Deeper and deeper, I sink into the core of the earth. The sensation is somewhere between the first and second time I interacted with the throne. I am as immersed as the first. But it’s less violent, like the second.
Eldas’s phantom fingers splay across where I imagine my stomach would be, if I had a stomach in this form. Focus, I can hear him command. The magic responds to you. You are its master. It is not the master of you.
Slowly, awareness comes into focus. It’s not quite like seeing, but more like my awareness sharpening the world around me. I am within a cocoon nestled deep in the roots of the redwood throne. I am in the dark spot I previously could not see within, trapped in a cage of gnarled roots.
Everything stretches out from here. Everything originates from this spot.
The seed, I remember reading another queen call it in a journal. From this seed, the life of Midscape is sustained. This is the seed of the tree that nourishes the world of wild magic. The Fade creates the borders, but without the seed it would be an empty vessel.
The first Human Queen and Elf King worked together to make the Fade. The rogue thought wanders through my head as if someone whispers it to me.
Hello? I try and ask.
I try and reach out to the world around me, but am met with nothing. Yet my hands seem to touch everything. In this murky place of primordial beginnings, I see a hazy image.
A woman with a crown, reaching forward. Planting…
Planting? Planting what? Have I seen this before?
The heartroot remembers.
But the fleeting images are gone, and with them exhaustion follows in their wake. I must stay focused on my task. The echoes of a thousand queens exist in this dark void and I cannot allow myself to get lost among them.
Magically, I tap into the great roots that prop up Midscape. I feel the same cries from across the land. But they are less hungry and demanding this time.
They know I’ve returned, I realize. The plants, animals—life itself on Midscape knows the queen has returned to attend them. They are not screaming into the void of a seemingly endless winter, but making their needs known so that summer can break over a world still waking.
Fine, I relent. Take what you need.
As soon as permission is given, I feel the tendrils worm underneath my flesh. They dig into me with an inevitable violence. I grit my teeth against the pain. It’s numbed as the world begins to drain the magic within me from my marrow.
Enough, I try and demand. That’s enough.
But Midscape does not listen. This unnatural world is needy, and hungry. More, more, more, it seems to say. Everything is out of balance and it doesn’t know when to stop.
The vines tighten around me. I can’t get a word out. They writhe within me. They will tear me apart in this dark and lonely place.
All at once, the invisible tendrils release themselves. My lungs are my own. My mind is free and exists only within my own head.
I’m pressed against something solid and warm. Two roots still cling to me but—no, they’re not roots. They’re arms. I blink up in the dim light of the throne room.
Eldas is all I see.
He cradles my shaking form against him; his embrace is the only thing keeping my bones from rattling apart. I want to thank him, but I’m too exhausted. Talking is hard. Thinking is hard.
“You did well,” he murmurs. My head rests against his shoulder by the crook of his neck.
“Was it enough?” I rasp.
“It was enough. You are more than enough.”
I hope so. My eyes flutter closed. It feels like enough. This once-cold world is now warm. In the back of my mind, I realize I know this sensation. I’ve felt it once before.
He held me like this when he hardly knew me after the first time I sat on the throne. The vague thoughts slip between my fingers, as much of a victim to the overwhelming darkness as I am.
I wake in my bed several hours later.
Dawn has broken, painting the room with a watercolor brush of periwinkle and honeysuckle hues. I feel as though I’ve run a marathon. Not that I’ve ever done such a thing in my life before. But I watched my classmates do it in Lanton and it looked exhausting.
As I push myself off the bed, a chorus of popping and snapping in my bones wakes Hook. He whines and eagerly jumps up to my face. Wet nose, hot tongue, and warm breath is my greeting party back to reality.
“It’s good to see you too,” I say softly, running my fingers through his dark fur. “Sorry for worrying you.”
Once Hook has been reassured that I’m not dead—despite how my body tries to claim otherwise—I swing my legs off the bed and make an attempt at standing. I ache, and just walking to the bathroom has me winded. It’s not as bad as the first time but I still can’t imagine doing this regularly. I already have to suffer each month because of my womanly body. I wouldn’t like to suffer each month, or more, because of my magic.
