I shiver as the bitter cold of the mountains brushes against me. I hear the chirping of the birds awakening to spring in the forests. I smell the salt air as I look out to a vast, dark horizon at the world’s edge.
One place, and then to the next. Each location tries to tie vine tendrils of magic to me. The earth leeches from me on instinct. And a small piece of myself is left behind at every turn.
Opening my eyes, I pull my hand away and try to catch my breath. The world spins and I sway. Eldas moves in the corner of my vision. Hook is faster.
“I’m fine.” I bury a palm in the wolf’s fur. He comes up to my thigh and leans against me for support that I hate I need. Just that little bit of magic left me drained. “I just… I need to catch my breath.”
“This is a significant improvement over last time.”
“Careful, Eldas, that sounds like approval.”
“Well, I am a king, I must be discerning with my approval.” He adjusts his coat, smoothing out invisible wrinkles. A movement I’m beginning to associate with uncertainty. I almost find it endearing.
A tired grin pulls at my lips. “Even with your wife?”
“Especially with my wife.” His eyes meet mine. “Because none have greater responsibility, or power, than her. I am the most discerning with those that are the most capable.”
“And that almost sounded like a compliment.”
“Take it as you will.” He looks to the throne as if my sly grin made him—the mighty Elf King—uncomfortable. “What did you feel?”
“The world, again. But this time with more control. I didn’t feel like vultures were picking me down to the bone.” I straighten, no longer leaning on Hook. The room has stopped spinning.
“Yet it still took magic from you,” Eldas observes. I nod. He frowns. “Tomorrow, we’ll work on shielding your magic from forces that would try and leech it away.”
“Are there more forces that would leech from me than the earth itself?” I ask.
“The earth may be the greatest force, but sheltering yourself from it may be the easiest task. Guarding yourself from an attack by a sentient being is much harder.” It sounds like he’s speaking from experience.
“Who would do that?”
“You are a queen now. Moreover, you are my wife. Both titles bring enemies.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve brought up enemies… Who are they?”
“That’s not your concern.”
“Clearly it is.” I blink several times at him, waiting for his agreement. Eldas purses his lips.
“You will be safe in the castle. Stay here until your coronation,” is all he says as he strides away toward one of the doors on the opposite side of the room. It’s like he’s retreating from allowing himself to get too close to me. As though the very notion makes him afraid. “Come again tomorrow morning.”
“Where are you going?”
“I have business to attend to.”
“Maybe I could help with it?”
He pauses. “Don’t you have your own work to do on ending the cycle of queens?”
“I thought you were going to help me accomplish that task?”
“I do things my own way.” Eldas smiles thinly.
He closes the door tightly behind him. I whirl away and am face to face with the thrones.
“Fine, be that way,” I mutter, and head to the greenhouse.
Willow is there waiting for me. Hook quickly becomes his new obsession and our magic practice today is slow going as a result. But that’s fine; I’m tired and I could use a bit of a break. We work up until lunch, when he excuses himself much like he did yesterday to go and get us food.
I have my nose in one of the past queens’ journals, absorbing as much information as I can, when Hook perks up. I see him move from the corner of my eye. He lets out a low growl.
Footsteps stop at the entrance to the laboratory.
“Hook, what is—” I freeze.
Harrow leans against the door frame, gripping it for support.
“Well, don’t you look just like the proper queen?” Harrow slurs his words. The prince’s hair is stringy and clings to his cheeks, which have a sickly pallor. “Already up here, spending your days with plants rather than people.”
“I find plants rarely attack me, unlike people.” I slowly close the book, resisting the urge to run over and inspect him to determine what ailment he has.
“I beg to differ.” He pants.
“You need medical attention.”
“I need Poppy. Where is she?”
“Willow mentioned she’s off on some kind of a special assignment.” I think that’s what he said earlier? I was too focused on studying to get the details and Willow was too focused on scratching behind Hook’s ears to elaborate on what Poppy was doing.
“Willow will be back soon—”
“I don’t want the understudy,” Harrow seethes. Pain is pinching his face, making it even uglier than normal.
“Then how about a queen?”
