Two nights before she was sent to the Wolf, Red wore a dress the color of blood.
It cast Neve’s face in crimson behind her as she straightened her twin’s train. The smile her sister summoned was tentative and thin. “You look lovely, Red.”
Red’s lips were raw from biting, and when she tried to return the smile, her skin pulled. Copper tasted sharp on her tongue.
Neve didn’t notice her bleeding. She wore white, like everyone else would tonight, the band of silver marking her as the First Daughter holding back her black hair. Emotions flickered across her pale features as she fussed with the folds of Red’s gown—apprehension, anger, bone-deep sadness. Red could read each one. Always could, with Neve. She’d been an easy cipher since the womb they’d shared.
Finally, Neve settled on a blankly pleasant expression designed to reveal nothing at all. She picked up the half-full wine bottle on the floor, tilted it toward Red. “Might as well finish it off.”
Red drank directly from the neck. Crimson lip paint smeared the back of her hand when she wiped her mouth.
“Good?” Neve took back the bottle, voice bright even as she rolled it nervously in her palms. “It’s Meducian. A gift for the Temple from Raffe’s father, a little extra on top of the prayer-tax for good sailing weather. Raffe filched it, said he thought the regular tax should be more than enough for pleasant seas.” A halfhearted laugh, brittle and dry. “He said if anything would get you through tonight, this will.”
Red’s skirt crinkled as she sank into one of the chairs by the window, propping her head on her fist. “There’s not enough wine in the world for this.”
Neve’s false mask of brightness splintered, fell. They sat in silence.
“You could still run,” Neve whispered, lips barely moving, eyes on the empty bottle. “We’ll cover for you, Raffe and I. Tonight, while everyone—”
“I can’t.” Red said it quick, and she said it sharp, hand falling to slap against the armrest. Endless repetition had worn all the polish off her voice.
“Of course you can.” Neve’s fingers tightened on the bottle. “You don’t even have the Mark yet, and your birthday is the day after tomorrow.”
Red’s hand strayed to her scarlet sleeve, hiding white, unblemished skin. Every day since she turned nineteen, she’d checked her arms for the Mark. Kaldenore’s had come immediately after her birthday, Sayetha’s halfway through her nineteenth year, Merra’s merely days before she turned twenty. Red’s had yet to appear, but she was a Second Daughter—bound to the Wilderwood, bound to the Wolf, bound to an ancient bargain. Mark or no Mark, in two days, she was gone.
“Is it the monster stories? Really, Red, those are fairy tales to frighten children, no matter what the Order says.” Neve’s voice had edges now, going from cajoling to something sharper. “They’re nonsense. No one has seen them in nearly two hundred years—there were none before Sayetha, none before Merra.”
“But there were before Kaldenore.” There was no heat in Red’s voice, no ice, either. Neutral and expressionless. She was so tired of this fight.
“Yes, two damn centuries ago, a storm of monsters left the Wilderwood and terrorized the northern territories for ten years, until Kaldenore entered and they disappeared. Monsters we have no real historical record of, monsters that seemed to take whatever shape pleased the person telling the tale.” If Red’s voice had been placid autumn, Neve’s was wrecking winter, all cold and jagged. “But even if they were real, there’s been nothing since, Red. No hint of anything coming from the forest, not for any of the other Second Daughters, and not for you.” A pause, words gathered from a deep place neither of them touched. “If there were monsters in the woods, we would’ve seen them when we—”
“Neve.” Red sat still, eyes on the swipe of wound-lurid lip paint across her knuckles, but her voice knifed through the room.
The plea for silence went ignored. “Once you go to him, it’s over. He won’t let you back out. You can never leave the forest again, not like… not like last time.”
“I don’t want to talk about that.” Neutrality lost its footing, slipping into something hoarse and desperate. “Please, Neve.”
For a moment, she thought Neve might ignore her again, might keep pushing this conversation past the careful parameters Red allowed for it. Instead she sighed, eyes shining as bright as the silver in her hair. “You could at least pretend,” she murmured, turning to the window. “You could at least pretend to care.”
“I care.” Red’s fingers tensed on her knees. “It just doesn’t make a difference.”
She’d done her screaming, her railing, her rebellion. She’d done all of it, everything Neve wanted from her now, back before she turned sixteen. Four years ago, when everything changed, when she realized the Wilderwood was the only place for her.
That feeling was mounting in her middle again. Something blooming, climbing up through her bones. Something growing.
A fern sat on the windowsill, incongruously verdant against the backdrop of frost. The leaves shuddered, tendrils stretching gently toward Red’s shoulder, movements too deft and deliberate to be caused by a passing breeze. Beneath her sleeve, green brushed the network of veins in her wrist, made them stand out against her pale skin like branches. Her mouth tasted of earth.
No. Red clenched her fists until her knuckles blanched. Gradually, that growing feeling faded, a vine cut loose and coiling back into its hiding place. The dirt taste left her tongue, but she still grabbed the wine bottle again, tipping up the last of the dregs. “It’s not just the monsters,” she said when the wine was gone. “There’s the matter of me being enough to convince the Wolf to release the Kings.”
Alcohol made her bold, bold enough that she didn’t try to hide the sneer in her voice. If there was ever going to be a sacrifice worthy enough to placate the Wolf and make him free the Five Kings from wherever he’d hidden them for centuries, it wasn’t going to be her.
Not that she believed any of that, anyway.
“The Kings aren’t coming back,” Neve said, giving voice to their mutual nonbelief. “The Order has sent three Second Daughters to the Wolf, and he’s never let them go before. He won’t now.” She crossed her arms tightly over her white gown, staring at the window glass as if her eyes could bore a hole into it. “I don’t think the Kings can come back.”
Neither did Red. Red thought it was likely that their gods were dead. Her dedication to her path into the forest had nothing to do with belief in Kings or monsters or anything else that might come out of it.
“It doesn’t matter.” They’d rehearsed this to perfection by now. Red flexed her fingers back and forth, now blue-veined, counting the beats of this endless, circling conversation. “I’m going to the Wilderwood, Neve. It’s done. Just… let it be done.”
Mouth a resolute line, Neve stepped forward, closing the distance between them with a whisper of silk across marble. Red didn’t look up, angling her head so a fall of honey-colored hair hid her face.
“Red,” Neve breathed, and Red flinched at her tone, the same she’d use with a frightened animal. “I wanted to go with you, that day we went to the Wilderwood. It wasn’t your fault that—”
The door creaked open. For the first time in a long time, Red was happy to see her mother.
While white and silver suited Neve, it made Queen Isla look frozen, cold as the frost on the windowpane. Dark brows drew over darker eyes, the only feature she had in common with both her daughters. No servants followed as she stepped into the room, closing the heavy wooden door behind her. “Neverah.” She inclined her head to Neve before turning those dark, unreadable eyes on Red. “Redarys.”
Neither of them returned a greeting. For a moment that seemed hours, the three of them were mired in silence.
Isla turned to Neve. “Guests are arriving. Greet them, please.”
Neve’s fists closed on her skirts. She stared at Isla under lowered brows, her dark eyes fierce and simmering. But a fight was pointless, and everyone in this room knew it. As she moved toward the door, Neve glanced at Red over her shoulder, a command in her gaze—Courage.
Courageous was the last thing Red felt in the presence of her mother.
She didn’t bother to stand as Isla took stock of her. The careful curls coaxed into Red’s hair were already falling out, her dress wrinkled. Isla’s eyes hesitated a moment on the smear of lip color marking the back of her hand, but even that wasn’t enough to elicit a response. This was more proof of sacrifice than a ball, an event for dignitaries from all over the continent to attend and see the woman meant for the Wolf. Maybe it was fitting she looked half feral.
“That shade suits you.” The Queen nodded to Red’s skirts. “Red for Redarys.”
A quip, but it made Red’s teeth clench halfway to cracking. Neve used to say that when they were young. Before they both realized the implications. By then, her nickname had already stuck, and Red wouldn’t have changed it anyway. There was a fierceness in it, a claiming of who and what she was.
“Haven’t heard that one since I was a child,” she said instead, and saw Isla’s lips flatten. Mention of Red’s childhood—that she’d been a child, once, that she was her child, that she was sending her child to the forest—always seemed to unsettle her mother.
Red gestured to her skirt. “Scarlet for a sacrifice.”
A moment, then Isla cleared her throat. “The Florish delegation arrived this afternoon, and the Karseckan Re’s emissary. The Meducian Prime Councilor sends her regrets, but a number of other Councilors are making an appearance. Order priestesses from all over the continent have been arriving throughout the day, praying in the Shrine in shifts.” All this in a prim, quiet voice, a recitation of a rather boring list. “The Three Dukes of Alpera and their retinues should arrive before the procession—”
“Oh, good.” Red addressed her hands, still and white as a corpse’s. “They wouldn’t want to miss that.”
Isla’s fingers twitched. Her tone, though strained, remained queenly. “The High Priestess is hopeful,” she said, eyes everywhere but on her daughter. “Since there’s been a longer stretch between you and… and the others, she thinks the Wolf might finally return the Kings.”
“I’m sure she does. How embarrassing for her when I go into that forest and absolutely nothing happens.”
“Keep your blasphemies to yourself,” Isla chided, but it was mild. Red never quite managed to wring emotion from her mother. She’d tried, when she was younger—giving gifts, picking flowers. As she got older, she’d pulled down curtains and wrecked dinners with drunkenness, trying for anger if she couldn’t have something warmer. Even that earned her nothing more than a sigh or an eye roll.
You had to be a whole person to be worth mourning. She’d never been that to her mother. Never been anything more than a relic.
“Do you think they’ll come back?” A bald question, one she wouldn’t dare ask if she didn’t have one foot in the Wilderwood. Still, Red couldn’t quite make it sound sincere, couldn’t quite smooth the barb from her voice. “Do you think if the Wolf finds me acceptable, he’ll return the Kings to you?”
Silence in the room, colder than the air outside. Red had nothing like faith, but she wanted that answer like it could be absolution. For her mother. For her.
Isla held her gaze for a moment that stretched, spun into strange proportions. There were years in it, and years’ worth of things unsaid. But when she spoke, her dark eyes turned away. “I hardly see how it matters.”
And that was that.
Red stood, shaking back the heavy curtain of her loose hair, wiping the lip paint from her hand onto her skirt. “Then by all means, Your Majesty, let’s show everyone their sacrifice is bound and ready.”…
Red made quick calculations in her head as she swept toward the ballroom. Her presence needed to be marked—all those visiting dignitaries weren’t just here for dancing and wine. They wanted to see her, scarlet proof that Valleyda was prepared to send its sacrificial Second Daughter.
The Order priestesses were taking turns in the Shrine, praying to the shards of the white trees allegedly cut from the Wilderwood itself. For those from out of the country, this was a religious pilgrimage, a once-in-many-lifetimes chance not only to pray in the famed Valleydan Shrine but also to see a Second Daughter sent to the Wolf.
They might be praying, but they’d have eyes here. Eyes measuring her up, seeing if they agreed with the Valleydan High Priestess. If they, too, thought her acceptable.
A dance or two, a glass of wine or four. Red could stay long enough for everyone to judge the mettle of their sacrifice, and then she’d leave.
Technically, it was very early summertime, but Valleydan temperatures never rose much past freezing in any season. Hearths lined the ballroom, flickering orange and yellow light. Courtiers spun in a panoply of different cuts and styles from kingdoms all over the continent, every scrap of fabric lunar-pale. As Red stepped into the ballroom, all those myriad gazes fixed on her, a drop of blood in a snowdrift.
She froze like a rabbit in a fox’s eye. For a moment, they all stared at one another, the gathered faithful and their prepared offering.
Jaw set tight, Red sank into a deep, exaggerated curtsy.
A brief stutter in the dance’s rhythm. Then the courtiers started up again, sweeping past her without making eye contact.
A familiar form stood in the corner, next to a profusion of hothouse roses and casks of wine. Raffe ran a hand over close-shorn black hair, his fingers the color of mahogany against the gold of his goblet. For the moment, he stood alone, but it wouldn’t be that way for long. The son of a Meducian Councilor and a rather accomplished dancer, Raffe never wanted for attention at balls.
