He’d been my first and only lover in the two years since. Sometimes we’d meet every night for a week, others we’d go a month without setting eyes on each other. But every time was the same: a rush of shedding clothes and shared breaths and tongues and teeth. Occasionally we’d talk—or, rather, he’d talk about the pressures and burdens his father placed on him. Often, we wouldn’t say a word the entire time. I couldn’t say our lovemaking was particularly skilled, but it was still a release, a reprieve, a bit of selfishness.
There was no love between us, and never had been—at least what I assumed people meant when they talked about love—yet part of me had sunk when he’d said he would soon be married. I wasn’t yet desperate enough to ask him to see me after he was wed.
Isaac inclined his head in a familiar gesture and then ambled off down the street—out of town and to the ancient barn, where he would be waiting. We were never inconspicuous about our dealings with each other, but we did take measures to keep it from being too obvious.
Nesta clicked her tongue, crossing her arms. “I do hope you two are taking precautions.”
“It’s a bit late to pretend to care,” I said. But we were careful. Since I couldn’t afford it, Isaac himself took the contraceptive brew. He knew I wouldn’t have touched him otherwise. I reached into my pocket, drawing out a twenty-mark copper. Elain sucked in a breath, and I didn’t bother to look at either of my sisters as I pushed it into her palm and said, “I’ll see you at home.”
Later, after another dinner of venison, when we were all gathered around the fire for the quiet hour before bed, I watched my sisters whispering and laughing together. They’d spent every copper I’d given them—on what, I didn’t know, though Elain had brought back a new chisel for our father’s wood carving. The cloak and boots they’d whined about the night before had been too expensive. But I hadn’t scolded them for it, not when Nesta went out a second time to chop more wood without my asking. Mercifully, they’d avoided another confrontation with the Children of the Blessed.
My father was dozing in his chair, his cane laid across his gnarled knee. As good a time as any to broach the subject of Tomas Mandray with Nesta. I turned to her, opening my mouth.
But there was a roar that half deafened me, and my sisters screamed as snow burst into the room and an enormous, growling shape appeared in the doorway.
I didn’t know how the wooden hilt of my hunting knife had gotten into my hand. The first few moments were a blur of the snarling of a gigantic beast with golden fur, the shrieking of my sisters, the blistering cold cascading into the room, and my father’s terror-stricken face.
Not a martax, I realized—though the relief was short-lived. The beast had to be as large as a horse, and while his body was somewhat feline, his head was distinctly wolfish. I didn’t know what to make of the curled, elk-like horns that protruded from his head. But lion or hound or elk, there was no doubting the damage his black, daggerlike claws and yellow fangs could inflict.
Had I been alone in the woods, I might have let myself be swallowed by fear, might have fallen to my knees and wept for a clean, quick death. But I didn’t have room for terror, wouldn’t give it an inch of space, despite my heart’s wild pounding in my ears. Somehow, I wound up in front of my sisters, even as the creature reared onto its hind legs and bellowed through a maw full of fangs: “MURDERERS!”
But it was another word that echoed through me:
Those ridiculous wards on our threshold were as good as cobwebs against him. I should have asked the mercenary how she’d killed that faerie. But the beast’s thick neck—that looked like a good home for my knife.
I dared a glance over my shoulder. My sisters screamed, kneeling against the wall of the hearth, my father crouched in front of them. Another body for me to defend. Stupidly, I took another step toward the faerie, keeping the table between us, fighting the shaking in my hand. My bow and quiver were across the room—past the beast. I’d have to get around him to reach the ash arrow. And buy myself enough time to fire it.
“MURDERERS!” the beast roared again, hackles raised.
“P-please,” my father babbled from behind me, failing to find it in himself to come to my side. “Whatever we have done, we did so unknowingly, and—”
“W-w-we didn’t kill anyone,” Nesta added, choking on her sobs, arm lifted over her head, as if that tiny iron bracelet would do anything against the creature.
I snatched another dinner knife off the table, the best I could do unless I found a way to get to the quiver. “Get out,” I snapped at the creature, brandishing the knives before me. No iron in sight that I could use as a weapon—unless I chucked my sisters’ bracelets at him. “Get out, and begone.” With my trembling hands, I could barely keep my grip on the hilts. A nail—I’d take a damned iron nail, if it were available.
He bellowed at me in response, and the entire cottage shook, the plates and cups rattling against one another. But it left his massive neck exposed. I hurled my hunting knife.
Fast—so fast I could barely see it—he slashed out with a paw, sending it skittering away as he snapped for my face with his teeth.
I leaped back, almost stumbling over my cowering father. The faerie could have killed me—could have, yet the lunge had been a warning. Nesta and Elain, weeping, prayed to whatever long-forgotten gods might still be skulking about.
“WHO KILLED HIM?” The creature stalked toward us. He set a paw on the table, and it groaned beneath him. His claws thudded as they embedded in the wood, one by one.
I dared another step forward as the beast stretched his snout over the table to sniff at us. His eyes were green and flecked with amber. Not animal eyes, not with their shape and coloring. My voice was surprisingly even as I challenged: “Killed who?”
He growled, low and vicious. “The wolf,” he said, and my heart stumbled a beat. The roar was gone, but the wrath lingered—perhaps even traced with sorrow.
Elain’s wail reached a high-pitched shriek. I kept my chin up. “A wolf?”
“A large wolf with a gray coat,” he snarled in response. Would he know if I lied? Faeries couldn’t lie—all mortals knew that—but could they smell the lies on human tongues? We had no chance of escaping this through fighting, but there might be other ways.
“If it was mistakenly killed,” I said to the beast as calmly as I could, “what payment could we offer in exchange?” This was all a nightmare, and I’d awaken in a moment beside the fire, exhausted from my day at the market and my afternoon with Isaac.