Simith of Drifthorn is tired of war. After years of conflict between the Thistle court and the troll kingdom, even a pixie knight known for his bloodlust longs for peace. Hoping to secure a ceasefire, Simith arranges a meeting with the troll king—and is ambushed instead. Escape lies in the Jaded Grove, but the trees of the ancient Fae woodland aren’t what they seem, and in place of sanctuary, Simith tumbles through a doorway to another world.
Cutting through her neighbor’s sunflower farm in Skylark, Michigan, Jessa runs into a battle between creatures straight out of a fantasy novel. Only the blood is very real. When a lone fighter falls to his attackers, Jessa intervenes. She’s known too much death to stand idly by, but an act of kindness leads to consequences even a poet like her couldn’t imagine.
With their fates bound by magic, Simith and Jessa must keep the strife of his world from spilling into hers—except the war isn’t what it appears and neither are their enemies. Countless lives depend on whether they can face the truths of their pasts and untangle the web of lies around them. But grief casts long shadows, and even their deepening bond may not be enough to save them from its reach.
Simith washed the blood from his sword while dusk scoured the light from the sky.
It was quiet here on the muddy bank and the stream made no sound when he sank his blade point into its depths. He palmed chilly water over the smeared length, watching it tunnel down the crystal blade to cloud the stream a murky violet. Troll blood was oddly beautiful. If the sky was a bit darker, he could imagine iris petals coated his sword instead of death.
Beyond the gnarled hedgerow that grew at his back, camp celebrations continued. Knights and Helms alike rejoiced the latest victory, as yet unaware of the silence he’d left behind in the prisoners’ tent. Traces of song wove its way to him through the thorns, half-heard and dreamlike while he bathed his blade with stained hands.
Pixies had no ballads for war, victorious or otherwise, but the fairies had plenty to share. A century of conflict with the trolls had supplied ample inspiration for the long-lived creatures. His own kind had joined the fighting a mere ten years past, but given enough time, perhaps pixies too would put to verse the rending of flesh and hope that took place on the battlefield.
Simith’s hand stilled beneath the water. The cold stream numbed his fingers, a chill that traveled from his arm all the way to the gauzy wings hanging down his back. No, it wouldn’t come to that. He’d made a promise and he would see it through.
Footsteps squished in the mud, a determined clip alerting him to the approach of a Helm. Sooner than expected. He’d hoped to have a bit more time to settle back into his skin before once more playing the ruthless knight for his fairy commanders. Not that there was much difference between the pretense and the reality aside from personal scorn. More’s the pity.
The footsteps halted behind him. “Cleaning your own weaponry is beneath your rank, Knight Simith.”
Helm Firo. Of course. The commander of the vanguard seemed to watch him with an unsettling amount of focus lately, as though he could smell the change in him.
“I don’t mind the task,” Simith answered.
“Meaning you still haven’t found a squire willing to serve you.”
He didn’t reply. The other pixies of the fairy legion admired Simith’s battle prowess. They heeded his direction on the battlefield, but none sought his friendship.
He bore them no grudge. Simith knew their reasons. He knew what he was.
Firo moved to stand alongside him where he crouched by the stream. Simith watched him out of the corner of his eye. Much depended on how well he directed this conversation. He’d kept himself filthy, his light-brown hair stiff with dried sweat, his face dirty. He still wore his mud-spattered boots and blood-speckled leathers. He hadn’t even removed the bandolier of knives from his shoulders. This was his only chance. Presenting the appearance of an unraveling knight was vital for his purposes. He’d need to act the part as well.
After what he’d done, precious little of that would be feigned.
Firo himself had changed out of his gear. He’d dressed in the typical dove-colored tunics fairy kind favored, his pale hair washed and tidy. His conduit hung on a gold chain against his chest, a polished sapphire the size of a robin’s egg nesting in a bright, silver setting. Simith bit his lip to keep it from curling. Fairies adored displaying the pretty stones through which they funneled their magic, lest anyone forget their greater power. No other creature in the Realm paraded their conduits with as much vanity, a conceit they’d undoubtedly learned from their cousin race, the Fae. If Simith hadn’t once seen a troll’s arm burst into ash when trying to tear the conduit off a fairy, he’d have been tempted to snap that chain and throw Firo’s shiny gem into the mud.
