And now Ellie couldn't snap out of it, couldn't speak. He'd sat her upright in a chair, but she couldn't move from it.
"Vampire, I warned you of this!" Hag cried as she tucked blankets around Ellie's shoulders. "Mortals can break."
"Then mend her!"
"How could I possibly know how to treat a mortal for shock? She's catatonic!"
"I don't give a fuck, you heal her!"
"Why would you take her to Helvita? What did you expect? You're lucky she didn't die from the elements."
"I sleep-traced. Must have grabbed her."
No, I grabbed you. Like an idiot.
"It doesn't matter, Hag!" Every word booming louder, Lothaire snapped, "Now, stop being a silly bitch and fix her!"
"I didn't think you cared about her mind, only her body. Correct? Saroya will be unharmed by this, vampire. So you can relax."
Good point. Why did Lothaire care at all?
"Silence! Let me think!" In a vague tone, Lothaire muttered, "I remember someone who went through this. Must recall who. Goddamn it, who was it?"
Both of them began pacing, talking at the same time:
-"He wants me to fix a human being! Should I reach for the whiskey? Or perhaps a Band-Aid?"
-"It was a male. He suffered this very thing! Who the hell was it?"
Then Lothaire said, "I remember!" and disappeared.
Hag sounded like she'd begun rifling through some spell book. "Elizabeth, the vampire will be killing mad over this. As he is unlikely to punish himself, you must wake!"
Must I? Ellie didn't think she wanted to live in a world like the Lore. Where a father would bury his son alive for centuries. Where monsters dwelled. The forked tongue that slithered across my cheek . . .
At the memory, her thoughts grew quiet once more. For how long she didn't know.
Suddenly Hag snapped, "Who is he, Lothaire? Is this some kind of a joke?"
Another male was here?
A deep voice said, "Name's Thaddeus Brayden, ma'am. But you can call me Thad."
Lothaire had snagged the boy straight out of the front yard of Val Hall, saying, "Need your help to fix Lizvetta."
The Valkyries had shrieked, "You can't take him! Leave him be, vampire!"
To which Lothaire had eloquently responded, "Go fuck yourselves!"
"Can you please explain what's happening?" Thaddeus asked Hag now. "Mr. Lothaire isn't making a lot of sense. And, uh, whose blood is all over him?"
When the fey glanced at Lothaire, he nodded, trusting the boy. To an extent.
Hag said, "This girl is new to the Lore and has just been amidst a Lore swordfight. Lothaire won, but she saw Pravus creatures."
Realization dawned on Thaddeus's face. "Gotcha. That's all it took for me to clock out."
And Thaddeus was a Lorean, even if he hadn't known he was at the time. Elizabeth was a mortal. She's so weak. Weak!
What if he never saw her stubborn gaze again? Felt her passion? You were going to end her anyway, his mind whispered. She might be my Bride, but she cannot be my queen.
Struggling to control his tone, Lothaire said, "Then what did it take for you to clock in, Thaddeus?"
"A few weeks, and the care of a nice Valkyrie and a fey."
"Weeks!" To Hag, Lothaire said, "It's back to you, Venefican."
She peered down at her spell book as if willing it for an answer.
"Uh, just a suggestion, Mr. Lothaire," Thaddeus began, "but shouldn't you be, like, holding Lizvetta or something?"
If I took her in my arms, I'd squeeze her so desperately, too hard.
"Wait!" Hag cried. "The ash vines help mortals as well. I could clear her mind with the potion I'd intended for you."
"Excellent idea, Hag. Only one problem-there were no fucking vines to be found!"
"There is one other source. I hadn't bothered to mention it because it's so impossible-"
"Nereus." She said no more.
The sea god. "He owes me a blood debt." But fearing Lothaire's arrival-no doubt assuming I'll come for his firstborn-Nereus had recruited guards to protect his lair, some of the most ruthless immortals ever to live. "Hag, get started on the potion once more."
"But how will you get past his sentries to collect your debt?"
"I likely won't." And with that, Lothaire traced to the edge of a mountainous, perpetually storm-tossed coast to confront a god.
Where has Lothaire gone? Ellie wondered.
Was he in danger? She didn't know why she should give a damn. Apart from her catatonia, nothing had changed between them. Right?