Red slid beside him, taking his goblet and draining it with practiced efficiency. Raffe’s lip quirked. “Hello to you, too.”
“There’s plenty where that came from.” Red handed back the goblet and crossed her arms, staring resolutely at the wall rather than the crowd. Their gazes needled the back of her neck.
“Quite true.” Raffe refilled his glass. “I’m surprised you’re staying, honestly. The people who needed to see you certainly have.”
She chewed the corner of her lip. “I’m hoping to see someone.” It was an admittance to herself as much as to Raffe. She shouldn’t want to see Arick. She should let this be a clean break, let him go easily…
But Red was a selfish creature at heart.
Raffe nodded once, understanding in the bare lift of his brow. He handed her the full wineglass before getting another for himself.
She’d known Raffe since she was fourteen—when his father took the position as a Councilor, he had to pass on his booming wine trade to his son, and there was no better place to learn about trade routes than with Valleydan tutors. Not much grew here, a tiny, cold country at the very top of the continent, notable only for the Wilderwood on its northern border and its occasional tithe of Second Daughters. Valleyda relied almost entirely on imports to keep the people fed, imports and prayer-taxes to their Temple, where the most potent entreaties to the Kings could be made.
They’d all grown up together, these past six years, years full of realizing just how different Red was from the rest of them. Years spent realizing her time was swiftly running out. But as long as she’d known him, Raffe had never treated her as anything more than a friend—not a martyr, not an effigy to burn.
Raffe’s eyes softened, gaze pitched over her head. Red followed it to Neve, sitting alone on a raised dais at the front of the room, eyes slightly bloodshot. Isla’s seat was still empty. Red didn’t have one.
Red tipped her wine toward her twin. “Ask her to dance, Raffe.”
“Can’t.” The answer came quick and clipped from behind his glass. He drained it in one swallow.
Red didn’t press.
A tap on her shoulder sent her whirling. The young lord behind her took a quick step away, eyes wide and fearful. “Uh, my… my lady—no, Princess—”
He clearly expected sharpness, but Red was suddenly too tired to give it to him. It was exhausting, keeping those knife-edges. “Redarys.”
“Redarys.” He nodded nervously. A blush crept up his white neck, making the spots on his face stand out. “Would you dance with me?”
Red found herself shrugging, Meducian wine muddling her thoughts into shapeless warmth. This wasn’t who she was hoping to see, but why not dance with someone brave enough to ask? She wasn’t dead yet.
The lordling swept her up into a waltz, barely touching the curve of her waist. Red could’ve laughed if her throat didn’t feel so raw. They were all so afraid to touch something that belonged to the Wolf.
“You’re to meet him in the alcove,” he whispered, voice wavering on the edge of a break. “The First Daughter said so.”
Red snapped out of wine-warmth, eyes narrowing on the young lord’s face. Her stomach churned, alcohol and shining hope. “Meet who?”
“The Consort Elect,” the boy stammered. “Lord Arick.”
He was here. He’d come.
The waltz ended with her and her unlikely partner near the alcove he’d referenced, the train of her gown almost touching the brocade curtain. “Thank you.” Red curtsied to the lordling, scarlet now from the roots of his hair to the back of his neck. He stammered something incomprehensible and took off, coltish legs a second away from running.
She took a moment to steady her hands. This was Neve’s doing, and Red knew her sister well enough to guess what she intended. Neve couldn’t convince her to run, and thought maybe Arick could.
Red would let him try.
She slipped through the curtain, and his arms were around her waist before the ball was gone from view.
“Red,” he murmured into her hair. His lips moved to hers, fingers tightening on her hips to pull her closer. “Red, I’ve missed you.”
Her mouth was too occupied to say it back, though she made it clear she shared the sentiment. Arick’s duties as the Consort Elect and Duke of Floriane kept him often out of court. He was only here now because of Neve.
Neve had been as shocked as Red when Arick was announced as Neve’s future husband, cementing the fragile treaty that made Floriane a Valleydan province. She knew what lay between Arick and Red, but they never talked about it, unable to find the right words for one more small tragedy. Arick was a blade that drew blood two different ways, and the wounds left were best tended to alone.
Red broke away, resting her forehead against Arick’s shoulder. He smelled the same, like mint and expensive tobacco. She breathed it in until her lungs ached.
Arick held her there a moment, hands in her hair. “I love you,” he whispered against her ear.
He always said it. She never said it back. Once, she’d thought it was because she was doing him a favor, denying herself to make it easier on him when her twenty years were up and the forest’s tithe came due. But that wasn’t quite right. Red never said it because she didn’t feel it. She loved Arick, in a way, but not a way that matched his love for her. It was simpler to let the words pass without remark.
He’d never seemed upset about it before, but tonight, she could feel the way his muscles tensed beneath her cheek, hear the clench of teeth in his jaw. “Still, Red?” It came quiet, in a way that seemed like he already knew the answer.
She stayed silent.
A moment, then he tilted a pale finger under her chin, tipped it up to search her face. No candles burned in the alcove, but the moonlight through the window reflected in his eyes, as green as the ferns on the sill. “You know why I’m here.”
“And you know what I’ll say.”
“Neve was asking the wrong question,” he breathed, desperation feathering at the edges. “Just wanting you to run, not thinking about what comes next. I have. It’s all I’ve thought of.” He paused, hand tightening in her hair. “Run away with me, Red.”
Her eyes, half closed by kissing and moonlight, opened wide. Red pulled away, quickly enough to leave strands of gold woven around his fingers. “What?”
Arick gathered her hands, pulled her close again. “Run away with me,” he repeated, chafing his thumbs over her palms. “We’ll go south, to Karsecka or Elkyrath, find some backwater town where no one cares about religion or the Kings coming back, too far away from the forest to worry about any monsters. I’ll find work doing… doing something, and—”
“We can’t do that.” Red tugged out of his grip. The pleasant numbness of wine was rapidly giving over to a dull ache, and she pressed her fingers into her temples as she turned away. “You have responsibilities. To Floriane, to Neve…”
“None of that matters.” His hands framed her waist. “Red, I can’t let you go to the Wilderwood.”
She felt it again, the awakening in her veins. The ferns shuddered on the sill.
For a moment, she thought about telling him.
Telling him about the stray splinter of magic the Wilderwood left in her the night she and Neve ran to the forest’s edge. Telling him of the destruction it wrought, the blood and the violence. Telling him how every day was an exercise in fighting it down, keeping it contained, making sure it never hurt anyone again.
But the words wouldn’t come.
Red wasn’t going to the Wilderwood to bring back gods. She wasn’t going as insurance against monsters. It was an ancient and esoteric web she’d been born tangled in, but her reasons for not fighting free of it had nothing to do with piety, nothing to do with a religion she’d never truly believed in.
She was going to the Wilderwood to save everyone she loved from herself.
“It doesn’t have to be this way.” Arick gripped her shoulders. “We could have a life, Red. We could be just us.”
“I’m the Second Daughter. You’re the Consort Elect.” Red shook her head. “That is who we are.”
Silence. “I could make you go.”
Red’s eyes narrowed, half confusion and half wariness.
His hands slid from her shoulders, closed around her wrists. “I could take you somewhere he couldn’t get to you.” A pause, laden with sharp hurt. “Where you couldn’t get to him.”
Arick’s grip was just shy of bruising, and with an angry surge like leaves caught in a cyclone, Red’s shard of magic broke free.
It clawed its way out of her bones, unspooling from the spaces between her ribs like ivy climbing ruins. The ferns on the sill arched toward her, called by some strange magnetism, and she felt the quickening of earth beneath her feet even through layers of marble, roots running like currents, reaching for her—
Red wrestled the power under control just before the ferns touched Arick’s shoulder, the fronds grown long and jagged in seconds. She shoved him away instead, harder than she meant to. Arick stumbled as the ferns retracted, slinking back to normal shapes.
“You can’t make me do anything, Arick.” Her hands trembled; her voice was thin. “I can’t stay here.”
“Why?” All fire, angry and low.
Red turned, picking up the edge of the brocaded curtain in a hand she hoped didn’t shake. Her mouth worked, but no words seemed right, so the quiet grew heavy and was her answer.
“This is about what happened with Neve, isn’t it?” It was an accusation, and he threw it like one. “When you went to the Wilderwood?”
Red’s heart slammed against her ribs. She ducked under the curtain and dropped it behind her, muffling Arick’s words, hiding his face. Her gown whispered over the marble as she walked down the corridor, toward the double doors of the north-facing balcony. Distantly, she wondered what the priestesses’ informants might make of her mussed hair and swollen lips.
Well. If they wanted an untouched sacrifice, that ship had long since sailed.
The cold was bracing after the hearths in the ballroom, but Red Valleydan, and gooseflesh on her arms still felt like summer. Sweat dried in her hair, now hopelessly straight, careful curls loosened by heat and hands.
Breathe in, breathe out, steady her shaking shoulders, blink away the burn in her eyes. She could count the number of people who loved her on one hand, and they all kept begging for the only thing she couldn’t give them.
The night air froze the tears into her lashes before they could fall. She’d been damned from the moment she was born—a Second Daughter, meant for the Wolf and the Wilderwood, as etched into the bark in the Shrine—but still, sometimes, she wondered. Wondered if the damning was her own fault for what she’d done four years ago.
Reckless courage got the best of them after that disastrous ball, reckless courage and too much wine. They stole horses, rode north, two girls against a monster and an endless forest with nothing but rocks and matches and a fierce love for each other.
That love burned so brightly, it almost seemed like the power that took root in Red was a deliberate mockery. The Wilderwood, proving that it was stronger. That her ties to the forest and its waiting Wolf would always be stronger.
Red swallowed against a tight throat. Biting irony, that if it hadn’t been for that night and what it wrought, she might’ve done what Neve wanted. She might’ve run.
She looked to the north, squinting against cold wind. Somewhere, beyond the mist and the hazy lights of the capital, was the Wilderwood. The Wolf. Their long wait was almost ended.
“I’m coming,” she murmured. “Damn you, I’m coming.”
She turned in a sweep of crimson skirts and went back inside.
Sleep came only in fragments. By the time sunrise bled into the sky, Red stood by the window, tangling her fingers together and staring out at the Shrine.
Her room faced the interior gardens, an expanse of carefully maintained trees and flowers, specially bred for their hardiness against the cold. The Shrine was tucked into the back corner, barely visible beneath a blooming arbor. Sunrise caught the edge of the arched stone and painted it muted gold.
The Order stood scattered among the greenery, crowding the flowers, a sea of white robes and piety. Every priestess that called Valleyda home, plus all who had traveled, from the Rylt across the sea and Karsecka at the southern tip of the continent and everywhere in between. Each Temple had a white tree shard, a small splinter of the Wilderwood to pray to, but it was a special honor to trek to the Valleydan Temple, where they had a veritable grove of them. A privilege, to pray among the bone-white branches that made the prison of the Kings and beseech their return.
But this morning, none of the priestesses stepped inside the Shrine. The only person permitted to pray among the white branches today was Red.
The glass fogged with her breath. Absently, Red drew a finger through the cloud. Their nursemaids had done that long ago, illustrating stories on the windowpane. Stories of the Wilderwood as it was before the creation of the Shadowlands, when all the magic of the world was locked within it to make a prison for the god-like creatures that had reigned in terror.
Before, the forest had been a place of eternal summer, a spot of solace in a world ruled by violence. According to the nursemaids, it’d even been capable of granting boons to those who left sacrifices within its borders—bundled hair, lost teeth, paper dotted with blood. Magic had run freely in that world, available to anyone who could learn to use it.
But once the Five Kings bargained with the forest to bind away the monstrous gods—to create the Shadowlands as their prison—all that magic was gone, pulled into the Wilderwood to accomplish its monumental task.
But the forest could still bargain, even then—it bargained with Ciaran and Gaya, the original Wolf and Second Daughter. In Year One of the Binding, the same year the monsters were locked away, they’d asked the Wilderwood for shelter from Gaya’s father, Valchior, and her betrothed, Solmir—two of the fabled Five Kings. The Wilderwood granted Gaya and Ciaran’s request, giving them a place to hide, a place to be together forever. It bound them into its borders and made them something more than human.
