“Traitors,” gasped Hawke, rolling me until he was on top. I went for his face, but he caught my wrists. “Stop it.”
I tried to lift my hips, and when that didn’t work, I pushed my upper body up. It took everything in me, and he simply pinned my wrists to the straw.
“Get off me!”
“Stop it,” he repeated. “Poppy. Stop—”
“I hate you!” I screamed at the sound of my name, ripping one hand free in my rage. I slammed my fist into his face. “I hate you!”
Hawke caught my hand, jerking it back to the ground as his bloodied lips peeled back. “Stop it!”
I went completely still as I stared up at him, the shock robbing me of my ability to speak for several moments. I saw him—saw him for what he really was.
He wasn’t just any Descenter following the Dark One.
“That’s why you never really smiled,” I whispered.
Because, how could he?
He had to hide the sharp, sharp teeth.
Two of them.
I remembered the feel of them against my lips, my neck—recalling how oddly sharp they’d felt.
Now I understood how he could move so fast, why he seemed to have better hearing and eyesight than anyone I’d ever met, and why he sometimes sounded as if he’d lived decades longer than I had. It was why he was quick to break a kiss whenever I came close to feeling his canines.
I’d been so blind.
He wasn’t mortal.
He wasn’t a wolven.
Hawke was an Atlantian.
I shuddered as something deep inside me withered. “You’re a monster.”
Hawke’s eyes flared an intense gold, and they weren’t normal. They’d never been natural. “You finally see me for what I am.”
He was a thing of nightmares hidden in the guise of a dream, and I had fallen for it. I fell so hard.
The fight went out of me.
Him being a Descenter was bad enough, but an Atlantian? His people created the creatures who’d taken my mother and father from me, who’d almost killed me.
Hawke seemed to sense it because he moved swiftly, hauling me to my feet. “Delano,” he called. “Take her.”
I was handed over like a bag of potatoes, and Delano kept my arms clamped to my sides.
“Where should I put her?” Delano asked.
Hawke’s chest rose sharply. “Somewhere where she can’t escape and can’t hurt herself.” He paused. “Or hurt anyone else, which is more likely than the former.”
“Are we holding her prisoner?” someone demanded. “We’re keeping her alive? Will we feed and shelter that.”
As if I were the monster, the one who supported the Dark One and could create Craven. These people were beyond help.
“She’s the Maiden,” another yelled. “She needs to die!”
A round of agreement sounded, and someone else said, “Send her back to their counterfeit Queen and King. Just her head so they know what is coming for them.”
“From blood and ash!” shouted a young boy as he pushed to the front of the group. It was the kid from the day before, the one who had run from house to house.
My legs weakened.
Several voices answered, “We will rise!”
“No one touches her.” Hawke scanned the group in the yard, silencing them. “No one,” he repeated as he turned back. “No one but me.”
The moment I saw the dank and gloomy cells under the keep, and the twisted, white mass of bones that covered the entire length of the ceiling, the fight in me came back. There was no way I would just allow myself to be placed somewhere it appeared people never left. Not even when they died.
Delano hadn’t been prepared.
I broke his hold and made it to the end of the hall only to realize the sole exit was the entrance. I squared off with him but was cornered, and with backup in the form of another who had eyes that were almost as gold as Hawke’s, I was dragged into the cell that had a thin mattress on the floor and then shackled, the cold iron snapping over my wrists.
And then I was alone.
I turned around, seeing no way out. The gaps in the bars were too narrow, and when I pulled on the chains, the hook they were connected to didn’t budge.
Panic bubbled up as I took a step back. How had this happened? How did I go from anticipating a future that would be all mine, where I controlled what I did and what happened to me, to this? To being chained in a cell, surrounded by people who wanted to chop me into pieces?
I knew the answer.
The slice of agony cutting through my chest overshadowed the pain in my stomach. My throat and eyes burned. Hawke…he wasn’t even mortal. He was an Atlantian, His people had created the Cravens that had become an unstoppable plague upon this land, the very same creatures who’d murdered my parents and almost killed me. He supported the Dark One, who had killed the last Maiden and was after me. Hawke and the wolven were the embodiment of anything the gods had turned against and the humans had rose up against. They were why the Ascended had been Blessed by the gods.
