The Warrior's Curse, Page 3Jennifer A. Nielsen
I came closer to where the border of the forest thinned and stretched into open space. Only then did I spot clusters of Ironhearts gathered in pockets around the forest, set up in camps that looked as if they had been here for some time. They were scattered as far as I could see along the entire border. Were they here for me?
I pressed into the shadows of the trees, where I hoped I wouldn’t be noticed, and tried to figure out the best way to escape. I couldn’t fight off all the Ironhearts who were here.
And even if I did escape, where would I go? I was not welcome anywhere, not wanted anywhere. I still had to kill Lord Endrick but had no means to do it.
“My lady, I’ve been watching for you.”
I nearly fell back as a familiar-looking girl stepped out of a small tent. Her hair was lighter than mine, with a natural curl I’d always envied, even when I’d despised her for having once betrayed me. It had been a long time since I’d thought of her, though I never would forget her. At one time, I’d considered her my closest friend.
“Celia?” I whispered.
Celia was my former handmaiden, and former friend. She had been with me during my exile into the Lava Fields, and had betrayed me to the Coracks. I’d heard almost nothing of her since then.
“How did you know I’d be here?”
Celia shrugged. “We didn’t. But we believed that if you did leave these woods, you would be in one of only a few places. This is the area to which I was assigned. I hoped you’d come this way. I felt of anyone, I’d be the best to talk to you.”
“Are you here representing the Coracks?” I asked, keeping my place. “Because if you are—”
“I was with them for a while,” she said. “Then, last fall, I was captured by the Dominion in a raid of Lonetree Camp. I now serve as a messenger from Lord Endrick … as an Ironheart.”
I exhaled as I took that in. If she was an Ironheart, then Endrick had the ability to communicate through her, if he desired. And I was certain that he desired it very much.
“You serve as a messenger?” I asked. “What is your message?”
“My king, Lord Endrick, wishes to know how many people must die before you accept your punishment for treason.”
That took me aback, but Celia had spoken so calmly, I wondered how deep Endrick’s hold was on her heart, how much he controlled her thoughts and feelings now.
“Your king, Lord Endrick, is the only one who needs to die,” I replied. “If he surrenders, all other lives will be spared, including yours.”
Celia lowered her eyes, as if listening, then said, “Lord Endrick refuses your offer. However, in his mercy, he has one of his own. Vow to serve him, and through you, he will rebuild the Dominion. You will be the lady of Woodcourt, Endrick’s prime counselor, and the most powerful woman in all of Antora.”
I arched a brow. “Most powerful woman? Without him, I would be a queen.”
“He knows you do not have the Olden Blade, nor does he believe you have any hope of finding it again.” Celia blinked once, her tone remaining disturbingly even. “But he invites you to come with me now, to go to him in peace. He will help you to understand your powers, and how to use them as he would.”
I shook my head. “I have no desire to do anything that will make me more like him. Tell your master that I refuse.”
Celia’s eyes flashed with a moment of panic, and her voice rose in pitch. “Refuse, and you will leave my master no choice but to kill you. But if you vow to serve him, he will allow you to keep your powers, and reap the rewards of service.”
“What rewards have you reaped?” I asked.
Celia didn’t even blink. “I am allowed to live, my lady.”
In its simplicity, that statement revealed just how desperate she must feel. But I could help. I could do more than that. If she would let me, I could heal her. Offering one hand out to her, I stepped forward. “Celia, I can save your heart. I can save you, but you must come with me into the forest.”
Celia shook her head. “It’s better to serve him willingly than to suffer needlessly. Either way, he will win in the end. Please, my lady, surrender to him and live.”
“I will survive just fine.”
“No, my lady. Unless you surrender, you will not survive the next minute.”
I looked around me, realizing I was standing on the forest boundary. Ahead of me, five archers who had obviously been in hiding all this time revealed themselves, all with their disk bows aimed at me. I could not attack them all, nor defend myself from so many disks.
One archer in particular caught my attention, a girl my own age with piercing brown eyes and long, thick lashes, and hair the exact color of Simon’s.
Simon once said he had a younger sister. Could this be her?
Celia raised one arm. “I am begging you to come with me, my lady. For the good of Antora. Nothing else will save your life.”
After several long seconds of waiting, Celia’s nervousness became apparent. Clearly, she did not want to give orders to harm me, but I knew she would if she had to.
A voice behind me commanded, “Return to the forest, Kestra. Now!”
I turned to see Loelle riding up behind me with Joth in the driver’s seat of her wagon. His lips were pressed tightly together in clear irritation, but Loelle’s entire body seemed to be tense with fear.
“My lady, announce your surrender and we will escort you to our king.” Celia’s eyes darted away from me. “He knows about those two behind you. The Navan were cursed here for a reason. They serve only themselves, falsely claiming a larger purpose in this world. Any kindness they are showing you now is only because it benefits them. Once they have taken from you all that they desire, you will be tossed aside.”
“That is not true!” Loelle’s tone sharpened. “Kestra, return to the forest!”
