The lone figure shuddered under the thick wool blanket, and I released my breath. Alive. At least for tonight. The knot I’d carried in my chest for the past few hours loosened as I approached his cell. Not entirely, of course. The tether that bound me to the witch forced me to sense her constant fear. Only when she slept did I find any relief—and of late, she’d slept little. Perhaps once I cast the spell back in my chamber, I’d earn a few hours of peace.
Peace? You’re trapped as much as this man is. I cursed under my breath. The long days suffocating under the weight of my secret were taking their toll. I longed to breathe free air, but until we found a way to escape Eideard’s spells, I had to maintain my disguise lest the emaciated and broken man in the cell before me gained a companion. The dungeon walls pressed in on me. Most of the room was underground, keeping the temperature near freezing. Only the top few feet of the room peeked above the ground, a tiny window high on the wall providing a torturous glimpse of freedom so far from our reach.
Tufts of matted black hair stuck up from the prisoner’s cocoon. A thick chain rattled as he shivered. Why Eideard insisted on the manacle—running from the man’s ankle to a hasp low on the wall—I could not fathom. The binding spell, the starvation, and the beatings ensured he’d never escape. Not without some sort of miracle.
“Delphine? You’re relieved.”
The deep voice startled me. I nearly dropped the cup of water and the bowl of porridge I carried on a well-worn tray. The scents of cedar and fresh rain announced his presence behind me and I squeezed my eyes shut for a brief moment, not wanting to see him as he was now. After a breath, I found my voice.
“Shortly. I’ve brought the prisoner’s meal. You’ve time for a mug of kahve if you wish.” I turned, biting my lower lip to quell the tremble. Before…the human and I had been close, or we’d tried to be. I’d always found Conall to be a kind and interesting man—one I wanted to know better. Now, victim to the last remaining snáthaid, a stranger stood before me.
We hadn’t known what the snáthaid could do. How if left in a person’s body, it would burrow deeper, the magic eating away at the soul until only an empty shell remained, ready to be molded like clay. King Conall had died more than six months ago, and Eideard—along with his personal mage, Brandanna—had sculpted him into Lachlan, a low-level guard loyal to Clan Kendrick. After the witch’s escape, Eideard assigned Lachlan to the night watch to torture the lone prisoner even further.
“I…” He glanced towards the stone steps that led out of the underground dungeon. “I do not like kahve.”
“You had a mug with you last week.” My fingers started to itch and the dull throbs of a headache bloomed behind my eyes. I couldn’t hold onto my spell much longer—another half an hour at most. “No matter. Take this morning’s tray back to the kitchens. Eideard may not care if the prisoner sleeps in rat shite, but I refuse to spend my days watching the disgusting things crawl all over him.”
I opened the cell and then gestured to the untouched meal. “Go on.” Even in my lowly position—barely a member of the Guarda, more of a glorified kitchen wench—I outranked Lachlan. Everyone did. From the king to the lowest foot soldier. At least he had no memory of his former station. Small blessings, I supposed.
Uncertainty pinched his dark brows, but he wouldn’t ignore a direct order. As he rose, his hands shook, and his gaze pleaded with me before he turned on his heel and trudged up the steps.
I couldn’t spare the time to wonder why he feared leaving the dungeon. Moving quickly, I dropped to one knee and pulled the blanket away from the warlock’s face. He cringed and shrank further into the corner. “N-no.”
“Shh. It’s only me.” I rested my palm on his chest, each rib sharp under his thin shirt. “You must eat.”
“Let m-me d-die.” His eyes fluttered closed. Blue veins contrasted starkly against skin that hadn’t seen the sun in months. With more speed than I thought him capable of, he lunged for the athame at my waist. Cursing, I leapt back.
“You are not worth the wrath I would earn if you died, warlock.” I spat at his bare feet, drew my athame, and pressed the blade to his throat in case Lachlan came back. Unable to hold his head up, the warlock sagged forward as hoarse sobs wracked his body. I should never have let him go this long without the respite from the Mists. I knew better, but the witch had been so insistent. “You will stay alive for as long as the king wishes. This I promise you.”
The anguish in his voice threatened my tenuous control. I glanced over my shoulder. We were still alone. I let my spell slip away for a moment, and rather than a middle-aged, stout devil woman with no hair, yellow teeth, and a thick middle, I stood before the prisoner in my true form. Tall, with silver hair past my shoulders, and barely enough bulk to hold my corset up, my familiar face rallied him, though only slightly.
