The light of torches illuminated the dimness I’d grown accustomed to, causing me to squint against the sudden brightness. I heard the footsteps of a single guard, and felt a knot of apprehension loosen itself in my stomach. The witch was not with him. Still, I pressed myself against the farthest wall, keeping in the dancing shadows away from the light.
There was the sound of jangling metal as the guard produced a ring of thick metal keys from beneath his black cloak and unlocked the cell door. The cell door swung open and the guard stood to the side, gesturing for me to exit.
I didn’t move, but stood eyeing him warily, “Where am I to go?”
The guard said nothing, but stepped into the dungeon, gripped my arms, forcing them behind my back and dragged me out of the cell. I fought, struggled against his hold until he twisted my arm so sharply I sucked in a pained breath, going completely still.
He bent, his lips so close to my ear I felt his breath through my hair, “I apologize in advance.”
I never got to ask what he was apologizing for, because he clapped a hand over my mouth. I tasted the soft fabric of a handkerchief and the sickeningly sweet scent pressing against my lips, stinging my nose. My vision swam and then went black.
The caressing fingers of a breeze stirred the leaves to dance and clap.
“What is the music of the wind called, Gavin?”
We were children, sitting under the branches of a tree so tall it seemed to embrace the sky. He sat back on his hands for a moment, studying the leaves as they rustled in the wind, seeming to ponder my question with more seriousness than I’d anticipated. When at last he answered, I was delighted with the beauty in the word.
“Windsong,” he’d said.
“Windsong,” I said, my voice coming out dry, like a croak.
I felt the breeze snake through my hair, separating the tendrils, dancing up my nostrils with a smell of cold freshness.
“What was that?”
I frowned at the sound of another voice, of footsteps near my head.
“How much of that blasted potion did you give her?” demanded a shrill voice of an older woman.
“I dunno. Five drops? Maybe six?”
The sound of a hand making contact with skin. I flinched at the sharp sounding smack, imagining the feel of the sting on my cheek.
“That’s enough to take out a full grown man!” the woman yelled, “It’s no wonder she’s been unconscious for nearly six hours. I said two drops. She’s barely big enough for that. And you give her six?”
Recognition, the remembrances of being on the receiving end of such a scathing scolding more than once in my childhood and well past it.
“Thilda?” I pushed the name past my lips, cracking my eyes open slowly. A headache blared behind my eyes, making the weak sunlight filtering in through the leaves painful.
Sharp blue eyes, surrounded by a sea of wrinkles and stark white hair pull back tightly into a bun. She was smiling at me, but I felt nothing but confusion. I was not supposed to be in the forest, safe in the trees looking up into the face of one of the people I loved best.
There was a sigh of relief from somewhere to the right of me, and I realized that someone was holding my hand. With a quick glance I saw the weary face of my mother, the intensity of her exhaustion softened by the relief coloring her expression.
“What’s going on?”
The words pushed past my lips sounding more furious than anything.
Thilda frowned at me.
“We’ve rescued you,” she spouted sharply, “and here I was thinking you’d be grateful, little imp.”
I sat up, suppressing the urge to groan. My whole body ached. What had they done? Dragged me through the forest? I reached a hand back and rubbed my lower back gingerly, the entirety of my skin felt bruised.
The man on the receiving end of Thilda’s slap was speaking.
“I apologize for the rough handling princess,” he gave me a sheepish smile, “We had to—er. Be rather…creative in order to get you out of there.”
I scowled at him, not because I was angry but it was the only expression that did not make the pounding in my head worse. I opened my mouth to ask what exactly that meant but then I took stock of the aches and pains shooting through my body, and decided it was better that I didn’t know. He looked relieved when I didn’t ask him.
“However did you manage to get in?” was a question I did ask.
Thilda winked at me, “The witch is not the only one capable of magic.”
There was a sudden hush that fell, and the awe in the expression of the man, Beld, I thought his name was, made me turn around to look at who was approaching.