Celia’s gaze shifted back to me, her eyes pleading with me to listen to her. “My lady, they brought you here against your will, manipulating your powers, draining your strength, and robbing you of every glory that should be yours. Lord Endrick can restore it to you. Please, come with me now or these soldiers must shoot.”
I took a step backward, my toes on the boundary. I felt half-lives around me, attempting to drag me back with them, but I resisted their tug too.
“Is he frightened of me?” I asked Celia. “Lord Endrick knows what I can do to him.”
“The Lord of the Dominion fears nothing,” Celia said; then with a cry of pain, her body contracted. “Please, my lady. I beg you to come with me.”
He was squeezing on her heart. There was no reason for it—she had done nothing but obey him.
“One more step back,” Loelle said. “Then you’re safe with us.”
“Return to the forest and you do so as their prisoner,” Celia said. “Or come with me and be a free leader of the Dominion.” She cried out again and I knew Endrick was continuing to torment her. Why was he doing that? “Please, Kestra. He will kill me otherwise.”
I held out my hand for Celia. “No, you must come with me. It’s only a few steps, and I will save you.” I looked up at the archers. “I will save all of you, if you will drop your weapons and come to me as friends.”
“They are not friends,” Joth said. “They cannot be allowed to enter.”
I began to argue with him, until another cry from Celia forced my attention to her again. She was half bent over, clutching her chest, and in her pained voice, she whispered to the disk archers, “Release.”
My eye immediately shifted to the girl who shared Simon’s brown eyes. She didn’t flinch as she sent her disk flying. In that same instant, Joth’s arm curved around my waist, yanking me backward, fully within the borders of the forest. The disks collided in the air where I had just stood, exploding into dust against each other, then falling to the ground.
“What sort of game was that?” Joth snarled at me.
“He’s killing her—let me go!”
I broke free of him and tried to run out of the forest, but the sam
e half-lives who had just protected me now barricaded me from leaving. A scream pierced the boundary, then it was cut to total silence.
When I saw her again, she had collapsed to the ground, but her body was still now. Dead.
“No!” Desperately, I turned to Loelle. “You can save her.”
“It’s too late, and even if I could, not with those archers out there.” In a sterner voice, Loelle added, “Besides, she would not have needed saving if you had not come to the border.” To Joth, she said, “Put Kestra in the wagon and keep her there until I can get us deeper into the forest.”
He half threw me into the back of the wagon, immediately climbing in next to me. If he wanted a fight, he’d get it. I reached for his arm but was repelled by the same half-lives that had prevented me from going to Celia.
Fuming, I shouted, “Celia was right. I am a prisoner here!”
“We’re all prisoners here!” he countered. “You’re our only chance at escaping, and you might have just ruined it. You should have left the instant you saw the Ironhearts. If they suspected you were here before, now they know it!”
“Well, I won’t be here much longer. First chance I find to escape on my own, I will be gone.” Still furious, I leaned against the sideboard of the wagon and folded my arms as Loelle drove us away.
Once the border was no longer visible, he said, “You might thank us for keeping you from being shot.”
“Us? You and your half-life slaves? Does Loelle control you all too? Of all your people, why are you and Loelle the only two who escaped the curse?”
Joth hesitated, but Loelle looked back long enough to say, “We’ve got to tell her the truth.”
He nodded but still said nothing until we had returned to his home. Then Loelle excused herself to go inside while Joth waited with me in the wagon. My arms remained folded, and I stared up at the trees rather than acknowledge him.
After a lengthy silence, he began. “My father was the king of the Navan, many years ago when we lived across the Eranbole Sea. But there was a great war and only a few of us survived. We escaped, coming to Antora only to face another war. Hoping to preserve our people, we took up refuge here in the forest, but so did many of the Halderians. When Lord Endrick cursed these woods, that curse became ours as well. I was very young then. My mother and I were saved only because my father had placed us in hiding outside the woods, but my mother has never forgotten our obligation to restore what has been lost to them all these years.”
“Loelle is your mother, Navan’s former queen.” Suddenly, it made sense why she resented the poor treatment she had received from the Brill.
“Titles mean nothing to us now. It’s only the survival of the Navan that we care about, and the Halderian half-lives as well. My mother is a healer, but her powers do not extend to these curses. I’m a communicator. I can speak to the half-lives and hear them speak to me. No matter the distance, and no matter how quiet.”
I smiled. “No offense intended, but if they were going to save someone from the curse, they should have picked someone with greater magic than a communicator.”
“I am the only link between their world and this one,” he said, obviously offended. “We have used that link to protect this forest. When a person from outside attempts to enter, the decision becomes mine. If the half-lives judge the person to have a good heart, a non-Dominion heart, I will let them in. If they are Dominion, I may order the spirits to attack.”
“I’ve experienced both of those welcomes,” I said. “And if you believe me to be corrupt, then I likely haven’t faced my last attack.”
He shrugged. “That’s possible. Though based on what you experienced at the border, the attacks out there will be worse than anything we might do.”
“Based on what I’ve experienced in here, I disagree.”
“There are reasons we’ve had to be so careful. When you took my hand earlier this evening, do you deny wanting to harm me?”
“I had the thought, but nothing more. If I had wanted to harm you, I would have simply done it.”
