Stonegate Road, Eastern Apines.
The eyes on Hellä were unnerving.
It didn’t help that she was wound tight with anxiety. Though they were out of the Midaby Forest, Hellä still worried that the guards would somehow catch up. That she’d hear the unmistakable sound of them waving Brishan down, the wagon wheels groaning to a stop and their clipped footsteps as they jogged up to the door, opened it and flooded the interior with men.
Brishan’s owl cocked its head, eyes unblinking as it watched her curl up on the plush cushions of the bench, breathing deeply as she listened to what was going on outside.
The road was treacherous. Every now and then the wagon would jolt as the wheels met a divot in the road, and everything inside the cabin would rattle and rock. The owl would puff out its feathers in its cage, the teacups hanging above the sink would clink against each other, and Hellä would pray that Brishan wasn’t out there trying to evade a platoon.
“Seamstress,” she said under her breath, watching the owl pick at the bars of the cage with its beak. “What is going on out there?”
Denis didn’t make a sound in response. The brown-and-white flecked bird continued to try and break free, it’s big eyes searing into her. Brishan had always had the owl in the years she’d known him. Normally it was out of the brass cage, but he must have thought to lock it in there before he came for her. Denis didn’t seem pleased about it. The cabin lurched again and Hellä’s belly dropped as she braced a hand on the wall to steady herself. Denis let out a screech as the cage tipped off the walnut table it was sitting atop and Hella dove quickly, grabbing it seconds before it hit the floorboards. The owl flapped its wings, feather against metal, and then promptly reached its beak through the bars and bit the tip of her finger. “Ouch, Denis, you could have thanked me,” she hissed, hand retreating. She grabbed hold of the ring at the top of the cage and spun around in the cramped cabin, looking for somewhere to set it. Spotting the hook in the ceiling at the foot of Brishan’s bed, Hellä carefully moved to the back of the wagon as it was still rolling, her hips hitting drawers and benches along the narrow walkway as she walked. She secured the cage so that Denis couldn’t fall over again and then made her way back to her seat. The wagon slowed to a stop just as she’d found a position that could hold her for the rest of the journey. Keeping a hand poised above the pommel of her dagger, she waited for Brishan to appear.
He took his time, and Hellä kept a mental inventory of every sound he made as he jumped down from the box, as his boots slid over the shingle, tallying each step he made as he came around the flank of the cabin and wrenched the door open. “How are you doing in there?” he said as he popped into view.
Before she could say anything sarcastic, Denis let off a series of shrieks that almost sounded to Hellä like a string of accusations towards her. Brishan cocked an eyebrow at the bird, turning to Hellä with a knowing smile.
She frowned, standing up slowly so the world wouldn’t tilt under her feet. “We weren’t followed?”
Brishan shook his head, smile gone now, and helped her down the old steps. “Too many wagons leaving the Gate, they wouldn’t have time to search every one of them.”
So she’d worried for nothing. Why was she always doing that?
“Where will you go now?” she asked him. The fresh air outside did wonders for her. Already, she felt lighter.
“Not sure,” he said, studying her. Hella felt bare under that gaze, so she stepped away from the cabin, pretending to fuss with the horses. “You have somewhere safe, then?”
If he noticed her discomfort he didn’t say anything. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he replied. “I might let Denis fly above the house for a while, he’ll find a good place for us to camp down for the next couple of days.”
She looked back at him. He was still standing in the same place, hands casually in the pockets of his black trousers. Hellä hated goodbyes—she never knew how long they were supposed to draw out for.
“I think you left your books inside,” he noted.
“Oh,” she said, shuffling to get them. But he was already on to it. By the time he hopped off the steps with her rucksack in tow the clouds above them had parted, leaving her feeling sticky with sweat. She took it from his outstretched hands.
“Thanks for saving me from having to find a way out of there. I don’t have anything to give you,” she said. “I wish I did. But maybe one day we’ll see each other again and I can repay you—”
He cut her off. “You don’t owe me anything.” It came out with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t leave my worst enemy in a situation like that, let alone a friend.”
She smiled at him, not sure what to say.
“You better get off the road.” He nodded over his shoulder. To where Hellä could make out the blurred figure at the top of the hill beside the house. Osran. They were well out of any forestry now, with only a few old trees off the road and the looming mountain of Kingsmark backing the hill her home sat on.
She sighed, her shoulders pulled back to spread the weight of the rucksack to other parts of her body, and waved Brishan off.
The climb was steep, but it opened Hella’s airway, cleared her of the lingering anxiety. It was summer in the Apines, a hot, sticky season. Sometimes it rained for a week straight, drenching everything in sight. But then the clouds would burn away on a day like today, and the air would take on a shimmering heat, still heavy with moisture that would seep into your skin. The wind stirred the hem of her dress against her legs. She kept her head down as she approached the house, chest tight again as pain burned her thighs, her back, shoulders.
“More books?” the older man said gruffly as she stepped onto the sagging porch. Liza must have been out herding one of their flock into a new paddock. She set the bag by the front door, kicking off her boots before going inside. She’d come back for it after she found some water.
“I can’t learn anything stuck on the farm,” she said as she stood in the cramped kitchen. “Dax needs me.”
“It’s been years, Hellä. You send my son off on errands, have him running around the city for information when he should be home. You need to be trained. We need to find supporters.”
She kept her gaze fixed to the cup in her hand. “Everyone who would have pledged themselves to me is dead.”
“You can’t give up.” He came around the dining table to place a weapon on the bench she was leaned against. She narrowed her eyes at the sword. It was hers by birth right, but she felt nothing whenever she brandished it. The blade was cast steel, glittering under the rays of sun coming through the small window above the sink. Its gilded hilt was embellished, and an amber stone the size of a thumbnail was set into the pommel. “There are still other things you can learn. Things books won’t teach you.”