With a voice like rain, beautiful and elusive, the Fey Lady spoke.
“Not the only one capable of magic indeed,” she said raising an eyebrow, “underestimating her opponent is a mistake that the queen of Dunbrac always repeats.”
She reached out a hand to Thilda, who took it and rose to stand beside the Fey Lady.
“Isn’t that right, sister?”
Thilda nodded, her eyes fixed on me, almost as inhumanly bright as the witch’s. But Thilda’s gaze lacked the malice that was so apparent in the queen of Dunbrac and instead possessed wisdom and kindness.
“I would have liked to have prevented you from encountering the witch at all,” Thilda said, “but my sister informed me that it was important for you to face the darkness alone for a time.”
“Face it alone,” the Fey Lady said, “and overcome it.”
I’d always known Thilda was more than what she appeared to be, however the knowledge that she was not just a wise old woman with a knack for magic but the sister of the Fey Lady was a little more than I’d imagined. I blinked as each of their statements sunk into my still groggy mind.
It was important for you to face the darkness alone for a time.
“Why?” I demanded, remembering with pain my time in Harfeld castle. It was not something I ever wished to face again and it made me angry to think that it had been allowed on purpose, at my expense because the Fey Lady had deemed it necessary.
At my vehement tone the Fey Lady raised her eyebrow, as if unimpressed by my anger.
“Can you think of no reason?”
I remembered the question, asked in the darkness. The forsaking of lies in exchange for truth. In the face of the witch telling me who I was, who I could be, I had made my own choice.
Who are you Freya?
“We have spent years telling you who you are, and who you could be,” Thilda said quietly, “It was long past time for you to claim the truth yourself. A strong queen holds that truth in her heart against the pressure to bend her will to others. Your choices are your own and no one else’s. The insecurities that led her to choose darkness would have chased you down a similar path.”
“And having two fey-called women choosing darkness separated by a generation is not something this world could handle,” my mother spoke for the first time. I looked at her, she rubbed my back reassuringly, “We all had faith you would overcome her lies.”
I was warmed by the firmness with which those words were spoken.
We all had faith you would overcome her lies.
They had believed in me. All of them.
“What now?” I asked my mother quietly.
But it was Thilda who answered.
“The warriors are returning, and Cormack with them,” she said proudly, “We here in the forest ready ourselves to join them. You saved many lives with your warning, Fey. It will be undone soon and her mischief will end.”
It will be undone soon.
The confidence with which Thilda said it should have warmed my heart, but suddenly it turned to ice. Without thinking my eyes were darting around looking for a face that had been absent from my sight for far too long, and I cursed my selfishness not to have noticed it sooner.
“Where is Gavin?” my voice came out choked.
No one answered.
“Where is he?” I demanded, “he was in the cell beside me…”
My words stopped because I remembered that he had not been. During the endless nights of darkness he had not been there. My mother had her arm around me. I shook her off and stood, pinning the Fey sisters with my gaze. Thilda looked sorrowful, unlike her sister who merely shrugged, seemingly unconcerned at the oversight of one man, “The man who escorted you back to the castle? The one you chose to stay with when you could have run?”
“Yes,” I said sharply, “his name is Gavin.”
Thilda placed a hand on the Fey Lady’s arm, as if to stop her words, her look beseeching.
“I will not coddle the girl, Thilda,” she said tersely, “I speak nothing but the truth.”
I felt my heart go numb within myself, a steeling for the pain that was surely coming. I clenched my fists and widened my stance, readying myself for whatever words fell from her lips.
“If he’s not already dead,” the Fey Lady said with a shake of her head, “he soon will be. ‘Tis the price of war—not all can be saved.”
But I had been. I had been saved. They’d chosen me instead of Gavin because they couldn’t save us both. I was the reason he came back. I was the reason he’d been captured. And I would be the reason for his death.
I turned and walked away from them all without a word.
“Let her go,” I heard Thilda say.
