Sacrifice (Chaos #6) by Claire Farrell

I leaned low to avoid overhanging branches. Dubh’s muscles strained beneath me as he galloped, weary from the breakneck pace he had been forced to maintain. We had been trailed at every turn once we’d reached the territory of the Green Court, following the exact path Bekind had pinpointed, and time was swiftly running out.
Sacrifice (Chaos #6)
Sacrifice (Chaos #6) by Claire Farrell
The sound of the latest set of horse hooves behind us died away, and I exhaled with relief. They had followed us for too long. My fingers were clawed from clutching the reins. Every part of me ached, and it wasn’t long before more voices shouted a warning. I held in a sigh as Dubh galloped onward, outpacing anyone who tried to follow. The Green Court was prepared for war; we had been marked as enemy by those who had once been friend. And it was up to me to end the betrayals for good. We couldn’t have known what would happen when Brendan left on Yvette’s boat six months ago, but I wished there was another way to fix the mess that had been thrown into our laps. Dark clouds almost completely covered the lilac moon—a dire warning, some said. The shadows of the forest reached out for us, but I closed my eyes to them all and focused on the path ahead. The cloudy vial hidden in my cloak was a dead weight I wanted to be rid of as quickly as possible. Eventually, we came upon the meadow in neutral territory. Beyond that grew the willow tree. If I could just make it that far, we might still have a chance. I smothered a scream as Dubh reared on his hind legs, then I looked down to see what had spooked him. We had narrowly avoided tumbling into a dark hole that had formed when a metre-wide section of earth had collapsed inward, leaving only a blistering black substance behind. The miniature sinkholes were all across the realm and spreading fast, faster than the land could be cleansed by the trees that had been brought back on the ship all those months ago—the ones we had been allowed to keep, anyway. Dubh set off again, though more carefully, and we soon neared the willow tree, unencumbered by trackers despite being so close to Green Court territory. I pulled hard on the reins to slow the horse to a standstill. An unnatural darkness instantly gathered around us. Dubh snorted, agitated, but I slipped off his back nonetheless. “Go,” I urged him. “Lead them away, then outrun them. I’ll find a way home.” He hesitated, biting on my hood in his own fae horse way of telling me to come with him, to be safe. But I was about to sneak into the court of my enemy, and there was no turning back. That particular threat had to be stopped before the realm tore itself apart. “It’s time.” I slapped his rump and ran toward the tree as the horse raced away. Hopefully, any patrolling soldiers would follow him and not me. He had a better chance of getting away. I had just reached the willow tree when I heard Brendan’s voice behind me. “Cara! What are you doing here? Wait for me!” Shivering, I brushed away a sudden tear then bent under the boughs of the trees without even a glance over my shoulder. “Cara!” His voice deepened, suddenly closer. Wraith-like hands grasped my wrist, pulling me away from the safety of the tree. I lifted the spear, a legendary treasure, and swung the weapon at Brendan’s form. It easily slid through him, and the vision evaporated. A shout of alarm sounded nearby, and footsteps came running. Swearing under my breath, I ducked under the tree to kick at the roots. In my eagerness, I missed the right spot and had to try again, losing precious seconds. Then the entrance swung free, and darkness invited me inside. I stepped into the dark and was blinded. Keeping my eyes closed to avoid the dizziness, I felt myself descend deep into the earth. But the voices were close by, and I knew they had found the way inside after me. The movement stopped, and I ran down the secret corridor, each light on the wall brightening then dying as I passed them. My first time through the tunnel had been with Brendan. My chest ached at the memory. Eventually, I reached the end, but the footsteps were gaining on me. I reached up and groped the wall in the darkness until I found the lever. I pulled it and passed through the newly revealed path, hoping I remembered the rules correctly. I continued on my journey, chilled without another person’s touch leading the way. The footsteps had almost caught up, but evidently those behind me didn’t know to touch the lever because screams of pain filled the air before cutting off abruptly. A disturbing silence followed. “Only one shall pass,” I whispered, relieved that the trick had worked. Bekind’s spy had been right; the Green Court had been watching for my arrival. I ran up the stairs, hearing voices and murmurs from somewhere above. I could smell something cooking, and my stomach rumbled. I hadn’t eaten in a day, not daring to stop long enough to rest. Despite the aching of my legs, I kept running, praying I wasn’t too late. Finally, I reached the end of the path and felt the warmth of the hearth on the other side of the hidden entrance. My hands trembled. I was so close. I opened the way and stepped through the fireplace into a set of living quarters in the Green Court. Bran’s wan expression greeted me as I fell into the room, barely avoiding the dying embers from the fire. He gathered me in his arms and held me up. “You,” he whispered. “Why is it you?” I embraced him. “It’s been too long, Bran.” “You shouldn’t be here.” “It had to be me,” I said plaintively. “You know why.” “It’s too dangerous for you to be here. If they find you, I won’t be able to protect you.” “I know.” I plastered on a confident smile. “Everything else is ready. Our armies are waiting to attack. Where is he?” “In the bedroom,” he whispered. “But, Cara, I—” “We’ve no time!” I ran past him and into the bedroom. Brendan was lying on the bed, his face waxy and pale. His hair stuck to his forehead, concealing his scar completely. I stopped short, stunned at the sight. “He looks…” “Frozen in time?” Bran rubbed his upper arms as though drawing comfort. “He needs no sustenance, and his condition never changes. It’s eerie. A living death.” I quietly approached the bed, removing the vial from my cloak. It took me too many tries to unstopper the lid. Bran made to take it from me, but I pushed him away. “Will it kill him?” he murmured. I refused to answer as I stood by Brendan, my entire body shivering. There was a chance it could go wrong, a chance I would fail and ruin everything. “Are you sure about this?” Bran asked from behind me. I shook my head. I wasn’t sure at all, but in the months since the ship had returned from across the sea, we had run out of choices. I used my thumb to gently move Brendan’s lower lip and open his mouth. His skin felt clammy. I emptied the bottle into his mouth then held his lips together again. Nothing happened that I could see. Taking a shuddering breath, I impulsively leaned in and pressed a kiss against his lips. I tasted the bitterness of the Miacha’s latest potion and prayed it would work. The healer women hadn’t stopped trying to figure out how to help Brendan, even when others had given him up as lost. “Light the incense,” I said. “The ones from last time will do.” Bran moved around the room, and soon a pungent scent filled the air. “Is that it?” I shook my head. I got up and opened the window, but I already felt light-headed from the incense. I took out the jar of honey-coloured balm that Bart had instructed the Miacha to make. It was our last resort, our final idea, and if it didn’t work, Brendan would be lost to us. If it did, then the hunchback had a lot of explaining to do. I twisted open the balm and scooped some out on my fingers, trying to recall Bart’s instructions. After warming the balm between my hands, I rubbed the oily substance on Brendan’s temples, from his nose to his mouth, behind his ears, and on his throat. “Can you open his shirt?” Bran hesitated before obeying. “You shouldn’t have come here, you know.” “And you should have left this court when you had the chance.” I nudged him out of the way to draw circles over Brendan’s heart and navel. “We both have our reasons.” I stepped back, a desperate ache in my throat. Bran handed me a cloth to wipe my hands. He closed the buttons on Brendan’s shirt, his fingers trembling. I traced the king’s cold fingers as they clung to the sword of victory. “No change here?” “Never even loosened,” Bran said thickly. “Think it’s keeping him alive?” “I’ve heard whispers. They’re ready to take… drastic measures.” “I can’t figure out if his luck is good or bad.” Bran held my hand. “He’s lucky. He’s here for a reason. We just have to hope…” I nodded, my eyes filling with tears because Brendan’s hand was still ice cold. Warmth would have been a good sign, at least. “Nothing’s happening,” Bran said in a flat tone. A wheezy sob escaped my lips. I gripped Brendan’s free hand in mine and knelt on the floor, pressing my face to the back of his hand. I prayed to any god that might be listening, but mostly to Brighid. I begged for her to forgive him, to help him. There had to be a reason fate had saved him from the Fade—twice. It couldn’t all be for nothing. “Please work,” I whispered. “Please just let this work.” Bran squeezed my shoulder, a font of sympathy and reliability. “You should leave. Before you get caught.” “I can’t fail,” I said aggressively. “You tried your best, Cara.” “Not if he dies. We sealed the rift to the Fade. If Bart was right and this curse was designed to gradually send his soul to the Fade, then he’s lost to us forever. I can’t go back and get him this time. This has to work. He can’t die, Bran. It would be so pointless if he died now.” I blew out a shaky breath. “Besides, we need all three rulers to have a chance at beating Chaos. Queen or not, Yvette won’t work with us. We need Brendan.” We continued our silent vigil for a few more precious moments, gazing at an impassive face. My heart fractured as the truth began to sink in. Brendan wasn’t waking up. If I could use my emotions as a weapon, then why couldn’t I use them to heal, too? I kissed the back of his hand, imagining my body’s warmth flowing into his, wishing it were that easy. If only. But then his fingers twitched beneath mine. I jerked up and gazed at his face. “What is it?” Bran asked. “I thought… I thought he moved.” I shrugged and rose to my feet, unable to look at Brendan and be disappointed again. “Wait! Look!” Bran cried. I dared look. Brendan’s eyes were fluttering open, his expression full of confusion and weariness. A buzzing in my ears almost set me off balance, but it wasn’t the time to freak out. “Sit him up—carefully,” I commanded, moving quickly to pour out a cup of water. “He’ll need to drink a lot. For the next three days, you’ll have to make sure he takes a few mouthfuls every couple of minutes or his organs might wither and die.” “That was the risk?” Bran asked in a panicked voice as he adjusted Brendan. “Let him take a few sips, and then rub his arms. I’ll take his legs. This’ll hurt for a while, Brendan.” Brendan made a sound as though trying to speak. I pressed my finger against his lips. “Not yet. Drink first, and then be quiet. We need them to think you’re still asleep. Bran will explain everything soon.” He seemed totally confused, and rightly so, but he obeyed, trusting me. And I smiled, filled with a glorious warmth that had been missing for months. He was alive. He was okay. Everything could go back to normal. Or rather, maybe we’d actually have a chance to finish the job we’d started. He sipped then spluttered. Bran laid down the cup and followed my lead, briskly brushing his hands up and down Brendan’s limbs to help the blood warm him. When Brendan was able to flex his hand and rotate his ankle, I made to leave, but his hand gripped mine tighter than I would have thought possible, and I sat on the bed next to him instead. He looked at me pleadingly. “I’ll wait,” I said. Finally, he was able to talk again. “What… happened?” I glanced at Bran, wondering how I was supposed to begin explaining what had happened over the last couple of months. Brendan hadn’t been conscious for any of it, and if it hadn’t been for Bran, most of the realm would have believed he was dead already. But the king was awake and talking, and he had a right to know what was going on. And I had to know if the one rumour that haunted me was true. “Did you…” My voice was trembling already. “Did you marry her?” Brendan blinked rapidly. “Excuse me?” A wave of relief ran over me. Bran nudged me. “We were right. It couldn’t be true.” “What couldn’t be true?” I looked away to gather myself. A lot of people had put their trust in my instincts, and if Brendan had truly married Yvette, then armies had prepared for war for nothing. Brendan sat up a little more. Angry colour rushed to his cheeks. “Would either of you tell me what the hell is going on?” I nodded at Bran. “Can you keep watch at the door? I need a minute alone with him.” Bran nodded dutifully. “I’ll be right outside if you need me. Just don’t forget, Cara. You don’t have much time. You have to leave.” “I know.” I waited until he left the room before starting. “How do you feel?” “Confused,” Brendan said grumpily. “And I don’t like it.” “What do you remember?” I asked, trying to weed out the truth from the lies. “I remember…” He frowned. “I was on the ship. I was, wasn’t I?” I nodded. “Go on.” “We found… land, giants, daoine sídhe, too. They gave us the trees, and we managed to escape from the giants. On the way back, right before we reached the portal, we were attacked. But with the sword, I couldn’t lose. Except… I was knocked into the water.” His face screwed up. “I thought I was dying. Did I… how long has it been? A day?” “Months,” I said solemnly. “You’re still holding the sword. They couldn’t pry it from your hand, Bran said.” He looked down at his right hand, still securely wrapped around the hilt of the sword of victory. He slowly let go, alarmed. “The water fae were watching for me. They were waiting at the portal. Bran leapt into the water after you to help. He pulled you through the portal, except he was exhausted, and you both needed saving.” I took his shaking hand in mine. “The water fae brought you back to the ship. You were both unconscious by then. But you were on the right side of the portal. The ship was falling apart, barely made it home.” A muscle in his jaw ticked. “Who attacked us?” “I… we’re not quite sure. We thought maybe Yvette managed to set up the attack, but it could just as easily have been bad luck—those creatures may have hunted in those waters or been guardians or something.” “How has it been months then?” “All I can tell you is what I know. Would that do?” “Yes, yes,” he said snappily. “You were… finding the stone. Did you?” “Yes. It was on the Hill of Tara all along. But it looked ordinary until Drake and I touched it. It changed into a tablet and showed us all these images. I think at least two of us have to be present to see the true forms of the legendary treasures. Anyway, we sealed the rift, and we headed for home. Then we got the word that Sorcha was ill, so Drake and I separated. She’s pregnant, and when Donella realised, she organised a coup. But I’d already heard that something was going on, so Arlen and I sent troops to help. Donella’s vanished, but the Silver Court is all right now.” He was staring at me curiously, then his face fell. “The trees! Were all the trees lost?” “The daoine sídhe elder that you brought back on the boat managed to escape with two trees to the Silver Court.” I grimaced. “But they didn’t work. Or rather, they haven’t worked fast enough. The blight has gotten worse, Brendan. It’s almost as though it’s reacting to us, or maybe this Chaos god has just earned himself a few powerful followers. All we know is that we have to face him. He’s the source of all of our problems.” “Well, then I need to get up. I need to help.” “You need to take back your kingdom first,” I said softly. “When they brought you back, you were unconscious. We heard rumours you were already dead. It was…” I looked away. “But you were under some kind of curse or poison, because you didn’t wake up. We think you were cursed to die little by little and that perhaps the sword of victory helped you survive longer. You’ve been lying in this bed for months. This is the first time I’ve seen you since you left on the boat.” He frowned. “But why?” “Yvette said… she claimed that she’d married you. When you didn’t wake up, she declared herself queen.” “And Arlen just let her?” he exclaimed. I shook my head. “He was accused of treason and sentenced to death.” “No,” he whispered. “We got him away.” I shivered at the memory. I had sent a crew of Darksiders to engage in a midnight rescue before I’d known exactly what was going on. If it hadn’t been for my spies, I might never have had a warning. “Arlen’s with Anya in the Darkside. Grim, Realtín, anyone loyal to you had to either leave or…” I stared at my hands. “Bran was able to remain behind. He plays both sides now, and it’s risky, but so far, it’s worked. Bekind comes to check on you and try different antidotes to see if they work. She and Bran took some of your blood, and she brought it to the Miacha. They’ve been working constantly to try and find out what’s wrong with you, but it’s something they’d never seen before. They ran out of options, but someone in my court had a suggestion. It was our last chance, and I wanted to be the one to bring it here. But I’m not a cat, so it was tricky. I used your secret corridor. I hope you don’t mind, but it saved my life tonight.” He was staring at me blankly, looking as though he wanted to throw up. “Thank you?” “We could have killed you, Brendan. We think your soul was slowly separating from your body. We didn’t know if you would have a reaction to our solution, or even if this fae was actually telling the truth. It was a huge risk that we took with your life, but we had to do something.” He nodded. “I didn’t even dream. How is it possible never to dream?” “Some kind of curse. A dreamless sleep that sort of froze you in time. I’m sorry to bring the bad news, but your people are divided. Some side with Yvette because of her gold and army; others refuse to accept her. We think that perhaps… perhaps there’s a chance she has something to do with Sadler’s god. The doctor wasn’t the only one to come here. If there are others, they’re the ones causing mayhem. And Yvette certainly has. Marrying her was one thing; letting her kill Arlen and the others was quite another. I may have caused more harm, but there was no way I was going to let it go that far.” “I need to take back my kingdom,” he said in a quiet voice. “I have to.” “You do. And we have troops waiting right outside your territory. I just have to give them the sign. When you stand at this window, your people will be forced to make a choice between you and Yvette, so wait for the right time. ” I picked up a lamp and moved to his window. Soldiers, led by Arlen, were awaiting my signal. I dampened the light a number of times to make a series of flashes. After a moment, the signal was returned. “They’re going to march soon,” I said. “Now that they know you’ll be here to greet them.” I looked at him. “You can’t show yourself until they arrive, Brendan. You can’t barge out there demanding your kingdom back. She might have you murdered. I don’t know what she plans, and I don’t care. I’ve done what I came here to do, and now I have to get back.” “In a hurry?” “Yes. My troops are out there, too. I have to return to them.” “And Drake?” “His soldiers are standing by mine and yours. We both know we have to stick together to help the realm. It’s too late for power plays.” “Are you leaving me already then?” he asked teasingly as I set down the lamp. I smiled at him. “I have to go. You should eat only soft food and keep drinking water. The first of the soldiers will reach you within two days. Arlen will be watching your window for you. Stand there if you’re able when you hear the soldiers approaching.” “Was it all for nothing?” he asked. “Did I go across the sea for nothing?” “Not nothing. The trees do work, but something has gone wrong. The blight is pushing faster and harder against us. Those trees are surrounded by the cleanest soil in the realm, but they’ve had their work cut out for them.” “So what do we do next?” “We only have one option.” I hid my clenched fists behind my back. “The god of Chaos was trapped a long time ago, somewhere in the realm. But he’s freeing himself somehow. Some part of his power has returned. And we have to find him and kill him, or at least put him back in his box.” His eyebrows pulled together into a deep frown. “And how do we kill a god, Cara?” I kept my tone confident. “We just need to find all four of the legendary treasures. We have three already. And when we have the fourth, we’ll figure out a way to use them against this god before he destroys everything.” “And if we don’t?” “Then it’ll be the end of this place, of all our homes.” I looked at the moon. It was time to leave. “Brendan, I’m sorry. I have to go. You’ll have to pretend to sleep if anyone checks on you. Bran said that they rarely do, that he’s the one who takes care of you, but you never know with our luck lately.” “Let me at least walk you out.” I smiled gently. “You need to rest and eat and get up the strength to face everyone. We still have a job to do, even after you deal with Yvette.” I looked at my feet. “However you want to deal with her.” He pressed his hand against my cheek. “You do realise you’ve saved me once again? In the stories, it’s the prince who saves the damsel in distress, yet you’re the one who keeps coming to my rescue.” “Those stories are old-fashioned. Who cares about princes and damsels when I’m a bloody queen?” I said with a grin. “I’m just glad it worked. There’s a strange kind of magic around here, Brendan. Even the air feels different. You need to be careful now.” “Me? I’m always careful.” He glanced down at himself wryly. “Except when I get sent to the Fade or fall off boats, that is.” “The water fae protected you as best they could. But they didn’t realise the enemy was on the ship with you.” “Nor did I,” he said thoughtfully. “Is there any way this is a misunderstanding?” I bit my lip, wanting to scream at him that it was obvious. “That’s for you to decide, Brendan. This is your court. They follow your rules, whatever you say those rules might be. It’s not for me to judge for you. All I had to do was make sure you were awake to deal with the consequences here.” “You risked your life to come here? Truly? Why?” “Because I had to,” I said simply. I had been in wretched pain, wondering if he was going to survive. I’d had to see for myself one last time. “How are Scarlet and everyone else?” he asked, holding my hand again to stop me from leaving. “They’re all fine. We’ll talk when this is over.” I leaned over and kissed his forehead. “I’m so glad you’re okay. I was afraid…” My voice broke. He pulled me to him for a hug, and I held on, my eyes filling with tears of relief. I had cared about him for a long time, and the thought of never seeing him again… it hadn’t been pleasant. As I left, I bade a silent goodbye to Bran. Outside, by the willow tree, Dubh was back and calmly grazing as though nothing was wrong. I let him nuzzle my neck. “He’s going to be okay,” I whispered. “Now let’s go kick that devious bitch’s arse.” Chapter 2 I rode back to camp, giddy with relief. Since the ship’s return, I had been in a constant state of panic. The thought of losing Brendan forever was too much, and the strength of that feeling had shocked me. I had been busy with other things—my court, the children, trying to lead by example, working on ways to find the final legendary treasure and defeat the blight—but Brendan had been on my mind every single day. And it was time to win him back his kingdom. It was as though the closer we got to winning, the harder it became to stay on the right track. Between politics and nature, all of the kingdoms were on shaky footing. Sadler had lost his to me, Drake had almost lost his to Donella, and Brendan had been well on the way to losing his to Yvette. All men outmanoeuvred by women until their friends had come to help. Except Sadler. He had no allies bar a sleeping god. If he had befriended the other courts, I would never have had the chance to rule. Maybe we had learned from his mistakes, after all. I clutched the reins as Dubh galloped on in the darkness, never faltering in his step. I mentally thanked Brighid and anyone else who had been looking on us favourably—even Bart, whose idea had been shoved aside for others by my suspicious companions until we had had nothing left to try. Bart, who came from across the water, had come up with the one solution that worked against Yvette’s curse. I felt sure that her curse had been born out of desperation. Bran had passed on messages through Bekind since their return to land. On the ship, Brendan had spoken of his doubts about Yvette, and he had been overheard by one of her companions. The boat may have been attacked by outside forces—that was still unclear—but something else had happened in the meantime, and Brendan hadn’t woken up from his relatively minor injuries. Before Bran had regained consciousness, the remainder of Brendan’s loyal soldiers had been forced to flee, and only Bran’s quick thinking and subterfuge in his support for Yvette had kept him by Brendan’s side. Friend had turned against friend in the Green Court. They all believed what they wished, and Yvette had gained herself a solid position by pitting herself against those Brendan was known to favour. Other fae happy to take their places had risen up in their stead, and those of us outside the court gave anyone who left shelter. Bekind had infiltrated the Green Court and found Bran, the pair passing messages between both courts as frequently as possible. Arlen had been convinced Bran had betrayed us, but I knew better. He had just done whatever he had to in order to protect his king. We had been preparing for months in case Brendan woke. Four armies were ready to force Yvette down, to allow Brendan to step up to his throne. The fourth was the strongest, led by a man called MacKenzie because he thought I would marry him if he helped. And according to my advisers—all but Bart—it was a proposal I should take. It was the smart path to take. Smarter than pining for a king I couldn’t have anyway. Grim had spent half his time trying to convince me that there was no way a king and queen of two opposing courts could make a life together without causing the kind of upheaval that would lead to assassination or even war. Even if we both survived the blight of Chaos. Dubh suddenly reared, almost throwing me. I barely stayed on his back, but as he calmed, I saw why he had freaked. A scout stood a couple of metres ahead of us on the path, his eyes wide open and staring. He looked at me, at my black cloak, my black outfit, and my black faery horse, and turned on his heel and fled… toward the Green Court. I urged Dubh after him. The scout turned and knelt, whipping out a short bow and rapidly shooting off an arrow. Even though I was already moving for the light shield strapped to Dubh’s side, I barely cut it free in time to block the arrow. The scout scurried out of Dubh’s way and into the woods. Still holding the shield, I leapt off Dubh and raced after the scout, soon catching up to him. I threw my shield at him, sending him tumbling. I ran, picked up the shield, and unsheathed a dagger from my boot. The scout faced me, indecision flickering across his face as Dubh burst through the trees to flank him. The scout threw down his bow and pulled out a dagger. He was quick and roughly the same height as I was, but there was no way I could let him warn Yvette. Not after the way she had treated my friends. And thinking of that made me angry. The scout rushed at me, thrusting with his dagger three or four times in quick succession. I used my shield to keep out of harm’s way before rolling past him, holding my shield over my head to stop his last desperate attack. I stabbed low with my own dagger, connecting with the side of his knee. The scout collapsed instantly. Dubh stepped on his back with a large hoof, keeping him in place. “Drop your weapons, traitor,” I commanded him. “Never, human.” My anger spiked, fuelling the darkness in my veins. I pressed my hand against the back of his neck. “You people won’t get the chance to kill him.” I projected everything I was feeling, focusing it all into the creature beneath me. I saw my father, Sadler, the doctor, the man who had killed Rat… I saw them all, felt the frustrations of being unable to fight back so many times, and I nurtured that bitterness until it became a weapon the faery couldn’t fight. The scout released a whine of fear, instantly drawing me back into the real world. He let go of his dagger and laid his palms flat on the dirt, his fingers trembling. I was shaking, too, after playing a dangerous power game I didn’t truly understand. “You’re going to ride back to my camp.” I wiped sweat from my brow. “And if you try anything, Dubh will break your skull. Do you understand?” We all froze as something dashed through the undergrowth toward us. I relaxed when I heard panting. A shaggy cú sídhe, his long spindly legs well camouflaged in the darkness, rushed onto the path, almost running into Dubh. I saw an overgrown pup unable to contain his excitement, but the scout squealed in terror, so he obviously saw a monster come upon him. “That’s my dog,” I said brightly. “He likes to hunt things that run.” “I won’t do anything,” the scout said. “Please.” Sighing, I hauled him onto his feet. “Just get on the horse.” The scout quivered, shrinking back from the fae animals. “Not that creature.” “If you don’t, I’ll just have to tie you to the saddle and make you run behind. The dog does so like things that run.” The scout made a weak attempt at getting onto Dubh, who kept stamping his hooves a little too close to the man’s feet. Few people understood the horse’s sense of humour; the scout wasn’t one of them. I had to help him climb on, then I mounted, too. The scout did his best not to touch me. Not that I wanted to be touched so soon after wallowing in the taint that marked my veins. “Tris, come,” I called, and then we were off. Dubh galloped without any more impediments—speeding up when the scout cried out with fear because he liked to show off—until finally, we made it back out of Brendan’s territory and onto neutral ground. Tristram, the hound, ran alongside us, easily keeping up. Bekind had likely sent him to seek me out. I hadn’t dared bring either cú sídhe with me on the way to Brendan’s castle in case they refused to outrun any confrontation we might have faced. They may have been puppies still, but they were growing rapidly in strength and speed. I had witnessed them hunt and knew not to underestimate them. We headed for our base camp, the place so many of us had gathered to work together as we strived to take back the Green Court. I wasn’t the only one loyal to Brendan. There were many smaller camps—systematically and regularly moved to avoid detection. Yvette had sent out a couple of small forces in an attempt to push us back, and I had gotten some experience in battle strategy as a result of watching people like Arlen and Donncha plan for any possible event. But it wasn’t until MacKenzie joined us, bolstering our units and providing sound stratagems as though he thought of them in his sleep, that I truly began to feel that we could win. Surrounded by soldiers, base camp was likely one of the safest places in the realm, and as soon as we heard the welcomes of the first group of soldiers on patrol, I felt safe again. Farther along, Arlen waited for me with a group of men. “You did it.” “Not over yet.” I slid off the horse and gestured toward the scout. “Found this eejit on the way.” “I’ll deal with him.” Arlen’s upper lip curled into a sneer. “I know him.” He nodded toward the tents close to the watchtower. “The others are waiting for you. Try not to tell them everything before I get there.” The tents were bigger than most people’s houses. I headed toward them. The group of allies within consisted of many friends I had made since I’d first arrived in the faery realm. The children were back at my court under the watchful eye of Vix, Orlaith, and a number of others I trusted. Armies separated my court from Yvette; she would be a fool to lower her defences to attack the Darkside now. Rumble and Rafe had both accompanied me to the base camp, leaving the rest of our advisers behind to take care of court—apart from Bart, who had promptly disappeared after we’d agreed to try his idea as a last resort. Rumble had hated being left behind while I’d travelled to the Green Court, and I spotted him waiting impatiently outside the tent. I waved at him, and he held open the fabric to let me enter. Inside, Bekind waited at Grim’s feet in her cat form, Realtín sitting on her back, absent-mindedly kneading with her tiny knuckles. Bekind wore her human form more often lately, only resorting to the cat when she wanted to protect herself from pesky things like feelings. The scars on Grim’s bald head looked irritated, as though the brownie had been anxiously scratching in my absence. Realtín’s red light swiftly turned gold when she saw me enter. “You’re back,” the sprite cried in delight, flying over to curl up against my neck. Anya stood to embrace me. The pixie worried for Brendan constantly; he was one of her favourite people. Líle greeted me from her place at Grim’s side, the red embers in her veins and wings glistening with anticipation. I greeted Dymphna, the daoine sídhe, then looked at Drake, the father of my child, breaker of my heart, and king of the Silver Court. “He’s going to be okay,” I said, knowing he worried for Brendan almost as much as he resented him. Drake ran his hands across his face. “Good. We can move on soon.” And then the questions started. I held up my hands. “Let’s wait for Arlen.” Yawning, I collapsed onto a fur, too tired to stand for a moment longer. Drake got up to pass me a cup of coffee. “You look exhausted.” “I haven’t been sleeping.” A fleeting look of hurt crossed his face. I hadn’t been sleeping because I was so concerned for Brendan. But I was too tired to think about sparing his feelings. “Any word from Sorcha?” I asked to remind him he was married to someone other than me. “I hear she is improving daily,” he said, masking everything as he transformed back into the cold, unfeeling Drake. “I’m glad.” To my surprise, that was the truth. When I had heard through one of my spies that she was sick, I had sent help, and again when my ancestor Donella tried to kill them both and take over the court. I knew some people had wondered why I’d acted so, but I had changed, and so had all of our circumstances. Sorcha was carrying my daughter’s sibling in her womb, and I had lately been able to set free my old grievances and move on. Some things weren’t meant to be, and it was too late for Drake and me to repair whatever we’d had that had resulted in a reckless night and a child he hadn’t wanted to claim as his own. “Did you have any trouble?” Grim asked, worry furrowing his brow. “There’s blood on your face.” “Oh.” I rubbed at my cheeks with the edges of my cloak. “Not mine. We were followed on the way there, but the secret tunnel took care of any who kept up. On the way back, we bumped into a scout. I brought him back with me. It’s probably his blood. He kept trying to run away.” Drake smothered a sound at my nonchalance, and I gave him a sharp look, but his expression was once again impassive. I knew he hated when I acted fae, but if it kept me alive, I didn’t care. Arlen joined us, accompanied by two short, Darksider men. Jackie had joined us with his sons on our way to confront Sadler, while Bas, the chieftain of a small tribe, felt he owed me his life. “You’re back,” I said in surprise. “I didn’t expect to see either of you for a while.” “We brought along a few reinforcements,” Jackie said. “My boys are still recruiting, but we heard things were heating up this way and thought we’d have a nosy around.” Bas wrapped his arm around Jackie’s shoulder. “This one’s more persuasive than you think. Are we too late for the battle?” “No,” I said with a grin. It was good to know I still had the loyalty of some of my own subjects. Arlen looked at me expectantly. “What happened?” Warmth spread through my body as I relaxed and indulged the memory. I couldn’t quite hide my smile. “It worked. He’s alive; he’s awake. He woke up thinking he had just been on the boat, and he’s a little confused, but he’ll be fine. He and Bran are locked in his room and safe for now. When the time is right, he’ll appear at his window and influence his people. There will still be a battle—I can’t imagine Yvette just giving up—but hopefully, it won’t be anywhere near his room.” “Did he…” Anya flushed as she tried to come up with the right words. “Was she truthful about the marriage?” I shook my head. “Bran was right, I think. His doubts were made known to Yvette, and she did… whatever the hell she did.” A collective sigh of relief sounded around the room. We’d had our doubts—taken risks because of our feelings—but it was good to know we hadn’t been in the wrong. We had been helping our friend for the right reasons. “We need to rest tonight,” Dymphna said. “We have a big journey to undertake in the morning.” “There may not be a battle at all,” Líle said. “The woman would have to be foolish to go against our numbers.” “She was foolish in any case,” Jackie said as he puffed on his pipe. He nudged Bas, his unlikely new best friend. “But aren’t we lucky the MacKenzie man is so taken with the Chaos queen?” I glared at him for the reminder. Drake and I had met MacKenzie during our journey with the stone of destiny. The man had proposed that night, and I had offered to let his isolated daughter stay with me for a time. I hadn’t truly expected to see him again, but when Leonora had arrived for her visit, her father had accompanied her. He had pushed his presence on my subjects, spreading word of his strength, wealth, and proposal around my court. After the news about Yvette had broken, members of the Green Court had begun to turn up, looking for sanctuary. MacKenzie waited only a brief amount of time before publicly offering his army as a favour to his future wife. To save Brendan, I had willingly taken MacKenzie’s assistance, ignoring the consequences. The fae were right. Love was weakness. And I still didn’t care. I forced myself to my feet. “We leave before dawn. Anyone who remains behind at this camp should be safe. I’m going to get some sleep.” “So early?” Bas ran his tongue across his sharpened teeth. “Don’t you want to celebrate?” “I’ll celebrate at the wedding.” I nodded at Anya, who smiled shyly. “Night, everyone.” I went outside and drank in the cold night air. It was summer in the human realm, and my daughter was about to turn two. I felt as if I had squeezed lifetimes into the last three years, but to the fae with their selective memories, it was as though I had always been around. My own court had stabilised, and the fae were slowly forgetting that they had once shunned and feared us Darksiders. My people were a part of the realm now, battling side by side with their old enemies. Even the human realm was returning to a version of normality since I had forbidden my fae from harming humans. I couldn’t control all of the fae in the human realm, but it was a good start. But the blight still hurt us, and we were running out of time. We had researched every story, every scrap of information we could find, and there was only one thing we were sure about: we weren’t the first to seek out all four legendary treasures in order to beat a god into submission. The black cú sídhe accompanied me to my tent. The other half of the pair was at home with Scarlet and Lily, my foster daughter. Lily’s real name, Liliana, was such a mouthful for Scarlet that we had all taken to calling the child by the shortened form. We hadn’t found her mother, and I had long since stopped wanting to. It was safe to say the court was still adjusting to her presence. They refused to treat her in the same manner they did Scarlet. But between her wet nurse and me, and weirdly enough, Vix, she received plenty of love and affection. Lily was weak with the effects of the blight, and it had been touch and go for many months, but she was gaining strength, possibly from Scarlet’s presence. Lily was six months old, and she showed no sign of crawling or sitting up, but she smiled at me when I looked at her, and we exercised her every day. She would likely end up in a wheelchair like Setanta, but at least she had survived. Scarlet was the perfect big sister, absolutely delighted with the new baby. Dymphna’s daughter Eithne wasn’t as kind, and she spent more time with Setanta than she had before. She had already reached her fifth birthday, which seemed crazy to me. Time was slipping out of my hands like water. In my tent, I lay on a thick fur and curled into a foetal position, Tristram at my feet. Bekind, who had slowly gotten used to the idea of the dogs, slunk in afterward and lay down next to my stomach, letting me wrap my arms around her. The relief was so strong that I couldn’t cope with it. Tears were the only release. Brendan was all right, and I loved him, but there would be other Yvettes, other matches that his court needed from him. Kings and queens from two opposite courts could never be together and still behave in the best manner for their people. Even Brendan had told me that, thinking of his own parents, who had tried to forge a joining of the realms. They had been too consumed with each other to think of their people, and I could easily see that happening to me. I had already made reckless alliances for the sake of a love I’d been denying for far too long. I quickly wiped away my tears as Realtín flew into the tent and cuddled against my neck. “Poor Cara,” she cooed. “You were very frightened he would die.” I tried to laugh. “We have to deal with the god of Chaos. We need all of the kings we can get.” I fell asleep quickly that night, completely exhausted by months of stress and sleepless nights. One problem was almost solved, but we had plenty more battles to fight. Chapter 3 I felt renewed as I rode Dubh at the head of my troops, accompanied only by the hound, Rumble, and a flag-wielding Rafe. I turned to Rafe. “You should turn back soon. They need you at camp.” “Soon. I just want to see this for a while longer.” And it was a sight to see—four armies marching toward Green territory in the breaking light. I could only imagine Yvette looking out of her bedroom window and seeing us coming for her. I giggled at the thought. Even the blackened soil we rode upon couldn’t dampen my mood. Rumble, helmeted as always, gave me a sideways glance. “Let me have my glee,” I said happily. “Some would call such joy unbecoming of a royal.” “Some should shut their mouths. This is karma at her greatest.” “Yvette should raise a flag of surrender,” he said. “If she wants to live.” “She’ll know we need to talk to her first. Besides, the castle’s pretty solid. If she doesn’t realise that we managed to wake Brendan, then she could be confident we won’t get in. And it will take a while to break down those gates.” “We can infiltrate in other ways,” Rafe said. “We want to keep loss of life to a minimum. The best way to achieve that is if Brendan shows himself and his own people open the gates.” My entire body trembled in anticipation. Was that what bloodlust felt like for Brendan? A gust of wind lifted my hair and cloak. “An ill wind,” somebody behind me murmured. I ignored that as best I could. Odd things had been happening in the realm, and I really hoped Yvette wasn’t confident because she felt sure some god would act on her behalf. A dappled grey mare rode toward us, the rider in steel armour that had been painted black. I groaned inwardly. MacKenzie had some kind of radar when it came to my whereabouts. He pulled the reins in front of us and nodded his head politely. “I wear a blackened armour to honour you today.” I bit back a smart remark. “Thank you.” “My men would like the honour of striking first against this usurper. Our trebuchet will make quick work of the gates.” “We’ll wait as long as we can before we use that thing,” I said. “But take care of the archers when we get close. We need to make it to the gates. Brendan may not be able to help us, but that’s the outcome we’re counting on. If his people can open the gates from the inside, we can take care of everything else with ease.” “I’ll move my men on ahead then.” He left us abruptly. “He’s keen,” Rafe remarked. “I don’t know how he managed to keep a lid on his usual smug superiority,” I said under my breath. “He wants honour and glory, most likely,” Rumble said. “And to impress our queen,” Rafe added slyly. “I don’t want to be impressed.” Rafe grinned. “I don’t believe he realises this.” MacKenzie wasn’t the only faery who suddenly wanted to be my friend. Even Donella, my faery ancestor who hated me, had sent me letters begging for friendship. She wanted to join my court because Drake wanted her dead. I had refused her first letter and ignored the others. I didn’t need that kind of poison in my court. Donella had inadvertently caused her own son’s death because he’d fallen in love with Bekind, who she had then cursed. There was no place for her by my side. Rafe soon left us, and we continued on the uncomfortable journey, slowed by decaying soil made worse by lashings of rain. I anxiously glanced up at the darkening clouds. “Does this mean the gods aren’t with us?” Rumble made a sound of disgust. “You’re the one who tells us we make our own destinies. Are you going to fall for superstition now?” “It’s not superstition if it’s true.” I wiped rain from my face and tried not to flinch when my hand came away grey. The blight was everywhere. “We’ll find the cup,” he said. “And the king will survive to help unlock the power of the treasures. This world has changed completely since you first joined the fae. There’s nothing that cannot be undone.” I hoped he was right. Some of the soldiers—those who were ridiculously loyal to me because of past events—began to sing a warrior song. As we rode, morale improved, and even my heart beat faster with excitement. By the time we reached the gates of the Green Court, MacKenzie’s troops had taken care of the scouts and the first line of defence. They had already settled in, using wooden palisades to create structures that blocked the other soldiers’ arrows and even their sight. We weren’t safe, but it was the next best thing. “He’s laid siege before,” Rumble said, a note of worry in his tone. “That’s why we need him.” We sought out Arlen and Drake. Their soldiers had helped surround the Green Court, forcing Yvette’s soldiers to barricade themselves inside the walls. Arlen found me, and together, we made our way to Drake. “Brendan’s going to be pissed he missed this,” I said. Arlen barked out a laugh. “He’ll get to play his part.” Drake came toward us, and even in the distance, his features looked stern and cold. He had once been my lifeline, but we had drifted so far apart. His marriage, Scarlet’s birth… everything had conspired against us, but on our mission to seal the rift in the Fade, I thought we had mended some bridges. Sorcha’s pregnancy had divided us once again, and he had been acting strangely lately. “I admit I doubted him at first,” Arlen said. “But he’s repaid us in full.” “You doubted me, too,” I reminded him. He glanced at me, a note of agitation in his expression. “I still believe you could be Brendan’s downfall. It just so happened that this woman beat you to it.” I rolled my eyes. For many reasons, Arlen would never be my best friend, but we had worked together for Brendan. Drake reached us. “Are you both ready?” I nodded. “It’s time.” I turned Dubh around. “The realm needs to work together to survive. It’s the only way.” The three of us rode toward the gates, Drake and Arlen on either side of me. Rumble and the black hound followed us closely. MacKenzie’s troops separated to let us pass. Despite our numbers, the silence was palpable. The Green Court had made no attempt at communication. It was time for us to bring the fight to them. We reached the closed gates, and I kept my posture straight and steady under the gaze of the watchers on the walls. Arlen held out a horn and blew a warning signal. It ran long and loud and vibrated through my limbs. There was no turning back. “Traitors!” somebody shouted, and it was as if a switch had been flipped. Both sides of the Green Court immediately began to exchange insults, and the tension ratcheted upward. I gazed at Brendan’s window, willing him to appear. We couldn’t contain the violence much longer. That was clear. MacKenzie and others like him were looking forward to war; I preferred to think of the resolution. Brendan and Bran finally appeared at his window. The king was pale, and I realised that Bran was doing his best to hold Brendan up. “Your king is watching!” I called out to the remainder of the Green Court army. “He looks as though he has something to say.” A flurry of activity inside the walls drew attention away from me. The iron bars of the gate had been shielded with a large wooden structure, covering most of what was happening on ground level. From what I could tell, Yvette’s people were hurrying outside to plead with the soldiers to ignore us and the king, probably claiming he was delirious and in a fevered frenzy. Brendan’s voice sounded weak as he shouted out of his window, but I heard nothing but him. “At last!” he cried. “Help has arrived from our friends and allies. I’ve been… trapped here for months, under a curse, and you have all fallen for lies and manipulations. Open the gates, let my friends in, and we can rid ourselves of this traitor.” The sound of an argument followed, and I spotted a soldier dash toward the gate, but she was knifed in the back before she could reach it. Her body lay splayed on the ground, her blood pooling in the rain puddles. “They’re fighting,” one of MacKenzie’s men called out from the trees nearby. Something collided with the wooden structure, making it shudder. Some soldiers flung rocks toward it, and it fell. A number of soldiers collapsed under it, having been brawling on the other side. But at least our line of sight was completely clear now. The Green Court subjects inside the gates had turned on each other. Yvette’s women clung to one another, screaming, and she was nowhere to be seen. I sucked in a breath, horrified by the sudden violence. By the chaos. Was the battle feeding the god we needed to defeat, giving him power? A flash of black fled by us, and my heart sank as Bekind slipped through the bars of the gate in her feline form. She wasn’t supposed to be there, but I should have known she would follow. She transformed into her human form and pulled the levers to release the gate. It slowly began to swing open, but a spear sailed through the air and violently impaled her. I screamed and rode toward her. A bloodied faery trod over her in his attempt to close the gates. But MacKenzie’s men managed to block it, leaving a big enough opening for a small number of soldiers at a time to pass through. I was the first through, but others followed, all intending to help Brendan’s loyal soldiers. But I forgot all about the king as I tried to reach my friend, my immortal ancestor who had become the sister I never knew I needed. I crossed swords with our enemies a number of times before I reached her body. I slipped off Dubh and knelt next to her, surprised to find her still alive, still conscious. But the dark blood pooling under her body provided no hope. She gave me a crooked smile. “This hurts more than you’d believe.” “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, holding her hands. “What happens next?” “Someone needs to remove the spear,” she said softly. “And then I’ll appear to die. But I’ll wake up again. I promise. I always come back. Donella made sure I would never find peace in death.” “I’ll do it,” Rumble said. I hadn’t heard him approach, but I wasn’t surprised by his presence. He rarely let me out of his sight without an order. Bekind nodded then winced. The hound nudged her face, whining. She clutched my hand tight as Rumble cut off the handle of the spear. “I’m sorry for this,” he told her. “I’ll try to be quick.” With one swift movement, he yanked the spear free. Bekind’s back arched as an awful scream erupted from her lips. I gathered her in my arms, tears in my eyes at the pain she must have been enduring. Her eyes rolled, her body stilled, and she relaxed in my arms as though dead. It was terrifying to watch, despite knowing she was cursed with immortality and would awake again. The hound let out a vicious growl as a soldier lunged to attack us. I held Bekind tighter as Rumble stepped forward to deal with him, but Tris leapt into the air and fiercely tore out the soldier’s throat in one quick motion. He stood over the body, baring his fangs, and no one else came for us. “I’m needed,” Rumble said. “Stay behind the dog.” He disappeared, and I held Bekind while I watched the scene. Brendan and Bran were gone from the window, and the courtyard was full of soldiers fighting a needless battle. It hurt to see those wearing green uniforms attack their old allies. I caught sight of lavender hair as Yvette ran across the courtyard, looking for an escape. If she reached the gate unencumbered, I would be forced to leave Bekind to stop her. But I didn’t have to. MacKenzie came out of nowhere and got in her way. She gazed up at him, panting. “You. Where did you—?” He slid his sword through her throat, cutting off the rest of her sentence. I looked away, disturbed by the sight. I pulled my cloak free and wrapped it around Bekind’s broken body. I had to be there when she awoke. I couldn’t bear the thought of her coming to cold and alone. The battle continued for a few more minutes until somebody shouted the king’s name. I looked up and saw Brendan walking through the front doors, supported by Bran and Rumble. As the soldiers noticed him, they dropped their weapons. One by one, warriors who had just been fighting on Yvette’s behalf knelt before him. Brendan stood taller, pain in his eyes as he forced his stiff limbs to move freely. I sighed with relief as every sword was lowered and the sounds of battle ended. Dead and wounded bodies were scattered around the courtyard. Our task was done. We had gotten rid of Yvette, and the true king of the Green Court was back to lead his people. We had the rightful leaders. All we needed now was one final legendary treasure. Chapter 4 My eyes closed of their own accord in the warm, cosy bedroom of the Green Castle to which Rumble had carried Bekind to recover. I had stared at her on the bed, fascinated, as the wound through her chest began to heal. I’d cleaned the blood as best I could then wrapped her in a warm blanket. I’d planned on waiting next to her until she woke. When the door opened, I sat up in a panic. Brendan walked into the room, slowly, but on his own two feet. He held a plate of food. “Thought you might be hungry. Bekind, too, when she wakes.” “You shouldn’t be walking around. You’ve done enough already today.” “Not nearly enough.” He pulled an armchair next to me and sank into the seat. “My muscles didn’t waste away, I didn’t weaken. I almost feel quite all right again. It was an odd kind of magic over me.” I took the plate and set it on the bedside locker. “Listen, I’m sorry about Yvette.” “You’re sorry you were right?” I turned in my seat to face him. “I didn’t want to be right, and maybe I wasn’t suspicious of her for completely unselfish reasons, but I’m still sorry about… everything.” “I hear your new ally killed her.” His searching gaze pierced me. “I hear that the battle might have been harder fought without his numbers bolstering ours. What made him send out all of his men for you, Cara?” I looked away. “He wants to marry me.” “He’s a quick worker.” I flashed him a quick grin. “He asked me after knowing me about two hours. I didn’t get too excited. He told me straight out he just wants power and a son. His daughter’s staying in my court. He had planned on marrying her off to you.” Brendan looked startled. “How many wives do these people expect me to have?” I giggled. “Just be grateful they aren’t looking at you like you’re a broodmare.” He made a face. “It feels strange that so much has happened that I’m not aware of. What next, Cara? We tried to end the blight, and apparently, we’ve failed. What do we do?” “We take down a god,” I said firmly. “We have many people working on theories. According to Drake, the elder you brought back on the ship has been helpful in drawing links between half-forgotten stories. The thing is, while you were gone, Rumble told me that Sadler brought five people to court with him when he returned from what we suspect was a journey across the sea.” “Five.” He seemed to turn that over in his head. Then it dawned on him. “You believe one of these people to have been Yvette.” “That doesn’t necessarily mean she was working on behalf of Chaos. But the blight did worsen while you were cursed.” “It’s a pity we can’t ask her,” he said wryly. “Did your suitor have to be so diligent?” “I know someone I can ask. And this time I’m going to get answers. When Bekind is okay to travel, I’m going home, and I promise you, I’m going to figure out how to defeat this god if it’s the last thing I do.” “Don’t tempt fate. Apparently, I need you around to keep me safe. How many times have you saved my life now? I don’t know why I ever let you out of my sight.” His lighthearted grin was back, as though nothing had changed, but I hadn’t seen him in months. I’d thought about him daily, obsessively, but seeing him was making me nervous. “It would be a little awkward whenever we were each needed in separate places.” “And you’re always scampering off to do your own thing.” “What was it like?” I asked. “Across the sea?” “So strange.