Home > Among the Beasts & Briars(12)

Among the Beasts & Briars(12)
Author: Ashley Poston

At the edge of the house, I peeked in through the farthest window.

Seren looked a little worse for wear, his black cloak and armor scuffed and torn by the thorns and briars I had hoped would trap him. His face looked gaunt now, with hollow dark circles under his pitch-black eyes.

He also looked very, very angry.

He snapped his sharp teeth together, so loudly I heard it from where we crouched, and whirled back to the bear. “Where is she?”

“We have to go,” whispered Fox beside me.

“He’ll see us. . . .”

“Then we’ll run. We can’t stay here. Voryn, you said, right? We have to make it to Voryn.”

I shook my head. “But I don’t know the way.”

“I think I do,” he replied, and grabbed my hand in his, and waited a moment longer as Seren disappeared into one of the other dilapidated rooms, looking for me. “Now—”

But before we could so much as move, there was a sudden piercing howl, and three bone-eaters lurched out into the clearing. The mist curled around them. Seren spun out of the back room and stalked out of the cottage. The bone-eater with golden hair slunk forward, snapping her teeth together, and flanking her were two others, deep rumbles in their throats.

“Anwen,” I gasped. It was finally sinking in that she truly was a bone-eater. That the Wildwood had come into our garden and had changed everything. I had to save her. I had to help her—

Seren jerked his head toward me, but Fox had already pulled me down below the window.

Shit. Of all the times for me to lose my head, it had to be now.

He saw me. I know he did, because we locked eyes. He knew I was here. My heart hammered in my chest a hundred miles a minute; I tried to think of how we could run away and not have them follow. The fog was so thick, we’d get lost in it the second we tried to run, but I didn’t know if those bone-eaters had any trouble in the mist. It came with them, so I would guess not.

We were at a severe disadvantage.

I was just a royal gardener’s daughter. I wasn’t supposed to go on quests like this. I was supposed to stay home, and prune the wisterias, and live my life through the stories I heard. I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t the right person. I wasn’t destined for this—

Fox gently took my injured hand, and began to unwrap the makeshift bandage. I pulled my hand away. “What’re you doing?”

“Making a distraction,” he replied, and held his hand out.

I didn’t know what he was thinking, but I unwrapped my hand and handed him my bloodied, wet bandage. He ripped it in two with his teeth and wrapped one half around a sharp stick he found on the ground. Almost instantly, the stick began to lengthen and sprout twigs, leaves flowering into little white dogwood buds.

Then he stood, turned the corner of the cottage, and threw the stick behind him. It spiraled through the air and embedded deep into Seren’s shoulder. The limb burst to life, growing into a thick and snarling branch. Seren gave a cry, clawing to pull it out, as roots burrowed into his shoulder.

The bone-eater that was once Anwen shrieked and whirled to us.

“BEAR!” Fox shouted, pulling me to my feet.

Suddenly, the bear charged out of the cottage, knocking Seren off his feet as she went straight for us. Fox grabbed me by the middle and tossed me onto the bear’s back, then climbed up after me.

I glanced back at Anwen, at the cottage, but my gaze found Seren’s lifeless black eyes as the bear carried us into the fog—and suddenly I felt myself being pulled, as if by a fishhook in my stomach, down into the darkness of his gaze.

There was no light there. It was suffocating, and it was terrifying—

The bone-eaters gave chase.

As we rode by a rather small hybrid poplar—one of the fastest-growing trees in the wood—Fox caught a limb with the other side of my bloodied gauze. Almost instantly, the tree burst from the ground, rushing up in a wave of bark and limbs and triangular leaves.

The bear turned and broke into a gallop deeper into the dark wood. In the clearing behind us, there were even more trees than just a moment before, so dense I couldn’t see the cottage anymore. The night was loud, and the wood was angry.

I could barely hold on, my hands beginning to grow numb from how hard I gripped her fur. Fox reached his wiry arms around me to get a better grip of the bear, and also so I wouldn’t fall off. I closed my eyes and pressed my face into the bear’s fur. I couldn’t get the images of Seren, dead but walking, and Anwen, a golden-haired bone monster, out of my head. They replayed, over and over, behind my eyelids like a moving portrait.

Lightning streaked across the skies like white cracks in the heavens, turning the clouds overhead purple for a moment, and then dark again. And then, as a rumble of thunder shook the trees, it began to rain. At first slow, one drop at a time, and then a curtain of water fell across the wood and drenched us in moments.

