She drew in a deep breath, her shoulder sagging under my hand. “All right. If anyone comes, I’ll tell them you’re ill with fright and have locked yourself in the bathing chamber.”
I rolled my eyes. “Of course, you will.” I let go of her shoulder. “There are several bloodstone daggers in the chest, and a sword under the pillows—”
“Please tell me your head is not resting above a sword every night,” Tawny demanded, voice ringing with disbelief. “No wonder you have nightmares. Only the gods know what kind of bad luck using a sword as a pillow—”
“Tawny,” I cut her off before she really got going. “If the castle is breached, use the weapons. You know how.”
“I know.” And she did only because I made her learn in secret, just like Vikter had taught me. “The head or the heart.”
“Be safe, Poppy. Please. I will be so very disappointed if I’m assigned to serve the Duchess. Or, worse yet, given to the Temple in service to the gods. Not that it wouldn’t be an honor to serve them,” she tacked on, placing her hand over her heart. “But the whole celibacy thing…”
I cracked a grin. “I will return.”
“You’d better, Poppy.”
“I promise.” Giving her a quick kiss on the cheek, I spun and headed for the old servants’ door beside the bathing chamber. This was the whole reason I had all but begged and pleaded to be moved to this room in the older, far uglier portion of the castle. These pathways and accesses were no longer used, but they connected to nearly every room in the old part of the stronghold including the stone bridge that led directly to the southern portion of the Rise.
Old hinges creaked as I opened the door. The pathways allowed me to move undetected throughout the castle. Over the last years, I’d used them to meet with Vikter in one of the old, unused rooms for training, and it was also how I was able to slip out of the castle without being seen.
But, most importantly, the old stairs and halls could provide a quick escape if necessary.
“Poppy,” Tawny called out, stopping me. “Your face.”
Confusion rose for only a moment, and then I realized that my face was unveiled.
“Right.” I lifted the heavy hood, tugging it into place before I slipped out into the narrow, winding staircase.
Stone slid against metal as thick, iron doors rattled and began their descent as I raced down the cracked, uneven stone steps. My slippers weren’t the best footwear for such a thing, but there hadn’t been time to ferret out the only boots I owned from their hiding place, tucked under the head of the bed. If the maids found them, they would be sure to talk, and eventually, whatever they said would make its way back to someone.
I had less than a minute to get out.
Dust and small rocks drifted from above as the castle continued to tremble. Moonlight broke through the cracked, dusty windows as I rounded the final set of steps, slipping over the bottom two and all but sliding out into the empty pantry. The movement caused nothing more than a dull flare of pain where the welts were healing.
Thrusting the bow into the folds of the cloak, I darted into the chaotic kitchen where servants clamored for access to the hidden safe rooms that doubled as food storage. Guards rushed for the main entrance, where the largest shield would be locking into place within seconds. No one paid me any mind as I ran for the back hall, where one of the iron doors was already halfway down.
Spitting out a curse that Vikter would’ve turned red at, and Rylan would’ve…he would’ve smiled at if he were still here, I picked up speed and then dipped. The silk and satin slippers aided in the descent. I slid under the door, nearly losing my balance as I skidded out into the night air. The heavy door groaned as it settled into place. I backed away and then turned, my lips curving into a broad smile Tawny would’ve found not only concerning but also disturbing.
I’d made it to the bridge.
Not wasting time, I raced across the narrow walk high above the houses and shops. I didn’t dare look to my sides as there was no railing. One slip, and well…
What was in the mist would no longer be a concern.
Reaching the wider ledge of the Rise, I tossed the bow onto the top and then hoisted myself up. The healing skin of my back stretched, causing me to wince as the cloak and the gown parted, revealing nearly the entire length of my leg. I yearned for the thin breeches often worn under certain styles of gowns, but there hadn’t been enough time.
I grasped the bow and started toward the western wall, arriving as the mist seemed to become a solid mass, carrying with it the scent of metal and decay. Ahead, archers waited in their nests of stone, like birds of prey, their bows and arrows steady. I knew not to get too close, as a guard from the Rise would surely notice and ask questions. And while Tawny had exaggerated the killing me part, I would face yet another lesson from the Duke.
I cast a quick look around. The city had gone completely quiet and dark, except for the Temples. Their flames were never extinguished. Tearing my gaze from them and the unsettled feeling they often roused, I searched for an empty battlement until I found one. If it were to be manned by a guard, someone would already be in it.