I walked until my lungs burned from the sharp coldness of the air. And then I stood still, feeling hollowed out and wooden, ignoring the cold that was turning my limbs to feel like ice. I looked up to glimpse the snatch of sky through the trees. It would begin to snow soon. It was nearly time for winter. I wondered if it would be a long one with deep snows, gray days and a late spring. I disliked winter. The limited ability to escape outside and run through the trees always made me feel increasingly stifled, restless. However, in that moment, to me there seemed to be beauty in the idea of winter. It was cold and ice filled, unfeelingly beautiful for it snuffed out the life of the world like a sleeping spell that took the kiss of spring to lift. I sighed, for I felt like winter was taking root and spreading that spell over my heart. Turning it cold, to ice, numbing the life in it to unfeeling resignation.
I shut my heart against the stinging pain that thinking of him caused.
If he’s not dead already, he soon will be.
And I was responsible for it.
Gavin would die because of how closely tied he was to me, closely tied and inevitably a victim of the darkness that threaded its way through my story.
“Where are you going?”
I halted at the sound of his voice, but it had happened so often I felt little surprise. In fact, I almost expected him to appear out of the shadows at some point. It was amazing though, the sense of relief I felt.
“Aren’t you supposed to be with my father?”
Footsteps, booted feet coming from behind to stand in front of me. I looked up.
“I make my own choices,” was the reply, “Certainly my brother has his ideas about how this is going to end. And as usual they differ greatly from mine.”
His mouth was drawn into a thin line, smudges of dark under his eyes. He looked terrible. But then, I was certain I did not look much better.
We looked at each other for a moment, silently reading the parts of the story we’d missed in each other’s lives from the outward signs. Slumped shoulders, merry eyes turned dark with resolve and fury, lips once so prone to smiling drawn into a thin, grim line. I could only tell what he saw in me from the change in his eyes. He looked sad, as if he mourned the loss of something precious, and remorseful as if he was somehow responsible for it.
“You’re going back,” he stated.
“Gavin,” was all I said, aware that the tightness in my chest would loosen into tears should I speak anymore. I steeled myself against the inevitable logic he would throw my way, the guilt when he told me I’d just been rescued and not to be so selfish as to leave when I’d just been made safe.
But I had forgotten how Cormack was unlike others.
He simply nodded, understanding.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
Cormack shrugged, “To undo the darkness allowed to be done because of me.”
I looked at him searchingly, my brow furrowed as I understood the resolve and the apparent resignation in his eyes. He meant to end it, then. And by the looks of him, he thought that it would be his death. I could offer him no words of comfort, having met the witch. She was powerful, ruthless and blood-thirsty. She had also already tried to kill him, and would no doubt try again if given a second chance.
“I’m the only one who can stop it,” he said quietly, “I will not allow any more to die because of my transgressions.”
There was a small part of me that reached for a protest, to tell him he didn’t have to. But the words wouldn’t leave my mind because deep down I knew he did.
So I nodded, saying nothing.
“And I’m here because I need your help,” he said his eyes narrowing thoughtfully on me, “we’re bound in this, you and I. It will be dangerous. But I will not take the choice from you.”
That warmed my heart, even though I knew what it must cost him, to knowingly put me in danger. But the respect that came with his allowing me to choose for myself filled me with a courage I’d been lacking. I knew in my heart that he spoke the truth. I remembered that day in Blackwood Forest. The day I saved him from the shadow dwellers and witnessed his humbling before the Great Prince. The day that I’d felt some magic occur that had irrevocably tied our paths together.
Although, it seemed impossible. The two of us against the witch and her army.
“I’m helping you,” I said solemnly.
Cormack squeezed my shoulder, giving me a small, sad smile.
“What’s the plan?” I asked, “What are we going to do?”
“By all accounts,” Cormack replied with a shake of his head, “Something utterly foolish.”
I fell in step beside him giving a short snort of laughter.
