should be doing anyway.”
She hummed noncommittally. The sensible part of her mind that could still think rationally – and it was a small part, at this point – knew Moira was right, but that didn’t allay the strange, empty restlessness digging into her stomach. “What will we do now?” Tess frowned slightly as Moira applied a numbing salve to her back. She glanced over to Maeve and saw her threading a silver needle, but the lemon-and-mint herbs softened even the thought of stitches.
Robin chuckled. “I’m not quite sure. Rebuild what was destroyed, as best we can. Build new and beautiful places for the new and beautiful things that have come out of the war.”
“Like the Wild Court,” she said, wincing as she felt the pressure of the needle and the pull of the thread. She didn’t feel any pain – the salve and whatever magic Maeve had rolled into that little bundle in her cheek made sure of that – but the sensation of the thread sliding through her skin made her feel oddly queasy.
“And the White City,” said Moira. “I never thought I’d live to walk the pathways of the White City as our forebears did.”
“Not all will see the beauty,” said Maeve, speaking for the first time since she’d begun work on Tess’s back, her voice sounding…old. Tess frowned slightly and raised her head, looking up at Robin. He shook his head slightly, his eyes grim.
“We’ll ask later,” he murmured quietly into her ear. In such a small space, she was sure that Maeve had heard him with her sharp Sidhe senses, but all fell silent for a few moments. Tess put the pieces together and surmised that one of the twins – or both – must have fallen in the battle, wounded or dead; it was the only thing that came to mind that would shake the unflappable white-haired healer. She felt a cold sort of sadness. Maeve finished stitching her back without another word, gave instructions to Moira in a quiet but firm voice, and left the compartment without a backwards glance.
Tess sat up a little straighter, rolling one shoulder experimentally, her movement rewarded by the tight pull of the fresh stitches against her skin. She much preferred it to the hot aching feeling of an untended wound.
“I’ll dress it now and then we’ll check it when you awaken,” said Moira, her voice subdued.
“Did one of the twins…?” Tess couldn’t finish the sentence, her throat tightening despite the fact that she’d thought she was too tired to feel emotions.
“Maire was killed on the first day of the battle,” Moira replied, her eyes downcast. “And Niamh lies senseless in the far reaches of this hall. She took a grave wound on the last day. Her faehal was also grievously injured. It was astonishing they weren’t both killed when they fell out of the sky.”
Tess shivered as the memory of the broken and bloody Valkyrie from the dragon hunt rose in her mind’s eye. “Quinn needs to be told.”
Robin touched her arm. “I’ll make sure of it.”
She shifted, that strange restlessness surfacing again. “I have to sleep here…away from everyone?” Her words sounded plaintive to her own ears. Silence and stillness wrapped cloyingly about her. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked up at Robin and Moira. She didn’t miss the look that passed between them, and Moira dipped her head.
“I’ll make sure that Quinn knows about Niamh, if he doesn’t already,” Moira told her.
“And I’ll stay here with you, if you’ll allow me,” said Robin, making it sound as though he were asking her permission.
“I’d like to join everyone else,” Tess said vaguely. She couldn’t corral her thoughts into any kind of sense, but she did know that she wanted to be close to the other fighters who’d experienced the horrors of the Dark Keep. She wanted to stave off the desperate, clawing loneliness that threatened to engulf her each time she remembered that Luca was gone. The thought beat like another heart in the back of her mind, constant and unrelenting: Luca is gone. Luca is gone. Luca is gone. She swallowed hard and willed herself not to cry. Tears would feel too much like mourning, and he wasn’t dead, she told herself fiercely.
“Most of the company that traveled with the Queens are in their own spaces, or with two or three others,” said Moira. “Everyone is eager to hear the story of our enemy’s defeat. Those able to talk have been speaking of nothing else but the return of the Queens’ warriors, and we thought it best to spirit you all away to give you time to recover.”
“I’ll stay,” Robin said almost gently. The brotherly affection in his voice almost undid Tess, and she was afraid her voice wouldn’t work, so she nodded jerkily, pulling at the stitches on her back again.
“I’ll let Liam know where you are,” Moira continued, “and everyone else of your company, if you wish it.”
Tess nodded again, staring down at her still bloody hands, running her thumbs over her raw palms idly. As Moira dressed the wound on her back, Robin took the basin from the herb table and set it next to her. Somehow it was still hot, and the fragrant steam smelled like lavender as it curled about her face.
“Now, Tess, you can wash while I see to Robin,” Moira said. She watched expectantly until Tess gingerly picked up the cloth folded over the side of the basin, dipping it into the warm liquid.