Keeping close to the shadows clinging to the walls, I eased inside the enclosure. My smile returned when I saw several quivers resting near the short ladder. Perfect. Bloodstone arrows, their shafts made of wood from the Blood Forest, were not easy to come by when you were a Maiden who wasn’t supposed to have a need for them. Grabbing several of the quivers, I scurried up the ladder.
Partially hidden behind the stone wall, I set the quivers beside me and pulled out an arrow. A sound came then, raising the hairs all over my body.
It started as a low howl, reminding me of the wind during the coldest part of winter, but the moaning gave way to shrill shrieks. Goosebumps pimpled my skin, and my stomach twisted with nausea even as I nocked an arrow. I would never forget that sound. It haunted my dreams, forcing me awake, night after night.
Shouts erupted from the ground, a call to fire. Sucking in a breath of awe, I watched the sky light up with burning arrows. They ripped through the encroaching mist as fires sprang to life once more, all around the Rise, turning the night to silvery dusk.
Guards waited on foot in front of the Rise, their black armor making them nearly indistinguishable as I searched out the familiar white cape of a Royal Guard. There. I found pale blond hair and a weathered face the color of sand. My heart skipped a beat. Toward the center stood Vikter. I expected to see him where death now gathered, but a knot of fear still gathered in my breast. Vikter was the bravest man I knew.
What about Hawke? I had no idea if he was in the castle, stationed outside my door, believing I was inside, or on the Rise. Or, like Vikter, perhaps he was beyond it. The knot expanded, but I couldn’t let it grab hold of me.
Keeping an eye on Vikter, I curled my fingers around the string, pulling back as he donned his helmet. Another volley of arrows went up, these reaching farther. When they cut through the mist, I heard the screams.
And then I saw them.
Their pale bodies a milky white, leached of all color, their faces sunken and hollow, eyes burning like fiery coal. Mouths opened wide, revealing two sets of jagged, serrated teeth. Their fingers were elongated into claws, and both their fangs and their claws could flay skin like the softest butter.
I had the scars to prove it.
They were what Marlowe and Ridley would’ve become if their lives hadn’t been ended before it was too late.
They poured out of the mist, the source of my nightmares, the creatures sent by the Dark One over a decade ago to rob my brother and me of our parents in a blood-soaked massacre. They were the evil ones who’d nearly killed me before my sixth birthday, clawing and biting in a frenzy of bloodlust.
The Craven were here.
And now, they swarmed the guards outside the Rise, crashing into them in a wave that knew no fear of death. Screams of pain and terror tore through the night, and my breath seized. In a matter of seconds, I lost sight of Vikter.
“No,” I whispered, fingers trembling around the string. Where was he? He couldn’t have fallen. Not that quickly. Not Vikter—
I found him, holding his ground as he cleaved his sword through the air, slicing off the head of a Craven as another launched itself at him. He spun, narrowly avoiding a swipe that would have torn through his breastplate.
There was no time for relief. My gaze shifted as an archer’s bloodstone arrow slammed into the head of a Craven, knocking it backward. Dark, inky blood spewed out the back of its skull. I focused on another Craven, calming my breath until it was deep and slow like Vikter had taught me. Years of training steadied my hand, but so did experience. This wasn’t the first time I had aided the guards on the Rise.
“Once your fingers take hold of the string, the world around you must cease to exist.” Vikter’s instructions echoed in my mind. “It’s just you, the pull of the string, and your aim. Nothing else matters.”
And that was all it could be.
Trusting my aim, I released an arrow. It flew through the air, striking a Craven in the heart. I nocked another before what was once someone’s child or parent even hit the ground. I found another, a Craven who had a guard on its back, tearing at its armor. I let the bow string go, smiling when the projectile burst through the Craven’s head. Loading the next arrow, I caught sight of Vikter, his sword slick with dark blood as he shoved it deep into a Craven’s stomach and then drew it upward with a shout—
A Craven rushed Vikter from behind as he yanked the sword out. I pulled back the string. The bolt sliced through the air, catching the creature in the back of its patchy-haired skull. The thing fell forward, dead before it even hit the ground.
Vikter’s head whipped around, and I swore he looked straight at me—knew who had sent down that arrow. And although I couldn’t see his face, I knew he wore the expression he always did when he was proud yet irritated.
Grinning, I readied another arrow and…and for what felt like a small eternity, I lost myself to the killing, taking down one Craven after another. I went through two quivers before one of the Craven broke through the line of guards. Hitting the wall, its clawed hands dug into the stone, gaining purchase.