And so, we began making our way back through the forest, towards the darkness that must be undone once and for all. We walked in silence for a time, the coolness of the air becoming less apparent as my body warmed with the pace at which we walked. I glanced at Cormack, noting the determined stride of his legs, the firmness of his hands clenched into fists. He was walking towards undoing something he was convinced was entirely his responsibility.
“You loved her,” I said quietly, “didn’t you?”
Cormack shot me a sharp glance, taken aback by my question. If he was angered by my question, he had every right to be. But it was something I had to know. I needed to understand the choices of those before me as they had played such a large part in my own life. Love was the reason my father made his choice. I wondered if Cormack had chosen for the same reason.
“Heaven help me,” Cormack shook his head, “I did.”
“Why?” my tone telling of my disbelief and disgust.
Cormack picked up his pace, forcing me into a near run in order to keep up. The frozen ground was littered with broken twigs and branches, a carpet of dead leaves keeping our steps from being silent, though Cormack certainly was for a time.
“After sundown we’ll camp a little ways from the edge of the forest,” he said, “At dawn we make our move.”
I didn’t ask what exactly that move would be. I wanted answers to different questions more. And I would stubbornly keep my silence until I got them.
Cormack took a look at my face and laughed.
“That stubborn look,” he smiled, “is the spitting image of your father’s. Unyielding as a mountain.”
He stopped walking.
There was a flash of uncertainty that passed over his features as he regarded me for a moment, “You wish to know the story.”
He pressed his lips together before he parted them to release a resigned breath, “It is not a happily ever after, I’m afraid.”
“Tell me,” I said.
Cormack gestured to a fallen log a few steps away. We settled on the cold, damp and decaying bark before he began to speak.
“It is a tale I never wished to tell,” Cormack said quietly, “at least not to you.”
I looked at him expectantly, trying not to appear impatient though my fingers picked the bark off the trunk of the fallen tree we were sitting upon.
“She was beautiful, powerful and forbidden,” he sighed, “everything that, at sixteen, was irresistible to me. Visits between the Harfeldan and Dunbracian court were commonplace and became even more frequent once the betrothal between Deirdre and my brother became announced.”
“Deirdre,” I whispered, my admiration of the name warring with my dislike of whom it belonged to.
“Yes, that is her name,” Cormack said softly, looking straight ahead, “though many forget it belongs to her. I may be the only one who remembers it.”
“Strange for a name to become a lost thing.”
Cormack shook his head, “Not strange at all. Names have power, can be used for ill and against the bearer. A name given to another is a sign of trust. For a name to pass out of memory serves two purposes: to prove that it was never important or,” he paused and gave me a serious look, “to protect whom it belongs to from vulnerability.”
“She made everyone forget,” I said, understanding, “then why not you?”
Cormack gave me a mirthless smile, causing me to hush, “That part comes later.”
He continued with his tale, speaking in such a way that I could see it: the beautiful young woman, with her enchanting, strange eyes catching the attention of the magnetic young man. They are drawn to each other, inexplicably though the pull becomes harder to resist because it is forbidden. And eventually, it became impossible to deny when the denying was never really wanted in the first place.
“Forbidden though it was, we partook in what was not ours to partake. My betrayal to my brother runs deeper than simply forsaking our kingdom and turning my back on him,” a tinge of long felt shame colored his voice, making it shake, “but when he rejected the one thing he had but I’d always wanted, I disowned him in my heart. We fought, though this part of the story I’m sure you’ve heard,” he glanced at me and I nodded, “I disappeared, they would say. But I didn’t. I went after her, loved her, consoled her. And because of the anger in my own heart, I fed her desire for revenge against the man who had so wronged us both. My brother.
“At first, she simply wished ill to come to Gareth and Helina. And when their union was childless at first, she thought it had come true. But then, they had you.”
Cormack turned and looked at me fully, his eyes tracing my face as if it haunted him.
“Deirdre is barren. After revenge on your father a child is what she desired most. And it was denied her. She’d always tampered in the shadows, using darker magic as a means to get her way. Your birth caused her to set firm steps down the path of darkness. A choice I shared in.”