She sighed, meeting the Lord’s gaze. “When I get him out of the mines I’ll do whatever it is you want me to do. I just need more time.”
Footsteps sounded on the porch, and she looked up through the open door to see Faowind, his pale hair ruffling in a breeze that passed through the house. Deep lines pulled his eyebrows together.
“What is it?” she asked, setting down her clay cup and brushing past Osran.
“The Gate went down today.” He met her in the living room, a small, cosy space with a couple of mis-matched couches and an ugly rug. Then he held her at arms-length, inspecting her. She wanted to recoil. He was only looking for evidence of injuries—she hadn’t changed from her filthy, torn dress yet, and he would have assumed the worst. She felt every fleck of dirt more acutely, felt the lingering sweat across her forehead.
“I know. It threw me out of it like I was a miscreant.”
“You were there?” he said, frown deepening.
She nodded, trying to read him. There was something he wasn’t saying yet, something that disturbed him enough to make the muscles around his eyes tight. The thought of losing her only way to Telantes made her feel lightheaded. Nothing about today could ever be worse than that. “Is it broken?” she croaked.
He stepped away, tugging at the bottom of his coat. “Apparently the High King of the Seraphim is using his own power to restore it for the meantime. But there were whispers of other Gates going down. Some are even saying the Seamstress is dead.”
The Seamstress was said to be the creator of all Gods in the seven spheres. But she was a myth, something created as a way to explain how they became linked. The story was older than that of the Gates itself.
“The Seamstress isn’t real,” Hellä said in a whisper. Dread began to claw its way through her. She owed her cousin a life’s debt. If she abandoned him . . . if she couldn’t get him out.
“I need to go to the mines.”
Faowind frowned again, and she braced herself for an argument. She knew Osran would take his side, too. He always did. Hellä was the hotheaded one. Always diving into trouble, not caring for their plans. If it meant holding on to hope of rescuing Dax, she’d do anything.
“I’ll escort you in the morning,” he said carefully. “But there’s too many people on the roads now and many of them are panicked at the news. It’s unlikely, but there might be highwaymen looking for an opportunity in the chaos.”
She shuddered at the thought. “Help me go through the books I got today then,” she said. Osran had been quiet, but once Hellä stepped outside, he started on Faowind. Though she tried not to listen, she heard him complain to his son that he should take her out to the fields and spar instead of playing into her whims. “Let her rest, father. She’s had a rough day.”
Hellä hated disappointing Osran, but she couldn’t sit idly by while Dax wasted away in Kingsmark. She made herself smile as she lugged the sack over the threshold, pretending like she hadn’t heard them arguing. “Naida said these could be promising. I told her about my theory about the chains potentially being Seraph made, but she hadn’t heard of them ever being used for their prisoners. Still, there could be something here.” She looked up as she finished speaking, noting immediately who was missing.
“He went out back.” Faowind shrugged, coming to take the load off her hands. She spied the sword, now in its sheath and resting against the stones of the open fireplace.
“He hates me.” She sighed. “I’m not who he thought I’d be.”
“It’s impossible to live up to others expectations, Hellä. And my father loves you as if you were his own. He’s loyal to Reria, is all. He wishes to see it restored.”
But Reria doesn’t exist anymore. She wished she could say the words out loud. It had become another part of the Apines when the Fae King Leowil sent his armies in and murdered her entire family. Except Dax, she reminded herself. He was the only blood she had left. As far as they knew, anyway. They’d long ago given up hope of finding anyone else, but Hellä knew it wasn’t impossible.
“Wait there,” she said leaving him in the dining room. She needed to freshen up. She ducked into her bedroom at the far end of the hall, slamming the door behind her.
Faowind’s laughter reached her through the walls and she shivered at the sound. But she smiled to herself as she got an idea.
He won’t be laughing when he sees me soon, she thought.
She took her time getting dressed, knowing he would wait for her no matter what. She brushed out her knotty red hair, weaving a piece of golden ribbon through as she braided it into a coil down one side.
Running her hands down the fine embellishments of her forest green tunic, she took a last deep breath before meeting him in the hall.
His smirk faltered on his lips as he took her in. She was wearing the clothing of her House, a Queen’s regalia. Something Orslan had managed to save before the Fae King had his soldiers pick apart the palace. It had been her mother’s.
Faowind dominated the narrow space in the hall. Their home was modest, a way for them to blend in and live without fear of being discovered. But the young man was tall and broad, and he stood with his hands hidden behind his back. His coat was of rich variety, though nothing like the quality of the clothing she now donned. Faowind and his parents were what was left of her court, and they, all of them, held that importance to the highest esteem.
He wasn’t wearing the royal emblem on his person—it would be a death sentence—but he still honored her as much as he could. Faowind smiled as she approached, pride evident in his eyes. He pulled his own sword from its sheath, a beautiful Faecrafted blade. It sang as he drew it out, bringing it down so that the tip sunk, the barest of an inch, into the wooden floor. Then, he kneeled.
“Alright.” She laughed, the sound musical. “I’ve had my fun. You can stand now.”
“You will learn how to deal with it,” Faowind said as he agreed to her request, standing. “Being worshipped. One day you’ll have a whole kingdom to fawn over you. Then you’ll forget about this moment.” He didn’t seem sad at the idea she could ever forget him. Seemed to expect it, even. But Faowind was a prince in his own right, the son of a Duke of Reria.
Why did he believe her to be so far above him? Hellä went to argue, but the words became tangled on her tongue. How could she explain her gratitude for him, her feelings?
If he noted her internal struggle he said nothing. Instead, Faowind reached behind himself, producing the rucksack as if it carried nothing but a plume of feathers.
“Where do you want me?”
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