Hawke turned to me. “Ready?”
I glanced west, toward the center of Masadonia. Castle Teerman reached high above the Lower Ward and the Citadel, a sprawling structure of stone and glass, of beautiful memories and haunting nightmares. Somewhere in there, Tawny roamed, and the Duchess assumed control of the city. Somewhere in there, my present had become the past. I turned to the Rise. Somewhere out there, my future awaited.
Within a few hours of our trek across the Barren Plains, I no longer had to rely on my imagination to know what Hawke had meant when he’d said that I’d be riding with him.
There was little space between our bodies. It hadn’t started out that way as the heavy doors of the Rise had opened and we passed the torches. Aware that the men traveling with us knew who I was, I sat straight and desperately ignored the feeling of Hawke’s arm around my waist, but the pace was hard. It wasn’t a dead run, but unused to how a horse moved, the stiff position quickly became awkward and painful. With each passing hour, I ended up closer to Hawke until my back was pressed to his chest, and my hips were cradled by his thighs. The hood of my cloak had slipped at some point, and I left it down, partly because I wanted to feel the wind on my face.
And in part because I could feel Hawke’s warm breath against my cheek every time he leaned down to speak to me.
I’d been right. For a Maiden, this was wholly inappropriate. Or, at least the way it felt to be held by him was inappropriate for a Maiden.
But after a while, I relaxed and cherished the sensation of being in his arms, knowing that when we reached our destination, this would be over, no matter how well Hawke believed his skills were.
Things would be different in the capital.
I stared out over the empty land. At one time, there’d been farms here, and inns where people could stop and rest. But now, there was nothing but endless grass, bent and twisted trees, and tall reeds climbing over the broken ruins of farmhouses and taverns.
I was convinced that everyone we passed was haunted.
The Craven had destroyed the Plains, tainting once fertile ground with blood, and slaughtering anyone who dared to set down roots outside the Rise.
And so close to the Blood Forest.
I kept my eyes peeled for the first glimpse of the forest and did everything not to think about where the sun was currently at and where we’d end when night fell.
Hawke shifted, and somehow, half of his arm ended up slipping between the folds of my cloak. My mouth dried as the horse slowed. Hawke’s palm was against my hip, and although the wool sweater and my pants separated our skin, the weight of his hand was like a brand.
“You doing okay?” he asked, his breath dancing over my cheek.
“I can’t really feel my legs,” I admitted.
He chuckled. “You’ll get used to it in a couple of days.”
“Great,” I said, drawing in a deep breath as I felt his thumb move over my hip. My grip on the horn of the saddle tightened.
“You sure you ate enough?”
We’d snacked on cheese and nuts as we rode, and while I’d typically have had a much larger lunch by now, I wasn’t sure I could learn how to eat while being jostled by the horse. I nodded, noting that Kieran and Phillips, who were at the front, had also slowed. They’d been speaking to one another on and off, but they’d been too far away from me to hear what they said.
“Are we stopping?” I asked.
My brows knitted. “Then why are we slowing?”
“It’s the path—” Airrick, who rode to our left, cut himself off, and I grinned. I knew he was about to call me Maiden. Something he’d done so many times over the last couple of hours that Hawke had threatened to knock him off his horse if he did it one more time. Luckily, he’d caught himself this time. “The path gets uneven here, and there’s a stream, but it’s hard to see through the growth.”
“That’s not all,” Hawke added, his thumb still moving, catching the wool and dragging it in a slow, steady circle.
“You see Luddie?” Hawke was talking about one of the Huntsmen who rode to our right. The man hadn’t said much since we left. “He’s keeping an eye out for barrats.”
My lip curled. Barrats weren’t your average rodents. Rumored to be the size of a boar, they were the things of nightmares. “I thought they were all gone.”
“They’re the only thing the Craven won’t eat.”
Didn’t that say something? I shuddered. “How many do you think are out here?”
“I don’t know.” Hawke’s arm tightened around my waist, and I had a feeling he knew exactly how many.
I looked at Airrick.
He averted his gaze.
“Do you know how many, Airrick?”