He paused, his voice thick, eyes blinking as tears surfaced from unearthing a story full of shame, betrayal and pain. I did nothing to comfort him. I sat, listening in horrified silence.
“I’m certain you’ve heard the story of the night your parents married?” he asked without looking at me.
“Yes,” my voice came out the barest whisper, “she cursed me.”
“Never would the first child of the union of unrest know rest outside the walls of our castle or in them, to be claimed by the fey or die with longing for them. To be ever restless and never satisfied,” he looked at me, the tears evident now in his eyes, “I told her that speaking the curse would put a rift of distrust between the people and your mother. And eventually, you.”
He had been right. I clenched my hands into fists, thinking of all the pain that it had caused me. Knowing the people mistrusted me as their future ruler but understanding Cormack was responsible for it hurt.
“You must know, Freya. The curse was never true. The restlessness and longing you always felt came from the magic imprinted on your soul from your fey-blooded ancestors before you. I knew you would be fey-called—it is a particular ability of mine, to sense magic. And so, I told her to do what she did, to separate the bond of family slowly. To put the debilitating existence of fear into the people regarding you, in hopes that when you grew…”
He stopped, looking at me with such acute remorse in his eyes that my anger and indignation towards him began to ebb away, and I finished saying what he could not.
“In hopes that when I grew, I would choose darkness and choose her. Effectively giving her everything she ever wanted, and taking from my father everything she thinks he stole from her. Including the kingdom,” I shook my head against the weight of understanding. Everything was impossibly clear now: why the witch had waited so long to take her revenge, how she offered me a choice instead of simply killing me, and why she’d wanted me to choose her in the first place. But there was a piece of the story that was still missing.
“But you changed,” I said to Cormack.
“I did, but she changed first,” he said slowly, “The darkness changed her until every trace of the girl I’d loved was gone. You remember how I said names have power? The fact that no one remembers hers is what makes her powers near impossible to overcome. In the giving up of her name, she ceased to be human and became something else entirely.”
“You remember,” I said.
“Yes, I remember,” he said, “which is why she had me murdered. Or so she thinks. She underestimated the loyalty I had won among her men, and underestimated my own power. It took that to make me realize what a fool I’d been. Nothing like someone trying to have you murdered to invoke a change of heart,” he gave a short bark of laughter.
And all of a sudden he was kneeling before me, tears glinting in his eyes as he regarded me, “I’ve wronged you a thousand times over for playing a part in this,” he bowed his head, “I hope one day you’ll be able to forgive me for it.”
While it was true I had been angry upon first hearing pieces of the story, it had slowly drained away to a strange sort of relief that I had been right. Cormack was the key to the undoing of all this. And hearing him say that I’d never been cursed felt like the removal of a painful and heavy burden from my spirit. As he knelt before me, I heard my own words echoing in my mind.
Are we not all guilty of wrongdoing?
When I defended him to my father I’d not known what Cormack had done. I had called him a good man, knowing it to be true then.
Is it still true with the knowing of what he has done?
I knew in my heart what the answer was, looking down at him kneeling humbly before me after telling a story he that caused him shame.
I put my hand on his shoulder, “You may not have been able to stop her. But we can undo it. Together. For now I know her name too.”
They may not have been the words he was looking for, but they were good enough.
We arrived at the edge of the forest at dawn the next morning, the cold day giving the usual brilliance of the sun a frosty feel that sneaked its way into the bones.
We had stopped once during the night to build a small fire to warm ourselves and catch a few hours of restless sleep before we continued on. Cormack’s plan relied on the fact that the Harfeldan warriors were still two days away.
“It has to end before then,” he had said determinedly, “I’ll not have more Harfeldan blood on my hands.”
He told me what I needed to do.
“You’ll provide the best chance for me to slip in unnoticed,” he’d said, regret lining his face.
“What will you do?”
He looked at me, “The less you know the better. She has a way of slipping into thoughts and stealing knowledge that isn’t hers to know.”
