A Throne of Ruin (Deliciously Dark Fairytales Book 2)
My heart thudded in my chest as I searched the Forbidden Wood for the beast, the same ground-bound dragon I’d once run from in terror. My animal roiled inside me, stalking him with me. I’d left home hours ago, in late morning, and there was still no sign of Nyfain. Granted, he had a substantial head start, since he’d left my family cottage last night after feeding us sleeping herbs to keep me from following, but I couldn’t shake the fear that I’d stumble upon his broken and bloodied form.
His duty might be to guard the wood, to protect our kingdom’s villages from the creatures the demon king unleashed on us each night, but he was in no shape to play Mr. Hero. It didn’t matter that he was our prince, our only hope of escaping the curse. The tracks I was following only proved he needed time to recover, curse the goddess. They zigzagged on the trail, bumping into a tree here, stomping through thorn bushes over there.
Everlass made for a potent cure, and I’d learned that the leaves of a crowded plant, which could be lethal if used incorrectly, were capable of reversing the effects of poison. Still, it was obvious the elixir I’d given him hadn’t fully restored him. The effects had worn off, and he was in pain.
But he’d refused my request—my order—for him to rest.
The dappled light highlighted a huge splotch of deep red on the ground. My gut twisted as I slowed, panning my gaze over the area. I spotted the extra set of tracks mingled with those of the dragon. These were slender and long, with three toes and an imprint in the dirt that suggested claws. The creature, whatever it was, walked on four feet. It must’ve lunged out from the trees, because its tracks seemed to come from nowhere.
The bark of the closest tree had been abraded by a tough hide. Branches lay on the ground, ripped from the trunk.
This was the third battle scene I’d come across since leaving home. Evidence suggested Nyfain had won the others, but panic still skittered through me as I followed it away right. A large hole had been chopped through dense bushes, Nyfain’s huge dragon form forcing the foliage to make room. Blood smeared the green and streaked the ground. On the other side, I heaved a shuddering sigh.
A strange creature with oily, grayish scales lay twisted, its back broken and its head torn off. Nyfain’s tracks led away, heavy and clumsy. Blood splattered the ground. He’d taken damage.
I could feel my animal holding her breath. Pain and sadness radiated from her, the effect of Nyfain’s dragon ripping away our connection to them. Nyfain hadn’t said why, other than that he wished to grant us freedom. She was just as terrified to find a broken dragon at the end of this trail as I was.
Nyfain’s mouth-watering smell of pine and lilac tinged with honeysuckle dusted some bushes. His tracks led left now, not going toward the castle. Stubborn man that he was, he’d been looking for more creatures to dispatch.
After another hour and more blood splatter, I saw that he’d found one. A large biped with small arms and a large jaw. It had its stomach ripped out. Even more blood led away from this battle.
I don’t like this, my animal said as we took in the scents and followed the tracks. He lost too much blood.
As a man, yes. But his dragon is big. Maybe if he just stays in beast form until he heals it’ll be okay?
She didn’t answer. She probably didn’t know, since I’d never shifted. The same curse that haunted these woods had sickened the villagers throughout the kingdom, paused time at the royal castle, and, perhaps worst of all, prevented our people from shifting as nature intended. As far as I knew, only one person still could—Nyfain—although it had cost him dearly. His dragon’s wings had been shorn off.
I could hear my animal’s thoughts, feel her emotions, and use her primal senses, but that was where it stopped.
We wound deep into the wood, the gnarled trees bent and twisted, much like the dead bodies of the demon creatures that had been set loose last night. Scraggly bushes reached across the path, some of them stomped and broken from Nyfain coming through. I didn’t even need to follow his tracks now, just had to watch for the crimson droplets that announced his passage.
A bird chittered in the treetops, answered by another. A small rodent scrabbled out of the way. My connection with my animal had also increased my sense of hearing. Not much farther and I heard voices, a man and a woman talking.
I hefted the dagger I held, content to keep the pocketknife stowed, and crept closer, staying behind a wall of browning and crackled greenery. My animal plucked smells out of the air, analyzing them as we made our way. Clean smells, like laundry and lavender soap, layered over the more pungent scents of sweat and blood.
I stopped behind the large trunk of a hollowed-out tree and peered around. Two people stood in a clearing beside what looked like a station for field dressings—a table stacked with gauze, a box with a red plus sign, and various instruments I hadn’t seen before. A stretcher sat at their feet, the white material stretched between the two poles stained crimson.
The middle-aged woman stood with perfect posture, her shoulders thrown back and head held high. A blue dress made of fine fabric hugged her trim frame, and a white apron was cinched around her middle. Her bearing suggested someone highborn, and the delicate way she gestured when speaking screamed of cultivation. The man opposite her was a bit younger, with smooth gray trousers, a white button-up shirt, and hair with a perfect part down the side. Like her, he had an air of refinement.
I remembered hearing that Nyfain met with villagers within the wood. The butler, Hadriel, had thought they were all men, but Hadriel openly admitted he was terrible at his job.
The bloody stretcher was empty, its occupant gone, and although Nyfain’s scent lingered, it wasn’t fresh.
Taking a deep breath, hands tight around the hilt of the dagger, I stepped out from my hiding place and into clear view.
The couple didn’t notice me at first, their voices low and still indistinguishable. It was like they expected creatures with expert hearing to be passing by. I made it halfway to them before the woman finally glanced over.
She startled, her mouth forming an O and her fingertips dusting across her chest. The man snapped his head toward me, very slow on the uptake. A demonic creature would’ve made short work of this pair.