That young man bent down in front of Ellie, then gently moved her head until she was facing him. But she still couldn't focus her eyes.
"So you're Lothaire's Bride. I knew he'd let me meet you! No matter what gruff front he put on."
I'm not his Bride, just a peasant pet he uses to get off with until he can kill me. At least, that's what she'd thought just hours ago as she'd cried in his arms.
But considering Lothaire's reaction earlier . . . ?
Now she didn't know.
"Lizvetta, is it?" the newcomer asked with a southern drawl. Not a mountain accent, but definitely from the South.
Hag said, "She prefers to be called Ellie."
"And you? I just can't call someone as pretty as you . . . Hag. Maybe you have a middle name?"
Ellie thought he was grinning when he said that.
"Lothaire wouldn't like you calling me-"
"You just let me worry about him."
"Very well. My name's Balery."
She'll tell him but not me?
"Nice to meet you, Balery."
"And what might you be, Thaddeus? You look mortal."
"Thanks. But I'm actually a vampire and phantom halfling."
Hag-Balery-sucked in a breath. Why?
"Yeah, I get that a lot." Again Ellie heard amusement in his tone. "Since I'm wicked powerful and rare and all." Then to Ellie, he said, "My name's Thad. I'm a friend of Mr. Lothaire's. And I'm going to help you through this."
Was this guy for real? His deep voice was filled with kindness, but if he was friends with Lothaire and part vampire, wouldn't that make him evil?
"Mr. Lothaire came and got me because I was human a little while ago. Or at least, I thought I was. And I went catatonic when I saw some of the creatures you met up with today. Creepy stuff, huh."
The things I saw . . .
Thad took her hands in his. They were big and rough, warming her own. "But you're safe now. No one will hurt you. We're gonna protect you."
Safe. Protected. How Ellie had longed for someone to tell her exactly that! At any time in the last five years.
But still she couldn't seem to focus her gaze, not even to see what he looked like.
"When I was out of it," he continued, "this really nice Valkyrie named Regin the Radiant and a dark fey called Natalya took me under their wings."
Regin the Radiant, the one Lothaire stalked? Oh, boy.
I hate this world.
"Every day the ladies talked to me, about normal stuff mostly. And after a while, I felt comfortable enough to peek my head up." He gave her hands a light squeeze. "So that's what I'm gonna do with you. Talk. 'Cause I got nowhere else I'd rather be. I'm hiding out from my adoptive mom. She's the greatest, but she thinks I'm in high school-and still
human-but I'm done with mortal school. So every day from eight to three, I gotta get lost. I hang with the Valkyries mostly, but not one of them plays football. They just like to get high with the witches, play video games, and shriek at stuff."
This is better than the Book of Lore. . . .
"Hey, if you surface, I'll tell you stories about Mr. Lothaire. About how he saved my life again and again."
Had Hag briefly stopped stirring her potion at that?
"So what should I talk about now?" Thad mused. Ellie heard him snap his fingers as he said, "Oh, I know. . . ."
His voice a soothing balm, he told her about the Valkyries giving off lightning with emotion, lighting up the sky like it was the Fourth of July. He talked about how a fairy-godmother-type Valkyrie named Nix had set him up with a vampire tutor, one who was teaching him how to trace-and to call for blood delivery. He told Ellie how he and his mom and gram were now living in a grand New Orleans mansion.
And all the while he'd pause to remind her that he'd never let anyone hurt her, that she was safe.
As time passed, Ellie's gaze began to focus on him. She could tell he was tall, muscular, and dark-haired. Handsome.
"You're coming back, Ellie." He grinned.
Oh, that smile! With dimples. So genuine, so open.
"You've just got to come back a little bit more. Not gonna let anything hurt you."
She tried to speak, to move. Struggling . . .
I can do this. Mind over mind. Just like kicking Saroya offstage. Ellie began shoving her way through.
"That's it, sweetheart. Come back to us."
Fight . . . fight . . . deep breath. "Hi?"
"Oh, thank gods," Hag said, adding in a murmur, "Now we all get to live."
When Ellie got out of the shower, Hag was waiting with a change of clothes. "Thad has refused to leave until Lothaire returns, thinking you might need some 'watching over' until his 'bro' gets back."