“Eh, well, I know there used to be more,” he said, sending a nervous glance at Hawke. He immediately faced forward. “They didn’t used to be a problem, you know? Or at least that was what my grandfather told me when I was a boy. He lived out here. One of the last ones.”
Airrick nodded as Hawke’s thumb continued moving. “He grew corn and tomatoes, beans and potatoes.” A faint smile appeared. “He would tell me that the barrats used to be nothing more than a nuisance.”
“I can’t imagine rats that weigh nearly two hundred pounds being only a nuisance.”
“Well, they were just scavengers and were more scared of people than we were afraid of them,” Airrick explained. I was confident that I would be scared of them, whether they left people alone or not. “But with everyone moving out, they lost their…”
“Food source?” I finished for him.
Airrick nodded as he scanned the horizon. “Now, anything they come across is food.”
“Including us.” I really hoped Luddie had perfect eyesight and a sixth sense when it came to barrats.
“You’re intriguing,” Hawke commented as Setti trotted ahead of Airrick.
“Intriguing is your favorite word,” I told him.
“It is when I’m around you.”
I let myself grin because no one was watching, and I wanted to. “Why am I intriguing now?”
“When are you not intriguing?” he said. “You aren’t afraid of Descenters or Craven, but you’re shuddering like a wet kitten at the mere mention of a barrat.”
“Craven and Descenters don’t scurry about on all fours, and they don’t have fur.”
“Well, barrats don’t scurry,” he replied. “They run, about as fast as a hunting dog locked onto prey.”
Another shudder made its way through me. “That is not helping.”
He laughed. “You know what I would love right about now?”
“For there to be no talk of giant, people-eating rats?”
Hawke squeezed me, and I felt a dip in my chest. “Besides that.”
“Do me a favor and reach into the bag by your left leg. Be careful, though. Hold onto the pommel.”
“I’m not going to fall off.” I held on, though, stretching forward and lifting the flap of the bag.
I ignored that and reached inside. My fingers brushed over something smooth and leather. Frowning, I grabbed hold of it and pulled it out. The moment I saw the red cover, I gasped and shoved it back into the bag.
“Oh, my gods.” I sat up straight, my eyes wide.
Hawke burst out laughing, and ahead, Kieran looked over his shoulder at us. Could he see how red my face was?
“I can’t believe you.” I turned at the waist, and for a moment, I got a little lost in that dimple in Hawke’s right cheek. The left one was starting to appear, too. And then I remembered what was in the bag. “How did you even find that book?”
“How did I find that naughty diary of Lady Willa Colyns? I have my ways.”
“How?” The last I’d seen it, it was shoved under my pillow, and with everything that had happened, it hadn’t even occurred to me that someone might find it and have questions.
Lots of questions.
“I’ll never tell,” he replied, and I smacked his arm. “So violent.”
I rolled my eyes.
“You’re not going to read to me?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Maybe I’ll read to you later.”
That was even worse. “That’s not necessary.”
His laugh was low and soft against my neck. “How far did you get, Princess?”
I pressed my lips together and then sighed. “I almost finished it.”
“You’ll have to tell me all about it.”
That wasn’t likely to happen. I couldn’t believe he’d not only found that damn book but had also packed it. Out of everything he could’ve brought with him, he’d grabbed the diary. The corners of my lips twitched, and before I knew it, I was smiling and then I was laughing. When his arm tightened around me again, I relaxed against him.
Our pace picked up after that, and it almost felt like we were racing the moon. I didn’t have to look ahead to know that we were losing.
And then I saw it.
Ice drenched my skin at the first glimpse of red. And then it rose into sight. A sea of crimson stretched as far as the eye could see.
We’d reached the Blood Forest.
The horses carried us forward even though every instinct in my body screamed in warning. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the forest, even though it felt like a sight that would haunt my dreams for many, many years to come. I’d never seen it up close, having come to Masadonia through a different route that would’ve added days to our trip. What I saw was a twisted mass of red and a deeper shade that reminded me of dried blood. Under the pounding hooves, the ground became rockier. Something crunched and snapped. Was it twigs? Branches? I started to look down—