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “They have their own belief system, their own ideas about what’s going on in the heads and minds of the gods. Have you spoken to the elder?” “Not personally. She’s staying with the daoine sídhe in the Silver Court.” “Good. Don’t.” I was taken aback by his vehemence. “What’s that about?” He sighed. “Ignore me. I’m just worried her stories will have half the realm building boats in a bid to get over the sea and champion their causes.” “I have no interest in crossing that sea. Don’t worry.” “Glad to hear it. I had to leave good people behind.” “I know.” My heart warmed. “You feel guilty.” “Is that what this is?” He shrugged. “I feel as though I didn’t do enough.” “You saved everyone on that ship. Bran told Bekind what happened. You were going to die, for them, for Yvette.” My eyes filled with tears. “I would have been so pissed at you, just so you know.” His expression softened. “That ship almost drove us all insane. I thought of you, Cara. Often. I feared I would never see your face again. If you had been with me, it would all have been different.” “I’m not a miracle worker,” I teased. He grinned. “No, you’re just my lucky charm.” I leaned over to hug him, and he pulled me onto his lap. I held on, my face pressed against his neck, until I felt reassured that he was back, that he was okay, that he wasn’t going to disappear again. “Sorry,” I murmured against his skin. “I just…” “I know.” His voice tremored. “I know it.” I raised my head. Our faces were inches apart. “Do you?” I asked, my heart racing. “Time and distance don’t matter to the likes of us,” he said. I was only aware of the warmth of his hands, and the look in his eye, and the way I felt as though I were in the right place at the right time. I ran my hand through his hair. “It didn’t even grow much.” “I bet the little butterfly has grown.” “She’s two next week.” He faltered. “I keep forgetting time has moved on without me again.” “Nothing moved on without you,” I said. “But children grow.” He cupped my cheek. “She’s an old soul like her mother. Age means nothing.” I snorted. “Old soul indeed.” “I must find her a present.” “You don’t have to do that.” “I hear we’re all invading your home for a wedding, so we may as well be there for the birthday celebrations, too.” He sighed. “If only to start on the next part of the plan.” “We all have a lot to discuss. But if you don’t make it, I’ll save you a piece of birthday cake.” He ran his hand around the base of my spine, his fingertips finding skin where my shirt parted from my trousers. I hissed at the sensation. It had been so long since I’d felt the kind of comfort that his touch might bring. He smiled as if at ease, but it had always been that way. There was a certain intimacy between us that never died. “Did you miss me this time?” I traced the scar on his forehead. “Not just this time.” Bekind moaned, and I jumped. “Go on then.” He gently pushed me away. “Help her recover.” I moved to the bed, only sparing a glance over my shoulder as Brendan left the room. Everything felt less scary with him around, which made it easier to forget my troubles. But I couldn’t depend on him. For all of our sakes. Bekind moved carefully, and I sat next to her. “Hey,” I said. “How are you doing?” She winced. “I hate when that happens.” “I’m so sorry.” She opened her eyes fully and tried to smile. “There are boons even to a curse. I’m glad you’re here this time.” “I’ll always be here for you. We’re family now.” “Are we going home?” she asked hopefully. “Yes. It’s almost time to go home.” She ate a little food and rested, listening as I described the rest of the battle to her. “So all’s well.” She sat up, colour flooding her cheeks. “I think I’ve recovered.” “So quickly?” “The process is painful but rarely lasts longer than a few hours.” She dressed quickly. “I’m fit to travel. How is Brendan now?” “It’s as if nothing happened to him.” “Good. We have a lot of work to do.” “Yeah, there’s a lot we still have to figure out about this god, and—” “I meant the wedding,” she said sharply. “And the birthday party. It’ll be one big Lughnasadh celebration, seeing as no one could enjoy the festival properly.” “Half the court is in the human realm toiling on the land we bought. It’s not like they can all just… stop.” “I know this, which is why I’ve only arranged for those with children to return.” She smiled dreamily. “Scarlet will have a birthday fit for a princess, and the realm will have something to celebrate for a change.” It made me sad to think that my family couldn’t be there, and sadder that Drake likely wasn’t planning on attending Scarlet’s birthday party. But she would be surrounded by people who adored her. It would be one brief day of light in the impending gloom, and we all needed an excuse to relax. We wouldn’t have more than a day. A heavy insistent knock sounded at the door. “Ignore it,” Bekind purred as she stretched. But the knocker didn’t wait for a reply before barging in. I bristled, but it was MacKenzie. That was his way. “Are you leaving soon?” he asked briskly, barely glancing at Bekind. “I hope to leave today,” I said, wishing he would just go away. “And do you need the accompaniment of my soldiers?” “I’ll be fine. Thank you though.” He closed the space between us to take my hand. His grey eyes were clear and calculating. “And when will we wed?” “I don’t think—” He squeezed my fingers so tightly it was an effort not to wince. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me. I gave you an army, I gave him his kingdom, and I took her head.” “I needed her alive.” “You didn’t need to hear what she had to say.” He sneered. “It would have made no difference.” I pulled my hand out of his grasp. “I thanked you for your help. Now please leave while my friend gets ready.” “Are you dismissing me?” He sounded so astonished that I might have laughed if I wasn’t so unsettled by him. “Our business is over for now. There’s no need for—” His expression shifted into something uglier. “How dare you? You made me believe you would marry me as soon as the king regained his throne. Are you really so—” “I never said I would marry you,” I said, my voice firm. “You offered your assistance, and I accepted.” “You knew why I was offering my troops. You knew what I wanted. I would never have helped this king if it wasn’t for that.” “I know,” I said kindly. “And I’m sorry if you feel misled, but I went to the Fade for that man. I would do anything to know he was safe.” “You fool,” he spat. “You could have had everything at your feet if you weren’t so… human.” I touched the locket around my neck. “That’s the biggest compliment you could give me.” “You’ll regret this day.” “I don’t believe I’ll ever regret this day,” I said, holding his gaze. He broke away first and stormed out the door, only pausing to say, “Send my daughter home at once.” He slammed the door. I shivered. “What an odious man,” Bekind said. “He’s intense.” I sat in a chair and sighed. “He’s right to be angry, but I could never marry him.” “That would be a regretful day. But he’s the wrong enemy to make, Cara. I wish you hadn’t involved him at all.” “I had to be sure that it would go well today. As quickly and painlessly as possible.” She made a face. “Painless for some.” My shaky grin fooled no one. “It’s all over now. We should get ready to go. It’s going to be a long journey home, and I’m exhausted.” By the time we headed downstairs, MacKenzie’s troops were already marching away. I observed their departure as my general, Donncha, organised our troops. MacKenzie was angry, maybe his pride was a little hurt, but he would get over it. I’d been forced into a loveless marriage once; I wouldn’t allow it to happen again. There was such chaos in the Green Court that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to anyone. We had to stagger our departures to avoid causing horse and carriage traffic jams all over the realm. Overwhelmed by recent events, I got swept up in the crowd, but as we set out on the road, my heart broke a little. Brendan would see his homeland for the first time in half a year, and it certainly hadn’t improved. Drake and I had sealed the rift in the Fade that had been blamed on the spread of the blight, but even though what was left of the so-called First Trees that had been rescued from the ship had been planted, the land had deteriorated further. As we rode through the once-verdant Great Forest, a lump formed in my throat. The trees were dying; those still alive had withered black leaves and black spider webbings along their bark and branches. The Green Forest was turning into the Darkside, and that was why so many of Brendan’s subjects had been willing to side with Yvette. Anything was better than risking succumbing to my rule. I didn’t want any more land, and I certainly didn’t want to steal from Brendan, but to people bred on power and deceit, I was their most dangerous enemy. With Brendan recovered, I could focus my attention on ending the blight for good, no matter what it took. The only problem was that we still weren’t sure exactly what it would take. No followers of Chaos had claimed credit for the recent natural disasters. We didn’t have an enemy to fight against, apart from a god who may or may not have been trapped somewhere in the realm. What we really needed were answers, and soon. After a long, arduous journey, we reached the old base camp, but it had been packed away, and everyone within had moved back to my castle. Nobody wanted to sleep on earth that was damp with disease. We rode on, but we had to rest eventually. As my group slept, I dreamed of voices telling me to make a choice, and when I woke, I was reminded of the witch in the blackthorns. She had predicted I would make hard choices. I wished the worst of them were behind me. When we came close to the Hollows, we were able to see how the River Garbh had changed. The waters were still as powerful as ever, but the river was slowly turning black, and all of the water fae had been affected. They would leave the realm soon, to travel to the human realm to live in the sea there instead. But that was only a temporary fix. Eventually the blight would take over the human realm, too. The Hollows were quiet as we travelled on the narrow path between the hills. Many creatures still lived in the hidden burrows and tunnels. I knew because I had taken to visiting them with food and treats. They didn’t speak to me, but they accepted my gifts and had started to appear when I showed up. As I watched, I glimpsed movement under the lilac gleam of the moon, but none of those poor deformed creatures came close. It was strange to feel pity for beings who had once tried to kill me, but I understood everything a little more clearly after all that had happened. I was trying to be a better person—a worthy queen—and I constantly carried the spear of Lugh on my person to cleanse my soul. Whether it was working was another matter. We continued on our journey but were greeted by a welcome party before we reached the castle. “It’s good to be nearly home,” I said. Those who came to greet us brought refreshments with them. The thoughtfulness made me smile, and I thanked them. “They’re happy to have you home,” Rumble said as the servants moved on to the weary soldiers. “You’ve won over so many of the Darksiders. You should be proud.” “But not all,” I said. “Though I’m glad to have so many on my side, even if I haven’t solved the problem of the blight yet.” “You did everything you could.” Bekind purred on my lap as though in agreement. “I’m not done yet,” I said. Later that night, we arrived in the courtyard of the castle. I let a groom take charge of Dubh while I headed inside with Rumble and Bekind. The children were already upstairs in the new nursery. I had finally left my old cell of a bedroom and moved into a proper room next to the nursery. I felt safe in my own castle, but that shift in perspective had happened so gradually that it still surprised me. I had sought to change the Darksiders too quickly, and when that had failed, I had been too tough on them, severely punishing them. That hadn’t helped either. Since then, I had been doing my best to find the balance between indulgence and discipline, but the times I had succumbed to cruelty had permanently changed me. I ran upstairs to see the children. The nursery was sectioned into two areas: one for play and one for sleeping. Paintings of magical forests decorated the walls, while the room itself was furnished with plenty of comfortable furniture and even more toys. I stopped short, seeing Vix cradling Lily while Anya read Scarlet a story. “Hey,” I said softly. “Not in bed yet?” “We waited for you,” Vix said. Scarlet squealed and ran for me, her arms out wide. I picked her up and held her to me, relishing how freely she gave her love. “I missed you,” I whispered, kissing her face. She happily returned the favour. “Come on. Let’s hear the end of your story.” I sat in a rocking chair and held Scarlet on my knee. Vix reluctantly placed Lily in my arms. She was still half awake, her eyes opening and closing slowly. Her irises had become an odd mix of brown and grey, broken up with what looked like tiny crystal-white veins. Her skin was bruised with the taint, but she struggled to sit up when she noticed my face. I helped raise her head, kissing her cheeks affectionately. She might not have been my baby, but I felt like her mother. “She hasn’t slept all day,” Vix said. “It’s as though she knew you were returning.” “She’s just getting older,” I said. “She needs less sleep now.” “She tried to crawl while you were gone.” “Clever girl,” I whispered, rubbing my nose against hers. Her eyes widened, and the corners of her mouth lifted upward, almost into a smile. Scarlet leaned over and kissed the baby, petting her hair as tenderly as a toddler possibly could. “You look blissful,” Anya said, a note of envy in her voice. “I’m just glad to be back with them.” I relaxed while Anya finished her story. When the girls had fallen asleep, I settled them in their cribs and headed out to check on the other children, who had their own rooms. Eithne was already asleep. Her unruly curls were tangled, and she clutched a wooden sword to her chest. Smiling, I took it away and covered her with a blanket. Setanta, on the other hand, was still awake in his room, sitting up in his bed, holding a book. Conn sat on a chair next to him, reading a book of his own. “Hi,” I said quietly. “Everything all right in here?” Setanta glared at me. “When is Mother coming back?” I sighed. Fiadh, his mother, had been banished for ordering the deaths of children like Lily, children who had been fathered by her late husband, Glic. She had feared they would challenge her son’s claim to her family’s inheritance. I had learned from Fiadh, but her actions had shaken me into clarity. I knew then that I could never be that kind of queen, could never be lenient with that kind of courtier. Fiadh had begged to return to court and later pleaded for her son to stay with Conn in my castle. I wasn’t about to turn a child away, but Fiadh was never going to get near Lily if I could help it. “She’s not coming back here,” I said. “I’ve already told you this, Setanta.” He pouted and flung the book away. “It’s because of that ugly baby, isn’t it? She won’t come here because of her.” I folded my arms, irritated. “Your mother isn’t here because she committed a crime. She’s lucky to be alive, Setanta. And if you’re talking about my youngest daughter, I wouldn’t.” I nodded at Conn. “Make him understand. She’s a princess now. She’s to be treated with the same level of respect as Scarlet.” Setanta let out a sob and rolled over in his bed. I pitied him, I did, but I couldn’t let any harm come to Lily. Conn nodded, his expression blank. I knew he missed Fiadh, and he probably hated me for banishing her, but in spite of all that, he always treated me with respect. “I’ll speak to him,” he said. “Good. Because he doesn’t want to miss Scarlet’s birthday party.” “Perhaps I should take him on a trip to see his mother after the party,” Conn said. “It might help him if she explains it all to him.” “And what will she explain, Conn? How Lily is his enemy? You should make her understand, too. The old ways don’t work anymore.” He bowed his head. “Of course.” I left them feeling sad. Fiadh had helped me earn my throne, but she had flung our friendship away over pride and power. She was no better than Donella. When I returned to my own room, I relaxed, keeping the door open so I would hear the girls when they awoke, although Orlaith was with them and would call me when they were up. I lay on my bed and sighed. While sealing the rift had been a big achievement, we still had so much to do. But with Brendan back, our luck might just turn again. Chapter 5 I rose early the following morning to find the entire court caught up in an anxious flurry of preparation. The Chaos Court wasn’t the ideal location for a wedding, but it was the one place that had been free of bloodshed in recent months. And with a little planning and a dash of magic, my people could come up with something memorable. Darksiders still needed my council, and I was forced to hold court in a bid to return to normality. Visitors would soon arrive, but in the meantime, I had to address our own issues. Per my instructions, Rafe sent for Leonora and her friend Aiken that afternoon. The young man had blossomed while free from MacKenzie’s domineering attitude, and Leonora was probably the only person whose health had improved on the Darkside. Colour had returned to her, and I knew she was happy in my court. But her father wanted her back. I met with them both in my office, a meeting room that had an area where the children could play. Bekind curled up between both cú sídhe while Anya supervised Scarlet and Lily. Rumble stood quietly by the door while Vix settled next to him and cleaned her dagger. “I don’t think either of them is going to try to assassinate me on MacKenzie’s behalf,” I said drily as we waited. Vix raised her brow. “You never know.” “And shouldn’t you be off pampering yourself?” I asked Anya. “I need to take my mind off the wedding.” She lifted Lily onto her lap. “I didn’t think I’d be quite so nervous.” “You’re happy though, right? This is what you want?” “After everything that’s happened, this is what we both want. He understands now, I think, that a wife is not a possession. That I want to be more than the rest of the realm sees in me. That it’s all right to strive for change.” “If he forgets, I’ll give you a loan of Rumble to set him straight.” Vix snorted. Leonora and Aiken arrived before Vix could let her smart mouth get her into trouble. “Rafe, stay,” I said before my adviser could leave again. “I need you to hear this, too.” I invited them to sit at the meeting table and sighed as I thought about what I had to say. Leonora fidgeted with her long blond hair until Aiken took her hand. “MacKenzie didn’t return with you,” he said. “No. Leonora, your father wants you to come home,” I said. “He’s angry with me, and he doesn’t want you to stay here anymore.” “I’m to leave forever?” Her voice trembled with fear. “I don’t know. I told him that I’m not going to marry him.” Rafe rubbed the back of his neck. “He didn’t take the rejection well.” “I know you all think it would be for the best, but I can’t marry him. He’s not… he wouldn’t be right for us.” “For us?” Rafe shrugged. “I don’t disagree in theory, but there’s no denying we could use his troops.” “Let’s hope we won’t need them again. Right now, we have peace. All three courts are working together to fix the blight. When the kings arrive, we’ll come to some agreements and head on from there. But Leonora has been called home.” “I can’t go back,” she said, gripping Aiken’s hand. He looked distraught himself. “Eventually, Father is going to arrange a marriage, and I fear what he’ll do to get Aiken out of the way.” “Aiken can stay. He’ll be safe here.” I was beginning to regret bringing up MacKenzie’s words at all. “Then let me stay, too,” she pleaded. “Let me marry Aiken. You’re a queen. My father can’t… please don’t send me back there. I’ll die there, just like my mother. I’ll waste away. I’m not like him, and when he does marry again, he’ll have little use for me.” I exchanged a weary glance with Rafe, who shook his head. “He’ll take this as another slight,” he warned. “I know.” I held Leonora’s gaze. I couldn’t send her away. “It’s your choice. Go or stay. I won’t force you either way, and if you want to marry Aiken, I’m not going to stop you. But you have to face the consequences. I don’t know what your father will do.” “We don’t care,” Aiken said, his blue eyes shining with daring. “It’s time, Leonora. We’ve always planned for this day, for the chance to be free of him.” “I’ll be giving up everything,” she said solemnly. “For you, for us. But you’ll be the one he’ll blame for this. Are you sure you can take that burden?” He kissed her, and my insides melted a little. “Anything he does will be as nothing, Nora. I’ve put up with him for years for you. What’s a few more?” She couldn’t hide her smile. Anya cooed in the corner, while Vix’s disgust was clear. “Go on then,” I said. “Get out of my sight before you tangle me up in any more drama.” Leonora knelt at my feet. “Thank you. We’ll never forget this, I promise you.” As soon as the pair left the room, I winced. “Don’t tell me. I know this is a mistake.” “Two fools,” Vix declared. “And you’re no better. Have you turned into such a romantic?” “MacKenzie will calm down eventually.” “Are you sure?” Rafe asked. “He seems like a man who could hold a grudge.” I ignored the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. “If she wants to stay, I’m not going to force her to go just because her disgruntled daddy told me so. Who am I to get in the way of true love?” “That would be unlucky,” Anya said with a smile. Vix growled. “But—” “The queen has given the pair permission to marry,” Rumble said, interrupting Vix. “Even MacKenzie should not disagree.” But I noted he said should not rather than would not. But I would deal with MacKenzie’s tantrums later. First, we had a wedding to pull off. * * * A surprising number of guests showed up for Anya and Arlen’s wedding. Anya thought she had risen in regard because of Arlen, but many of the fae who had come to see her as more than a giggling pixie to be used for pleasure or pain had done so because of Anya’s own actions. I kept Anya company while she hid from Arlen, superstition keeping her away. It felt great to think about something other than war and blights for a change—and maybe even to act my age for a while. The night before the wedding, some of our female friends gathered together to share a drink in honour of Anya. “For fae, your stag and hen parties are pretty low-key,” I remarked as we gathered in my room. “What are those?” Orlaith asked. “Kind of like wild last-night-of-freedom parties humans have before they get married.” Líle’s smile grew sly. “Exactly how wild?” I thought about it and held up my hands. “Maybe let’s not go there. Don’t want to give anyone ideas.” I held up my goblet of sweet golden faery wine. “Let’s just wish Anya the best and go to bed.” “Is there someone you’re trying to avoid?” Líle asked with faux innocence. I waved away the question. “Anya needs her rest. We’re up early in the morning.” I ran the others off and fulfilled a promise to Anya to stay with her on the night before her wedding. “You seem calmer now,” I said as we got into my bed. “I think I was half afraid that something would stop the wedding,” she admitted. “Now I’m really starting to believe it will happen.” “I hope you’re happy with him. Not just now, but forever.” “I will be. I’ll choose to be happy, no matter what happens.” “I wish I could be like that sometimes.” I heaved a sigh. “It’s so easy to let the past drag you down.” “Don’t wish away your past if it led you here to us. I don’t think I could have escaped my life without you. And it’s not so bad for Brendan’s pixies—don’t think I don’t realise we could have had it much worse—but I wasn’t… free. People are starting to see me as more than just a pixie. I’ll never be much, but with you, I’m more than I ever was.” Her lower lip trembled. “I just wish I could stay with you.” “You can stay with us whenever you like.” I reached out to hold her in my arms. “No matter where we are. This won’t change anything. You’ll always be one of us, and maybe, when the blight is over, we can try to set up a grotto to pray to Brighid here in the Dark Court. Chaos won’t always reign, and maybe a place for people to get close to the grotto will help us all move on.” “I’d like that.” She brushed away a stray tear. “Líle would approve, too.” “She seems so much better lately. For a while there, I thought we had lost her for good.” “We’ve all survived when the odds were against us. I can’t help but believe we were all brought together for a reason.” We chatted together until Anya fell asleep, and I lay awake hoping we’d manage to give my friend a day to remember. The realm might not survive long enough to have another occasion to celebrate. * * * The morning of the wedding began calmly. The Green Court was kept well away from Anya so she would have the entrance she deserved. We didn’t have much in the Chaos Court, but my people did me proud. Elements of human and fae styles combined to create something familiar and unique at the same time. The wedding was held outside, and when I looked out my bedroom window, I saw an archway leading down an aisle between two rows of chairs. Faeries from all three courts already filled them. The realm had come together to celebrate the marriage of a pixie. The world really had changed. “It’s time,” I said. Anya stood and smoothed her skirt. She had chosen a wedding dress in a modern human style. Ivory lace set off her bronze skin. I had never seen her look so serene or so beautiful. “Let’s go then,” she said, taking a deep, calming breath. Downstairs, I held up her train. My own wedding day had been dangerous and horror-filled, but I refused to think of that madman any more than I had to. As we strode toward the faery-made altar, Arlen and Brendan walked parallel to us down an aisle of their own that I hadn’t even noticed before. Arlen kept his eyes on Anya the entire time. We reached the first row of seats, and the pair made their way to meet, Brendan and me following. Arlen reached out for Anya first, and she took his hand. They gazed at each other until the hedge witch cleared her throat. The pair stepped up to the altar in front of the hedge witch, who began the ceremony. She had been there for many of the significant events I had been a party to, and it seemed right to see her again. I barely heard the hedge witch’s words. I was too busy watching Anya. She gazed up at Arlen with so much love and trust that I felt a sting of jealousy. I could never give myself away so easily, so I would never feel that same happiness. Brendan reached forward on the hedge witch’s command to tie a green ribbon around Arlen’s wrist. He passed the ends of the ribbon on to me so I could do the same to Anya, knotting the pair together. When it was done, we both stepped back, and I looked up to find Brendan staring at me. I smiled, and he grinned back. I hadn’t gotten a good look at him since he’d arrived, but he appeared as he always had: strong, tall, and vital. His red-gold hair had been neatly trimmed, and his face was clean shaven. He had dressed in a white shirt and green leather trousers, just as he had at the Provings. His hair wasn’t long enough for plaits this time, but this look suited him better than Drake’s body had. It was his green eyes—gazing at me with a marked gentleness—that got to me. My insides seemed to turn to liquid, and I had to resist the urge to move closer to him, to wrap myself up in the content feeling his presence gave me. I had to be the biggest idiot in the realm to be the last to realise how happy he made me. Or just so damaged that I craved the familiarity of the one who had hurt me instead. After all, the ones who hurt me growing up had been the only ones who’d stayed; that kind of influence had crawled into my soul and festered until it had twisted every good experience. But I’d worked on myself, on healing the broken, distrustful parts of me, and had begun to believe that I was actually worth something better. The first time we’d met, Brendan had been trapped in another body, and I had thought of him as an enemy. How quickly that had changed. How quickly we had changed. While he had been fighting against tradition, he’d still found time to work on the walls I’d built around me. He’d chipped away at my fears and worries, and I’d been so concerned with freezing my heart that I hadn’t even noticed it was already lost until it was too late. Love had grown because he’d been the reliable friend who slowly taught me that I could trust him, even when others let me down. He’d been there all along, boosting me up, and by the time I realised I had fallen for him, my actions to protect him had already ensured I could never be with him. We were tied by the trappings of a crown, and even his parents had failed to make that kind of relationship work. The ceremony went on, hopefully beautifully, but I wasn’t paying it much attention until Brendan and I had to participate again, passing each other two rings that we then handed to the happy couple. When his fingers briefly touched mine, a spark ran through my body, and by his flinch, he felt it, too. It was hard not to giggle like a teenaged girl at the surprise written all over his face. I made an effort to subdue myself, and soon, the ceremony ended. The guests clapped, and Anya blinked back tears. When I had first found the fae, a love marriage would have been scorned at best. A pixie could never have married the king’s second-in-command. The newly married couple stepped past us, arm in arm. Brendan held his out to me, and I took it. We followed Anya and Arlen down the aisle, and my mind wandered into an elaborate daydream of my own wedding day. “What are you thinking?” My cheeks burned as Brendan’s words cut through an imagined kiss. “Nothing,” I said then quickly tried to change the subject. “We haven’t had sunshine like this in months. Are you doing this?” “It’s not me.” He held his face up to the sun and closed his eyes. “It feels good though.” I held his arm a little tighter. “They look so happy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Arlen go for so long without glaring at me.” He looked down at me. “They are happy. I envy them.” “Me, too, actually.” “Will you come somewhere with me?” he asked. “Just for a little while. I want to thank the water fae who helped Bran and me survive.” I looked over at Bran, who was playing peek-a-boo with Scarlet. “I will. But we need to get back before they cut the cake or throw the bouquet, or Anya will be mad at me.” “Bouquet?” “I made the mistake of taking her to the human realm to visit my family. Gran decided to remind her of all of the human wedding shows she watched on television while we stayed with my grandparents. Nothing but the best is good enough anymore.” “I am… intrigued.” “We have time while she and Arlen go… celebrate alone. You know what they’re like. But the reception party will be soon, so we should hurry.” I made sure that Scarlet and Lily were well taken care of while Brendan organised Dubh. He hadn’t seen the point in taking a horse who had no chance of keeping up with Dubh, so we rode together to the River Garbh. Dubh, with seemingly endless energy, galloped to the river. Upon our arrival, we dismounted near a small stream then walked toward the loud, rushing river. “It’s turning black,” he said sadly. “So much of the realm is dying. My journey here was a stark reminder of the larger problem.” “We’re doing everything we can to find out how to stop it. It’s just a matter of time.” “And has your mirror given you any new insight?” “I destroyed it.” I ignored the tight feeling in my chest every time I thought of it. “It was leading me astray. I couldn’t trust it, but I couldn’t get what it showed me out of my head either. It had to go.” And I had a strong suspicion that the mirror had been closely connected with the god of Chaos. “We don’t need the mirror. We can do this ourselves.” He looked at me. “I’ll just have to trust you. That’s steered me well so far.” We reached the river. One of the water fae I usually met there was already waiting, bobbing on the water, streaks of black winding around her tentacles. “We’re dying,” she said. “Your plan didn’t work.” “It wasn’t our only plan,” I said. “But no, it’s not working. At least, not fast enough.” “Why are you here?” she asked. “I wanted to thank you,” Brendan said. “For saving me, and my friend.” “Your friend,” she said. “Not your subject, not your slave, but your friend.” “He is my friend. And both of us owe your people our thanks.” “We’ll accept that thanks when you stop us dying,” she said before diving under the water. He shrugged. “Looks like I’m not the most popular ruler this side of the realm.” “They’re abrupt with everyone. It drives Rafe mad when they disappear in the middle of a conversation, but they keep their word. And they’re suffering, too.” We strolled away to find Dubh, who had wandered off. “It’s not just the water fae. My own people decided to side with a stranger.” I slipped my arm under Brendan’s. “They were scared. Yvette seemed like the best alternative in a bad situation.” “She admitted to me that she was the one who affected you that night after you were named regent. She wanted to see what she was up against.” I nodded. “Makes sense, I suppose, but I don’t get why she helped you get the trees if she wasn’t going to let us use them.” “Perhaps she changed her mind on the journey.” His gaze grew distant. “I doubt I gave her cause to grow fond of me.” He cleared his throat. “I’ve been impressed by the changes you’ve made around here. The castle is almost unrecognisable from Sadler’s time.” “I had a shaky start, but I feel like they’ve started to accept me.” He stopped walking and faced me. “You’re a leader. More than that. You’ve brought so many changes to all of us. You’re our lucky charm.” “I don’t know. A lot of terrible things have happened since I first arrived here.” He cupped my cheek, brushing his thumb across the corner of my mouth. “It’s not all been bad, has it?” “Not everything.” “But nothing is simple, even now.” He studied my face. “I hope you know now that I truly care about you.” “I do.” It was the scariest sentence my mouth had ever formed. But a weight lifted from my shoulders as I acknowledged his feelings. I had stepped off the edge of a cliff, and I was flying. “Then you understand that it’s not a trick; it’s not magic. We’ve all been wrong for so long. We can feel, Cara. We just have to be taught how.” “I had to be taught, too.” I covered his hand with mine. “There’s always been this thing between us, and I’m not going to pretend there hasn’t. I care about you, too, but even you said your parents couldn’t rule their own courts fairly. And you were left to pick up the pieces before you were ready. There’s so much fear and distrust in this realm already that we can’t just abandon everyone to do what we want, so I don’t know where we can possibly go with this.” “Then what do we do?” he asked. “Concentrate on ending the blight.” I bit my lip. “Then figure out a way to be happy afterward.” But my thoughts went back to that mirror, to the death within the reflection. I had lost hope that we would all survive. He leaned in and laid a soft kiss on my lips. “Agreed.” He held out his hand. “We’ll do that together.” Our hands remained joined until we found Dubh, and as we rode back to the castle, he held me tight. I didn’t know what would happen if we ended the blight, if there would ever be a way to bridge the many things that kept us apart, but a restlessness inside me had settled. Chapter 6 The party began soon after we arrived back at the castle. Unlike at the ceremony which had named me regent, I felt a part of the celebrations. I wasn’t alone, I saw friendly faces everywhere I turned, and I felt a weird sense of contentment so unfamiliar that it almost scared me. I had my daughters and I had my friends. Brendan and I had come to an understanding. And Drake wasn’t there to make me feel guilty. But there was still the matter of the blight to contend with, and although they had kept secrets, I knew that a couple of people in my court could answer many of my questions. I found Líle drinking a glass of wine with a pretty young pixie who flirted outrageously with both of us until I pulled Líle aside. “Listen,” I said. “I wanted to tell you that you can go back to the human realm if you want to. You don’t have to stay here.” “This is my home.” She frowned. “This is where I belong.” “But you and Zoe…” “It was time for me to come home. We both knew that when I left.” “You left her?” “It was her decision.” “I… I’m so sorry.” “Sorry?” She looked genuinely confused. “Why? We enjoyed our time together. It’s over now, but that doesn’t change the good times.” “Oh. Well, that’s a good attitude, I suppose.” And perhaps it was one I could learn from. I fidgeted with my sleeve. “Líle, I really need to ask you about something. I’ve put it off for so long, but it’s time we knew everything about the blight.” She blinked rapidly. “What do you mean?” “We visited the Watcher again on our way to seal the rift. I know you still have the memories that clung to you in the Hauntings. A while back, you let slip to some of us something about a vessel? We need to know everything.” The colour drained from her face. “I can’t.” “The realm is dying.” “I know. It’s just… hard. If I let myself see those memories, it’s tough to get back to me again.” “I’ll help you. I’ll keep you safe from those memories, Líle.” I grasped her hands. “Keep looking at me and concentrate. Compartmentalise that other life. What do you see in those memories? Anything that helps us with the blight.” She blinked rapidly, and her fingers tightened around mine. Her eyes glazed over, and the light in her veins dimmed. “It’s… there’s not much I can tell you. This happened before, or something like it, and a few faced the god of Chaos, but without a vessel, they only sent him to sleep.” “What’s a vessel? What does that mean?” “I… I’m not sure. I don’t see… I mean, I didn’t hear… I just know that Chaos attacked before, and he couldn’t be defeated for good. They knew it wasn’t good enough, but they had no choice.” “And now he’s rising again?” Her hands trembled and slipped out of mine, but I caught and steadied them. I held her gaze. “We’re going to beat this. And I’m not just talking about the blight. You and me. We can keep you whole.” “It’s not as bad this time,” she said shakily. “Being here, surrounded by everything I know… it makes it easier to separate the memories. But I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to remember. Please don’t make me remember anymore.” “I won’t. Now let’s get back to the party. Sit with Scarlet until you feel stronger. I know she’ll help you.” She nodded gratefully, and I led her to our friends. Around one long table sat Arlen and Anya, Grim and Realtín, Dymphna, Bran, Vix, Rumble, Conn and the children, Bas, Jackie and his sons, Bekind, and Brendan. Amidst the noise and love and happiness, Líle couldn’t lose herself. Not anymore. But I had someone else to find, and I was certain he was back. A number of times during the day, I had caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye. And I knew exactly where to find him. As I passed Brendan, he reached for my hand and pulled me closer. “Where are you off to?” he asked happily. “Sit and relax. Enjoy the fun.” “I will,” I said. “I just have something important to do first.” He let me go as someone else spoke to him, and I headed out of the room and up the stairs, signalling for Rumble to let me leave alone. At the top of one of the towers was an old room that had once held Sadler’s treasures and a mirror that showed me many terrible images, images I had accepted as fate for too long. I’d destroyed the mirror and made the room my own, a place to write down the mistakes we had all made in the hopes future generations wouldn’t do the same. And it was in that room that I found Bart, reading passages from one of my notebooks. “You’re not kind to yourself,” he said without looking up. “You see yourself through critical eyes.” “You came back.” “Of course I did. I had to see for myself that it worked.” I dragged a chair across the room and took a seat directly in front of him, forcing him to look at me. “It’s time. I need the truth now, Bart.” “I know.” He set down the book. “You’ve earned that much.” “You’re finally prepared to talk?” I asked suspiciously. “Why now?” “Because it’s gotten so much worse.” He paused. “And because you smashed the mirror and freed me from a tie I didn’t want.” “A tie to the god of Chaos.” “A tie to my very own father.” He sighed at the look I gave him. “My true name is Abarta. Some think me a god.” “A god of what?” I asked, trying to hold my temper. “Mischief. Mayhem.” “Chaos?” “I’m no true god,” he said in a low voice. “Neither was my father, not until he hunted the gods themselves. He was the one who took Dagda’s cup and drank the blood of his enemies until he gained immortality. This isn’t the first blight he’s wrought on those who didn’t deserve it. And unless someone kills him, it won’t be the last.” “How do we kill him?” “You don’t.” He looked at me pleadingly. “Don’t you see? This has all happened before, and nobody but another god even knows how to kill a god.” “So you kill him then.” “I’m no god! Besides, I don’t know how to kill an immortal. But what I do know is this: he will destroy this realm and everything in it no matter what you do.” “Then what do I do?” He lowered his voice. “You run. You take your girls, and you go to the human realm. You forget this place, and you let it die.” “The blight is spreading to the human realm,” I reminded him. “Going there won’t save us.” His hands clenched in his lap. “It will if you seal the portals behind you.” “Seal the… with the stone of destiny, you mean.” I leaned back in my seat and glared at him. “Was it you in the Hauntings?” “Forget the Hauntings. The stone will save you and your daughters, even the one that isn’t yours. It’s the only way to guarantee your survival.” “The stone has no power anymore. We used it up on the rift.” “There’s a way to give it power,” he said. “To… recharge it. All it takes is the power of kings. Who better to take their power than you?” “You don’t know me at all if you think I’d do that. There’s another way. I’ll find it.” “My father has followers who will do their best to take you down if they think it will benefit them. It’s not worth it.” He pointed at his chest. “We’re not worth it, Cara.” “Why are you even telling me this?” I asked. “You were kind to me even though it didn’t benefit you. I willingly repay debts of those kinds.” “Followers.” I folded my arms across my chest. “The glaistig is a follower, isn’t she?” “She won’t hurt you. Like me, she wants to escape her past. We only have a taste for survival. Don’t punish us for that.” “But at my ceremony—” “It wasn’t the glaistig who cast magic on you.” “I know. It was Yvette. But did she do it for your father?” “No. At least, not then. She did that to assess a situation, to see if the rumours about you and the Green king were true. What happened to him was her way of prolonging her rise to power. She had no interest in Chaos unless it suited her, and her mistake was growing too desperate.” He grimaced. “That was always her failing. But don’t mistake us. Whether we like it or not, Chaos walks behind us. We have no escape from him.” “Why haven’t you all tried to free him? Like Sadler.” “Sadler was controllable. The doctor wanted to use him, and perhaps even free my father, but the rest of us, we’ve only tried to escape our pasts. We all want to survive. The blight benefits none of us.” “That leaves one more follower,” I said. “He’s not loyal to anyone unless they can bring him power.” He wrinkled his nose as though in disgust. “He won’t help Chaos.” “Unless it gives him power.” I bit my lip. “It’s MacKenzie, isn’t it? He killed Yvette to stop her from telling us who he is. I wondered why.” “We came here because we were forced to leave our homes,” Bart said. “But MacKenzie didn’t side with Sadler. He left to make his own life, as did Yvette, and he didn’t serve Chaos to get it.” “Except MacKenzie hates me now.” “Men like him despise what they can’t control. Will you leave?” I gave him a tired look. “You know I won’t.” His face fell. “I had to try. I shall leave. I don’t wish to watch the blight take you, and my presence will only bring more harm than good.” “Go, then. Unless you can be of any more help.” He stood and paused before speaking again. “All I can tell you is that all four legendary treasures are needed to defeat him. One will guide you to his resting place, and the others will help you defeat him but only when all four are in the hands of the rightful ruler.” He cocked his head. “In this case, rulers.” I looked up at him. “And then what?” “I have no idea. I did not witness my father’s fall, and I only came here because of old binds I couldn’t shake.” He reached out a hand then dropped it. “If nobody has succeeded in ending his life, then why do you think you will?” “Because I’m not alone.” I blinked twice, and he was gone. I wasn’t surprised. I had what I needed: confirmation of rumours and a step in the right direction. We had three legendary treasures. We just needed one more: Dagda’s cup, the very thing that turned Bart’s father into a god in the first place. I wandered back into the party. The celebrations were still in full swing. I spotted Leonora and took a seat next to her. “It’s so beautiful here,” she said enthusiastically, gesturing at the ceiling covered in twinkling lights. Aiken was by her side, chatting with a faery to his right. “Your father sent another letter, Leonora,” I said. “He wants you to go home.” She paled. “You promised.” “I did.” I glanced at her. “Where were you born?” She blinked, confused. “In my home, of course.” “Here. In this land.” She let out a surprised laugh. “Where else? In the human realm?” “What does your father worship? A god?” She shook her head. “He believes in nothing but power. I’ve never known him to pray.” “He’s a dangerous man.” “He’s… well, yes, he is. Living in that house with him is a nightmare, my lady. He’ll marry me off to earn some power, and it doesn’t matter what I think. I can’t laugh or sing or be happy there.” She lowered her voice and gripped my hand. “Have you changed your mind?” I shook my head. “Don’t worry, Leonora. I won’t let him take you.” But I had a feeling that it wasn’t the last I had seen of her father. * * * Most of the visitors left before Scarlet’s party, but everyone I cared about remained. I had passed on word to Bekind about MacKenzie, and she sent someone to spy on him. She and Vix frequently amused themselves trying to think of names for our group of spies. The group was small but trusted, and that mattered. On the morning of Scarlet’s birthday, I spent some time with her and Lily alone in the nursery, having a perfectly normal birthday morning suited to a toddler. Later, things would likely get ridiculous, and Scarlet needed to know that she wasn’t just a princess. Two years before, I had been fleeing for my life and forced to give birth on the forest floor. Now, we were the official royal family, connected with everyone in the realm. Things had changed so quickly that it sometimes made me dizzy to think of it. I had grown so much older and was no longer trying to find my place in the world. I had made my own way, but I could lose it all to the blight if I didn’t find Dagda’s cup in time. But this wasn’t the day to think of such things. This was the day of the heir’s second birthday, the heir the Darksiders had been waiting on, proof that there was life beyond the blight. But poor Lily was the reminder that the blight would take their children and harm them. I held Lily close, praying that just the proximity to Scarlet would improve her health. I had to end the blight for children like Lily, harmed for the sake of a terrible god who thrived on pain and chaos. I dressed the girls carefully then called for Vix, who was waiting impatiently outside. “It’s about time,” she said, picking Lily up. “You care about her,” I said, lifting Scarlet into my arms. “Even more than you do about Scarlet. Why?” She blinked a couple of times as she looked at Lily. “I suppose… she could be me.” She met my eyes. “I didn’t have a saviour like you, but I had Rumble, and people like the cook, who made life bearable. Lily will have a wonderful life, but…” “But I won’t always be watching,” I said. She nodded, and a brief look of vulnerability crossed her face. “And I can take up the slack.” “See? Told you that you’re family.” She made a sound of exasperation and followed me to the birthday party set up outside for Scarlet. I sat in a chair and tried not to yawn out of boredom as trinket after trinket was brought up to Scarlet. She didn’t seem to realise they were for her, but she appeared to be pleased by the attention and the shiny objects. The two cú sídhe lay at my feet, Bekind curled up between them, and Realtín hovered over Scarlet’s shoulder, more excited about the gifts than she was. Lily cuddled against me, interested but intimidated by the many different faces. The day was hot, and I grew uncomfortable in the chair. Drake hadn’t sent a gift for Scarlet, whether because he forgot or because he wanted to make a statement, I wasn’t sure, but I felt bad for Scarlet all the same. She didn’t know now, but she would understand in the future that her real father hadn’t been there on the days she would remember best. And then it was Brendan’s turn. He stood before us excitedly. “I have a special gift for the little butterfly.” He clapped his hands loudly, and Bran appeared, leading a miniature golden-haired pony under the marquee before us. “Oh, no,” I said, laughing. “You didn’t!” “Why wouldn’t I? I can teach her to ride if you don’t want to.” I shook my head with a smile. “What are you like?” Bran looked delighted as he paraded the pony in front of us. “Isn’t she beautiful? Trained for a child, with a special saddle. Scarlet will be able to go riding.” He hesitated before adding, “And Lily, when she’s older.” I got up with Lily as Brendan held his arms out to Scarlet. She went with him willingly, and he settled her on the pony, never letting her go. She giggled as Bran led her in a circle. “It’s cute, isn’t it?” Brendan called out to me. “It’s freaking adorable,” I said. “You should be ashamed of yourself.” He laughed heartily, but a soldier came running to me. “An urgent message just arrived,” he said, handing me a piece of paper. I read it and frowned. “What is it?” Brendan asked. “It’s from Sorcha. She’s asked me to go to her. Immediately.” Chapter 7 I prepared to leave that night. “Why are you going?” Brendan asked as I mounted Dubh. “I have a bad feeling.” I looked at him. “I told you I saw Sorcha’s death in the mirror.” “The mirror you smashed because it was leading you astray.” “I don’t expect you to understand, but I know what it’s like to be pregnant and terrified. Donella tried to take over Drake’s court because she realised Sorcha was pregnant. That made Sorcha a bigger target than even Drake. Their enemies can’t afford an heir to strengthen their position, so Sorcha’s probably not had a good night’s sleep since then.” “And the fact she’s tried to kill you herself means nothing?” “She also saved my life. Look, I know Sorcha and I have… issues.” “That’s putting it mildly.” “She did help us get you back from the Fade. For a while there, I thought maybe she had softened up. Aren’t you even a little worried about her?” “She made her choices, but she’s been caught up in the demands of her own heritage, so I’m glad you’re looking out for her.” He patted my knee. “I just hope you’re not running straight into trouble.” “I have Dubh. There’s no trouble we can’t outrun.” I stuck my fingers in my mouth and whistled. The black cú sídhe came bounding out of the shadows to join us. “And I have Tris to guard me. We’ll be fine.” “I’ll be here when you get back.” That surprised me. “What about your own court?” “I’ll send Grim and Realtín home in my stead, but I feel I must remain. This is the Darkside. The blight was here long before Sadler’s games. It grew slowly until Sadler returned. Something caused that.” “Something that may be gaining in power.” “The answer must lie in the Darkside,” he said. I nodded. “I’ll see you soon. Try not to boss my people around too much.” “Boss them? I’m having a holiday with the children.” Grinning, I called out my goodbyes and urged Dubh onward. I wasn’t too surprised to meet Rumble on a horse outside the gates. “I knew you went missing for a reason,” I called out as we galloped. “And I knew you would forbid me from joining you if you had the opportunity,” he replied shortly. I was probably the safest person in the realm with him around. I wasn’t worried about Scarlet either. It took me a while to realise that was because Brendan was with her. Brendan could be trusted, yet trusting him with her made me feel as though I were walking a tightrope. The simpler life became, the more confused I felt. We rode through the night, barely stopping to eat and rest. We walked off the strain of the intense riding as we ate cold meats. “Your horse won’t last the journey,” I said, concerned by how exhausted Rumble’s horse seemed. “He’ll make it. Are you sure you want to reach the Silver Court? People will see this in an odd light.” He wasn’t wearing his helmet. In fact, he rarely wore his helmet while speaking to me. At first, the court had kept their distance from him, but as Scarlet never seemed to notice his scars, they forgot to fear them, too. He was a reminder of the old ways to some, but for most, the old ways were being rapidly forgotten. “People see everything in the exact light they want to see it, no matter what intentions I have.” We washed our hands and faces in a spring. “Look at this,” I said. “Clear water.” “But for how long?” “Just what I need—Mr. Optimistic. Stop being so cheerful, Comhaill. You’re giving me a headache.” Rumble smiled. “I apologise. I’m merely concerned.” “The entire realm is searching for Dagda’s cup.” “On the word of Bart, a self-proclaimed son of Chaos.” “You and I both know nobody can choose their parents. Besides, Bart’s never steered us wrong. He’s given us options, but he’s never pushed for them, and he’s always been right. The realm would be in a worse state if we hadn’t used Bart’s idea to help Brendan, and he’s tried to help me more than once.” “Forgive me,” he said, “but if you’re going to be so trusting, then I must be cynical on your behalf.” I stared at the water. I had almost been drowned by a siren’s call on one occasion; on another, I had almost lost myself to oblivion waters. Maybe it was naïve to force the entire realm to search for a missing object on the word of a man nobody trusted. Visiting my daughter’s stepmother in the dead of night just because she’d called probably wasn’t any smarter. “Being unable to trust anyone made me unhappy,” I admitted. “I don’t want Scarlet to grow up the same way. I want her to see that a ruler doesn’t have to be heartless or cold. I’m going to Sorcha because I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t.” “Such as?” I shrugged. “Every move I make means something, has an effect on someone other than myself. People keep telling me I’ve changed everything, but I’ve made so many mistakes along the way. I’ve been reckless and foolish and gotten myself tangled up in complicated situations that might have gone differently if I had been smarter.” He rose to his feet and held out his hand to help me up. “You saved the Darkside. How you got there is of no consequence anymore.” “I lost my way,” I said meekly. “I lost myself. Power corrupts, and I let more than just power corrupt me. I punished the fae for being themselves, and I expected them to change overnight. I enjoyed moments I should have regretted, and I let the darkness in because I wanted to change myself.” I pulled the spear of Lugh out of my belt, squeezed it, then opened my fingers again. The black handprint was dark, but it quickly disappeared. “I carry this around to keep me clean.” “And Scarlet?” he asked. I gave him a sharp look. “It’s not Scarlet’s job to stop me from turning into a monster.” “She’s powerful. More than anyone I’ve met. Faery children rarely display power at such a young age. She’s no ordinary child.” “But why? Is Anya right? Has she been chosen for something?” I exhaled shakily. I’d been told that sacrifice would come. What if it was meant for my daughter? “I tried to hide what she can do, but everyone can feel it, and I’m scared that she’ll grow up badly because of the way they fawn over her. I thought that if I did the terrible things then she wouldn’t have to. But someone so powerful shouldn’t have me as an example, or she’d grow up to be just as awful.” “You see yourself with different eyes than the rest of us. You’ve been good to us. And you’ve had to exert your will over us. We expect that.” He gave me a pointed look. “Some of us need that.” “I just want to find a way to keep Scarlet grounded and good. She’s a spoiled little princess, and it hasn’t affected her too badly yet, but what about when she’s older?” “She’s loved,” he said. “The court piles their affection at her feet because they love her, and that’s new for us all. Surely that cannot hurt.” Indulging a child was one thing; indulging one whose power grew every day was quite another. Who kept the powerful in line? * * * We rode toward the Silver castle in darkness. It was my first time there, and a shiver of apprehension ran down my spine at the prospect. I wasn’t certain why Sorcha had sent for me, but she had to be nearing her time. My daughter would soon have a half sibling, and I wasn’t sure what to think about that. Two soldiers raced our way on horseback. “What if it’s a trap?” Rumble murmured. “Then we’ll find a way out of it,” I whispered back. “Halt!” one called out as they drew closer. Luckily, the second recognised me. “We weren’t expecting you,” she said apologetically. “Your queen sent for me. I was in a hurry, or I would have sent a reply first.” “Of course,” she said politely. Her companion flashed a light to signal the castle. It was so dark that I could barely make out what was in front of me, but I heard the sea close by. Drake’s castle had once been the Unseelie queen’s, and it sat on a cliff facing its twin. Years of history were hidden in those castles, a history that I feared would somehow be repeated when Drake’s children were fully grown. I had to find a way to prevent it. And maybe that’s why Sorcha was calling for me, because she had finally come to the same conclusion. The soldiers escorted us to the castle. Drake met us at the gates, his face pale with worry. “What’s happened? What’s wrong?” I exchanged a confused glance with Rumble. “Uh, nothing. I’m just… well, Sorcha sent for me, so I came.” The soldiers behind the king exchanged puzzled looks. Drake swallowed hard. “I see. Well, I’ll have a room organised for you, and in the morning, we can see if she’s… well enough to see you.” “Well enough? Is she still… is she okay?” “We’ll speak in the morning.” He turned away abruptly, leaving me to the mercy of his servants. We were given two rooms, but Rumble insisted on sleeping in a chair in mine. “You don’t have to stay with me,” I said. “We’re safe here.” “Something is off. The Silver king had no idea you were coming.” “Maybe I really should have sent a message ahead of us.” I didn’t exactly like the atmosphere in the Silver Court either. Early in the morning, I stirred when I heard a soft knock at the door. Rumble opened it before I could get up. I was pleased to see Blue Eyes in the doorway. I welcomed the Miacha healer into the room with a hug. I hadn’t seen her in a long time. “You’re still here,” I said. “I’m glad to see you.” “I’m glad to see you, too, but we must hurry. I heard you arrive last night, and the queen bade me to send for you as early as possible. The king may… well, let’s just go, and Sorcha can explain everything.” Baffled, I locked Tristram in my room before accompanying Rumble and Blue Eyes to a room on one of the upper levels. A pair of daoine sídhe guarding the door stepped aside for us. Inside, two banshees glared at me, but I could barely see them in the dim room. “Our queen has summoned the Darksider queen for a private meeting,” Blue Eyes said. “Please leave.” The disgruntled banshees took their time leaving. “Your queen?” I whispered as they gathered their things. “I’ve grown fond of her,” Blue Eyes replied. “They close the windows and curtains constantly, leaving us in darkness, no matter how many times the king comes to open them again.” She lowered her voice all the more. “Be prepared. She’s not what she was.” Puzzled, I waited until the banshees had closed the door behind them. Blue Eyes opened the curtains to let some air in. I hesitantly moved to the bed, almost afraid to look. Sorcha lay there, the covers kicked away. Her once-glossy hair was greasy and knotted, her lips cracked and dry, and her eyes were ringed with dark circles. Her skin had broken out, and her cheeks were gaunt. Her arms and legs looked skeletal, making the roundness of her stomach seem to protrude even more. “Sorcha,” I said softly. “I’m here.” She opened her eyes and glared at me. “Open the windows then. I’m suffocating.” “I’m doing it,” Blue Eyes called out cheerily. “No need to complain.” Sorcha blew her hair away from her face. “I’ve never been more uncomfortable in my life.” She looked at me uneasily. “I didn’t think you’d come. Not after everything.” “What’s going on? Drake seemed surprised to see me.” She nodded at Blue Eyes. “She sent the bird secretly. I needed to speak to you before… before it’s over.” I froze. “Come closer,” she said. “It hurts to speak loudly.” I sat on the bed next to her, feeling uncomfortable myself. “You saw how I die,” she said, “so you already understand what will happen.” “The mirror isn’t a guarantee,” I said hurriedly. “I smashed it.” “Good. But, you see, I already knew this would happen, even before you warned me.” “What are you talking about?” The veins in her neck strained as she tilted her head and squeezed her eyes. A tear ran down her cheek. I couldn’t have been more shocked if she’d given birth to a sheep. “It’s a boy,” she said in a quiet voice. “I’m a banshee, Cara. We don’t bear sons. We bear daughters, and we sacrifice our sons to death.” “What the hell does that mean?” “Death takes our sons before they’re even fully formed. That is our sacrifice. Daughters are useful, but boys? They’re only good for one thing.” “Your baby is fully formed,” I said, gesturing toward her heavy stomach. “That’s because I made a deal.” Her voice shook. “I couldn’t bear it, Cara. I started to care about him. Me!” “I know. I know you love Drake.” “It’s worse than that,” she whimpered. “I love his son more. The son I won’t cast eyes upon. I felt different while pregnant, imagined being a mother. I see how happy you are with your daughter, and I wanted something of my very own, too. Because he won’t love me, no matter what I do. But a child always loves its mother—that’s why the fae send their babies to be raised elsewhere. Just this once, I wanted to know what it would be like to be loved.” I wiped away a tear of my own. “But it was a boy, and I knew what would happen, but I couldn’t stand the idea of letting his son die either. I gave the child a face and a name, and I couldn’t let go. So I… I made a deal with my god. My life in exchange for the boy’s. I will die, and he shall live.” “Sorcha, wait,” I said, speaking past a lump in my throat. “There has to be a way to save you both. We could pray to Brighid, or some—” “I can’t pray to Brighid.” She spoke to me as if I were a child. “I’m a daughter of Death. I walk in Death. I’ll become Death. When I die, I will accept dead souls into the afterlife. That’s what a banshee does. It’s too late for me. But it’s not too late for him.” She rubbed her stomach affectionately. “Sorcha, I’m so sorry. I know we weren’t exactly friends, but I wouldn’t wish this on you.” “I know.” She smiled through her tears. “It sickens me, but I knew I could depend on you. I knew you would come because you sent the Miacha woman to help me. And now I have favours to ask of you.” “Anything,” I whispered, moved. “I don’t want to die alone.” Her eyes were wide with fear. “Death is for me, but I don’t want to leave alone.” “Drake would—” “He won’t even look at me. He can’t stand to touch me, to see me. I’m not sure how I managed to conceive. It wasn’t… he won’t watch me die because he wants no part of me. Please, will you stay with me for the birth?” “Yes,” I said, although I was terrified myself. “I’ll stay.” “Thank you.” She sniffed and gathered herself together. “There are other requests. You won’t like them. When the child is born, you mustn’t let the banshees near him. They will end him if they get the chance. They will hate him for being a boy, for making me choose my own death over his. They won’t love him. Nobody here will love him, especially not his father. Can you… can you sometimes watch over him? I know you took in that deformed child as your own. Couldn’t you just give him some of that, too?” “Sorcha, I’ll… he’s my daughter’s brother. I know we have a lot of baggage between us, but I love my daughter more than I hate you. My brother was so important to me that I’d never take hers away from her. He’ll always have a family with her. I promise you that.” “There’s one last thing.” Her gaze turned cunning. “You must never let Drake name Scarlet as his heir.” I shrank back at her vehemence. “Scarlet doesn’t need the Silver Court, Sorcha. And Drake has never truly claimed her. You have nothing to worry about.” “We both know that’s not true. When I’m dead, you can have him, if you still want him, and he’ll love her more than his own son. You can’t let him favour her over my boy. Promise me that my boy will get the kingdom he’s owed.” “I swear that Scarlet will never rule this court,” I said solemnly. “None of us want that, Sorcha, least of all me. No Kelly will ever be queen of this castle.” She sank back into her pillow with relief. “It will be soon. I have days left at best. I… I want him to be called Morgan. Can you make sure he names him Morgan?” That made me feel wretched. Once, back in the human realm, when I had been busy considering ending my own pregnancy, my best friend had bought a book of names and called dibs on the name Morgan. I had never needed Zoe as much as I did standing by Sorcha’s bed casually discussing what would happen after her death. “Of course,” I said hoarsely. “I’m tired,” she said abruptly. “Leave me.” She choked out a sob as I moved away from the bed. “I dare not leave her side for long,” Blue Eyes whispered as we walked to the door. “Will you come back tomorrow?” I agreed, although I was still reeling from the conversation I had just had with Sorcha. I had never seen her so vulnerable yet so determined. She was bravely facing her own death to save her unborn son, and I couldn’t help admiring her, despite how manipulated I felt. She had broken the mould completely, turned her back on her own kind, and embraced a love she had discovered all on her own. Brendan was right about the fae; they were capable of as much love as humans. “Why isn’t Drake here?” I whispered. “He’s repulsed by the sickness and pregnancy. I advised him to convince Sorcha to end the pregnancy early on, but she refused, and I now know why. She’s confided in me, but she’s forbidden me from revealing the truth to him.” She sighed. “But he must know she’s dying. She’s so lonely here, and I wish he’d visit her more often, if only to scare off those damned banshees. They terrify me sometimes.” “I’ll be back,” I said, “but if you need me at any time, just send for me.” Rumble and I left the room then, and the banshees skulked back into the bedroom. In our room, I paced. “Be wary,” Rumble said. “You’re getting in between a king and queen in their own court. And if you’re there for the birth, you may be blamed for her death.” I clenched my fists. “What the hell is he thinking, ignoring her so that she has to beckon me? He didn’t show up for Scarlet’s birthday or Anya’s wedding because of his sick wife, but it turns out he’s avoiding the hell out of her! What a little—” “Are you angry on Sorcha’s behalf, or yours?” “I don’t know! Both of us! All of us! Scarlet’s missing out, and Sorcha’s convinced that this little boy will miss out, too. She’s prepared to send him to my court. Mine! She hates me. That says a lot for the way she’s been treated here. I mean, I had some idea, but I didn’t think it was this bad.” A knock sounded at the door. Enraged, I opened it and barked out a “What?” to Drake, who stood there looking confused. “I only came to ask if you wanted to join me for breakfast and a tour of my lands. Perhaps, later, Sorcha will be well enough to see you.” My fists balled, and without thinking, I punched him right in the nose. He immediately dropped his King Drake act and held his face, looking at me in horror. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Cara? You could have broken my nose!” “I wish I had!” I hissed. Rumble pulled me away from the doorway. Drake stormed in and slammed the door behind him. “What’s up with you?” He grabbed a napkin and wiped a drop of blood from his nose. I should have hit him harder. “I already went to see Sorcha,” I managed to snarl through clenched teeth. “How could you treat her this way? And Scarlet! And even Arlen, who saved your bloody arse. You couldn’t make time for the wedding or the birthday party because you were too busy looking after Sorcha, but it turns out you haven’t been looking after her at all. Nobody has! Except for the Miacha I sent here. Your wife is dying, you idiot! And she called me here because she’s terrified of dying alone, terrified that someone will murder her son while she’s lying there dying in her bed.” “Cara, you don’t understand—” “I do understand! You’re a selfish moron, and she’s up there suffering because of it.” “You hate the banshee,” he snapped. “What do you care?” “I care because I’m a human being with a heart and a soul! This isn’t helping anyone, and if you don’t cop on, next time I’ll make Rumble hit you instead of me. I guarantee your nose will break then!” “Get out! Get out of my home before I lose my temper. You don’t get to come here and dictate to me!” “Somebody has to! You’ve lost the run of yourself. The rest of us are doing whatever we can to stop the blight, and you’re in here pretending nothing is wrong. ‘Oh, let’s go on a tour.’ Are you for real? Face up to the facts! The realm is dying, Sorcha is dying, and you’ve yet to man up and help with either of those situations! And if we don’t find Dagda’s cup soon, then—” I stopped, appalled. Drake, Silver king and father of my child, had collapsed into a chair and covered his eyes. “I know,” he said in a shaky voice. “I know.” “Then what are you going to do about it?” “I don’t want to see her die. And if I leave, they could kill her anyway.” He looked up at me, his eyes filled with tears. “Please, help me.” Chapter 8 The Silver Court was by far the most fucked up of all three courts. My place was a paradise in comparison. Drake had been sacrificing subjects, Sorcha had been hiding in her room, and nobody seemed to know for sure if she was even pregnant. I picked up all that and more by the following afternoon. Rumble and I wandered outside, stared at by various members of court as we walked. We were the darkness in the court of light, yet we were the most normal creatures in it. We walked to the clifftop together, shivering against the bracing winds that blew hard so high above the sea. “It’s hard to imagine two sisters living in opposite castles just glaring at each other,” I said. “Not to mention trying to outdo each other with the weather.” “They were raised as rivals,” he said. “Two sick little girls in a rotting court.” I rubbed my arms. “I dread to think how our children will see each other. Setanta already hates Lily.” “He’ll grow up. And he’ll be forced to kneel at her feet eventually.” “I wish I didn’t have to force anyone.” “You knew what you were doing when you brought her to court. It comes with risks, but it’s the safest place for her.” I glanced at him. “Do you agree with my decision?” He guided me back from the edge as a particularly strong gust hit us. “I think that some people are more inclined to take home injured birds than others. I… appreciate the fact that you leave no one behind.” I shielded my eyes as I gazed outward at the castle where Drake had once lived separate from Sorcha. “I used to think Drake was that way. He saved me for no reason at all when we first met.” “Everyone has reasons.” I looked at Rumble in surprise; he was no fan of Drake. “I don’t even recognise him anymore.” “You always tell us that power corrupts.” “What if it’s not the power?” I turned my back on the Seelie castle. “What if it’s something in the blood? The blood of Sadler, Deorad. Scarlet has their blood, too. What if she grows up to be a queen who sacrifices her subjects to please the god of death?” “Scarlet isn’t a daughter of death. She’s a daughter of Brighid, if anything.” “Then where is Brighid?” I asked angrily. “Where is she when the realm is dying?” I strode back the way we'd come. Rumble caught up to me. “We could go home. This court does nothing good for your mood.” “I promised Sorcha I’d stay.” “I don’t understand why.” I sighed. “Neither do I. Once or twice, I thought maybe we could move past the bad feeling between us. It just hasn’t happened that way.” “You don’t owe her anything.” “Maybe not, but we owe our children. Why shouldn’t Scarlet know her half brother? And if the cost is making a few promises to her stepmother, then I’ll gladly pay it.” I picked flowers on the way back. “And I truly pity Sorcha. She has what everyone seems to think I wanted, and I couldn’t be more repulsed by her life.” “You have your own problems.” He plucked a red flower that was out of my reach. “Did you know that Bart had left?” “He told me he was leaving and urged me to do the same.” “Why?” “He said there’s no way to get rid of Chaos forever, that it would be better to seal the portals and save the human realm instead.” “Save you instead,” Rumble said. I patted his arm. “You’re so much smarter than everyone else, Rumble.” He smiled. “Not smart. Observant. He watched you too often to be anything but obsessed with you, and if he wasn’t trying to kill you, then he must have been trying to save you.” “He’s gone. There’s no point talking about him anymore.” I returned my attention to the flowers, unable to process exactly how I felt about Bart now that I knew the truth. “The little woman is hanging out of a window to try and get your attention,” Rumble said after a moment. I looked up in surprise. Blue Eyes was indeed halfway out a window, waving at me. I waved back. “I meant to bring these flowers to Sorcha anyway.” We hurried inside and up the stairs to Sorcha’s quarters. Blue Eyes was waiting at the door, anxiously hopping from one foot to the other. “It’s starting.” “How far along are we?” “Not long,” the Miacha said. “But perhaps you could fetch the king?” “Will do.” I checked on Sorcha first. She finally had some colour in her cheeks. “Can I get you anything?” I asked. She shook her head, looking miserable. “It hurts. You’re not as weak as I thought, human.” I smiled. “I’ll be back soon.” Her eyes closed as she began to doze off. “I’ll go get him now,” I promised Blue Eyes. Rumble and I raced to Drake’s quarters after a servant told us he wasn’t holding court. I banged on his door until he opened it, looking bleary eyed. He stank of sour wine. “It’s happening,” I said, deciding to ignore his appearance. “Sorcha’s in labour. You’re needed.” “Needed? For what?” “Support?” I said, baffled by his reticence. “Labour is pretty freaking scary, Drake.” He avoided my gaze. “You gave birth in a forest. She’s in a castle. What could she possibly need me for?” I gazed at him, aghast. “You dick.” “Don’t,” he said warningly. “I don’t know why I waste my time. You may have been pretending to be cold before, Drake, but now you’re frozen for real.” I turned on my heel and headed back to my room to change. I needed to be comfortable if I was going to support through childbirth a woman who hated me. Back at Sorcha’s quarters, Drake was sitting on a comfortable chair in the hallway, reading a book, his bodyguards surrounding him. I shot him a brief look of disgust before going inside. Before I shut the door, Sorcha let out a screech of agony, and Drake visibly flinched. I slammed the door and hurried to the bed. “Just cool her down with some wet cloths,” Blue Eyes said. “Everyone else has abandoned me.” “Banshees hate childbirth,” Sorcha said with a cackle. Sweat rolled freely from her temples. “They’ll kill my son in his crib.” “I won’t let them,” I said, but she turned her face away from me. “She’s so hot,” I whispered. “She’s feverish.” “If you could open the window,” Blue Eyes said. “That might help.” I moved to the window and swung it open. A bitter wind gust blasted me back. The sky was darkening, a storm setting in. I looked over at Rumble by the door. “Ask them for ice or something cold for her.” He was gone for a while, but he came back with chips of ice that Sorcha happily crunched on through the pain. She wasn’t just experiencing labour pains; she was in the throes of death. I could almost see the life leaving her every time a contraction hit. Death was a shadow in the corner, looming larger with every contraction. “Does Brendan hate me?” Sorcha panted. “Of course not,” I said. “He’s worried for you.” “He was always soft,” she said darkly. “I resented him for it, but—Oh, this pain will end me before the babe will.” “You can do it.” But by the time night fell and the first of the rain set in, I wasn’t sure if Sorcha would live long enough to give birth. She sobbed and reached for my hand. “Don’t let them kill him.” “I won’t. I’ll keep your son safe.” “My husband,” she said, gasping for relief. “Don’t let them kill Drake.” My heart chipped a little at her desperation. “You have nothing to worry about. Brendan and I will protect him as best we can.” She looked at me sadly. “It’ll always be you two against him. You dug your claws into Brendan before he left Drake’s body. My husband doesn’t stand a chance.” “It doesn’t have to be that way.” Her nails pierced my flesh. “You don’t understand his pain. You’ve never understood his suffering. He needs someone to keep him healthy, to stop him from—” Her eyes closed, and her limp hand fell from mine. “Sorcha?” I shook her. “Sorcha!” Blue Eyes leaned over and slapped Sorcha’s cheeks. “Wake up,” she whispered. “Wake up, my dear.” “You can’t take her yet!” I shouted at an unseen god. “You made a deal!” The banshee gasped and opened her eyes. “The realm is dying.” She arched her back as another pain hit. “I can feel it dying with me. So much death. It’s not a beautiful death. None of this is the way it should be.” She gripped my hand so tight that my fingers grew numb. “I pity you having to watch the realm die like this. I’ll welcome you all to the Nether soon enough.” “She’s delirious,” I said. “I know.” Worry laced Blue Eyes’s voice. “Her body is killing her.” “There has to be a way to save her.” “Death comes, and Death takes,” Sorcha said, laughing. “Death is the only winner in the end.” She let out a scream that cracked and broke, and still her mouth hung open in a silent cry, her eyes wide with terror. Blue Eyes moved the blanket, revealing bloody sheets beneath Sorcha. She propped Sorcha’s legs up and used her hands to inspect her. “The baby’s breech. That makes our job that much harder.” I rolled up my sleeves, trying not to focus on the bluish colour of Sorcha’s skin, how skeletal her limbs had become. “Father’s here,” she whispered to me. “Father’s waiting for me, beckoning me to him.” “Tell him to go away!” I brushed away a tear. “You have to see your son first, right?” She looked at me then. “I want to see him. Can I see him?” I clasped her hand. “Stay with me long enough, and you will. Fight it, Sorcha. Maybe we can win this time.” “You can’t win every battle.” She panted. “But there’s a peace waiting for us. Someday soon, none of this will matter.” I found the way she was speaking disturbing, and I moved away to help Blue Eyes instead. I cleaned some of the blood away, hoping my stomach stayed steady. There was a lot of blood, just as the prophetic mirror had shown me. I shuddered at the memory and kept going, determined not to give up. The contractions appeared to slow, but when one hit, Sorcha screamed as if her skin were being peeled away, one strip at a time. Even my gums hurt, my nerves were so tight. Blue Eyes pulled me away from the bed. “I can’t save her, Cara. You must prepare yourself for the worst.” “The baby?” “I don’t know if I can safely remove the baby. Her body is fighting it.” “What do we do?” “I’ll have to cut her. She’s already lost so much blood that this will likely kill her before her god decides to take her. Will you tell her the risks? Explain it to her?” I nodded, but I really wanted to run. “I’ll be right back,” I promised. “I just need a minute.” “Get some air,” she said. “I need the child to move farther down the birth canal first.” I left the room and found Drake still sitting in his chair. He stared at my bloody hands in horror. “Are you comfortable there?” I asked. “Are you at ease? Go inside and help her! You won’t get another chance.” “It’s not my place to be in that room.” “Of course it’s your place! Did she make the child alone? Drake, she’s dying, and we might not be able to save the baby. Talk to her before it’s too late.” “No.” He looked down at his book. “You make me sick. If it weren’t for you, she’d live to see tomorrow.” The book shook in his hands, but he refused to look at me. I stormed back into the room, my heart aching with rage and sorrow and regret. He had told me once that death terrified him, that he couldn’t cope with it, but how could he sit outside the room and listen to Sorcha scream without saying one word to her? Furious, I sat next to Sorcha. “He won’t come,” she said. “He told me he would remember what I did to you both, that he’d never let me forget. Oh, how I wish I had never set eyes on your face, Cara Kelly. You’ve been the ruin of me.” “Sorcha. Concentrate. The baby seems to be stuck. Blue Eyes will have to hurt you to get the baby out, and—” “As if I care any for pain,” she scoffed. She stretched out her arms. “I’m a daughter of death. I suffer now to—” She screamed as a contraction ripped through her body. “Push,” I urged. “Push the pain away and keep going. The baby will die if you don’t keep pushing.” “Not him.” She wasn’t looking at me anymore. “You promised. Me for him. It was a true deal.” “Push!” Blue Eyes commanded. Sorcha let out a little cry as she bore down. Blood flooded the bed, and my stomach sank. She couldn’t last much longer. Loving her child was killing her. Blue Eyes had ordered boiling water, and when it arrived, she told Sorcha to brace herself. Sorcha bit on a leather belt and clutched my hands as Blue Eyes quickly dipped a knife in the water then sliced Sorcha open to give the baby more room. Sorcha groaned, but she was too weak to scream. “Doesn’t hurt so much anymore,” she whispered to me after letting the belt fall from her lips. “One more push,” Blue Eyes said. “Push,” I said, holding Sorcha’s gaze. “He’s almost here.” She bore down with the last of her strength, her fingers limp in mine. Blue Eyes gripped the baby’s feet and pulled him free. She immediately wrapped him up and handed him to me while she did her best to stop the bleeding. But Sorcha was fading fast in a bed of her own blood. Her eyes were closed, and if it weren’t for the shallow breath lifting her chest, I would have thought her dead already. “Meet your son,” I said, and her eyes flickered open. I placed the baby in her arms, and she made a sound of surprise. “Morgan.” She kissed his forehead. Then she said, “Take him. Take him away from Death before it takes him, too.” I held him in my arms. His head was covered in a cowl, and his face was stained, but he looked perfectly healthy, despite his traumatic birth. Sorcha watched him in my arms with a dazed smile. “He looks like you.” I smiled at her, but her gaze was empty and unseeing. “She’s gone.” I felt sick. Blue Eyes stopped moving and looked at Sorcha. “There was no hope.” She wiped her cheek against her sleeve. “I’ll wash up then check on the child. You should probably tell… someone that their queen is dead.” I held the child and staggered to the door. Rumble held his hand under my elbow to support me at the door. A group of fae were gathered outside, Drake among them. “The queen is dead,” I said. “But you have a prince. She named him Morgan.” All the fae knelt at my feet—except for Drake, who stared at me with blank eyes. I turned my back on him and went inside. Blue Eyes took the baby to clean him and check him over. I washed my own hands then started to clean Sorcha. What a waste of life. Drake came into the room and stared at her body and the blood-stained sheets on the floor. He opened his mouth as if to speak. “Don’t you dare,” I said fiercely. “You didn’t come when she needed you, when she was desperately scared and alone. You abandoned her. You don’t get to come in here and look at her when she doesn’t need you anymore.” “Are you talking about her—or you?” he asked, his words slurred. “Get out,” I snapped. “Sober up before you come in here.” He stumbled out of the room. I carried on, my hands shaking. “He’s suffering, too,” Blue Eyes said. “He just has a different way of dealing.” “She needed him, and he just deserted her because he’s a coward. She should have tricked Brendan into marrying her. At least he wouldn’t have let her die alone like that.” “She wasn’t alone,” Blue Eyes chided. “She had us, and she got to see her baby.” “She hated me.” I took the child from her as he started to cry. “We need a wet nurse for him. He could share Lily’s, but what do I do until then?” “There must be someone with milk in the castle,” she said. “I’ll go find out.” I sat on a chair next to Sorcha, thoroughly exhausted. It could have been me in that deathbed, and maybe that was why I felt such a searing pain in my chest. Or perhaps it was the motherless little boy in my arms. I sighed as I looked down at Sorcha’s son. His hair was a single tuft of black on his crown, and his eyes hadn’t really opened yet. I wondered if he would look anything like my daughter. “Poor little guy,” I cooed. “Everything’s already messed up for you.” I kissed his forehead. “Don’t worry. I’ll look out for you. You have a sister who’s going to love you. It’s going to be okay.” I shushed him as he cried. “Everything’s going to be okay.” The banshees came to deal with Sorcha’s body, throwing looks of disdain at little Morgan. “He’s under my protection,” I warned. “We want nothing with him,” one said, the sneer on her face matching the one Sorcha had once worn, before she had discovered how to care. I was relieved when Blue Eyes returned with a wet nurse from the kitchens, Vanys, who had been weaning her own child. “I’ll come with you to your court,” she said. “For the right coin.” “You’ll be paid well, but what about your own child?” I asked. “She’ll stay here with the old women. Too old to be coddled by me now.” With that attitude, I was glad she wouldn’t be needed for long. We stayed in the castle for two more days, but Drake never came to see the baby. I took care of Morgan because of the promises I had made to Sorcha, but I quickly grew frustrated and eager to leave. The Silver Court was the most depressing place in the realm, and while the courtiers pretended to grieve, the king stayed out of sight. I just wanted to get away. Blue Eyes helped me organise some loyal Silver subjects to accompany us to the Darkside. Sorcha may not have been popular, but she had provided something important—an heir. At least her child was wanted amongst most of the court. “I’ll have to let Drake know I’m taking Morgan with me,” I told Rumble. “Keep an eye on the baby. I won’t be long.” Rumble was reluctant to let me go alone, but I was insistent. “Maybe I can talk some sense into him,” I said. “He’s still in there somewhere, trapped behind that stupid crown.” I hurried to Drake’s room, but when he didn’t answer my first couple of knocks, I let myself in. “Drake?” I heard water running in the bathroom and knocked on that door. “Drake, are you in there?” When I didn’t hear a reply, I got worried and pushed the door open. Drake was sitting in the shower, letting the water run over his head. I could smell the alcohol from the door. “Get up, you idiot.” I switched off the tap. “What are you doing? You have a court to run, children to get to know!” He let me pull him to his feet. I wrapped his dressing gown around him and helped him into his bedroom. He tightened his arms around me, pressing me close to his wet, naked chest. “It’s over. I’m free.” But his voice wobbled, and I knew he was upset. “There’s no such thing as a free king,” I said, breaking away from his embrace. “My wife is dead. I’m here for the taking.” “Stop that!” He tried to kiss me, but I pushed him away, and he stumbled. “What’s stopping you now?” he said loudly. “Isn’t this what you wanted? You hated me for marrying her, for deserting you when you needed me, and now it’s over. I’m back. What’s the problem this time?” I shoved him toward the bed so hard that he slipped and fell. He sprawled on the ground, drunker than anyone I had ever seen. “Stay with me,” he pleaded, grabbing my ankles. “I swear she comes to me at night to keep taking my sins away. I see her ghost. I hear her voice. Stay with me. Help me send her away.” “Stop it, Drake!” I helped him up. “Get on the bed.” He obeyed, to my relief. He fell rather than lay down, and he clutched at his stomach as though in pain. I pulled the covers over him. “You should feel guilty. But this isn’t the answer. Sorcha made me promise to take Morgan away from here because she feared for him. So I’m doing that today, okay? I’m taking your son to my court to stay with my daughters for a while. When you can cope again, when you’re feeling better… you can come and take him home. For now, he’s better off away from here. It’s not safe yet.” He nodded glumly. “Scarlet can be my heir now. You can send her back to me instead of the boy. I don’t want him.” “Don’t say that! Scarlet is never going to be your heir. I’m going home, and we’re going to keep searching for Dagda’s cup. And when we find it, we’re going to need you to man up and come with us.” “Why? What could you possibly need me for?” I felt like stamping my feet in frustration. “We’re going to beat the god of Chaos, remember? We need all four treasures, and you and me and Brendan have to use them together.” I held his hand. “I’m sorry I was angry with you. I know you care about Sorcha. I know you’re only sad that she’s dead, but—” He covered his ears with his hands. “Drake.” I pulled his hands away and sat on the bed. “It’s okay to feel. It’s okay to be upset. You need time to grieve, and we’ll give it to you, but you can’t just drink yourself into oblivion and push everyone else away. That’s not good for you.” “Then stay with me. I need you.” “You never needed me. And I never needed you. We were foolish, and we’ve paid the price.” “Don’t love him,” he whispered, his voice choked up. “Not him, Cara. Anyone but him. I can’t bear it.” I sighed heavily. “Drake, you need to sleep, and I need to go. Promise me you’ll be at her funeral. Promise it.” He nodded, and his eyes filled with tears. I was able to pity him, and that was easier than anger somehow. “Good. Goodbye, Drake, and I’m sorry for your loss.” I left him there alone so I could take his son away with me. Chapter 9 Vanys struggled to feed the baby. I stared out the window as Morgan whimpered, out at the Great Forest which was in an even poorer state than it had been when we’d arrived at the Silver Court. When Sorcha had sent a message asking me to come, I hadn’t had any idea of what would happen next. I never imagined taking yet another child into the Darksider nursery. I could only hope there was news on Dagda’s cup by the time I returned, and that Drake would have recovered when we needed his help. Because I believed Bart. For the first time, I had seen honesty in his eyes, and it had been when he’d explained how the treasures worked. We could put the god of Chaos back in his box, but would that be enough? There had to be a way to truly defeat him. Morgan’s whimpers turned into a full-blown new baby cry, and I sighed at the wet nurse’s panicked expression. She was absolutely clueless. I didn’t know how she had cared for her own child, but she looked at Morgan as if he were some kind of alien. “Give him to me,” I said, holding out my arms. She handed me the boy. I stared down at him, trying to find resemblances between him and my own child. He was just a sweet little innocent, like any newborn, and his mother was already dead. Pity burned in my chest, and I held him tighter and whispered in his ear until he fell asleep from the rocking of the carriage. While he slept, I handed him back to Vanys with a smile. “There’s something about new babies. Impossible not to fall in love with them.” Her noncommittal grunt made me roll my eyes. I couldn’t wait to get Morgan home to Lily’s wet nurse, Penny, who treated every child as though it were her own. “You seem restless,” Blue Eyes said, yawning as she woke up from a nap. “I am. I might ride Dubh for a while. Will you be all right with the baby?” She patted my arm. “We’ll manage just fine. Go, get it out of your system.” I waved at Rumble out the window, and he slowed the carriage so I could get out and ride Dubh. I was stiff from sitting all day. Dubh had been rambling alongside the carriages, and he snorted eagerly when I mounted him to gallop ahead for a while. Rumble joined me, and we raced lengths up and down the road, making sure we stayed close to the carriages. The hound loped around us in lazy strides. Suddenly, he stopped and froze, his body tensing. His lips curled into a snarl, and he looked anything but a pup. He dashed off, refusing to come back when I called. Dubh’s nostrils flared, and he galloped after the cú sídhe. I gripped the reins tightly, barely holding on. Rumble followed, but he couldn’t keep up. Dubh continued until we came to a small camp. A scout sat there, caught completely unawares. He wore no obvious colours, and by the look on his face, he wasn’t happy to see a Darksider. He gazed at us for less than five seconds before making a run for it. But he ran straight into Tris, who growled, the hair rising on the back of his neck. In the darkness, he looked like a monster. “Who are you?” I demanded, getting off Dubh’s back. Rumble caught up and dismounted, aiming his sword at the scout’s neck. “Nobody,” the slight faery said. “Nobody at all.” “Then why did you run?” “Woods are dangerous,” he said, his eyes darting in every direction. “You’re not wearing the colours of any court,” Rumble said. At that, the scout’s eyes gleamed. “Not yet.” “Who is your master?” my bodyguard demanded. “MacKenzie.” The scout held up his chin. “He’s coming to fetch his daughter with his new wife.” “New wife? That was quick,” I said. “Who is she?” “Donella, the leanan sídhe,” was his proud reply. I burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it. I should have guessed the answer would be just that ridiculous. “Best of luck to both of them.” “How many troops is MacKenzie bringing to take his daughter?” Rumble asked, and I sobered. The scout sneered at me. “All of them will face the pretenders.” I strode over to him, my dagger aimed at his groin. “How far behind are they?” “I don’t know. How could I know? I’m scouting ahead for danger. That’s all.” “Days or hours?” I asked. “Hours.” He spat at my feet. Rumble sank his sword into the faery’s neck. The scout gurgled and was dead within seconds, his eyes wide with surprise. The cú sídhe sniffed the body but decided on picking at the scout’s dinner instead. “That was a little hasty,” I said. “He might have had more information.” “We know what we need to. Our enemies have joined forces, and they are currently marching on us. MacKenzie’s armies far exceed our own.” “Why would they do this now? The entire realm is busy trying to fix the blight!” “That’s exactly why they do this now.” “But Bart said MacKenzie doesn’t act on the behalf of Chaos. Why would he…he also said they bring Chaos without even meaning to. And that he would use Chaos if he needed power. What better way to feed his god and gain power than with a war against the person fighting against Chaos?” “Then his daughter is a ruse. He comes only to take what’s yours. Perhaps you should have married him.” I shivered at the thought. “He and Donella are the perfect match.” “If his troops are advancing, they’ll catch up to our carriages. You must ride ahead on Dubh.” “The baby,” I said, suddenly terrified. “Donella wants that child dead. They could practically disable two courts in one attack. And Brendan’s still at my castle!” “You see how clever this play is?” “The people we took with us will die. I can’t ride ahead on Dubh.” “Take the child.” He mounted his own horse. “Ride for our castle and warn our people. Despite his army, it’s harder to take a castle than to defend it. I will escort these people to the home of the Miacha and seek refuge there. Then I will ride back to the Silver Court and warn them, too. We could flank MacKenzie’s army with the Silver’s.” I paced in front of him. “It’ll be too dangerous for you, Rumble. You could run right into the army.” “It’s easier to hide one man than two. But it’s risky for both of us. There could be other scouts ahead. You yourself could run straight into trouble.” “Dubh can outrun anything.” But Rumble’s horse couldn’t. He might not even make it all the way to the Darkside on his weary stallion. “Fine,” I said. “When you reach the Miacha, ask them to send word to all three courts in case one of us fails. When you reach the Silver Court, have them send word to the Darkside and the Green Court, and when I get home, I’ll send word to Silver and Green. At least one message should get through in time.” We agreed on the plan then raced back to the carriages to tell the others what was happening. We had two daoine sídhe and some servants. Too many to hide, too few to protect us. “Rumble doesn’t need to escort us,” Blue Eyes said as Vanys tried to give Morgan one last desperate feed. “I can hide these people with my sisters.” I glanced at Rumble, who nodded. “Fine,” I said. “Just hurry, and send word to all of the courts when you get home in case Rumble and I don’t make it.” “Best of luck to you,” she said. “The leanan sídhe would make a terrible queen.” She helped me strap the baby to my chest. “As tight as you can,” I said. “It’ll keep him warm and secure, and hopefully, I won’t drop him.” “His cries may give you away.” “Dubh will just have to beat his record for getting home,” I said, forcing confidence into my voice. Soon, it was time to separate. Rumble went back the way he’d come, disappearing into the woods. The Miacha led the others down a stream, all of them walking barefoot in the water in case MacKenzie’s cú sídhe were hunting in the woods. And I rode straight for the Hollows on a faery horse, with a faery prince strapped to my chest, and a faery dog running next to us. I looked up and saw a crow flying off toward the Darkside. Pity they couldn’t talk. When I reached the top of the valley before the Hollow Hills, I looked back on the Great Forest. Thousands of lights lit a warning, some of them too close for comfort. There was a chance some of MacKenzie’s army was ahead of us, too. For a brief instant, I wondered how we hadn’t received word of the army’s approach, but MacKenzie probably had hunting parties cutting down witnesses and messengers. We pushed on, reaching the Hollows. Morgan’s whimpers echoed in the air, and I slowed Dubh. “There’s an army coming!” I cried out. “Stay hidden. They are our enemies!” I wasn’t sure how much the deformed creatures in the Hollows could understand, but hopefully, they would survive the pillaging of a travelling army. Dubh raced on, Tris somehow managing to keep up. We raced through the forest as dawn broke, and I prayed we would come across some of our own soldiers. I was exhausted, and the baby was hungry and restless. Dubh was sweating and panting, struggling at the pace I kept urging him to keep. Tris moved silently, and I wondered how much further he could go. The woods were quiet, too quiet. Dubh’s ears kept pricking up, and I knew something was out there. We were so close to home that I could see the towers of the castle in the distance through gaps in the trees. The baby stirred again, eager for a feed. I shushed him, praying he would keep quiet just a little while longer. Tris grew tense and kept closer to us, while Dubh slowed to make less noise. I held my breath, realising something was near. But what, exactly? My skin prickled with anticipation, but I didn’t hear anything approaching. And then the baby let out an awful wail. Almost instantly, a howl sounded close by. The howl of a cú sídhe. To my horror, Tris sent out an echoing howl. If the hunting dogs hadn’t realised where we were before, they certainly did then. Dubh broke into a desperate gallop, but I had seen how easily Tris kept up to my horse. The dogs were fast. The baby kept crying, making us a moving target. Cú sídhe crashed through the undergrowth after us, rapidly gaining on us as they followed our trail. I held onto the reins with one hand and a knife with the other, praying the ties securing the baby to my chest would hold. We would have to fight our way home, we would likely fail, and I couldn’t figure out a way to save the child that had been entrusted to me. Donella had wanted him dead since she’d learned of his conception, and now she had a new husband with a massive army to help her. I could only hope that the others made it to their destinations in time. We raced on, the sun slowly moving higher in the sky. Sweat dripped down my back. Morgan’s face was bright red with hunger and upset. The growls behind us grew louder by the minute. They came at us from both sides, two massive hounds circling to block our escape. One leapt to take a bite out of Dubh’s haunch. He jumped and kicked back, knocking a cú sídhe in the face before its teeth could sink into his flesh. Tris let out a terrifying sound then fearlessly dove straight for the animals. Dubh whirled around in a circle, the whites of his eyes showing in his panic. Both of MacKenzie’s dogs were larger than Tris, who was still practically a pup, albeit a large one, and they dove at my dog as one. He was thrown on his back, snapping and snarling as one of the pair went for his throat. “Dubh, help him!” I cried. If they killed the dog, they would just come after us, and Dubh was exhausted. We wouldn’t make it home. We had to fight and hope for the best. Dubh jumped and stomped at the attacking dogs. One separated from the fight to come at us while Tris struggled with the other. Blood splatters decorated the grass and fallen leaves, and my poor pup struggled against his attacker. The second dog looked more like an oversized feral wolf as he went for Dubh’s legs, biting as Dubh screamed and bucked to kick him off. Then the baby cried again, and the dog looked up instead. He released Dubh and leapt up, right for the child. I tried to shield the baby with my arms. The cú sídhe sank its teeth into my forearm, almost pulling me off the horse as he fell to the earth. I didn’t know how I kept my seat. I held out my knife to ward the animal off as it leapt again and again, reckless in its blood frenzy. Dubh spun around, kicking outward as he tried to keep the dog away from us. Finally, the dog succeeded in leaping for the baby again, but my knife was in just the right position to slice him from mouth to chest. Dubh bucked, knocking the dog to the ground. The creature whimpered, attempting to crawl away as it bled out. Dubh stomped on the dog’s head until it stopped moving. I shivered as adrenalin pumped through my body. The baby’s shawl was covered in blood, and he kept crying, but he seemed unharmed. Tris was losing the fight against the larger cú sídhe, but Dubh interfered, giving Tris a chance to get back on his feet. Dubh kicked the larger dog in the gut, and the hound attacked Dubh instead, viciously sinking his fangs into Dubh’s leg. I couldn’t reach them with a blade, couldn’t get off the horse without risking the baby, but Tris managed to jump on the back of the dog. The dog’s jaws released Dubh, who promptly stood on the animal and held it there, even as it ripped the flesh from his foreleg. Taking advantage of the distraction, Tris tore out the animal’s throat. It was over. It was done. But our injuries meant we couldn’t run anymore. Dubh limped on, and Tris looked as though he might collapse at any minute. The pain in my arm intensified as the rush of battle left me. “We just have to get home,” I whispered. “We’re almost home.” Soldiers were behind us, tracking their hounds. I heard them come after us, and I ignored them. I had to. We kept moving, kept trying to reach home. It was too late, but we didn’t stop. We couldn’t stop, couldn’t give up. And then the sounds came from in front of us. I was too weary to think about anything but what a shame it was that we would lose so close to home. A streak of white flew past me, but before I could figure out what it was, a group of soldiers came into view. They wore black and surrounded us protectively. My people had found us. I looked over my shoulder and saw the enemy burst through the clearing, but my soldiers blocked their way. Donncha raced past me, shouting something incomprehensible. “You’re hurt,” Brendan said. I hadn’t even recognised him. “A baby!” he exclaimed. “Cara?” I blinked a couple of times, trying to come to my senses, but the fight behind us was a distracting reminder of the hounds’ attack. Morgan mewled sorrowfully, and I recalled my mission. “MacKenzie and Donella are on their way. Be careful of the cú sídhe.” “Get her back to the castle,” Brendan called out to Bran, whom I noticed for the first time. “I’m fine,” I said. “I can get back.” “Bran will help you,” he said, touching my cheek. “I have to help your soldiers here.” Bran helped me get off the horse as Brendan raced into the fray. He called for another soldier to lead Dubh home. “Throw the hound on the saddle,” he commanded. “The poor thing did its job.” I looked back at the fight as Bran helped me onto his horse with him. Issy, the white cú sídhe, was amongst the fighters, even more ferocious than Tris. The baby kept crying, and Bran rode quickly away from the danger. I was so exhausted, my eyes began to close of their own accord. Dubh limped home behind us, but Bran refused to slow down. “I’m sorry to rush you when you’re exhausted, but I may need to get back out there,” he said. “How did the messenger reach you so fast?” I asked, yawning. “There was no messenger. The crows were acting strange, and Vix convinced the king that it meant trouble. Then the white dog howled and raced away as if there was a war going on, so a group of us followed to investigate. And we found you, half dead, with a baby.” “Don’t overreact. I’m not half dead.” “Half asleep then,” he teased. “What’s with the baby though?” “It’s Drake’s son. Sorcha died in childbirth. Before that, she asked me to take him away from her court, to keep him safe. And Drake wasn’t… himself, so I did. I left with Rumble, one of the Miacha, two daoine sídhe, and a couple of Silver Court servants. We found a scout who told us that MacKenzie married Donella and was on his way to my castle with his entire army. We all separated and headed for different places in the hope one of us could warn all the courts of the danger.” I heaved a sigh. “I really thought I was going to get the baby killed.” “It was close, but you made it. That’ll be some scar on your arm though.” I looked down at my arm. The wound was nasty, and more than just blood oozed out of it. The black stain of the blight was there, too. I concentrated on looking straight ahead. Seeing the castle felt like coming home. “I’m just lucky I had Dubh and Tris,” I said, trying my best to hide the trembling of my lower lip as I held on to the baby. We had both come too close to death. We were greeted at the gates by many surprised Darksiders who looked horrified by my wound—and puzzled by the appearance of yet another child. “Back off,” Bran called out. “We need to get her inside so she can rest.” “I need to warn everyone first,” I said. “Somebody fetch the wet nurse for this poor child.” Inside, Polly took Morgan without question and fed him while I updated the waiting court members. “The child is Morgan, Prince of the Silver Court,” I announced. “Before she passed away, not long after giving birth to him, Queen Sorcha asked me to bring the child here for a time, to be part of the royal nursery and get to know his sister. On the way home, we discovered that MacKenzie’s army is on the move. He married the leanan sídhe, and now they want to take over the realm, starting with us.” Grey Eyes tended to my arm as I spoke. I ignored the pain as she cleaned the wound. “We need to prepare our defences, but if an army should break through, the children need to be protected at all costs. If there is a way to sneak them to the human realm without drawing attention from the encroaching army, then take it, but for now, it’s best we lock down the castle’s defences and prepare for a siege. Send word to the other courts, and somebody check on the portals in case MacKenzie has taken them, too. Rumble is still out there. Enquire of his safety from the Silver Court.” Leonora ran over to me and knelt at my feet, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I swear, I didn’t know my father was going to do this. Forgive me, please.” “You couldn’t have known,” I said. “You’re free to leave before he attacks, Leonora, you and Aiken.” “Let me stay here and marry Aiken,” she blubbered. “Let me free myself of my father’s name and join a new family. I’ll pledge for you, and I swear I’ll—” “Leonora, I don’t have time for this right now,” I said impatiently. “You’re free to do as you wish, but—” “They’re back!” somebody shouted from the door. I pushed my way to the front doors to see if Brendan was all right. Most of the soldiers were bloodied but still in fighting condition. Brendan found me in the crowd and held on to me. “You’re all right?” “I’m fine. I have to tell you something. I’m so sorry, but Sorcha died in childbirth.” His expression clouded. “The child is hers?” “A boy. Morgan. She asked me to take him, to protect him.” “And Drake didn’t protest?” “He wasn’t up to a whole lot when I left,” I said under my breath. “Didn’t he—” He looked around at the crowd. “Right, we can discuss this later. The group we fought was just a team looking for their dogs. They’re all dead. We managed to get one to talk before he died. He told us that MacKenzie plans on taking over the entire realm.” “You can’t leave, unless you plan on avoiding his army and crossing the desert.” “I wasn’t planning on leaving at all,” he said, looking surprised. “I’m going to fight with your army. Not many of my soldiers are here, but we’ll join your forces.” “What about your own court?” He squeezed my shoulder. “I’m staying, Cara.” “Thank you. We’ve already organised warnings to the other courts.” Conn approached. “If you send word to Fiadh, she will give you however many soldiers she has with her.” “I banished her.” “You’re still her queen.” “Send word if you want,” I said. “I don’t expect anything.” “How’s your arm?” Brendan asked. “Fine. Come on. We don’t have much time. We have to make sure we’re ready for his first attack. Somebody send my advisers to the meeting room. We need to plan our victory against MacKenzie!” The crowds roared their approval, and I knew I had to keep acting as though I knew what the hell I was doing. “Find whoever you want to attend the meeting,” I said. “I’m going to put Morgan in the nursery and introduce him to Scarlet. I won’t be long.” Brendan took my hand and held my gaze in one long, penetrating look. “I’m glad you’re back.” I smiled then left him there, urging Lily’s wet nurse to carry Morgan upstairs because my arm was injured. In the nursery, the children were playing together while Anya and Vix distracted them. “This is Morgan,” I said brightly. “He’s a prince, and he’s your half brother, Scarlet. Look, you have a little brother now.” The children cooed over the new baby, but I knelt in front of Setanta instead. He looked afraid. “There’s an army coming,” I said under my breath. “We’re going to leave soldiers with you during the battle, but if they say you have to sneak away, then do exactly as you are told. It’s important. Now, I need you to keep the others happy and distracted when the sounds of a fight come to you. Can you do that?” He nodded, looking more determined now. “Good. I’m depending on you, Setanta. I want you to stay safe, too, okay?” I left him and went down to a meeting that would need me to figure out what to do in a war. I had no idea. And I definitely didn’t know if this coming battle was just a distraction to keep us from finding the final legendary treasure. But Chaos was going to learn he needed more than an army to stop our alliance. Chapter 10 The meeting room was full. Most of my advisers, some of Brendan’s people, and a bunch of my friends were already waiting for me. Anya was watching over the children in the nursery along with Grey Eyes and Orlaith. Vix was with me, her eyes full of fear for Rumble. “We’ll get him back,” I reassured her. “We will hear from the Silver Court, and they’ll tell us he’s fine.” “And if that monster king decides to sacrifice him?” The room fell silent. I took my seat, carefully debating my words. “That won’t happen. Drake’s not… in the position to sacrifice people to a god. The banshees have deserted him now that Sorcha is dead. And I’m almost certain that some of MacKenzie’s army will cut off to attack Drake’s castle. He’ll desperately need Rumble to help him. We all have time. It’s a massive army, but it moves slowly. Yes, there are bands riding separately, but that might work for us.” “We can pick off the isolated bands,” Donncha said. “We know the land better than they do.” “Cara, tell us exactly what happened,” Brendan said. “We need to make sure we haven’t missed anything important.” I took a deep breath. “We waited a couple of days after Sorcha’s death, but I wanted to get home, so we took some daoine sídhe, some servants, a wet nurse, and one of the Miacha with us. The wet nurse was having issues feeding Morgan, so we were rushing to get home.” I looked at Vix. She kept clutching her hair as though she wanted to yank it right out of her scalp. “Rumble and I rode a little while the baby slept. The cú sídhe was with us. He heard something nearby, so we investigated. It was a scout travelling ahead of the main army, probably one of many.” “He told you about MacKenzie?” Arlen asked. “Are you sure it’s the entire army?” “I can’t be certain. But he told us that MacKenzie had married Donella, and he was on his way to get his daughter. He was bringing his entire army with him because the realm was in the hands of pretenders. There are a couple of issues here. Donella is a sore point for all of us. She hates me, Brendan, and Drake, and she has supporters everywhere. MacKenzie was angry with me because I refused to marry him, but Bart warned me that MacKenzie was once a follower of Chaos.” I met Brendan’s gaze. “As was Yvette. MacKenzie killed her, likely to stop her from talking, but I offended him. I may have just pushed him back into the arms of his god. MacKenzie and Donella together? Big problem.” “We could send his daughter back to him,” Fallon said. “Dead or alive,” his twin, Caellan, added. “I’m not going to murder a guest.” Fallon frowned. “If she simply goes to him then—” “Leonora doesn’t want to go back to her father. Besides, this isn’t about her,” I said. “All MacKenzie wants is power. And the realm is in the perfect state for him to take over. The Silver Court just lost their queen, their heir is vulnerable, and their king is not… in good health. The Green Court is still getting back to normal, and their king is right here. Our court…” I sighed. “We’re seen as weak. We have the smallest army, and the land is dying more rapidly here than anywhere else. We’re still repairing the castle. I don’t know how long we can hold out in a siege, and if there’s an army and hunting hounds out there, it’s too late to evacuate the vulnerable.” “We heard earlier that the portals are blocked,” Rafe said. “MacKenzie couldn’t have passed us to get to the one we use, so his people must have entered from the human realm.” “Which sounds like he was already prepared,” Brendan said. “He’s moved too quickly for this to be a scheme come up with at the spur of the moment.” “More likely that he planned for every event.” Rafe ran his hands through his curly locks. “He won’t back down easily.” “Let’s hope a sinkhole opens up right beneath the bulk of his army then,” Vix said harshly. “We need to think about the fact that this could be a distraction,” I said. “To stop us from seeking out the final treasure. We could be going up against the power of a god.” “I still hold the sword of victory,” Brendan said. “And you have the spear of Lugh. With two legendary treasures, we must be unstoppable.” “And the Silver Court? The Green Court? How long will they last against MacKenzie’s troops? If I was MacKenzie, I’d send a small force to infiltrate Drake’s castle, then I’d come for me, wipe out the heirs, and either settle here to recover or march straight on to the Green Castle.” “You could abandon the castle,” Brendan said gently. “I could lead an army to meet MacKenzie’s, and the rest of you could flee.” “To where?” Vix asked. “To the Watcher,” Brendan said. “They won’t know the path.” “I could lead a force into the marshes,” Líle said shakily. “If I could lure MacKenzie after me, he would be lost forever.” “Nobody’s going into the marshes,” I said firmly. “And I’m not abandoning my castle.” “None of us will,” Marron the builder said. “I can repair some old siege engines, maybe even come up with a few new methods of defence, but I’ll need some time. If we can keep the army busy for a while, it would help.” “I’ll lead anyone who wants to join me,” Vix said fiercely. “We can hide in the trees and ambush small groups as they pass. We Darksiders were raised on guerrilla tactics.” “We need to know how long it’ll take the main force of the army to get here,” I said. “We’ve sent messages everywhere we can think of,” Bas, the tribesman chief, said. “We can wait for replies, but I’d rather head back out and gather support.” “The lights can give us an estimate,” Donncha said. “A quick look from the tower told me the main force will reach the Hollows within two days.” “But it’ll take forever for them to get through the Hollows,” I said. “It’s too narrow for an army to pass.” I clenched my fists on the arm of my chair. “Unless they’re planning on building bridges to cross the river Garbh.” “That’s what I would do,” Brendan said. “A trained army would have no issues crossing that river with the right organisation, not now they’re more familiar with the perils of the Darkside.” “We can’t defend the entire length of the river.” Vix knelt at my feet. “You know I don’t ask you for things, but please, let me do this. Let me take soldiers and get rid of some of the smaller scouting groups and the hunters. I have to kill something, or I’ll think about him.” I stroked her hair. “Only if you promise to return if there are too many of them.” Her face brightened. “I swear it. I’ll leave tonight.” I gripped her hand as she rose to her feet. “Leave tomorrow, and I’ll go with you.” The room grew loud with protestations, but Vix only had eyes for me. “Yes.” I turned to Brendan. “She’s right. We need to pick off those small bands. They’re gathering information for MacKenzie. We want him to come at us blind. If we clear the way, we can set up points of attack instead of waiting for him to lay siege. We can have a force at the Hollows, picking off those who try to pass. We can patrol the river for passable points and defend them if the army tries to cross. They’ll be on the side of the desert. It’s a weak point. We’ll have the cover of trees on our side of the river. And we have the water fae. They’ll make it harder to pass. If we take back the portals, we regain new supplies and communication. We can do this. We can make