That’s where the nursemaids stopped. They didn’t talk about how the Kings entered the Wilderwood again, fifty years after the Binding, and never returned. They didn’t talk about Ciaran bringing Gaya’s dead body to the edge of the woods, a century and a half after the Kings disappeared.
Red still knew the tale. She’d read it hundreds of times, both in books counted as holy and in those of lesser import. Every version of it she could find. Though some of the details differed, the broad strokes remained. Ciaran, bringing Gaya to the Wilderwood’s border. Her body, half rotted, wound through with vines and tree roots as if she’d been tangled in the very foundations of the forest. His words to those who saw him, a few unimportant northern villagers who suddenly found themselves part of religious history.
Send the next.
And so, a love story turned to horror, as surely as eternal summer faded to withered fall.
Red drew her hand away as the edges of her foggy canvas faded. The trails her fingers left looked like claw marks.
A knock at the door, nearly tentative. Red leaned her forehead against the window. “A moment.”
One breath, deep and cold, then Red stood up. Her nightgown stuck to the chilled sweat on her shoulder blades as she tugged it off. Almost unconsciously, her eyes strayed to the skin above her elbow. Still unmarked, and she had to fight to keep hope from sinking teeth into her chest.
There was no account of what the Marks were supposed to look like, only that they appeared on the Second Daughter’s arm sometime in her nineteenth year, exerting an inexorable pull toward the north, toward the Wilderwood. Every morning since the year turned, she’d carefully inspected her skin, peering at each mole and freckle.
Another knock. Red glared at the closed door like the force of her ire could penetrate the wood. “Unless you want me to pray naked, you’ll give me a moment.”
No more knocking.
A wrinkled gown puddled by her feet. Red pulled it on and opened the door, not bothering to comb her hair.
Three priestesses stood silently in the corridor. All were vaguely recognizable, so they must be from the Valleydan Temple, not visitors. Maybe that was meant to be comforting.
If her disheveled appearance took the priestesses aback, they didn’t show it. They only inclined their heads, hands hidden in wide white sleeves, and led her down the hall, out into the cold, bright air.
The holy throng in the gardens stood stone-still, heads bowed, flanking the flower-decked entrance to the Shrine. Each priestess she passed made Red’s heart ratchet higher in her throat. She didn’t look at any of them, kept her gaze straight ahead as she ducked into the shadows beneath the arch, alone.
The first room of the Shrine was plain and square. A small table stocked with prayer candles stood by the door, the statue of Gaya tall and proud in the center of the room. At the statue’s feet, the white bark with its inscribed sentencing, a piece of the tree where Gaya and Ciaran had made their bargain. Gaya’s sister, Tiernan, had helped the two of them escape, and she brought the bark back as proof that Solmir’s claim on Gaya was void.
Red frowned up at her predecessor. It was a deft bit of work, what made Gaya revered and the Wolf reviled, a delicate filling-in of unknown history. The Five Kings had disappeared in the Wolf’s territory, therefore he was to blame. No one quite knew what he was supposed to be accomplishing by trapping the Kings—more power, maybe. Perhaps he was just doing as monsters do, having become one himself as the forest he was tied to twisted and darkened. The Order said that Gaya had been killed trying to rescue the Kings from wherever Ciaran had hidden them, but there was really no way to know, was there? All they knew was that the Kings were gone, and Gaya was dead.
Stuttering scarlet prayer candles—scarlet for a sacrifice; I guess prayer counts—provided the only light, and it wasn’t enough to read by. But Red knew the words by heart.
The First Daughter is for the throne. The Second Daughter is for the Wolf. And the Wolves are for the Wilderwood.
The candlelight flickered over the carvings on the wall. Five figures to her right, vaguely masculine—the Five Kings. Valchior, Byriand, Malchrosite, Calryes, and Solmir. Three figures on the left-hand wall, carved with a more delicate hand. The Second Daughters—Kaldenore, Sayetha, Merra.
Red brushed her fingers over the blank space next to Merra’s rough outline. Someday, when she was nothing but bones in the forest, they’d carve her here.
A breeze filtered through the open stone door, ruffling the gauzy black veil behind Gaya’s statue. The second room of the Shrine. Red had been there only once before—a year ago, her nineteenth birthday, kneeling as the Order priestesses prayed that her Mark would appear quickly. She found little reason to linger in places of worship.
Still, a year hadn’t been enough to dim the memory of the white branches lining the walls, cuttings from Wilderwood trees cast in stone to stand upright. The pale, dead limbs never moved, but Red remembered the strange sense of them reaching for her, like ferns and growing things did when she couldn’t keep her splintered magic lashed down and tightly controlled. She’d tasted dirt the whole time the priestesses were praying.
Her fingers picked nervously at the wrinkled fabric of her skirt. She was supposed to enter the second room, supposed to spend this time readying herself to enter the Wilderwood, but the thought of being among those branches again made her blood run winter-cold.
A familiar figure stood in the doorway to the garden, outlined in morning glow against the Shrine’s gloom. Neve hurried toward her, a newly lit prayer candle guttering in her hand.
Confusion bloomed in Red’s chest, though it was chased with no small amount of relief. “How did you get in here?” She looked over Neve’s shoulder. “The priestesses—”
“I told them I wouldn’t enter the second room. They didn’t seem happy about it, but they let me through.” A tear broke from Neve’s lashes. She swiped it roughly away. “Red, you can’t do this. There’s no reason for it beyond words on shadow-damned bark.”
Red thought of riding headlong through the night, hair whipping, her sister at her side. She thought of thrown rocks and a fierceness that made her chest ache.
And then she thought of blood. Of violence. Of what coiled beneath her skin, a seed waiting to grow.
That was her reason. Not monsters, not words on bark. The only way to keep her sister safe was to leave her.
There were no words of comfort. Instead she pulled her twin forward, Neve’s forehead notching into her collarbone. Neither of them sobbed, but the silence was almost worse, broken only by hitched breathing.
“You have to trust me.” Red murmured it into her sister’s hair. “I know what I’m doing. This is how it has to be.”
“No.” Neve shook her head, black hair matting against Red’s cheek. “Red, I know… I know you blame yourself for what happened that night. But you couldn’t have known we were being followed—”
“Don’t.” Red squeezed her eyes shut. “Please don’t.”
Neve’s shoulders stiffened beneath Red’s arms, but she went quiet. Finally, she pulled back. “You’ll die. If you go to the Wolf, you’ll die.”
“You don’t know that.” Red swallowed, trying unsuccessfully to level the knot in her throat. “We don’t know what happened to the others.”
“We know what happened to Gaya.”
Red had no response for that.
“Clearly, you’re determined to go.” Neve tried to raise her chin, but it trembled too much. “And clearly, I can’t stop you.”
She turned on her heel toward the door, swept past the carved Five Kings and Second Daughters, past the guttering candles of useless prayers. More than one blew out in her wake.
Numbly, Red picked up a candle and a match from the small table. It took a few curses before the wick finally caught, singeing her fingers. The pain was nearly welcome, a bare thread of feeling weaving past the shell she’d built.
Red slammed her candle into the base of Gaya’s statue. Wax puddled, dripped down the edge of the inscribed bark.
“Shadows damn you,” she whispered, the only prayer she’d make here. “Shadows damn us all.”
Hours later, bathed and perfumed and veiled in crimson, Red was officially blessed as a sacrifice to the Wolf in the Wilderwood.
Courtiers lined the cavernous hall, all dressed in black. More people crowded outside, the citizens of the capital rubbing shoulders with villagers who’d traveled from far and wide for the chance to see a Second Daughter consecrated by the Order.
From Red’s vantage point on the dais at the front of the room, the audience looked like one shapeless mass, something made only of still limbs and eyes for staring.
The dais was circular, and Red sat cross-legged on a black stone altar in its center, surrounded by a ring of priestesses specially chosen for the honor from Temples all over the continent. All wore their traditional white robes with the addition of a white cloak, a deep hood pulled up to shadow their faces. They stood with their backs to Red. The priestesses who hadn’t been chosen as attendants wore cloaks, too, a solemn row of them sitting directly in front of the dais.
In contrast, Red’s gown was as scarlet as the one she’d worn to the ball, but shapeless this time—in any other circumstances, it would be comfortable. Her hair was unbound beneath a matching blood-colored veil, large enough to cover her whole body and spill over the edges of the altar.
White, for piety. Black, for absence. Scarlet, for sacrifice.
In the row behind the priestesses, Neve sat between Arick and Raffe, poised at the edge of her seat. Red’s veil made all of them look bloody.
The Valleydan High Priestess, the highest religious authority on the continent, stood directly in front of Red. Her cloak had a longer train than any of the other priestesses’, and to Red, it almost looked a brighter white. She faced the altar, back to the court, the train of her cloak dripping over the edge of the dais to gather in a puddle of white fabric.
Overflowing piety. A high, skittering laugh wanted to lodge in Red’s throat; she swallowed it back.
Eyes hidden in the deep shadows of her hood, the High Priestess stepped forward. Zophia had held the position for as long as Red could remember, her hair long devoid of whatever color it’d once been, her face grizzled with an age that could be determined only as old. She held a white branch in her hands with all the gentleness of a mother cradling a newborn, and passed it off to the priestess at her right with the same care.
Though stoic, most of the other priestesses at least had some sort of emotion on their face—joy, for most, kept subtle but still there. Not so for the priestess now holding the branch shard. Cold blue eyes beneath a sweep of flame-colored hair watched Red with an expression reminiscent of someone observing an insect. Her gaze didn’t waver as Zophia reached forward and lifted Red’s veil, gathering the yards of fabric in her hands.
The fear she’d steeled herself against rushed in when the veil lifted, like it had been a sort of armor. Red’s fingers clutched at the edge of the altar, nails close to breaking against the stone.
“We honor your sacrifice, Second Daughter,” Zophia whispered. She stepped back and raised her arms toward the ceiling. All around, the Order mirrored her in a wave, starting at the front of the dais and cresting around to the back in a sea of raised hands.
For a brief, shining moment, Red thought of running, of forgetting about the splinter of magic that lived in her heart and trying to save herself instead of everyone else. How far could she get if she launched herself from this altar, tangled in crimson gauze? Would they wrestle her back? Knock her out? Would the Wolf care if she arrived bruised?
She dug her nails into the stone again. She felt one split.
“Kaldenore, of House Andraline,” the High Priestess announced to the ceiling, beginning the litany of Second Daughters. “Sent in Year Two Hundred and Ten of the Binding.”
Kaldenore, no blood relation, born of the same House as Gaya. She’d been a child when the Wolf brought Gaya’s body to the edge of the forest, when the monsters burst from the Wilderwood a year later—a storm of shadowy things, by eyewitness accounts, shape-shifting bits of darkness that could take whatever form they chose. By the time Kaldenore’s Mark appeared, the monsters had been haunting the northern villages for nearly ten years, with reports of them sometimes getting as far as Floriane and Meducia.
No one knew what the Mark meant, not at first. But one night, Kaldenore was found sleepwalking barefoot toward the Wilderwood, as if compelled.
After that, things had fallen together, the words on the bark in the Shrine and the meaning of Gaya’s death becoming clear. They’d sent Kaldenore to the Wilderwood. And the monsters disappeared, faded away like shadows.
“Sayetha, of House Thoriden. Sent in Year Two Hundred and Forty of the Binding.”
Another name, another tragedy. Sayetha’s family was new to power and mistakenly believed the tithe of the Second Daughter applied to only Gaya’s line. They were wrong. Valleyda was locked into its trade no matter who sat on the throne.
“Merra, of House Valedren. Sent in Year Three Hundred of the Binding.”
She, at least, was a blood ancestor. The Valedrens took over after the last Thoriden Queen produced no heir. Merra was born forty years after Sayetha was sent to the Wilderwood, while Sayetha’s birth was only ten years after Kaldenore left.
“Redarys, of House Valedren. Sent in year Four Hundred of the Binding.” The High Priestess seemed to raise her hands higher, the branch clutched in her fist casting jagged shadows. Her eyes dropped from her reaching fingers, met Red’s. “Four hundred years since our gods bound the monsters away. Three hundred and fifty since they disappeared, bound away themselves through the Wolf’s treachery. Tomorrow, when the sacrifice has reached twenty years, the same age Gaya was when first bound to the Wolf and Wood, we send her consecrated, clad in white and black and scarlet. We pray it is enough for the return of our gods. We pray it is enough to keep darkness from our doorsteps.”
