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What remained of Una’s Guard surrounded her on the path ahead as we all trudged through the woods away from the Tree of Life. We had suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Unseelie. Though most of the ones we’d fought at the foot of the Tree of Life had met their end, none of us could forget we were still outnumbered. The Unseelie controlled most hamlets surrounding the Tree of Life, and we wouldn’t be able to return without a fight.
Janneth was dead, but Orrin and Caci likely lived, and they could bring down reinforcements upon us at any moment. We were in no shape to fight back, weary and heartbroken as we all were.
My bond with Lyall throbbed with disappointment and hopelessness, though I couldn’t tell if those feelings were mine or his at this point. My eyes didn’t rise from the path directly in front of me as my feet stirred up leaves that Una’s people had already passed over. The wisps that had gathered during the battle had all disappeared, as though uninterested now that we’d failed so terribly. In the back of my mind, even the ancient presence of the Tree of Life seemed despondent and quiet, as though conserving its energy for survival.
We’d been forced to rest in the forest overnight, and it had been a tense, restless evening, even with Kitsune illusions to protect us. I’d tossed and turned on the forest floor while Lyall and others kept watch. We’d quietly broken camp at first light and moved on, eating as we walked to keep everyone’s strength up. Una’s Guard insisted she rest in the two-wheeled cart, conserving her strength.
They’d bound her wound, but since the Unseelie had used poisoned blades, she needed help as soon as possible. I still wondered if I could heal her or if that was just the delusion of the Queen of Queens nonsense filling my head. Either way, she’d made it clear she didn’t want me to try, and I would respect her wishes, especially after the way Rorik had accused me of trying to put everyone under my geas after saving his life with my healing magic.
Our small force silently marched on and on through the forest until I wanted to scream with the strain of it. Everyone stayed on high alert despite our exhaustion. Healing Lauren and Rorik had drained me of energy, and I felt just as dead on my feet as everyone else after my troubled sleep last night.
We skirted around the creepy forest we’d traveled through on our way to recruit the Duwende, but other than that, this part of the lightberry tree forest looked the same to me as any other. I wondered how Thressa would find us again, as she still followed Caci’s trail in the hopes of recovering the scrolls, but I honestly had little hope she would recover them. The trail had already sounded difficult to follow when she’d returned the first time. Like the rest of us, she seemed to be struggling with the sense of failure, causing her to persist in the pursuit despite Lyall’s wishes.
If Caci delivered the scrolls to the rest of the Unseelie, they would use what Nolan had translated to their advantage and divorce Elven magic from the other races. All other Fae would suffer another century without their lost magic as their lifespans continued to dwindle. By the next ceremony, many Duwendes, Nixies, Veela, and Kitsune would have died out while Elven lifespans lengthened and their full magical capabilities returned thanks to being tied back to the Tree of Life. There was no use dwelling on that depressing thought.
Struggling against hopelessness, I tried to think of something we had going for us. I recalled Nolan’s tear-streaked face as he informed us of his own failure to find his people. They had gone missing in a most mysterious way. While we were hopeful that other Duwende still survived, Nolan was effectively the last of his kind at the moment, our only hope for a Duwende consort to replenish his people’s magic. Yet the Veela called Nolan oathbreaker for keeping his true motives with the scrolls secret, which didn’t make the path forward any easier. Yet more depressing thoughts.
If there was one thing to be grateful for, it was that none of my Guard had died. Una had lost two of her consorts, bringing her total down to two, while I was up to three — two of whom remained safely in the human realm.
At the thought of them, I felt for the faint bond I shared with Angel and Kenji. It was muffled over so great a distance across time and space, but their steady strength reassured me nonetheless. They no doubt knew something terrible had happened, but I could feel their gratefulness intermingled with their hope and love and worry. They were thankful I was alive.
Though I hadn’t focused on my bond with them during the battle, I had no doubt that they had felt my absolute terror as I fled from Orrin. I couldn’t imagine feeling the same thing from my bonds with them and not heading for the Edge to reunite with them immediately. Fen and Valente most likely prevented them from doing so.