“Do you need the table?” Tess asked suddenly, the thought striking her halfway through washing her left hand. She looked up and found that Robin had stripped down to his breeches, letting Moira examine him without any hint of embarrassment. His golden skin was barely visible beneath layers of grime: dried blood that wasn’t his, marked by runnels of sweat and mixed with the strange gray dirt of the Dark Keep. Several shallow cuts marked his shoulders, and a mottled bruise spread like an ink stain over his ribs.
“There’s quite enough room for both of you to sit,” Moira replied a bit absently as she carefully separated a matted section of Robin’s hair to reveal a gash as long as her hand. “Almost down to the bone,” she said to herself. Robin winced slightly as her long fingers traveled like pale spiders over the rest of his head, returning to gently probe the darkly glistening wound. “I’ll need to trim this area to stitch it up.”
Robin groaned dramatically. “It’s not enough that my skull was nearly split, you must divest me of my dignity as well?”
“Unless you want the wound to become infected because I couldn’t properly tend to it, and then all your hair might fall out,” Moira replied, raising one eyebrow.
“Shear me like a spring lamb,” Robin sighed with an air of noble resignation as he sat beside Tess on the table, careful not to jostle her.
Tess began washing her right hand, watching the dried coppery flakes of blood spiral through the water of the basin. “You can ask my brother to borrow one of his knit watch caps. Or maybe Quinn will lend you a baseball cap.”
“What is a base-ball cap, and does it look dashing?” Robin inquired with narrowed eyes.
“It’s from the mortal world. Only Liam, Quinn and Jess would have one.” She almost said and Duke, but she caught herself in time. Her second heartbeat pulsed at the back of her skull with painful insistence: Luca is gone. Luca is gone. Luca is gone. “And I suppose it’s dashing.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to take anything that might remind them of their home, even if it would cover my unfortunate haircut,” said Robin, wincing as Moira deftly cut away locks of his red hair with a sharp little dagger.
“There are far worse things than an unfortunate haircut,” Moira reminded him. The undertone in her voice reminded me that she’d fought in the great battle with the Valkyrie. Tess eyed her surreptitiously as she sponged the last of the blood from her hands.
“You needn’t stare at me, Tess,” she said without looking away from her trimming operation. “I’ll have a few scars, but nothing that isn’t already on its way to healing.” She pressed her lips together. “And my faehal survived too, so I’m one of the lucky ones.” Her mane of golden curls swayed as she tilted her head, examining her handiwork. A swath of short-shorn hair angled across the back of Robin’s head, revealing the ugly lips of the wound.
“Did the blow that gave you that cut knock you out?” Tess asked. Her mind picked up that thread of thought, a glad distraction. It didn’t quite silence the drumbeat in the back of her consciousness, but it helped her push it away and compress it into something manageable.
“I think so,” Robin replied contemplatively. “Your brother and the ulfdrengr with the eye patch saved me, from what I remember. Chael.”
“We fought in a courtyard after going through the portal,” Tess said in a low voice to Moira. “We were there for at least a day and a night.”
“Two days and two nights,” Robin said, half-closing his eyes in reflection. “I feel like once we got into the throne room it all went faster. But then again, I was only half-conscious for most of that time because Malravenar was squeezing the air from our lungs.”
“It sounds like once you got past the courtyard, there wasn’t much for the fighters in the escort to do.” Moira threaded a fresh needle. Tess winced, grateful that at least her stitches had been in her muscle-padded shoulder. It wasn’t really the needle or the stitching that turned her stomach, it was the thought of the needle scraping against bone, weaving delicate skin together in so indefensible a part of the body.
“Except serve as targets for the wrath of a deity.” Robin made a considering sound. “We knew going into it that we were there to make sure the Queens and the Bearer made it to the throne room.”
“Steady,” Moira said quietly as she leaned close and the needle flashed. Robin’s body tightened and he drew in his breath with a hiss. Tess dried her hands carefully, picked up the basin and stood. Her legs were surprisingly steady as she set the basin on the herb table.
“Can I help at all?” she asked Robin. His eyes were closed, his face smooth with concentration and his breathing steady as he used some sort of Seelie meditation to deal with the pain. Or at least that’s what she assumed.
“I’ll be finished in a few moments,” Moira said. True to her word, she finished stitching with remarkable alacrity, tying the final knot and deftly cutting the thread with the same little knife that she’d used to cut Robin’s hair. “Done.”
Robin opened his eyes and lifted one hand as though he was about to feel the damage – to his hair or the wound itself, Tess wasn’t quite sure; but Moira looked at him balefully until he lowered his seeking hand.
“It doesn’t look that bad,” Tess said in what she hoped was an encouraging tone.
“Somehow I don’t entirely believe you,” Robin muttered, but he obediently kept his hands settled in his lap.
“We will all have scars,” said Moira, grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle.
Tess sighed. “I know. But sometimes it’s easier not to constantly think about the terrible price of the battle.”