Red’s heartbeat was a staccato pounding in her ears. She sat still as the stone altar, still as the statue in the Shrine. The effigy they wanted her to be.
“May you not flinch from your duty.” Zophia’s clear voice was a clarion call, sweetly resonant. “May you meet your fate with dignity.”
Red tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry.
Zophia’s eyes were cold. “May your sacrifice be deemed enough.”
Silence in the chamber.
The High Priestess dropped her arms, taking the white branch back from the red-haired priestess. Another priestess came forward, holding a small bowl of dark ashes. Gently, Zophia dipped one of the tines of the branch into the bowl, then drew it across Red’s forehead, leaving a black mark from temple to temple.
The bark was warm. Red tensed every muscle in her body to keep from shuddering.
“We mark you bound,” she said quietly. “The Wolf and the Wilderwood will have their due.”
The court set out at sunrise, packed into lacquered carriages for the short trip to the Wilderwood. Red’s led the way. Other than the driver, she rode alone.
One scuffed leather bag sat at her feet, packed to the brim with books. Red wasn’t sure why she’d brought them, but they sat against her like an anchor, keeping her tethered to her aching muscles and still-beating heart. Other than the clothes on her back, the bag was the only thing she was taking into the Wilderwood. At least she’d be prepared on the off chance she survived long enough to read.
She’d slipped into the library to pack as the sun rose, pulling her favorite novels and poetry books from the shelf. As she worked, her nightgown’s sleeve fell back from her arm.
The Mark was small. A thread of root beneath the skin, delicately tendriled, circling just below her elbow. When she touched it, the veins in her fingers ran green, and the hedges outside the library window stretched toward the glass.
The pull was subtle, beginning just as her eyes registered the Mark snaking over her arm. Gentle, but inexorable—like a hook was dug into the back of her chest, tugging her gently northward. Reeling her into the trees.
Red squeezed her eyes shut and put her hands to fists, pulling in breath after aching breath. Each one tasted like grave dirt, and that’s what finally made her cry. Wrung out, lying on the floor with books piled around her like a fortress, Red sobbed until the dirt taste turned instead to salt.
Now her face was scrubbed clear, the Mark hidden by the sleeve of the white gown she wore beneath her cloak.
White gown, black sash, red cloak. They’d been delivered to her door last night by a cadre of silent priestesses. She’d thrown the pile into the corner, but when Red woke up this morning, Neve was there, laying them out one by one on the window seat. Smoothing the wrinkles with her palm.
Silently, Neve helped her dress—handing her the white gown to tug over her head, tying the black sash around her waist. The cloak came last, heavy and warm and colored like blood. When every piece was in place, they’d stood still and quiet, staring at their reflections in Red’s mirror.
Neve left without a word.
In the carriage, Red pulled the edges of the cloak tighter around herself. She couldn’t keep her sister close, but she could keep this.
The world rolled past her window. Northern Valleyda was hills and valleys and open vistas, as if the Wilderwood allowed no trees but its own. When she and Neve stole the horses and fled north the night of their sixteenth birthday, she remembered being awed by the emptiness. She’d felt like a falling star on a clear night, pelting through the dark and the cold.
There were villagers by the road sometimes, quietly watching the procession pass. She was probably supposed to wave, but Red stared straight ahead, the world cut to the edges of her scarlet hood. The Mark thrummed on her arm, the tug of it making all her insides feel unstable and shaky.
The road stopped well before the Wilderwood—none but the Second Daughter could enter, and no one else would want to try, so there was no reason to make the way easy. A bump as the carriage wheels rolled into frosted grass, crossing into some borderland belonging to neither Red nor the Wolf.
Red’s limbs moved nearly of their own accord. She gathered her skirts, slung her bag of books over her shoulder. She stepped down carefully. She didn’t cry.
The driver turned the horses around as soon as Red was free of the carriage, without a second glance. A strange hum emanated from the edge of the forest, repellent and beckoning at once. Pulling her forward, warning everyone else to stay back.
The array of carriages behind her ringed the road like beads on a necklace, the line of them almost reaching the village. Everyone who’d traveled to see the tithe paid, waiting silently for the job to be done.
Ahead, the Wilderwood towered, casting shadows on the frost-limned ground. Bare branches stretched into fog, so tall she couldn’t see their endings. Trunks bent and twisted like frozen dancers, and the bits of sky caught between them seemed darker than they should, already shaded twilight. The trees grew in a straight, exact line of demarcation from side to side as far as the eye could see, a firm boundary between there and here.
She’d been given no instruction on what to do next, but it seemed simple enough. Slip between the trees. Disappear.
Red took a step before she had the conscious thought, the forest drawing her like a leaf on a current. A sharp breath as she planted her feet. The Wilderwood would have her in moments, but shadows damn her, she’d set the terms of her own surrender.
Neve’s voice cracked the quiet. She climbed from her carriage, almost stumbling on the hem of her black gown. Sunlight caught the edge of the silver circlet in her hair as she marched over the field, determination blazing on her face.
For the first time she could remember, Red prayed, prayed to Gaya or the Five Kings or whoever might be listening. “Help her,” she muttered through numb lips. “Help her to move on.”
Whatever remained of Red’s life waited beyond the trees, but Neve’s was here. The thought was sharp and strange-shaped, that for the first time since their conception, she and her twin would both be alone.
Another figure emerged from the carriage behind Neve. Red’s stomach dropped, thinking it’d be Arick or Raffe, the three of them launching one last effort to change the unchangeable. But when the figure made its slow way around the carriage, head held high, it wasn’t Arick.
Red favored her mother in appearance. The same honey-gold hair, the same sharp cheekbones, a breadth to their hips and breasts that twig-slender Neve didn’t share. Watching her mother cross the frost-covered field was almost like looking in a mirror, watching her own sacrifice.
The thought felt like it should mean something.
Neve reached her before their mother did, her breath the rattle of a sob tenuously caged. She pulled Red close, thin hands gripping her shoulders.
“I’ll see you again,” she whispered. “I’ll find a way. I promise.”
Her tone waited for an answer. But Red didn’t want to lie.
Their mother’s shadow fell over them, darker than the shadows of the trees. “Neverah. Return to the carriage, please.”
Neve didn’t turn to look at Isla. “No.”
A pause. Then Isla inclined her head, as if in concession. “Then we’ll say our goodbyes together.”
This should be a moment, Red knew. Merra’s mother had been so distraught when they sent her daughter to the Wilderwood, she’d nearly abdicated. Sayetha’s mother had to be sedated for days after. Kaldenore’s had to be sedated before, going half mad when the Mark appeared on her child’s arm, when it was finally discovered that all Second Daughters born to Valleydan queens were bound by Gaya’s bargain with the forest.
But goodbyes were reserved for people who knew each other, and Isla had never bothered to know Red.
The Queen’s arms twitched beneath her cloak. “I know you think me cruel.” The whisper plumed from her mouth like a ghost. “Both of you.”
Neve said nothing. Her eyes flickered to Red.
Years of silence dammed in Red’s throat, years of wanting emotion she could never quite hold. “I would’ve preferred cruel,” she said, knowing the words meant she owned the cruelty now. “At least cruel would’ve been something.”
Isla stood corpse-still. “You never belonged to me, Redarys.” A tendril of gold escaped the black net holding the Queen’s hair, long enough to nearly brush Red’s cheek. “From the moment you were born, you belonged here. And they never let me forget.”
The Queen turned, striding toward her carriage. She didn’t look back.
Slowly, Red faced the trees, following the gentle, insistent tug of her Mark. Leaves rustled, dim on the edge of her hearing, though she should be too far away for the sound to carry. Deep in her chest, her splinter of magic, the Wilderwood’s twisted gift, opened like a flower to the sun.
Neve turned with her, peering into the forest with fear and unveiled hatred. “It’s not fair.”
Red didn’t respond. She squeezed Neve’s hand. Then she started toward the Wilderwood.
“I promise, Red,” Neve called as she walked away. “I’ll see you again.”
Red looked back over her shoulder. She wouldn’t stoke the embers of things that couldn’t happen, but she could speak a truth uncolored by them. “I love you.”
The answer, the end. The tears in Neve’s eyes spilled over. “Love you.”
With one last look at her sister, Red tugged up her scarlet hood, muffling every sound but the beat of blood in her ears. She stepped forward, and the trees swallowed her up.
It was colder in the Wilderwood.
The temperature dropped instantly, cool enough to make her glad of her cloak. As Red crossed the tree line, pressing into that infernal hum, bruising pressure built against her skin. It was almost enough to make her stumble onto the forest floor, almost enough to make her cry out—
But the pressure and the hum were gone as soon as she settled both feet beyond the forest’s border, leaving her in leaves and deep, undisturbed silence. The only thing that moved was the fog, a sinuous crawl over the ground.
Beneath the sleeve of her gown and the heavy crimson of her cloak, the Mark gave one more twinge. Then the feeling of that subtle pull was gone. Red rubbed at it absently.
The trees were strange. Some were short and gnarled, but others grew tall and straight, their bark unnaturally white until it met the forest floor. There it bent and twisted, dark rot standing out in ropes like corroded veins. Some of the trees had the rot only around the roots, but on others, the corrosion stretched up taller than Red.
The white trees had limbs only at the crown, swoops of graceful bone-like bark. Just like the branch shards in the Shrine.
One white tree stood just inside the forest’s border. Black rot grew over halfway up its trunk. Even the ground around it seemed dark, and smelled somehow cold. The nearby trees, brown-barked and thatched with irregular branches, had no rot on them at all.
Other than the trees, Red was alone.
With deep, shaky breaths, she willed her heart out of her throat. Her unwanted magic curled through her ribs, a languid unfurling, a subtle hint of green etching her veins. She expected it to riot, to race for release, and she clenched her teeth in anticipation of every tree in the damn forest reaching for her.
But her power stayed docile. Almost like it was waiting for something.
Still, there was an awareness here. Red was seen, Red was marked. The trees knew her, they remembered—her blood on the forest floor, a terrible rushing, a gift of power she didn’t want and couldn’t control.
For a brief, blinding second, Red wished for a match, even though it’d do her no good. Sayetha’s mother tried to burn down the Wilderwood, and so had Neve. It did nothing.
The back of her wrist pressed against her teeth, a hissing breath pulled through her nose. She didn’t want the Wilderwood to see her cry.
When the threat of tears passed, Red tightened her grip on her bag of books and peered into the gloom. No use prolonging the inevitable.
“I’m here!” It reverberated, echoing and distorting, tuned to minor keys by space and silence. Then the mad specter of a laugh in her throat: “Am I acceptable?”
Nothing happened. Fog drifted silently, tangling and curling through branches, dead leaves.
Frustration drove her teeth together, the despair of seconds ago transmuting into fierce anger. She felt roots arching toward her under her feet, felt bone-colored boughs stretching over her head. Instinct told her to fight the magic down, but this was the Wilderwood, where it belonged. Where it’d been born. “I’m here, shadows damn you!” she screamed into the gloom. “Come collect your sacrifice, Wolf!”
The Wilderwood seemed to bend toward her. Anticipating. Like she had something it wanted.
The recklessness was gone as soon as it came. Spots spun in Red’s eyes as she gasped, fists closing, or trying to—her fingers were held straight by the forest floor beneath them.
Her brow furrowed at the sight of her hands against the ground. She didn’t remember kneeling, didn’t remember pressing them to the dirt.
Before she had a chance to stand, her hands began to sink.
In an instant soil covered her arms to the wrist, her fingers dropping deep to tangle in thready roots. They brushed against her hands like sentient things, searchingly prodding at her knuckles, the creases of her palms. A sharp prick at her nailbed, the slithering feeling of a root trying to work its way into her skin.
Red’s heart ratcheted, panic closing her throat as she desperately tried to work free, wrenching her hands in the dirt to escape that probing root. Branches brushed against her scalp, tangled in her hair. Laying claim.