“The Unseelie have control of the Tree, neither Una nor I have enough consorts for the ceremony, and the scrolls are gone,” I said, getting it all out in the open and breaking our miserable silence. “Lyall, where are we headed?”
Several guards looked my way. With his tattooed shoulders bare in the Veela tradition, Rorik glanced at me and then away, still sulking about being under my geas. I stifled my anger, lest it travel along my bonds — Lyall didn’t need more emotional upheaval and it would possibly confuse or further worry Kenji and Angel.
“We must return to the palace tree to get Una the antivenom and so we can properly protect both of you.” Lyall nodded at Roq, Una’s guardleader, as he said this, making me wonder what they’d discussed.
“I see,” I said. I could sense Lyall waiting for my next words along the bond. I considered my words carefully as we continued trudging through the forest, cutting across it in a different way from before, no doubt trying to reach the palace tree as quickly as possible.
Like the other guards, Lyall was dressed in his typical uniform of Fae fabric beneath chainmail armor. Lyall’s clean-shaven face and closely cropped hair gave enemies nothing to hold if they grappled. My guardleader and third consort was every inch a warrior. I could count on him to always put my safety first, even at the cost of my happiness.
“I would like to return to the human realm and…” Aware that Una’s Guard would be listening, I finished, “reunite with my other consorts. The Unseelie won’t expect us to regroup outside the Encante.”
Becoming queen fell to me now, and I knew very well what that entailed. I needed all my consorts by my side, and soon.
To my surprise, Lyall nodded. “I agree, my lady. Dancing between realms will throw off the Unseelie, and Valente and Fen will bring us closer to a full complement of guards.” I could feel his hesitation in the bond, though only a moment passed before he said, “However, first we must return Una to the palace tree and report to the Council.”
I was thankful that, for once, Lyall agreed with me about going back to the human realm.
He took my hand and lowered his voice. “You now have more consorts than Una, Glori. You must think of yourself as our sole heir and act accordingly.”
My insides knotted at his words. My plan had been to allow Una to ascend as queen. It would not have excused me as heir, but at least I would have had another century or more to learn Fae traditions, to immerse myself in the culture, and to better understand their expectations of a queen. If Nolan now became Una’s consort instead of mine, we would each have three. But what then? I doubted Una would be in any mental state to perform the ceremony at the Tree of Life anytime soon. She would have to replace her two lost lovers, and that couldn’t be easy. Although it didn’t require true love, the consort bond did require a true connection to form.
I had no more excuses. We were back to ground zero.
My plan was ruined, probably for good this time, and basically all that was left was the plan Lyall had been working toward all along.
Nolan had been walking along the outskirts of our group, but now he passed by Jovanka to reach my side. A breeze picked up around her as she glared at him.
Nolan’s deep voice broke through my dark thoughts. “Lyall, it’s also imperative to determine if the Council knows anything about the missing Duwende that I don’t. And while you escort Gloriana back to the human realm, I’ll head to the palace library. Perhaps I’ll be able to read the original copies of the scrolls faster now that I’ve translated them once already.”
I didn’t want to widen the rift between us, especially when Nolan might have to become my consort, but we needed to be realistic. “Didn’t it take you decades to translate them the first time?” I tried to keep my tone neutral, but he still flinched at my words.
“Yes, my lady. I can also examine other texts while there. I will explore the palace library to try to learn anything that will give us an edge over the Unseelie.”
What could he possibly learn from the library that would help us? Surely the Council would have already advised us on it, if wisdom were to be found locked in ancient texts.
Sensing my feelings through the bond, Lyall answered for me, not looking at Nolan. “We will decide once we reach the palace tree.”
Rorik glanced over his shoulder at us, his eyes smoldering with anger. “The oathbreaker should not be free to do as he wishes. You swore he would see punishment for his actions.” His hand moved to the hilt of his blade.
Before Lyall could answer, I broke the Veela’s line of sight by moving my tall body in front of Nolan, forcing Rorik’s lavender eyes to meet mine. He glanced away quickly.
If I had any hope of courting Nolan as my consort, we had to start somewhere, so I spoke up on his behalf. “Nolan fought like a Seelie and saved lives on the battlefield.”