I nodded begrudgingly.
He put his hand on my shoulder, bending so that he could look me in the eyes, “I swear to you Freya, this ends. And with everything in me I will fight to make certain that you and your young man come out of this alive.”
I smiled tremblingly.
It seemed like too much to hope for.
The sun was fully in the sky. I gave one last look to Cormack, my eyes wide. He nodded, his look calm, reassuring. Everything will be all right, his eyes said. I knew for certain he couldn’t know that. But there was nothing to be done, save put one foot in front of the other and face what would come next.
“I wish I had a knife or something,” I muttered.
Cormack shrugged apologetically, “They’d just take it away.”
“I know,” I said.
And squeezing my hands into fists, I stepped out of the cover of the trees.
It was amazing the speed with which they surrounded me. I stood so close to the edge of the forest my hair was caught in the lower branches of the smaller trees. Dozens of Dunbracian men were facing me, their faces covered with their terrible black iron helmets, weapons drawn, the steel of their swords glinting in the light of the sun. I blinked, finding my courage and my voice.
“I will come with you on one condition!”
My voice came out as a garbled squeak, they had not understood a word I said, but kept advancing. My heart hammered in my chest, my mouth suddenly dry.
Come on, Fey, I scolded myself, you have to do this.
I held out my hands as if to stay them from coming any closer, standing taller.
“If you come any closer, I will turn and disappear back through these trees faster than you can imagine,” the authority in my voice surprised the men into stillness, “And I’ll be protected by the Fey. You’ll have no hope of catching me.”
The men paused a moment, looking distrustfully at the trees, some even spat and muttered under their breath. Apparently, they feared the forest. Knowing that bolstered my courage.
“What is it you want?” a Dunbracian man came to me, his helmet removed. His dark eyes glittered with distrust and malice.
I blinked and found my voice, “Tell your queen I wish to make a deal.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and regarded me with an unimpressed expression, one eyebrow raised.
“I will escort you inside to speak to Her Majesty,” he gestured with one hand in the direction of the castle.
I snorted derisively, “I am no fool. I will not move from this spot until a deal is made. Bring your queen,” I spat the word like a curse, “to me.”
He took a step closer, his look threatening, “Very well.”
I eyed them warily for the space of several moments, wondering when one of them would move. Praying that I wouldn’t have to turn and flee. I knew that they would not be able to catch me. I knew the forest better than they, and could run faster for I was not clad heavily in armor. But if I fled there would be little hope for Gavin.
I glared at the man I’d been speaking to, “Will you not send for your queen?” I demanded, “Surely she must want to speak with me.”
“You’re correct, princess,” the witch said coming through her warriors, who parted before her like grass blown by a strong wind, “I do.”
At the sight of her, my palms became slick with sweat, fear making my heart beat faster in my chest. I swallowed, keeping my resolve, determined not to let her see how my knees shook, threatening not to hold me.
“I wish to make a deal.”
She flicked her hand impatiently, “So I’ve been told.”
I smiled, a cold smile, my eyes hard, “I propose an exchange.”
Her eyebrows raised, feigning surprise, “Oh?”
“Myself in exchange for the freedom of the man you captured along with me,” I said.
The witch smiled, “You would give yourself up so that he can go free?”
I nodded, “Yes.” The vehemence of my tone seemed to surprise her, “But I’ll not go with you until I see you’ve set him loose.”
She watched me for a moment with narrowed eyes, calculating. Sweat slipped down my back, despite the coolness of the air, and I had to concentrate not to knot my fingers together nervously.
“Very well,” she snapped her fingers, the man nearest her stepped towards her, “Bring the prisoner.”
I was resolved to be brave. I knew before the man left to get Gavin that I was not going to escape from whatever was about to happen. I knew that running away was not an option.
“Your mission is to keep her from killing him,” Cormack had said to me, “prove to her that he is more valuable to her alive. If you don’t…”
He hadn’t finished, but then he didn’t need to.