The magic in her center reached forward, slow but implacable, a vine growing through a summer that counted days in her quickened heartbeat. It felt like it would reach right out of her skin to meet the forest that made it.
Her teeth cracked together. Red forced her magic down, swallowing that dirt-taste, pressing until she thought she might collapse from the effort of folding a part of herself up and hiding it away. Sweat stood out on her brow when her magic was finally contained, coiled back into the places she’d made for it. Her wrists burned green with power she wouldn’t let loose.
Red yanked her hands from the forest floor. Broken root tendrils slithered away as she wiped her palms on her knees, like snakes going back to burrow.
Three white trees bent toward her, all seeming closer than they had a moment ago. Their graceful, swooping branches dipped low, a hand frozen right before it reached to caress.
A soft sound boiled and spilled over—for a moment, it almost sounded like a voice, like a word. But it broke apart before Red could make sense of it, fading into nothing but breeze and rustling leaves.
In the following silence, three blossoms dropped from the same bough of a flowering bush, one of many dotting the forest floor. The small white blooms were brown and withered before they hit the ground.
It gave Red the unsettling impression of a price being paid.
Swallowing hard, she stood, hitching her bag over her shoulder. “I suppose I’ll have to find you, then.”
She set off into the woods.
Red didn’t know how long she’d been walking when the thicket rose before her, grown up around one of the white trees. Short, scrubby bushes wrapped the trunk, thorns pointed outward at wicked angles. Through the close growth, Red could barely see the black rot spreading up the tree, crawling toward the clustered branches at the top.
A thorn caught in her hood as she tried to skirt around the thicket, one she’d swear hadn’t been there before. The crimson fabric pulled back from her face. Another dagger-sharp thorn drew a bloody line down her cheekbone.
Red clapped her hand to the wound, but the damage was done. A bead of blood rolled slowly down the thorn, coming to its end and dropping to another, ever closer to the dark-ravaged trunk of the white tree.
If she tried to reach through the tangle and smear it away, she’d only catch more thorns, spill more blood. So Red stood, and watched, and waited, dread roiling beneath her ribs.
Her blood touched the white trunk, hesitated. Then the tree absorbed it, took it in like water to parched soil.
Tripping over leaves, Red backed away from the tree until she collided with another, this one also thin and pale, also twisted with black rot. Underbrush tangled in her skirts, and Red tore herself away, the rip unnaturally loud in the silent forest.
That sound again, reverberating up from the forest floor, rustling leaves and stretching vines and clattering twigs cobbling themselves into something like a voice, something she didn’t so much hear as feel. It boiled up from her center, from the shard of magic she kept lashed down through white-knuckle effort.
It’s been only one for so long.
A tree limb broke from a trunk, fell to the forest floor. It shriveled at once, years of decay packed into seconds, leaving nothing but a desiccated husk.
Red’s teeth hummed, the hairs on her arms standing on end. Branches arched toward her, roots slithered beneath her feet, and she stood frozen as a deer in the path of an arrow.
This was what she’d prepared for, in the deepest parts of her mind, the places she didn’t have to look at too closely. She’d denied it to Neve, saying they didn’t know what happened to the Second Daughters who crossed the border. But she’d known there could be nothing here but death, and she thought she’d prepared for it.
Now that it waited, shaped like clawed branches and twisted roots, she realized that preparation wasn’t acceptance. All the quiet acquiescence she’d swallowed over twenty years erupted, spilled over, drove her teeth together not in fear but in rage. She wanted to live, and damn the things that said she shouldn’t.
So Red ran.
Vines swung for her, the leaf-strewn ground buckling to trip her feet. The white trees bent and arched as if fighting against invisible bonds, screaming for release.
Like the forest was an animal desperate for her blood, and something held it back.
Finally, Red reached a clearing. White trees ringed it, quivering, but she ran to the center, where the ground was only moss and dirt. Her knees hit the soil, her breath rasped, skirt in tatters and twigs in her hair.
The moment of calm shattered with a sound of splintering wood. One of the white trunks, slowly splitting, like a smile cutting from one side of a mouth to the other.
The trunk opened wider, gleaming with sap-dripping fangs. One by one, smiles cut across the other trunks, smiles full of teeth, smiles that wanted blood.
Red lurched up on shaky legs, started running again. Her feet were numb, a stitch pulled at her side, but she ran on and on.
Eventually, her knees gave out, vision narrowed to a pinprick. Red collapsed in a pile of leaves, forehead pressed to the ground.
Maybe this was the fulfilling of the bargain. The stories of Gaya’s body, riddled with root and rot—maybe the Wolf wouldn’t decide whether or not she was an acceptable sacrifice until after his Wilderwood consumed her like it’d consumed Gaya in the end, waiting to see if it spat out the Kings in return. Maybe he’d been the one holding it back as she ran, whetting its appetite with the chase to unleash it when she was spent.
Red’s eyes closed against the expectation of teeth in her neck.
A minute. Two. Nothing happened. Sweat sticking her hair to her face, she looked up.
An iron gate rose from the ground. Double her height, it stretched from side to side, curving around before disappearing into the gloom. Pieces of a castle showed through gaps in the metal—a tower, a turret. A ruin, half consumed by the forest around it, but it was something.
Red stood on shaky legs. Slowly, she pressed her hands to the gate.
It didn’t open.
Red’s eyes flickered over the iron as she nervously wiped her hands on her torn skirt. If there was a latch, it was too small to see. No hinges, either—the gate was one unbroken piece of iron. It rose to two swirling points, as if to mark an entrance, but the bar down the center was as solid as the rest of it.
“Kings on shitting horses.” Teeth bared, Red slammed her hands against the metal. She’d made it through a fanged forest, she could find a way to open a damn gate.
A rustle. Red glanced over her shoulder. Only two of the white trees were visible in the gloom, but both of them looked closer than they had before.
Red tried to lift her hands to pound on the gate again, but they wouldn’t obey. Her palms refused to move, like they’d somehow grafted onto the iron. Sliding in the leaves, Red tried to wrench free, but the gate held her fast, the rasp of her breath loud in the silent fog.
She felt the trees’ regard, heavy on her shoulders, lifting the hair on the back of her neck. Watching. Waiting. Still hungry.
Something shifted under her hand, breaking the cycle of shapeless panic, crystallizing it into sharpened, focused fear.
The surface of the gate was moving, slithering like she’d cupped her hand over an anthill. Rough metal rippled against her skin, tracing the lines in her palms, her fingerprints.
As suddenly as it started, the crawling feeling stopped. The solid bar of iron split slowly down the middle, bottom to top, like a sapling growing from the ground. With a quiet hitch, the gate fell open.
A moment’s pause, then Red stumbled forward. As soon as she was through, the gate closed behind her. She didn’t have to look to know it was solid again. When she peered at her palm, it was unblemished but for a few spots of rust.
The ruined castle rose from fog and shadow, reaching almost as tall as the surrounding trees. Once, it might’ve been grand, but now the walls looked to be more moss than stone. A long corridor stretched to her left, ending in a jumble of broken rock. Directly ahead, a tower speared the sky, a weathered wooden door in its center. What looked like a large room was built onto its right side, in considerably better repair than the corridor. Crumbling piles of stone dotted the landscape—remnants of collapsed battlements, fallen turrets.
No white trees grew past the gate.
The tremble in her legs steadied. Red wasn’t sure what safety looked like here, but for now being away from the trees was enough.
The slice on her cheekbone still stung. Hissing, Red gingerly touched the cut. Her fingertips came away stained with watery blood. Ahead of her, the weathered door loomed.
He was somewhere in there. She could feel it, almost, an awareness that pricked at the back of her neck, plucked at the Mark on her arm. The Wolf, the keeper of the Wilderwood and alleged jailer of gods. She had no idea what he’d do with her now that she was here. Maybe she’d escaped his forest only to be thrown back in, the Wolf making sure the bloodthirsty trees finished whatever they’d started.
But the only other option was to stay out here, in a chilled, unnatural twilight, waiting to see if the iron gate would be enough to hold the Wilderwood back.
Well, damn the myths. She was just as much a part of those stories as he was, and if her destruction was imminent, she’d rather be the architect than a bystander. Hitching her bag on her shoulder, Red strode forward and shoved the door open.
She expected darkness and rot, for the inside of the castle to look as uninhabited as the outside. And it would have, were it not for the sconces.
No, not quite sconces—what she’d thought was a sconce was actually a woody vine, snaking around the nearly circular walls. Flames burned at equidistant points along its length, but the vine itself wasn’t consumed, and the flames didn’t spread farther. She couldn’t even see char marks, as if the flames were simply being held there, anchored to the wood through some invisible bond.
However strange the light was, it illuminated her surroundings. She stood in a cavernous foyer under a high, domed ceiling. A cracked solarium window filtered twilight over her feet. Emerald moss carpeted the floor, clustered with toadstools. Before her, a staircase, moss covering the first few steps, leading up to a balcony ringing the top of the tower. She could barely make out the impression of vines through the shadows, twining over the railing, dripping toward the floor. The corridor she’d seen from outside stretched to the left of the staircase, and the sunken room to the right, its arched entrance broken at the top.
All of it was empty.
Red’s boots made soft shushing noises against the moss as she stepped forward. When she looked more closely, there were signs of occupancy—a dark cloak hung on the knob of the staircase, three pairs of scuffed boots sat by the broken archway into the other room. But nothing moved in the ruin, and everything was unnaturally silent. Red frowned.
Behind her, a light blinked out. Slowly, Red looked over her shoulder.
Another flame along the strange vine extinguished.
She almost tripped in her haste toward the staircase, noting as she put her foot on the bottom step that there was no light up there at all. Red backpedaled, changed direction, wheeling around the stairs. Light glimmered ahead of her, flames lining another staircase, this one leading down instead of up. Red ran toward it, the room around her plunging rapidly into twilight.
The last flame blinked out as she reached the stairs. She paused, breathing hard, waiting to see if the lights before her would do the same. But the flames remained upright and glowing, lit along another strange, unburnt vine.
The carpet of moss covered the first few steps here, too, but soon it gave way to thin roots, crisscrossing over the stone like veins. Red kept her eyes on her feet to keep from tripping, counting her steps as a mainstay against panic.
The stairs ended on a small landing, housing a wooden door and nothing else. Red pushed it open before she could talk herself out of it.
It didn’t creak. Warm, friendly light flooded the edges of the door, seeped onto the landing like a rising sun. Red stepped in as silently as she could. She froze, familiarity first a blade, then a balm.
Back—she stopped herself before she thought the word home; it would hurt too badly and didn’t feel wholly accurate, anyway—back in Valleyda, the library had been one of the places she spent the majority of her time. Neve had lessons most days, things beyond the simple writing and arithmetic Red had been taught, so Red was left largely to herself. She’d read most everything in the palace library, some things twice. It was one of the few ways to soothe her mind when it started churning and spilling over itself, connecting fears in spiderwebs she couldn’t disentangle. The scent of paper, the orderliness of printed words, the sensation of page edges beneath her fingers smoothed the waves of her thoughts to placidity.
Most of the time, anyway.
The presence of books was really the only similarity between the palace library and this one. Overstuffed shelves stood in straight rows. Books cluttered small tables, and a pile of them stood precariously by the door, topped with a half-full mug of what smelled like coffee. Candles with strangely unwavering flames gave the room a golden glow—wait, not candles. Shards of wood, curiously unburnt, same as the vine above.
Her bag fell to the floor with a muffled thunk. Red held her breath for half a second, but nothing stirred in the stacks. The sound she made might have been a laugh had there been more force and less fear behind it. A library, in the depths of the Wilderwood?
Cautiously, she stepped forward, trailing her hands over book spines. The scent of dust and old paper tickled her nose, but there was no trace of mildew, and all the books seemed cared for, even the ones that looked impossibly old. Someone was minding this library, then. Much better than they seemed to be minding the rest of the castle.
Most of the titles she recognized. The palace library carried a renowned collection, second only to the Great Library in Karsecka at the southernmost tip of the continent. Monuments of the Lost Age of Magic, A History of Ryltish Trade Routes, Treatises on Meducian Democracy.
Up and down the rows she wandered, letting the familiar sights and smells of a library seep the broken-glass feeling from her eyes. She was almost calm when she reached the end of the fifth row.