“The terrible price of our freedom,” said Robin.
“It might be easier, but it doesn’t make it any less real,” Moira continued inexorably.
“I know that,” Tess said softly, her voice wavering as the reality of Luca’s absence once again rose up like a tide in her mind. Moira paused in mixing the salve for Robin’s wound, her eyes searching Tess’s face as the Bearer swallowed hard and then kept speaking. “There was a moment when the Great Seal was broken. I…there was a lot happening. Luca and Merrick and Duke are…gone. In the mortal world,” she added fiercely, willing herself not to give in to the tears pressing behind her eyes. She paused. Moira walked around the table, the little bowl of salve in one hand, and silently began applying the mixture to Robin’s head. When Tess was reasonably sure that her voice would work, she pressed on. “So they’re not dead. They’re in the mortal world. And I’m going to go find them.” She looked at the two Sidhe, daring them to challenge her statement. Defiance was easier than sorrow, especially layered over her exhaustion.
But rather than ask how she would find their three lost warriors in the mortal world, Robin reached out and gently gripped her arm, careful to avoid her shoulder. Moira finished dressing Robin’s wound and returned the small bowl to the preparation table. Then she turned and met Tess’s eyes.
“Well then, let me be the first to volunteer for the search party,” she said seriously. “That is, if my lady Queen Vell gives me leave, and you deem me a worthy addition.” A hint of a smile colored her last words.
Tess blinked in surprise. “I…thanks.” She tried to muster her own small smile but failed. “I haven’t…really thought that far ahead.
“No thanks are needed,” she replied brusquely. Her mane of curls swayed as she gave Tess a single firm nod. “You’re the Bearer. I have no doubt that you’ll bring them home, and I’ll like to be there with you when you do, whether on this side or the other.”
“Vell would approve, I think,” Tess said thickly.
“Anyone who assumes they know our Wild Queen’s mind is taking his life into his own hands,” said Robin.
“Well, you’re both patched up as well as I can do for the moment,” continued Moira without skipping a beat. “Come on, then.” She motioned to a smaller flap in the wall of the compartment that Tess would have sworn had not existed the moment before Moira gestured to it. “You didn’t think you’re to sleep in here, did you?”
Robin gathered his shirt from where he’d tossed it on the edge of the table. Tess went to grab her armor, but her back protested fiercely and she fought back a wave of nausea at the sudden movement. She settled for looping the strap of the Sword over her good shoulder, her motions slow and deliberate.
“Don’t worry about the rest of it,” Moira said. “I’ll find someone to clean it and return it to you.”
Tess didn’t even have the strength to protest as she and Robin followed Moira through the little doorway into another little room, the walls composed of silvery fabric just as every other room within the maze of the Vyldretning’s enchanted tent. Furs blanketed the floor, piled higher in some places, a few pillows scattered in the corners. The room was dark and just cool enough to make her shiver slightly; Moira pressed steaming mugs into their hands, touched their shoulders briefly and said, “I’ll be back to check on you. Sleep.”
Robin and Tess settled down onto the furs, sipping cautiously at their mugs. She laid the silent Sword at the edge of the furs. They sat in companionable quiet. The warmth from the tea spread pleasantly through her body.
“A bit of white shroud in the tea, I think,” Robin said, swirling the liquid idly as he peered down into the cup.
“Haven’t heard of that one,” she said. Her eyelids felt heavy. The tendrils of warmth from the tea soothed her aching body.
“Used after battles mostly.” Robin took another long swallow. “It helps with dreamless sleep. Some say that it can help heal invisible wounds, make the nightmares less terrible when they do appear. Seelie healers have used it for as long as I can remember. I’ve heard that Unseelie view using it as weakness.” He shrugged. “Personally I’ll welcome it.”
Tess didn’t even have the energy to feel indignant that Moira hadn’t told them about the tea. It was probably standard protocol, she thought tiredly, and besides, just because she was the Bearer didn’t mean that everyone was required to tell her everything. She hoped suddenly that she hadn’t been insufferable over the past weeks, demanding to know everything from everyone. Her thoughts flitted disjointedly from one subject to another. She swallowed a last mouthful of the pleasantly warm tea and set her mug down on a little table that had conveniently appeared in a corner of the compartment.
“Thanks for staying with me,” she said, dragging a pillow over to her side. Robin dimmed the little taebramh lights with a flick of his wrist.
“Of course,” he replied, his red hair gleaming even in the darkness. “It was a hard battle. No one should be alone who does not want to be alone.”
Tess slid down onto the furs, pulling one over her legs, the pillow impossibly soft beneath her cheek. She curled on her side, wincing as the movement pulled at the stitches in her back. Dimly, she sensed Robin settling down onto the furs as well, a warm, comforting presence within arm’s reach. With a little shudder, she gave in to her exhaustion, a tear escaping down her cheek as consciousness faded and she drifted into darkness.
