“Don’t,” ordered Hawke. “Don’t look down.”
I couldn’t stop myself.
My stomach churned. The ground was littered with sun-bleached bones. Skulls that belonged to deer and smaller animals. Perhaps rabbits? There were also longer bones, too long for an animal, and—
Sucking in a sharp breath, I tore my gaze away. “The bones…” I said, swallowing. “They’re not all animal bones, are they?”
My hand went to the arm around my waist. I held on. “Are they the bones of Craven who died?” If they didn’t feed, they withered away until there was nothing left but bones.
“Some of them.”
A tremor coursed through me.
“I told you not to look.”
But I had.
Just like I couldn’t close my eyes now. The red leaves glistened in the fading sun, looking like a million leaves had captured tiny pools of blood. It was a sight as horrifying as it was disturbingly beautiful.
The horses slowed, and Airrick’s mount reared, shaking its head, but he pushed forward. We advanced, my heart thundering as the branches stretched toward us, their slick leaves rippling softly, seeming to beckon us forward.
The temperature dropped the second we passed under the first branches, and nearly all the sun that remained couldn’t penetrate the leaves. Goosebumps pimpled my skin as I looked up. Some of the branches were so low that I thought I could possibly reach up and touch one of the leaves shaped like the ones found on a maple tree. I didn’t, though.
No one spoke as we fell into line, two by two, side by side, following the path that had been worn into the ground. Everyone kept their eyes peeled. Since there was no crunching, I felt safe looking down.
“No leaves,” I said.
“What?” Hawke leaned into me, keeping his voice low.
I scanned the rapidly darkening floor of the forest. “There are no leaves on the ground. It’s just grass. How is that possible?”
“This place is not natural,” Phillips answered.
“That would be an understatement,” Airrick added, looking around.
Hawke leaned back. “We will need to stop soon. The horses need rest.”
Pressure clamped down on my chest, and my grip on Hawke’s arm increased. I knew my fingernails were beginning to dig into his arm, but I couldn’t make myself let go.
I exhaled raggedly and saw my breath in the air.
We rode for another hour, and then there was nothing but silvery streaks of moonlight when Hawke signaled to the group. The horses slowed to a trot and then eventually stopped, their breathing heavy.
“This seems like a better place than many to camp,” Hawke commented.
The strangest urge to giggle hit me, but there wasn’t anything funny about what we were about to do.
We were going to spend the night here, inside the Blood Forest, where the Craven roamed.
I didn’t think I’d ever been this cold before.
The bedroll did nothing to stop the chill from seeping up from the ground, and the blanket, as heavy as the fur was, couldn’t fight back the iciness in the air. My fingers felt like ice cubes inside my gloves, and no amount of shivering warmed my skin.
It had to be at least twenty degrees cooler at night inside the Blood Forest, and I imagined if it rained, it would turn to snow here.
For the last twenty or so minutes, I’d tried to will myself asleep. Because if I were unconscious, I wouldn’t be so worried about turning into a chunk of ice. But every crunch of grass and stir of wind had my hand going to the dagger stowed under the bag I was using for a pillow. Between the cold, the possibility of free-roaming barrats, and the threat of a Craven attack, there was no way I was getting any asleep tonight. I didn’t know how anyone would. I’d barely been able to eat any of the food during our quick, quiet supper.
Four guards slept. Four guards stood watch several yards away, one at each corner of the camp. Hawke had been speaking to one of them, but now he was striding toward me. A tiny part of me thought I should pretend to be asleep, but I had a feeling he’d know.
Stopping in front of me, Hawke knelt. “You’re cold.”
“I’m fine,” I muttered, teeth chattering.
A moment later, I felt his ungloved fingers brush my cheek. I tensed. “Correction. You’re freezing.”
“I’ll warm up.” I hoped. “Eventually.”
He let his hand dangle between his knees. “You’re not used to this kind of cold, Poppy.”
“And you are?”
“You have no idea what I’m used to.”
That was true. I stared at the shadowy shape of his hand. For such rough, callused hands, his fingers were rather long and graceful. Digits that belonged to an artist and not a guard. A killer.
Hawke rose, and for a moment, I thought he might walk off to join the others keeping watch, but he didn’t.