“And if I’d wanted the half-lives to harm you, I would have ordered it. So here we are.” Joth sighed. “There is only one guarantee, and that is what Lord Endrick will do if you seek him out alone. I heard what that girl was offering.”
“Her name was Celia and she was my friend!” My heart was so heavy with her loss, I’d barely heard anything he said. If only there were a way to go back and redo those last moments with her. I should have tried harder to get her to come with me. I could have helped her, or saved her myself. Why had I just stood there, frozen between the two worlds?
Joth was either unaware of my turmoil, or he didn’t care. He simply shrugged. “All right, I heard what Celia was offering. You must know Endrick will not keep his promises.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to stay here. I’ll find another way out of the forest.”
“What do you think Endrick will order now that you’ve been seen? I’ll place half-lives around the forest to keep his Ironhearts from coming in, but he already has the forest surrounded. You will not escape.”
“I’ve heard those words before, and I always escape.”
“Then what? With no Olden Blade, no army, and, from what I understand, no friends on the outside to assist you in your quest? We may have needed your help to heal this forest, but you need us as well. Let us find a way around the corruption, or better still, a cure for it. Then maybe we can talk about working together.” He offered a hand to me. “Perhaps you don’t feel the cold, but I do. Return with me, please.”
I looked back toward the forest border, wondering how many Ironhearts I could fend off before my strength wore out. Probably not enough to make it worth the risk to my life.
Defeated, I followed Joth back to his little home. It would be warm there, but warmth was not what I needed.
I needed to be stronger. Once again, my thoughts returned to Celia, though even if I’d found greater strength in my magic, it wouldn’t have protected her. Lord Endrick had magic I could not defend against. There was only one solution.
I needed his magic.
Which meant I needed to find the Olden Blade. Desperately.
I would do it for Celia and those Ironheart archers, and for everyone I would have been able to save if I were more powerful.
For now, I entered Joth’s home, sat against one wall, and thought about how much of a villain Lord Endrick was.
Then I tried not to think about how Joth likely considered me to be just as bad.
And for the first time, I began to wonder if he was right. Maybe I was.
Maybe from now on, I would be.
Harlyn and I were on the road again at dawn and, so far, were making good time. She hadn’t said a word about what had happened between us the night before, which was fine by me. The dragon, Rawk, flew overhead, and as usual, I sensed his perception of the land around us, as he warned me far in advance of when to change course to avoid trouble.
Late that afternoon, we stopped in Irathea to rest our horses. While they were being fed and watered, I said to Harlyn, “If we can keep up this pace, we have a chance of meeting up with Captain Tenger tonight.”
“That’s good.” There was a vacancy in her tone. Her mind was elsewhere.
“Is something wrong?”
For a while, I wondered if Harlyn had heard me. But finally, in little more than a whisper, she said, “You believe there are things about Kestra that I’m not telling you. Maybe you’re right.”
I turned to face her so quickly that it startled her back. “What do you know?”
She took a deep breath before she gathered the courage to answer, and she did it with a question. “If you knew where Kestra was, what would you do?”
My temper began to warm. “All this time, and you’ve known—”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But a few days ago, I’m fairly sure that Gerald received a message from Loelle. It was delivered verbally by a
courier and I missed most of it.” She quickly added, “But I know that when Gerald asked to return a message to Loelle, the courier told Gerald he refused to return to that haunted place again.”
“All Spirits Forest,” I mumbled. It wasn’t fifteen miles away from where we now stood, only an hour’s ride. Trina and I had considered whether Kestra could be there. Early in the search, Trina had even explored the perimeter for any sign of life, but her every attempt to enter was blocked by the half-life spirits who dwelled there. We believed that if Trina was not allowed in there, Kestra certainly would not be, so the Coracks shifted their searches to other parts of the country. I had never questioned their decision, and in fact, it still struck me as an unlikely hiding place.
Twice before, I’d been with Kestra inside that forest. The first time, her presence created a palpable tension among the half-lives. The second time, they had tried to kill her.
I shook my head. “It can’t be. With or without Loelle, those spirits would never let Kestra stay.”
“Maybe not the Kestra that you knew.” Harlyn licked her lips. “But would it change anything if the spirits were aware of her magic … if they needed it?”
I groaned, frustrated at having failed to think of something so obvious. Kestra surely did not have the strength to heal all the half-lives, but if she became convinced that there was a reason to try, such as with Darrow, her father, I knew she would.
“She’s there, Harlyn. I’m sure you’re right.”
Which left me with an awful decision to make. From here in Irathea, we’d have to change course to get to All Spirits Forest. If we proceeded on to Highwyn for Basil’s rescue, we’d miss the forest entirely.
Harlyn seemed to sense my frustration. She waited as I looked from one direction to the other, as if simply staring would make the decision easier.
“If you wish to go after her, I’ll come too. Or I’ll stay the course with you for Basil’s rescue. Whichever you prefer.”
I pushed my fingers through my hair, my mind at war with itself. What was the point of rescuing Basil if Kestra was lost? The reverse was true too. Only Basil could lead us to the Olden Blade. Only Kestra could use it.