How had I not seen him for what he was? Could I be that foolish? Or was he simply that clever?
Or a mixture of both?
Because Hawke had been good. He’d said and done all the right things, and I’d been so desperate to make a real connection with someone, to experience life and feel alive. So desperate that anything that may have served as a warning wasn’t even acknowledged. He’d come to Masadonia with one order: gain access to me. He had done that and more. Gained my friendship, my trust, my…
A pulsing, pounding anger and sorrow swept through me. I wanted to scream, but the sound couldn’t make it past the knot of emotion in my throat.
Why did he have to…do what he had? Everything he’d said and done was nothing more than clever artifice. When he told me that I was brave and strong. When he said I was beautiful. His seemingly single-minded focus hadn’t been based on duty but on orders. And I’d believed it. I’d fallen for it.
Was anything true?
His pain was.
That much I knew, but the source of it? I could no longer be sure.
Lifting trembling hands to my face, I tucked back the hair that had escaped my braid. Why did he have to go so far, though? Why did he have to get under my skin and into my heart? I didn’t just trust him. I’d given myself to him. All of me.
And it had been a lie.
He’d known from the beginning who I was, from the very first night in the Red Pearl, and I’d unknowingly exposed so much about myself to him.
Moving to the corner of the cell, I sat on the mattress and slowly leaned against the wall, breathing out a slow, measured breath as a fiery ache sliced over my stomach. I glanced down at my right hand. The knuckles were bruised and swollen from the punch I’d delivered. My smile was quick to fade. I doubted Hawke showed any sign of injury. He was an Atlantian.
My stomach tumbled.
A part of me couldn’t believe it. He seemed so…mortal, but why should that surprise me? Atlantians could pass for mortals, just as the wolven could. I’d kissed an Atlantian.
I’d slept with an Atlantian.
I squeezed my eyes shut as bile climbed up my throat. I couldn’t think about that. It made screams echo in my mind. I needed to focus.
What was I going to do?
This whole town was full of Descenters and Atlantians who wanted me dead, and I couldn’t be more grateful that Tawny had remained behind. Obviously, I was being held until the Dark One either arrived or sent orders. The Dark One had killed the last Maiden, and here I was, captured and ready for him. I needed to get out of here, but there was no way out.
I looked up, shuddering. The ropey, twining bones reminded me of the roots in the Blood Forest. They climbed and overlapped one another, ribcages and femurs, spines and skulls. Anyone held here had this to look at, most likely a reminder of what had happened to the prisoners housed here. Who would create such a thing? Who kept their grasp on sanity staring at that?
I didn’t know how much time had passed before the door opened, and footsteps approached. It had to be hours based on how empty my stomach felt. I tensed, only relaxing minutely when I saw that it was Delano.
He stepped up to the bars, holding out a small pouch. “Hungry?”
Yes. I was, but I didn’t answer.
Tossing the sack in, it landed by my feet with a soft thunk. I stared at it.
“It’s some cheese and bread,” Delano explained. “I would’ve brought you some stew, but I feared you would’ve thrown it in my face, and the stew is too good to waste.”
I looked over at him.
“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not poisoned or anything.”
“Why would I trust anything you say?”
“He said no one touches you.” He leaned against the bars. “No leap of logic to assume that would also include harming you.”
My lip curled. “Why wait? The Dark One is going to kill me eventually.”
Those pale eyes met mine. “If the Prince wanted you dead, you’d already be dead. You should eat.”
The Prince. Just because the Descenters believed Casteel was the rightful heir, didn’t make it true.
My gaze fell to the sack. I was hungry, and I needed my strength…and possibly a Healer because while the wound had stopped bleeding, it would probably get infected down here.
I moved gingerly, picking up the sack. “Are you going to stand there and watch me eat?”
“Wouldn’t want you to choke.”
I had the strangest urge to laugh, but I opened the pouch and ate the cheese and bread. The food settled in my empty stomach like clumps of stone.
Delano didn’t speak after that. Neither did I, and I returned to leaning against the wall. Some time later, the door opened once more, and I looked out even though I didn’t want to. I saw the tall, too-recognizable form garbed in black, looking so much like the…like the guard who’d teased me over Miss Willa Colyns’ diary. My heart squeezed as if it were captured in a fist.