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The Warrior's Curse, Page 2

Jennifer A. Nielsen

  The page bowed low and said, “A message has come for the king.”

  Gerald took the note and passed it to me. I opened it, then gave it to Harlyn. While she read it, I said to Gerald, “Have someone prepare my horse and a pack for several days of travel. I’m leaving now.”

  “You’ve just arrived.”

  “Then I’m most of the way ready.”

  “You’ll need an escort, the cavalry—”

  I nearly choked on his suggestion, then pointed toward the stables. “That cavalry? I don’t need their help.”

  Harlyn returned the note to me, adding, “I’ll go with you.”

  I nodded back at her, but Gerald asked, “What is the note?”

  “Captain Tenger has finally located Basil, but he needs our help to rescue him from Lord Endrick.”

  “They’ve had him for a month,” Gerald said. “No doubt by now he has told Lord Endrick where he has hidden the Olden Blade. You must stay and secure your place here.”

  “If Endrick finds that blade, I have no place here. None of us do.” I practically pushed him through my open door, saying, “Prepare my horse. Harlyn and I will leave at once.”

  The journey from Nessel up to Highwyn, where Basil was being held, would ordinarily take a week of easy riding, but if the weather cooperated, and if Harlyn and I rode fast and rested the horses midway, I hoped we could get there in half the time.

  That was still too long.

  We could get there in a day if we used the Rawkyren. I’d hoped to eventually try flying with it, but I hadn’t yet and didn’t even know if it was possible. For now, we’d have to ride.

  According to Tenger’s note, Basil had been sent to the same dungeons beneath Woodcourt where Kestra and I had both spent time. We had found an escape by sliding over a steep ledge into a muddy pit littered with rot and debris. A narrow tunnel provided passage outside Woodcourt’s walls, but it was nearly impossible to find. Basil had followed our route, and must have kept himself alive in ways I didn’t want to fathom, but even after a month in the pit, he still could not find the exit. A few days ago, the dungeon guards had realized he hadn’t actually escaped and recaptured him.

  I couldn’t imagine what was happening to him now either. But what I could imagine urged me to ride faster. Basil couldn’t have much life left in him.

  Less than an hour after receiving the note, Harlyn and I met in the stables. I mounted my horse with only a scant nod at Harlyn, but she remained in place, clearly with something to say. Already impatient, I looked down at her. “Yes?”

  “I would have said no.” Her voice was calm and even. “If you had gone along with Gerald’s plan to propose marriage at the dinner tonight, I would have told you no.” Now she took hold of the reins and climbed into the saddle. With one final glance at me before departing, she said, “When Basil’s rescue is over, I will not return to Nessel. Based on the conversation we overheard, nor should you.”

  “Harlyn—” I began, but she was already riding away.

  Nothing more was said until a few hours later, when it had become too dark and too cold for travel. Rather than ride up the more commonly traveled border between the Hiplands and Antora, we had cut through the center of Antora, a more direct route to the capital. Our chances of running into Dominion armies were greater, but it would shave at least a half day off our trip, so it was worth the risk.

  While we rode, the need to watch for Dominion soldiers was a fine escape from my other troubles, but trouble can only ever be postponed, not outrun. With night falling fast, we found an abandoned home near the road with a small barn for the horses. The Rawkyren had stayed overhead thus far and flew off now, I assumed, to hunt, as it often did at night. Our shelter wasn’t exactly a hiding place, but I hoped any patrols that did happen to pass by would think we belonged here, so there was nothing to investigate.

  We warmed a supper over a small fire and then set out our bedrolls in the center of the room, each of us facing the fireplace, absorbed in our own thoughts. My sketching pad was in front of me, but I hadn’t yet made a mark on it.

  Finally, just to make conversation, I said, “Did I ever tell you that I can hear the Rawkyren’s thoughts? He wants a name.”

  Harlyn smiled. “A name?”

  “He doesn’t like being an it.”