“I can give you peace, for a day or two. But only if you eat.” Thankful Lachlan was taking his time, I slid the athame into its holster and grabbed the prisoner’s arms so I could gently lower him to the floor. My whispered words only seemed to drive him further into despair. “As long as she lives, she will never stop searching. She’ll find a way.”
“Or die…trying.” As the man slumped against the wall, his dark lashes glistened with spilled tears in the torchlight, and I swore under my breath as I noted how sunken his cheeks had become. “Help me…protect her. Kill me.”
Six hopeless months ago, I’d made my vow. How much longer could I stand to watch him suffer? “You are the only reason she lives.” I cupped his chin and forced his head up. “The full moon will be here soon. I’ll be able to get a message to her then. Eat, so I can give you respite.”
I pressed a spoonful of porridge against his lips and thanked the Fates when he accepted the offering. As he ate, I told him how angry the corrupt king had been the last time a contingent of his men had come close to finding Ealasaid but had been cut down by the witch’s power. Eideard had punched one of the stone walls so hard, he’d broken four bones in his hand. “The idiot forgot he’d sent Brandanna to Lobhdain the previous night. He had to suffer with those shattered bones for a full day.”
Angry shouts echoed from the main floor, but I ignored them in favor of holding the cup of water to his lips. “You will not last long in the Mists this time. You must eat more.”
The sound that escaped his throat confused me until I saw his chest shake. Laughter? “You try…that shite. Eideard…has them put lye in it.”
“Fates be damned.” I raised the bowl to my nose, sniffed, and fought not to retch. It had never occurred to me that the king would sink that low. “When next you see me, I’ll have a better meal for you.”
As I wrapped the blankets around him, he forced his eyes open. “Thank you.”
With my hand on his cheek, I cast the spell that would send him into a type of hibernation. Nightmares plagued him there, in a realm created by ancient magic, but at least the cocoon of the Mists spared his body the pain of so many hours trapped in a frigid cell with an icy chain around his ankle.
With a final moan, he succumbed to the tug of the devil magic, and the lines around his eyes and lips relaxed. The magic drained me further, and I shivered. “On my life, I will find a way to free you. Sleep now, Raven, and try to dream of Ealasaid.”
My fingers shook as I shut the cell door, and my vision wavered as I reclaimed my disguise.
Lachlan’s voice startled me, and I almost lost hold of the spell. I wrestled for control and cleared my throat twice before I risked speech.
“Aye. I’ve sent the warlock into the Mists for the night. He’s all yours.” I brushed past Lachlan, but the scent of blood caught my attention. With my foot on the first stair, I cast a brief glance at the former king. He held a crimson-stained handkerchief to his swollen lip. “What happened?”
“I tripped.” He shrugged, winced, and spat into the cotton square. “The prisoner ate?”
Tripped, my arse. Lachlan braced himself against the wall, his breath stuttered at the end of his inhalation, and his left eye bore a reddish tinge that would likely turn black and blue by the end of his shift.
“Sit.” I offered him a clean handkerchief. When he waved me off, I gave him my best glare. “If you bleed all over your uniform, you’ll earn more of the captain’s ire. And you certainly don’t want to pass out during your watch.”
He didn’t so much sit as collapse into the metal chair. The occasional hiss escaped his lips as I staunched the blood and passed a quick cooling spell over his swollen cheek, his jaw, and his ribs. “Nothing broken?” My magic faltered as I met Lachlan’s gaze, and I struggled not to show him my true form.
He frowned, shifted to one side, then back again. “No. Not this time.” His last words almost disappeared into his hands as he scrubbed his face. “Leave me. Please.”
Regret twisted like a knife deep into my gut as he struggled to straighten his shoulders. If I thought I could maintain my spell any longer, I’d offer to stay with him, but my skin had already started to crawl with the sensation of a thousand spiders. With the moon full, the mage would be gone, renewing the spells that surrounded the castle. If I could break into her rooms, perhaps I could find a way to escape the dampening field that kept me—and Raven—trapped here.
“I’ll relieve you a bit early tomorrow. Good night, Lachlan.”
Halfway up the stairs, his words followed me. “That’s not my name.”
I almost rushed back to him, hoping I’d find some part of the former king. But he’d relieved me every day for the past month and I’d never seen a single spark of recognition. I couldn’t risk the time or the danger. No. King Conall was dead. Killed by the snáthaid six long months ago. No amount of wishing could change that.
“Be well, my friend,” I whispered as I pushed through the scarred wooden door that sealed the dungeon off from the rest of the castle. “As well as you can be.”