One of them lunged for me, and I dodged aside. His talons caught in my cloak and yanked, ripping it into ribbons just as his companion threw me to the ground, my arms tearing beneath those claws.
“You’ll bleed,” one of them panted, laughing under his breath at the knife I lifted. “We’ll bleed you nice and slow.” He wiggled his talons—perfect for deep, brutal cutting. He opened his mouth again, and a bone-shattering roar sounded through the clearing.
Only it hadn’t come from the creature’s throat.
The noise hadn’t finished echoing before the naga went flying off me, crashing into a tree so hard that the wood cracked. I made out the gleaming gold of his mask and hair and the long, deadly claws before Tamlin tore into the creature.
The naga holding me shrieked and released his grip, leaping to his feet as Tamlin’s claws shredded through his companion’s neck. Flesh and blood ripped away.
I kept low to the ground, knife at the ready, waiting.
Tamlin let out another roar that made the marrow of my bones go cold and revealed those lengthened canines.
The remaining creature darted for the woods.
He got only a few steps away before Tamlin tackled him, pinning him to the earth. And disemboweled the naga in one deep, long swipe.
I remained where I lay, my face half buried in leaves and twigs and moss. I didn’t try to raise myself. I was shaking so badly that I thought I would fall apart at the seams. It was all I could do to keep holding the knife.
Tamlin got to his feet, wrenching his claws out of the creature’s abdomen. Blood and gore dripped from them, staining the deep green moss.
High Lord. High Lord. High Lord.
Feral rage still smoldered in his gaze, and I flinched as he knelt beside me. He reached for me again, but I jerked back, away from the bloody claws that were still out. I raised myself into a sitting position before the shaking resumed. I knew I couldn’t get to my feet.
“Feyre,” he said. The wrath faded from his eyes, and the claws slipped back under his skin, but the roar still sounded in my ears. There had been nothing in that sound but primal fury.
“How?” It was all I could manage to say, but he understood me.
“I was tracking a pack of them—these four escaped, and must have followed your scent through the woods. I heard you scream.”
So he didn’t know about the Suriel. And he—he’d come to help me.
He reached a hand toward me, and I shuddered as he ran cool, wet fingers down my stinging, aching cheek. Blood—that was blood on them. And from the stickiness on my face, I knew there was already enough blood splattered on me that it wouldn’t make a difference.
The pain in my face and my arm faded, then vanished. His eyes darkened a bit at the bruise I knew was already blossoming on my cheekbone, but the throbbing quickly lessened. The metallic scent of magic wrapped around me, then floated away on a light breeze.
“I found one dead half a mile away,” he went on, his hands leaving my face as he unbuckled his baldric, then shucked off his tunic and handed it to me. The front of my own had been ripped and torn by the talons of the naga. “I saw one of my arrows in his throat, so I followed their tracks here.”
I pulled on Tamlin’s tunic over my own, ignoring how easily I could see the cut of his muscles beneath his white shirt, the way the blood soaking it made them stand out even more. A purebred predator, honed to kill without a second thought, without remorse. I shivered again and savored the warmth that leaked from the cloth. High Lord. I should have known, should have guessed. Maybe I hadn’t wanted to—maybe I’d been afraid.
“Here,” he said, rising to his feet and offering me a bloodstained hand. I didn’t dare look at the slaughtered naga as I gripped his extended hand and he pulled me to my feet. My knees buckled, but I stayed upright.
I stared at our linked hands, both coated in blood that wasn’t our own.
No, he hadn’t been the only one to spill blood just now. And it wasn’t just my blood that still coated my tongue. Perhaps that made me as much of a beast as him. But he’d saved me. Killed for me. I spat onto the grass, wishing I hadn’t lost my canteen.
“Do I want to know what you were doing out here?” he asked.
No. Definitely not. Not after he’d warned me plenty of times already. “I thought I wasn’t confined to the house and garden. I didn’t realize I’d come so far.”
He dropped my hand. “On the days that I’m called away to deal with … trouble, stay close to the house.”
I nodded a bit numbly. “Thank you,” I mumbled, fighting past the shaking racking my body, my mind. The naga’s blood on me became nearly unbearable. I spat again. “Not—not just for this. For saving my life, I mean.” I wanted to tell him how much that meant—that the High Lord of the Spring Court thought I was worth saving—but couldn’t find the words.
His fangs vanished. “It was … the least I could do. They shouldn’t have gotten this far onto my lands.” He shook his head, more at himself, his shoulders slumping. “Let’s go home,” he said, sparing me the effort of explaining why I’d been out here in the first place. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that the manor wasn’t my home—that I might not even have a home at all anymore.
We walked back in silence, both of us blood-drenched and pale. I could still sense the carnage we’d left behind—the blood-soaked ground and trees. The pieces of the naga.
Well, I’d learned something from the Suriel, at least. Even if it wasn’t entirely what I’d wanted to hear—or know.
Stay with the High Lord. Fine—easy enough. But as for the history lesson it had been in the middle of giving me, about wicked kings and their commanders and however they tied into the High Lord at my side and the blight … I still didn’t have enough specifics to be able to thoroughly warn my family. But the Suriel had told me not to go looking for further answers.
I had a feeling I would surely be a fool to ignore his advice. My family would have to make do with the bare bones of my knowledge, then. Hopefully it would be enough.
I didn’t ask Tamlin anything more about the naga—about how many he’d killed before those four slipped away—didn’t ask him anything at all, because I didn’t detect a trace of triumph in him, but rather a deep, unending sort of shame and defeat.
After soaking in the bath for nearly an hour, I found myself sitting in a low-backed chair before my room’s roaring fireplace, savoring the feel of Alis brushing out my damp hair. Though dinner was to be served soon, Alis had a cup of molten chocolate brought up and refused to do anything until I’d had a few sips.