Then she saw him.
Red’s breath came in a quick, sharp gasp, ripping the quiet in two. She pushed her hand against her mouth, like she could force the sound back in.
The figure at the table didn’t seem to notice. His head bent over an open book, hand moving as a pen scratched over paper. The lines of his shoulders spoke of strength, but that of only a man rather than a monster; the fingers holding the pen were long and elegant, not clawed. Still, there was something otherworldly in the shape of him, something that hinted at humanity but didn’t quite arrive there.
“I don’t have horns, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
He’d turned while she was staring at his hands. The Wolf narrowed his eyes. “You must be the Second Daughter.”
He didn’t stand, peering at her down a hawkish nose that had been broken and haphazardly mended, probably more than once. His hand, large and thatched with thin scars against white skin, dropped his pen and ran through his hair, black and overlong, waving messily against his collarbones. He’d half turned in his chair to look at her, carving out the line of his profile in lamplight—the cut of his jaw was severe, and there were tired lines around his eyes, but he didn’t look much older than her. Past his twentieth year, but not his thirtieth.
There was nothing in his form that carried monstrousness, but still that intangible sense of… of other, of a human frame that didn’t house a wholly human thing. His proportions were just out of the realm of normal—too tall, too solid, shadows around him darker than they should be. He could pass as a human on first glance, but it was a mistake you’d make only once. The Mark on her arm thrummed when his gaze met hers.
Red swallowed against a bone-dry throat. Her mouth worked, but no sound came out.
The Wolf raised an eyebrow. Dark circles bruised the skin beneath narrow, amber-colored eyes. “I’ll take your silence as a yes.” The scarred hand on his knee tremored slightly as he turned away from her, picked up his pen, and resumed his scribbling.
Red didn’t realize her mouth hung open until she snapped it shut, teeth clicking together. The tale of the Wolf bringing Gaya’s body to the edge of the forest detailed only how she looked, making no mention of his own appearance. Everyone knew the Wilderwood had made him different, something not quite human, though no one knew the specifics. But the Wolf’s story was one of mythic beasts, and as it was told through the centuries, he became one, too.
These scarred hands, this overlong hair, this face too hard-edged to be handsome—she’d thought she was prepared for anything, but she wasn’t prepared for this. The Wolf was a man before he was a monster, and the figure before her didn’t fit neatly into either category.
“You’re welcome to stay in the library,” the Wolf said, turning back around in his chair with welcome nowhere to be found in his tone, “but I’d prefer it if you didn’t lurk behind me while I’m working.”
The dream-like unreality of seeing the Wolf and the Wolf looking mostly like a man made her tongue loose, made her latch onto the only part of this that might still align with what she’d been told. “Will you let the Kings go now?”
That made him face her. His eyes flickered over her leaf-tangled hair, her shredded skirts. They paused a moment on the slice across her cheekbone, briefly widened.
Red had nearly forgotten it. She reached up, touched the cut. Her fingertips slicked—still bleeding, then.
His assessment ended, the Wolf turned back to his work. “The Kings aren’t here.”
It was the answer she’d expected, faithless as she was. Still, it landed like a punch, and the sigh she pulled in shook a little.
His shoulders stiffened. He’d heard. The Wolf eyed her over his shoulder, angular face shadowed. “They’re still on about that, then? The… the Order, was it?”
“The Order of the Five Kings.” The answer came mechanically. Red felt like a child’s toy, wound up and set spinning with no clear direction. “And yes.”
“Subtle.” One scarred hand ran over his face. “Sorry to disappoint you, Second Daughter, but the Kings are gone. They aren’t something you’d want returned, anyway.”
“Oh.” She couldn’t summon anything more.
The Wolf sighed. “Well. You came. Your part in this is fulfilled.” He gestured toward the door. “I’ll count us even. I’ll get someone to lead you out, and you can go back the way you—”
“No, I can’t.” She could’ve laughed at the ridiculousness of it, if her throat hadn’t felt like she’d swallowed a forest’s worth of splinters. “I came to you, and we can’t leave after we come to you. This is it. I have to stay.”
His hand froze, surprise on his rough-featured face. “You don’t,” he said quietly, with a vehemence that would’ve startled her had she still felt capable of being startled. “You truly don’t.”
“Those are the rules.” Her mouth felt like it was moving of its own accord, her head clamorous though her words came matter-of-fact. “Once we come to you, we can’t leave. The forest won’t let us.”
The Wolf’s fingers gripped the back of his chair, hard enough that Red absently thought it might snap. “The forest will let you leave if I make it.” Nearly a growl.
Red clutched the ragged edges of her torn cloak. “I’m staying.”
Something almost fearful flashed in his eyes. “Fine, then.” He faced away from her again, muttering a curse. “Shadows damn me.”
“This doesn’t make sense.” Another swallow, like working her throat might free up words from the maelstrom in her head. “If you don’t want me here, if you were just going to send me back, why did you demand we come in the first—”
“I’ll stop you right there.” The Wolf stood, unfolding from his chair with his pen held like a dagger. He loomed a head and a half taller than her, broad-shouldered and knife-eyed. “I didn’t demand anything.”
“Yes, you did. You brought Gaya to the edge of the forest, you told them to send the next one, you—”
“None of that was me.” He advanced a step, voice matching hers in intensity. “Whatever you think you know is clearly wrong.”
He spat the word as he stalked toward her, and the dark shadow of the Wolf and the flash of his teeth were enough to finally send fear spearing through the numb fugue her mind had become. Red crossed her arms over her chest, hunched into them like she could make herself smaller.
The Wolf paused, stepping back with his hand half raised in something like surrender. Anger bled out of his face, another emotion flickering there. Guilt.
“I…” He looked away, ran a tired hand over his face. Sighed. “I had no more part in this arrangement than you did, Second Daughter.”
Confusion made a snare of her thoughts, tangled as roots in dirt. Again, she found herself latching onto the simplest pieces, the things she could understand and fix in the face of all she couldn’t. “My name isn’t Second Daughter. It’s Redarys.”
“Redarys.” It sounded strange in his mouth. Soft, somehow fragile.
“And you’re Ci—”
“Eammon.” He turned, dropping back into his chair.
Red’s brow creased. “Eammon?”
Scarred fingers picked up his pen, his tone now clipped and business-like, all that vulnerability gone in an instant. “Ciaran and Gaya were my parents.”
Silence. Red shook her head, mouth forming words that broke apart before they became sentences. “So you… you didn’t…”
“No.” Expressionless, though tension carved the curve of his shoulders beneath his plain, dark shirt. “No, I didn’t bring my mother’s body to the edge of the Wilderwood. No, I didn’t tell anyone to send the next Second Daughter.” A long, deep breath, rattling in and out of his lungs. “Neither one of us really had a choice here. Other than you choosing, vehemently, to stay.”
His tone wanted an explanation for that, but Red didn’t know how to give him one. She said nothing.
The Wolf shifted, sitting with his legs stretched out beneath the desk and his back slumped against the chair back, arms crossed and face still turned away. “They sent you off with the usual fanfare, I see,” he said, deftly changing the subject. “With that damn red cloak.”
She twitched at the fabric, now muddy and torn. “Scarlet for a sacrifice.”
The reminder made the air feel weighted. A beat, then the Wolf waved a hand. “Leave it in the hallway, and one of us will burn—”
“No.” It came out sharp, a word made a weapon.
He glanced at her over his shoulder, a line drawn between dark, heavy brows.
Red pulled the edges of the cloak closer, like she could still feel Neve in it somewhere. Neve helping her dress, Neve finally letting her go. “I want to keep it.”
The line between his brows deepened, but the Wolf nodded. When he spoke again, it was careful, quiet. “How long has it been since the last… the last one came?”
“A century.” She crossed her arms against a sudden shiver. “A century since Merra.”
A muscle in his back jumped. He looked down at his hands, the scars standing out against his skin, and slowly closed them to fists. “Damn.”
Red wanted to respond, but nothing came. The fire had bled from them both. Now there was only this strange, mutual exhaustion.
The Wolf—Eammon—gave his head one firm shake. “If you insist on staying, don’t go outside the gate. The forest isn’t safe for you.” Then he turned back to his work, ignoring her completely, and Red knew she’d been dismissed.
With no idea what else to do, Red drifted back into the library stacks.
Her thoughts were too scattered to organize. In all her darkest imaginings about what might happen when she entered the Wilderwood, she never expected… this. A Wolf who wasn’t the figure from the legends, but his son. A Wolf who didn’t want his sacrifice, who tried to send her back. What bitter irony, that he and Neve seemed to be in accord.
But Red belonged here. The magic that made her taste dirt and turned her veins green made it clear, the magic that could wreak such destruction if she didn’t keep it contained, and she was so tired of being afraid.
It wasn’t your fault. Neve had said it the night of the ball, said it countless times before. But it had been Red’s half-drunk and half-mad idea to steal the horses and run for the Wilderwood, to scream at the trees and see if they screamed back. And when the thieves came with their knives and their bladed smiles, when her hands were still bloody and the shard of the Wilderwood’s power was newly curled around her bones, Red had—
She clenched her fists tight, scoring half-moons into her palms until the pain covered the memories, faded them to specters. She was dangerous. Even if Neve didn’t remember.
And if she wanted to keep her sister safe, Red had to stay here. Whether the Wolf wanted her or not.
The warm familiarity of the bookshelves kept her together, knit her back into herself as she wandered between them. She hoped there might be novels, something other than the dry tomes she’d seen earlier. One volume looked promising, Legends gilt-inscribed on the spine. Red didn’t think of the still-bleeding slice on her cheek when she reached to pull it down, and her bloodied fingers smudged the canvas. “Oh, Kings.”
Eammon rounded the corner, books stacked in his arms. He glanced at the blood-smeared cover before his eyes darted back to the cut across her cheekbone. A moment of that same close scrutiny he’d given it before, then he placed his stack of books on the ground. “What happened there?” Something wary lurked in his tone, like the question had a right and a wrong answer.
“A thorn,” she said. “It’s not deep, I just… they were around one of those white trees…”
He still crouched from where he’d set his books down, and now his hands curled almost like claws. It would’ve frightened her were it not for that glint of alarm in his eyes. “The white trees?” His voice was quiet, but there was an urgency to it. “Did you bleed on it?”
“Kind of, but it wasn’t on purpose and there wasn’t much—”
“I need you to tell me exactly what happened, Redarys.”
“It’s just a scratch.” She wiped her bloody fingers on her cloak, discomfited by his worry and his sternness. “A thorn got my cheek, and the white tree… absorbed it, somehow…”
Every line in his body tensed.
“And it chased me here. The Wilderwood did, I mean.” To say it aloud sounded ridiculous. Red’s cheeks heated, making the cut seep anew.
The Wolf stood then, slowly reaching his full height and covering her in his shadow. When he spoke, his tone was measured, belying all that worry in his gaze. “Is that all?”
“Yes. All it did was chase me.” Incredulity sharpened her answer. “If that wasn’t supposed to happen, perhaps you should keep better control of your damn trees.”
Eammon’s brow arched, but relief was in his suddenly slackened shoulders. “My apologies.” He held out his hand, tentatively gesturing to her cheek. “Allow me to make it up to you.”
Red eyed his hand, lip between her teeth. Something about it looked… familiar, almost. It pricked at the back of her mind but wouldn’t commit to the solid form of a memory.
His skin was warm. The crosshatched scars on his fingers were rough against her cheek as the Wolf laid his forefinger carefully along the cut. His eyes closed.
Something stirred in the air between them, a gust of warmth, scented with leaves and loam. Red’s vision bloomed golden, the Mark on her arm thrumming again. In her center, the splinter of her magic teased open, a flower feeling spring on winter’s sharpened edge.
A fraction of a second, then the sting of the cut was gone. Red didn’t realize she’d closed her eyes until she opened them again.
There, on the Wolf’s cheekbone, a wound the mirror image of hers. She lifted her fingers disbelievingly to her face. Still tacky with blood, but the skin was whole.
The Wolf knelt quickly, ducking his head to gather his books again, but not quite fast enough to hide his eyes. The whites of them were threaded with green, a verdant corona blooming around the amber-brown irises.