this fight fairer.” The others kept talking, arguing about time and logistics. “Send out scouts and messengers tonight,” I said. “Tell them not to risk their lives. We have so much to do. If MacKenzie hasn’t attacked, the other courts may be able to flank his army, or at least separate it, maybe even lure some of his forces to the landslides. But we still have to figure out a plan of action if they manage to break through, and let’s face it, they have a massive army. All we’ll do is slow them down, but it may give Marron time to improve our defences. Are you all with me?” Brendan was the first to say yes, and I looked to him with grateful eyes. He stared back at me with an unreadable expression. One by one, everyone in the room called out their agreement to my—likely rash—plan. But I didn’t see any other way. How could we sit back and wait for MacKenzie to come to us when there were so many other advantages the Darkside gave us? We had to use them. Until we beat MacKenzie, we couldn’t find Dagda’s cup or reach Drake, whom we needed to complete the process. And maybe that was exactly what MacKenzie wanted. After the meeting, I went up to the nursery because I couldn’t face the speculation downstairs. The others were passing word of the plan around, and I knew the fae were scared, but I needed confidence, if only to influence them with it. Polly was feeding Morgan when I arrived, and Scarlet and Eithne were playing on the floor next to Lily, who watched them with interested eyes. Setanta sat in his wheelchair, his hand gripping a wooden sword tightly. His mother would come, I realised, when she heard that her son was in a castle about to be sieged. I smiled at him, but he was too scared to smile back. If anyone got into the nursery, I would never forgive myself. I scooped Lily up and held her close. She responded to me with affection. I sat on the floor next to the girls until Brendan stuck his head in and asked to speak with me. Polly was done with Morgan, who was fast asleep, finally content. “Where’s the other wet nurse’s child?” she asked. “In the Silver Court, I think.” “That must have been hard.” Polly’s child had been stillborn. “Let’s just say Morgan’s lucky we found you for Lily.” I handed Lily to her and went out into the hall to find Brendan. He leaned against a wall and studied my face with grave eyes. “You think I’m mad,” I said. “I think you’re brave,” he said. “We could all die here, and you haven’t faltered once.” “There’s no point.” “Can we speak in private?” I nodded. “My room’s through that door.” I headed over, only pausing to tell Polly to call me if she needed me. Anya had gone to share a meal with Arlen, and Orlaith was always close by. The entire castle was bustling as everyone had been given a job to do. The cook had to make sure food was rationed, Rafe was in charge of pretty much everything else, and I was trying not to think about what would happen when MacKenzie’s advance army arrived. I led Brendan into my quarters and closed the door. “What’s wrong?” “I wanted to talk about what happened with MacKenzie. And Drake.” “Do you want to sit down or—” “No.” Startled by the steel in his voice, I stood still as he paced in front of me. “This man is sending an army to destroy you because you turned down his marriage proposal,” he said. “That sounds beyond ridiculous, even for a fae, even for a possible follower of Chaos.” My face burned. “I… may have embarrassed him.” “How? What could you possibly have done to warrant this level of anger?” I swallowed hard, staring at my feet. Telling him made me sound like a terrible person, but I didn’t regret my actions. I lifted my head and met his curious gaze. “I made him think I would marry him.” “That doesn’t sound like you. Why would you do something like that?” Didn’t he get it? “I made him think I would marry him if he took his army to your court and helped us get rid of Yvette.” “You told him?” “I let him think it. If you were alive and safe—and he was the cause of it—I let him think he would be rewarded with a throne.” “Why did you do that?” “Because I was scared we wouldn’t have enough of our own,” I said in a low voice. “I wasn’t prepared to take the risk. I wanted the entire ordeal to be over with as quickly as possible. I didn’t want him to kill Yvette. He did that himself, but I used him.” He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and continued pacing. “Sorcha sent for you.” “You saw the note, Brendan.” “I did. I just didn’t understand why she would want you there.” “She was terrified for the baby. Donella had already targeted her, I had warned her she would die in childbirth, and she fell in love with her unborn child. She knew he would kill her, and she knew the banshees would kill him after her death. So she looked to me because she knew I was the one person in the realm who could be trusted with her child.” “And Drake let you?” “He was drunk when I left,” I said. “He didn’t even go to her when she was dying. She was terrified, and I was the one with her instead of him. He was so weak, and she suffered for it.” He stopped walking and faced me. “Did he ask you to stay with him?” I held his gaze. “Yes.” “And what did you say?” “No, of course.” “But he could be a father to Scarlet. You could have what you so desperately seek.” I gaped at him. “Are you being serious?” “Yes.” He sounded stressed. “I thought that once you went to him… that would be it.” “I didn’t go to him. I went to Sorcha. And I came home. To the Darkside, to my court, to you.” “We’ve spoken about how we wouldn’t work.” He closed the space between us. “We talked about my parents and their weakness.” “Right. You’re saying we won’t be together. Will it change anything? We’ve never been together. I still feel how I feel.” “How do you feel?” he whispered. “Tell me.” “I took an arrow in the chest for you. I was with you at the Provings, helping you. I could have gone home, but I stayed. With you. I went to the Fade for you. I brought your soul back from the afterlife. I took this bloody crown to stop anyone from cheating you out of it. I’m scared of having feelings for you. I won’t pretend never to have cared about Drake, but for a long time now, it’s only been you.” The look on his face pained my heart. He wrapped his arms around my back and held me close. “My parents—” “So we won’t get married. We’ll have our own homes, and our own responsibilities, and if we survive this, then maybe we can consider a way to make time for one another.” I raised my hand to touch his face. “But I won’t ever go back to him. Too much time has passed, and I’ve grown up too much to sabotage myself like that again.” I pulled him closer and kissed him. “You would never have let Sorcha die alone. You would never have ignored Scarlet. And you would never have hurt me.” “I’m not perfect. I’ve made terrible mistakes with you, too.” “You didn’t marry someone else,” I said with a laugh. “That’s a tick in your box.” “What now?” “On my way home from Drake’s court, I sat in a silver carriage and imagined being here with you. I’m sick of… having regrets.” I thought of Líle’s attitude toward Zoe. “Maybe there’s no way we can work out, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our time together. I don’t need you to keep me, Brendan, but I’d like to spend some time with you.” “I should never have said that,” he said with a groan. “It always comes back up in conversation. I didn’t mean it, not really. You were so vulnerable, and I was so afraid of repeating my mistakes that I—” “It doesn’t even matter now,” I said. “That was a different time, and we were different people. You were—” He kissed me, and I wrapped my arms around him, desperate to warm my soul. I was still scared of giving myself away, but I had learned that never seeing Brendan again scared me more. He ran his hands through my hair, and I curled my body against him, my hands clutching his collar to tug him closer. And there were no regrets. For the first time, I truly believed that I deserved to be happy. I pulled back to look at him, and to my relief, his gaze was completely clear of the daze I had so often seen in the eyes of the fae when they grew close to me. “What is it?” he whispered. “Just making sure I haven’t overwhelmed you with my pesky feelings,” I teased. He grinned and kissed the tip of my nose. “I told you I’m used to you.” “I’ve been figuring out this emotional weapon thing I have going on. I can focus it now. Stupid Darksiders keep making me practice everything.” I held up a calloused palm. “I’m going to be able to beat you in a duel at this rate.” “No doubt.” He kissed the corner of my mouth. “You changed while I slept, Cara. I’ve never had you in my arms for this long without you running.” “Líle said something that made me think about being happy for the good times, no matter the outcome.” “I should thank Líle then.” He sat by the fire and pulled me onto his lap, twisting a lock of my hair around his fingers. “It was hard to watch you leave that day on Yvette’s land, but I’m glad you didn’t come with us. Giants, Cara. Real giants almost killed us. I left people behind because of them.” “I know you wouldn’t have done that if you’d had a choice. I’m sorry about your people. Maybe we can find a way to get them home someday.” He seemed to think carefully before he spoke. “You’re the first person I’ve met whom I truly believe would care for me just as much if I hadn’t been born into royalty.” The sincerity in his eyes made me uncomfortable. “Stop looking at me like that.” “I can’t,” he said. “You’re everything I’ve wanted for the longest time.” “You’re so cringey,” I whispered, but I couldn’t stop looking at him either. It felt almost as though it had been forbidden before, and now we were secretly indulging. “I wish I had been braver sooner.” “You were brave,” he said. “You just weren’t ready. Are you ready now, Cara?” “I’ve been ready for a long time. I just have more responsibilities to worry about now.” “You were always a worrier. I would never hurt Scarlet, if that’s what you fear. I would treat her as my own if you let me. And poor Lily.” “You would only spoil them.” I brushed his hair away from his face. “You’re a soft touch when it comes to the children.” He turned his head to kiss my blackened wrist, his stubble tickling my skin. “Do you remember the Provings?” “How could I forget?” I shivered at his touch. “You came to me and demanded to know why I didn’t tell you how you could give me strength. And when you kissed me, it was different. I lost my heart right there and then. I wished we had somehow met first, that it had been me you were so protective of.” “You were a good kisser,” I said, trying to keep the mood light. “Pretty odd for somebody trapped in the Fade without a body for a gazillion years.” “It was not a gazillion years,” he said lazily. “Might as well have been. I still remember that comment you made about women being almost as good as men.” He groaned. “You never forget a thing.” Someone pounded on the bedroom door. “My lady!” a voice cried. “Come at once! There’s been a messenger from the Silver Court!” I rolled my eyes. “Seriously?” He dropped a sweet kiss on my lips. “Our work never ends.” Chapter 11 We went downstairs to read the message from Drake. Rafe handed it to me at the bottom of the stairs, a group of fae gathering around him, impatiently waiting to hear what it said. I unrolled the parchment and relaxed against Brendan in relief. “Rumble made it. He’s okay. He got there in time to warn the Silver Court, and they were able to evacuate to the other castle before MacKenzie’s forces came anywhere near them. They cut the bridge, and…” I skimmed the letter. “They’re planning on flanking MacKenzie’s army as soon as they deal with the small force that came for them.” I looked up with a smile. “They couldn’t tell us the plan in case the message got intercepted, but Rumble did it!” Many of the fae cheered, and I looked up at Brendan with relief. Drake’s army would help us. “The message came quickly,” Brendan said. “But no news from the Miacha yet.” “Give them time. I hope to hear from my own court soon.” He rested his hand on my lower back. “You need to eat. You’ll collapse if you don’t get some fuel into you.” “My stomach’s too sick to eat.” “Try,” he said firmly. “Eat with the children to ease your mind. We have a lot to do tomorrow.” “Or tonight. Maybe we should be heading out already.” “Rest first. Dubh won’t be able to ride.” “I’ll have to take a different horse. My poor dog and horse are both in pretty bad shape.” I clapped my hands. “Okay, everyone back to work. We have a lot to do, but at least we know we have allies by our side.” The fae left willingly to attend to their assorted tasks. I looked up at Brendan. “I need to check on things.” The corner of his mouth lifted. “Of course you do. Would you like some company?” “Yes, please,” I said, unable to hide my smile. I slipped my hand into his and led him on a tour of the castle. I brought him to the kitchens, where the cook was desperately trying to figure out a way to ration our supplies. She waved at me, red-faced and sweating. “We’re in the middle of a month, and with the little one’s birthday, and the time of year, we should be a little low, but the harvests have been good, and our stores are full of some things.” She bit her lip. “Severely lacking in others though.” “Just do your best to make ends meet,” I said. “I’m relying on you.” She mopped the sweat on her brow. “I’ll stretch it. We’ll be eating on stews thickened with flour rather than meat, but I’ll stretch it.” I smiled. “I know you will.” We found Marron outside, sitting on the boundary wall and yelling orders at the fae below him. “I finally found a good use for the old thrones,” he shouted when he saw me. “We’ll give those bastards a fight, all right!” I laughed at his enthusiasm. “Good luck, Marron.” His mud-coloured wings fluttered in response. “Is he…?” Brendan began. “One of Deorad’s,” I said. “Yep.” Rafe found me, his copper curls stuck to his face in his exertion. “All of the scouts and messengers have left. We should hear from the water fae soon and have some idea of what we’re facing.” “Good. Make sure everyone in charge of operations has enough people under them. Oh, and organise it so that every child in the castle has a place to hide—and a way to escape if it all goes wrong.” “If it goes wrong—” “Don’t,” I said, holding up my hand. “We’re going to win. We have to.” Brendan and I walked on. “Maybe we should go over the river ourselves.” “That’s what he’ll expect,” he said. “It’s the quickest way to my court, which is the first place he’ll think you’ll want to go. He may not realise that I’m here.” “That’s probably what’s going to save the Green Court.” He took my hands and made me stop walking. “We’re in this together. We always have been. We didn’t know what we were fighting against at first, but we know now.” “It’s just crazy,” I said, shaking my head. “All of the terrible things that have happened were all set up before I ever set foot in the faery realm. It was all supposed to happen.” “Except you and I changed things with Drake’s help. Sadler and his god never planned on our interference. They tried to make the most of it, but they weren’t prepared. And we’ll make sure that MacKenzie isn’t prepared for whatever we throw at him.” We checked on Dubh, then Tris, and I made sure we spoke to all of our friends, everyone who had a large responsibility on their shoulders. Brendan and I connected with as many people as possible, and I saw their confidence grow. Brendan and I could do great things together, even if we never attempted to join our courts. Finally, exhausted, I let him lead me to the nursery, where we ate a late meal with the children, who were still enamoured with the baby even though he had slept almost the entire time since he’d arrived at the castle. Conn stood from his chair when we entered the room. “My lady,” he said, taking a bow. “I wondered what you would have me do. Am I to join you on the runs you plan to make into the forest?” I glanced at the children. “I’d love to have you with me, but I think Setanta needs you.” “No,” Setanta called out. “We don’t need Conn here. He’s a great warrior. He should protect our queen.” I knelt next to the boy. “You and the other children need protection, too.” “You won’t let them get us,” he said, holding my gaze. “I’ll think about letting Conn go,” I said at last. I spent the next hour with the children, and my friends turned up, too. Vix gazed out the windows, her expression fierce with determination. Arlen and Anya stayed close together, taking care of Morgan. The newly married couple couldn’t have children of their own, but Anya was the mothering type. Bran was busy entertaining Scarlet and Eithne. Bekind curled up at Setanta’s feet with the white cú sídhe, who was quietly ignoring Realtín’s attempts to ride her like a pony. Grim, Líle, and Dymphna were having a whispered discussion about MacKenzie’s army. I sat close to Brendan on the rug in front of the fire, Lily resting in a baby bouncer in front of us. She watched the king with severe little eyes as he tried to make her laugh. “Nothing works.” Then he yawned, and she broke into giggles. “There we go,” he said, sounding pleased. “She’s not foolish,” I said. “She won’t give away her smiles to just anyone.” “Not foolish at all, our Lily.” He ran his finger down her nose until she reached for his hand. “How lucky she is that you found her that day in the woods.” “Imagine how differently things would have worked out if it hadn’t been me who ended up gate-crashing the festival in the first place.” He wrapped his hand around mine. “No, thank you. You might no longer need us, but we still need you.” “No, you don’t,” I said softly. “But I’m glad you still want me around.” “I was an arrogant boy,” he said with a laugh. “Thinking a human like you could be easily forgotten.” His expression turned serious. “We’re building the fae a good future.” He looked into the fire then, and I wondered if he were thinking about the possibility of Brighid returning to reward the fae for their growth. Because I had been. That evening, after everyone went to bed, Brendan made as though to leave, but I gripped his hand and nudged him toward my door. “Stay with me,” I murmured. “I won’t sleep otherwise.” He kissed the top of my head, and we walked into my room. Bekind was sitting on the bed, naked except for the sheet around her. She glared at Brendan. “If you break her heart, I will make your life a living hell,” she said. “I’m immortal. You can never get rid of me. I’m like the mother-in-law from hell as far as you’re concerned. If you’re not prepared to—” He held his finger against her lips. “Hush, kitten. I know what you’re capable of. There’s no need to be frightened. There’s more chance of my heart being damaged.” Her face fell. “She’s mine. I’ve let the fae hurt her enough. I can’t let any of you do it again.” My eyes watered at the pain in her voice. I wrapped my arms around her. “It’s okay, Bekind. I forgive you for anything that came before. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.” “I will as long as I live,” she said scornfully, but her voice broke on the final word. “We’ll just have to find a way to make sure that isn’t forever.” “I have a plan to end this war quickly. I’ll sneak into MacKenzie’s camp,” she said. “I’ll kill him in his sleep.” “You’ll do no such thing. Donella has probably told him you’re immortal. His people will torture you. You’re forbidden from sneaking off and killing MacKenzie.” “His army is so very large.” “And you’re so very important to me. You’re my family. I’d only get myself killed trying to save you.” “How dare you try to manipulate me?” She smiled. “You get that sneaky streak from me.” “Go get some sleep,” I said. “We’ll win a few battles tomorrow just to cheer you up.” When she left, I yawned, exhausted. “Come on,” Brendan said. “Your cat relative scared me thoroughly. Can we sleep now?” I nodded, thinking there was no way I could sleep with his body next to mine. But I fell asleep almost as soon as he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me to his chest. * * * I awoke feeling as though there was something I was supposed to do. And then I saw Brendan lying next to me, his eyes open, and I remembered everything. I rolled over. “Hasn’t anybody told you how creepy it is to watch someone sleep?” “You make funny little faces in your sleep.” He slipped his warm arm around my waist. “I was about to wake you.” “Can’t somebody tell MacKenzie to come wage war some other day?” “We won’t see MacKenzie today.” But there were so many other things to deal with. The Miacha had sent a message saying the people I had sent to them were safe, save one who had run in fear and disappeared before reaching the house. The daoine sídhe had even picked off a couple of rangers in the forest. If they could be of any help to us, they would. The water fae had given a vague reply about doing what was necessary. I really hoped that meant they were still on our side. The Green Court verified that they had not been attacked but would travel to the Silver Court to see if they needed assistance. Hopefully, Drake would send them to flank MacKenzie along with his troops. Fiadh had sent a long, grovelling message about being honoured to be chosen to fight for her queen and her kingdom. She would already be on the move by the time the bird arrived with the message and hoped to please me with additions she gathered along the way. She was planning to travel to us by avoiding the Hollows, and I hoped she didn’t come across the bulk of MacKenzie’s army on the way, even if I never wanted to see her face again. Some scouts had returned with reports. All of them had spotted MacKenzie’s rangers shooting messenger birds out of the sky. The messages likely had been updates from the Silver Court or duplicates sent in case of just such sabotage occurring. After having breakfast with the children, I got ready to leave. Only a few groups were heading out to do battle. We were confident that we could clear the path and stop the rangers from shooting down the messenger birds. We needed to send dispatches of our own. When I left the castle to speak to those riding out, I was surprised by the number of crows flying overhead. I had been feeding them in one of the towers, hoping their appearance would reassure the Darksiders, but far more than usual seemed to be hanging around. “A good sign for us,” Donncha said, strapping a sword to his horse. “Let’s hope,” I said. “How many in each team, would you say?” “Depends on their make up. Each should have a scout and a couple of sword fighters. An archer might come in handy.” “I have my own team. Brendan, Dymphna, and Líle are the sword fighters. Bekind can be my scout. Vix and Bran can both throw arrows. And Issy the cú sídhe can be my secret awesomesauce.” He faltered for a second as he tried to keep up. “That’s… a lot of people for one team.” “And me,” Conn announced from behind us. “I also will accompany the queen.” I studied him before nodding. “All right. We’ll try it. We can always split in two, Donncha, and circle the band we’re hunting.” “Are you sure you should be out there?” “Why should these people fight for me if I’m not willing to?” I asked. “You know I’ve been training. I can fight.” * * * He ran a hand over his bald head, looking stressed. “But MacKenzie’s men have likely been fighting since childhood. They anticipate any move a person could make before they make it.” “Then I’ll just have to fight dirty. I haven’t just been training in sword fighting, you know.” He smiled. “I worry needlessly, I know. You’ll be the safest woman in the realm today.” “I’m just sorry you can’t come with us.” “I have a lot to do here. We need to strengthen our defences and plan some dirty fighting of our own.” I grinned at him. “Good luck.” “We don’t need good luck.” He gestured at the birds. “We have the warrior queen Badb on our side.” Brendan flinched at that. “It’s just something they say,” I said, laughing it off as Donncha jumped on his horse and rode to the walls. “It doesn’t mean much.” “It means something to these people,” he said. He bent low to give me a deep, lingering kiss. “Maybe we shouldn’t be on the same team today,” I said. “No saving me.” He tweaked my nose. “Shouldn’t I be the one saying that?” We prepared to leave first. My team headed out together, Bekind jumping into trees in her cat form and Issy sticking close to me. The horse I rode was no Dubh, but she would have to do. Brendan and I led the group, with Bran and Vix flanking us. The others took up the rear. “It’s a pity the black pup is injured,” Brendan said as we rode. “He looks impressive.” “Issy’s impressive, too,” I said. “Drake’s gift saved my life.” He reached out and touched the bracelet he had given me. “But mine makes your wrist look elegant. Surely I win.” He grinned when I rolled my eyes. Bekind soon reappeared and shifted into her human form, reaching up to take the clothes I was holding for her. “There’s a group close by,” she whispered. “They have a dog with them, but it’s as small as Issy. There are about ten of them, but six appear to be resting. Four are hyper-vigilant. It would be best to split up and take them from both sides. One side may alert the watchers, but they won’t expect the second group in the scuffle.” “We’ll do that,” I said. “I’ll lead, draw them out while the second team flanks them.” “I’m with you,” Brendan said. “They’ll be suspicious at just the two of you,” Conn said. “Let me follow you both.” “I can go and throw a dagger or two before they get their acts together,” Vix said. I nodded. “The rest of you go with Bekind and flank them. Issy will show us the way.” Bekind let Bran help her onto his horse. “Ride swift,” she whispered to me. The others raced off. “Go, Issy,” I commanded, and the dog followed the trail Bekind had left. Since Bekind had gotten over her fear of the dogs, she had been trying to train them for such an event. The dog crept off, far more warily than the male would have. But he was harder to spot. She was snow white apart from a black patch around one eye. Brendan and I followed at a distance, with Conn and Vix behind us. I had to admit I was curious to see his technique. His massive wings had to get in his way. Soon, we found Issy crouched down low. When we listened carefully, we could hear the soft chatter of a couple of soldiers. We waited a few moments to ensure the second team was in place, then Vix climbed a tree to get a better view. No matter how hard she had tried, she couldn’t teach me to aim her daggers. It both frustrated and pleased her because dagger throwing was second nature to her. She signalled me to be ready then placed a dagger between her teeth. She wrapped one arm around a branch then pulled a second dagger out of her boot. She flung it, grabbed the dagger between her teeth, and flung that one, too. We heard a moan and a thud, and then we rushed into the camp to confront the soldiers there. As Bekind had predicted, we caught most of them unaware. One was dead and another injured from Vix’s daggers. Brendan held the sword of victory high as he pushed his horse into the camp and neatly beheaded a soldier reaching for his sword. I barely blocked a sword aimed at my leg because I was almost as dazzled as the enemy at Conn’s appearance into the fray. He flew off his horse, his dark, feathered wings slowing his descent to the ground. He looked like some kind of avenging angel as he elegantly swung his two-handed sword. The second group rushed into the camp, and the fight continued in earnest. We made quick work of the soldiers. My blood was rushing, and when I caught Brendan’s gaze, I knew we were both feeling the same high. He rode over to me and wiped a smear of blood from my cheek. “As if you need to be saved,” he said with a snort. I grinned. “I wasn’t cut out to be a damsel in distress.” Bran held down the only soldier who had survived the fight. Even their hound was dead. “How many?” Bran asked the soldier, who kept his mouth shut. “Kill him,” Brendan said. “He’s never going to talk.” I looked away as Bran cut the soldier’s throat. I didn’t like war, I decided. “It’s a poor camp,” Líle said. I looked around and agreed. MacKenzie didn’t take good care of his soldiers if their meagre supplies were representative of the whole army’s. I wiped my blade clean and put it back in its sheath. “This is just the first band,” I said. “Look at those bows. They weren’t even proper soldiers. They were only here to take down our birds.” “This is a win,” Brendan said. “A small one. We need to communicate with those on the other side of MacKenzie’s army. This is just the beginning. Everyone, back on your horses. We have a lot of work to do today.” Other bands of soldiers waited out there, more rangers ready to cut us off from the rest of the world. We all mounted our horses and prepared to carry on with our mission. We would clear MacKenzie’s forces out of my forest and reach the Hollows if it was the last thing I ever did. Chapter 12 We fell into a routine, quietly signalling to each other as we sought out the rangers in our forest. My blood ran hot, and I felt anything but human as I rode with a faery king by my side. Our lives were thrilling and dangerous and fantastically impossible. But when it was all over, what would be left? Brendan and I kept watch by a stream while the others dealt with two tiny camps quite near each other. We were waiting for runners. “Brendan,” I whispered. “I need to ask you something.” He nodded without looking at me. “I need you to promise me you’ll make sure Scarlet and Lily, and even Morgan, are taken care of if something happens to me.” He did look at me then, this time with genuine surprise in his eyes. “But nothing’s going to happen to you.” “The leader of a gigantic army kind of wants my blood. There’s a chance that something will happen.” “I’m here.” He held up the sword of victory. “I can’t lose. It even saved me from drowning.” “Please. I really need to hear you say it.” He took my hand and made a solemn vow, his gaze never faltering from mine. “I swear that I will protect those children as if they were my own.” His expression softened. “Whether you’re alive or dead.” I reached over to kiss him. Vix made a sound of disgust from nearby. “Is nothing sacred anymore?” I moved away from Brendan, hiding my smile. “Did you take care of the camps?” “Yes,” she said smartly. “Those were the last. Next up is the Hollows.” I could see the Hollow Hills from where I stood. A murder of crows flew over the peaks. “We should move quickly. I have a feeling that MacKenzie plans on holding a position at the Hollows to stop any of us from fleeing.” The three of us mounted and joined the others. Bekind was nowhere to be found. “She’s gone to scout ahead,” Líle said when she noticed my worried expression. When Bekind returned to confirm that she couldn’t find any more bands of rangers, Vix released the bird from the cage strapped to her horse. It flew for home, a direct message that it was safe to communicate again. We stopped to have a brief meal, and then we continued on to the Hollows. We rested that night, all of us exhausted. We didn’t dare light a fire, but the night wasn’t cold, and we had each other. Brendan lay his rug down next to mine. “Too close?” he asked. “We’ve often slept this close,” I said, rolling over to face him. “Since when does that bother you?” “I don’t want to scare you off,” he said frankly. “We all know how brave you are when faced with violence and yet how cowardly when faced with… affection.” I grinned at his teasing. “Don’t start thinking I’ll let you get away with anything just because I kissed you.” He ran his finger across my lips. “You couldn’t have had better timing? Like, for example, when there wasn’t a war interrupting our every moment alone?” “It’s that brave coward thing. The war is making me brave enough to forget how to be a coward.” “And when the war is over?” he asked gently. I rolled onto my back and gazed up at the lilac moon. “I’ve no idea. It would be easier if I wasn’t a queen, I suppose.” “You won’t always be a queen,” he said, poking my side. “Scarlet will reign someday.” I looked at him. “She’s a baby. Can you really wait until she’s ready to rule?” I meant it as a joke, but he answered “yes” so seriously that I reached out to cup his face. “Brendan.” “There’s plenty of time to speak of such things. We need to rest. The days, the weeks, the months, maybe even the years ahead will be tough, tougher than either of us expect. As long as we both know, should disaster strike, that we didn’t leave things unsaid, then I’m content.” I inched closer to him and wrapped my arm around his broad chest. We lay together, and I slept well, but my dreams were as persistent as ever. The words kept changing until they grew meaningless, and when I woke up stressed, I had an awful feeling that I was forgetting something. We left our camp before dawn and continued on to the Hollows in the dark. It was still dark when our quiet procession reached the Hollows. In the path between the hills, bodies of soldiers lay dead and unmoving. Beyond, we could plainly see a large camp blocking the way of anyone who tried to escape the Darkside. “More than I thought,” Dymphna said. “But who battled here? Who killed the soldiers?” “Those who live in the hills,” I said. As I watched, quick movements drew my attention. “Thank you,” I called out. “But you should hide. There are too many of them, and they’ll try to pass again.” There was no reply, but I hadn’t expected one. Bran called out from the upper branches of a tree. “MacKenzie’s army beyond the Hollows is massive, but there is a large camp to the west of here.” “MacKenzie’s?” Brendan asked. “They wear black,” Bran replied. “It could be a trap,” Dymphna said. “Bekind can investigate,” I said. “Bran, do you mind hanging out in the tree for a while?” “They seemed to be settled for the night,” he said. “But dawn will soon break. It’ll take Bekind a couple of hours to get there.” He made a face at me. “And, yes, I’ll hang out in the tree.” “I’ll swap with you when you need a break,” Vix said. “There’s no need for you to be our only lookout.” By Bran’s expression, he wasn’t planning on showing any signs of weariness. “Well,” Vix said. “While he’s being a big brave boy, I think I’ll climb the hills and see if I can cause any mayhem in MacKenzie’s camp.” “Don’t you dare do anything alone,” I said fiercely. “I won’t. Mother.” Before I could stop her, she was climbing one of the steep hills as though she did it every day. “I’ll follow her,” Conn said. “She may get herself into trouble she cannot back out of.” “You mean like every other day?” I said. “Go on. Try to rein her back in.” The rest of us settled the horses and our equipment in a dense woods. We roamed the area, watching for trouble, chewing on dried meat, and waiting for Bekind to return. Vix and Conn arrived first, running across the hills as if their lives depended on it. Vix’s face gleamed with excitement and mischief, and I sighed. The camp at the other side of the hills was in an uproar. A number of soldiers ran toward the path, but they flinched as they looked upward. Apparently, Vix had caused trouble from above. “We should have brought means to attack,” Vix said when she jumped down the last foot of the hill. “For once, I agree with her,” Conn said. “They are in a beautiful position, but they’re weak to an attack from higher ground.” “We’ll let the troops who come here know.” I looked wistfully toward the camp. It would have been nice to make a dent in MacKenzie’s armies. Soon after, Bran called out a warning. “Bekind’s coming, but she’s not alone!” Brendan clutched the sword of victory and strode out to meet Bekind and her companion. I hurried to catch up, and the others followed, moving out to circle us at a distance. Bekind was walking in her human form, a black cloak wrapped around her. Her companion was a young male I didn’t recognise. His wings were small and turquoise. Bekind whispered something to him, and he immediately fell to his knees. “My queen, we have heard from the lady Fiadh of the devil who dares to attack the Darkside. She sent us word before she left to march with her own armies. We are to meet her here.” “Fiadh sent you?” I asked. “We’ve all sworn loyalty to you,” he said. “We are your servants, and there’s no Darksider who will stand by and let an intruder hunt our queen. Our troops are here to bend to your will.” “And Fiadh’s bringing more?” Brendan asked. “They have a good number of soldiers,” Bekind said. “Any archers?” I asked. “Of course,” the faery said. “Then I do have a mission for you. You and Fiadh must guard the Hollows. So far, the creatures in the hills have stopped any push by MacKenzie’s troops, but I’m told they’re ripe for an aerial attack. Your archers will need to climb the hills under cover of darkness, but you could use fire and anything else at your disposal to disrupt MacKenzie’s army. He has a large force out there. Can you help us diminish it?” “We will be glad to. And the lady Fiadh?” “Tell her to stay here,” I said coldly. “I don’t want to see her, but I’ll be happy for her soldiers to help you.” Brendan moved closer to me. “It’s an important task. Are you sure you can trust these people?” “They’re Darksiders,” I said. “They don’t just fight for me. They fight for their land. And we all know that the sooner this war ends, the sooner we can continue our search for the final legendary treasure. I’ll take all the help I can get.” “Surely MacKenzie is trying to stop us from finding it,” Brendan said. The strange Darksider bowed even lower. I had originally thought him foolish, but when he looked up at me, his fierce gaze was terrifying. “We’ll shed the blood of every enemy who tries to get in our way. No army will pass these hills.” “Good,” I said. “But watch out for Darksiders and even fae from the Green and Silver Courts seeking refuge. Some may pass this way.” He stood up straight. “You can depend on us. The way we’ve come from is clear and free of enemies.” “Then we can move on with our plans. We’ve gotten rid of the rangers who were shooting down birds, so your people can send messages to the castle if you need assistance. Be wary of MacKenzie’s birds, too. And good luck.” I gathered my friends, and we headed back to the castle, this time passing the bridge to the mountain path. A team of Donncha’s soldiers were taking down the bridge and building trenches at the passable points along the river. I warned them about the troops at the Hollows, and they swore to watch for any signs of battle and send word to the castle of the outcome. “Are you being reinforced?” I asked, concerned by their small numbers. “More are following,” Oisín told me. “But they’re bringing supplies, so their journey is slower. The water fae have helped us as best they can.” He looked at me seriously. “I think your plans are sound. We have a good chance. Eventually, some section of MacKenzie’s army will find a way through, but they won’t be able to pass in great force. There’s just nowhere broad enough.” “Be careful out here. Don’t be afraid to avoid loss. I want you all alive, and if that means you’re forced to retreat behind castle walls, then so be it.” His mouth curved up in a smile. “I don’t think I could persuade any one of these soldiers to retreat. They’re yours for good. We’re all in this together.” We stayed to speak with the soldiers for a time, shared a few words with the water fae, who appeared to be pissed off by all of the commotion, and then headed back to the castle. When we came upon the troops carrying supplies, we accompanied them for a time to reassure them and boost their confidence. But even I could clearly see MacKenzie’s forces approaching from across the water. They would bully their way across, and they would come for us. My run-down little castle wouldn’t stand a chance if they made it that far. But if the Green and Silver Court armies could at least distract some of MacKenzie’s army, and if we could limit their advance by blocking the Hills and the best parts of the Garbh’s banks, then the odds of our survival improved. Chapter 13 I checked on the nursery for the seventeenth time in an hour. “Calm yourself,” Vix said lazily from a chair by the fire. “His army is hardly going to storm the castle while our backs are turned. He’s throwing everything at us. We’ll see him coming.” And we were watching. MacKenzie’s troops had been moving closer all morning, preparing for battle. “This is the last time.” I looked out the window at the fae moving supplies from the courtyard to the troops stationed outside. “After this, I’m getting ready to leave.” She raised a brow. “So soon?” “I need to lead. I have to be at the forefront. I’ll face MacKenzie, and I’ll show everyone I’m not afraid to. And if I can, I’ll stop this war of his before we bear the brunt of it. He has to see that this is ridiculous. The realm is dying. What’s he going to accomplish?” She folded her arms across her chest. “He’s going to take everything he can from us. If you and those kings die, then MacKenzie will control the entire realm, whether on behalf of his god or not. If not, he’ll only need to find the final treasure and use it himself to end the blight. He won’t need to depend on a love-sick idiot or a grieving madman to help him. He can do it all alone.” “And if he’s working on behalf of his god?” She sighed. “Then he wants this place to die and his god to wake up for good. Either way, you suffer. Are you sure you want to face him? His forces haven’t surrounded the castle yet. There’s a way out. You’ll have to take the children close to the Hauntings, but—” “That could destroy them,” I said. “We can’t just stay with the Watcher and wait for the blight to get us either. No, it’s too late to run. If we’re caught…” I shivered at the idea of Donella or MacKenzie getting their hands on the innocent children in the nursery. I watched them play, Setanta the only one who really understood what was at stake. He knew the blight could kill him, knew that he was still alive only because Scarlet’s passive magic seemed to cleanse the blight around her. The rumours about her had been flying around the court, but nobody had dared to mention offering her as a sacrifice to end the blight. There had to be another way, and I would find it, if we survived MacKenzie. Eithne giggled as Scarlet made a toy car drive across the room without touching it. Dymphna’s daughter had been kidnapped before, to be raised to marry Drake’s crazy father, who was obsessed with the colour of her hair. I shivered at the thought of Scarlet being raised for a similar purpose. And Lily had no value to anyone but me. Who would protect her if the rest of us were dead? And the baby… Morgan didn’t stand a chance. Wiping out the nursery would weaken all three courts, even if Drake, Brendan, and I survived. We had to protect the children at all costs, and as my soldiers had yet to take back the closest portals that were heavily guarded by MacKenzie’s men, it would take a miracle to leave now. A lump formed in my throat. “I should go.” I said goodbye to the children and went downstairs, followed by Vix. “Will Orlaith be enough?” I asked. “She won’t be alone. There will always be others guarding the castle and those within. You’ve made sure of that. Stop doubting your plans.” “I just… I have a bad feeling. What do I know about war, Vix? MacKenzie is experienced. He has a well-trained army that’s way larger than mine. It might be easier to defend, but what if I’ve missed something? What if I haven’t thought of everything? What if—” “You’re not alone,” she said, less harshly than usual. “We all want to survive. We’re not going to let you mess this up by missing anything obvious. If we fail, it won’t be for lack of trying. And if we fall, we fall fighting for ourselves. Don’t you understand? We’re finally proud of our home. We have this place that was like a prison. We hid, and we snuck around, and we were hated by the rest of the realm. Now they’re fighting by our sides as though we’re worth something.” “You were always worth something, Vix.” She bent her head for a moment, and when she finally looked at me, her eyes were glassy. “Not until you came here.” On a whim, I hugged her, and she hugged back for about three seconds before breaking away and making a sound of disgust. “Seriously! Humans!” She stormed off, leaving me smiling. Whether she liked it or not, Vix was a softy deep down. I went outside to find Donncha for an update. As the general of the Darkside’s relatively tiny army, he was constantly receiving reports from various bands around the Darkside. Many of our soldiers were travelling to join us and might not even turn up in time. I had never realised just how dull waiting for battle could be. It took an age for any sort of action to happen, and when it did, it was generally far away from us, more of a skirmish on the outskirts of our territory. Waiting around for something to happen was slowly killing me. We could have been searching for Dagda’s cup, but instead we were waiting for a bully to try to destroy us. Donncha looked worried when I found him. He and Brendan were in the middle of a heated discussion. “What’s going on?” I asked. “What’s happened now?” “The teams who left for the portals haven’t sent back any communications,” Donncha said. “We don’t know if they tried or were ambushed.” “They could be in trouble,” I said. “We can send a larger group to investigate.” “I don’t think we can afford to risk any more men on the portals.” “MacKenzie’s troops have been separating and marching,” Brendan said. “And they’re about to attack us at every angle.” “We can’t fully defend every point of attack.” Donncha cast a wry glance at Brendan. “No matter how many times we discuss it.” “Then get me in front of MacKenzie,” I said. “Let me talk to him, try to agree to a truce. There has to be a way to persuade him. If we can get him to back off long enough to deal with the blight, then—” “And if he refuses to talk?” Brendan asked. “What then?” “Then we’ll have to fight,” I snapped. “But at the very least, I can try to save the soldiers who’ll get in the way. We’re outnumbered and outmatched on every level. We could be defeated before reinforcements even arrive. And if he gets near those children—” “We won’t allow that to happen,” Donncha said firmly. “We’ll protect the castle with—” “You said yourself we can’t spare enough soldiers. Worst case scenario is MacKenzie’s forces getting past us and into the castle. It isn’t just the heirs I’m worried about. There are families living in my court, families who came to us for protection. They’re still arriving, and we have their children trapped in a castle we might lose at any time. I have no choice. I have to face MacKenzie. There has to be something he wants.” “And if it’s power?” Brendan demanded. “A crown or two? To free a god? What then?” “Then we deal with him some other way,” I said fiercely. “And his army will fall apart around him.” “He may hesitate if she tries to parlay,” Donncha said. “But he won’t trust us.” “He’ll know how desperate I am,” I said. “He thinks me being human is a failing, and he’ll try to take advantage of that.” “We could use his daughter as leverage,” Donncha said with a frown. “I already told you that won’t work,” Brendan said. “MacKenzie knows Cara isn’t that cruel.” “Do you know where MacKenzie is?” I asked Donncha, ignoring his big idea. It wouldn’t work because MacKenzie didn’t give a crap about his own daughter, not when it came to gaining power. Not when he thought the leanan sídhe might give him a son instead. “We haven’t pinned him down yet,” Donncha admitted. “There are rumours of sightings in various camps, which is an impossibility. He can’t be everywhere at once.” I frowned. Bekind had given me a similar answer when I’d asked her how our spies were getting on in our enemy’s camps. They were taking a massive risk, and so far, it had been for nothing. Few of MacKenzie’s soldiers knew what move they were to make next. Their orders came late and urgently, and even fewer of them knew whence the messages came. It was entirely frustrating. “Where’s Bekind?” I asked. Donncha rubbed his bald head, looking uncomfortable. “She’s gone out to find the missing patrols.” “Alone?” “She’s just checking some of the trails. If she finds trouble, she’ll turn back.” Donncha shrugged. “She refused to listen to my advice. Said she couldn’t rest easy today.” “Typical.” I just hoped she remembered her promise not to go after MacKenzie herself. * * * MacKenzie’s armies moved swiftly before dawn, attacking our points of defence with everything they had. By the time Donncha pinpointed the main force heading for the castle—the one most likely to involve MacKenzie, who liked to lead his men—the sun was already high in the sky. My general persuaded me to hold off on leaving the castle until we were absolutely sure of MacKenzie’s presence. I rode out on an unfamiliar horse with Issy the following morning. We had received word of numerous sightings of MacKenzie on his dappled grey horse, leading the charge, and I hadn’t been able to wait any longer. Too many Darksiders had already died in battle. I had plenty of protection around me, but still, I felt uneasy. I wasn’t sure how to approach MacKenzie, how I could manipulate him into ending a war he would almost certainly win. The main force had broken past our defences far too easily at one section of the river, but they camped on Darkside land instead of marching to attack the castle. I hoped that meant MacKenzie was open to negotiation. If not, his actions had given my army a chance to prepare. I rode ahead with a small team of soldiers. I was about to talk MacKenzie down or I was about to be bait, but either way, my people were prepared. Brendan and the others were arranged in small teams, ready to flank MacKenzie if it all went wrong. Vix and Bran and others like them were positioned in the trees, hoping to take a shot at MacKenzie from afar if they could. A messenger headed toward MacKenzie’s camp, and we waited impatiently for him to return. He had volunteered, but my heart raced as he neared the camp, wondering if they would kill him. But he appeared to be safe, and a small party soon approached us as requested. My injured arm was bothering me. I hoped I wouldn’t be forced to fight. Or flee. Dubh was back in the stables, supposedly resting. But I had heard his neighs of protest as we left without him. I half expected him to kick down the stable door and chase after us with Tris, the injured hound. I squinted in the sunlight as we rode to meet the others halfway. They stopped before they reached us. I recognised MacKenzie’s dappled grey mare, his armour, but to my eyes, it didn’t fit. “Wait,” I said, confused. “Something’s off.” “Think it’s an ambush?” Rumble asked. “I don’t know.” I urged my horse forward a couple of steps. MacKenzie looked injured. He was holding his sword in the wrong hand. And it wasn’t his family sword. It was shorter and thinner and— “That’s not MacKenzie!” I cried out. The soldier behind my messenger reached around and slit his throat. A brief silence followed, then suddenly, chaos ruled. Shouts and cries and commands filled the air as more soldiers rode into view. Our own troops flooded the area from the east, following yet another of MacKenzie’s bands. Their skirmish apparently had been routed to our location, causing even more confusion. Fake MacKenzie kept back from the battle, and I got separated from Rumble as the fight began. I gripped the reins in a panic. If that wasn’t MacKenzie, then where was he? My stomach dropped as I recalled the missing soldiers Donncha had mentioned. We had been led away from the castle for a reason, and I doubted MacKenzie had ever been with the bulk of his army. I turned the horse around and rode back to the castle, struggling to make my way past my own troops. “What’s going on?” Vix shouted from where she was hanging upside down in a tree. “Wasn’t MacKenzie!” I rode on, my thundering heart drowning out her answering swears. Sweat trickled down my back in my panic. In the distance, near the gates, I saw bodies, and I knew. MacKenzie had gotten into the castle. He was already there. I was too late. I dug in my heels, and the horse kept galloping. The bodies weren’t those of my soldiers alone, but I recognised some who had been left in charge of protecting the castle. I jumped off the horse inside the walls, managing to catch the last of a battle between one of my soldiers and MacKenzie, who wore no armour. He turned to laugh at me as my soldier died a painful death. MacKenzie wiped the sweat from his brow. “There she is. And injured to boot.” “Get away from my home,” I snarled, my heart beating so fast I felt faint. He whirled his sword in the air. It glinted as he aimed the point at my heart. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I really don’t like being told what to do.” Chapter 14 MacKenzie advanced on me, his sword longer than my leg. “You hid, you coward,” I said. “You snuck through the portal from the human realm and you hid.” “Misdirection,” he said lightly. “I don’t need to defeat an army when I can murder a couple of children in their beds. I thank you for your convenient appearance, by the way. I appreciate the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.” “Is this for Chaos?” He hefted his sword in his hands. “I’m more of a leader than a follower.” I stepped back to put space between us, but I unsheathed my own weapon. I wouldn’t go down without a fight, no matter how afraid I was of the man. “A duel,” he proposed. “He who wins, wins all.” “You’re another fool who underestimates a queen,” I taunted. “I don’t lose.” “You lost the moment you tried to trick me.” With a growl, he rushed at me, his sword raised. I waited as long as I could stand to before ducking under his strike. I felt the wind of the blade and almost fell as my fear momentarily overtook me. Ducking away from his second attack, I ran until I was before the castle doors. He came at me, but I couldn’t let him pass. No matter what, I couldn’t let him pass. He struck again. I managed to block him, but his blade was far heavier than mine, and I struggled to hold him off. He wasn’t even trying, and the realisation hit me that I could never beat him in combat, no matter how much I had learned. The sound of horse hooves distracted him long enough for me to break away and try to sink my blade into his side. He deflected the strike without even looking, lashing out to knock me back against the wall. But Brendan came racing through the gates on his golden horse. He leapt off the animal mid-gallop and landed on his feet like a cat, his expression a mixture of determined focus and uncontained rage. I thought I had seen him angry before, but this vibrated from him like something tangible. MacKenzie laughed. “Look at your face,” he said to me. “You actually believe he’ll rescue you.” I was faster than him and moved out of the way as he swung at me. The tip of his sword cut my cheek, but I barely felt the pain. With two of us, the children stood a chance. Brendan unsheathed the sword of victory. “Coward,” he spat. “Fighting an injured human who hasn’t been trained since infancy in swordplay. Come try me, follower of Chaos.” MacKenzie sneered, moving to keep both of us in his sights. “I’m more than Chaos could ever be. I know how to take his power. You haven’t even figured out that much. This realm is wasted on you fools.” Brendan moved as though hunting him, his body tense and on high alert. I inched closer to him, waiting for my chance to help. MacKenzie looked at me, no trace of worry in his expression. “I’ll battle any of you, but I’ve accomplished what I set out to achieve today. My assassin is already in the nursery, and I’ll soon have your legendary treasures in my possession.” Brendan didn’t even look at me. “Cara, go. I’ll take care of him.” I didn’t hesitate. I turned and raced into the castle, hearing the clash of metal against metal behind me. Inside the main hall, the corridors were empty but for a handful of bodies, and the echoes of multiple battles scattered around the castle hung in the air. Fear crept through my body as I ran. I had wasted too much time on MacKenzie. I heard somebody bellow in pain from somewhere above, and my legs went numb as I burst through a set of doors and toward a staircase. Donella turned and stared at me from halfway up the stairs, her eyes full of surprise and apprehension. She quickly recovered and plastered her usual sneer across her lips. “Don’t you regret it now?” she asked. “Shunning me when you could have had it all? I landed on my feet. I married a man who’ll soon be a god.” “Oh, you mean the man Brendan’s about to kill?” She hissed through her teeth. “Have you wrapped him around your finger so tightly? I’m not surprised. After all, I managed to persuade him that taking Sadler’s wife was his idea. He wanted to help his poor, misguided friend, but he should have known that any man who slights me will be punished.” “Get the hell out of my way before I cut you down.” A mocking smile curved her lips. “You’re scared. I’m not surprised. You should really be more careful with your precious things. You’re too late, I’m afraid.” I raised my sword, willing my arms to stop shaking. “Not yet.” She pulled back her elbows and prepared to send some kind of magical attack at me. I didn’t know what she could do, but I held my ground, gathering my emotions around me as I prepared to attack with my own brand of magic. I had enough fear and anger roiling around inside me to do some damage. But a black cat bounded through the window, startling both of us. Bekind transformed into her human form and leapt onto Donella’s back, grabbing one of the large pins holding up her hair. “Making me immortal was just one more horrific mistake,” Bekind hissed as she pierced the side of Donella’s throat with the pin. Donella gurgled, clutching her neck as Bekind released her and violently stabbed once more. “That’s for Cormac.” My dying ancestor’s eyes widened in shock as she fell down the stairs, her blood staining the stone. “I found the soldiers,” Bekind panted. “Came back as fast as I could when I realised MacKenzie was already here.” “We need to get to the nursery!” Bekind, her golden hair damp with crimson blood, turned on her heel and ran, but I outpaced her, faster on two legs. I sprinted up the stairs in record time, raced down the corridor, and jumped over the body of one of the children’s bodyguards. Distraught, I burst through the doors to the nursery. I couldn’t see most of the children. Polly must have hidden them, but she was still struggling to drag Setanta to safety. His wheelchair was broken and lying on its side. An enemy lay dead next to it, a wooden sword through his throat. Setanta’s trembling hands were covered in blood, and he panted hard, his eyes fixed on the body. On the other side of the room, Orlaith was valiantly fighting off two more attackers, but her strikes were weakening, and she limped with a bad injury to her leg. With a cry of rage, I rushed at one of the soldiers, who tumbled out of my way so quickly that all I managed to do was whack him in the nose with the hilt of my sword. He fell back and accidentally kicked the sword out of my hands. While I reached for it, he grabbed me and held me to his chest on the ground. I elbowed him a couple of times, and Bekind turned back into a cat to scratch his face. I kicked out at Orlaith’s other attacker, who got too close to us, and rolled away from my opponent. He had let me go to fling Bekind away from him, his face covered in bleeding scratches. The soldier tripped over my foot and stumbled, giving Orlaith the opportunity to end her life. My attacker gripped my hair and pulled me back toward him. I kicked and scrambled to my knees, but Orlaith shouted at me to duck. I dropped in time to see Bekind claw the man as he swung at me. He missed me completely. That sword was meant for my daughter, I remembered, for all of the children, and red clouded my vision as I let my anger absorb me completely. I couldn’t think, only act. Both the soldier and Orlaith took a couple of steps back as if my anger had hit them a physical blow. Bekind was still hanging on to him, and I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and flung her at Orlaith, who freaked out and fumbled the catch. I cut the man’s wrist with my dagger as he shakily lifted his sword, and he dropped his weapon. The taint in my body burned my veins as I succumbed to the darkness inside me, the part of me that revelled in Chaos, the part of me that came from Chaos in the first place. It gave me strength—and madness—but at that moment, I didn’t care. I lashed out with my dagger, cutting his neck—not too deeply—then kicked him with such force that he fell against the window. The glass pane cracked, and the man clutched at air in terror as he fell backward. He landed with a thump on the stone pavings outside. Appeased by a sense of vengeance, I looked out the window, satisfied by his lifeless body. But then I caught sight of Brendan and MacKenzie still locked in battle, and the darkness seeped away in a rush that made me grip the window ledge to steady myself. Brendan was exhausted from the recent battles—had obviously overstated his recovery from the curse—and was struggling against MacKenzie, who, having hid from his army and therefore the majority of the battles, still appeared fresh and light on his feet. “Where are the children?” Bekind was shouting at Polly. I turned to see the young woman point toward the bedroom, tears running down her cheeks. I rushed over to my bedroom door and knocked on it loudly. “Are the children all right?” I called out. Grey Eyes unlocked the door. “They’re well. They’re all unharmed.” I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Morgan was asleep, and my girls were crying, but they were safe. Eithne was standing right by the door with a wooden sword in her hands. “Look at you,” I said. “Protecting them like your mother would. I’m proud of you.” Eithne’s lower lip wobbled, and she allowed her tears to fall. Orlaith helped Polly lift Setanta. I gripped his shaking hand. “Eithne tripped him,” he said. “And he fell on me, and I…” “Thank you,” I whispered, quickly dropping a kiss on his cheek. “All of you, lock yourselves in the bedroom. I’ll be back.” “Where are you going?” Bekind asked frantically. “To Brendan.” I fled before I could change my mind. I met Bran and Vix on the stairs, pelting upward. Vix’s face threatened to crumple when she caught sight of me. I realised I was covered in blood. “They’re okay,” I said without pausing in my flight. “Check on the other families. I have to go!” “Our armies are beating back MacKenzie’s,” Bran called out after me. But in that moment, I didn’t care. I raced back down the stairs, my heart beating out of my chest. The children were safe, but Brendan was not, and I couldn’t handle that either. I rushed outside, but Brendan and MacKenzie weren’t in the main courtyard. I panicked until I remembered the nursery window looked out over the gardens and lake. I raced around, past the stables where Dubh was kicking in an attempt to free himself, until I found MacKenzie standing over Brendan, who lay in the grass, bleeding from a cut to his thigh. Unthinkingly, I ran straight for MacKenzie and drove my dagger into his spine. He gasped in alarm and turned, trying to run me through with his sword. Brendan lifted the sword of victory and cut MacKenzie’s fingers away, sending the sword flying. MacKenzie stood there for a moment as if frozen. “There is no honour in this,” he spluttered. “I’d rather have him than honour,” I said fiercely. I yanked my dagger free and tackled MacKenzie to the ground, managing to sink the knife into his heart in the struggle. I didn’t even realise the man was dead until Brendan lifted me away and sat with me on the ground a few feet away. “It was just a feint.” He held me close. “I had him, Cara.” “I don’t care.” I wrapped my arms around him. “I was terrified.” He brushed my fringe away from my face and kissed me. “Everyone is all right? I heard glass breaking and someone falling. Was it one of ours?” I shook my head. “The children are fine. Bekind killed Donella on the stairs, but she was just a distraction. There were soldiers in the nursery. They’re all dead now. Bran and Vix arrived, so they’ll help clear out the castle of any other intruders. And now I have to go back out.” “You’re not serious,” Brendan said. “I have to grab Leonora then go lead my army to victory. Now that I know you and the girls are safe.” I planted a brief kiss on his lips. “This is my battle, and I’m going to finish it. We’re not going to be anybody’s pushover. I have to do this. Don’t you see?” “I understand,” he said, “but I don’t like it.” “Will you stay with them? So I know they’re safe?” He hesitated for a second before nodding. “I’ll protect them.” By the time I managed to drag Leonora away from an injured Aiken, Dubh had already freed himself and was waiting outside with Tris. It was time for MacKenzie’s daughter to reclaim her rightful heritage. Chapter 15 Leonora and I joined the army, spreading the word about MacKenzie and Donella’s deaths as we moved. She had seen her father’s body before we left, but her only reaction had been a soft oh that was full of relief rather than sadness. The news of his death had a positive effect on morale, and Leonora’s presence changed the tide as many of the leaderless soldiers turned to her for command instead. We spent the afternoon driving those still loyal to MacKenzie back from the river. Disheartened, many of them began to separate in an attempt to flee. But most of them ran right into our reinforcements, including the armies of the Green and Silver Courts. When my people shouted their victory cries, I was there in the middle, rejoicing with them. I belonged. I was part of them, part of everything that made us who we were, and I was finally in a place I was meant to be. I was more. And the people I cared about most were safe. The only thing that could ruin my happiness was the blight. The remainder of the enemy army was in pieces, scattering across the desert—where they would likely die without supplies—and into the forest—where they would be rooted out like rats if they refused to give Leonora their loyalty. The major battles were done. “Donncha!” I called out to my general. “I’m heading back to the castle. Find those close by, but don’t waste time and energy chasing the others. We can take care of them later. But watch out for Rumble.” “I’ll send someone to meet with the Silver army,” he said. I returned to the castle with the cú sídhe and vowed never to take them with me again. They would have protected the girls far better than any soldier. I had come too close to losing everything through sheer stupidity. MacKenzie and Donella had almost outplayed us. Back at the castle, soldiers were still trampling up and down the stairs, making sure no other enemies remained. The injured were in the Great Hall, where Grey Eyes and Anya were doing their best to help. I saw Orlaith run across the room and stopped her. “Where are the children?” “In the meeting room. We thought it would be safer until the castle has been cleared.” I nodded and headed straight there. Brendan was sitting on a chair, his injured leg bandaged. Bran and Vix stood on either side of the door, watching over the children, who were being taken care of by Bekind and Polly. “No more drama here then.” I took a seat next to Brendan. I would have killed for a shower. “How is it out there?” Brendan asked. “The army’s broken and scattered. Your people and Drake’s caught them unawares, and when they heard of MacKenzie’s death, they just fell apart. About half turned to Leonora. We’ll have trouble from the others for a while, I think, but the main battle’s over. We can move on to more important things. Like finding Dagda’s cup.” “Not even a day to rest?” Brendan sounded exhausted. “Dafina, the elder we brought back from over the sea, mentioned something about the treasures on the island. I believe she told us that Manannán was responsible for hiding the cup.” “Manannán? Isn’t he another god?” “Is he even real?” Vix asked. “On the boat, I dreamt of him. He told me I was allowed to pass. On that same night, Yvette had a nightmare. Perhaps he told her differently, and that was why we were attacked.” Brendan shrugged. “He’s said to be the god of the sea. If she’s right, and she might not be, then the cup could be hidden underwater.” “But where?” I asked. “Is it even in this realm?” “I think it must be,” he said. “Are you certain it’s not in the Darkside? Perhaps that’s truly why MacKenzie invaded.” “Maybe the water fae will know,” I said. “Or the Watcher. Or the hedge witch. Or the guardian witch of the blackthorns. Maybe the mention of Manannán will help Levin in his research, piece together shreds of stories or something.” “Everyone with knowledge is out looking for information,” Bran said. “It’s only a matter of time before one of them finds something that can help us.” “I don’t want to wait,” I said. “I want to feel as though I’m doing something.” And I wanted to see the guardian witch again in case she had another prophesy for me. “If we keep waiting around for someone else to do the work, some other disaster will befall us in the meantime. Something doesn’t want us to find the cup, and that’s exactly why we have to.” I looked at the children in the corner. Lily and Setanta were both badly afflicted, and even Morgan was wan on the Darkside. I needed to end the blight and protect their futures. Mayhem filled the castle for the next couple of days. Bodies were removed, blood cleaned, enemies tracked down, and dozens of messages sent and received. Rafe was happy to give me all of the news as he heard it. Blue Eyes finally got a message through letting us know they were well, and as soon as everything died down, I planned on sending an escort to fetch to my home the Silver Court volunteers who had intended to accompany Morgan. The battle at the Hollows would be legendary, if the reports were true. Fiadh’s gathered troops had unleashed hell on the enemy soldiers, raining fire down on them and destroying their camp. Some had tried to cross the Hollows only to be cut down by the creatures within. The rest had retreated, likely intending to join the rest of the army. Fiadh sent small groups after them to pick them off in the forest. They proceeded to do so until the enemy ran right into Drake and Rumble. The Silver army had taken care of business then turned to the west of MacKenzie’s main camp. Having coordinated with the Green Court on the way, they launched a midnight attack on the largest camp they came across and effectively won that battle. When the army moved against us, they followed and waited for an opportunity. The water fae had destroyed bridges, scared off warriors, and even drowned some of our enemies. Stories soon spread of small tribespeople lying in wait in the forests, setting traps to trick the soldiers. Even the tunnelers were said to have destroyed a camp in the desert—although that likely wasn’t on our behalf. Finally, we heard that the Green army were camped out, waiting for their king to join them. And Drake was on his way to visit my court with Rumble, having sent the bulk of his army after the retreating soldiers. I spent the next day dreading his appearance. I was watching an obviously traumatised Setanta stare off into the distance in the new nursery when Brendan found me. “You look worried,” he said, taking a seat to rest his injured leg. “Just thinking about how to help the kids forget what happened here.” “Is that all?” I made a face. “No. Drake will be here soon.” “That bad?” “Things didn’t go well the last time I saw him. What if he takes Morgan away?” “The child is his son, Cara.” “But he won’t take care of him. I mean, what’s wrong with Morgan staying here and growing up with the other kids? If he goes back, we may never see him again.” He held my hand. “We’ll make sure we repair things with Drake.” “He’s not going to be happy when he sees this,” I said, nodding at our hands. “He has a massive chip on his shoulder as it is. This will just make it worse.” “If you want me to leave before he arrives, I will.” “That’s not what I want at all.” I grasped his arm. “Don’t leave. Not yet.” “I must go soon. You know this.” My shoulders drooped. “I know. It’s hard, loving a king.” He tipped my chin with his finger to hold my gaze. “Do you really love me?” “You know I do.” He ran his hands through my hair. “I love you, too, but what if that’s never enough? What if this just slips through our fingers when we’re separated?” A shiver of apprehension ran down my spine. “We were never going to have a normal life though, right?” “Is it so bad that I desperately want normal? That I feel I could give up the power and magic for happiness? This isn’t my imagination. It isn’t a trick or magic. It’s true, and it’s real, and it feels everlasting. But it’s not for us to take and hold and keep. Not without harming others.” “Just because we won’t have the happiest ending doesn’t mean that it won’t be happy. Maybe we’ll appreciate the time we spend together more because of the distance.” He ran his fingers down my back. “You really are my punishment. Always just out of reach.” “Before she died, Donella claimed that she was the one who came up with the whole idea of taking Sadler’s wife away. You thought you were helping him, but she really wanted to punish him.” “No. I’ve told you before that I own my sins, Cara. I can’t blame anyone else for the things I’ve done. Does it bother you? My past?” “Not as much as it should.” I bit my lower lip. “I couldn’t imagine you doing the things you did… until I saw you with MacKenzie. You looked… capable of anything. And I’m not scared or repulsed or anything, but I know what it’s like.” I lowered my voice. “The taint is in me, Brendan. I can feel it coming alive when I get angry or… or…” “Or act more like us fae?” he offered. “Exactly. I’m scared that it’ll be all I am someday. That it’ll control me. The mirror showed—” “The mirror’s gone. It sought you out for a reason, and that was to cause chaos. And some believe you’re the most chaotic thing to have ever happened to the fae. All of the followers of Chaos have come for us in one way or another, but we’re winning.” I looked away. “Until we find that cup, we’re doing nothing but playing a waiting game.” “We’ll find it. The whole realm is seeking it out.” “MacKenzie said he knew how to take his god’s power. Do you think somebody else might try to do that?” He made a sound of disgust. “Who would dare?” “Drake’s surprised us before,” I said quietly. “You’ll have to trust him. You cared for him once. Can’t you see the good in him anymore?” “I don’t know that he has any anymore. He scares me sometimes.” “The old me would have scared you, too,” he said sadly. “I would have disgusted you.” I glanced at him. “Did you love her? Sadler’s wife, I mean. You said your feelings changed when you spent time with her. That you felt sorry for her.” His cheeks flushed. “I don’t like to remember. It wasn’t love. Perhaps lust, but more likely a wish for… something more.” He held my hand. “This is more than lust. This is when souls meet souls and intertwine. Your soul touched mine and made me a better man. And now my soul wants more.” “You’re a secret romantic,” I scoffed in mock horror. “That’s how we can tell it would never work between us.” He grinned as he held me closer. “Don’t they say that opposites attract?” Bran popped into the room to tell us that Drake was on his way. He grinned at the sight of us embracing. “The lookouts can see him approach.” “Thanks.” I reluctantly let go of Brendan. “I suppose we should get the kids ready to greet him or something.” Bran left, and while the others prepared the children, Brendan leaned against me to whisper in my ear. “Go easy on him, Cara. He’s not a happy man.” I wished Drake could care for Brendan the way Brendan cared for him. By the time Drake arrived, we were all waiting impatiently outside. Vix jumped from one foot to another in anticipation of seeing Rumble again. When the first horses arrived, Rumble was amongst them, hurrying to get home. He dismounted and knelt at my feet. “Oh, get up, you big fool,” I said, pulling at his arm to force him to his feet. “We’ve missed you around here.” “I was best suited elsewhere,” he said, allowing himself a small smile. Vix slapped him on the back in greeting, and a number of Darksiders called out greetings, which appeared to surprise Rumble. Once, he had been a bit of an outsider himself. I inched closer to Brendan as Drake approached. He looked thinner, older, harsher than before. I wondered how much he remembered of my last visit, and I ducked my head in embarrassment at the memory. “Dada,” Scarlet said from her place at my feet, and I looked up in surprise. Drake gazed at her with wide, hopeful eyes that contained a spark of what had made me fall for him the first time we’d met. But Scarlet’s hands were out for Brendan instead. I froze, horrified, as she said the word again. She didn’t know, didn’t understand. The other children in the nursery didn’t have fathers either, but the children who had come to the castle for safety did, and she had picked up lots of new words and phrases recently. Brendan scooped her up and swiftly changed the subject, but the light in Drake’s eyes had already faded. His lips twisted into a dark, sneering smile, and I knew we had just taken ten steps backward. “Does my heir still live?” he asked coldly. I beckoned Polly to bring Morgan to him, but he didn’t even look at the child. “He’s thriving,” I said. “And he—” “I’ll take him back to the Silver Court as soon as the blight is over.” “Drake,” I said, taking a step toward him. “Why not leave him here with the other children? He’ll get—” “I’ll take him back when the blight has ended.” He held up his hand as if to silence me. “Have we information?” I rubbed my arms, feeling a chill from the ice in his tone. “Everyone in the realm with knowledge of the old stories is on the search right now.” “From what we’ve been told, we likely won’t be able to kill this god of Chaos,” Brendan said. “But we may be able to send him back to sleep with the help of all four legendary treasures.” “To sleep?” For a second, Drake’s expression lightened with curiosity. Then his gaze fell on me and hardened again. “The god was sent to sleep lifetimes ago, and his followers worked hard to help him regain his strength. We think that all of this drama with Sadler has just been a way to feed the god. The blight is a sign of his growing power.” “We need the final treasure then. Where is it?” I held my hands behind my back, trying to hide how they shook. “We’re trying to find out, but if you could—” He turned on his heel. “Send me a message when I’m needed then. I’ll do my own research.” “Drake, wait,” I said. He stopped. “I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you, the way I acted, in your court. I was upset and scared and could have handled it better.” He turned to look at me coldly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” His upper lip curled. “And you’re someone else’s problem now.” He kept walking, and I made to follow, but Brendan held my arm. “Give him time to adjust.” “He married somebody else. He had a child with her. How could this possibly hurt him?” He looked at me pityingly. “Because he didn’t love her.” We went inside. The court was slowly returning to normal, but I had moved the nursery and my quarters to the other side of the castle. I felt that Setanta needed his mother, so I’d decided to send him with Conn and a troop of Donncha’s men to visit her at the Hollows before she returned home herself. Brendan had to leave, too. “I’m going to organise people to travel to Yvette’s home and clear it out,” he said. “There may be something useful hidden there.” “Good luck,” I said. “Although you’ll probably get lost in there.” He reached down to kiss me. “You’ll just save me, right?” “You know, some men would feel emasculated by having to be saved by me all of the time.” He grinned. “Good thing I’m as cocky as you always make me out to be.” Laughing, I waved him off. Others left, too, those who had come to us for safety as well as those from the other courts. With so many of my friends gone, the castle felt empty, so I decided I needed a distraction before anything else went wrong. I gathered a large group with me to travel to the human realm with my children. Aside from a visit to our farms, I took them to see my grandparents and Zoe, who were delighted to hear from us. While my grandparents cooed over Scarlet and pretended not to notice when I avoided talking about my mother, Zoe and I settled on the sofa with Lily. “She’s come along a lot,” Zoe said. “I worried about you, taking on not just somebody else’s baby, but a sick one, too.” “It’s not like I’m alone.” I sighed. “I don’t get to spend as much time with them as I’d like.” “Maybe it’s time you came home then. I could help you look after the girls.” I took her hand. “Zoe, I’m never going to come home for good. It’s too late for that.” “But everything is so dangerous back there. What if you get hurt?” “What if I don’t? I can’t just leave now when we’re finally getting somewhere.” “It doesn’t sound like you’re getting anywhere. You’re still looking for the same bloody cup you haven’t been able to find for the past six months.” “Other things keep getting in the way. Besides, what am I going to do here? Get a nice little office job again? Then die of boredom?” “You always did have a death wish,” she muttered under her breath. “Just get your camera out and take some photos of the kids, please.” I nudged her. “If that’s not too much trouble.” She made a face. “Trying to give me something to remember you by?” “Of course not!” “What’s this in aid of then?” “I want to send some photos to Drake. He hates me so much he’d rather stay away in order to avoid me.” “Why? Because of Sorcha?” “It might be more to do with Brendan,” I said shyly. She looked at me, agape. “You didn’t.” “We’re not together.” I shrugged. “But we’re not not together either.” “What the hell does that mean?” I grinned. “When he was gone, I felt like my heart was being torn out of my chest. I couldn’t stand the idea of not seeing him again. And having him home but still being unable to see him was unbearable. I couldn’t take it. When I saw him lying in that bed while I waited for him to wake, I just… I forgot the reasons I was scared to get close to him. We can never be together properly while we run two different courts, but that’s the price we pay.” “That sounds kind of painful.” “Well, what did you expect?” She sighed. “I don’t know. You’re happy though, aren’t you?” “I’m scared of how happy I am right now,” I said. “I feel like it’s going to send me hurtling into disaster.” “Try not to jinx yourself,” she said, rolling her eyes. I stayed there for a day, trying to trick myself into forgetting that I missed Brendan. But I did miss him. Then again, I always had. His appearances had always been the highlights of my life. And I had always felt a relief when he returned that was different than the high I got from Drake’s touch. It was different, and I was glad. We arrived home to a changed castle. “Wow,” I said, in awe of the clean surfaces. “Somebody’s been working hard.” There had been so much blood, so many bodies, and now it looked as though there had been no battle at all. “They wanted to surprise you,” Rafe said. “Give you a gift that nobody else can give.” I smiled. “I’m just grateful to be home.” “Is it home to you?” he asked. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.” My face fell. “But I have to leave again soon. If we don’t find the cup…” “We all know you’ll find it. You’ve accomplished everything you set out to do. It takes time to uncover four treasures, and you already have three. That’s more than anyone could ever have expected.” “Did Sadler have any hiding places that I don’t know about?” I asked, trying to dispel the worry that Bart or the glaistig had taken the treasure with them when they left. “We’re certain we’ve uncovered them all,” he said sadly. “I’m sorry, my lady.” “Don’t be. I’ll need to leave for the blackthorns tomorrow. Can you organise my trip please?” “Of course,” he said. “Who’s going to leave with you?” “I’ll need Vix and Bekind to stay here with the kids, and Dymphna probably won’t want to leave Eithne already, so it might just be Rumble and me. If Dubh’s well enough, I’ll take him. I could go alone, but—” “Please take a larger group with you,” he said. “In case there are attacks. Many enemies are still out there, my lady.” “We’ll see,” I said, yawning. “I’m going up to the children. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Rafe.” Upstairs, Bekind and Vix were sitting in the nursery with the children. I joined them, picking up Lily for a cuddle after Scarlet had given me a whopper of a hug. “Where’s Orlaith?” I asked. “Sleeping,” Vix said. “She’s exhausted.” “I don’t think we need her anymore,” I said. “Not all night.” “Do you finally trust us?” Vix asked. “With my heart,” I said with a smile. Bekind was in her human form for a change. “Let’s put the children to bed. You all look exhausted.” “I’m leaving tomorrow,” I said. “I’m going to the blackthorns to speak to the guardian witch woman there. She might know something.” “Wouldn’t she have told you already if she was going to?” “Last time she kind of went into a trance and had a bit of a prophetic seizure,” I said. “Next time I’ll be prepared. I forget half of what she said, but maybe if it happens again, it’ll make more sense.” “We could send for her,” Vix said. I shook my head. “If she leaves the blackthorns, the trees will die. I promised her I’d find a way to save them.” “Then you will.” After we settled the children into bed, Bekind joined me in my room. Instead of curling up next to me as a cat, she sat on the bed and talked as a woman. “You look as if someone switched on a light inside you.” “Maybe they did.” I sighed. “I knew I cared about him, Bek, but I didn’t realise how content I’d feel just… spending time with him without wondering about his motives.” “He’s very handsome. And he’s strong and masculine. I’m sure those are attractive qualities, but—” “It’s more than that. I mean, we haven’t exactly gotten a moment alone together lately. So far, it’s probably the most chaste relationship I’ve ever had.” She looked taken aback. “Brendan? Really?” I couldn’t help but laugh at her expression. “He’s one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had. He listens to me, and he respects me, and he doesn’t act as though I can’t accomplish things. He doesn’t freak out when I think for myself. He treats me like… an equal, and I appreciate that from him. He doesn’t have to be so attentive. He’s as stressed as I am. But he’s always been there for me, even when I didn’t realise it. There’s always been chemistry between us, but this is something more.” “And where will it go from here? This won’t be the last time you’re separated.” “I know. And I’m not going to pretend to like it at all, but if the lonely spells are followed by bright patches, then it will be worth it.” “You really do love him, don’t you?” Her shoulders shook, and I wrapped my arms around her. “I still remember how that feels, and I’d hate for you to endure the pain that came afterward.” “Oh, Bek,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry.” “I killed her,” she said. “I killed the woman who destroyed my life, and I thought it would make me feel better, but it doesn’t. I feel the heartbreak as keenly as if it had just happened. I don’t want that for you. I never want you to feel this sorrow.” She lay in my arms that night, and I comforted her as best I could, but I couldn’t help thinking about Bekind and how I would feel if I, too, lost my daughter and the man I loved. Chapter 16 In the end, Rumble and I left with a small team of soldiers. Most of them had been with me when we had once hunted our scout’s murderer. That event had made me certain of their loyalty, but I hoped we wouldn’t run into any fleeing enemy soldiers. I was sick to death of blood. I was tired of journeys, too, weary of leaving my home behind. I just wanted to settle down and have a normal routine. I was missing out on important time with everyone I cared about. We rode hard and fast, taking every logical shortcut along the way to bypass anything that might slow us down. We rested only when we had to, deciding to aim for an inn and switch horses there. A shiver of nostalgia ran through me when I caught sight of the crooked little building off the side of the road. There were more animals and a larger stable than the last time I had been there. A man named Ivan ran the inn. A friend of Bekind’s, he had helped us on our way to rescue Brendan from the Fade by giving us food and a certain faery horse. Ivan, an obese man with a gleam of sweat ever present on his bald head, met us outside the inn, clutching a heavy shawl around his shoulders as though he might perish with a chill. “We heard you were passing this way. We dared hope for a visit.” I gestured toward the buildings. “You’ve expanded.” He tittered behind his hand. “I may have let slip that royalty has taken refuge here on occasion.” “And I thought you were good at keeping secrets.” His eyes widened. “I have my tongue, you see.” Unlike some of his servants. “We need to exchange some horses if you have any to spare. We’ll swap back on our way home.” “Of course,” he said enthusiastically, delicately patting the sweat from his brow with an embroidered handkerchief. “I have enough for all of you.” He eyed Dubh wistfully. “That horse never returned to me.” I glanced at Dubh, surprised. “Was he supposed to?” “That kind chooses his owner,” Ivan said. “Don’t expect him to be yours forever.” “Oh.” I gripped the reins as though Dubh were about to run off that very second. “We’ll take care of the horses.” Ivan rubbed his hands together. “Now let’s get inside. You might as well have a decent sleep and some food before you leave again.” We followed Ivan inside the building. He did his best not to touch any of us, recoiling away as though we were diseased. I didn’t take it personally. He led us through the door to the right and into a large dining room. It was half full, and when we entered, the noise and chatter in the room went silent only to be followed by a great deal of whispering. I looked around then chose an empty table for myself and my soldiers. “Feed them well,” I told Ivan. “We’ve a long way to go still.” “I will.” To my dismay, he performed a dramatic bow at my feet. “Anything for a queen.” I exchanged a knowing glance with Rumble then took my seat. Before long, goblets of wine were pressed into our hands by pixies who, inevitably, flirted with the soldiers. One attempted to flirt with Rumble, but he scared her off with a glare. “Meanie,” I said. “They’re just having some fun.” “Fun is not on our agenda.” “Haven’t you ever thought about settling down?” He allowed a small sound escape his lips. “Not with anything so frivolous.” I observed the other guests while we waited for our food. They were all staring at us, gaping as though we were some kind of spectacle. “Of course they stare,” Rumble said when I mentioned it to him. “Most of them have never seen anything like you, and never will again.” “What, a human?” He smiled. “A queen, my lady. The way we live isn’t the norm.” The pixies returned with steaming bowls of stew. The attention from the rest of the room never faltered. Although many fae watched us with curiosity or even awe, one group in the corner kept shooting us irritable looks. And when my soldiers noticed, they glared back. It was probably better for us to carry on than cause trouble in Ivan’s home. He came to us when we finished. “I’ve organised the best rooms for you.” “I’m sorry,” I said, “but we should keep moving. Perhaps on our way home,” I added when he looked disappointed. I had intended to leave Dubh at the inn, but he refused to be stabled, and I decided it was safer to take him with us. Although his leg was still healing, he showed no signs of slowing down. Ivan waved us off sombrely. “He enjoyed showing you off,” Rumble said. “He could easily have fed you in a private room, but he wanted everyone to know the Darksider queen had visited his inn.” “Not everyone seemed impressed.” “Can’t please everyone. I believe he suffers from a curse of some kind. He’s to be pitied.” I looked over my shoulder. Ivan was still standing there, watching us. “Maybe that’s how Bekind knows him, how he had Donella’s horse, because she cursed them both.” “Bekind is to be pitied, too. She leads a lonely life for an immortal.” We continued on our journey, avoiding villages and small tribes. But we did pass a surprising number of little camps, recently used. “I don’t like it,” Rumble said as we investigated the latest one. “It’s just a camp,” I said impatiently. “We don’t have time to stop at every single one so you can feel the warmth of the embers or whatever the hell it is you’re doing.” He ignored my irritation. “MacKenzie’s men could easily have made it this far by now. I don’t like the idea of leading our queen right to them.” “The camps are tiny. It’s not like an army is roaming the forest. Anyone could have camped here.” I grabbed Dubh’s reins in order to mount him again. “We’ve come this far. We may as well see what the witch has to say. We’ve been helping her, so there’s a chance she’ll tell us more this time.” “But can we trust her words?” I sighed. “We don’t have much choice.” * * * When we finally arrived at the blackthorns, the witch’s dusty domain was slightly less arid than before. The moon wasn’t full, so the creepy stick men hadn’t come to life, but it was still eerie to walk amongst the dying blackthorn trees. The water hadn’t been enough, and I wondered if I was too late to save the blackthorns, too. The white raven squawked overhead, as though following our journey. My soldiers grew uncomfortable, and I understood. The area was so desolate that it felt hopeless, as though nothing we did could save the realm. We found the old woman. She might have been a guardian or a witch; all we really knew was that she was the final life source for the blackthorn trees. She sat on a stool in front of her hut, gazing upward. She must have known we were there, but she ignored us. “Wait here,” I told the others. “I want to speak to her alone.” “Are you sure?” Rumble asked warily. “I’m safe. Don’t worry.” I left them waiting while I headed over to the witch. “Back again already,” she said without looking at me. “Cleaning out your closet, one skeleton at a time.” “I’m going to finish this for good. I just need to find Dagda’s cup.” “The cup? Oh, is that all? Good luck with that.” She looked at me, folded her arms across her chest, and huffed. “Just, indeed.” I knelt at her feet. “I have three legendary treasures. I need one more. Do you know where it is?” “Know? How would I know?” “Any ideas then? There has to be some story, some memory, something that could help us. Something to do with Manannán maybe?” “Don’t speak of the gods so casually.” She gripped my arm. “You must—” Her black eyes turned white and drew me in as her voice became mesmeric. “Seek the lagoon for the cup. And then four treasures will lead one soul through the gate of the gods for judgement. Temptation holds many choices. Realm, parent, child, love, soul. The vessel must sacrifice.” As quick as it began, it was over, and the woman’s eyes were normal once more. She let go of my arm, looking momentarily confused. “The lagoon,” I said, trying to keep my composure. “Does that help?” She froze. “What is it?” She waved a hand. “A legend. A tale whispered to children to help them sleep.” “If I’ve learned anything in the faery realm it’s that everything is possible. Tell me what you remember.” “But it’s so…” She covered her cheeks with gnarled fingers. “I had half forgotten, it’s been so long. There is one place, a lagoon, but I’m not certain it even exists.” “Where is it?” “How should I know?” She chewed on her lip and lowered her voice. “But of course. It would explain so much. How could we have forgotten the legends?” Her eyes glittered with excitement. I had never seen her so animated before. “So you do know something about the cup then?” “If it’s anywhere, it’ll be in the lagoon. Of course it will. The hidden lagoon, where the mermaids are guardians. Under the water is a cave, and they say a god hid there once, that there are untold treasures hidden within. Perhaps they meant actual treasures.” “But where is the lagoon?” “Past the faery stones,” she said as though I were stupid. “Faery stones?” “Twelve mermaid princesses sought a spell that would give them legs. They exchanged secrets with their father’s enemy in order to achieve their greatest wish. Every night, they shed their scales like an extra skin to dance on grass. Before dawn broke, they dressed in their scales again and jumped into the water as mermaids. But their father discovered their treachery and said if they were so ashamed of their scales, then they could go without. He followed them one night, and while they danced, he hid their scales where they couldn’t reach them. They froze in the middle of their dance. Their father took the rest of his people and left, cursing his daughters to forever guard the lagoon.” “Did they happen to turn to stone?” I asked wryly. “You’ve seen them?” she asked, surprised. “Let’s just say I’ve bumped into them.” “What is it about humans…” She waved a hand. “Well, then, you already know. They guard the lagoon that may hold the cup you seek.” A rush of relief ran through me. Finally, we were getting some answers. But when had anything ever gone the way we’d planned? “And if it’s not there?” “Then we are lost.” “Let’s hope it’s still there.” I glanced around and frowned. “Has the water we’ve been sending you not helped?” “The water prolongs our death,” she said sharply. “The realm has been poisoned for too long.” She held my gaze. “Chaos strengthens with every twist of your journey, and with him, his blight. It’s growing in you, too. Soon, you’ll be lost, and the rest of us will follow. It’s gaining power, feeding from you.” I shivered. “The taint is feeding from me? How do I stop it?” She shrugged. “End the blight.” “Can I kill a god?” Her expression rooted me to the spot. “Nobody knows what you’re capable of. Now go find your lagoon and look for the cup. Let’s see how many more turns you can take.” Unsettled, I returned to the others, who were waiting impatiently. “Did she tell you what you wanted to hear?” Rumble asked. I was about to say no, but I had gotten what I came for. “She thinks the cup was hidden under a lagoon. And I think I know exactly where.” * * * On our way back, we stopped at the inn once again, but although smoke twisted from the chimney, nobody came out to greet us. “We’ll get our horses back,” I began, but Dubh stamped his feet and refused to go any farther. “Hold,” Rumble said. “Let me take a look around.” He dismounted and headed to the stables. When he returned, his expression was grave. “No horses. There’s a body. Beware, all of you.” We investigated the inn. To my horror, Ivan’s body had been nailed to a wall. Every room we searched was full of corpses. There had been a massacre after we left the inn. “What the hell happened?” I murmured, trying not to look at a wide-eyed pixie whose body had been torn apart. “In here!” one of my soldiers called. I ran into the kitchen with Rumble. More bodies. More blood. And one pixie moaned, miraculously still alive, despite her injuries. I hurried to feed her a leaf for the pain, but even I knew she couldn’t be saved. “What happened here?” I asked. “Can you tell us?” After a sip of water, she made an effort to speak. “When you left, some of the guests revealed themselves as… your enemies. Ivan protested the way they talked of you. They spoke about ambushing you in the woods, and our other guests were horrified. It… they drew swords. They attacked everyone, stole our belongings, and left.” I looked at Rumble, my lips clenched tight. It was our fault it had happened at all. “We’ll find them,” I said after a moment. “We’ll punish them for what they did here.” She nodded and relaxed. “It doesn’t hurt so much anymore.” “That’s good. You should try to sleep for a while.” “I’m so tired.” She closed her eyes, never to open them again. In the meantime, the rest of my soldiers had finished searching all of the rooms. The gory scenes confirmed the pixie’s story. “We can’t go home yet,” I said. “What about the cup?” Rumble asked. My skin prickled, reminding me of the twists and turns in my journey, but I didn’t see any other choice. “We have to find the ones who did this. They must belong to MacKenzie.” “It could take days,” one of the soldiers said. “Then we had better get moving,” I snapped. “We’ll easily catch up to them,” Rumble said. “It’s been raining. Their tracks will reveal them to us.” “Let’s go,” I said, furious at the needless deaths. “Why couldn’t they have forgotten MacKenzie and put themselves at Leonora’s feet instead?” “Some men can never let go of what drives them. And it’s MacKenzie’s wishes for chaos that drive these men.” For the thousandth time, I was grateful I hadn’t married that madman. But was it madness to crave power? If I had given the Darkside to MacKenzie and Donella, it would have saved a war, deaths, and I would have been free to go where I wanted. But I doubted the pair would ever have allowed that. We gathered our horses and followed tracks our scout found in the woods nearby. We kept on riding until we caught up to the group who had attacked the inn. By then, they had gotten drunk on stolen wine. I rode into their camp on Dubh, knocking over their bottles. They all managed to find their feet and their weapons, but my soldiers had already surrounded them. “You should have sided with Leonora,” I said without pity. “Kill them all for their crimes.” I didn’t feel guilty, and I didn’t hesitate either. These people had destroyed lives for nothing, and that made their lives null and void. I turned my back on the dead bodies even before my men had cut them all down. “Take the horses,” I said, and I rode on, this time, for the Green Court castle. Chapter 17 On the way to Brendan’s castle, my companions seemed invigorated by the battle. I understood it, but I tried not to encourage it. I had to be careful of the emotions I put across. Foster the wrong sentiments, and everything would be lost. “Are you well?” Rumble asked as we rode. “I know you were disturbed by what you witnessed at the inn, but you were quiet even before then.” “Just thinking about the cup,” I lied. “You have a lead.” “That nobody else has thought of?” I shrugged. “Doesn’t quite seem possible.” “Sometimes it’s about asking the right person the right questions.” “I love it when you’re sensible.” He smiled, a warm, loyal smile that reminded me why I was roaming around the faery realm when I could be hiding in the human one. But would people like Rumble remain loyal if I revealed what the blackthorn witch had told me? If her words were true and I was unwittingly helping Chaos, then maybe everyone would be better off if I wasn’t around. We continued our journey, meeting the occasional traveller along the way, more as we neared Brendan’s territory. At one point, I saw a bird fly up from within the woods, and I knew someone was sending a message that the Dark Queen was riding through the Great Forest as if it were no big deal. Even farther along, I thought I saw a flash of green rushing past. I wondered if it was a scout. It likely was, because before we even caught our first glimpse of Brendan’s castle, he came galloping toward us with Bran and a group of soldiers. “What are you doing out this way?” he asked when he grew near. “Getting info,” I replied. “What did you think I was doing?” He pulled up next to Dubh and grinned. “I couldn’t even imagine. Did you find anything out?” “Maybe. Have you heard a story about a lagoon guarded by mermaid princesses?” His forehead creased. “A lagoon? Perhaps. But it’s a mere story.” “Except what if it isn’t? The witch told me about it, said it may be an old truth, that there’s a hidden cave with wondrous treasures inside. I’m thinking the treasure.” “Even if it is true, how would we find it? I grew up in this realm, and I never came across any lagoon.” “But I have! I’ve been there before. When I was lost in the desert, I ended up at the stone statues, remember? Well, the blackthorn witch said that they guard the lagoon.” His expression shifted into one of excitement. “I remember. Could it really be?” “I’m going to find out either way,” I said firmly. “Good work getting the witch to talk,” he said, turning his horse to trot alongside me. “I know my own people tried to connect with her and failed.” “I sort of did her a favour.” “Why am I not surprised?” He thought for a moment. “But that doesn’t mean the cup is actually in the lagoon.” “I know. But at least we have a place to look now. Better than sitting in our castles waiting all day.” “I work hard,” he protested. “Were you coming to visit me?” “I thought you should know about the lagoon.” I yawned. “We’re on our way there now.” “It can wait another night, surely. Let the horses rest.” He gestured toward the extra horses. “All of them. I’ll travel with you on the morrow. If we find the cup, we can go to Drake together and save time.” I had to admit I was relieved at the thought of a good night’s sleep. “Sounds like a plan.” We rode back to his castle, where we were greeted by a standing guard and a sprite. Little Realtín flew around our heads, her light shining that soft golden colour I had seen only once before. “You’re here,” she squealed. “We missed you!” “I’ve only been gone an hour,” Brendan joked. “Oh, you!” She flew onto my shoulder. “I like when you’re where I can see you.” I laughed at her, secretly pleased. “You’re an idiot, Realtín. Where’s Grim?” “Inside. He has his nose in dusty old books as usual.” She wrinkled her own nose. “Brendan’s made him boring.” “See?” Brendan said. “I get the blame for everything.” I grinned at him, and I must have held his gaze for too long because Realtín let out a little shriek. “Cara Kelly! Have you been—” I muffled her words by plucking her off my shoulder and stuffing her down my top. “Shut up,” I whispered. She peeked out of my shirt to glare at the king. “You had better not—” “I know, I know,” he said. “If I hurt her, all her friends will come torture me. I’ve gotten the lecture already, thanks.” We went inside to his office, where Grim was waiting. I greeted him warmly, delighted to see him again. It always felt good when all of us were together, even if it was only for a little while. “I have news,” I told him. “A possible link to the cup. We could find it very soon.” Only then did I realise how tired he looked. “Good,” he said. “I can’t wait.” “Everything okay?” “We’re having some trouble of our own,” Brendan explained. “We lost good grazing ground two days ago. We may have offended Chaos.” “That just means we’re on the right track.” I tried not to think about the witch’s words. I wasn’t ready for any of us to make a sacrifice—whatever that really meant. We ate together as we caught up on each other’s comings and goings. When I told them about Ivan’s inn, Grim appeared saddened. “He helped us,” he said. “It’s a shame that led to his death.” “What about Leonora and Aiken?” Brendan said. “Are they still in the castle?” “They’re preparing to go home. Or rather, to take MacKenzie’s home as their own. They’ll have to fight for it, and they’ve lost the bulk of their army, but they still have loyal soldiers. I think that Leonora’s more relieved than sad about her father. She doesn’t hold it against us. At least, not yet.” “Let’s hope that doesn’t change,” Brendan said. Grim spent the next hour relaying stories he’d found that may or may not relate to the god of Chaos, but I was soon yawning. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just haven’t had much sleep lately.” “Of course,” the brownie said. “You should rest.” “We’re going to travel into the desert to start our own search for the cup tomorrow,” Brendan said. “I told Cara that if we find it, we’ll travel straight on to Drake.” “With so many angry soldiers around?” Grim looked worried. “I hope you’ll take a large troop with you.” “Perhaps,” Brendan said lightly. “Cara, I’ll escort you to your room.” He stood and held out his arm. “You look exhausted. “I feel exhausted.” I took his arm and said goodnight to the others. Brendan led me upstairs. “Do you want a bath or to sleep?” “Bath. I feel grimy.” “And would you like some help with that?” I grinned. “I’ll be fine by myself.” “Tragic.” He left me with Anya, who hadn’t been told I had arrived. She squealed when she saw me then insisted on doing my hair. I let her brush out the tangles when I got out of the bath. We talked about the children, but I was really dying to go to my room and sleep. Brendan was stoking the fire in the room when I slipped inside. “Hey,” I said. “I didn’t actually expect you to be here.” “Full of surprises,” he murmured. I moved to his side, and he swept me up in his arms. “This is your room, isn’t it?” I said with a groan. “King’s room. King’s rules.” “You dick.” He laughed and threw me on the bed. “Get in and sleep. You look exhausted. I’ll try to wake you for dinner, but if you still wish to rest, that’ll be fine, too.” “Thanks.” But when I crawled into bed, my eyes remained open. “Will you stay with me for a bit?” “Of course.” He lay on the bed next to me. He usually brushed my hair with his fingers, but as it was wet, he stroked my bare arm instead. “Are you excited about looking for the cup in the lagoon?” “Excited and nervous.” Although I was more anxious about the sacrifice I kept hearing about. What exactly would I have to do, if I chose to walk through the gate? “It’s good to look forward,” he said. “To think of the days when the blight will be just a bad memory.” “If we manage to find the cup and do whatever else needs to be done.” He kissed my cheek. “You’ve always found a way. Why would that stop now?” “I keep thinking of the children. They’ll never be healthy unless we pull this off. We don’t really have a choice, do we?” He slid lower in the bed until we were face-to-face. “You really love them.” “Of course I do. I love the Darkside, too. It’s my home now, and I don’t want to go back, but I don’t want to lose the human realm either. I want both.” “There’s nothing wrong with that.” He ran his hand across my cheek. “And perhaps one day we’ll figure out a way to have everything we want.” “I have to tell you something.” His hand stilled. “What’s wrong?” “The witch didn’t just tell me about the lagoon. She also said some things about me.” His expression blanked, becoming unreadable. “Such as?” I took a deep breath. “I’m a problem, Brendan. I’m feeding this blight, or Chaos, or something. Every time I get distracted from what we really need to do, he just gets stronger, and I—” He relaxed, and the look of relief in his eyes unsettled me. “Is that all? We’re all likely feeding Chaos, Cara. This realm has been chaotic for years. It’s not you. It’s life. And the path before us is straightening every day. We’re going to win. Don’t let a witch’s metaphors make you think otherwise.” “But what if—?” “Let her words go, Cara. As long as the three of us work together, we can do anything.” I wanted to ask him about sacrifice, but I was too afraid to hear his answer, so I changed the subject instead. Brendan’s voice was so soothing that my eyes tried to close, but I fought to keep them open. We spoke for a while about the future—one free of sickness—and when I fell silent, Brendan carried on talking, making me relaxed and sleepy. When he stopped and tried to move, I curled against him. He stayed with me until I really did fall asleep. But my dreams were full of voices screaming at me to make a choice, and when I woke up alone, my heart was pounding. Chapter 18 We set out early with a troop of soldiers on horses laden with supplies. There would be no luxurious marquees or carriages for us on this trip. I had instructed Grim to send a message to my court informing them of my whereabouts. We would be forced to step onto desert land to find the lagoon, and I only hoped I would remember the way. I had been close to what I hoped was the lagoon only once, while on the run from Sadler’s men. I had been riding Drake’s horse until I was shot in the shoulder with an arrow. I had fallen down a steep cliff and into the desert. Those on horseback couldn’t follow, and Drake and Brendan had led them away from me. I’d walked along the River Garbh, had my first encounter with the water fae, and even hid in a tree from Caellan and Fallon, who had since become my advisers. So much had changed. So much still would. From the river, I had followed the water fae’s directions and walked until I came to a crossroads of sorts. The flowers of the goddess Brighid appeared to be leading me, but I had left the path more than once. On one of those occasions, I had come across the grove where twelve stone statues had stood, poised as though in mid-dance. They weren’t as still as I had thought, and I had fled with the hand of one of those statues. Once I’d realised this, I’d dropped it, and the thing had crawled back to its owner. I hadn’t looked back a second time. We needed to find a route that would take our troops and horses as far as possible before the terrain grew too bad to traverse on horseback. But there were plenty of reasons the fae avoided the desert as much as possible. Tunnelers—tiny, vicious creatures who were too wild to swear fealty to any court—hid beneath the sand. The heat was yet another obstacle. Most of our soldiers likely hadn’t ventured so far into the desert before, but with sufficient water supplies and protection from the relentless heat, they would survive—I had, after all. But if my court happened to send people to help, so much the better. “We shouldn’t take everyone with us,” Rumble said as we rode. “We should set up relief points so we can constantly pass water down the line.” “Sounds a bit inefficient. I mean, I made it through the desert with no supplies.” He gave me a wry look. “Your luck is beyond any of ours.” Grinning, I urged Dubh on. He rode as though he had never been injured. With Rumble following, I reached Brendan and Bran. “It gets pretty hot out there, Bran. We’ll have to get you a pretty sun hat to protect your complexion.” He shot me an exasperated look. “I don’t burn.” “Everyone burns.” I had gotten some pretty epic tans in the faery realm during my time there. I hadn’t wanted them, but I knew my face was currently as deep a shade of brown as my arms. We followed the route Brendan and Arlen had figured out based on my tale, and by the time we finally grew near to the desert, everyone was getting uncomfortable. Finally, the heat grew too much for most of the soldiers to bear, and Brendan ordered a stop right outside the desert. “We’ll rest during the day and move at night,” he said. “I think that’ll be best for all of our sakes.” I was impatient to keep going, but the soldiers appeared to be so relieved at Brendan’s suggestion that I couldn’t argue. We set up camp, and most of the soldiers dozed or at least lazed in the shade. I, however, was restless. “Come,” Brendan said. “I’ll teach you to hunt.” “I’m not killing a defenceless little animal,” I said. He laughed at my expression. “But you’ll eat it.” “Well, it’s already dead then, isn’t it?” “At least let me teach you how to shoot an arrow, seeing as how half those in the realm seem to have your name written on them.” “Vix has already tried,” I said, but I got to my feet nonetheless. “Like a million times.” He nodded at Rumble. “Maybe tell your bodyguard to stay behind this time.” I bit down on my grin and did as I was told for a change. We wandered into the forest together. “Why is there even a desert here so close to the forest?” I complained. “They say a godlike sea creature was once the recipient of so many sacrifices that he grew large enough to swallow an entire ocean. So the fae drained the sea away to kill him, but still he survived, dried up in the pit of a giant hole. They covered him with earth instead, and he sucked all of the moisture from the dirt, leaving sand behind.” “You don’t have to make stuff up, you know.” He laughed and wrapped his arm around me as the trail narrowed. “How would you even know the difference?” “Are you really going to try to teach me?” I was suspicious. “If you like.” He looked at me. “Or we could go for a swim.” It was so hot that I was constantly sweaty. “A swim would be acceptable. As long as neither the water nor anything that lives in it tries to drown me.” “I’ll be there. There’s nothing to worry about.” But as we walked, he gave me pointers on the bow and arrow anyway. “I just have no aim,” I said. “I can’t make it go in the direction I want it to.” “Nobody can on their first try. That’s why you practice. My mother made me practice every day. Archery, sword-fighting, dancing—” “She made you dance?” “Yes. It’s why I’m such a beautiful dancer now,” he said sarcastically. “She wanted me to be well-rounded. I had a teacher who taught me to paint, another for music—” “You play?” “About as much as you interrupt people’s sentences. I haven’t since… I came back. I wouldn’t know where to begin.” “I’d like to hear you. I don’t want to hire a million teachers for Scarlet just because she’s an heir to a throne. Why can’t I just hire you for everything?” “You don’t have to hire me. I’m already here.” I looked up at him in surprise. He always had been. “There.” He pointed ahead. “There’s a large spring. Big enough to swim a little, at least.” The trees were too thick to see the water yet. “One day I’m going to visit every bit of land here. I want to see everything.” “Nobody sees everything. Where would the mysteries be then? I mean, we’re already ruining a lot of great stories by tracking down this lagoon. It’s supposed to be a myth.” “Why?” He moved a low-hanging branch out of the way and gestured for me to go first. “A place where gods bathed or some such nonsense. The lagoon is known as the waters of immortality in those stories. In others, a broken-hearted human was forgotten by the faery she fell in love with and wept until her tears filled the lagoon and drowned her. In that story, it’s known as the waters of sorrow. On the island I landed on to find the first tree—which is called the tree of life there, by the way—I was told they use the water of life to care for the trees. To us, this lagoon would probably be the equivalent of that.” “Think it’s the same thing then?” I asked. “Could the water from the lagoon help the first trees survive here?” “We have stories for everything, Cara. It doesn’t mean any of them are right.” “Let’s hope some of them are. Or we’re just wasting our time here.” “We’ll make our own story in that case. And one day we’ll be legendary.” “You and that ego again,” I said lightly. “You haven’t talked much about your trip away. I thought you’d be full of stories.” “I assumed Bran would have spoken about everything worth hearing already.” I glanced up at him. “Was it really that bad?” “I left people behind in a land where daoine sídhe are so frightened that they live underground like ants. We barely made it out of there, and when we did…” He sighed. “It wasn’t an easy trip in any sense of the word. The more we learn, the less we