“How am I supposed to do that?” I’d asked.
“You love him,” Cormack stated it as a fact, something beyond discussion, “and she will use him to get you to do what she wants, which may turn out in his favor.”
“And if it doesn’t?” I’d asked.
Cormack had only looked at me with a furrowed brow, “Let’s just hope it does.”
However, my resolve was quickly tested.
Two men were dragging a limp form between them, the warriors that still surrounded me parted to rest in the formation of a half circle. I almost ran forward, my feet taking an involuntary step before I stopped myself, quickly stepping backwards so the trees brushed my back. Gavin’s head hung low, but his eyes were open, vacant. As if he were an empty shell of a person, for the eyes that looked back at me held none of the love I was used to seeing.
“What have you done?” I said, aghast, struggling against the impulse to run to him.
“I have done to him what I was unable to do to you,” she said, tracing her finger along his cheek.
I gritted my teeth, a rage so fierce building within me my vision tilted, the world momentarily going red.
She turned back to me, “Unfortunately, he did not know as much as I would like. He did not have the answers to the secrets I see behind your eyes.”
I averted my gaze, unable to stop myself, disconcerted by the madness and hatred blazing in her eyes. She was mad. The witch sighed, her gaze shifting away from me. She traced Gavin’s jawline with her fingernail. I curled my hands into fists so tight I felt my fingernails biting into the palms of my hands.
“Such a handsome young man,” the witch simpered, “his thoughts were useless to me. Save the ones about you.”
I stiffened, my stomach pooling with dread.
“He thinks himself in love with you,” she spat, “foolish notion, love. It is as elusive as shadow, fleeting as starlight, and fickle as the fey. Though useful. He would do anything for you, I think.”
She raised one eyebrow, casting a glance at me over her shoulder before continuing her caress of Gavin’s face. I clenched my jaw so hard it hurt.
“Anything, I am quite certain of it,” she paused, “even if it meant dying in your place.”
“Killing him will do nothing,” I said, my voice coming out calm and even, “I am my father’s heir. Not him.”
Laughter. Surprised, delighted and entirely too long.
“How delightful,” she said at last, clapping her hands like an elated child, “you are in love with him too.”
“I came here to make a deal,” I said firmly, anger making my voice lower, “Me for him.”
We stared at each other for the space of several moments. The inhuman brightness of her eyes displaying her anger but something else lurked there in the depths.
I saw it just before her eyes narrowed and her lip curled in disdain.
“Very well,” she said.
And with a snap of her fingers the two men holding Gavin dropped his arms. He fell forward, and lay face down on the ground.
Get up, Gavin, get up! I pleaded with him silently.
I held my breath, barely keeping my resolve not to move until he did. Moments passed, and he lay there. I hardly knew what was happening when a Dunbracian warrior stepped forward.
“Get up, ye whelp,” he snarled.
He drew back his foot and kicked Gavin in the ribs, hard enough to knock him on his side. Still, Gavin did not move, his eyes closed, breathing shallow. Fury rose in my breast, making my face hot even in the cold late autumn air, I curled and uncurled my fists.
Another man stepped forward, kicking Gavin again, harder.
When he still did not move, the two men hauled him to his knees only to let him drop again, his head knocking off the ground with a sickening thud.
“Stop,” I said.
This time Gavin groaned when another booted foot made contact with his body, and began coughing. I saw the blood dripping from his lips.
There was no decision, then. I ran, sliding to put myself between Gavin and the blows that were intended for him. I threw myself over him, waiting for the pain to begin. But it never did. I was still for a moment, my eyes squeezed shut, blocking out what I was afraid to see when I opened them.
I am done being afraid, I thought.
And I opened my eyes to face the witch and her cruel men, turning my gaze up to see them standing close, looking triumphant. I remained on my knees beside Gavin, one arm around him, the other braced on the ground.
“Do not touch him again,” I said, “you have what you want.”
And with a smile the witch bent down so that her face was level with mine and said, “Yes, my dear, I do.”