The air hung heavily over the river, draped like the Spanish moss over the reaching branches of the oaks. Awareness seeped back to him slowly. As he recognized parts of his body – back, chest, one leg, then the other, and finally his arms – the gears in his mind started grinding painfully forward, and he ran through his silent checklist. It wasn’t the first time he’d clawed his way out of unconsciousness in dubious circumstances.
He lay face up. Good. Face down was never good, and he felt warm wetness beneath him. His first thought was blood…but no, he lay in a sort of spongy mud. He probed with his mind and felt all his limbs. Also good. But he didn’t feel the weight of body armor around his torso, or the pull of a weapons sling around his neck. Confusing, but not necessarily bad. Did he flip his truck or roll an all-terrain vehicle on leave? He brushed aside the questions. Focus. Breathe again, deeply, testing for pain. Dull aches around his ribs, like he’d been in a fight and gotten punched a couple of dozen times, but no sharp announcement of a dire injury…though until he opened his eyes, he couldn’t be sure.
Next item on the checklist. Move fingers, and then move toes. Both functional. On to arms and legs. Also functional, though sluggish and leaden. His mind circled back, gnawing at the mystery of how exactly he’d gotten into this mess. Because if there was one thing he was sure of – and there weren’t many at this particular moment in time – it was that he was in some sort of mess. What flavor of mess exactly, he’d figure out shortly.
His head ached, the pain intensifying as he rolled his eyes behind closed lids. Had he gotten into a bar fight? It had been years since he’d slept off liquor and bruises in a buddy’s back yard, but it wasn’t out of the question. He swallowed thickly. And then his mind kindly flashed him a memory along with the next swell of pain inside his skull – the chaos of a battle in a dark cavern, the ground shaking beneath his feet as he ran across slick stones toward a stone altar and a figure holding aloft a shining cup…
Duke inhaled sharply and jerked fully awake, an involuntary sound of pain escaping his lips as he sat up, digging his hands into the soft mud beneath him. A familiar smell surrounded him: heavy wet earth, the humid air thick with the scent of trees and swamp, life and death. God, it smelled like the bayou. It smelled like home.
He opened his eyes, squinting against the morning sun, and when his vision cleared, he inhaled again in shock.
He was home. He was sitting on the bank of the Pearl River – or really a little unnamed offshoot of the Pearl, amid the swamp oak, Spanish moss and heavy air of southern Louisiana. He swallowed thickly, blinking hard. Had it all been a dream? Had he been laid out long enough for his mind to spin that fantastic tale of beautiful warrior women on winged horses, and warriors with the eyes of wolves?
A sudden surge of nausea overwhelmed him. He rolled to one side and retched, emptying his stomach – or what little there had been in his stomach. And then as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, he froze, staring at the stained and grimy shirtsleeve. He looked down at himself, blinking at the sight of a simple green shirt. And he wasn’t wearing his plate carrier and Kevlar, but instead a breastplate made of some sort of fantastically light metal.
“Holy shit,” he whispered to himself. “It was…it was real.”
The memories rushed back so quickly that he grimaced and closed his eyes again. He’d been reaching for someone when the portal had opened…Liam? He remembered seeing Liam stabbed. A spark of anger at the dark figure that had hurt his teammate whirled in his chest. But no, it hadn’t been Liam that he’d been straining to grab before the sinkhole had enveloped them…
He sat up straighter, ignoring his aching ribs. The grass by the riverbank was long and he couldn’t see anything beyond the thicket swaying gently around him. He clenched his jaw, rolled to his knees and levered himself upright. Motion to his left, farther into the grassy field, caught his eye. He saw a figure just beginning to stir within a circle of bent and broken grass, as though the man had been thrown onto the ground and rolled with the force of the impact.
Duke swallowed, recognizing the quickening of his heartbeat as the sick feeling of not knowing the location of his teammates. It was one of the worst feelings, second only to the breathless impact of an explosion in the index of his experience. There hadn’t been just one of them inside that strange circle; there had been Liam, and then the big wolf-warrior – Luca, his mind supplied – and one other. It had all happened so fast. But he knew there were two of them, and he tore his gaze from the stirring figure in the grass. His legs protested slightly as he stumbled closer to the bank of the shallow river. It was only knee-deep in most places, studded with little hillocks of marsh grass. The bank was soft, the mud squelching beneath his boots. He raked the river with his gaze, searching in sectors; and then he saw the prone form laying half in the water. Duke swore under his breath and splashed into the river, hoping that he wasn’t too late.
Content copyright October 2016 by Jocelyn A. Fox. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited without express permission of the author.