  She tilted her head, letting her curly black hair fall to one side. “What name did you have in mind?” I shrugged, and she added, “My father is becoming ill. Perhaps in his honor—”

  “I respect your father enough that if this Rawkyren turns out to be as evil as Reddengrad believes them to be, I don’t think we ought to borrow your father’s name.”

  Harlyn smiled. “You’ve been with this dragon for a month. You’d know if it was going to turn bad.” That brought on an awkward silence between us, which she quickly filled by adding, “What if we simply call him Rawk?” When I agreed, she added, “My father also respects you very much. If he were well enough to still be in command, he never would have tolerated the kind of talk that we heard from the cavalry.”

  “No, but now that we’ve heard it, we have to deal with it. You’re under no obligation to return to the Hiplands with me, but I hope you understand that your leaving does nothing for my safety.”

  Harlyn nodded. “It was a stupid thing for me to say. Of course I’ll return. I wish …” Her voice trailed off, and when she spoke again, she asked, “If there was no Kestra, would anything be different between us?”

  She must have already known my answer, but perhaps she needed to hear it aloud. “Yes, it would be different.”

  Now Harlyn’s hand brushed across mine, and she left it there. “Is there any hope of things becoming different … in time?”

  I exhaled slowly. The truth was that there was no Kestra anymore, not in reality. Only my memory of her, my wish to have her back, as she was before, as we were before. Harlyn’s hypothetical question wasn’t hypothetical at all. There was no Kestra.

  Except there was … somewhere.

  Still facing the fire, I said, “Unless I can divide my heart from the rest of me, I do not see how it can happen.”

  Harlyn rotated her body to be closer to mine. Surprised by the sudden movement, I looked at her, and in that same instant, she leaned forward and kissed me. My first instinct was to pull away, but I didn’t. At first, it was a single kiss, and that should have been the end of it. But before I could think better of it, I accepted the invitation and kissed her back.

  It wasn’t long or overly emotional, and yet my heart was still pounding seconds after the kiss ended. I continued to stare at her, though I didn’t know what I was thinking, if I was thinking.

  Harlyn only smiled and pressed her hand flat against my chest. “That is how it happens, Simon. I won’t divide your heart, I’ll simply steal it away.”

  With that, she lay down on her bedroll, pulled a blanket up over her shoulders, and closed her eyes to sleep.

  I did not, could not. I stayed in front of the fire until long after it had burned itself out, trying to align my thoughts with my feelings. But that was utterly impossible. Nothing made sense; nothing was logical. And there was nothing I could see ahead except more confusion and heartache.

  I finally lay down, hoping for a few hours of sleep until we could ride again. As soon as I did, beside me, Harlyn whispered, “That won’t be our last kiss, you know.”

  I knew. I just wasn’t yet sure how I felt about it.

  Somehow I had reached the end of another day that, for all I knew, might have been a thousand years long. Time was becoming impossible to measure. Had it really only been a single day? I genuinely did not know.

  I was riding beside Loelle as she drove us in a wagon, she bundled in furs against the thick falling snow, and I in a simple gray skirt and white top with a light cloak. I held out my hand and let the flakes dance lightly upon my skin, amazed at how long it took for them to melt.

  “It hasn’t snowed in these woods since the war,” Loelle comment
ed with a faint smile. “Snow is water and water is life. You’ve done this for us, Kestra.”

  “There already was water in the forest,” I said, thinking of how I had brought Simon across the borders once to help him heal after a fight with a Dominion oropod. Foul creatures.

  “My people created those ponds in the last moments before they were cursed,” Loelle said. “They hoped the healing waters might restore them. Those waters may heal the living, but they do nothing for half-lives.”

  “Why won’t you allow me to heal them?” I asked. “Why only heal the forest?”

  Without answering, Loelle pointed to a plume of smoke ahead. Beneath it was a chimney and tiny home built of rocks like others in the forest. She said, “That’s where we’ll sleep tonight.”

  “Someone lives here?” I asked.

  “Not all of the Navan were cursed,” she said. “And this particular boy is someone I very much want you to meet.”