understand. Sometimes, I wonder if any of this is true. If there really is a sleeping god just waiting to be awoken or vanquished.” “Don’t give up on me now,” I said gently. “We’re almost there.” He smiled. “I truly hope so.” We reached the spring. The air was suffocating. “It’s so freaking hot. I can barely stand it.” “Stop wearing black and you won’t suffer as much.” “I’m the mascot for my court. I can’t wear anything else.” I stripped off my top and flung it aside, eager to get under the water. “Steady on,” he said mockingly. I pulled him closer to me then lifted his shirt over his head. His skin glistened with sweat, and when we had slipped out of our trousers, he grabbed my hand and made me run with him. We leapt into the spring in our underwear, likely cannonballing half of the water back out again. It was warm but refreshing against my heated limbs. “This is the best,” I said before I dove underwater. It was ridiculously clear, and I could see water flowers swaying at the bottom. But no monsters, and hopefully, no oblivion. I broke through the surface again. “Seriously, the best.” Brendan did a lazy backstroke along the length of the spring. He looked as though he belonged there. “Did you have a swimming teacher, too?” I asked, following him. “No, but I used to play with the water fae in the river near my father’s home when I was a child.” “That sounds dangerous.” Treading water, he let me catch up to him. “I was the golden child, remember? Everyone loved me.” “Everyone loves Scarlet,” I said worriedly. “Does that mean they’ll turn on her when she grows up?” “Not everyone turned on me.” He pulled me closer to him. The water wasn’t deep, but it was surprisingly buoyant. “My people mourned me when Sadler banished my soul to the Fade. I had a clever enemy who needed the help of a god to ruin me. Most people respected me, even when I didn’t deserve it. That was probably the problem. I never learned. They just accepted that I knew best. Sometimes I think Sadler did me a favour by teaching me a lesson. I came back wiser.” “You deserve respect now.” “I’d rather have some uninterrupted time with you.” He ran his hands from my shoulders to my wrists, his gaze smouldering with intent. My skin warmed from more than just the heat of the sun. “We’re alone now,” I said, holding his gaze. I moved my hands to his hips, across his stomach, and to his chest. His body was battle-scared, just like mine. He gathered me to him, brushing my wet hair over my shoulder as he leaned in to kiss me. I eagerly met his lips, but a flash caught my attention. A flicker of light or something. I broke away and rested my cheek against Brendan’s neck as though about to whisper in his ear, all the while surreptitiously glancing at the forest beyond the stream. I kissed his neck. “Don’t freak out,” I whispered, “but somebody is watching us.” He ran light fingers down my spine. “Where?” “Behind you. There’s a bunch of ferns between two pine trees. He’s hidden there. I saw his sword glint in the sun, and now I can see his outline.” “Maybe it’s Bran or Rumble,” Brendan said. “And I will kill them.” “Watching us? I doubt it.” “You stay here. I’ll make sure he’s alone and then sneak behind him. Can you swim with him looking at you?” I gave him my best smile. “Of course I can.” “Fine,” he said loudly. “I’ll prepare a picnic, and we can stay here longer.” Shaking his head, he left me in the water. He swam to the shallow end then walked off, disappearing quickly. Humming to myself, I floated on the water with my eyes half closed. My heart beat fast, and I kept a wary eye on the undergrowth surrounding the stream. Whoever was watching us was still there, waiting like a creepy little weirdo. I hoped Brendan knocked him on the head and cracked his skull. I fumed as I floated, unable to relax. And then there was a loud crash, and two figures came flying through the undergrowth. Brendan rolled over with our little stalker, and they both fell into the stream. I swam closer, intending to help Brendan, but both men sank under the water, and neither of them appeared to be coming back up. I ducked under the surface to see what was happening. Brendan was attempting to pin the man, who had daggers in each hand. I swam down and stuck my fingers in the man’s eyes. Brendan twisted one of the man’s wrists, and he dropped one of the daggers. I grabbed it before it floated away, then held it to the man’s throat. His face had turned red as he struggled to breathe. But Brendan was able to manoeuvre the man above the water. The three of us burst through the surface, gasping for air. “Who are you?” Brendan said with a snarl, shaking the man. “A soldier,” the man spat. “Get your hands off me.” Brendan looked at me, almost apologetically. “I’ll have to kill him.” “Wait!” he shouted. “I was one of Donella’s men. Some of us escaped from the battle. We’ve been hiding out less than a mile away. It was my turn to hunt, but I got… distracted.” I climbed out of the water then nodded at Brendan. He lifted the man into the air and flung him out of the pool. I knelt over the man. He’d lost his other dagger at that point. “Creep.” “I didn’t see anything,” he protested. Brendan joined me and hauled him to his feet. “We should take him back with us. Go get dressed, Cara. I’ll watch him.” I dressed quickly, practically already dry from the sun. Brendan dragged the man over to his clothes. While he dressed, I kept close to the man in case he tried to run. A sudden crack sounded nearby, catching my attention. Taking advantage, the man kicked my leg, knocking me down, then ran. I scrambled to my feet and chased after him, Brendan close behind. For some reason, I didn’t want Brendan to be the one to catch him, so when I sensed Brendan catching up, I threw myself at the man, full-on rugby tackle style, and we both went flying into a bunch of dead leaves and bushes. I heard Brendan’s laughter, and I took it out on the man struggling with me. I punched him and tried to pin him. When Brendan came over, the man relaxed, knowing he was well and truly caught. We hauled him back to camp, Brendan constantly teasing me. When he noticed me limping, he asked what was wrong. “He kicked me, remember?” “I had forgotten.” Brendan thumped the man’s thigh. “Now you’re even.” The man shouted in surprise and pain. I shook my head at Brendan, amused. “I never hit her so hard,” the man cried. “What a wimp,” I scoffed. “We should kill him just for betraying his friends,” Brendan added. The man whimpered. We were soon back at our camp, the man thrown into the centre of a circle of our soldiers. He looked around in fear. “He tells us he belongs to a group of traitors not far from here,” Brendan said. “How many of you are there?” “Twenty, tops,” the man said, eager to please. “He’s going to lead some of you to them,” Brendan said, lifting the man to his feet. “Aren’t you?” “Y-yes, of course,” the man spluttered. “Tonight, when it’s dark and cool,” Brendan said. “Until then, watch him closely.” He dropped the man and strode off. I followed. When we had both sat down next to our things, he said, “That wasn’t the most relaxing swim I’ve ever had.” “At least it gives us a chance to get rid of yet another group of arseholes,” I murmured. “This heat makes me so lazy. I don’t want to move.” He rested his hand on my knee. “You can sleep until later.” I relaxed against my rug. “So can you.” He lay down and rolled on his side to look at me. “I wasn’t sure, you know.” I blinked at him. “Sure about what?” “You. I wasn’t sure that you were certain. About me, I mean. We’ve come so close to being more to each other many times, and it’s never played out. I thought of you a lot when I was on the ship, and I knew what I wanted. I knew I couldn’t have it, but I knew what it was. And I didn’t believe that you knew, that you were yet ready to decide what you wanted.” “Until?” I pressed. “Until I woke up, and you were there. The look in your eyes as you gazed down on me.” He reached out and touched my cheek. “Nobody’s ever looked at me like that before.” “It was the first time I’d seen you in months, and I wasn’t totally sure that I hadn’t just killed you. It was kind of an overwhelming moment.” “I’m not prepared to let go of this so easily. If you change your mind…” “Stop. I know I was afraid before. Between Scarlet and Drake and my family, I felt as though I had to be extra careful, to protect myself from anything that might hurt. A part of me will always be wary of Scarlet’s heart, never mind mine, and that’s my issue.” “So what changed?” “I changed, so slowly I didn’t even notice it really. By the time I did, it seemed as though it were too late. I hated every moment of thinking that you were going to marry Yvette. Though it didn’t matter who it was. If you were married, you wouldn’t be my friend anymore. That’s just the way it works here. I spent a long time too scared to move on, but I’ve also known I had no future with Drake, and that I didn’t want one anymore. By the time he sent me away, you had already gotten under my skin. And he had already cracked whatever had been between him and me. When I saw him with Sorcha, it died completely. I realised I couldn’t hang on to it anymore, not for the sake of my daughter having a ‘real’ family. Because what’s real? What other people think is normal and right? Or what makes you happy?” “Do you regret how everything happened then?” “I regret… the pain we’ve all put each other through, and the time I’ve wasted… fixing myself, but I don’t regret not ending up with Drake. Whatever we had between us just wasn’t healthy. Not for either of us. He’s not okay, Brendan, and I need… I need someone who’s okay enough for both of us.” Then I gave him a mischievous grin. “Of course the stealthy making-her-child-love-me plan probably worked for you, too.” He grinned back. “It’s not so hard to like a child. They’re small and sweet and they say and do humorous things. But caring for Scarlet has nothing to do with caring for you. I love you for you, not your child or your crown. I’ve told you things I’ve never told another soul. When I was trapped in Drake’s body, everything was confusing, but I learned a few things.” “Like what?” “Like that the king thought he needed to taste the world to be whole, but he really needed to keep the girl to show him how to live again. I don’t want to be the king, but there’s something so satisfying about doing this right the second time around that it eases the guilt of what I did wrong on my first try.” “You’re going to need a real heir of your own someday,” I said softly. “You’re going to be under pressure every day because of it. They won’t accept Scarlet, not if it means the Darkside is part of the package.” “Putting an end to the god of Chaos, and thus, the blight, will give me a lengthy grace period.” “You’re such an idiot sometimes.” I reached over to kiss him. “I’m pretty grateful for that. I might actually start taking myself seriously if you weren’t.” “Happy to please.” He covered his yawn with his hand. “Come, rest against me. We’ve still got far to go.” And promises to keep, I thought as I fell asleep next to him. * * * I accompanied the group that left that evening, along with Rumble, Bran, and Brendan. The rest remained behind to maintain camp and seek out alternative sources of water while scouts went on ahead to see if the way was clear. Donella’s traitorous soldier was still shaking, but something cocky rested behind his eyes, maybe an assurance that his people would win the battle. The camp was where the man had said it would be, but there were twice as many men. Still, they were caught unawares—and without a leader—so our people soon won the battle. In the meantime, the man who led us there had been killed by one his own. Not that I blamed them. Those who surrendered were taken alive. I could have shipped them back to Leonora at her father’s home, but I thought that perhaps they would come in useful in the desert. We forced them to walk, carrying their own supplies. We cleared out their camp of anything useful and headed back to our own. On the way, a messenger bird burst from the trees at roughly the place our camp had been, and that bothered me. “Rumble, get somebody to go ahead and find out what that message was,” I said. “Concerned?” Brendan asked. “Just wondering if we’ve missed anything important.” But there was no message. It had been a cry for help, or more likely, a warning. Our soldier who had gone ahead released two arrows into the air. “That’s a warning signal,” Rumble said. “Something’s happened,” Brendan said. I looked back at the captives. More than one of them wore a smirk. “We need to get back.” A large number of our soldiers had forged ahead. The rest of us were left with the captives. We hurried them on, desperate to see what was going on. When we returned to camp, we discovered that a number of scattered soldiers had joined up with a second branch of traitors—likely part of an earlier agreement—and attacked our camp once the bulk of it had left. We lost some good warriors, but our troops annihilated the majority of our enemies before they could run again. We had taken down two groups of rogue soldiers, but there were likely still more in the forest. Our night was spent sorting out captives, organising watches, and setting up better defences. We established a base camp, and from there we would head out in small groups to find ways to the lagoon. That night had been wasted, but at least we had more supplies and horses. By dawn, we were still working on arrangements. Travel would likely have to wait for yet another night. I was exhausted, and when Brendan gently coaxed me to my mat to rest, I was more than willing. He lay next to me and stroked my hair until I slept, but I soon woke to discover him gone. He had covered me in his cloak and left to work just as hard as any other soldier. Smiling, I closed my eyes and fell back asleep, but again my dreams were assaulted by things I wasn’t sure I wanted to understand. I woke before darkness fell, hungry and grumpy, and wondered how much longer my journey would be. Chapter 19 “Are you all right?” Brendan asked as we trudged through soft sand in which we sank up to our ankles. “You seem quiet.” “Just conserving my energy.” I had been thinking about the blackthorn witch and her stupid prophesies. Sacrifice had been the buzz word on my very first night with the fae, and I had a feeling we were about to come full circle. I was tougher and stronger than the last time I had been through the desert, but I had to move slowly so the rest of the group could keep up. The pace made me restless, while the heat left me mentally exhausted. Combined with my worries about sacrifice, traitors, the taint in my own veins, and the fate of the children back home, I was weary of everything. “Is there something bothering you?” he asked. “You’ve been decidedly pensive lately when you think nobody is looking.” I glanced at him. If he was worried, then I had to at least give him a half-truth. “I’m just thinking about what will happen when we have all four treasures and are led… wherever we’re going to be led. Don’t mind me.” “I worry, too, but I feel that you were brought here for a reason, Cara.” “Don’t,” I said with a laugh. “I’m not the chosen one.” “Perhaps we’re all chosen. Or rather, given the chance to be chosen. Perhaps the rest of us have only failed in the things we were meant to do.” “Now who’s being pensive?” I teased. He grinned, and his entire face lit up. “It’s catching, Darksider.” I saluted him and sped up. We had left the horses at base camp to rest them, and walking seemed so tedious in comparison to Dubh’s epic stride. Little camps had been set up in anticipation of our arrival, and we stopped for short rests, especially when the heat grew oppressive. “Doing okay there, Rumble?” I asked on one such break. My loyal bodyguard had been quiet for a long time, and he hadn’t so much as cracked a smile at any of the stupid jokes I had made on the journey. “May I speak to you?” he asked. “Of course.” We drew away from camp to speak alone. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I must know. Are we to be absorbed by another court? Are you going to give him the Darkside?” I blinked a couple of times, startled. “What are you talking about? You can’t give away a kingdom.” “Then what will happen? There have been rumours about you and the Green Court for many months, even before we met. I suspected it myself, but now I see it, see how you feel, and I wonder, what will happen to us?” I shook my head. “Rumble, you don’t understand. We’re not changing our courts. We’re not joining together or anything else. We know that wouldn’t be appreciated, and we’ve never planned on anything remotely like that. We care about each other, and we enjoy spending time together, but we’re not, like, getting married and dissolving the Dark Court. That would be ridiculous.” “And when he needs an heir?” My face fell. I had wondered that myself. I couldn’t give him a child only to have it taken away to another court, and Scarlet couldn’t be his temporary heir forever. He would have to turn to someone else eventually, and the thought of that made my skin crawl. “We’ve both agreed that doing what’s best for our courts is our priority. And right now, our priority is to target the god of Chaos and end him once and for all.” “You mean send him back to sleep,” Rumble corrected me. “Nobody knows how to kill a god.” “Maybe we’ll do one better this time. Come on, let’s get back into the shade. It’s sweltering out here.” But as we returned to camp, I did wonder how the hell Brendan and I ever thought we could be happy and responsible. * * * The veritable oasis in the desert was exactly as I remembered it. The golden arch of russet and orange leaves overhanging the pathway looked spectacular. “It hasn’t changed a bit,” I whispered, in awe at the thought of being so close to the very thing we needed to save the realm. “This is where you wandered?” Brendan asked. “Of all the luck.” He shot me a sardonic glance. “Again.” It was true. We had been wandering for two days trying to figure out the route I had travelled. And then suddenly it had appeared as though a mirage in the desert. In fact, I still wasn’t sure how we had missed it. A huge forested area bordering the desert, and yet we hadn’t been able to see it. In fact, we had appeared to be surrounded by sand only five minutes beforehand. Magic had to be at work. “It must be a glamour of some kind,” Bran said. “This just wasn’t here before.” “Maybe it only shows up at certain times of day. Like your brains.” He glared at me for as long as he dared. “Now that’s just rude.” I reached up to ruffle his hair. “I know. Should we check it out?” “We’ve come this far,” Brendan said warily. “Perhaps not all of us should pass, just in case.” We took our bodyguards and half of the soldiers with us then stepped under the natural arch. The leaves hung low, glossy and luscious, and an earthy smell hung in the air. Somehow, it reminded me of my first night with the fae. My skin prickled as we walked along the path. I had considered seeking refuge in that place once before, and I had run in terror from it before long. Sucking in an anxious breath, I led the way to the clearing. Just as before, the grass was cut neatly, as though regularly shorn, and in the centre stood a ring of statues that sometimes moved. “Dancing princesses.” Bran stepped onto the grass and flinched. “Did you see something move?” “Just be careful,” I said. “If the stories are true and they’re guardians, then they’re not going to want us to spoil the lagoon or take the cup, right?” “If the cup is here,” Rumble said. “At least we’ll know. Either way, it’ll be another option ticked off.” “Let’s go,” Brendan said. “This place leaves me uneasy. Let’s find the lagoon, get the cup, and be gone from here.” He looked a little pasty. Was he afraid? I had to admit there was an eerie atmosphere, but that might have been because I’d actually seen the statues move once. We carried on nonetheless. As we approached, I noted that the statue I had accidentally broken last time looked whole again. “There’s another path beyond the statues,” Bran said, squinting. “We should try it and see if it leads to the lagoon.” “You first, Brony,” I whispered, growing uneasy myself. I felt as though the statues were very slowly shifting to get a good look at us. But they hadn’t stirred at all. An illusion, I told myself. We passed the statues without any issues. I breathed a sigh of relief. I couldn’t handle anything else coming to life. We reached the path. “Here we go,” Brendan said, his eyes shining. “This is—” One of the soldiers let out a shriek of fear. As soon as we’d stepped onto the path, the statues had begun to move, slowly at first, but then quickly, aggressively, as though about to kill us all. “We’ll hold them off,” Rumble said. “You two, go for the cup, and then we can all run.” I didn’t hesitate. I gripped Brendan’s hand and ran down the path. There was no way I wanted to jump into a fight with creatures made of stone, princesses or no. “Huh,” Brendan said, stopping to take a second look behind him. “I would never have bet on that story being true.” “Brendan!” “I’m coming!” We raced away, Brendan outpacing me, until we reached the end of the path and came out to more sand and a wide lagoon that seemed to reach out to the sea. “That’s impossible,” Brendan whispered. “The sea is miles from this place, surely.” “Magic,” I said, waving my hands. “Old magic.” He sounded awed. He spun around in a circle. “Do you see? Not a sign of the taint anywhere.” “Think that’s down to the cup?” “Perhaps.” He grinned at me. “Or perhaps this is simply another world, or at least part of one, stuffed in the back of ours.” “What, like money down the back of a sofa?” I said sarcastically. When he looked confused, I shook my head. “Never mind.” “Where would you hide if you were a cup?” he asked. “Nowhere. Why would a cup want to hide?” I tutted in exasperation. “We need to stop messing around. The others are getting in front of moving statues for us. Let’s go under the water and find this bloody cave.” “The lagoon is huge. How are we going to find it?” I was about to answer when I heard a splash. I looked to the water and met the gaze of a sorrowful woman. No, not a woman—she had gills and fins, and a mermaid tail. Her hair was long and flowing, and her skin so translucent, it was almost blue. “Are you guarding the lagoon?” I asked, ignoring the way Brendan’s mouth had dropped open. She shook her head. I moved toward the water. “Careful,” Brendan murmured. When my feet touched the waves, the woman sighed, tears rolling down her cheeks. I felt her breath in the waves and shivered. This was some magic. “I’m not a guardian,” she said at last. “I’m a mother, mourning her children.” “What happened to your children?” “He turned them to stone to punish them. And he keeps their salvation just out of my reach, to punish me.” “The twelve statues are your daughters?” Brendan asked. “Yes.” More of her tears fell. “And their scales are close by. My daughters would be restored if they could just touch those scales again.” She looked even sadder. “But they would die before they reached the water. Woe is now my only name.” I exchanged a glance with Brendan and nodded. “Where are these scales?” he asked. “In a cave. There’s no water. I can’t reach them, and I’m forbidden from entering the cave. My daughters suffer while I wait, while I—” “Is there anything else in the cave?” I asked. “Many things. But none more important than the scales.” “What if we went to the cave and got them for you? We’d like to check out this cave.” “And we’d be more than happy to return the scales to your daughters,” Brendan added. “We’re not alone. Our soldiers could carry the girls to the water in time to save them.” “You would do that?” she asked. “But why? I’ve nothing to offer. I’ve no deals to make.” “Sometimes, there doesn’t need to be a deal,” Brendan said. When the woman looked suspicious, I said, “You can show us where the cave is. That can be the deal we make.” She considered that then nodded. She dove under the water then popped her head back up a moment later. “Come on, then,” she said impatiently. Brendan and I exchanged a glance then shrugged. We stripped to our underwear and jumped into the water. We were both strong swimmers, but the waves had seemed to still when we’d made the deal with the woman. It was as though she breathed through the lagoon, made it move with her. We swam down, and the water remained clear, letting light shine through to the bottom. It was an odd sensation, but I didn’t feel short of breath, no matter how long I was under. Was the water even real? The woman looked even more beautiful under the water, her hair floating behind her and her fins glistening as her tail moved gracefully. Finally, we reached a little gap that—according to the mermaid’s insistent gestures—we had to climb through. The way was narrow, too narrow to swim, but we made it through, out of the water and into a cave. It was lit from a couple of streams of sunlight from somewhere so far above that I couldn’t make out how high the ceiling was. Brendan and I stepped into a treasure trove. It was like Aladdin’s cave, full of gold and jewels and boxes and chests. There were paintings, though how they’d gotten there unharmed, I couldn’t imagine. There were old coins, gold mostly, and even women’s clothing that looked as though it came from many centuries before. “Do you know what this is?” I said, panting. “This is a freaking pirate cove, a pirate’s stash. How did it all get here?” “I’ve no idea,” Brendan said, touching the helm of a golden suit of arms. “But there’s plenty of it. It’s worth a fortune.” “So where’s the cup? And the scales? Gross, by the way.” “I think the story is rather beautiful,” he said. “I wonder if they really are princesses.” I looked up from a music box made of ivory and pearls to glare at him, but he was already laughing at me. Shaking my head, I set myself the monumental task of searching every box in the cave. It took us a while, but eventually we found the scales. Brendan held them up in surprise. “I think this is it.” The scales were like chain mail made out of what I imagined dragon scales would look like. “So they just… put them on, and hey, presto, they’re a mermaid again? That does not seem legit.” “If that’s how the story goes,” he said. “Let’s keep looking for the cup.” But there was no longing for me in the cave, no feeling that we should be there. “I don’t think it’s here. We’d sense it if it was.” We kept looking for a while, but in the end, worry over our people we’d left fighting stone statues prompted us to leave. We clambered back out of the cave and down the narrow exit. Brendan had found a bag and put all of the scales in it. He carried the bag in his hands as we swam. The woman tugged it out of his grasp, opened it, and began to cry—which made the waves build again. She swam rapidly to the surface, and we followed her as fast as we could. Above the water, she was waiting impatiently. “Here.” She pushed the bag toward us. “Get my daughters. You promised.” “What we were looking for wasn’t in the cave,” I said. “It was a cup that—” “That wasn’t the deal,” the woman said sharply. After everything we had done… “Fine,” Brendan said as I opened my mouth to protest. “Cara, let’s go help her daughters.” We got out of the water and struggled to pull our clothes on over wet bodies. “You don’t have to help them,” Brendan said. “She didn’t help us.” “She showed us the cave. What would you do?” “I wouldn’t miss a chance to see twelve princesses,” he said with a sly smirk. “You?” “As if I’d deprive you. Let’s go deal with this, then it’s back to the drawing board to figure out our next move.” We took the scales with us and jogged back to the others. They were unharmed but having a great deal of trouble defending against opponents they couldn’t hurt. “We have their scales,” Brendan called out. “Help us give them back their skins. When they turn, they’ll start dying out of the water, so we must carry them back home.” One by one, soldiers grabbed scales and threw them over the stone statues. Slowly, the statues stilled then seemed to melt away. Underneath it all were very pretty mermaid girls, and when the men carried each of them back to the water, I followed to see the reunion between mother and daughters. The waves crashed against the shore, stirred up by the faery woman’s anxiety. When she saw her children, she cried out in a high, dolphin-like pitch, and one by one the girls replied in weak, screechy cries that seemed to reassure their mother. When she had gathered all twelve around her, she looked at me and shouted, “The cup was here, but a woman came and took it. She promised to help me, but she lied.” And then she turned in the water with a flip of her tail and swam out of the lagoon, followed by her daughters. “Well,” Brendan said. “I guess we should get back to camp and finish this up.” We left the lagoon and the grove and found more of our soldiers waiting in the desert. Their mouths gaped in wonder at our appearance. “You came out of nowhere,” one said. “What are you talking about?” Brendan said impatiently. “We just stepped out of the grove.” “What grove?” Bran said in an odd tone. I looked behind me, and sure enough, the trees were gone. We walked around for a while, trying to find a way past the magic. So much for using the water to tend to the trees of life. “It’s truly gone,” Brendan said. “It was only here while the twelve mermaid princesses were cursed. Now that’s all over.” “One lead down, only, oh, a million or so to go.” “Ever the pessimist,” Brendan said. “Let’s return.” “Where?” I said glumly. “What do we do next?” “Track down the cup,” Brendan said, sounding surprised. “What else?” “Didn’t you hear her?” I demanded. “The cup’s gone. Somebody already took it.” “Took it?” Rumble said, sounding shocked. “Who?” “Yvette, most likely,” Brendan said. “I am personally going to visit her home and ransack the place. The cup must be there. Not in the library, or she would never have let us roam about so freely in there, but perhaps in her personal quarters. The cup is out there, and I’m not giving up until we find it.” “I have to go home,” I said. “I need to see the children and check if Levin has come up with anything.” “We’ll communicate by bird,” he said. “That seems to be the fashion all of a sudden. When you leave, perhaps send a bird to Drake updating him on the situation. It might be better coming from you.” “I doubt he wants to hear from me.” But perhaps the photos Zoe had taken would make him forget he hated me. We travelled back through the desert and finally made it to base camp. The soldiers there were disappointed to hear what had happened but eager to travel onward with Brendan. “Rumble and I will find our own way home,” I said to Brendan before I left. “Now be careful.” Rumble and I took our soldiers and travelled along a shortcut close to the desert to traverse the mountain path. Our people had been busy restoring the bridge for us, and we crossed with ease. Back at the castle, I had a tearful reunion with the children then received updates from my advisers. Everything had gone smoothly in my absence, but we had no further leads. While the children napped, I headed up to the broken tower, where I fed the crows. They stuck around, fuelling my reputation as the reincarnation of an old warrior queen. As I watched the birds fight over the feed, I thought about something the Watcher had said to me once before. I’d asked him how he knew things, and he had said something about the birds keeping him informed. I had assumed he meant with messages attached to their legs, but what if he meant he could actually communicate with them? After all, he was hidden away, this mysterious being who was neither human nor fae. And he’d said he Watched many things, so what if he meant he watched through the eyes of the birds themselves? Even one of the Miacha had mentioned the birds knowing our every move, insinuating that they passed the information on somehow. Thrilled by the connection I had made, I cleared my throat, feeling a little stupid because of what I was about to do. “Crows,” I said. “If you can understand me, can you find Dagda’s cup? It was in the lagoon of… sorrows, and somebody took it before we arrived. We need it to heal the land. If you find who took it, and you can communicate with the Watcher, let him know. Maybe he could tell us.” One of the birds looked up at me, but the others ignored me. And when they all flew away as one, I stared after them, feeling as though I had failed again. Chapter 20 With no other choices immediately available, I settled back into court life. But it was a frustrating stasis when others continued to search for something that might shed light on our problems. The crows disappeared for a time, and I dared to hope that they were helping us, too. Faery animals seemed to understand plenty that we didn’t, so maybe there was still a chance. Blue Eyes finally turned up, along with the Silver Court members who had been stranded with her—all except for Valys. “She ran in a panic when we were on our way to the Miacha’s home,” one of the daoine sídhe explained. “We found her body later.” “I’m sorry for her.” I mentally started planning what I could do for the child she had left in the Silver Court. “She was a fool,” the daoine sídhe said haughtily. “She would have been safe with us.” “Are you going to stay with us?” I asked. “Or are you all returning home?” “We’ll stay until we can escort the child home.” She paused for a moment then said, “Unless we are called back to court sooner.” Soon Conn, too, returned, with Setanta. He cut through the crowds waiting to see me so he could greet us. “You’re back,” I said. “I wasn’t sure if I’d see either of you here again.” “His mother thanks you for the chance to see her son, but she fears for his health away from court.” Conn’s gaze darted toward Scarlet as he spoke. My daughter almost certainly kept the tainted from death, but I’d begun to wonder if Fiadh’s aspirations included her son marrying a princess someday. I decided to watch Setanta more closely after that, but with everything else going on, I couldn’t keep watch all of the time. I was on my way upstairs with Vix the following afternoon when I heard cries of pain and a loud crash from the nursery. Not again. Everyone in the corridor froze for an instant at the sound, as if it heralded another war. Then I was running, Vix close behind me. We burst through the nursery doors, and then I was the one rooted to the spot as I took in the scene. Lily sat in her bouncer, her cheeks red and wet from her tears. Scarlet stood in front of her, her palms wide open, and an unsettling look of ferocity in her eyes that I had never witnessed before. She glared at Setanta, who had been knocked from his wheelchair, a bruise already marking his left eye. Eithne stood between them as if to shield the boy, and a nursemaid from the Silver Court cowered in the corner, Morgan clutched in her arms. But all of that was nothing compared to the electric current of magic in the room and the sight of every piece of furniture, including Setanta’s wheelchair, floating in mid-air. “Stop this,” I said firmly after a moment’s hesitation. Nothing happened. “Scarlet.” Scarlet closed her fists, and the furniture fell, every piece swerving to miss the people in the room. Nobody had been hurt, but my heart raced nonetheless. “What happened here?” I demanded. “An accident,” Eithne said quickly. “It was all an accident.” And that was all I could get out of anyone, including the nursemaid. I took Morgan from her. “If you can’t take care of them, then get out,” I snarled, frustration calling to the darkness swirling inside me. I shrugged it off before it could take hold. “Leave. Now.” The young faery mumbled something before fleeing. I was certain I saw relief in her eyes. I looked at Vix, who shrugged. “Some don’t have the backbone for this job,” she said. “Can’t tell the truth for fear of offending old blood, most likely.” She lifted Lily, who had already calmed, into her arms and checked her over. “A bruise on her arm.” “This won’t happen again,” I said, addressing the children. Setanta looked sullen. “I didn’t—” “Never again.” I called for Conn. “Take Setanta and Eithne outside for a while.” He obeyed without question, but I wondered what he would have done if he had been in the nursery. I sank into a chair once the three of them had left. Bekind jumped onto my lap and purred before running off again, likely to spy on Conn and the others. “What am I supposed to do?” I said aloud. “Find better staff,” Vix said. “Take Lily. I’ll put Morgan in his crib. He’s exhausted.” We exchanged children, then I beckoned Scarlet to me. She came willingly, but there was a defiance about her that I wasn’t used to. I hugged both girls then sat back to look at Scarlet. “You can’t hurt people. It’s dangerous.” She stared at me, and I wondered if she understood. “But you’re a great big sister.” I kissed her forehead. “When everything goes back to normal, we’re going to have a holiday. We’re going to be normal.” I bit back on the temptation to make it a promise. * * * Dymphna returned to us and spent a lot of time training Eithne—sometimes with the visiting daoine sídhe. The mother and daughter had a tight, strong relationship, despite the many absences. That gave me hope for me and the girls. And Morgan, if he was allowed to stay with us. I didn’t think of him as Drake’s child, or even as Sorcha’s. I saw him as Scarlet’s brother—her family—and I wanted her to have the chance to know that family. And I feared if I didn’t love Morgan, then nobody else would think to. Dubh had fully recovered from his leg injury, and the cú sídhe were both back to full health and able to be around the children at all times. The destruction from the battles with MacKenzie was being repaired, but there was little anyone could do about the damage to the land caused by the blight. Vix and Bekind came to me every evening to discuss what our little network of spies had learned around the realm. “Nobody appears to know where the cup is,” Bekind said. “And they’re all talking about what comes after the blight, which means the realm is generally confident that their rulers will deal with this issue promptly.” “We’ve found a number of locations where MacKenzie’s army had been hidden by sympathisers. We’re rooting them all out, one at a time,” Vix added. “And we’ve verified that Leonora has gone home and taken charge without any issues. She’s content with swearing fealty to you. She has no ambition, and Aiken has even less. She still has a substantial guard, and she’ll be useful if there are any more uprisings.” “But keep her sweet,” Bekind said wryly. “Just in case.” “Tell her about the books,” Vix said. Bekind grinned. “Brendan went to search Yvette’s castle, but our ladies had already raided a number of useful pieces of literature. They were sent directly to Levin, who is on his way home to tell us exactly what he’s found on his travels.” “There’s been talk about Scarlet,” Vix said reluctantly. “And Lily.” I froze. “What have they been saying?” “People wonder what power Scarlet has. There are rumours she’s powerful, and some wonder if she’s powerful enough to rid us of the blight herself.” I shook my head slowly. “Some refuse to accept Lily as a princess. Others claim that Lily is Scarlet’s replacement should it all go wrong,” Vix said. “Do something about this,” I said. “People can’t think Scarlet is the key to ending the blight. They’ll kill her in their attempts to save themselves.” Bekind squeezed my hand. “We’ve already sent out counter-rumours. There’s nothing to worry about. You’ll end this war before anyone even comes up with an idea.” I looked up at the two of them. “What if they’re right? What if she’s the only one who can do it?” “I swear to you that nobody will get past us to reach her,” Vix said. “Are you prepared to die for her?” She answered without hesitation. “Yes. We need an heir. She’s a symbol of that bright future you keep promising us is out there. She’s what’s keeping this court together, whether you like it or not. Let those in far-off places have their rumours, but if they come, we’ll be standing in their way. You know this.” “I’m afraid for her,” I admitted. “We don’t have time to wait for her to grow up and fix this. That’s if she even can. We’re placing a lot on the shoulders of a toddler.” “And if we have to, we’ll move to the human realm and wait until she’s old enough to fix the land here,” Bekind said reassuringly. “But we won’t need to. Once you find the cup, you and the kings can put this god back to sleep. Then he’ll be someone else’s problem when you’re all long dead. I’ll be around to watch for him to wake again.” I stared into the fire. Putting a god to sleep wasn’t enough. * * * I waited impatiently in a full meeting room for Levin to return. The children were playing in the corner, supervised by Conn, Vix, Rumble, and Bekind, who was in cat form. Sitting in chairs surrounding the table that Fiadh had left us were Líle, Dymphna, Rafe, Thistle, Marron, and the twin emissaries. I fidgeted with my bracelet. Levin was finally announced, and I breathed a sigh of relief. He had to have news. He entered the room and took his seat. He had a laugh like a hyena, but I was glad to have him back at court. “Have you any news?” I asked. He exhaled loudly. “I’ve found plenty of stories, but none are a perfect fit. I’ve taken bits and pieces and tried to reconstruct them, but you know how we embellish. It’s possible that none of these stories are true. I have trunks of books on the way to the castle. You’re all free to look for yourselves. There’s nothing coherent, and that makes me worry about what you’ll be walking into with the four treasures.” “We still have to find the fourth,” I said glumly. “Most of the realm is seeking the cup. It’ll turn up.” “But in whose hands? The mermaid told me that a woman had taken the cup. Brendan thinks it was Yvette. It had to be someone very knowledgeable to know to seek the lagoon and then to find it, too.” “Send us back out,” Fallon pleaded. “Caellan and I can personally visit more households and tribes in an attempt to find the truth. Somebody somewhere in this realm knows something.” I nodded. “Fine, try again. It’s possible the cup was taken after your last visits.” I gestured toward Levin. “Can you give us the gist of what you’ve found?” “It’s complicated,” he said. “But I’ll try to give you all the clearest view I can. I’ve heard tales of Dagda’s cup being a cauldron that never emptied of food, but I also read about a ruthless man gaining immortality by drinking the blood of his enemies from the cup—there’s more about the blood of a god granting immortality, but do gods even bleed?” “That could be why the treasures were hidden,” I said. “To stop anyone else from doing the same thing.” “Or to stop them from freeing Chaos with yet another god’s lifeblood,” Levin said wearily. “I’ve pieced together stories of what happened when this man—whether human, faery, or a mix of the two—gained immortality. Some called him a god, others a pretender luring followers who unwittingly pledged fealty to him until he gained the power of a god.” “Are there enough fae alive to grant immortality?” Fallon mused aloud. “Brendan visited one land over the sea, but he was told there were more. There could be so many more fae out there that we don’t know about,” I said. “Has anyone found the elder daoine sídhe who returned with him?” Caellan shook his head. “The last we heard was a rumour of her leaving with the trees that Yvette kept for herself. Supposedly she was on a search for somewhere to plant them. If she helped the Silver king with information, we haven’t heard of it.” I glanced at Vix, who subtly shook her head. Our spies hadn’t heard about the old woman either. But so far, Levin’s theories had confirmed enough of the truth in Bart’s story for me. “Anything is possible,” Levin continued, “but Dagda’s cup was never meant to be used in such a way, so a curse befell the man. The blood grew tainted, twisting him from the inside. But he had become a god in his own right by then, and he spread his poison everywhere to force more people to follow him.” “Why is this not a common story?” Rafe asked. “Stories get lost in the past,” Dymphna said. “Even my own people lost their true origins.” Levin nodded. “So much gets distorted.” “But what happened to the man when he became a god?” I asked impatiently. “I read a reference to the cup having the ability to undo his immortality—which makes sense, considering the cup caused it.” “Could the cup be poisoned?” Líle asked. “If it never empties, and the blood he drank from it tainted itself, could it be that the cup was ruined, too?” “Let’s hope not,” Levin said. “But it may be why the god was never killed. From what I can tell, a group banded together long in the past and attempted to kill him for good.” “But there was no vessel,” Líle said slowly. “They could only send him to sleep.” “Er, yes,” Levin said. “They used the legendary treasures to do so, although again, how they did that is unclear. Perhaps the cup failed in its intended use.” “But they hurt him,” I said. “They sent him away.” “Yes. And then the god slept. The sleep of a god is akin to death, so that could explain how the blight came from the Fade. But there must be another source as well.” “His body?” Marron’s mud-coloured wings fluttered as though agitated. “Does he even have one?” “He must, if he’s waking up,” I said. “He’s regained some power because his followers kept his word alive, and then they used Sadler to really crank it up.” Levin’s arthritis-curled hands gestured toward me. “Enough has happened in the last few years to feed a dozen gods.” “A god can’t sleep forever,” Thistle said. “Strength is always renewed, and power always returns.” “This is incredibly frustrating.” Rafe paced the length of the room. “We know so little about our own true history.” “We need to ensure this never happens again,” Levin said. “Future generations must remember our mistakes.” I thought of my little tower room. I had already made that deal with myself. We spent the afternoon going over Levin’s story, and a lot of it basically confirmed what we’d already suspected. But even if we managed to send the god back to sleep again, then what? He would come back, maybe even in our children’s lifetimes. I couldn’t let that happen. But perhaps another god knew what had gone wrong last time—and how to fix it. * * * “Again?” Bekind closed my bedroom door so the servants wouldn’t hear then laid her hands on her hips. “You can’t be serious!” I shoved an extra set of travelling clothes into the open bag on my bed. “I just need… to be sure.” “Gods don’t speak, Cara. They may not even exist in the way we believe. The girls need you. We need you. You can’t keep leaving all the time.” “But don’t you see?” I hid a dagger in my boot. “I don’t have a choice. I have to act. The crows are gone, Bekind. They haven’t come back.” “So?” “So it won’t be long before Darksiders stop associating me with Badb. They’ll think she’s deserted our cause.” She reeled back in disgust. “Since when are you so superstitious?” I threw my cloak on the bed and ran my hands through my hair. “Faeries are the superstitious ones, not me. You and Vix said it yourselves—people are talking. If I’m moving, if I’m doing something, then the focus will be on me, not on what Scarlet can do.” “What are you going to do?” “The crows may be gone”—I gathered the cloak around my shoulders—“but Brighid’s flower is still growing in the garden. I’ll be seen returning to the grotto. Maybe nothing will happen, but maybe these people who need me to lead them will find something new to believe in.” “I don’t want to see you disappointed, Cara.” I laid my hands on her shoulders. “We lose a little more hope with every day that goes by that we haven’t found that cup. We need a miracle, and maybe we’ll find the hint of one in Brighid’s grotto.” “What if you run into trouble? This pilgrimage might—” “I’ll have Rumble and Líle with me. Dubh is raring to go. We’ll be fine.” “Líle’s not herself. She could be a problem.” I turned away. That was my fault for dredging up things Líle desperately needed to forget. “She’ll be fine with me. Maybe she needs a visit to Brighid’s grotto, too.” “She’s so different now that she may not be able to pass.” Frowning, I met her gaze. “What does that mean?” “Not everyone can go there. You saw what happened when you did—which is why I’m worried about this trip, by the way. We can’t afford the queen to be unconscious for an undefined period of time. This other person’s memories in Líle’s mind has changed her. She hasn’t been to the grotto since because she’s terrified she won’t be able to enter.” “I had no idea.” “Well, you’ve been too busy running around the realm to concentrate on the little things.” That stung. “That’s not fair, Bekind. You know I’m only doing what I feel I have to.” “And I’m just letting you know that if you take everything by the reins, you won’t have time for anything else.” “It’s just until—” “The blight is over. We know.” The dissatisfaction on her face discomfited me. Bekind had always supported me through everything. And she had a point. “I sound like a broken record lately, I suppose.” She snorted. “Just a tad.” “I know that Chaos is my main focus right now.” “When your focus isn’t Brendan,” she said snarkily. I rubbed the back of my neck. “I care about so many of you, Bek. Everyone’s been telling me I’m here for a reason, and I’m desperately trying to find out what that reason might be. If I have a purpose at all…” I sighed. “What if Brighid didn’t bring me here? What if Chaos did?” Her face contorted into indignation. “Why would you say something like that? Chaos has nothing to do with you!” I rolled up my sleeves and made her look at my blackened veins. “Chaos has a lot to do with me. I just keep thinking that if I go to the grotto, if Brighid gives me a sign, then I’ll know what it is I’m supposed to be doing. It’ll wipe the fear away. I’m holding on by a thread, you know? There’s so much pressure, and I have so much more to lose than I ever had before. And I… I don’t want to lose any of you.” She wrapped her arms around me, her anger gone. “You’ll never lose us.” That just didn’t seem possible anymore. * * * Rumble and Líle had little in common, and as a result, our journey together was long and quiet. As a Darksider, Rumble didn’t quite care for Brighid as much as others might, and as a daughter of Brighid, Líle was used to keeping her beliefs under wraps. So when we neared the grotto and were forced to dismount and cut through a ridiculous amount of reeds, the conversation didn’t improve. “Stay close,” Rumble said. “I’ll cut you a path.” “She should fight for it herself,” Líle grumbled. “Otherwise, what’s the point?” “Why should she fight for a goddess who turned her back on us?” “All right, that’s enough,” I said, getting between them. The tension was bad enough without those two attacking each other. “Rumble, stay with the horses. I’ll be fine. I promise.” “Anyone could be lying in wait…” “I don’t think that’s how it works,” I said. “Trust me. I’ve done this before. Besides, if you don’t believe in her, you might be stuck outside waiting. There’s no point in you exhausting yourself only to have to wait for who knows how long. Set up a fire here, and have some food. We’ll be back.” For the first time, Rumble took his time obeying. His lips twitched as though he wanted to argue, but finally, he nodded. Líle moved away wordlessly, her sword in her hands. I followed suit. Soon, sweat rolled down my back as I cut my way through to the entrance. “You seem grumpy,” I panted when we were out of earshot of Rumble. “I am not grumpy.” “Ooo-kay.” After a few moments, she stopped chopping and looked at me. “I’ll stand guard outside the arch. Just as before.” “Nope.” “No?” “You’re going to be with me. Inside the grotto.” She looked appalled. “I can’t.” “We’ll find out, won’t we?” “I don’t think—” “So don’t. Think, I mean. Just step through and see what happens. If you can’t do it, at least you’ll know.” “I don’t want to know,” she murmured before aggressively slicing the air with her sword. “There are things I don’t want to know, too.” She shot me a curious glance. “Like what?” “About me, about Scarlet. We’re both changing, and not in the same way. Do you think it’s possible that living here has made us… more fae?” “I’ve thought about it. I mean, it would make sense after everything you’ve been through. Perhaps it’s more the fact that the fae in your blood shines here.” “I like that.” We soon made it to the arch. Líle trembled next to me. I took her hand. “I’m scared, too, you know. But at least we’ll both know for sure.” She nodded, and when I gestured, we both took a step inside the flower-covered arch. I felt dizzy for a moment as I crossed the wall of magic. The world unbalanced and resettled until all I could smell were Brighid’s flowers, all I could hear was the water from a fountain, and all I could feel was the warmth of Líle’s hand in mine. “We made it,” I said. “You sound surprised,” Líle said wryly. “Yeah, well, you never know.” I took in a deep breath. The air felt beautiful—and clean. “It feels so good in here.” “I know what you mean.” The veins in Líle’s wings burned a golden red. “It’s a pity we can’t all hide in here.” “Hiding isn’t living. Last time I was here, I sat by the fountain and talked, and the water froze, and I felt… something. What if we try to talk to Brighid about the blight?” “What if nothing happens?” I sighed. “Then at least we tried.” “I’m not good at talking.” “Then just hold my hand and listen.” I smiled at her. “At the very least, we get this nice little break here.” I reached for a flower and stuck it behind Líle’s ear. She touched it thoughtfully. “The other memories are quiet here. It’s peaceful. A relief I didn’t quite realise I needed.” We moved to the fountain and knelt in front of it on the cushions that rested there. “We’re here to talk to Brighid,” I called. Líle sniggered. I elbowed her. “I feel like enough of a muppet without you carrying on.” She bit her lower lip. “Sorry. You just look really serious talking to that fountain.” “I’m not talking to the—oh, shut up, you oddball. Look”—I got to my feet and hauled Líle up after me—“we need to know how to get rid of Chaos. We just want to know if we’re on the right path, where the cup is, and what to do with it. There has to be a way… oh.” I squeezed Líle’s hand as the water from the fountain turned black. “That can’t be good,” Líle whispered. “Oh, my God.” The flowers in the garden all rotted as one, the sweet, fetid stench filling the air and choking us. “You don’t need the cup,” a woman’s voice said. I turned around, but nobody was there. “Cara,” Líle whispered. “We should leave.” “Wait. Just wait a minute.” “You already have what you need,” a second voice said. “It’s the demi-goddesses,” I said. “Brighid’s priestesses. They’re here.” “Yes,” a third voice said. “And you were given a gift. It’s time to return it.” I glanced at Líle, confused. “A gift? What are you talking about?” Líle shrugged. “When they saved you, did they change you? Perhaps you really are more fae now. Because of them.” “What was the gift?” I demanded. “Did you do something to me?” “Not us,” the first voice said. “Brighid gifted you with a child. It is time to return her.” My blood ran cold. “What are you talking about?” “Don’t you see?” the second voice said. “You changed the path, got in the way of Chaos, and had a pure child.” “Brighid’s child,” the third voice said. “And when you sacrifice that child to the blight, Brighid will return to save us all.” Líle’s fingers crushed mine. “No,” I breathed. “That’s not true. It’s not happening.” A violent wind blew around me. The three voices spoke as one. “Return her gift. The child was born to die, to save us.” “No!” “Cara,” Líle said, but I couldn’t see her anymore, couldn’t breathe against the wind battering against me. I choked against a wall of air, went blind in a sea of darkness, feeling only the clutching hands of the priestesses as they tried to compel a promise from me. “She’s not a sacrifice!” I screamed, pushing back against the force around me. Pain shot through me, and then I fell. * * * I awoke hearing voices buzzing around me. “You can’t tell anyone about this,” Líle was saying. “You know I won’t,” Rumble said. “But how will we explain it if she doesn’t wake up?” “She’ll wake. She did last time.” “Last time wasn’t—” “I’m awake,” I mumbled. “Shut up already. Just can’t open my eyes yet.” I rolled over and groaned. “What the hell happened?” “The grotto is tainted,” Líle said, sounding miserable. “And the priestesses are… evil. I’ve lived a lie. What kind of god would demand the sacrifice of a child?” That brought everything back to me. I sat up too quickly and forced my eyes open. My stomach turned. “Nobody’s sacrificing Scarlet.” “We know,” Líle said, horrified. “We’re not monsters.” She paused. “Not all of us, anyway.” “I’m sorry,” I said. “How did we get out of there?” “I dragged you out. The priestesses separated us. They had you trapped. It… it reminded me of the hauntings. I was terrified.” “But she got you out of there nonetheless,” Rumble said. She gave him a grateful smile. “We made it through the arch, but everything died around it.” Her lower lip trembled. “Nobody will need to fight their way to the arch ever again.” I pointed at the flower behind her ear. “Not everything died.” Shocked, she reached up and released the flower. “I had forgotten. It’s perfect. But why?” I tapped it. “Maybe it’s a sign.” “Of what?” I shrugged. “No idea. I’m sorry I dragged you out here. It was a waste of time. Except now we know we can’t trust the priestesses to help us. They weren’t like that last time, when they separated Drake and Brendan. Everything’s changed.” Líle gazed at the flower for a long time. When I felt less shaky, we made our way home. Before we reached the Hollows, I noticed crows flying overhead. They had returned, after all. But all I could think about was the sacrifice. There was no way Scarlet had been born just to die for the fae. It couldn’t be possible, and I wouldn’t let it happen, no matter what it cost me. Back at the castle, I trudged up to the broken tower room, unable to face anyone. As I climbed the steps, I felt as though the weight of the world rested on my shoulders. If I didn’t find the last legendary treasure soon, the priestesses would find some other way to get their message out, and the entire realm would know they intended Scarlet to be the sacrifice that would save the realm. All we had to do was find one lousy cup. How had that proven so impossible? But two of the other treasures were only in our possession because we stole them from Sadler. He had likely been preparing to free his god for good, sending the rest of us down with him. I paced in the tower room, listening to the crows squawk and fight over the food I’d left them. I had to think of something. There had to be a way. My daughter couldn’t pay the price for the rest of us. She just couldn’t. And then a crow landed at my feet, dropping a paper scroll. She squawked once before flying away. I read the scroll then sank to my knees with relief. The birds had scoured the realm and found the woman who’d stolen the cup. The Watcher had even drawn me a map. I didn’t know who the Watcher really was, or what the crows stood for, but they might have just given me a way to save my daughter’s life. Chapter 21 A groom led two more horses into the courtyard for my travelling companions. “Why not wait for Brendan?” Rafe said. “The king will surely provide protection, and—” “I have a daoine sídhe with me.” I leaned down from where I was sitting on Dubh and patted Rafe’s shoulder. “I’ll be okay.” When he didn’t smile, I winked at him. “Relax. Between Dubh, Rumble, Dymphna, and Líle, nothing’s going to get near me.” He used his hand to shade his eyes from the early morning light. “But we don’t know who took the cup.” “It doesn’t matter who took it. All that matters is that we’re going to get it back.” “Are you certain it’s wise to trust the word of a man nobody knows anything about? One who claims to be acting on the advice of birds?” “Is it better to sit around reading books written by long-dead fae who did their best to wipe out their own history? We don’t know anything for sure, but the more of us who are out there looking, the better.” “I didn’t intend to offend you, my lady.” “I know.” The others were ready and waiting for me. I tried to hide my impatience with Rafe behind a smile. “Just send Brendan a message to tell him I’m following a lead on the cup. Send one to the Silver Court, too.” He nodded, bowed, then went back inside. I looked at the others. “Are you sure you want to join me?” “The Watcher helped me,” Líle said. “I owe him my life. I trust him.” “And I’m curious about what we’ll find,” Dymphna said. Rumble shrugged when I caught his eye. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go out on yet another limb.” We left the castle and rode through the forest, following the odd little map the Watcher had sent us. It was full of landmarks and rough distances, but no names or anything the fae could fully understand. But we kept going, confident that it would at least lead us to a clue. We ended up on neutral territory near the coast, but we were nowhere near Yvette’s castle. “Perhaps someone from Yvette’s army moved the cup,” Líle suggested. “Perhaps it was never in Yvette’s possession at all,” Dymphna said. A cold prickle ran down my spine. I thought we had identified all of our enemies. This development hinted that there might be more out there, getting in our way. A part of me wondered if Brighid could be the mystery woman. “We’ll soon find out,” I said, urging Dubh onward. I kept my hand on Lugh’s spear, the small piece of wood that I kept attached to my belt at all times. Nobody noticed the unassuming weapon because it was so plain and ordinary, but it was almost certainly a legendary treasure. The sun was hot when we finally arrived at our destination. We ended up on the edge of a low cliff that hooked over the sea, a crooked tree there matching the landmark on our map. “There’s nothing here,” I said, disappointed. “That’s what I get for trusting birds, eh?” “There has to be something,” Rumble said. “The Watcher wouldn’t have sent us here if it wasn’t important,” Líle said. “He knows what we’re trying to do. He wouldn’t waste your time.” “Maybe he trusted the birds too much, too.” As if one had heard me, a crow flew overhead then dove downward and didn’t come back up. I got off my horse and peered over the edge. Rocks jutted out of the water below, but right against the bottom of the cliff was a tiny strip of beach. “There might be a cave. A hidden cave or something down there that we just can’t see from up here.” “Then how do we get down?” Dymphna asked. “I can climb it,” I said. “If we tie a rope to the tree, maybe.” “It doesn’t look so secure,” Líle said. “Then you three can lower me down.” The others exchanged doubtful glances. “I’m the lightest one here. If there’s danger, I’ll yell, and you can all pull me back up again.” “I’m not sure we should let you go alone,” Dymphna said. “We’re here now,” I said. “We have to at least try.” Rumble found a rope in our supplies. He tied one end around my waist and the other to the tree. “I’ll hold you. If you really want to go.” “I have to.” “Shout at the first sign of trouble,” Líle said. “I know, I know. I’m not a martyr.” They slowly lowered the rope as I climbed over the edge and made my way down, careful not to think about how high up I was. Sharp rocks jutted out from the cliff-face, providing me with hand and footholds. I kept climbing until I reached golden sand. Looking around, I noticed that someone had erected a couple of sticks and hung a wet towel from them. Still holding the length of rope, I moved away from the cliff, but the rope tightened, and I untied it, waving up at the others to assure them I was okay. I moved out of their line of sight, shuddering as a chill ran through me. I found the entrance to a deep cave, partly underwater. Fishing nets lay at its mouth. I stepped over the nets and into the cave. The damp sand beneath me rose upward and out of the water. Fish bones lay scattered all around. It took a moment to adjust to the sudden darkness, but I sensed movement within, and I finally saw her. The woman who had taken the cup. She was whispering to it, cooing over it as she rocked to and fro. I recognised her immediately, although she looked completely different than she had the last time I’d seen her. Under her torn shift, her body was rail thin, and her arms and legs were tight with lean muscle. Her once-blond hair was white and had been roughly and unevenly cut. The walls of the cave were covered in notes and paper. Ronnie had been a professor in my university until she’d followed me to the Provings. She had been studying faery lore for years; I should have known she’d be the one to figure out the puzzle that had confused the rest of us. In her youth, she had been driven mad by Drake’s father, and she had been the one who’d lured me in while I was pregnant so Sadler could kidnap me. She had been convinced that I was carrying her stillborn son, and she had vanished from Sadler’s castle long before I managed to escape. I sucked in a breath at the sight of the rough raised scars on her bare arms and legs. My daughter’s grandfather had inflicted them on her. She heard me and looked up, but she didn’t seem surprised. “It told me you were coming,” she said. She was missing half of her teeth. The cave smelled bad. I wanted to vomit. “I came for the cup,” I said gently. “We need it or the realm will die.” “You always take from me. You take my baby, my life, my Deorad. You take it all, and now you want more. When will it end?” “Ronnie, you need help. If you come with me, I can help you.” “You can’t even help yourself,” she said, her voice dripping with scorn. Then, suddenly, she screamed, “Where’s my son?” I flinched. “Come with me, and I’ll show you.” “I don’t believe you,” she ground out. “And if you come any closer, I’ll kill you.” “I’m not going to let you do that. I don’t want to hurt you, Ronnie, but I’m taking that cup with me, one way or another.” She dove at me, her teeth bared, and I braced myself for the attack. We fought, but when I had the chance, I grabbed the cup from where she had dropped it and ran out of the cave. I sprinted across the sand and gripped the rope, the cup tucked under one arm. Ronnie was close behind, and I didn’t have time to tie the rope around me. I climbed instead, and the others tried to pull me up. Ronnie caught the end of the rope and yanked hard, hauling herself up after me. The sudden added weight pulled the others forward a few inches. Rubble dislodged by their feet fell down on me. I held on, kicking away from the cliff wherever a particularly sharp rock jutted out. My arm burned from holding on to the rope, and still Ronnie climbed, reaching for my ankle. Using my knees and one arm, I kept trying to pull myself up the length of the rope without dropping the cup, but Ronnie was determined to get the treasure back. The others had almost pulled me up to the surface when Ronnie clutched my leg and let go of the rope. I screamed as a terrible, sharp pain ran up my thigh. “Kill her,” Líle said urgently as the others pulled on the rope, helping me to the top of the cliff. “No, wait! Ronnie, take my hand!” Ignoring the pain, I reached for Ronnie to help her, but she gripped the cup instead, completely letting go of me. The force yanked me over the edge again as I tried to hold on to the cup. Rumble grabbed my legs before I fell. I had two hands on the cup, fiercely holding on even as Ronnie’s hands slipped. “Ronnie,” I cried. “Grab the rope before you fall!” “I’ll never let you take it,” she hissed, and she wriggled, obviously hoping her weight would yank the cup from my hands. “We need it more than you do,” I said and pulled back. Ronnie’s hands slipped, she let out a sharp scream, and then she fell, her body hitting the rocks on the way down before coming to a stop at the base. The sand around her turned red. Ronnie was dead. But we had the cup. Chapter 22 “I didn’t want her to die,” I said sadly as I peered down at Ronnie’s broken body. “She was insane,” Dymphna said. “And the cause of half of your problems,” Líle added. Rumbled laid his hand on my shoulder. “Perhaps now she’ll find some peace.” I nodded and examined the cup. It looked like a plain metal pitcher—nothing special about it except the sensation in my fingers that I had to touch it. It would remain unassuming until I found a king. Ronnie hadn’t unlocked the power of Dagda’s cup, but I could feel the magic tremble against my skin. “We should get this back and let the kings know it’s time.” We untied the rope then mounted our horses to head home. As we rode, I noticed a difference between the treasures. The cup was brimming with a power I didn’t sense from the spear. I wondered what would happen when the kings touched it. By the time we arrived home, I had gotten used to the sensation, but I had to wonder if the cup felt different than the other treasures because of the way it had been used. Rafe greeted us at the gates. “The Green king arrived three days ago. He’s spent a lot of time with the children and insisted he wait until you return.” I couldn’t hide the smile threatening to cross my face. “Thank you, Rafe. Spread the word that we have good news. I’ll have to leave again very soon.” His copper curls bounced as he bowed, his shoulders twitching with excitement. I liked Rafe. His eyes might have looked sly, but he wasn’t devious, and he tended to wear his heart on his sleeve. In fact, I had grown to like and respect all of my advisers. They had taken to me, and now that we were down two advisers, having lost Fiadh and Bart, we were a closer-knit group during our meetings. Inside the castle, I slipped off my cloak and headed upstairs, closely followed by Rumble. Having people watch over me all of the time used to bother me, but I had grown used to it. Rumble was wise and cautious, and that was a good balance to my tendency to recklessness. In the nursery, Brendan and Bran were telling the children a story. When Brendan looked up at me, he grinned. “Back at last?” “I wasn’t gone so long,” I said, stooping to kiss Scarlet and Lily. “Ronnie took the cup.” He frowned. “Where is she now?” I straightened. “She didn’t make it.” “I’m sorry.” I looked at him in surprise. “I know you wanted to save her,” he said. “But sometimes you can’t save people from themselves.” My face crumpled a little, and he got up to embrace me. Then he sucked in a gasp. “Is that the cup I feel? It’s… wow.” “I know,” I said, relieved by the change in subject. “It’s crazy powerful. Maybe the stories were right about it giving a man immortality.” “How bizarre,” he said, but I knew he was only half-listening. The cup was crying out to him to be touched. I held it out. “Go on then.” He bit down on a short, sharp laugh then reached out to touch the cup. The entire room went silent as we waited to see what would happen. Slowly, ever so slowly, the plain bronze cup transformed into a tall, elegant goblet gleaming in gold and rimmed in crystals. “It’s beautiful,” I said. “Magnificent,” Brendan whispered. And when he took his hand away, it quickly became a plain little cup again. “We should let Drake know,” I said. “We’ll go to him. You and I have three of the treasures. He has the last. It’s time we reunited all four so we can see what they do.” A mixture of excitement and apprehension spun around in my stomach. “I’m up for that.” We were getting closer to the end game. At last, I could see a finish line. And it all depended on Drake helping us. “And I think it’s time to send the kids back to the human realm. We don’t know what’s going to happen when we bring the treasures together. I can’t risk my family or anyone who’s come here for safety.” “That’ll be a big upheaval, Cara,” he said. “I know, but the last thing we need is for me to be worrying about the kids while we’re dealing with… whatever comes next.” “Then I’ll help you.” We spent the next few days sending messages to the other courts and organising moving the vulnerable into the human realm. Plenty of Darksiders were already there, away from the worst of the blight. I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but I had an awful feeling that Chaos—and whatever was left of his supporters—wasn’t about to let us win easily. Saying goodbye to the children was hard, but I hoped it would be for the last time. While Rafe handled the logistics of moving the rest of the Darksider families who wanted to leave, I left the court with a small troop of soldiers and a number of my close friends, including Rumble, Vix, Bekind, Dymphna, and Líle. Our trip was uneventful, and when we arrived at the Silver Court, Arlen, Anya, Grim, and Realtín were already waiting. “What are you doing here?” I asked, hugging Anya in greeting. “We wanted to be here in case we were needed,” Grim said. “You didn’t think you could leave us behind, did you? We started this together!” Realtín squealed in my ear. Brendan looked around. “Where’s Drake?” “He hasn’t been attending court,” Arlen said. “We haven’t seen him yet.” I exchanged a worried glance with Brendan. “Bekind, can you find out what happened to Vanys’s child? I want to make sure she’s taken care of.” She agreed, and Arlen escorted us inside, where our procession was greeted with excitement and questions about Morgan. I finally managed to slip away with Brendan. “Let’s go shake him out of this.” I winced. “But maybe you should take the lead. Last time I sort of punched him in the face.” “Excuse me?” “It’s a long story. Let’s get this over and done with.” We went alone to Drake’s room. He was already half-drunk, and he groaned at the sight of us. “Not again.” Brendan locked the door behind us. “We found the cup, Drake. It’s time we finished what we started.” “Oh, do it yourselves,” Drake said, taking a sip out of his own cup. “You’d much rather do it together anyway.” “Don’t be ridiculous. The three of us are in this together. We need each other.” “I don’t need you two,” he said bitterly. “Not after everything you’ve done to me.” “Everything we’ve done?” I cried, placing my hands on my hips. Brendan laid a warning hand on my arm, but I ignored him. “What have we ever done to you? Look at what you’ve done, the children you’ve abandoned, the people you’ve hurt! All in your quest for what? You don’t even know anymore!” Drake rose to his feet, his cheeks flushing. “I had to watch you fall in love with him!” “Oh, big deal,” I said nastily. “I had to watch your marriage to Sorcha, watch you ignore my daughter, hear about your sacrifices and everything else.” Brendan took Drake’s seat and poured himself a drink. “What are you doing?” Drake demanded. “Waiting for this ridiculous tit-for-tat to end,” Brendan said calmly. “Perhaps it’s time you two got everything off your chests so the rest of us can move on.” He waved a hand. “Any day now.” I deflated. “He’s right. This is ridiculous. Ancient history.” “It’s not ancient for me,” Drake said, his voice trembling. “It’s every minute of every day for me.” “I’m sorry you’re hurt,” I said, taking a seat myself. “But we’ve all been hurt, Drake. Stop clinging onto it and giving it life. You’re not upset because of me and Brendan, and I think that deep down you know that.” Drake fell into a chair and stared sombrely at the fire. “I knew from the first time you kissed him that this would happen. I had to watch, Cara, had to feel what both of you were feeling, and I was stuck behind an invisible wall, unable to do a thing.” “You didn’t even know me…” I began, but he held up a hand in disgust. “Everything you said to him while his soul was in my body, I heard. Everything he learned about you, I learned. We both fell in love with you because we were both there. Can’t you understand that?” “I never really thought of it that way before,” I said, feeling uncomfortable. While I had been getting to know Brendan back then, growing to like him, I had thought of Drake as absent. I had never really considered how it had been for him. “And yes, I sent you away, but it wasn’t just to protect you,” he continued, but the harshness had disappeared from his voice. “I sent you away to protect me. I knew that it was only a matter of time, and I couldn’t stand the idea of watching you with him. Even if you had been with me, he would have taken you eventually. There was just something between you two that neither of you could resist.” I exchanged a guilty glance with Brendan. “I couldn’t compete,” he said. “I’m still the solitary fae who’s worth nothing.” “That’s not true,” I said. “Of course you’re worth something.” “Just not as much as a real king, eh?” “Stop that!” I clenched my fists in frustration. “Stop making out like that has anything to do with it.” “You wanted me until he came along.” The bitterness had returned to his voice. “I risked my life for you, my soul, and you threw it away to go to the Fade for him.” “I owed him,” I whispered. “Then what did I owe you?” he asked, sounding more sober. “Not a thing. I know I acted that way, but I was a different girl when we met.” I had been a wimp then, unable to deal with real life. I’d given off the appearance of being tough and strong, but inside, I had been weak. I had been broken. I had blamed my problems on my parents, but I had allowed those problems to defeat me. Nobody else made me give up on life and love and happiness. But with the fae, the creatures who professed not to feel at all, I had discovered myself. I had found love, and strength, and a will to truly live. “I wasn’t ready to be happy back then.” “You acted as though you were happy with me until he came between us.” “But you never wanted me to be myself,” I said gently. “You wanted the ideal, and I could never have given that to you. I’m not the person you remember. You wanted to keep me human and good and innocent, but you can’t protect people from life, Drake. We all have to spread our wings, or we’ll never know who we really are.” “I didn’t know how to… he lets you run wild, and I couldn’t. I still can’t. If I could send you away now, I would.” “And that would be unforgiveable,” I said. “You can’t just hide your problems away and hope they don’t find you again. Sending me away was the worst thing you could have done.” “I couldn’t bear it. I was about to be stuck in a marriage I didn’t want, and he was free to flirt with you, to treat you, to indulge you again, to win your heart.” It was then I realised how like the old me Drake was acting: desperate for the one thing he couldn’t have because it allowed him to wallow in his misery instead of moving on. It was as though a light had come on, and I saw everything clearly for the first time. “I didn’t fall for Brendan because he indulged me,” I said, a little more sharply than I had intended. “He’s a good man who respects that I can’t be controlled, that I’ll never be perfect. He lets me be me, and it was never meant to be between you and I. It would never have lasted. We were both intent on running in different directions in life. It couldn’t have worked.” “And Sorcha actually cared about me,” he said as though he couldn’t quite believe it. “She was prepared to give me everything I needed, and I didn’t have the courage to accept it. Everything I love gets taken away. I can’t bring myself to… I can’t love again. You’ve ruined it, Cara.” Tears ran down my cheeks at his words. I hadn’t meant for any of it to happen. But he wasn’t the man I’d thought he was, and he had likely never been. He was broken in a way I couldn’t fix, and in the end, we had both just damaged each other further. “A lot has happened that we can’t change,” Brendan said at last. “And we have a chance to change one thing that affects everyone. We need to join all four treasures together, Drake. Are you willing to help us?” Drake sighed glumly before nodding. “It’s not like I have much of a choice.” “We’ll give you time to… prepare,” Brendan said, gesturing for me to leave. “Well, that sucked,” I said under my breath on the way out. “When did you two start bringing out the worst in each other?” Brendan asked as we made our way back to the others. “Are we really that bad?” He let out a bark of laughter. “Just a tad.” “I thought it was getting better, but it all seems so raw again. I’m not even sure this is about me anymore.” “Sorcha’s death has affected him, and the situation with the children hasn’t improved his mood. The sooner his son is returned to him, the better.” “And if he never treats him like his son?” “Then we’ll just have to make it up to the boy whenever we can.” “I don’t know how you can say that.” “The child is his, Cara. We don’t have a say in how he raises him. You can’t control everything.” I stopped walking and looked at him in surprise. “Where did that come from?” He leaned against the nearest window ledge and gazed outside. “You can’t bend him to your will or force him to be the way you want him to be. That’s exactly the same thing you accuse him of doing to you.” “Then what am I supposed to do?” He looked at me. “Move on. Accept that he gets to decide what happens in this court, whether you agree with it or not.” “We didn’t do that for Sadler.” “Drake is not Sadler.” I lowered my voice. “He could be, one day.” He frowned. “So could Scarlet. Choose your battles wisely, or you may be the cause of the things you fight against.” My mouth dropped open. “How could you say that?” He took a step closer to me. “Most of us fall into that trap. You worry he won’t be there for Scarlet, but if you keep pushing him, you’ll be the reason why.” “Are you on his side now?” He looked pained. “Are there sides?” I leaned against the wall, subdued. “It feels like it.” He touched my arm. “Only when you both decide to take offence at everything the other says. You’ve both hurt each other, and this is the fallout. It’s how you get through this period that defines the outcome. Punishing each other won’t make it any easier.” “I have to go,” I said, and I left him there to go surround myself with people who wouldn’t say uncomfortable things I wasn’t ready to hear. Chapter 23 I opened the door of my quarters the following evening and found Brendan standing there, looking sheepish. We hadn’t spoken since our… I wasn’t even sure I could call it a row. “Drake has called for us,” he said. “It’s time we joined the treasures together.” He turned to walk away, but I reached for his hand. “Wait.” He stopped, and I pulled him into my room. “Drake is waiting.” “He can wait an extra couple of minutes,” I said sharply. “Maybe we should talk about yesterday. I mean… I think we should.” “You’re the one who walked away. You’re the one who always walks away.” “I need time to process things,” I said. “And when my initial reaction is to feel defensive, isn’t it better that I step away to think about things?” “Is it?” He ran his hands through his hair. “I’m not interested in being the one who patches things up with you and Drake. It’s not my place, and I don’t enjoy bearing witness to those kinds of conversations. Do you think I like hearing his pain? Or yours? You’re a knot that needs to be undone, and I’m not the right person to do that. I’m trying to see both sides, and it’s turning you both against me.” “I’m not against you.” I cupped his cheek. “I’m just prickly when things hit too close to home. I don’t want to be the reason Scarlet doesn’t have a father. I don’t want the blame for that, and it’s easy for all of us to lash out and play the blame game. Drake and I need time, but I don’t want my time with you to become all about him.” He exhaled loudly. “It’s been the three of us from the beginning. We’re so closely tied that I’m not sure how we’ll rearrange ourselves into anything healthier.” “Me either, but I still want to try. Do you?” He dipped his head to kiss me. “You know I do. We’re all exhausted and worried, so it’s for the best if we push relationships aside for now.” He said that, but he held my hand extra tight as we walked to Drake’s quarters. Inside, Drake was waiting with the stone of destiny, his eyes clear and sober. He avoided meeting my gaze, but when I walked into the room, I held out my hand to him. “I’m sorry,” I said. “There’s so much we’ve glossed over, but the realm needs us to trust one another. We have to work together, for all of our sakes, and I’m prepared to do it. Are you?” He shook my hand, and the embarrassment in his eyes made me pity him. “What now?” “I think we should all three of us touch each treasure and see what happens. Bart said that two of us can unlock the true form, but all three of us could recharge the power or something.” We set the four treasures on a table. They all looked plain, bar the sword of victory. For some reason, it never returned to its plain form. “The cup is…” Drake whispered. “I know,” Brendan said. “It’s the missing piece that connects them all. Can you feel how the power has changed now that they’re all in the same room? It’s dizzying.” The treasures hummed as though seeking each other out. “Do you hear that?” I whispered. “They’re supposed to be together,” Brendan said. “This is a game changer we have here.” “Then we should thank the gods that Sadler wasn’t able to put all four together,” Drake said. “Are you both ready?” I asked. “There’s no going back once we start. We have to finish this, no matter what happens.” The men exchanged a hesitant glance before nodding their agreement. I was the most eager, and perhaps that was because I was most drawn to the power. The tips of my fingers itched to touch the treasures. First, I held out the small stick that was supposed to be the spear of Lugh. It was the one treasure I worried about. It didn’t sing in the way the others did. Brendan laid two fingers on the wide end of the spear, and Drake pressed his finger and thumb into it as far away from ours as possible. A rush of power surged through me, making it difficult for me to keep my balance. Brendan reached out to hold me up. “Don’t let go yet.” “It’s hard to hold on,” Drake said. “It feels like insects running through my veins.” To me, it was more like an electrical shock. And as the sensation hit its peak, the sky outside lit up as though shocked, too. The stick instantly transformed into a long, sharp spear. Bands of engraved silver covered the narrow wood. We all had to change our grips just to hold on. The silver bands all lit up, and black threads ran through the indentations before disappearing. “That’s definitely a treasure,” I gasped. “Next one,” Drake said, setting down the spear with shaky hands. It remained in its true form, and it vibrated against the large table beneath it. Brendan picked up the sword. It was already beautiful, the blade gleaming green in the light. I touched the hilt, and Drake followed my lead, our skin touching. A spark of something new ran through me, something that wasn’t the sword at all. It was us. The three of us were connected on some ethereal level. I glanced in surprise at Drake, who looked as though he might feel sick. I felt a sorrow that I couldn’t explain. And then the sword crackled with power, distracting me. Thunder rumbled in the distance. “Something’s changing,” Brendan said. “The land is reacting to the treasures.” “We have to keep going,” Drake said, although he looked wan. He picked up the stone. When I touched it in his palm, it quickly shifted into its tablet form. Brendan stared, entranced, because he had never witnessed its transformation before. The tablet skidded through a collision of images, and at the end, it created the living picture the Watcher had shown us, making it clear that the realm was more choked up with poison than ever. Brendan touched the mostly malignant tablet, and the floor beneath us trembled. I closed my eyes as a rush of emotions ran through me. They weren’t mine, and I wondered if the stone could mimic emotions as well as the images it somehow witnessed. The windows blew open then slammed shut, and we set the tablet down next to the sword and the spear. The weapons rolled toward the tablet as though trying to touch it. “This is kind of terrifying,” I said. “If we keep going, we’ll be the ones who have to deal with the consequences,” Brendan said. “It must be done,” Drake said resignedly. “I don’t think I can stop myself from touching these pieces. They want me to hold them.” “I know exactly what you mean.” Brendan sighed. “No wonder they were separated. I can barely stand it.” “So it’s just one more,” I said. “The cup, and then we’re done. The tablet will lead us to wherever we need to go. Are you both ready?” “No,” they said as one, and I laughed nervously. “Me either.” But I lifted up the cup when the pair of kings seemed reluctant. “This cup, and then we leave to fight a god.” Brendan’s fingers trembled as he extended his hand toward the cup. Drake reached out, too, and they touched the cup at the same time. It transformed into a heavy golden goblet, but the world beneath us seemed to tilt, and the three of us stumbled to one side, struggling to remain standing. Magic swallowed up the oxygen in the room, leaving us all breathless. I tried to speak, but the sound was lost in the dizzying ripples of magic flowing outward. Unable to cope with the sensation, I let go of the cup, and the feeling ended as quickly as it had begun. Brendan and Drake set the beautiful goblet down next to the other pieces. All four of them flew together as if through magnetism. A blast rushed away from the treasures, heating my cheeks and knocking me back. On the floor, I shook my head dizzily. Brendan and Drake had fallen, too. A massive rumbling sounded from somewhere beneath our feet. Every piece of furniture in the room rattled. “What is that?” I wondered aloud. “An earthquake?” Drake offered. “’Ware the shaking of the earth.” Brendan unsteadily got up off the floor. “I believe that might have been a god waking up.” We held on to each other for support as we stood over the table of legendary treasures. Outside, lightning lit up an unnaturally dark sky. “That god seems pissed,” I remarked as a painting fell off the wall. We heard screams from the floors below. The event clearly wasn’t limited to Drake’s room. I tried to move to the window, but Brendan held me back. “You could be knocked out. Perhaps we should separate the treasures.” “He’s right,” Drake said. “It’s not time to keep them together.” I reached for the spear, but it stuck fast to the other treasures. “Uh, newsflash. The treasures kind of like being together.” I winced as another quake shook the earth. “And I’m guessing we’ve just broadcast our plan to Chaos.” Brendan helped me, and as soon as we separated the treasures—with great difficulty—the worst of the trembling beneath our feet stopped, and the world seemed to right itself. “That’s screwed up,” I said. “That’s what’s going to happen when we get to wherever we’re going. We’ll have to put the treasures together, and the world will feel like it’s destroying itself.” “Look,” Drake said. “They’ve gone back to normal.” All of the pieces appeared plain again, even the sword. I let my hands hover above them. “But the magic is still there. It’s almost giving me motion sickness.” Drake found a bag. “We need to keep them together. In this form, they can touch.” “Except the tablet,” I said. “We need that to guide us.” “I had forgotten.” He shoved the other treasures in a bag then lifted the tablet. Brendan and I touched it, and the stone turned into a tablet again. But it didn’t draw lots of pictures. This time, it drew a kind of map. “That’s just outside the castle,” Drake said with a frown. “Let’s go see.” We ran downstairs, but as we did, the map on the tablet moved, too. “Look.” I pointed at the map. “That little dot is us. It wants us to follow the markers, but we won’t know where we’re going until we get there.” Drake looked up at Brendan. “We may never come back from this.” But I think we had all known that from the start. And then a horrific scream sounded from across the fields. “Someone must have gotten hurt when the world shook,” Drake said. The three of us tried to find the injured person, but as we crested a hill, we looked down and noticed a person shambling toward us. A familiar, dead person. “Oh, my God,” I said, taking a step back. “Not him.” “What is this?” Brendan whispered. “What do you see?” “Sadler,” I said just as Drake said, “Sorcha.” We looked at each other. “What?” “I see Sorcha,” Drake said insistently. “That’s clearly Sadler,” I said, wondering if he had hit his head. “I see someone quite different,” Brendan said in an odd sort of voice. I took another step back. “Are the dead coming to life, or are we just imagining it?” “I don’t care,” Drake said. “I’m so beyond done with this.” Before we could react, he ran toward the figure. I saw Sadler reach for his grandson only to vanish before the blade of Drake’s sword ran him through. Drake stood there for a few moments, baffled. “What was the point of that?” I asked. I pushed Brendan when he didn’t respond. “Brendan!” He shook his head, looking confused. “I don’t…” “Come on,” I said, pulling him toward Drake. “Are you okay?” Drake looked at me in surprise. “Up close, she was like a dream. I don’t get it.” “There’s more of them,” Brendan said, pointing behind us. More figures were shambling toward us, but this time, I saw Sorcha leading them, looking exactly as she had when she’d died. “I think this is real,” Drake said. “How?” Brendan asked, as he drew his sword. “Chaos is reanimating the dead,” I said. “It’s Sadler’s idea all over again, but this time it’s actually working.” “Banshees don’t burn their dead,” Drake said. “What?” “We burn most of our dead. Some, like Sorcha, ask to be buried. That’s who’s coming toward us. People who were buried.” “They’re literally rising from their graves?” Brendan asked. I shook my head. “Poor Sorcha.” “I’ll have to kill her again,” Drake said, swallowing hard. “I’ll have to watch her die.” “I’ll do it,” Brendan said, but Drake held up his hand in protest. “It has to be me,” he said, and he set off at a run again. Brendan signalled toward the castle then followed Drake. I couldn’t move. The dead had truly risen to fight us. That was the price we were paying to fight Chaos. But would it be the only one? Soldiers rushed past me, but I still couldn’t move. I couldn’t watch as Drake cut down Sorcha’s form, couldn’t listen to the sounds of fighting. And then I realised something and ran back to the castle. “Send messages!” I cried out to anyone who would listen. “Send messages all over the realm. Warn them! This could happen everywhere!” The likes of Donella and MacKenzie could rise again, getting in our way to stop us. We couldn’t let it hold us back this time. Chapter 24 The smoke from the dying embers of the pyres stung my eyes. Enough dead had arisen to delay our leaving for two days. The dead were mindless puppets, used by a god we were slowly waking, and although they fell easily, it was harder than I would have thought for experienced soldiers to strike at someone they had already watched die once. Afterward, we’d burned twitching bodies, and the Silver Court had mourned. We’d heard little but rumours from the rest of the realm, and I had no idea how badly my own court had been affected, if at all. In my experience, bodies were burned rather than buried, but there were always exceptions, and the initial hallucinations were almost as bad as the real thing. Half the court had almost lost their minds because they imagined they saw the dead UnSeelie and Seelie queens roaming the castle. Realtín was still shaking like a leaf at the memory. “We can’t be delayed anymore,” I warned Drake and Brendan, who had both been subdued by the fighting. “We need to follow the map on the tablet.” It was clear to the three of us that the tablet was trying to lure us to some mysterious location, and it had become apparent that Chaos would do anything to stop us. “But do we trust it?” Drake asked impatiently. The ground shook for the fifth time that morning. I gave Drake a tired look. “What other choice do we have?” “The earth itself is turning against us because we’re using these legendary treasures,” he insisted. “It’s too risky.” “No, a pissed-off god is throwing his toys out of the pram because we’re doing the right thing. Believe me, all I want to do is go home and check on my people, but we said it ourselves before we used the treasures: there’s no turning back.” Brendan laid a supportive hand on my shoulder. “This journey requires the three of us, Drake. It started with us three, and it’s up to us to finish it.” “My people watched me kill their already-dead queen two days ago. How can I leave them to face this again alone?” “I haven’t even heard if my children are—” My nose prickled, and I couldn’t speak past the lump in my throat. I covered my face and shook my head. “They’re safe,” Brendan said gently. “The human realm isn’t going through this.” “The blackthorn witch made it sound like… the delays, everything that’s stopped us from finishing this… maybe it’s just helped Chaos get stronger. We’ve started this. We put the treasures together. We have no choice but to finish what we started.” “I’m in,” Brendan said. “Please, Drake,” I said. “Don’t fight it now. The realm needs all of us.” “I have requests to make,” Drake said. “And then I’ll go.” I looked at him in surprise. “Like what?” “If Scarlet can’t inherit my kingdom, then she can’t inherit his either.” He looked at Brendan. “Denounce her as your heir.” My instinct was to argue, not because I wanted Scarlet to have Brendan’s kingdom, but because Drake’s request sounded so petty. But his expression turned desperate rather than cunning. “I’ll beg you not to join your courts if I have to. It would be the end of mine.” “We’re not,” I said without hesitation. “We would never intentionally do anything to hurt you, Drake. It’s not like we sit around thinking of ways to get rid of you. We all see the sense in separation. The realm just isn’t ready for anything else right now. Maybe the next generation will do better, but we’re working with what we have.” “I did a rather poor job of holding the realm together on my first try,” Brendan said sheepishly. “Do you really think I haven’t learned from my mistakes?” Drake gave me a pointed look. “Sometimes I wonder.” But then he shrugged. “I’m going to come. I’m just saying that it’s a risk.” “It’s all a risk,” Brendan said. “But what else can we do in times like these?” While the castle bustled in preparation, Drake found me outside. I had been standing on the ramparts, chilled by the sharp wind assaulting my face. Ash-coloured clouds darkened the sky in every direction. “The superstitious ones are seeking out shelter already,” he said. “All because the waves are cresting higher than usual. They think the castle might be swept into the sea.” “Is that possible?” He shrugged. “Who knows? I once thought the dead couldn’t rise again.” “Sorry about that. It must have been horrible.” I shivered at the memory of seeing Sorcha’s body shuffling toward us. “You imagined you saw Sadler. That couldn’t have been pleasant.” I wrapped my arms around myself. “At least he wasn’t actually there. The worst part is this god being able to manipulate us so easily, making us see the people we fear most, and then following that up with the actual dead walking around.” I shrugged. “I’m not sure which was scarier.” “We could face worse things before the end.” “It’s a pity more gods aren’t interested in backing us up.” We stood in silence, inches apart, but we were more like strangers than ever. A pang of regret formed in my chest. We should at least be friends. “Is he well?” he asked. “My son. I hear I should thank you for saving his life.” “Actually, it was Dubh and one of the cú sídhe who protected us. So technically, your gift to us saved his life.” I wanted to reach for his hand, but I didn’t dare. “Anyway, Morgan’s doing great now. He’s so sweet,” I continued when Drake didn’t interrupt. “He’s feeding well, fattening up a little, and Scarlet loves him. He’s the new favourite in the nursery.” He gazed at me. “Does he resemble Scarlet?” “I… he has dark hair, like her.” “His eyes then. Are they like hers?” I shook my head. “It’s hard to tell when they’re babies, but his eyes are dark.” “Like his mother then.” He sounded disappointed. “She loved you and him. It’s not such a bad thing that he looks like her.” “She tried to kill you. Why act as though you were friends?” “Sorcha hated me, and I wasn’t a fan of hers either, but everyone is more than one shade of grey, Drake. All of us. She died so your son would live. How can I bad-mouth her for doing something so brave and unselfish? She swallowed her pride and asked me for help. We both know what that took.” “Perhaps she was just trying to embarrass me.” “I don’t think so. She truly learned to care about you. I couldn’t have done that with Sadler—or MacKenzie, for that matter. And Fiadh tried to kill all of her husband’s other children to protect what was her son’s. Sorcha could have hurt Scarlet to benefit herself and Morgan, but she didn’t.” He didn’t answer. “Look, I know you have to take Morgan home eventually, but I hope he can spend a lot of time with us. He’s Scarlet’s brother. It’s important to me that she knows him. My brother was everything to me.” His expression softened, and he resembled the Drake I used to know. “You still miss him.” I touched the locket around my neck. “I’ll never stop missing him. It broke my heart when he died. It’ll always hurt.” I shoved my hands in my pockets, pushing the sadness back where I had buried it. “I have a photograph of Morgan and Scarlet for you, if you want it. I thought you might like it. I was going to send it with the messages, but I wanted to give it to you myself.” “Thank you.” “I’ll get it for you before we leave.” “You look happy,” he said after a moment. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I never wanted you to be unhappy.” “But I had to choose to be happy, Drake. You can do this too.” “My chance is gone. I’m not sure I even deserve it anymore.” He swept away before I could disagree. * * * Two dozen soldiers accompanied my friends and me as we set off together the following morning, all of us heavily laden down with supplies because we weren’t sure what we would need. We kept an eye on the tablet, following the path marked on the ever-changing map, but we still had no idea what our final destination would be. With every step we took, the horizon grew darker. Dark clouds whirled across the sky like chocolate swirled into milk. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. Realtín, who had been so excited when the journey began, huddled beneath my cloak. It was cold, and the rain poured down heavier than ever before. “Looks like Sadler had help with his rainstorms after all,” Líle shouted to me over the howling winds. Apart from a few remarks, we barely spoke as we rode, concentrating on protecting ourselves from the violent rainstorms. And when we rested, we were so exhausted that we mostly ate in silence before falling asleep. Brendan and I avoided sleeping next to one another in an unspoken attempt to protect Drake’s feelings. But for some reason, that seemed to make him angrier, and the tension only grew. After a particularly rainy day, we found shelter in a large cave high on a hill to keep us above the rapidly rising water levels. Some of my friends and I gathered at the mouth of the cave to watch the storm. We couldn’t light a fire, so we chewed on cold, dried meat. We were all cold and miserable, but I was surrounded by some of my favourite people, and I had to focus on that one bright spot. I repeatedly nudged Bekind, who sat next to me in her human form, her normally beautiful golden hair hanging in damp straggles down her back. “What is with you?” she demanded. Of everyone, she most despised being wet. “I just love you,” I said, grinning. “That’s it.” She raised her voice. “Who gave the queen faery wine?” A ripple of giggles ran through the group. “Our Cara has always been full of love,” Anya said affectionately. Vix let out a low snort of derision. “I love all of you,” I declared. “Yes, even you, Arlen, so you can stop rolling your eyes.” That earned me a slight twitch of his lips. “I’ve just been thinking about everything,” I said. “We’ve been through so much together. Half of you have wanted to kill me at one stage or another, yet here we are, trying to save the world together. I’m just… I’m glad you’re here with me.” “We’ve plenty of stories to tell the children, at least,” Brendan said. The group began to reminisce about all of the things that had happened to us so far. There were so many, and yet we hadn’t lost anyone to war. In fact, our group had grown. Surely that said something for us all. And then my face fell as I remembered that Sorcha had been a huge part of our adventures. She might have hated me, but she had swallowed her pride in the end to make sure her child would know love. The fae were so much more complicated than even they realised. Brendan moved to my side, his arm dangling around my shoulder as he regaled everyone with a humorous story. Soon, most of our friends and the accompanying soldiers were laughing hard. Drake slipped past us when the rain eased. He had been so quiet and morose that I worried about leaving him on his own. Nobody had been able to help my brother, but there was still time for Drake to let go of the things that made him miserable. I squeezed Brendan’s hand. “I’m going to check on him.” “He might need some space.” “I’m worried about him, Brendan. I think he’s grieving for Sorcha but doesn’t want to accept it because that’ll hurt more.” “She was my friend once. I grieve for her, too, in my own way. But I have you to comfort me. What can you do for him?” “Listen to him talk? Do you want me to stay?” “No. He has been quiet.” I left to find Drake. I knew Brendan loved Drake as much as I did. I wished Drake could find a way to accept that we could care about each other and him, too. The fae liked to tell stories about soulmates, but what happened when soulmates came in greater numbers than just a pair? Drake wasn’t on the hill, so I followed his footprints until I caught up to him. He was sitting on the rotten stump of a tree trunk, staring off into the distance. “Hey,” I said as I reached him. “You okay?” “Why did you follow me?” He stood and moved a few steps away. “I still care about you. I’m worried about you.” “I’m not like you. I can’t surround myself with favourites and make myself feel better. I’m not like Brendan, who can just tell a funny story and cheer everyone up. I can’t… I can’t be like that.” “I know, but you could talk to me,” I said. “I’ll always be there to listen to you.” “I don’t know what to say to you anymore. What the point is in talking.” “It might make you feel better. I lost my brother because he bottled up his secrets. I couldn’t let that happen to you, too.” He glanced at me. “You’re a good person, even now when you’re more fae than human. When we met, I finally remembered what it was like to think about something other than revenge. You probably saved my life in a way.” He looked away, his shoulders drooping. “I really did love you. I know you don’t believe that, but I did. Sending you away broke my heart, Cara. You were all I thought about for so long.” “If we’d loved each other enough, we would have found a way to be together,” I said gently. “I’m not blaming you. Our lives just took different paths.” “If I had let her, Sorcha and I would have had a happy marriage. If I had been able to let go of you, the idea of you, then we might have been happy.” “And she still would have sacrificed herself to have your son,” I said. “It’s not your fault that she died. I’m sorry I was so angry with you.” “You were right to be frustrated. You can’t understand what it’s like inside my head. I think… I think Sorcha understood me better, and it’s my fault that she suffered.” I took a step toward him, encouraged by his words. “So make up for it by loving Morgan the way I love Scarlet. Come to my court and see them together, and—” He shook his head. “I don’t think I can watch you and Brendan. It makes me physically sick to see you smile at him. I don’t think I can ever—” He hesitated as a strange rumbling sounded from somewhere underground. “What was that?” I whispered. “Another earthquake?” “I don’t—” The earth collapsed beneath him as a sinkhole suddenly formed. I screamed and reached for him, barely managing to grab his hand. I fell on the ground, one arm around the tree stump, the other burning with the effort to hold on to Drake. The earth continued to collapse, almost taking us both down with it. Drake’s face paled as he hung over the edge. The earth had just disappeared, and there was nothing to grip but me. He tried, but the wet dirt just slid between his fingers. “Climb up!” I cried. “I can’t hold you much longer.” “It’s too dangerous! If I keep pulling on the edge, it could collapse beneath you, too. I’d drag you down with me.” “Just hold on then!” I shouted as loudly as I could for help. The stump loosened, and I let out an alarmed yelp. “Cara,” Drake said, too calmly. “You’re going to fall. You have to let go of me now.” I squeezed his hand even tighter. “No!” “Let me go before you fall!” he roared. “Just let me go!” He tried to free himself from my grasp. Just when I felt I couldn’t hold on any longer, Brendan reached down and gripped Drake’s arm. “Cara, get back,” he said as he slipped in the mud. “It’s too heavy with the three of us.” I scrambled backward onto sturdier ground, my heart in my throat as two of the people I loved best risked their lives at the edge of a sinkhole. With a grunt, Brendan hauled Drake onto the surface again. They clambered away from the edges as the sinkhole grew. Brendan helped Drake up, and they both stood there, staring at each other, their limbs trembling. I was shaking, too, horrified by the close call. “You didn’t have to help me,” Drake said, gazing at Brendan. “You’re my friend,” Brendan said. “The brother I never had. Of course I had to help you.” I wasn’t sure who moved first, but they both hugged each other, and a hard little knot in my chest loosened. “We need to get away from here,” I said. “It hasn’t settled yet.” I led the way, and when the two men fell behind, I waited for them. “I know you’re upset about Sorcha,” Brendan was saying to Drake as they came closer. “She was loyal to me for a long time. I wish she still lived. But you have to let yourself feel it. You can’t pack it away this time. It’s killing you, Drake. All of this is killing you. There’s no shame in feeling, no shame in hurting.” Drake’s shoulders shook, as though in a silent sob. “Mourning her isn’t a weakness,” Brendan said, gesturing for me to leave them alone. With tears in my eyes, I obeyed. I had always known that Brendan cared, but with this, even Drake couldn’t ignore that fact. We were a team, an extended family, and even if Drake rejected us, we would always be there for him. Satisfied with that outcome, I made my way back to the others. “Where’s Drake?” Dymphna asked. “With Brendan. They’re just… dealing with their issues.” “It’s a man thing,” Bran added. I gave him a hug and settled in next to my friends. “Maybe it’s a king thing.” Chapter 25 Once Brendan and Drake had cleared the air, the atmosphere within the group relaxed even further. But the devastation to the earth continued, and we saw it firsthand as we rode past destroyed villages and dismembered bodies. I wondered if the dead had risen elsewhere and if we were seeing the aftermath of that, too. “What if the treasures don’t work?” Realtín whispered in my ear as she flitted from one horse to another. “They will,” I said firmly. “But what if it goes wrong?” “Then you’re just going to have to get used to the human realm again.” She tutted and flew over to Grim, who was riding with Líle. I rode on ahead, feeling the need to hurry the others. We hadn’t made enough progress, and the tablet showed no signs of depositing us at our unknown destination any time soon. Brendan was in the rear, still talking to Drake, and Rumble was scolding Vix over something. Bekind had turned back into a cat and rested on his saddle. I had the tablet and all the other treasures bar the sword. Something about holding that amount of magic in our hands was tiring, so we took turns carrying the tablet. We weren’t sure what it was, but it exhausted us all the same. I was watching the tablet, letting Dubh run as fast as he liked, when I heard an odd noise behind me and the panicked shouts of my friends. I looked back to see the others waving frantically. A massive crack had formed in the ground between us, separating me from them. I tried to reach them, but Dubh refused to jump over the fissure. He inched back as another crack sounded and the fracture widened. I planned to ride around it, but the crack kept growing, miles in each direction. As it widened, I remembered I only had three of the treasures. Without all four, they were each worthless. “No!” Bran shouted. I looked up in time to see Brendan running toward the fissure on foot. He fearlessly leapt across the chasm, very nearly falling to his death but managing to establish a grip on the edge at the last moment. He climbed up, the hole in the ground still widening. Dubh rode toward him, barely slowing enough for Brendan to grab the saddle and swing himself up behind me before galloping away from the still-shifting destruction. The ground kept shaking, lightning lit up the sky, and by the time the event ended, the crevice was so wide we would never find a way back across to the others. Our friends gestured wildly that they were going to try to find a way around. I waved mournfully and watched them all ride parallel to the chasm as they sought a place to cross. When they were almost out of sight, I turned in the saddle to slap Brendan’s arm. “What the hell did you do that for? You could have been killed!” He unsheathed the sword of victory. “Legendary treasure number four.” “Treasure number four could have been lost forever if you’d fallen, you big show-off.” He sheathed the sword and wrapped his arms around my waist, his voice suddenly desperate. “If you think I was going to leave you out here alone, then you must be insane. I’ve lost you too many times, Cara Kelly. It’s not happening again. It can’t.” I turned to kiss him, suddenly glad he was there. I wouldn’t have liked to be alone, even though Dubh was with me. “I’m glad you made the jump. I wasn’t looking forward to fighting off all the zombies on my own.” “I’m glad I made it, too. I’d hate to be remembered for falling into a hole.” We rode on to put the chasm far behind us. “You were right about this god being angry,” Brendan said. “We still have a long journey ahead of us, and he’s already managed to separate us once. That’s it now. We’re never leaving each other’s sides again.” I thought about tormenting him about the logistics of that plan but decided to let it go since he had risked his life for me and the realm. “Should we wait for the others to find us?” “The entire realm could be split in two. Let’s just carry on and hope they follow. We may need all the help we can get.” We didn’t dare stop to rest until it grew dark. “Is everything okay between you and Drake now?” I asked as we ate from our meagre supplies. He was silent for way too long. “What is it?” I asked. “He’s… in a bad state. He’s upset about so many things, and he feels he has to be strong to be a good king.” “But does he hate us?” “He hates seeing us together. Perhaps we shouldn’t… be close in front of him.” “We can’t hide how we feel.” “That’s the point. So perhaps in future we should see him individually rather than together. It’s rubbing his face in it otherwise.” “I had to see him with his wife often enough,” I said huffily. “Don’t be petty. It doesn’t suit you. He wasn’t happy to be married, and you know this. You and I being happy is the worst punishment he could ever have to endure. He’s seen it, he’s felt it. Now, can we stop reminding him?” “Fine,” I said grumpily. “If it’s that important to you.” “It should be important to you, too, if you care about him.” I deflated, all of my anger leaving me. “I do care about him. He’s our friend, he’s Scarlet’s father, and he’s a part of our story. We’re connected—I just wish he could see that.” “You can’t force him.” He laid down a blanket for us both. “Not everyone wants to be a part of what we have, Cara. You’re going to have to understand that. You can’t push him if he isn’t ready.” “But this whole thing about Scarlet being your heir was—” “His way of protecting himself and his son,” he said. “And likely protecting the chances of his relationship with Scarlet. My affection won’t harm her. He feels his might, so he backs away while I bond with her. He’s already lost out on so much.” “But your court is going to be pissed that you don’t have an heir. They’re not going to tolerate me, of all people. They’ll push you to marry again, bribe you like they did with Yvette, and then what will happen?” He pulled me onto the blanket and rested his hand on my stomach. “Who’s to say we can’t give them an heir? And if you don’t want that, then I’ll just have to find a child who’ll make an excellent leader and adopt them instead.” I laughed at his lighthearted tone. “You’re an idiot.” “Maybe so. But we’ve been through too much to let tradition hold us back now.” He lay on his back and closed his eyes. “One life-altering problem at a time is enough for me right now.” He fell silent, and I prodded him, but he had fallen asleep already. I curled up next to him, wishing I could be so self-assured. Chapter 26 “I feel like we’ve been here before,” I said, looking around me in confusion. I wasn’t exactly knowledgeable about trees, but there was an atmosphere in the air that felt familiar. The trees appeared taller, older, and more vibrant than elsewhere. The worst of the taint had bypassed the place, and that in itself was unusual. Brendan urged Dubh to stop. “That’s because we have. I could have sworn we were miles out, but we’re near the Keepers’ village, I think. I wonder if they moved on.” “Maybe we’re following a leyline,” I said. “But why? Surely it would be easier to follow a direct path instead of this backtracking nonsense.” “But leylines get used up. Maybe the map is just a route that’s possible right now, but it doesn’t know beforehand. It just follows the lines.” “And if there were no leylines?” He sighed. “It doesn’t seem like the best use of our time.” “There must be a reason.” “Let’s hope it’s a good one.” I nudged Dubh with my knee, and he set off again. “I hope the others are all right.” Brendan brushed my hair out of the way to kiss the back of my neck. “They’ll take care of each other. They don’t need you there to remember that.” “This path’s been so quiet that it makes me worry about what they’re facing. I wonder if we’ll pass that village again.” “You remember the place fondly.” I covered his hand with mine. I hadn’t been sure of my growing feelings for Brendan then because I’d been so caught up in Drake’s will-we-or-won’t-we drama. So much time had been wasted, but I couldn’t regret it. Some things were meant to be. “That night we stayed in the Keepers’ village was one of the best I’ve ever had. It was the way I always imagined the fae to be. No cruelty or pain, just… fun. They lived so