“Yet Rorik’s point is well taken,” Lyall said, surprising me. His face was a mask as he spoke loud enough for even Una’s foremost guards to hear. “Nolan is henceforth no longer a member of the Elven Guard, nor eligible to become a member of any other Guard.”
Rorik gave a grunt of approval, but Lyall wasn’t done.
“However, he is not to be treated as an oathbreaker, as he will soon be a royal consort.” Lyall glanced over at Nolan. “As you are the sole remaining Duwende whose location we know, you must be escorted everywhere you go, and you are not to leave the palace tree once we reach it.”
I glanced back to see the troubled expression on Nolan’s face. He ducked his head, avoiding everyone’s gaze. “Yes, guardleader.”
He’d never wanted to become a consort, and now he was little better than a prisoner until he fulfilled this desperate obligation.
Something needed to break the awkward moment, and after another beat I decided it should be me, since no one else seemed to be volunteering. I did my best to sound queenly, something I needed to get used to now. “We will rest at the palace tree overnight.” I chose my words carefully. “Tomorrow we will finalize our plans.”
Along the bond I could feel Lyall’s assent and something more ethereal. Something like… respect? Admiration? Mixed with the usual worry and concern, it was difficult to decipher. My consort, my guardleader, my Elven lover bowed his head to me.
At least now we had a path forward, even if I didn’t know what would happen after that. If we had any hope of avoiding Unseelie dominion, I would need to become queen, and soon. That meant this trip to the human realm might be the last one for awhile, and my heart suddenly ached with missing Merc. The two of us had been thick as thieves for years, but we were quickly approaching a year where I’d barely seen her.
Lyall opened his mouth to say something, but just then, someone blurred in from the periphery. Swords and weapons raised throughout the group. Most still had their weapons unsheathed from the battle, still wary while walking through potential enemy territory.
But it was only Thressa. She bowed at me and Una. “My apologies for startling everyone.”
Lyall tilted his head to Rorik, who reprimanded Thressa. Rorik’s voice rumbled like thunder. “You should not have gone off alone and acted against the guardleader’s orders.”
Thressa answered Rorik while gazing at Lyall. “I was following the guardleader’s previous order, which I mistakenly disobeyed the first time. I sought only to reconcile my mistake.”
I narrowed my eyes at her, suspicious of her explanation. She normally wasn’t so glib or evasive, preferring to be blunt and — to me at least — occasionally offensive, and she’d never disobeyed Lyall before. What really motivated her to do so this time?
Lyall’s irritation bled through the bond and in his rigid stance. “Report.”
“I found no sign of Orrin.”
“And what of Darik and Caci?” Lyall prompted.
“I managed to follow their trail much farther this time and found Darik’s dead body. Caci, however, was nowhere to be found. When her faint trail seemed to head into a nearby hamlet, I came back to report. She’s no doubt finding reinforcements now.”
Her words energized the entire group. Backs straightened and heads swiveled, eyes searching the forest in every direction. We had scouts both ahead and behind us, but Thressa’s words sent a thrill of fear down my spine. And yet… the fact that she’d found Darik’s body and no sign of Caci again didn’t ring quite true to me. From what I’d seen, Caci had fled without a weapon, and she generally let others do the fighting for her. How had she managed to kill Darik, when my geas forced him to give chase while allowing him to defend himself?
“Follow along behind us and report back immediately at first sight of anyone,” Lyall ordered.
“Yes, Guardleader.” Thressa gave a slight nod and blurred back into the forest. Her easy obedience raised my hackles — she was allegedly trying to make up for her mistakes, and yet, she didn’t seem repentant at all.
Everyone kept weapons drawn. Lyall carried his long rapier, while Nolan held a crossbow. Jovanka wielded two axes. Metal knuckledusters graced Rorik’s left fist while he carried a short blade in the other.
Una’s guard also used a mismatched set of weapons. I reflected that this was the strength of the Seelie — the diversity of magical skills and abilities.
“Nolan,” Lyall said, “keep your eyes open for Unseelie masquerading as anyone we know.”
“Of course, guardleader.”