Still, the bear kept running.

We found a river in the rain, black water rushing downstream with a vicious current. I thought we would stop there, but the bear didn’t even pause. And she didn’t slow for an hour at least, when the fog began to lift and the rain began to clear. Before I knew it, gray morning light leaked into the sky and slowly turned it pink, and then blue. The storm clouds had disappeared, but so had everything that I thought I knew. Gone were the broad green trees I had studied my entire life, slowly replaced by large and dark pines, their needles little more than slivers of gray, woven around one another in intricate knots.

Fox patted the creature on the back of her head. “Hey, bear, let us off.”

She grunted and slowed to a stop. In the sunlight, her fur glittered like spun silver. I wondered what kind of bear she was—she didn’t look like any of the ones the late King Merrick had killed and stuffed and put into his great hall. Those were all brown or black bears, and none of them were as large as she, and certainly couldn’t run all night with two grown people on their back.

We stopped for a little while by a river. I wrung out my hair and tried to wash the mud and dirt from my skin. My hands were still shaking, and the bite on my hand smarted whenever I flexed my fingers.

“I can go see if I can find some yarrow,” Fox said, noticing how gingerly I moved my hand.

I quickly hid it behind my back. “It’s fine.”

Even so, he tore off a part of the bottom of his shirt with his strangely sharp teeth and took my hand from behind my back. “I know you better than that,” he replied as he wrapped my wounded hand. “When we finally stop, I’ll see if I can find some.”

“Thanks—and, um, that was quick thinking back there. With my old bandage.”

He gave a one-shouldered shrug as he tucked in the excess strip of cloth. “I just didn’t want to die, Daisy. Simple as that. You could’ve done it, too.”

“I’m just a gardener’s daughter—”

“With weird magic in your blood,” he interrupted me, as if he needed to remind me. Which, I guessed, in the moment, he did. “Magic that, it seems, has only gotten stronger since we entered the wood.”

I looked away, properly embarrassed. I hadn’t noticed, but now that he mentioned it—it was stronger here. “. . . Right.”

“The bear told us to follow her up the river.” He nodded to the bear, who was bending for a drink. “She knows how to get to Voryn.”

“I thought you said you knew.”

“Well, I will. Once I ask her.”

“So you can understand her?”

To that, he flashed a smile, all white canines and charm. “I am an animal.”

Well, I wasn’t about to point out that he wasn’t quite an animal anymore, but that would’ve rubbed salt in an already salty wound. So instead I asked, “What’s her name, then?”

He cocked his head, as if listening. “Vala,” he finally said, and so we followed Vala up the twisting river, deep into the wood that had already taken so much from me.

12

An Ancient Burden

Fox

I STUCK OUT my tongue, but it did nothing to cool me down.

The sun beat down from directly overhead like an oven. The few animals we did see were deer and rabbits—out to drink by the river. Which was a good sign. When they disappear, it means something worse is about. Though I couldn’t think any self-respecting monster would be out in this sort of heat. It was hot and muggy, and I kept tugging at the collar of my shirt to try to get cooler. The shirt stuck to me, and my trousers were uncomfortable, and I had abandoned my boots miles back. Human bodies were weird. I was sweating—that I did not like one bit. It was wet and gross, and I hardly ever allowed myself to get wet. Or gross. I couldn’t remember the last time I actually bathed, and I felt every particle of dirt on me, and I hated it.

I hated all of it.

Daisy had pinned her hair up behind her head, wisps of curly hair falling against the back of her neck, and there was a small, dark patch of skin I had never noticed before—almost like a birthmark or a scar.

“When did you get that?” I asked.

She glanced back at me, the water rushing around her feet. She had taken off her shoes, too, but she kept hers in her hands as she waded in the shallows of the river. She touched the spot on the back of her neck with her free hand, knowing what I was talking about without having to ask. “It was where my woodcurse started,” she said after a moment.

“You . . . were woodcursed?”

“Yes, but for some reason it didn’t take. I don’t know why.” She looked down uncomfortably, then nudged her head up the river. “Are you sure we’re still heading the right way? Voryn is north, but this river keeps inching east, I think?”

I glanced up in the direction the river came from. One of the few things that hadn’t changed was my eyesight—at least, the important bits. There was a shadow, soft and subtle, at the edge of my line of sight, and the shadow darkened as I looked toward where the river came. “Yeah, it’s the right way.”

She gave me a peculiar look. “How do you know?”

   
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