A soft sigh disrupts the quiet and I pause, looking toward my bedroom door. There’s shifting in the main room. Hook’s ears twitch, but he’s already settled back at the foot of the bed, only raising his head when he realizes I’m not coming back. I bat away the idea of some thief or fae assassin rummaging through my things. If Hook doesn’t deem the sound a threat, or even worth investigating, then I won’t be worried.
Soundlessly, I slip into the main room. There, on my richly upholstered settee, is a cramped-looking Eldas. His long legs are tucked against one end, knees hanging over the edge. A thin blanket I found in the back of my closet and had out as a complement to the lush velvet of the furniture is draped over him. It’s comically small, almost like the lanky man is using a napkin to keep warm.
Padding on light feet, I sneak back into the bedroom.
“Move, Hook,” I whisper and yank at the duvet folded at the foot of the bed. I haven’t needed it for warmth since Hook took up residence with me. “Move.”
He whines and relents.
I drag the blanket back to the main room. The fabric whispers over the carpet and Eldas stirs, muttering in his sleep. Gravity threatens to pull the duvet from my tired fingers, but I hold fast, waiting for him to settle once more. Carefully, I situate the blanket over him.
Eldas shifts slightly, but doesn’t wake. His eyes don’t open until a good hour later. I’m leaning back in my desk chair, journal in my lap, feet propped up against the desk as I stare intently, deep in thought. There’s something on the edge of my mind. Something I remember reading that connects with…
I hear him stir and glance over my shoulder. “Good morning,” I say.
“Good…” He blinks sleep from his eyes, rubbing them.
“Good?” I repeat with a small grin. Tired and slightly vulnerable is not a terrible sight to see first thing in the morning. The tangerine glow of the late dawn kisses his skin, making him look more man than ethereal creature of wild magic and death.
“What’s wrong with my hair?” I raise a hand to my yet-to-be-combed tresses, the grin slipping into a frown. The last time I even thought of my hair was when Luke commented on how he wanted it to be long again.
“It’s like fire in this light,” he murmurs.
“Fire head. Yes, I’ve heard it before.” I close the journal and sigh, dropping it on the desk harder than I intended. “All throughout grade school. Don’t make the fire head angry, smoke might come out of her ears. The fire head—”
“You look like a goddess,” Eldas amends. “I would not change a single thing about you, Luella.” My traitorous heart skips at his words. Then, as if remembering himself, he clears his throat and sits upright, the blanket pooling around his waist. “Where did this…”
“My bed. You looked cold this morning,” I answer the unfinished question. It seems Eldas has a hard time forming complete thoughts first thing in the morning, and there’s something surprisingly endearing about the fact.
“I’m used to the cold.” He chuckles darkly. “Ice king, they’ve called me.”
“Good thing you have a fire queen, then.” The words leave me before I can think through what exactly I’m saying. A flush rises to my cheeks.
“Oh, and why is that a good thing?” He stands, lips quirking slightly. I don’t answer, tongue heavy and gummy in my mouth as Eldas approaches. “Will you keep me warm?”
A single eyebrow arches and somehow that is what sets me aflame. I purse my lips together, trying to think of something witty to say. Trying to prevent my nerves from making me say something stupid. Trying not to remember the feeling of those smirking lips on mine.
I thought we had agreed, more or less, to not go down this route after some drunken missteps?
“I think I already did.” I point at the blanket that’s now on the floor.
“Oh, right.” He chuckles. “Of course.” Do I hear a note of disappointment in his voice? Surely I’m imagining it. Eldas studies my face as I will the blush to cool. “You’re flushed; do you have a fever again?”
“No, I’m fine.” I stand quickly, a little too quickly as the world sways. Eldas catches me with a steady hand.
“I am.” I touch the back of his hand lightly. I want to tell myself it’s just to reassure him. But, in truth, I want the shock that shoots from my fingertips straight into my chest whenever I touch him. I want the feeling of him there with me, in me. In me? My mind sputters.
“Let me take you back to bed.”
You’re not helping, Eldas! I want to shout. “Thank you, but I’ll be all right. I don’t need your help.” I fumble over my words, trying not to think of every implication he certainly doesn’t mean.
The trance is broken. As if realizing his hand was still on my person, he quickly jerks away. Eldas speaks as he hastily folds the duvet. A king folding a duvet is a sight worth leaning against my desk and watching. Especially as the broad muscles of his back strain against the thin tunic he’s wearing.