“Shall we discuss what you’ve done, or do you wish to begin with denial?” Firo gazed at the sky. “I warn you not to annoy me. You’ve interrupted my supper with this nonsense.”
Simith let a smile cut across his mouth. “Are you here to scold me?”
“Those prisoners were meant for interrogation.”
“They were meant for the dawn,” he snorted. “Decorative new stonework for the Triad’s gardens.”
Firo looked at him. That remark held too much honest disdain for the Thistle Court’s three ruling fairy houses. Simith needed to be cleverer than this or tonight’s horrors would serve no greater good. And they must.
“I’ve warned you not to annoy me,” Firo said softly.
Simith dipped his head. “Your pardon, my Helm. I am not myself just now.”
“That must be so for you to blithely destroy information critical to advancing our campaign against the troll king. The Triad has always enjoyed your enthusiasm, but in recent months I’ve noticed your hunger for victory waning.” He crouched beside Simith, far too close. “Until tonight, apparently. I must say, even I hadn’t thought you so vicious as to butcher trolls while they’re bound and helpless. Strange behavior, indeed.”
Simith kept his eyes downcast. Fairy commanders knew the true names of all pixies in the legion. Firo could compel the truth from him, though it would be a risk to his authority if others discovered it. Simith’s only sin, as far as the camp would hear, was an overabundance of savagery against the enemy. Nothing new. Firo must only suspect something was amiss with his infamous knight, or he’d have already forced a confession out of him.
He had to offer a different truth. He had to offer some other piece of his soul to throw the Helm off his trail.
Simith took a cloth from his pocket and drew it across the beads of water pearled down the flat of his blade.
“Rimthea of Hazelglen was killed this time last year,” he said.
One year and six days tonight.
“Has it been that long already? Time does slip past.” Firo regarded him, no hint at the thoughts behind the flat grey of his eyes. “The pair of you were a mighty force. She was your mate?”
“My sister.” His almost-sister. Cirrus had died before they could take their vows. “I only intended to question them, but in the midst of things, they gave me insult and I…forgot myself.”
A shame he would never forget the way their glowing gazes had followed him, steady and clear as he split them open.
Firo cocked his head, incredulous. “You’re telling me you butchered our prisoners because you’re overwrought?”
He was in fact. He had been since they’d brought Rim back to camp with her mouth broken and her throat cut. But that wasn’t why the prisoners were dead.
“I lost control,” he said.
“A week ago, you requested a few days furlough. Is this the reason? This emotional fragility?”
“My request was denied.”
“That isn’t what I asked.”
Simith set the temptation of his sword on a patch of weeds next to him. “Yes. This is the reason.”
“Death follows us all, Simith, and none more so than you. We’re too close to our victory to have the pixies’ most prominent warrior behave like this. They look to you for direction, however much they eschew your company in camp.”
Firo examined him closely, twisting the sapphire on its chain in his long, fairy fingers. The gemstone held a blue so dark it looked filled with blood. “We’ve received new orders from the Triad. Our spies report the troll army weakened enough to attempt a full invasion, and our leaders agree. Three days hence, we begin an aggressive push into their territory. There are those among your ranks who may object to what’s ahead, given the peaceful history of your kind. You must be there to rally the vanguard.”
And by rally, he meant lead the killing. Lead by merciless example. For indeed, this would be a field without succor. The vanguard would swim in blood.
He’d known this was coming. Strange, that such plans could shock him when he’d thought himself beyond horror.
“I will be there,” Simith said.
Firo considered him a moment longer, then rose. “I grant you furlough this night and tomorrow. Go and sit among branches, or chase the winds with some kettle of hawks—whatever it is that soothes the fluttering mind of a pixie. When you return, I expect you and your blades to be ready for the task before us. Is that understood?”
“It is, and I am grateful.” He bowed his head to hide his staggering relief. Firo departed without further comment and Simith remained as he was until he could no longer hear the Helm’s steps.