simply, but well. None of the court intrigues or politics or secrets to spoil everything. It was more entertaining than any big party or ball.” “They don’t celebrate every day.” “No, but they did for us, and it’s a good memory.” “I’m glad,” he said. “That you have good memories, even from back then.” “I remember how I felt back then,” I said wistfully. “How confused everything became when you were freed from the Fade. I was so desperate to stay in the faery realm. I was terrified of losing it all, my memories of you and Drake and everyone. I thought it would be you who would take it away. But it was him. If I paid more attention, I would have realised sooner.” “The faery realm will always be yours,” he said under his breath. “Never think—” We froze as someone yelled from nearby. “We should help,” I said. With a grunt, Brendan urged Dubh toward the sound. “Help!” a young boy cried, bursting out from thickly knotted trees and right into our path. “Help us!” He was too excited to do much more than point, so Brendan dismounted and sat the boy on top of Dubh with me. “It’s all right,” I said soothingly. The boy shook his head. “Help him.” We investigated, letting the boy lead the way. We came upon Dwyer, a tracker and one of the keepers, sitting with his back to a tree trunk as three dead Darksiders advanced on him. Dwyer looked too astonished to move, and Brendan took on the dead alone, quickly ending the confrontation. “We need to burn the bodies,” Brendan said. “I saw my father,” Dwyer said, inspecting an injury to his leg. “He wasn’t real, so I thought these weren’t either. What’s happening to us?” “A god is over-reacting somewhere,” I said. “It’s over now.” Dwyer looked up at the boy. “Take them to the village and tell somebody to come help me burn the bodies.” He nodded at Brendan. “And thank you.” “Just repaying a favour you once did for us,” Brendan said. “And I’ll help you with the fires while she rests in the village.” Dwyer agreed, and the boy helped me find the village. By the time we arrived, his story had expanded until he was the hero surrounded by dozens of terrifying dead. I let him have it. The village was odd. Buildings had been carved into ancient trees, and the place was circled by even larger trees that protected them from view—unless you already knew the way. A group of women greeted us, eager to hear the boy’s story. A young woman with freckles pushed her way through the crowd to greet me. She grinned. “I knew I’d see you again someday.” “Tayla,” I said, happy to see another familiar face. “You’re okay.” Her face fell. “For now. Tell me you know how to stop this poison. Nothing we do is helping. It works too fast, destroying roots before they’ve even taken hold. We were protected for so long, but in the last few weeks, we’ve all realised that our home is dying as rapidly as the rest of the realm.” “We’re on our way to do something about that,” I said. “We just happened to come across Dwyer on the way.” “So you’re staying for the night?” She sighed with relief. “It’s been so miserable. I could use happy news. Come on. We’ll wash and eat, and you can tell me everything.” Everything. Where did I even start? * * * The keepers of the forest had convoluted rules which meant I would spend the afternoon with Tayla and wouldn’t see Brendan again until that evening when the bonfire was lit. I wasn’t sad to spend time with Tayla, but I wished I didn’t have to waste time away from Brendan—just in case. It was nice to bathe in a clean pool though. Tayla and the others spent a lot of time braiding my hair like theirs. They saw the darkened veins on my arms and acted as though they hadn’t, but the atmosphere drooped after that. I was a reminder that their way of life was dying. “I’m going to fix it,” I whispered to Tayla. “This isn’t the end.” She smiled, but her concern was clear. “It feels as though it’s too late. As though we’re saying goodbye.” “You could go to the human realm.” “If we leave, it really will be the end. We won’t ever leave this place.” I remembered a village of bones and wondered if those people had thought the same thing. As the sky darkened, the bonfire burned brighter than ever, and it was time for the evening’s celebration to begin. The little girls led me to the bonfire, but the lightness in their step was gone. The village had a tradition of hosting a celebration when visitors arrived, playing sad music that acknowledged the loneliness of the stars—who were always watching. Upbeat music would then follow so the elders could choose their dance partners first—and there were no refusals—to entertain the stars. So I was fully expecting the heart-breaking whine of the violin and the drumbeats that played a rhythm on my soul. But I hadn’t expected the villagers to be so depressed that they just couldn’t bring themselves to celebrate. “The music comes from the earth.” Tayla gestured to the drum snares that were partially embedded in the ground. “If the earth weeps, so should we. The stars will understand. They will watch us die and weep for us when we are long-forgotten.” I wrapped my arms around my knees as a little girl pinned freshly plucked flowers into my hair. The flowers were already wilting, and the little girl’s hands were stained with grey. The blight had affected everyone in the realm in ways large and small. Brendan soon approached us, his hands in his pockets. “The elder is in no mood for dancing, and as I’m a gazillion years old…” He held out his hand. “May I have this dance, Cara Kelly?” I grinned and took his hand. He pulled me to the bonfire and held me close. “I’m afraid it’s not quite how you remember it,” he said. “This is no celebration.” “They’re all so very sad. What about you? Did you burn the bodies?” “Yes. And I’m wondering if perhaps we are the ones causing the bodies to rise—if they are following in our wake. Is this god trying to spy on us or stop us?” I shivered at the idea of the dead watching us. “Maybe he’s trying to see what we’re made of.” His lips curved upward. “I think we’ve been holding back, personally.” He ran his thumb across my lips. “You look most beautiful in places like this, Cara. With no shoes on your feet and flowers in your hair. There’s no way we can fail. Not us. We’ve managed the impossible together too many times. These people shouldn’t be so miserable.” I stopped dancing and reached up onto the tips of my toes to kiss his cheek. “What was that for?” he asked, looking pleased. “You and your ego boosts again.” I leaned in as some more couples joined us. “Is it just me or is the music getting faster? A little less, woe is me?” He forced me into a twirl, making me laugh. “Your good mood must be catching.” “Think I can make them all happy?” He slowed to kiss my forehead. “I think you can do anything you dream of.” I wrapped my arms around him and smiled. “I’ll try to be sneaky about it then.” As we danced, I slowly leaked out some of the happiness I was feeling. And it was easy. Easier than anger or pain or sorrow. At some point, I had decided I was allowed to be happy, and when the darker moods touched me, they didn’t survive for long. I shared my happiness with the village—just enough to ease the sadness that had shrouded their celebration. By the time Brendan and I needed to take a break from dancing, everyone was on their feet, giving the stars the show they liked to promise them. Brendan and I sat with a group of children who were listening to stories told by the older women. The light of the fire danced on their awed faces as they heard tales that made them shiver and laugh in turn. Once, I would have listened with them, but now I watched their hopeful expressions instead, committing them to memory in case I needed yet another reason to keep going, no matter what it cost me. It was hard to think about loss next to a king. His fingertips ran up and down my arms, and the air crackled with more than the heat from the fire. When the stories ended, the children giggled and danced around the fire in a ring to avoid being sent to bed. The old women chased them, scolding them with smiling eyes, and soon, Brendan and I were alone, sitting in the shadows as we watched the village return to life. “You did this.” He kissed my knuckles then touched the black wedding ring on my finger. “Isn’t it time you took this off?” “It doesn’t remind me of Sadler,” I said. “It reminds me of the day I married the Darkside and made them my family. I can’t let go of them, Brendan. Not even for you.” “I know. Watching you care for even those forgotten fae… I fear for how things would have turned out if you hadn’t been there when I returned, Cara.” His gaze turned wistful. “I fear for the fate of my soul.” “You were already different.” “Perhaps not different enough.” He studied my face. “Your sadness once reminded me of Sadler’s wife, and I felt as though making you smile would wipe my sins clean.” “Did it work?” “I will always wear those sins,” he said softly. “I’m not ashamed to acknowledge the wrongs I did. But making you smile did something to me that I can’t even explain. You smile often enough on your own now, but I still like to be the one who earns them.” “I wish you were with me every day.” Every time I let myself feel, I shed a little more fear. Not even the thought of what might come next could force me back behind the walls I’d built so long ago. “The time we spend together will be sweeter for the absence.” He sounded as though it were a promise. “Then we should start making the most of it.” I took his hand and led him away from the bonfire and into the forest that protected the village. “Where are we going?” His voice sounded husky in the darkness. I stopped moving to kiss him. “Bed.” He picked me up in one slick movement. “I’m fairly certain this isn’t the way.” “Shut up.” I kissed him hard. “And follow me.” Grinning, he let me down, and I felt cold away from his arms. “I love it when you boss me around,” he teased. I took his hand and pulled him after me, only stopping for brief kisses beneath ancient trees that sighed as though they felt our touch themselves. Leaves lightly fell around us, swirling in the wind at our feet. I felt them, felt everything, as though we were a part of the forest itself. I pulled away and held him still. “Every time you kiss me, I feel the entire realm is watching. Waiting for… I don’t know what.” “For me to fall, perhaps.” Shadows fell across his face as he studied me, his gaze as intense and heated as when he needed to hunt. “Except… last time, the land warned me, and I didn’t pay attention to the signs. This time…” He glanced around. I held my breath. “This time, the land celebrates with me.” A ghost of a smile curved his lips. “And so the girl turned the foolish king into a man.” “Don’t make fun,” I whispered. “I’m not.” He brought me to his lips more urgently, brushing my fringe away from my face as though it would pull him closer to me. A gust of wind enveloped us, pushing us together, and I knew what he meant. It felt as though the realm had given its blessing. I found my way under his shirt and pinched his sides to make him jump. “We’ll never get there at this rate.” “But where is there?” His smile was light-hearted, but his breathing was ragged. I sucked his lower lip into my mouth and delighted in his reaction. “You’ll see.” It took us an age, but we finally reached the stream I had washed in earlier that afternoon. There was a beautiful clearing right by it that was hit by the sun during the day, and I knew it would give us the perfect view of the stars. “Is this…” He sounded confused. “Are those our things?” I smiled at his surprise and threw some dry kindling on the still burning embers of a fire. “I set up camp here earlier to give us space away from the others. The boy who called for help kept the fire going for me until he got distracted by the dancing.” I tugged on his hand. “Sit down already.” Shaking his head, he obeyed, his eyes bright with mischief. He belonged in the forest, far away from the dullness of court. He sat on a flat rock then pulled me down in front of him and wrapped his arms around me. For a long while, we sat there in the darkness, hearing nothing but the rustling of leaves and the crackling of the fire as a new born flame licked the fresh tinder. “Listen,” he whispered. “The trees don’t care that we’re royals.” “I hate to break it to you, but you don’t often act royal in my company.” “Hush.” He nibbled my earlobe. “You just don’t like authority.” “But I like you.” I squeezed his thighs. “I don’t care if you have a crown.” He sighed and held me closer. “I thought you wanted to be part of the celebrations.” I leaned back against his chest. “I am.” I reached up to touch his cheek. “I want to be alone with you tonight.” “Except for the stars,” he teased, but his grip on me had tightened. The air already hung heavy with anticipation. I turned my body to kneel before him. “Let them watch.” I kissed him, relishing the warmth of his embrace as he wrapped his arms around me, drawing me closer. His touch was firm and sure, and we moved around each other as though we had been together for centuries. “I could glamour it all,” he whispered between dropping kisses on my mouth and chin. “Make you see a beautiful bedroom with sheets made of silk.” “I don’t need the lie.” I had spent far too long holding on to a mistake in case giving up diminished everything I had gone through. “The truth is all I want.” “I’m glad.” He ran his finger from my lips to my throat. “I tired of the glamour.” He unbuttoned my shirt—holding my gaze the entire time—then slid it off my shoulders, his fingertips skimming my collarbone. Delicate kisses followed. My skin prickled as I shrugged the rest of the way out of the fabric. He traced the bumps on my skin. “You’re shivering.” I laughed. “I know.” I ran my hands through his hair and pulled him closer to me. “Now kiss me.” He held back, his eyes sparkling with humour. “I thought I enjoyed the chase, but this…” I gently bit on his lip to shut him up. But still there was something making him hesitate; I felt the tension in his limbs. I remembered another night when we had been drunk on magic, when everything had been wild and confusing. When I had chosen Drake. But we weren’t drunk on magic anymore. “Brendan,” I said shakily. “Are you willing?” His breath hitched. “Always, for you.” Holding my gaze, he carried me to the blankets and gently lay me down. He leaned over me, his face inches above mine. The light from the fire hit his hair, making it look more golden than red. I eagerly helped him pull his shirt over his head, letting my hands linger on the hard muscles of his body until I knew the shape of him by heart. Laying there, so close to him, felt right in a way I hadn’t anticipated. When he kissed me, his hands constantly caressed my skin, and my heart felt close to bursting. The rest of the world had faded away, and with it, our problems. There was only us. It had always been us; I had just been too stupid to realise it. He drifted lower, whispering words of love, and a lump in my throat formed. I shook with a silent sob that sent him back to my face. “What is it? Why do you look so sad?” “I’m not sad, I swear. I just wish… I hadn’t wasted so much time.” He brushed his nose against mine. “My soul is yours. Nothing else matters.” “I’m sorry I made you wait.” He pressed a kiss at the corner of my mouth. “The point is that I waited, is it not?” I wriggled out from under him and flipped him onto his back to straddle him. “I’m so freaking glad you made that jump.” Grinning, he sat up and kissed me, our limbs hooking around each other as if they knew the moves better than we did. My nerve endings burned in the best way as his warm tongue explored my mouth. I dug my fingertips into his skin when he brushed his hand through my hair, sending a rush of sensations throughout my body. I wanted him badly, and he could feel it, but his eyes hadn’t glazed over. It was real. All of it. We spent the night exploring each other, undressing slowly to reveal a little more skin at a time. But there was only so long we could hold back. Soft kisses grew heated, loving touches grew eager, and the night slowly burned away as we put on a show for the stars. I didn’t hold back anymore. I gave him everything I had. And in the heat of the moment, when my breath caught in my throat and the world stood still, I held his loving gaze and trusted that everything reflected back at me was true. Even if it all went wrong, I would always have that night—and so many other great memories with him. We watched dawn break together, our naked limbs entangled, and my heart still racing like a hummingbird’s wings. Brendan kissed my back then propped himself up on his elbow to look at me. I tried to stretch, but I still felt wobbly. “I hate to feed your ego, but that was totally worth the wait.” He ran his fingers across the tattoo on my hip until I shivered. “Do you think the stars are pleased with us?” I grinned. “They should be. That was years of build up right there. It’s not going to be like that every time.” He stopped moving. “Challenge accepted.” Laughing, I rolled over to face him. We had a world to save, but not for a few more hours. Chapter 27 We travelled for days, snatching only a couple of hours of rest at a time. Occasionally we would pass a small tribe or village and be welcomed with offers of shelter and supplies. But in between, we rode on, never daring to wonder what would happen at the end of the never-ending rainbow. The tablet kept drawing our path, marking landmarks and giving us clues about the landscape. We saw no more dead rising, but the weather grew stormier the longer we travelled. The landscape changed, and the sun stopped shining altogether. Nights lengthened until there was barely any day left, and I worried that neither of us would never find our way home again. “Do you have any idea where we are?” I asked Brendan, barely able to keep my eyes open. “None at all,” he admitted. “But the map seems to be slowing down. I think we’re almost there.” “I’m so scared,” I whispered. “We’re all scared. When has that ever stopped us?” That evening, we were forced to squeeze through a narrow path into a deep valley. I gazed upward, feeling incredibly small and insignificant. About halfway through the valley, the tablet cleared, and all of the treasures began to hum again. “What is this place?” I asked. “I’ve no idea. I have a feeling we walked off the edge of our maps a long time ago.” I squinted as something caught my eye. “There’s something over there, in the earth. Something shining, I think, but I can feel it, even from here. Think it’s some kind of mega powerful leyline?” We urged Dubh on until we reached a wide expanse of power. The humming grew louder. The earth looked murkier there, and yet gleamed at the same time. It reminded me of the portals we passed through to get to the human realm, but they never led underground. “It’s a gateway,” Brendan whispered. “The blackthorn witch mentioned the gate of the gods. Any idea what that is?” “Perhaps a portal?” But a portal to what? “What now?” “We go through,” he said. “And hold on tight to each other.” But I remembered what the blackthorn witch had said. Only one of us would wield the treasures. “Wait,” I said, tugging his arm as he dismounted. “What is it?” He helped me off Dubh, and I stood there, swallowing hard, trying to figure out how to tell him without telling him. And then I decided not to tell him at all. “I’m just so tired,” I said. “And we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s been… I can’t just walk in.” “Then I will.” He took my hands. “You don’t have to risk your life. You and Drake have children to worry about. I have none.” He gently squeezed my fingers. “I never meant for you to take on this responsibility, Cara. Sadler was my problem, and I’m the one who should clean up his mess.” My heart warmed as I gazed up at him. “Sadler brought all of us into this. It’s not just on your shoulders anymore. And if there is a risk, can’t we just have one more night together first?” He seemed about to protest, but then his gaze turned tender. He held my face in his hands then pressed a kiss to my lips. “I would love that.” We camped in the valley, keeping our distance from the portal. The power it held made me shake inside, and I didn’t want to see it when I spent my last night with Brendan. I didn’t know what would happen when I stepped inside the portal. I might be too late; it might be a trick. So much could go wrong for us. Brendan built a small fire before darkness hit. I felt his gaze on me, heavy as a touch, and I settled next to him. We sat together, holding hands, until I shivered and he drew me to him. I felt his heartbeat, his breath against my cheek, and I wanted to cry. But that would waste time. I needed to savour every second. I looked up at the lilac moon and saw stars crowded together. “Do you think the stars are still watching?” “What else in the realm is as interesting to watch as you?” he murmured, leading me to our blanket. He whispered of dreams of the future in between loving kisses, and it was all I could do to keep the tears at bay. “You’re a good mother,” he said, running his hand across my stomach. “I was half-joking before, but I want you to be the mother of my heir, Cara. There can never be anyone else.” “But what if—” “Can’t you feel it? Our souls are intertwined.” He grinned. “We can’t truly be separated. We’ve proved that.” “Setanta told me the story of Tristram and Iseult,” I said. “Ah, that explains the names of your dogs.” He kissed my shoulder. “I should have known you would choose melancholy names.” “Setanta said they were soulmates. That everyone knows soulmates can’t separate. No matter what, they find each other again. Do you really believe that?” “As a youth? No. Now, very much so. There’s something that connects you to me, an invisible thread that can be pulled taut but never snapped. From early on, I just knew, somehow, that we would always be a part of each other’s worlds. It makes more sense now than it did then, but I always felt I knew you well, even before I truly did.” He kissed me then, and I gathered him to me. Every touch, every movement, every kiss I held tight in my mind in case it was our last. Later that night, when he was safely asleep, I quickly dressed in silence. I grabbed the treasures and ran, sprinting toward the portal. I was a few feet away when I heard him shout my name, distraught. If I looked at his face, I would give up, I knew. “I’m sorry!” I cried before leaping through the portal and leaving Brendan behind. It was too late to change my mind. Chapter 28 My stomach somersaulted as I fell through the portal and into another world. It wasn’t the faery realm. At least, it didn’t feel like it, but it was an extension of the magic. I stood on a long, lonely road. A haze surrounded me, so I couldn’t see far into the distance or make out what was on either side of the road. But when I looked over my shoulder, I couldn’t see the portal either. There was only one way to go, and that was forward. Every nerve in my body thrilled as I started walking, each step one closer to the end of the fae’s problems. Unless I had been fooled. Unless my instincts were wrong. Unless I had left Brendan behind for nothing. I was in my bare feet and wearing a long white dress. Just like my very first night with the fae. That wasn’t a good sign. White was never a good colour for a human in the faery realm. A queen now, I scolded myself, but my hands trembled all the same. And then the voices came, whispering to me, shouting at me, commanding me to choose, to decide. I heard the three priestesses telling me to give Brighid back her gift. They reached for me out of the haze, but I couldn’t tell if they were real or not. I covered my ears and screamed “No!” as forcefully as I could. My throat ached, but the voices of the demi-priestesses disappeared. But other voices came, telling me to choose a sacrifice. Faces appeared, hands grabbed at me. My mother, my daughter, my love, the realm… or my soul. I couldn’t lose any of them. I couldn’t. I wanted family and love and the fae, and I desperately needed to keep my soul. I had let the darkness and the power corrupt me before. I couldn’t again. The journey continued, but my feet were bleeding, the hem of my dress was frayed and dirty, and a train was beginning to form in my wake. Ahead of me was one of Deorad’s sons. The man who had killed Rat was standing on the road, staring at me, his stomach bleeding profusely. Blood slid from his mouth like tar. I couldn’t look at him. I walked around him, avoiding a touch that never came. “You called me a free man,” he said as I passed then he spat out his tongue. MacKenzie was next, my dagger still in his heart. “Liar,” he spat. “Manipulator. There’s no honour in you.” Donella was next, trying in vain to stem the bleeding from her neck. “My true ancestor,” she said, cackling. I kept going. I couldn’t regret either of their deaths. The alternative was just too horrible. Sadler was there, the cruel doctor behind him, holding the mirrored staff against Sadler’s back as though he were the puppet-master. Sadler’s laugh sounded truly happy. “You turned into me. I chose the right wife, after all.” Reynard knelt at my feet, still bleeding from the wound I had inflicted on him. I glared at him, unable to feel any shame for his death, and he faded away. I saw Deorad, cradling his wings in his arms, and Rat, who turned her back on me because I had failed her. Unfamiliar faces gathered. Deaths I was responsible for. I saw fae still living, their ghostly forms curled up in pain because I had used my emotions against them. Sorcha stood there, covered in blood, holding my gaze as I passed her. She shook her head and moved her mouth, but I couldn’t hear the words. And then I saw my human family. My dead brother stood alone, staring at me as though trying to figure me out. Or perhaps he didn’t recognise what was left of the little girl he knew. My parents clung to each other, their pain clear in their eyes. The man I had called father avoided my gaze, and my mother scratched her cheeks the way she had the day she sent me away. And I hadn’t forgiven her. I’d forgiven fae who had tried to kill me, but I hadn’t forgiven my own family, and that regret was a revelation. By then, tears were running down my cheeks. From the haze came black-veined hands that almost touched me. I kept walking resolutely ahead. It didn’t matter what happened to me. I had to make it to the end. I had no choice. The fae were relying on me. I was the one holding the treasures, and I was the one who had stepped through the gate. It was up to me, and I couldn’t afford to fail. The next part of the road led up a steep hill. I was exhausted. The dress grew heavier and heavier, growing with every face I passed. I ended up on my hands and knees, sweat running down my back as I crested the hill. And at the top of the hill was another land, a place that didn’t seem real. Brighid’s flowers grew everywhere, interspersed with forests of the First Tree. And before me, standing proud, her hands gripping a spear, was a tall, muscular woman. Brighid. The name came to me at once. I had seen a painting, and it bore a resemblance to this woman, but the real goddess was indescribable. It was hard to look at her. She gleamed with power and goodness, and the land itself was fertile at her feet. I felt vile in comparison to her. She took two steps forward, white flowers sprouting where she had stepped. I couldn’t breathe. I just stared up at her, completely overwhelmed. “Is it really you?” I whispered. “Are you… are you Brighid?” “Yes,” she said, and every emotion was spun in her words. They were warm and scolding all at once, and I wanted to cry for no reason at all. “You never abandoned them,” I said tearfully. “You didn’t leave them at all.” “I did,” she said softly. “I came here to guard the way. A terrible god sleeps behind me, and he’s waking up. When he awakes fully, I will be the first thing he destroys. And with me, the realm will truly die.” “But we can stop it. I have the treasures, and—” “The treasures,” she scoffed. “You have the treasures, but can you wield them? With all you have to lose? You’ve come a long way, Cara Kelly. A lot of humans have been led to the faery realm, but I believe you’re the first to build your own kingdom.” “I didn’t build it. I stole it.” “For power,” she said, her voice hardening. “And have you been a good queen, Cara Kelly? Do you deserve the loyalty you’ve earned among the fae?” I stared at my feet for a moment before meeting her gaze. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I know I have, but I’ve tried to do what’s best for them.” “Do you know the path you walked? That was your judgement. Only the pure may pass me. Nobody comes this far without being judged, and I’m afraid you’ve been found lacking. You’ve driven a wedge between two kings, murdered a third, and ruled his court with an iron fist. Do you deny it?” I hung my head. I wished I could. “No.” But then I met her gaze with a fierceness of my own. “I’ve done what I had to do, and I think the consequences would have been worse if I hadn’t interfered.” Her gaze softened. “Sadly, we cannot see the alternatives.” “Are you going to punish me?” She came closer and lifted her spear. I flinched as she brought it down, but suddenly, the unbearable weight was gone. Brighid had cut the train of the dress away, cut me free. “I wasn’t the one who judged you,” she said gently. “You judged yourself, carried your sins, and still, you made it here with all four treasures. You wore your sins well, but now you are clean again. You stand before me pure. You’ve earned the right to pass, but what do you plan on doing next, Cara Kelly?” “I want to stop the god of Chaos. Is it even possible?” “It’s possible, but that does not make it easy.” She took a couple of steps away from me. “I’ve watched you.” “And now you want me to sacrifice my daughter,” I said bitterly. “Your little priestesses told me. Well, I don’t accept that, and if you even try, don’t imagine I won’t use the four treasures on you before I reach Chaos. There’s always another way.” “There’s always another way. But for the power to make a god sleep, a price must be paid.” Her face remained expressionless. “You could sacrifice a king.” “No,” I snapped. “Never.” “You killed Sadler.” “He wasn’t a king. He was a crazy murderer who had been manipulated by despicable beings. I put him out of his misery.” “Perhaps. The father of your child is his descendant. Perhaps he should be the one to pay for his grandfather’s crimes.” “No,” I said in a shaky voice. “He might have made mistakes, too, but Drake does not deserve to die. I won’t offer him up to you either.” “And Brendan?” she asked lightly. “He’s escaped from the Fade twice now. His next deal with death will be his last. Isn’t his time up?” “Leave him alone,” I said, terrified she would pick him because he hated her. “He’s a good man and a great king. I won’t let you hurt him.” “Can you truly stop me?” She raised her brows. “Of them all, I would hate to see him die. He’s the last of my kin, and his son could lead the fae to greatness.” “His son?” My heart threatened to stop. Brighid smiled kindly. “I only know of possible futures. Great things will come from Brendan now that he’s learned his lesson.” Chairs appeared out of nowhere, and we were both suddenly sitting, facing each other. “There are more options. The parents who raised you were not good to you. You’re angry with them. I can taste your displeasure from here. Who would it harm to let them be punished?” I squeezed my eyes shut. I hated the man I called father, but not enough to kill him. “No,” I said in a quiet voice. “It would be the easiest choice.” I refused to answer. Hate had gotten hold of my heart, but I was still human. I already knew what I had to do. “You could always seal the portals and save the human realm by letting the faery one die. If Chaos self-destructs with nowhere else to go, many lives will be saved. You could even flee with those you care about first. Without the crown, you and Brendan could be together. Your daughter would have a normal life. You would have everything you ever wanted.” “I want the fae to live,” I said passionately. “I want to save them all.” “I see that you don’t understand. We need power to stop Chaos.” “I don’t have much of that.” I shivered. There was one thing. “Can you take my… feelings?” She cocked her head to the side. “In a way. There is some power in your emotions, but there is power in the love of any human. I believe the love you feel for those you care for is your most powerful gift. A love offering indeed. If you give up a piece of your heart, your sacrifice—and the grief you will feel—will give us the power to send him back to sleep for a time. It will hurt, but—” “How do I kill him?” She leaned back in her chair, the corners of her mouth lifting. “You think to kill a god?” “If Bart was telling the truth about sealing the portals, then he was telling the truth about everything else. I know there’s two ways to do this. You need a vessel or something.” “You don’t understand what a vessel must do,” she said. “The vessel must take the darkness of Chaos into her own body, endure suffering like no other. The vessel then uses the sword of victory on themselves to stop the sickness before it takes hold. It’s the only sure way to end the darkness.” “So somebody has to die?” I asked. “Why? What is this game?” “The game is over. I see what you are made of, and I am satisfied. Last time, there was no vessel because the intended one died before the end, but in truth, he was never willing.” “A willing sacrifice,” I said. “That was always my destiny then.” She shrugged. “There are few who can be the vessel. You see, true gods don’t die. They are reborn, a piece at a time, in the souls of their descendants. Only those with a piece of a true god inside them can even attempt to withstand the poison long enough to kill Chaos.” “You said Brendan was your kin,” I whispered. “He was supposed to be the vessel?” “There is no supposed to. You make your own choices. And while it’s true that Brendan has enough of my father in his soul to make this sacrifice, there is another. Babd herself was reborn into your kin.” “You mean Donella? She’s descended from a god?” I ran my hands through my hair. “She’s dead. We… we killed her already. And Sadler. He said… he’s dead, too.” “No,” she said. “Neither of them came from us. I’m talking about your father’s side of the family.” I was confused for a moment, but then realisation struck. “You mean the man who raped my mother.” “And if he hadn’t, you wouldn’t be standing here today, preparing to save the world. We all have our sacrifices to make. I’ve had to watch my world slowly die. Chaos killed those I loved. They will be born again, but he took the forms I knew. And a piece of a true god lies in your soul, as with Brendan.” “I don’t understand,” I said, wanting to cry. “I don’t have any power. I can’t kill a god because you think some distant relative had the power of a god. I don’t even understand what that means! My soul is mine!” “Everyone has power. I want to cry because you want to cry. If that’s not power, then I don’t know what is.” “You’ve got this wrong,” I insisted. “I don’t have anything to do with any gods.” “You are a true child of Ireland. The fae have forgotten what that really means, but I have not. You have ancient blood, carry the remnants of a lost god, and you are capable of beating Chaos for good. But you are unlikely to survive, and the choice is always yours to make.” I sucked in a deep breath. “How do I beat him?” “Even though you know you’ll likely die?” “I can’t send him back to sleep. Not if he could return. It’s too risky.” “Then you’ll need the treasures,” she said. “The tablet will lead your way again, but it isn’t far. You’ll find his body, bound to an altar, and then you will pierce his side with the spear. You will fill the cup with his tainted blood, and then you’ll drink it.” I must have looked alarmed, because she hurried to continue. “You need to take his immortality away, and then you can kill him with the sword. But you need to survive the taint long enough to use the sword at the right time. You may not. This could all be for nothing.” “But if I take his immortality away, will I become immortal?” “You will be… changed. Containing what is in Chaos will…” She ducked her head, but I thought I caught the sight of a tear glistening in her eyes. “Before the tainted blood can twist you into something terrible, you will turn the sword on yourself and end the blight forever. The death will destroy this place, but the realm will survive.” “I have to kill myself,” I said solemnly. “After everything, that’s what I have to do.” “You will suffer most horribly, but you will save the realm, and free me from my task. And when I am free, I will deal with the hypocrisies of my corrupted priestesses. Every child is indeed a gift, and gifts are not meant to be returned.” She lifted me from my seat and rested her hand on the nape of my neck. “I will reward you for your selflessness, Cara Kelly, for freeing me and refusing to sacrifice that which you love instead of yourself, but you must hurry. We’re almost out of time.” Chapter 29 She kept her hand on me as I walked into the forest behind her. “What happens if I succeed?” I asked. “I’ll be free, Chaos will die, and the realm will have a chance to heal.” I looked up at her. “And if I fail?” “Then those you love are destined to meet again in the Nether.” “Do humans go to the Nether?” “The Nether is just the beginning. We all end up in the same place. There are no faeries and humans—only souls. And every soul has the opportunity for peace.” “I’m going to die in here either way.” Her touch tightened. “You are not scared?” “I don’t know how I feel. But when I die, and you’re free, can you watch over them for me? Everyone I care about?” She smiled down on me then, looking more like a mother than a warrior. “I have always watched through the eyes of others, and I always will.” My entire body trembled. “You’re not alone,” she said kindly. “I don’t want to die.” “All mothers want to see their children grow.” But I had to die so they could live. “Is there a risk I could survive but become evil? Like Chaos?” She didn’t answer, but I already knew what would happen if it went wrong. That great big spear in her hand would run me through. We reached the end of the path. “You must continue underground from here,” she said. “Chaos is caught in a liminal place between living and death. He’s almost free. If I could do this myself, I would, but if I took his poison into me, I would surely become just as terrible. You will make a safer vessel.” “Because I’m only human,” I said wryly. She took my hand. “You are a valiant warrior descended from the gods. You may look and act human, but your soul is fierce. Never forget that. Keep walking, Cara Kelly. May your heart stay brave.” “Did you lead me here?” I asked, faltering at the top step underground. “You’re here because of the path you chose to walk. Because your soul knew it was meant for greater things.” I winced. My soul wasn’t feeling very brave just then. I had never been so scared in all my life. I had too much to live for. I had found a place in the world, finally, a place I belonged. I had found love and friendship and family, and now I had to leave it all behind. I didn’t want to step down into the darkness, didn’t want to face a god, but I did it anyway because there was nobody else. And if I couldn’t have the things I had found, then I at least wanted them still to exist without me. As a goddess watched, I stepped into the dark to face a waking god. * * * At the bottom of the steps, a dark tunnel stretched before me. I kept walking, the bag of treasures in my hands. The path forked and screams of pain sounded from every direction, but I followed the map on the tablet and soon came to a cavernous room. On a massive stone table lay what was once a man. He was tall and broad and almost entirely blackened with the taint. It drained from his eyes, curdled at the corners of his mouth, even crusted under his fingernails. And he murmured constantly, twisting against invisible bonds in his waking sleep. He breathed misery, and it engulfed me like living chains. But it couldn’t suffocate me because I knew true happiness, and I wore it like a shield. I dropped the bag and took out the rest of the treasures, laying them neatly next to one another. I wanted to vomit, but I kept moving. The treasures were all alive and awake and waiting to use their power. I hefted the spear into my hand. It had transformed as soon as I’d picked it up as though it were ready for its true purpose. I climbed onto the stone table in the space between his outstretched legs. He was bare chested, and I saw a clear area on his hip, an area somehow untouched by the blight, a truly living piece of him. That was my target, I decided. I sank the blade into his flesh with all of my might. His murmurs grew louder, and his fingers flexed. I was running out of time. I hopped off the table and picked up the cup, shuddering at the thought of what I had to do next. He bled black taint, not blood, and I held the cup under his wound to collect it. And when the cup was full, I lifted it to my lips and drank. His darkness smelled sweet and rotten at the same time. I gagged on the taste, but the visions were worse. I saw his life, his evil, his horror. I inhaled the terror he had wrought on the world. As I drank, the blight touched my veins and hardened into place. I filled the cup again, whispered words coming from over my shoulder, invisible hands clawing at my skin. Determined, I drank a second cup, this one worse than the last. I wanted to yank my own tongue out, but I kept thinking of the faces of those relying on me, and that kept me grounded long enough to drink another cup, and then another. It was the only way I could keep bringing the cup to my mouth. When the blight wrapped around me too heavily, I thought of Brendan’s touch, and it eased the pain a little. I kept drinking, and it grew harder to pick the cup back up. The blight weighed me down, made me nauseous and sweaty. A darkness surrounded my heart, twisted in my blood. I saw the sword and wished I could use it on myself because the pain was surely killing me. I heard my brother’s voice, screaming at me to stop, heard Scarlet and Lily crying, heard Brendan begging me to end it all. I kept drinking. It felt like hours, and I could barely move with the weight of it. White and black spots appeared in my vision, and I struggled to stay on my feet. I filled the cup one more time, and then the taint stopped pouring out of Chaos. I drank the final cup as fast as I could. My head felt light, my body almost weightless. Power crackled at my fingertips. I dropped the cup and stared at my hands, feeling magic the likes of which I had never felt before. I could use it, wield it, grow in power, and— A hand grabbed my wrist, and I screamed with fright. But I saw the scream, like rays of power released into the world. When it stopped, I realised Chaos was sitting up, his arm covering his face as though to protect himself. He dropped his arm, and his eyes were as white as snow, his lips a blackened red. He snarled then reached out to hit me. I ducked, striking out wildly with magic that I didn’t have a clue how to use, but he avoided my attack and took hold of me again. The magic hit the ceiling, and it started to collapse. I struggled out of his grasp, but he was faster than me. He leapt on me as I dove for the treasures, and both of us crumpled to the floor. I was terrified, and I used that against him. With one hand reaching for the sword of victory, I half-turned and laid my hand on his face. I conjured up every fear and pain I had ever felt and pushed them at him. Perhaps it was the power I stole from him, but he screamed in fear, his eyes wide with terror. I gripped the sword and scrambled out from under him. Before he could recover, I stabbed him then pulled the sword out of him again. He looked at his wound as though confused, then he withered and died as I watched. My triumph didn’t last. Without Chaos, his prison started to collapse. I threw up black vomit and suddenly felt very weak, barely able to hold the sword. If I died, the blight would die with me, and the cave would hide us both. I trembled at the sight of my blackened skin and positioned the sword point up in front of me. I closed my eyes and thought of the people I loved. I burned from the inside out, and I knew I would die a good death, with the memories of my loved ones behind my eyes, and the pretence of Brendan’s taste on my lips. I would make them all safe. Smiling, I fell on the blade. Strangely, the back of my neck seared with a heat that scorched hotter than the bite of the sword, fierier than the burn inside my lungs and heart. The ceiling began to fall, and as black liquid poured from my wound, I closed my eyes for good. Chapter 30 I was flying, and the scent of flowers filled the air. The light made it too hard to open my eyes, and I couldn’t remember anything of what had gone before. “What did you do to her?” a man asked. He sounded like Brendan, but wrong somehow, as though he had been broken and put back together. “I gave her a fighting chance,” a woman replied. Brighid, a voice in my head said, but I couldn’t recall why that was important. “I’ve done what I can with the wound and her soul. I owed her a favour in this life and another, but I can do no more. Her survival may depend on how much she wants to live.” Her voice shifted into a more commanding tone. “If Cara Kelly cleanses this world, she will see her children grow.” * * * “Please wake up!” I blinked my eyes open. The cavern was gone, Chaos was gone, Brighid was gone, the portal was gone. I was in Brendan’s arms in the middle of nowhere, and tears were streaming down his cheeks. I tried to say something, but I turned my head to vomit black taint instead. It was real. It was in me, and it was real. “Cara, Cara, speak to me.” I looked at Brendan, still trying to figure out what had happened. “I’m supposed to be dead. Did I fail?” “No!” His eyes were bright green, glistening with tears. I wanted to comfort him, but I didn’t know how. I felt… dead inside. “You’re alive. I tried to get to you. Why did you go without me? I could have taken this pain in your stead.” “I’m not in pain.” “You were screaming,” he whispered. “I heard you screaming, and I couldn’t do anything to help you.” “Only one.” I squeezed my eyes shut as I suddenly remembered the pain. “Only one could go in.” “Then it should have been me. Brighid brought you to me, but then she vanished.” “I saw her,” I said. “She spoke to me, told me things. She said she’d reward me, and maybe that’s what she meant. I was dying. I felt it. I was dying. I was meant to die. That was the point.” “You’re alive,” he said shakily, taking me into his arms. “You’re here, and you’ll see your children grow.” “I killed him.” I blinked. My vision had gone black. I wiped my eyes and looked at my hand. They were streaked with black from my eyes, and my veins were thick with black taint. It was just like the mirror. I had become the very thing I’d dreaded. I had sacrificed, after all. I leapt out of his arms and moved away from him, hiding my face. I felt my neck, the hardened veins, and let out a sob. He touched my shoulder, but I recoiled. “Don’t look at me.” “What are you talking about?” “I’m disgusting. I’m the blight. I drank his power, and now it’s in me. I’m everything we fear. I was supposed to die. Why didn’t she just let me die?” “No.” He made me look at him, his gaze determined and strong. I couldn’t look away. “Stop this.” “Can’t you see it?” I whispered hopefully. He held up my hand and traced a blackened vein. “I don’t care about that, not any of it. You look a little different. So what? You’re still Cara. You still have the same soul.” “This is my punishment for being bad,” I said in a small voice. “This is what I get for not doing things right, for making a mess of everything.” “A mess? You’ve saved the realm. The earthquakes have stopped, Cara. The storms have stopped. The portal is gone. The treasures are gone. It’s just you and me and the land. Look around you. Really look. There’s no blight here. There was before I found you. You’re doing it, Cara. You’re cleansing the realm.” I stared at him in confusion. What the hell had happened? “I… I don’t understand.” “Understand that I love you,” he said urgently. “Promise me that you won’t leave me again. I don’t care about the courts, Cara. I care about us.” “But we can’t—” “We can find a way to work around it,” he said impatiently. “We’ll build a castle between our courts, and we’ll live there. Or we’ll make a home in the human realm. We can do everything. We have time. You’re here, and the blight is over. You saved us. I love you.” “How can you love me like this?” I whispered. “I look like a monster.” He licked his fingers and rubbed at my wrist. “Look.” “It’s… the taint.” I shivered. “It’s awful.” “No, look properly.” He held my arm in the air, and in the sunlight, the hint of green glistened through the darkness. “Look at what you really are.” He kissed me, kissed the taint in me, and I started to cry. The tears were black as soot, which only made me cry more. And Brendan’s mouth was black. “I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t ruin you. I have to… I have to hide somewhere. Keep away from Scarlet, and—” “Does Scarlet care about Rumble’s scars? Or Setanta’s disability? Or Lily’s weakness from the taint?” He shook me. “We love you. We don’t care what package you come in. Have you never listened to a word I’ve said to you? You are so much more than this. Don’t let it hurt you.” “You’re supposed to have a son who will do great things. Brighid told me. I can’t be the one to take that from you.” “I don’t care about any of that!” I hiccupped. “But you will.” He held my chin and forced me to look at him. “Brendan Rossa Aden.” “What?” “That’s my true name,” he said. “You own it now. I know yours, and you know mine. We’re equal. Bonded. You could use it to send me away, but I’m asking you not to. I’m asking you to let me see you, to allow me to be a part of your life. If I didn’t want this, I could easily walk away, but I don’t care about the taint. You are… everything, Cara.” I wrapped my arms around his neck then, and he gathered me to him, murmuring comforting things in my ear. “I love you. Forget everything else.” “I’m scared of myself.” “I’m with you,” he said. “How many times have I told you there’s nothing we can’t achieve together? This isn’t an end, Cara Kelly. This is our beginning.” We sat like that for a while until I gathered myself. “I told you that you were getting sappy.” He laughed at me. “There’s my girl.” I still found it hard to meet his eyes. “I need to clean up. I feel disgusting.” “There’s a stream,” he said. “Can you walk?” I couldn’t. He helped me. The water was grey when I stepped in, but as I moved through it, my veins appeared to pull the murkiness out of the water and into me. That only made me cry again. “You’ll feel much better,” he said, cleaning me when I made no effort to do it myself. “What am I?” My bare arms and legs were covered in a pattern of darkness, like spider webbing on my skin. But that gleaming green that marked me as fae shone there, too. “What did she do to me?” “Tell me what she said to you.” “She said that gods are reborn, that pieces of them are attached to the souls of people like you and I. We can be vessels, so I agreed, and she told me what to do.” I dry retched as I remembered. “I had to use the spear, then I had to drink his blood from the cup until he became mortal again. The sword finished him off, and then I had to use it on myself.” “Did she say you had to die? Maybe it was a figurative death.” “I… I don’t know. I can’t remember the exact words. She said the blight corrupts people. That’s why she couldn’t do it. She was guarding him. All this time, she’s been guarding him. And now he’s gone. So why am I alive? I should be dead.” I looked at him closely, but nothing in his eyes made me feel less than. “Can you glamour me?” “You don’t need to glamour yourself in front of me.” He moved my hair away from my neck to wash it then gasped. My stomach turned. “What is it now?” “A brand. You have a true queen’s brand on your neck, Cara.” I felt the back of my neck. It burned under my touch. “I don’t understand.” “You’re not regent. You’re a true faery queen. Nobody can deny it now.” I was too tired to understand the significance. “We should go,” he said. “Where are we going?” I asked, exhausted. “Home. We’re finally going home for good.” * * * Brendan dismounted at the gate of the Dark Court then lifted me into his arms. I had been drifting in and out of consciousness the entire journey home, barely able to do anything for most of it except throw up black vomit. I squeezed my eyes shut as he carried me toward the doors, sensing the weight of my Darksiders’ gazes on my skin. “Look at them,” he whispered. “Look, Cara.” I opened my eyes and watched the members of my court kneel in respect as I passed them. “Let me walk,” I said, ashamed of my self-pity. Too many people in my court had been afflicted by the poison in the earth for me to show disgust in it now. He set me on my feet but wrapped his arm around me in support. I walked slowly, my head high, and I heard gasps as I passed my people. “Look at your feet,” Brendan said in awe. I looked down. Everywhere I walked, the taint lifted from the earth and came into my body. I felt it, grew heavy with it, but still I walked. The taint was disappearing from the land because of me. Was that what a vessel was really meant to do? Absorb and contain the sickness? But where would that leave me? At the door, Orlaith held Scarlet and Lily in her arms. I hesitated, but Brendan urged me on. I came face-to-face with my daughters, who didn’t bat an eyelid at my appearance. And why would they? I had taught Scarlet to behave otherwise, and Lily was too young to care. And as they reached for me, excitement clear in their eyes, I felt something inside me relax. I was truly home. I touched Lily’s hand, too tired to hold her, and I felt the taint within her come to me instead. I looked into her eyes, and I knew I could never regret the sacrifice I had made. Chapter 31 I signed my name at the bottom of a page filled with beautiful script, resisting the urge to rub the still-burning brand on the back of my neck. Fae came from everywhere to see me, the living embodiment of Chaos and a permanent reminder of past mistakes, with the only goddess-given brand in the realm. The fae who had gathered in the great hall of the Chaos Court in order to witness history being made all clapped politely as I passed one treaty to Brendan and took the next from Drake. Drake mostly couldn’t look me in the eye anymore, but when he did, I saw pity in those violet depths. He thought me unfortunate, a casualty of the machinations of the fae. Maybe I was, but I had thrown myself in with them every step of the way. I wasn’t sure if my appearance was a punishment, or if I had lost a part of my humanity when I’d conquered Chaos. After a lot of thought, I had come to the conclusion that a vessel was supposed to lie under the earth and cleanse it, but Brighid had given me time to see my daughters grow to adulthood. All I knew was that the sickness in my veins wasn’t killing me, or those around me, and it no longer accidentally came to life when I grew angry. The brand was stronger than that. My reward from Brighid could have been power over the darkness inside me, or I may have misunderstood our entire conversation. I did know that I no longer cared. It had been months since Chaos had died, and everything had changed already. The weather had begun to regulate itself—the earthquakes and storms ended almost immediately—the landslides and sinkholes had subsided, the River Garbh was almost completely clean, and even the blackthorns were said to be thriving again. I had visited the Miacha—who couldn’t help me look any better—and while most of the Darksiders they had been tending had died, I hadn’t been too late for all of them. Sadler had tried to live on by taking what was theirs using the darkness of the taint, but at least a couple had survived the process. Fae had begun to flock to forgotten grottos to praise Brighid, and rumours of a rapidly growing crow-worshipping sect in the southwest had sprung up everywhere. Some whispered that I was a goddess sent to test and save the fae—but I laughed those particular rumours off. The black, glistening brand on my skin was more than a title. I had real power at my fingertips—power I was too scared to use in case the taint warped it. I no longer dreamt of things I didn’t understand, but sometimes I thought I heard the singing of the treasures again. They hadn’t been seen since I’d killed Chaos, and I wondered where they had gone and if Brighid had dealt with her priestesses. Brendan had taught me to glamour my appearance on the condition that I only use it in the human realm. We were slowly figuring out a way to be together, to give the children a normal life, and that appeared to be possible only in the neutrality of the human realm. The treaties we were signing were pacts of peace among all three courts, as well as agreements to protect the human realm. It would no longer be acceptable for fae to use tricks and cruelty to harm unwilling humans. The sickening children in my court had already begun to improve, and someday those who were forced to live in the human realm would come home to a cleaner, safe realm. Brendan had no heir, but he refused to discuss it with anyone. His court had eased off the pressure for a time, more consumed with fixing the damage that had been done to his territory. Many tribes were still roaming, looking for new places to settle, and all three of us had agreed to help them. Bas and Jackie, amongst others, travelled in search of unhappy nomads, supplies in hand to help them find suitable new homes. Bekind and Vix continued to train our spies in case a new enemy came to the fore. Anya had taken responsibility for many orphaned faery children, along with other daughters of Brighid. Líle, on the other hand, was on a mission to restore the original grottos around the realm. Grim and Realtín, along with my twin emissaries, were about to set off on an important journey that would help Levin repair faery history. Dymphna had returned to the Silver Court to be Drake’s official bodyguard. Polly had adopted Vanys’s child and would soon leave to set up home elsewhere. Almost everyone I knew was starting a new journey of their own. I glanced at Brendan who winked at me. Including us. We finished signing all of the treaties and stood to shake hands. So much had improved, but we still had more to achieve. This was just the first step. Brendan smiled warmly at me, while Drake’s handshake was brief and limp. That didn’t matter anymore. It was Brendan’s hand I sought, his side next to which I wanted to stand. He saw the true me, as he always had, and he loved me even when it was difficult. But more importantly, he had taught me to value myself. He liked to joke that I had saved his soul, but he had saved mine, too. On my bad days, I looked in the mirror and saw a monster staring back, but Brendan reminded me that there was more to me than that. I was mother and queen, friend and hero, human and fae, and I had never given up. The faery realm had once been spoiled, but we—all of us, I thought as I met the gazes of my many friends—had managed to save it. And I remembered the girl I had once been and knew that the fae had saved me, too.

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