Duwende could see through any Elven glamor as well as Kitsune illusions.
At long last, Lauren reappeared from the front and reported. “We near the palace tree, Guardleader. Shall I announce our presence?”
“Yes, and request an escort of palace guards. We can’t be too careful.”
“And we need the antivenom,” Roq reminded her.
Lauren dipped her head and blurred off into the forest ahead. As unfamiliar as I was with the forests of the Encante, I hardly noticed a difference. Yet somehow Lauren had known our proximity to the palace tree.
We marched on and on until voices rose ahead of us.
“Seelie guards!” someone called, and I recognized the green livery of the palace guards.
Elves surrounded us, and I shrank away, fearing they might be Unseelie despite their livery. One of them handed a small vial of purplish liquid to Roq, which he uncorked and sniffed. A few minutes later, the slower races arrived, and I spotted a Kitsune in their midst, reassuring me that these were, in fact, Seelie.
She raised her arms, saying, “I will put up an illusion that we may travel faster without interruption from others.”
“Thank you,” Lyall said.
Roq hovered over Una, who remained in the cart. “Take this.”
Una’s consort Bryce took the potion from Roq and helped Una drink it while lying down.
“Thank you,” Una murmured, her voice weak and low.
“We have also brought a rickshaw for our heirs to ride in.” The Elf looked down at Una in the cart. “It will be more comfortable, certainly.”
It was a simple two-wheeled contraption, but a bench on the back made for a much better place to ride than any other method of transportation I’d seen in the Encante. I remembered Lyall telling me that the Fae had once ridden griffins and hippogriffs through the skies before those magical beasts died out. Bryce helped Una up, and she gratefully sat on the bench and then beckoned me to sit beside her.
“No, thank you,” I said, still holding Lyall’s hand. I didn’t want to let go. “I’ll let your consorts ride with you.”
Una gave me a weak smile and then beckoned to her consort An. The Kitsune nimbly jumped aboard to sit beside her lover and support her.
A male Elf who seemed to be in charge joined Roq, and together they approached Lyall at my side. The palace guardleader asked questions about the battle, and Lyall and Roq filled him in on the details as I tried not to listen.
But so close to the conversation, I couldn’t help but overhear, especially when my name was mentioned in the retelling. I had seen terrible things happen. I had done terrible things of my own accord. I had killed someone. I had ordered men under my geas to their deaths. No wonder everyone was so touchy about the geas.
My mind stumbled away from that thought, and I focused instead on the lightberries in the branches above us. I counted them as we passed beneath, blanking my mind.
Before I knew it, the palace tree rose in front of us, and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. The mere sight of it made me feel safer. As always, squirrels and chipmunks bustled up and down its bark. Faces stared out from windows cut at regular intervals in the tree’s exterior, but I could tell no one could see us yet, as they stared out in different directions.
“Nolan and I will report to the Council upon our arrival,” Lyall announced so that everyone could hear. “I would also like Thressa and Lauren to join us, as they were the last to see the Unseelie fleeing. Everyone else is dismissed to rest.”
If we could rest. I feared what would happen when I was left to my own devices, alone without any of my consorts nearby to hold my hand. Catching sight of my expression, Erynn offered, “I will join you if you’d like, my lady.”
“I would appreciate the company.”
As we reached the base of the palace tree, I gazed up at its towering branches. Being here again should put me at ease, but wariness seemed to have taken up permanent residence within me. Everything had gone wrong so far. What would be next?
“I would like at least four palace guards with each heir at all times,” Lyall proposed. “They should always be a mixture of races, that they may better use their various strengths to repel the Unseelie if need be.”
“No Unseelie will reach the palace tree,” the palace guardleader swore. “But I will see that it is so.”
Lyall said nothing, but his bond held both concern and conviction. We shared a glance, and I knew exactly what he was thinking. If the Elves guarding the sacred Tree of Life could be turned to Unseelie, any Elf might be.
Don’t miss what happens next
Glori is committed to helping the Fae get their magic back and to reviving the Tree of Life. But will her good intentions be enough to form the consort bond with Nolan and save the Duwende?