  My brows pressed together and I fell silent. Whoever this particular boy was, I didn’t like the tone of her voice as she mentioned him, as if this boy should be of particular interest to me. I only heard an echo of her lecture from a month ago, insisting that I let Simon go.

  Loelle stopped the wagon beneath a wooden canopy that looked as if it had been recently built. For some reason, that irritated me. I hadn’t healed the trees here just so they could be chopped down.

  “I won’t go inside until you tell me something about this particular boy,” I said to Loelle.

  “His name is Joth Tarquin,” she said, as if that was all I needed to know. “He is a son of the Navan.”


  “And he’s eager to meet you.”

  “Ah.” If that single fact was everything I needed to know, then that was plenty of reason to dread this visit.

  I climbed out of the wagon and followed Loelle to the door. She knocked, then called her name through the door, which I hardly thought was necessary. Until this moment, I had believed she and I were the only fully living beings in All Spirits Forest. Joth Tarquin was evidently the third. I vaguely wondered if there were more.

  A moment passed; then the door was opened by a handsome boy with keen blue eyes, and long black hair tied back with a band. He seemed to be near Simon’s age though he was taller and leaner in his build. His smile at Loelle was brief, lasting only until he noticed me at her side. Then the smile dissolved into a full glare. To Loelle, he said, “I told you not to bring her.”

  “You said you weren’t ready for me to bring her,” Loelle replied. “That’s not the same thing.”

  His glare shifted toward me, and I was more than happy to return it. “Let’s go,” I muttered.

  “Where will you go?” Joth looked past us to the skies, from which thick snow continued to fall. He widened the door. “I suppose you’d better come in.”

  With a quick smile, Loelle brushed inside as if the invitation to enter had been given with any sort of enthusiasm. I was more reluctant, keeping my place until he sighed and said, “You’re letting the heat out, so if you’re going to enter, then do it. I’ve got to shut the door.”

  I grimaced but walked past him. Loelle had already removed her cloak and furs and set them near the fire to dry. She approached me, but I backed up. “I can do this myself.”

  “Very well.” Loelle nodded at a pot of stew hanging over the fire. “Joth, might you have enough to share?”

  He grunted and fetched a couple of bowls from a small table in one corner. He dished up a thin stew and gave us the bowls without spoons. Loelle took care of that, walking back to the table and getting one for each of us and, notably, taking the chair that Joth likely would have preferred, forcing him to sit across from me. He did but folded his arms and held a steady glare while he watched me eat.

  This was absurd, and after a few bites, I’d already had enough. I walked the bowl over to the table, then crossed the room again to collect my cloak.

  “We can’t leave,” Loelle said.

  “I won’t stay,” I countered.

  “You have to stay.”

  “There’s no point,” Joth said. “Even if you’d brought me someone more capable, it was still a foolish idea.”

  “No point in what?” I asked. “Why am I here?”

  “Oh, she didn’t tell you?” Joth stood, gesturing to Loelle. “She didn’t warn you?”

  “About what?”

  He and Loelle exchanged a knowing glance, but neither would answer. So I finished wrapping the cloak around my shoulders, then headed for the door.

  “I meant what I said.” Loelle stood as if to follow me. “You must stay, Kestra.”

  “It won’t work,” Joth said.

  I opened the door, then turned back one last time. “Tell me why I am here, or this is the last you will see of me.”

  Loelle walked to Joth, putting one hand on his arm. “This boy is the key to your success. With his help, you may have a chance of defeating Lord Endrick.”

  After deferring this conversation more times than I could count, Loelle finally had my attention. “How?”

  He sighed. “Close the door. You’re letting the heat out … again.”

  I hesitated, slowly shut the door, but kept hold of the handle. “Tell me more.”

  “I will,” Loelle said, “but first I must test your magic with his, to see if it’s compatible.”

  I looked over at Joth, truly curious. “What is your magic?”