“The benefits of being bound to the Wilderwood are few.” Books in hand, Eammon rose, turning to stride back into the stacks. He seemed taller than before, quite the feat when his previous height was already considerable. There was a strange quality to his voice, too—a slight echo, a resonance that reminded her of leaves caught in the wind. “That’s one of them.”
For a moment Red stood still, fingers resting against her unmarked skin. Then she started after him. Thank you hovered in the back of her throat, but something about the set of his shoulders said he neither needed nor wanted it.
“The rules here are simple.” Eammon shoved a book into its place on the shelf. “The first: Don’t go beyond the gate.”
The odd, echoing quality was gone from his voice now—the Wolf sounded only gruff and tired, with no echo of falling leaves. “Easily done,” Red muttered. “Your forest is less than hospitable.”
His frown deepened at that. “Second rule.” Another book slammed home. “The Wilderwood wants blood, especially yours. Don’t bleed where the trees can taste it, or they’ll come for you.”
Her fingers curled, still copper-scented with blood. “Is that what happened to Gaya and the other Second Daughters?”
The Wolf froze, another book halfway pushed into place, expression stricken. It took Red a moment for her mind to catch up with what she’d said, and when it did, she wanted to sink into the floor. Reminding him of his mother’s death. What a wonderful way to start their cohabitation.
But Eammon recovered without comment, though he pushed the book the rest of the way onto the shelf with perhaps more force than necessary. “More or less, yes.”
Arms now emptied, Eammon stalked to the library door. When he reached it, he turned, peering at her down his crooked nose. “Third rule.” The new cut on his face leaked too-dark blood, deep crimson with a thread of green that looked almost like a root tendril, but his eyes were normal again, no longer haloed emerald. “Stay out of my way.”
Red tightened her crossed arms over her chest like they could be a shield. “Understood.”
“There’s a room you can use in the corridor.” Eammon pushed open the door and gestured her out. “Welcome to the Black Keep, Redarys.”
The door shut behind her, and Red was alone.
It wasn’t until she sank onto the bottom step that she realized where she’d seen his hands, why their shape and scarring looked so familiar.
The night of her sixteenth birthday, when Red had cut her hand on a rock and accidentally bled in the forest—when the Wilderwood splintered its damning magic into her bloodstream by way of her cut palm—she’d seen something, painted on the canvas of her closed eyes. A vision. Hands that weren’t her own, large and scarred and thrust into the dirt, just as hers were. A sense of rushing, blinding fear that mirrored hers but wasn’t hers.
It was only a panicked flash, vague and unclear, shrouded in branch-shaped shadows. Up until this moment, she’d almost thought she’d imagined it. But now…
Now she’d seen them in the flesh. Now she knew whom those hands belonged to, and knew no part of that night had been imagined.
The hands she’d seen were the Wolf’s.
Red gripped at the roots of her hair until her fingers felt numb, forehead pressed against the heels of her hands. That night still etched in her mind with crystal clarity, at least up to a point. Once the thieves who’d followed them attacked and the bloodshed began, she’d blocked parts of it out.
But the flash behind her eyelids of something happening elsewhere, of scarred hands and immediate panic… she remembered that, now, remembered it with such detail she couldn’t believe she’d once thought it imagined. A moment of connection to someone other than herself, and that someone had been the Wolf.
He’d been there, somehow—been there when magic rioted out of the Wilderwood, when it climbed through the wound in her palm and made its home in her chest. Was it his fault, then? Had the forest shattered magic into her at his direction?
Gently, she laid her fingertips against her cheek, still blood-smeared from the wound he’d taken. If the Wolf had given her this damn power on purpose, surely he wouldn’t have tried to send her back? Wouldn’t have given her rules that were supposed to keep her safe from his forest?
Red groaned against her palms.
She was tempted to stay seated on the staircase until Eammon deigned to emerge from his library, to see if she could wrench more answers out of him. But Red was weary, and the floor was cold, and the idea of waiting for someone who explicitly wanted to avoid her was exhausting.
He’d told her not to leave the Keep, so logically, the Keep was safe. And it was her new home. As unwieldy as that thought felt, she might as well explore it.
Wearily, Red stood and started back up the long, root-threaded staircase.
There was light at the top of the stairs, as if someone had come along and reignited the fires jeweling the unburning vine in the foyer. Red paused on the landing, peering at the strange, makeshift sconce.
The flames were anchored on the vine. It should be burning. But through the bright, yellow-white hearts of the flames, she could see that the vine itself appeared wholly unharmed.
She thought of the wood shards in the library she’d first assumed were candles, how they also carried flame but stayed unburnt. Wood and vine, both growing things, locked in some strange symbiotic relationship. The splintered power in her chest felt restless.
Red backed away, venturing into the center of the ruined foyer. Above her, lavender sky shone through the cracked solarium glass, neither any brighter nor any darker than before she’d fled down the stairs. No moon, no stars, nothing to give any indication of time passed. Just endless twilight.
Though somewhat dim, the light from the burning vine and the solarium window was steady, and Red could see the remains of carpet on the mossy floor, shreds of something that had once been grand. The threads of nearly rotted tapestries hung on the walls, tangled with vines and thin roots. Too muddied to tell what the pictures might’ve been, for the most part, though she could pick out the vague shape of faces in one of them.
She frowned at it, eyes narrowed to put together the patterns. A man and a woman, it looked like. Holding hands, maybe. Her hair was long. His eyes were dark.
Gaya and Ciaran. Eammon’s parents. If she needed further proof that he was who he said, this would be it. Even though the tapestry was worn nearly to ruin, she could tell the man depicted here was not the man she’d just met in the library. His face was softer, more classically handsome. His chin canted upward at an angle that dared the viewer to try him, an expression she knew just by looking at it wouldn’t be worn naturally on Eammon’s face.
And Gaya… she was more muddied than Ciaran, the shape of her harder to make out. Beautiful, aloof in a way that the smudged tapestry highlighted rather than obscured.
That frustrated Red on some deep level, a knotted emotion she couldn’t quite parse out to its composite parts. All the Second Daughters, more icon than individual. Defined by what they were instead of who.
She frowned a moment longer at the tapestry before walking over to the broken archway at the other side of the stairs.
The arch led into what looked like a sunken dining room, one chipped stone step at the edge of the threshold. A large window framed the courtyard on the right side, the glass choked with climbing greenery and thin, spiderwebbed cracks. A scuffed wooden table sat in the center of the room, with three chairs clustered haphazardly at one end. On the back wall, another, smaller door on rusted hinges led to what she assumed was the kitchen. Other than that, the room was empty.
Three chairs. Her brows drew together. The tales told of no one here but the Wolf, but then again, the tales also hadn’t said there was more than one Wolf, and the current one was a tall young man with scarred hands and a sour disposition. It seemed the tales weren’t exactly reliable. Really, she had no idea who else—what else—might be lurking in the Keep.
One of us will burn it, the Wolf had said when he saw her torn cloak. Implying there was more than one inhabitant of this ruin.
As if in answer, there was a sudden clatter, like a dropped armful of pots and pans. Red heard a brief, muttered curse from behind that smaller door at the back of the room, and then a laugh from another voice, light and musical.
Her courage wasn’t quite steeled enough to investigate. Red’s mind crowded with thoughts of twisted poppets made of sticks and thorns, crafted from the Wilderwood and set to servitude by the same strange magic that kept the vine unburning. After the fanged trees, nothing seemed out of the realm of awful possibility.
She backed away from the broken arch, not stopping until the small of her back hit the staircase rail in the main foyer. Her shoulder jostled the dark coat hanging on the knob of the newel post, sending up a faint whiff of fallen leaves and coffee grounds.
Red turned, peering upward. The landing at the top of the staircase was still hidden in shadow, a darkness that had scared her away before. Now that she felt somewhat less skittish, the upstairs seemed more intriguing than foreboding.
Despite being partially covered in moss, the stairs looked sturdy enough. She placed her mud-caked boot on the first step.
The moss moved under her feet like she’d stepped on a snake, seeping farther up the stairs, collecting toadstools and thin roots in its wake. The greenery gathered together, an army amassing, and became a solid wall of growing things, blocking her path.
Red stumbled backward, shaking off the weed tendrils knotting around her ankles. “Five Kings,” she cursed quietly. “Point taken.”
Dirt streaked the hand that reached up to push sweaty, leaf-matted hair from her eyes. She needed a bath, and badly, though she’d have to put her dirty clothes back on afterward. She hadn’t brought more. Hadn’t expected to need them.
The thought sank into her mind with serrated teeth. The fierceness with which she’d run for her life in the Wilderwood had been gut instinct, primal force. Now the consequences: a life. Already she was hours older than she ever expected to be.
She had no idea how to start coming to terms with that.
Red pressed her fingers to her eyes until the sharp feeling behind them dissipated. Once she was calmer, she shook her head, straightened. The Wolf said her room was in the corridor, and there was only one she could see, though it ended in a riot of ruin.
The oddly lit vine provided the light here, too, though the flames were smaller and more sporadic. Moss covered the floor and grew halfway up the walls. Blooming things she couldn’t name threaded through the ruined jumble at the hall’s end, a tangle of leaves and flowers and broken rock.
It looked like the Wilderwood had broken into the Black Keep more than once, leaving most of it a ruin. Not exactly a comforting thought.
Doors lined the hallway, but only one looked like it’d been disturbed recently. A jagged line of dirt and a green stain on the wood marked where growth had been cleared away, leaving a semicircle of bare wooden floor ringing the threshold. Already moss crept over it, taking back the space it had ceded.
Gingerly stepping over the moss, Red pushed the door open.
The room beyond was small and sparsely furnished. Dusty, still, but at least cleared of greenery. The walls were bare. A large window with vines crawling up the outside looked out on another courtyard, where a stone wall ran from the back of the hallway and down a gently sloping hill to meet the iron gate. Another tower sat directly behind the one she’d entered, short enough to be hidden from the front. Small trees grew around its base, and her heart stuttered for the half second it took to realize they weren’t bone-colored. Between the trees twisting around the structure and the flowering vines threading through them, the tower looked more grown than built.
A fully made bed stood in the corner by the window, linens faded but clean, with a fireplace set into the wall by its foot, neatly stacked with wood. To the left of the door, a small alcove housed a chamber pot and wide iron tub, already filled with water. A wardrobe was pushed into another corner, an age-spotted mirror hanging next to it on the wall. Large handprints marked the dust on the wardrobe’s side. The size of them matched Eammon’s.
He’d told her she could leave, but prepared for her to stay. It made her wonder how much of his insistence that she could return home was planned, and how much of it had been impulse, a knee-jerk reaction born from some emotion she wasn’t sure of.
Cautiously, Red walked over to the bed. With a quick breath, she ducked and peered beneath it, not sure what she was looking for, but sure she wouldn’t relax until she checked.
Nothing but remnants of moss. Her lips thinned as she straightened, headed next for the wardrobe.
She opened the doors quickly, prepared to snarl at anything that might rear up from the depths, but the snarl melted slowly to bewilderment.
Dresses. A row of them. Simple cuts in muted colors, jewel tones that would blend into a forest. Red pulled one out, deep green, careful not to let it brush against her dirt-smeared cloak. It looked like it would fit.
Red laid the gown out on the bed and closed the wardrobe. Then she stepped back, pressed her knuckles against her teeth, and let out one slightly panicked, slightly relieved, wholly confused sob.
This was what she wanted, wasn’t it? To lock herself and her sharp magic away in the Wilderwood. To ensure that she could never bring harm to Neve or anyone else she cared about ever again; that the destruction she’d wrought with her power the first time was the only time.
This was exactly what she wanted.
The satisfaction was hollow at best.
She gulped in a deep breath, held it until the burn in her lungs canceled out the one in her eyes. Carefully, Red shrugged out of her cloak. Her flight through the Wilderwood had left it worse for wear, pockmarked with rips and dirt, but Red handled it like it was priceless finery.
It was ridiculous. She was clearheaded enough to know that. Ridiculous that she’d want to keep the thing that marked her as a sacrifice. But the memory it carried was the one of Neve, helping her get dressed, smoothing out the wrinkles as she’d done so many times before. Other than Red’s, her hands had been the last to touch the scarlet fabric.