"Clearly Thad's never seen you wield a machete." Ellie took the clothes-a T-shirt and a pair of cutoffs that she'd left over here.
"Not that the code would allow him to leave anyway. Without a portal or escort, no one but Lothaire can trace in-or out. I'd planned to hold him here until Lothaire decides what's to be done with him."
"Where did Lothaire take me earlier? What was that horrible place?"
"He accidentally traced you to the Horde capital of Helvita."
"The one I read about. That's where he was tortured?"
Hag didn't confirm or deny. "Now, about this boy. If you tell him
anything about your current situation, Lothaire will kill him. One
word of it will equal his death decree. You can't ask for his help to
Ellie dragged on the cutoffs. "I won't say anything."
"I saw you look at Thad's cell phone before you excused yourself to shower."
"Yeah, well, I saw you see me looking at his phone."
Hag crossed her arms over her chest. "Is that why you didn't ask him to use it? Because you feared my reprisal?"
"True, I didn't want you to cut off his hand. But I also held back for another reason." At Hag's questioning expression, Ellie said, "I'm Lothaire's Bride, aren't I?"
She abruptly turned to arrange a towel on the rack. "Why do you ask me this again?"
Ellie pulled on her shirt. "There was a moment in the fray when he seemed . . . dumbstruck as he looked at me."
The last twenty-four hours had been a roller coaster for Ellie. Last night, she'd accepted her end. Now, something had changed.
How could Ellie believe Lothaire would condemn her after his obvious worry, his panic?
"It doesn't matter whether you are or not, Elizabeth. He needs Saroya to claim the Horde crown."
"Because he's illegitimate."
Hag hesitantly nodded.
"Why can't he just use the ring to get it? Lothaire told me it could do just about anything."
"You can only use it so many times before your wishes begin to go awry. Besides, without Saroya by his side, there would be countless rebellions."
"I don't understand. Saroya has no powers."
"The Horde will only accept a royal vampire heir, or one married to a royal. . . ."
"Or a former vampire goddess."
"Exactly. And since he plans to use the Horde to take over the Daci, Saroya equals two crowns."
Ellie equaled nothing.
Doesn't matter if I'm his Bride. He'd have to want her more than he did those thrones.
When Ellie finished dressing, Hag said, "Again, you can't tell Thad anything that might get in the way of Lothaire's plans."
"I've got it. But hey, you don't tell the kid that I was in prison for murder, okay?"
Hag nodded in agreement, and they returned to the kitchen.
At once, Thad stood up from his seat at the counter. What a gentleman.
He was dressed in worn jeans that highlighted his powerful legs and a plain black T-shirt that stretched over his well-developed pecs.
The kid was built like a linebacker.
"You got your color back, Ellie. You'll be right as rain by the time
Mr. Lothaire returns."
As Hag continued her work on the new potion base, Ellie took a seat beside him.
"Tell me how you and my bro met," Thad said, his eyes excited.
Up close, she could see they were hazel with vivid blue flecks. "Um, Hag brought us together," Ellie answered vaguely.
He frowned at the word Hag.
"I mean, Balery used her foresight and all."
"Those oracles"-he smiled over at the fey-"always helping folks out."
Bite your tongue, Ellie. "So you . . . you can't truly be friends with Lothaire?"
"I am, ma'am," he replied proudly, his chest bowing. "I'm fairly sure I'm his only friend."
Why did that make her heart clench? She hated Lothaire more than ever after last night. Didn't she?
Surely she did. Yet something else was stirring inside her. Ellie didn't dare name it because that would confirm she was a fool.
I'm nobody's fool, least of all Lothaire's.
He might have changed the way he looked at her, but she was still fresh from sobbing about her upcoming execution. Not to mention this morning's trip- "Wait, did you call me ma'am? I'm not much older than you are. You look like you're twenty."
"Just turned seventeen." In a matter-of-fact tone, he said, "Everybody thinks I'm older 'cause I'm so tall and built."
Hag muttered, "That you are." After clearing her throat, she asked, "How did you meet Lothaire? We find you an unlikely acquaintance for him."
"He and I were both captured by these human soldiers, then imprisoned on this island to be tortured and experimented on and everything."