“Like I would ever let you touch me,” he says, but he makes no effort to leave.
“Mmhmm.” I roll my eyes at the child he’s being and point to one of the stools. “Sit.”
“How dare you—”
“How dare I try and heal you even after you were an ass to me?” I snap. “Now, sit, you arrogant prince, before your stubbornness has you toppling over or throwing up.” Either looks equally possible.
Harrow stares at me blankly. His eyes are glassy and dull—because of fever, likely, given all the sweating he’s doing. His shirt clings to the doorway and then suctions back to his skin as he moves to sit. I quickly thumb through the journals. I know how to cure sicknesses, but there may be even more effective ways locked in these dusty pages.
Do I dare try using my magic now of all times?
“Did you wake up not feeling well?”
He chuckles and shakes his head. I glance over at him. The stool creaks as he leans against the table.
“So this came on later in the day?”
“A lot of things came on later…last night, this morning, sometime…time, slipping between my hands, fingers…life…ah, damn it all.” He’s not making any sense.
“Harrow, tell me what doesn’t feel good.”
“Everything.” He snorts and slumps. I see his head go limp and Harrow catches it quickly as he relies even more on the table for support. I’ve raced over to him, my hand on his shoulder.
“Unhand me, human.”
“Stop,” I say, softer, trying with all my might to take the venom from my voice. An ugly corner of me wants to let him suffer. But my training—everything I have dedicated my life to until this moment—won’t let me. “I can heal you. But I need to know what must be done. Your wounds are on the inside right now, I can’t see them. So I need you to tell me what’s wrong.”
“Too much partying is all.”
I saw him last night, I remember. He looked in bad shape then. But he was with his friends, surely they were looking out for him? Though Aria seemed fairly gleeful, given his state…
“You don’t look like you came from a party,” I murmur. “You look like you came from a fight and lost.”
He glowers. “Are you done mocking me?”
“I’m not sure. Can I mock you into being a model patient?”
Harrow snarls at me. It’s echoed by Hook’s growl, low and fierce. Harrow blinks, startled, focusing on the wolf for the first time. He points and lets out a blurt of laughter.
“Wait… Is there actually a wolf there? Or am I hallucinating again?”
“There’s actually a wolf there.” I pull away carefully, situating him and making sure he won’t keel over before I get back. “I’m going to get something that’ll make you better. Please don’t pass out in the next five minutes.”
I move deliberately through the greenhouse. I pluck aloe, dandelion, red clover, milk thistle, nettle, and a large bunch of basil. Back in the laboratory, I mix them all with turmeric, honey, dried ginger, and willow. As I inspect my concoction, one other idea crosses my mind.
Hallucinating again, he said. Harrow continues to sag. If I don’t get this in him soon, he’ll be a puddle on the floor. Possibly a dead puddle.
I don’t know what he ingested, but I run back out and carefully take a single leaf from the heartroot plant. Willow said that it enhances antidote properties. If there is anything suspect in his system, it’ll hopefully help.
Holding the bunch of basil in my left fist, I place my hand on the pot. I take a deep breath and brace myself. I give life to gain a more potent mixture, I think loudly to myself.
The basil withers as I draw out the life from it. Power surges through me, mingling with my own magic. The magic swells in me and I push it through my palm on the cauldron into the mixture I’ve created.
Strengthen the herbs, I command as magic changes my mixture from a murky color to bright green. I take a tentative sniff. It smells right. Everything about it seems right.
But can I trust my instinct when it comes to magic?
I glance back at Harrow. He’s fading fast. He doesn’t even look like he’d make it until Willow is back.
I have to try.
Slowly, I ladle out a thick glob of the mixture into a cup. I’ve only added just enough water to make it drinkable. Harrow looks up at me skeptically as I present it to him.
“Are you going to kill me now?” he whispers. “Strike when I’m weak to get back at me for what I did to you?”
“Please. I have better things to do with my time than kill you.” I bring the mug to his lips. “Drink. And don’t you dare complain about the taste. You’re lucky I threw in honey.”
Honey is actually great at preventing inflammation and stinting infection. But I doubt Harrow knows that, and I’d rather he think I did him a favor.