Outside The Capital
From beneath the cowl of her cloak, Drianna flicked her gaze to the door as it creaked open, watching with a double thump of her heart as a man entered with a pack draped over one shoulder, shaggy brown hair matted to his head and dripping with water. Sighing, Drianna looked back down into the well of her mug. When would he get there? It was an hour past the time they’d agreed upon, but then of course there’d been the rain swell.
A splash of wetness dropped to her hooded head and she glanced up quickly with a jerk, taking in the hulking man that stood over her, a grin lighting up his face beneath the fullness of his burnished beard peppered with the first signs of white. His skin was darkened a brownish red from time spent beneath the hot sun tending his gardens and cultivating various plant species. “Faulks,” she whispered, the beat of her heat tripling its speed. Even with water dripping from his red hair and beard, she longed to throw herself within the confines of his massive and comforting embrace.
“Aye, lass, sorry I’m a bit late,” he said, removing his dripping coat and dropping it in the chair beside him as he took a seat across from her, his eyes twinkling as he met her gaze.
“A rain swell such as this could even stop Maya,” she said casually, casting a glance beyond them to make sure no one was too interested in their meeting.
“Aye, but I stayed a little longer for Story. She, Jess, and that cursed Thumeblina Rose who is supposed to be protecting her heard about the settlement of rebels near Fairy North and the crazy child made a door right to it.”
Drianna gasped, her hand flying to her mouth. If that girl showed who she was too early she’d be hunted, and all her and Ninian’s plotting would be for nothing. “She-she’s okay?” Drianna breathed.
Faulks nodded, grunting a thank you to the barmaid as she set a mug of ale in front of him, and turned his gaze back to Drianna. “Story’s a strong girl, though a bit scared at the moment. Which might not be a bad thing!” he blustered, worry etched deep within the lines of his face. Drianna leaned forward and placed her hand over his, squeezing gently. “Stupid, stubborn, sweet, sweet girl,” he growled. “The news is grim. Wolves have taken over the camp, Arthur is presumed dead. We never had Wolf problems up near our parts b’fore, and it scares me to think what it means for my girl.”
Sucking in a breath, Drianna nodded and slid her hand back, wrapping her hands around the mug. She’d barely taken a sip, so she did now to steady her nerves, the room temperature, bubbly liquid sending a rush of warmth through her blood. After a few moments of avoiding his gaze, she looked up at him. “Brink is actively looking for her,” she said in a hushed voice, lest anyone hear her say his name.
A flash of fear froze Faulks’s features still. “How?” he asked, and she knew what he meant.
“They don’t know who she is, yet,” she murmured. “But he’s looking for his ‘muse’ … He’s obsessed with that cursed prophecy … There’s just more to this than even I can understand. When I prophesied she would come, I thought I knew all I needed to know. But I don’t … I don’t know the half it,” she said. “Keep her safe, Faulks. Stay under the radar. Make sure Ninian understands, no more doors. She can’t be using that kind of power with Wolves lurking.”
Faulks shook his head slowly. “She’s a stubborn one.”
“Faulks,” Drianna said slowly. “He can’t find her yet. It’s too soon. She’s not ready.”
“I know, I know,” he hung his head in thought.
“Make sure Racell understands that his special interest in a ten-year-old Locksley villager might draw unwanted attention.”
Faulks chuckled. “Oh, he won’t like that.”
“Let Ninian deal with it,” she said, finally smiling.
“And what about your boy? Is he safe?”
Drianna sighed, barely able to allow herself to take comfort in Faulks’s soft, compassionate gaze. “As safe as he can be given the circumstances. I’ve made him hard, a burgeoning warrior … but he hates me for it, I fear. He should have been a bard, his gentle soul only ever wished for music.”
Faulks took her hand, dwarfing her small one within his massive one, drawing her gaze to his. “Ye’re a good mother, Drianna. No one likes how things are right now, and ye’re making your boy strong. Someday he’ll have time to make music.”
Normally, Drianna appeared cool and removed, she knew this. She’d striven to put up this front. But with Faulks, she had always felt like she could just be. Time spent sharing her fears with him had been her salve, soothing her torn spirit. Choking back tears, she shook her head sadly. “But what if he’s too hardened by then?”
Faulks held her stare. “He will return to the music because it’s in his soul,” he said.
After a moment, Drianna gave a half laugh. “Are you making prophecies now?”
His laughed rumbled in his throat and he shook his head. “Hornswoggle, I jus’ know the burden and beauty of a passion that’s a part of my soul.”
He did. That had been one of the things that had drawn her to him the moment she’d first met him, only shortly after Story had been born. She’d been visiting Ninian, and he’d stopped by to bring Ninian her plants. Their first encounter had been emblazoned on her mind ever since. The way he’d cupped his large hands so lovingly, so gently around a flower or plant, the soft rumble of his voice as he sang a melody to lift its spirit—
“Do you remember when we first met, lass?” he asked, pulling her from her reverie as if he’d been an active participant in the memory.
“I do,” she whispered, a longing so deep within her giving hope to a day when she could be with Faulks. To a day she could leave behind the trappings of her station as a Daughter of The Will, of Brink’s wife, and live perhaps a quieter life … with Faulks, and Story, and Nicholas … at the Gardenia. A vision of such a life was too beautiful to contemplate for long, so she shook her head, dashing the images away. “You became the passion of my soul,” she whispered.
Faulks leaned forward. “Will ya meet me in Racell’s Rood tomorrow?” he whispered. “I’m here for three days for the market. I’d like to see ya again.”
Drianna held his gaze, a blush flushing her cheeks and making her feel the rush of youthful love she’d long forgotten. “Yes,” she breathed. “I’ll be there.”
Before they parted ways that night, she turned to him out in the dark as he escorted her to her horse. “How did you know Story had went to the rebel camp? You obviously couldn’t follow her.”
In the shadows he grinned. “I have my spies.”
When she stared silently dubious at him, he chuckled. “The trees, lass. I talk to the trees.”
Of course, she thought. He was, after all, a green thumb. She opened her mouth to respond, but his face grew wrinkles as he worried on something. “What is it?” she asked.
“They encountered a Shadow Fae in the Forest of Light, and if the trees’ translation is to be taken as truth, the Fae told her the Nightmares wait to follow her.”
“The Nightmares?” she said, a deep sense of dread making her chest clench. “They …” She stopped, a thought forming. “Don’t worry about it right now, Faulks,” she said quickly, putting a soft hand on his arm in comfort. Her complete lack of surprise at his comment suddenly made complete sense, but if she shared her suspicious now, she’d only upset him.
He stared at her a moment and finally nodded, stepping forward and scooping her to him in an all-consuming embrace. She melted against the strength of his arms and for several minutes, relaxed. “I’ll see ya tomorrow, my beautiful,” he said softly, drawing back and winking at her as he turned his large, imposing form back toward the camp he was staying at with the other merchants. She watched him go, and then she pulled up straight, putting on an imperious expression so that if anyone should see her on her way back to the estate she’d wither them with a glance. And tomorrow … her breath swelled within her, she’d get to see Faulks once more, alone and within the privacy of Racell’s magical Rood. And in those moments she’d be free from Brink and her mission to save Tressla.