Holding the coarse blanket as close as I could around me, I watched him unhook the rolled blanket from his bag and then drop the bag on the ground. Without saying a word, he stepped over me like I was nothing more than a log. Before I could take my next breath, he was lying down behind me.
I cranked my head around. “What are you doing?”
“Making sure you don’t freeze to death.” He unrolled the heavy fur blanket, tossing it over his legs. “If you did, that would make me a very bad guard.”
“I’m not going to freeze to death.” My heart started thumping erratically. He was close enough that if I shifted onto my back, my shoulder would touch his.
“What you’re going to do is lure every Craven within a five-mile radius with your shuddering.” He rolled onto his side, facing my back.
“You can’t sleep beside me,” I hissed.
“I’m not.” With the edge of his blanket in hand, he draped it, along with his arm, over me.
The heavy weight of his appendage settled at my waist, stunning me for a few precious moments. “What do you call this, then?”
“I’m sleeping with you.”
My eyes opened wide. “How is that any different?”
“There’s a huge difference.” His warm breath coasted over my cheek, causing my pulse to dip and then rise.
I stared at the darkness, every part of my body focused on the feel of his arm around me. “You can’t sleep with me, Hawke.”
“And I can’t have you freezing or getting sick. It’s too dangerous to light a fire, and unless you’d rather I get someone else to sleep with you, there really aren’t many other options.”
“I don’t want anyone else to sleep with me.”
“I already knew that,” he replied, his tone both teasing and smug.
Heat blasted my cheeks. “I don’t want anyone to sleep with me.”
In the darkness, his gaze found mine, and when next he spoke, his voice was even lower. “I know you have nightmares, Poppy, and I know they can be intense. Vikter warned me about them.”
Sorrow pierced the embarrassment before it could even form, shattering it. “He did?” My voice was thick, hoarse.
My eyes squeezed shut against the burn of pain. Of course, Vikter would’ve filled Hawke in. He’d probably done so the very first night Hawke had to watch over me. I knew in my heart of hearts that Vikter had shared this information for my benefit instead of preparing Hawke for the night one of the nightmares drove me from sleep. He’d done it so Hawke wouldn’t react in a manner that would cause me embarrassment or stress.
Vikter was…gods, I missed him.
“I want to be close enough to intervene in case you have a nightmare,” he continued, and I opened my eyes. “If you scream…”
He didn’t need to finish. If I screamed, I could draw nearby Craven.
“So, please, relax and try to rest. We have a hard day ahead of us tomorrow if we have any hope of not being forced to spend two nights in the Blood Forest.”
A hundred refusals rose to the tip of my tongue, but I was cold, and if I did have a nightmare, someone needed to be nearby to stop me before I started screaming bloody murder. And Hawke’s heat…the warmth of his body was already seeping through the blanket wrapped around us, sinking into my chilled skin and bones.
Besides, all he was doing was sleeping beside me. Or sleeping with me, as he’d said. But neither of those things was forbidden.
And it wasn’t like we hadn’t already done things I should’ve protested or avoided. Compared to the night at the Red Pearl and during the Rite, this was extraordinarily chaste, no matter that I shivered now for an entirely different reason than the cold.
“Go to sleep, Poppy,” he urged.
Exhaling as loudly and obnoxiously as I could, I plopped my cheek back onto the bag and winced. The material had chilled significantly while I had my head up. I ended up staring straight ahead, focusing on the vague shape of one of the guards standing in the moonlight.
I closed my eyes, and immediately, my entire focus went to where Hawke’s body touched mine.
Hawke’s arm was all but curled around my waist, but his hand didn’t touch me. It must’ve dangled in the space in front of me. That was surprisingly…polite of him. His chest rested beside my back, and with every breath he took, it brought his body more into contact with mine.
The only sound other than my pounding heart—which I wondered if he heard—was the rattle of the wind stirring the leaves, reminding me of dry bones rubbing together, and the soft neighing of the horses.
Was Hawke asleep already? If he was, I was going to be so irritated.
“This is wildly inappropriate,” I muttered.
His answering chuckle stroked my nerves in all the wrong—and right—ways. “More inappropriate than you masquerading as a wholly different kind of maid at the Red Pearl?”
My jaw snapped shut so quickly and tightly, I was surprised I didn’t crack a molar.
“Or more inappropriate than the night of the Rite, when you let me—”