  “We’re not revealing that yet,” Loelle said. “Don’t be offended, child, but the few of my people who remain have learned not to be too open about their magic until it’s necessary—we don’t want Lord Endrick to become aware of us.”

  “Then how are we supposed to know if it’s compatible?”

  “I can answer that—our abilities will not blend,” Joth said. “This is a waste of time.”

  He’d made his objections perfectly clear, and enough times that I could practically anticipate his exact words. But for now, I merely rolled my eyes and repeated my question to Loelle.

  She shrugged. “The only way to be sure is to actually use your powers together, but I fear doing so would alert Lord Endrick to your position. We need a quieter method.”

  “Such as?”

  “There’s a simple test.” Joth held out his hand to me. I walked over to him and tentatively took his hand. “Don’t use your magic, just think about it, and I’ll do the same.”

  I closed my eyes and reached out to feel the strength inside him. How easily I could take enough to sustain myself for days. It would be wrong, I knew that, but he’d been so unlikable since we’d met, the temptation was there.

  Still skeptical, I reached for his strength but was surprised to feel something tug from his end too as he focused on me. His magic pressed in tighter and tighter, until I was short of breath. Suffocating.

  I could stop him.

  Unnerved, I yanked my hand free, and he immediately backed away, eyes wide with alarm. “You considered killing me just now?”

  Killing him? No, of course not! Yes, maybe I’d considered draining his strength, incapacitating him for days, but I wouldn’t kill him. How would he have known that anyway?

  Or how was it that I had felt something from him too?

  I stared at him. “What happened?”

  “You felt the presence of my magic, as I felt the presence of yours.”

  “Then there is compatibility,” Loelle said.

  Joth brushed off Loelle’s comment. “It doesn’t matter. I will not help her.”

  Loelle crossed over to him, her hands clasped in a desperate attempt to make him change his mind. “You did connect!”

  “It wasn’t a connection, only a thought in her that I detected. The kind of thought a person should pay attention to if he wants to live.”

  “Without your help, she will fail against Lord Endrick,” Loelle said.

  “She is corrupt,” Joth said. “I felt it from the moment she came. The Navan have never been cor
rupted because we have never connected with anyone outside. We don’t know how a connection will affect us.”

  “But we do know what happens if she fails.”

  Keeping an eye on me, he said, “And what if she succeeds, as she is? We have never trusted the corruptible, and we cannot start now.”

  He was speaking to Loelle, but I felt like I’d been hit with his words. Corrupt? That’s what Simon had said about me. He’d been so delirious at the time, it had been a simple thing to dismiss it. I had no such excuse for Joth.

  Barely glancing at me, Loelle said, “If there are problems, then it’s only because she’s spent weeks absorbing the curse on this land. Whatever has happened to her, it’s been in the service of our people! Don’t we owe her something for that?”

  “She will betray us before this is over,” Joth said. “Anything we owe her, she will make us pay for it. How is she any different from Lord Endrick?”

  I’d heard enough. My heart pounding with fury, I stood, retrieved my cloak again, and this time marched straight for the door. I flung it open, hearing Loelle call my name, and took my first step outside. The falling snow was up to my knees by now—Loelle’s wagon wouldn’t make it through this, or at least, I hoped she wouldn’t try to follow me.

  From the doorway, she said, “Where do you think you are going?”

  I had no idea, but I called back, “I am nothing like Lord Endrick, nor do I need anyone’s help to defeat him. I will finish this alone.”

  I trudged on ahead until the snow was lower on my legs and I could move faster. Wherever I was going, I intended to get as far from Joth and Loelle as possible. I felt the presence of spirits around me as I ran, and I shouted vague orders at them to leave the area entirely or I would never heal them. I wanted to be alone, needed to be alone—to be anywhere that I could think.

  Sooner than I had expected, I came to the boundary of the forest, finally able to see rolling hills and open fields waiting for me beyond these densely packed trees. It was strange, to be here inside the forest, a place I had seen so often but rarely dared to enter. Now Antora felt just as foreign, a place I seemed to be seeing for the very first time.