His breath shuddered out of him and he sat back on his heels. He’d been braced for failure. It left him momentarily unmoored to realize he hadn’t found it. Or mayhap he simply reeled at the price he’d paid for this chance.
He’d caught only a glimpse of the two prisoners when they’d been brought to camp, but enough to see the pair wore a swatch of red cloth around their upper arms—his signal that the troll king had sent an answer to his request. Simith had fought his own impatience, biding his time until he was certain no Helm lingered nearby the tent in which they were held.
The pixie knights on guard hadn’t argued when he’d dismissed them. Whatever expression he’d worn must’ve been extreme, for they’d practically scrambled out of his way.
When he’d entered, he’d found them crouched together at the center of the tent with their heads bowed as though exchanging whispers. Possibly they had been, though he’d had nothing to fear. Their conduits—a length of interlinked chains with a rough, metal pendant—had been removed, depriving them of their magic. Although they’d stunk of iron, their armor, hatchets, and piercings had been taken as well. Nevertheless, Simith had tasted the ghost of that iron on his tongue. It’d made his head throb.
“You have a message for me,” he’d said.
Loathing had filled the trolls’ faces when they’d looked at him, lips curling over fanged mouths, clawed fingers flexing above silver chains wrapped flush against dark, green skin. Both sets of torchlight eyes had recognized him. Despite the purpose he’d assigned himself and the promise he’d made, Simith had relished their hatred.
One had shifted away from his comrade, chains clinking. “Our king has agreed to hear you out.”
“Did he agree to my terms?”
Bless the winds. He’d feared the king would reject meeting in the Jaded Grove. Trolls had no love of trees, particularly the ancient forests of the Fae, and the green world mirrored their animosity. King Drokeh must’ve truly wished to discuss Simith’s proposal.
“When can he meet me there?” Simith had asked.
He’d started. “That’s too short notice.”
“Did you hope he’d allow you the chance to gather an ambush? The timing of our capture was precise. He will meet you at middle night, on this eventide only.”
“The Helms may discover my absence. It’s too risky.”
“Find a way. All peace is risk,” the troll’s voice had been a low snarl, “especially when he who offers it wears the skin of a monster.”
Simith had smiled, a hard tilt of his mouth. “No monster lives but for the evil others have done before him.”
“Convenient, that logic. May it serve you well for what must be done now.”
“The fairies are efficient interrogators. We know too much to be left behind.”
“I can’t free you without compromising everything.”
They’d said nothing. Then he’d understood. They hadn’t expected rescue. Their king had spent their lives to send him this message. Their blood just hadn’t yet been spilled.
He’d gripped the hilt of his sword, as if to fend off the expectation. “No.”
“Consider it a tithe. Each shall pay the levy for hope; we our futures, and you, the dregs of your honor.”
Simith shook himself loose from thoughts of what happened after that. He plunged his hands into the icy stream and scrubbed them hard.
Rimthea would have refused, he was sure of it. She’d have found a way to free them and still meet the troll king. But she was gone; her sharp mind gone with her, leaving him with only the awful memory of their last words, and the promise he’d sworn with her lifeless hand in his. His own hands went still beneath the water.
In the stream’s darkening reflection, the cloak of souls winked with the first starlight of evening. Simith didn’t turn his face to the sky. He had no wish to meet the eyes of the beloved dead gazing down at him. Their glimmering light felt like a reprimand.
“I’m doing my best, Rim,” he told the stars’ reflection. “Miserable as that is.”
We should be doing this together. How could you get yourself killed?
He made the mistake of meeting his own gaze in the water. Nightfall had blackened his brown eyes and woven shadows through his tawny hair. His pale face stared back at him, as empty as a vacant mask. He didn’t look like himself—not the legion’s version of him, nor the one he hoped survived somewhere deep within. This person was someone else entirely. A stranger.
Simith stood. He sheathed his sword and headed toward camp to ready himself to depart. The stream had left his fingers stiff with cold. He coiled them into his fists, though he doubted there was enough warmth left in him to chase the chill away.
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