Another riddle—and another bit of information. I said, “It’s a good thing that while you have superior hearing, I possess superior abilities to keep my mouth shut.”
He snorted as I took the knife from the table and turned to procure the bow from my room. “I think I’m starting to like you—for a murdering human.”
Western woods. Grove of young birch trees. Slaughtered chicken. Double-loop snare. Close to running water.
I repeated Lucien’s instructions as I walked out of the manor, through the cultivated gardens, across the wild, rolling grassy hills beyond them, over clear streams, and into the spring woods beyond. No one had stopped me—no one had even been around to see me leave, bow and quiver across my back, Lucien’s knife at my side. I lugged along a satchel stuffed with a freshly dead chicken courtesy of the baffled kitchen staff, and had tucked an extra blade into my boot.
The lands were as empty as the manor itself, though I occasionally glimpsed something shining in the corner of my eye. Every time I turned to look, the shimmering transformed into the sunlight dancing on a nearby stream, or the wind fluttering the leaves of a lone sycamore atop a knoll. As I passed a large pond nestled at the foot of a towering hill, I could have sworn I saw four shining female heads poking up from the bright water, watching me. I hurried my steps.
Only birds and the chittering and rustling of small animals sounded as I entered the still green western forest. I’d never ridden through these woods on my hunts with Lucien. There was no path here, nothing tame about it. Oaks, elms, and beeches intertwined in a thick weave, almost strangling the trickle of sunlight that crept in through the dense canopy. The moss-covered earth swallowed any sound I made.
Old—this forest was ancient. And alive, in a way that I couldn’t describe but could only feel, deep in the marrow of my bones. Perhaps I was the first human in five hundred years to walk beneath those heavy, dark branches, to inhale the freshness of spring leaves masking the damp, thick rot.
Birch trees—running water. I made my way through the woods, breath tight in my throat. Night was the dangerous time, I reminded myself. I had only a few hours until sunset.
Even if the Bogge had stalked us in the daylight.
The Bogge was dead, and whatever horror Tamlin was now dealing with dwelled in another part of these lands. The Spring Court. I wondered in what ways Tamlin had to answer to its High Lord, or if it was his High Lord who had carved out Lucien’s eye. Maybe it was the High Lord’s consort—the she whom Lucien had mentioned—that instilled such fear in them. I pushed away the thought.
I kept my steps light, my eyes and ears open, and my heartbeat steady. Shortcomings or no, I could still hunt. And the answers I needed were worth it.
I found a glen of young, skinny birch trees, then stalked in ever-widening circles until I encountered the nearest stream. Not deep, but so wide that I’d have to take a running leap to cross it. Lucien had said to find running water, and this was close enough to make escape possible. If I needed to escape. Hopefully I wouldn’t.
I traced and then retraced several different routes to the stream. And a few alternate routes, should my access to it somehow be blocked. And when I was sure of every root and rock and hollow in the surrounding area, I returned to the small clearing encircled by those white trees and laid my snare.
From my spot up a nearby tree—a sturdy, dense oak whose vibrant leaves hid me entirely from anyone below—I waited. And waited. The afternoon sun crept overhead, hot enough even through the canopy that I had to shrug off my cloak and roll up the sleeves of my tunic. My stomach grumbled, and I pulled a hunk of cheese out of my rucksack. Eating it would be quieter than the apple I’d also swiped from the kitchen on my way out. When I finished it off, I swigged water from the canteen I’d brought, parched from the heat.
Did Tamlin or Lucien ever grow tired of day after day of eternal spring, or ever venture into the other territories, if only to experience a different season? I wouldn’t have minded endless, mild spring while looking after my family—winter brought us dangerously close to death every year—but if I were immortal, I might want a little variation to pass the time. I’d probably want to do more than lurk about a manor house, too. Though I still hadn’t worked up the nerve to make the request that had crept into the back of my mind when I saw the mural.
I moved about as much as I dared on the branch, only to keep the blood flowing to my limbs. I’d just settled in again when a ripple of silence came toward me. As if the wood thrushes and squirrels and moths held their breath while something passed by.
My bow was already strung. Quietly, I loosely nocked an arrow. Closer and closer the silence crept.
The trees seemed to lean in, their entwined branches locking tighter, a living cage keeping even the smallest of birds from soaring out of the canopy.
Maybe this had been a very bad idea. Maybe Lucien had overestimated my abilities. Or maybe he had been waiting for the chance to lead me to my doom.
My muscles strained from holding still atop the branch, but I kept my balance and listened. Then I heard it: a whisper, as if cloth were dragging over root and stone, a hungry, wheezing sniffing from the nearby clearing.
I’d laid my snares carefully, making the chicken look as if it had wandered too far and snapped its own neck as it sought to free itself from a fallen branch. I’d taken care to keep my own scent off the bird as much as possible. But these faeries had such keen senses, and even though I’d covered my tracks—
There was a snap, a whoosh, and a hollowed-out, wicked scream that made my bones and muscles and breath lock up.
Another enraged shriek pierced the forest, and my snares groaned as they held, and held, and held.
I climbed out of the tree and went to meet the Suriel.
Lucien, I decided as I crept up to the faerie in the birch glen, really, truly wanted me dead.
I hadn’t known what to expect as I entered the ring of white trees—tall and straight as pillars—but it was not the tall, thin veiled figure in dark tattered robes. Its hunched back facing me, I could count the hard knobs of its spine poking through the thin fabric. Spindly, scabby gray arms clawed at the snare with yellowed, cracked fingernails.
Run, some primal, intrinsically human part of me whispered. Begged. Run and run and never look back.
But I kept my arrow loosely nocked. I said quietly, “Are you one of the Suriel?”
The faerie went rigid. And sniffed. Once. Twice.
Then slowly, it turned to me, the dark veil draped over its bald head blowing in a phantom breeze.