And my mother? A Handmaiden? If that was true, why didn’t she fight back that night?
Or had I just not remembered that she had?
There was so much I couldn’t remember about that night, things I couldn’t decipher as real or only nightmares. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten them. Had I blocked them out because I was scared of them? What else had I forgotten?
Regardless, I had no idea if the Queen’s Handmaidens were guards or not. And I didn’t believe that any darkness—besides Alastir—was involved with that night. His twisted sense of honor and righteousness prevented him from owning up to what he’d done. Somehow, he’d led those Craven to us and then left everyone in that inn to die. All because I carried the blood of the gods within me.
All because I was King Malec’s descendant.
A part of me still couldn’t believe any of it—the old part of me that hadn’t been able to understand what about me, beyond a gift I hadn’t been allowed to use or being born in a caul, had made me special enough to be the Chosen. Blessed. The Maiden. And that part reminded me of when I was a child and used to hide behind Queen Ileana’s throne instead of going to my room at night because the darkness had scared me. It was the same part that had enabled me to spend afternoons with my brother, pretending that my parents were out walking together in the garden instead of being gone forever. It felt incredibly young and naïve.
But I wasn’t that little girl anymore. I wasn’t the young Maiden. The blood in me explained the gifts I’d been born with and why I’d become the Maiden—how my gift had grown, and why my skin glowed. It also explained the disbelief and agony I’d felt from Queen Eloana. She’d known exactly who I descended from, and it must have made her sick to think that her son had married the descendant of a man who’d repeatedly betrayed her and nearly destroyed their kingdom in the process.
How could she ever welcome me, knowing the truth?
Could Casteel ever look upon me the same?
My chest twisted painfully as I stared at the food. Would I even get the chance to see Casteel again? Seconds turned into minutes as I tried to keep my thoughts from straying toward what Alastir planned. I couldn’t let myself dwell too long on it—to think about the worst-case scenario playing out in my mind. If I did, the panic I’d been fighting off would seize control of me.
I wouldn’t let Alastir’s plan succeed. I couldn’t. I needed to either escape or fight back the second I could. Which meant, I needed my strength. I had to eat.
Reaching out carefully, I broke off a piece of the cheese and gingerly tasted it. There was little flavor to it. The section of bread I tried next was most definitely stale, but I quickly ate both and then drank the water, trying not to think about the gritty taste or how dirty it likely was.
Once I finished, I turned my attention to the spear. I wouldn’t be able to hide it, even if I were able to free it from the poor soul beside me. But if I could break off the blade, I might have a better chance. Drawing in a breath that felt…oddly heavy, I inched my hand toward the spear and stopped suddenly. It wasn’t the bindings. They hadn’t tightened.
I swallowed, and my heart skipped a beat. A strange, sweetness coated the back of my throat and my…my lips tingled. I pressed the tips of my fingers to them and didn’t think I felt the pressure. I tried to swallow again, but it felt weird—as if the mechanics of my throat had slowed.
The food. The gritty taste of the water.
That sweet taste. The sleeping drafts the Healers made in Masadonia had a sugary-sweet aftertaste. There was a reason I’d refused the drafts, no matter how little sleep I got. They were powerful and rendered you completely unconscious for hours and hours—leaving you entirely helpless.
They’d drugged me.
This was how Alastir planned to move me. How he planned to deliver me to the Ascended. He’d be able to remove the bindings safely when I was unconscious. And when I came to…
There was a good chance I’d be in the Ascended’s hands once again.
And Alastir’s plan would likely come to fruition because I would never allow the Ascended to use me for anything.
Anger at them—and myself—exploded within me and then quickly gave way to panic as I staggered to the wall. I barely felt the pain of the bindings tightening. Desperate, I reached for the spear. If I could get that blade, I wouldn’t be weaponless, even with the damn bone and root bindings. I tried to seize it, but my arm wouldn’t lift. It didn’t feel as if it were a part of me any longer. My legs became heavy, numb.
“No, no,” I whispered, fighting the insidious warmth seeping into my muscles, my skin.
But it was no use.
Numbness swept through my body, deadening my eyelids. There was no pain when the nothingness came for me this time. I simply fell asleep, knowing I would wake to a nightmare.
Twinkling lights blanketed the ceiling of the crypt when I opened my eyes. My lips parted as I dragged in deep gulps of…fresh, clean air. That wasn’t the ceiling or lights I saw. They were stars. I was outside, no longer in the crypt.
“Dammit,” a man to my right swore. “She’s awake.”
My body immediately reacted to the sound of the voice. I reared up—
Pressure pressed down all over my body, followed by a sharp, stinging wave. My jaw clamped shut against the cry of pain as my head lifted off a flat, hard surface. Ivory bones entwined with thick, dark roots lay across me from my chest to my knees.
“It’s okay. She’s not getting free.”
My gaze swept in the direction of the voice. Commander Jansen stood to my left, a silver wolven mask hiding his face. He angled his body toward mine. Beyond him, I saw the crumbling remains of a stone wall bathed in moonlight, and then nothing but darkness beyond. “Where am I?” I rasped.
His head tilted to the side, his eyes nothing but shadows inside the thin slits of the mask. “You’re in what remains of the city of Irelone. This,” he answered as he swept his arms out widely, “is what is left of the once-great Castle Bauer.”
Irelone? That sounded vaguely familiar. It took a couple of moments for my mind to clear enough for the old maps with their faded ink, created before the War of Two Kings, to form. Irelone… Yes, I knew that name. It had been a port city to the north and east of where Carsodonia was now. The city had fallen before Pompay during the war. Good gods, that meant…
I was in the Wastelands.
My heart thundered in my chest. How long had I been asleep? Hours or days? I didn’t know where the Crypt of the Forgotten Ones had been in the Skotos Mountains. For all I knew, the crypts could’ve existed in the foothills of the mountains, a half a day’s ride north of the outer reaches of the Wastelands.
Throat dry, I lifted just my head to look around. Dozens of the so-called Protectors stood in the center of what could’ve been the castle’s Great Hall at one time and around the edges of the decaying structure, all hidden behind gleaming bronze masks. It was the kind of sight conjured from the depths of the darkest nightmares. Was Alastir among them?
In the darkness beyond the ruins, a single torch flared to life. “They’re here,” a masked man announced. “The Ascended.”