There were other, fiercer reasons, too. Reasons that came from that same deep place that was ferally pleased with the cruel coincidence of her childhood name. The part of her that would smile as she grabbed a bladed legacy and felt it make her bleed.
Red held the cloak in her hands for a moment, working the weave of it between her fingers. Then, with the same care she’d used to take it off, she folded it so the worst of the rips didn’t show and placed it in the wardrobe.
There were no priestesses in the gardens as Neve walked to the Shrine. She’d expected to fight her way through a throng of them, white-robed and mealymouthed, waiting to see if their sacrifice finally brought back their gods. Official vigils for the Five Kings’ return started at midnight, she knew, so she had some time, but she was still surprised at the garden’s emptiness.
Her fingers arched like claws, her teeth clamping so hard into her lip she nearly broke the skin. It was probably good none of them were here. She might do something unbecoming of a First Daughter.
Her feet barely made a sound over the cobblestones, the moonlight soaked up by the dark fabric of her gown. It was different from the one she’d worn for the procession, less ornate, but still the black of absence. She didn’t know when she might bring herself to wear a different color.
Truly, Neve didn’t know why she’d bothered coming here. She’d never been one to take solace in prayer, though there’d been a time when she tried. Right at sixteen, after… after what happened with Red, she’d tried religion on for size for a week or two, to see if it smoothed the rough edges of her thoughts, made them harder to cut herself on. Her sister was a pawn, a piece to be moved—send her to the Wilderwood, and maybe this time, the Five Kings would come back. At the very least, she’d keep the fabled monsters away. There was nothing either of them could do to change it, and maybe there was comfort to be had there, if she could feign piety. A balm for the ache of it.
There wasn’t. The Shrine was nothing but a stone room full of candles and branches. No comfort. No absolution.
And the way Red looked at her, those two weeks she’d tried religion. Like she was watching the digging of her own grave.
So now, as she stalked toward the Shrine in her mourning black, she knew it was pointless. Any words she could say, any candles she could light, would do nothing to fill the gnawing empty place her twin had left. But grief was like gravel in her slipper, and she felt it more when she was standing still.
The Shrine would at least give her a private place to cry.
Neve walked beneath the flowered arbor into the shadows of the stone room beyond. Then she stopped, eyes wide and glassy, the sobs she’d wanted to let free frozen in her throat.
Not empty. Three priestesses stood around the statue of Gaya, red prayer candles guttering in their hands. Still in their customary white robes, but no cloaks. Those were only for the ceremony that blessed Red as a sacrifice.
The priestess closest to the wall carved in Second Daughters saw her first. Some muted emotion flickered across her face—pity, but a faint kind, like one might have for a child who’d lost a pet.
Neve’s fingers balled into fists at her sides.
Gently, the priestess placed her candle by Gaya’s feet, anchoring it in the already-puddled wax of other prayers. She clasped her hands before her as she approached. “First Daughter.”
A gentle accent, her r’s touched with a burr. Ryltish, probably, one who’d trekked across the sea for the privilege of praying here, of seeing the historic sacrifice of a Second Daughter. Neve said nothing, her nails pressing crescents into her palms.
The other two priestesses exchanged glances before turning back to their prayer candles. Smart. They could read the wish on Neve’s face, the hope that one of them would say something to stoke the fire in her chest to a blaze.
If the Ryltish priestess realized the error she’d made in approaching, she didn’t show it. The faint pity on her face deepened, pulling down her lips. “It’s a great honor, Highness,” she said quietly. An ember of fervor shone in her green eyes. “For your sister to go to the sacred wood, to appease the Wolf and bring us safety from his monsters. We have great hopes she’ll be the one to make him release the Kings. And an honor for you, too, to one day rule over a land that shares the sacred wood’s border. The Queen of Valleyda is the Queen most loved by our gods.”
Neve couldn’t stop her snort, loud and undignified in this place of stone and quiet flames. “An honor,” she repeated, her brow arching incredulously. “Yes, what a great honor, that my sister was murdered for the possible return of the Kings you’ve decided are gods.” The snort became a laugh, half-mad and sharp, bursting from between her teeth and making her breath come short. “How blessed I am, to hold sway over a barren, frozen land on the edge of a haunted forest.”
The Ryltish priestess seemed to finally recognize her mistake. Her eyes were wide, pretty face frozen and pale. Behind her, the other two priestesses stood still as the statue they prayed to, wax dripping over motionless hands.
She didn’t realize she’d advanced a step until the priestess lurched backward, trying to keep distance between them. Neve’s lips curled back from her teeth. “You have it so easy,” she murmured. “All you Order priestesses from far away. Safe behind your borders, miles from your sacred wood.”
The Ryltish priestess almost lost her balance when her calf bumped against Gaya’s stone feet. Crimson wax marred her hem. Still, her eyes didn’t leave Neve’s, and her cheeks were nearly the same color as her robe.
“It’s almost pathetic.” Neve cocked her head, the barest curve of an acidic smile touching her mouth but not her eyes. “Your religion asks nothing of you. You throw a girl in white and black and red into the Wilderwood every few centuries, when a Second Daughter comes around, but nothing you do is enough to bring back the Kings. Maybe they don’t want to come back to such cowardly penitents, who never do anything but send pointless sacrifices and light pointless candles.”
All three priestesses watched her silently, three pairs of wide eyes fixed on her face. The wax dripping down their fingers had to be scalding, but it wasn’t enough to make them move, wasn’t enough to break them from the terrible spell of her sadness and how it made her cruel.
Neve forced her fingers straight, uncurling them from fists. “Get out.”
They obliged without a word, taking their prayer candles with them.
Finally alone, Neve slumped, like her anger had been the only thing holding her up. She caught herself right before she leaned on Gaya’s statue. She refused to look for any kind of comfort there.
Instead, Neve walked through the dark gauzy curtain behind the stone effigy into the second room of the Shrine.
She’d been here only once before. When she was officially named as the heir to the throne on her tenth birthday, they’d wrapped her in the coronation cloak, embroidered with the names of the former Valleydan queens, and brought her here to be prayed over. To her child’s eyes, the white branches had seemed tall as trees themselves, casting needle-edged shadows on the stone walls.
That’s what she expected when she walked through the curtain—a forest like the one that had devoured her sister. But it was only a room. A room filled with branches cast in marble bases, most no higher than her shoulders. A Wilderwood in miniature. Nothing like what she’d seen when she and Red raced toward its border four years ago. Nothing like what Red had just disappeared into.
Neve’s chest burned, too heavy and hollow all at once. She couldn’t hurt that Wilderwood.
But she could hurt this one.
The limb of a branch was in her hand before she had the conscious thought, before her mind caught up with her body. She wrenched her fist to the side, and it came off the main bough with the crack of rending bone.
Neve paused for only a moment. Then, with a fierce snarl and teeth bared, she wrenched off another, relishing the snap it made as it came away, the feel of the wood giving beneath her hands.
She didn’t know how many branches she tore into before she felt a presence behind her. Neve turned with splintered wood held in her two fists like daggers, her dark hair waving against her face with the force of her breath.
A red-haired, white-skinned priestess stood in the doorway, face implacable. She looked vaguely familiar—from the Valleydan Temple, then. Neve wondered if that would matter. The vagaries of heresy weren’t something she was familiar with, but wrecking the Shrine would probably make an easy case for it. What would that punishment be for a First Daughter, the one meant for the throne? Neve tried to care, but couldn’t quite find the energy.
And yet, the priestess did nothing. She stood there, silently, cool blue eyes surveying the damage before rising to Neve.
Slowly, Neve’s breathing returned to normal. She released her fists, the two branch shards she’d held clattering down to the stone floor.
Neve and the red-haired priestess stared at each other. There was something like a dare in each gaze, a measuring of mettle, though Neve didn’t know what she was measuring for.
Finally, the priestess stepped farther into the room, picking deftly white wooden splinters. “Come,” she said, in a voice that was brusque though not unpleasant. “If we clean up, no one will ever notice.”
It took Neve a moment to understand what she was saying, so far was it from what she expected. But the priestess bent down, gathering white splinters in her hands, and after a moment, Neve joined her.
A small pendant swung from the priestess’s neck, circling like a pendulum. It looked like a shard of wood, like the leavings of Neve’s rampage scattering the floor. The only difference was the color; where the branches were the pure, shining white of bleached bone, the priestess’s pendant was threaded through with black.
Neve frowned at it. Strange, for a priestess to wear jewelry—it wasn’t exactly forbidden, but none of them did it, going about clad only in their white robes with no further adornment.
The priestess saw her looking. A small smile tugged up her mouth as she caught the pendant, rolled it between her fingers. “Another piece of the Wilderwood,” she said, by way of explanation. “It breaks more easily than you’d think, with the right pressure. The right tools.”
Neve’s brows drew together. The priestess watched her as if she saw the shape of her questions and wanted to draw them out. Neve shut them behind her teeth.
For all her destruction, the mess she’d made fit easily in their four fists. The priestess made a bowl of her full white skirt, gathering all the shards before bundling the fabric in her hand like a pocket. “I’ll dispose of this.”
“You mean make more jewelry out of it?” Neve couldn’t keep the bite from her voice. She was tired, so tired of keeping her composure. Of pretending all of this didn’t bore beneath her skin and scour her out.
“Oh, no.” Despite the flippancy of the response, those blue, implacable eyes watched her carefully. “These aren’t right for that. Not yet.”
Disquiet thrummed under Neve’s ribs.
The red-haired priestess stood still, managing to look regal despite the awkward way she held her robe to contain the wood shards. “You’re here because of your sister?”
“Why else would I be here?” Neve wanted it to come out fierce, but it was quiet and thin. She’d spent all her fierceness. “I have no interest in praying.”
The priestess nodded, taking Neve’s blasphemy in stride. “Would you like to know what happened to her, when she crossed into the Wilderwood?”
It struck Neve silent for a moment, such a heavy question asked in such a casual manner. “You… you know?”
“So do you.” The priestess shrugged like they were discussing something as benign as the weather. “Your sister is tangled in the forest. Like Gaya was, like all the others. She went to the Wolf, and he bound her to it, just as he is bound.”
Neve knew the story. The Wolf bringing Gaya’s forest-riddled corpse to the edge of the wood, a macabre token of the tithe he then demanded. It made sense, that the other Second Daughters would be bound similarly. That the Wolf somehow wove the Wilderwood into their bones, knit them into its foundations, ensuring they couldn’t escape.
“But she’s alive.” A bare rasp of sound in the quiet, and Neve didn’t inhale as she waited for the answer.
The priestess nodded, turning toward the door. “But she’s alive.”
On legs that felt numb, Neve followed the red-haired priestess back through the Shrine out into the dark gardens. She took a few steps forward, passing the other woman to inhale cold, bracing air.
Midnight was close. Soon all the priestesses who’d come to see Red sacrificed would gather here, to pray throughout the night that she would be deemed acceptable by the Wolf, that he would finally free the Five Kings from their unjust imprisonment.
When Neve closed her eyes, she could still see that scarlet cloak disappearing into the gloom between the trees.
“You’ll keep this quiet.” Neve meant it as an order, but it came out more like a question.
“Of course.” A pause, heavy. “You have the right idea, First Daughter.”
It was enough to make her eyes open, to make her gaze snap over her shoulder. The priestess stood still and placid behind her, face revealing nothing.
“The Wilderwood won’t let her go.” Her red hair fell over her shoulder as she tipped her head, as if in deference to Neve’s grief. “It has weakened, this past century, but not enough. She couldn’t escape even if she tried.” Moonlight caught her eyes, made them glitter. “At least, not right now.”
Something toothed and hopeful leapt in Neve’s chest. “What do you mean?”
The priestess lightly touched her odd wood-shard necklace. “The forest is only as strong as we let it be.”
Neve’s brow knit. The night air chilled them into a frozen tableau.
“Your secrets are safe with me, Neverah.” The priestess gave a small bow then glided away, her pale robe disappearing into the dark garden.
Cool breeze on her arms, the scent of early-summer flowers heady in her nose. Neve concentrated on these things, grounded herself with them. In her head, a scarlet cloak flickered in and out of a dark, dark forest.