I stopped where I was as the woman recovered from her surprise. Her gaze slipped down my front, taking in my pants, my dirty top, and finally the dagger in my hand.
“My goodness,” she murmured, glancing at her companion. “She looks positively wild.”
The man did the same sweep, but his conclusions were clearly different. His eyes lit up, and a little grin played on his lips. He stepped forward, his gaze dipping to my chest before roaming my face.
“You must be Finley,” the man said. “Quite the beauty. He said you would come.”
My heart lurched. “Nyfain?” I asked. “Is he okay?”
The woman’s brows knitted in disapproval. “You are to address him as—”
“Not now, Claryssa.” The man waved her away, continuing to close the space between him and me. “Yes. He followed a warbler to the edge of our village. Just…” He turned and pointed west. “Just beyond those trees and down a ways. We rushed out to help, but he’d downed the creature by the time we made it to him. He was in bad shape. We brought him here, away from demon eyes, to patch him up.”
“And you did?” I asked. “He’s okay?”
“What village are you from, girl?” Claryssa asked, walking closer. Her pinched expression said she expected me to smell.
I ignored her, my gaze rooted to the man.
“As best we could,” he said. “We carried him to the edge of the Royal Wood nearest the castle.” He turned and glanced down at the stretcher. “He’ll make it. He’s made of sturdy stuff. You have no need to worry.” He paused for a moment. “But you are, though, right? You are worried about him?”
I frowned at the eagerness in his question. This meeting was starting to get weird.
“Did you tell him to stay in tonight?” I took a step away. “He needs rest.”
“How presumptuous,” the woman scoffed. “He is the prince. You will remember his station and address him as such, girl.”
The man shot a look of annoyance at Claryssa. A placating smile took its place as his attention returned to me. “He has a duty to this wood. To his people. He’ll insist on clearing the wood again tonight. No one can make him do something he doesn’t want to. But have no fear—the first couple of nights after a full moon are the worst. The number of demon creatures loosed in the wood will diminish until after the next full moon.”
“You’re sure you got him safely to the castle?”
“Yes. He’ll be quite safe. I have seen him worse, and yet he trudges on. Ever our courageous protector.”
I blew out a breath and stepped farther away. The man continued to watch me, a strange gleam to his eyes, like a starving man looking at a plate of dinner. The woman analyzed me as well, disapproval in every line on her face.
“Great, thanks.” I attempted a half-smile, didn’t even remotely pull it off, and about-faced. They wouldn’t be pointing me toward Nyfain, it seemed. At least they’d seen to his wounds. Granted, if he could just take a night or two off, he wouldn’t need to be patched up in the first place.
I slipped through the bushes and behind the trees, out of sight. Once I knew I was alone, I paused for a moment.
Could I trust those people? They could’ve been anyone. They didn’t smell like demons, but that didn’t mean they weren’t working for them. Who knew what the demon king was capable of? He could easily have the villagers on his payroll. If my village was any indication, the people in our kingdom were hungry and scared—they’d take a helping hand wherever they could get it.
However, Nyfain had clearly allowed himself to be doctored. He must’ve trusted them somewhat.
I started jogging in the direction of the castle, cutting over a bit after passing the location of those people. It didn’t take me long to hook up with his scent, leading through the trees. Three sets of boot prints lined the way, two people carrying a stretcher, and someone moving alongside them to tend the patient. And then, exactly where I’d expect based on their information, I found a little bloody patch next to a few tracks of bare feet in the earth, followed by dragon tracks leading toward the castle.
They hadn’t been lying after all.
I sagged and leaned against a tree while looking up at that majestic castle. What must it have been like in its heyday, when the grounds were alive and tended, nobles walked around in their finery, and dragons glided through the air? That must’ve been a real sight.
Go to him, my animal pleaded, relishing in his scent. Desperate to keep following it. He’ll be happy to see us. You heard that man. He expected us to follow.
He’ll be mad as hell. He wanted to cut ties, or what do you think it means when someone drugs you to sleep, severs your connection, and leaves the equivalent of a breakup note?
He’ll be in a rage at first, sure, but it’ll turn to passion, just you watch.
Sure, passion immediately followed by regret and gruff barks not to touch him again. We’d been down that road. There was nothing for us there. Nyfain and his animal might want us, but they didn’t want to want us.
Time to go home.
This was for the best.
As I turned, my animal fought for control. Fire blistered through my body, boiling my blood, and a shock wave of power blasted out of her, out of me. It was her cry for him. Her misery at them severing the connection.
This is not the way to act in a pseudo-breakup, I said, wrestling her. This is the way crazy girls act. Ask me how I know!
How do you know?
Because I’ve taken this road before, and it just makes a person look like a fool. Let it go! It’s for the best.
It doesn’t feel like it’s for the best, she cried.
It was never going to work. Now it’s over. We move on. We have things to do.
She kept grumbling, but once I regained control, I pushed her away. I needed to maintain a hard grip on logic. Because yes, I did want to flail and cry and run to him. I wanted us to fight and argue and fuck. I wanted to bask in his strength and power, and quake in fear and excitement from his imposing presence. The prince was like a crowded everlass plant, lethal and potent and unbearable in almost all situations…except for the one that would save your life.
But it wasn’t my life that needed saving—it was his. It was this kingdom’s. He needed to focus on that, not on this strange push-pull he felt with a foul-mouthed commoner.
A hollow feeling permeated my middle, but I ignored that, too.
I walked home, thinking about Nyfain and crowded everlass plants. Thinking of ways to cure the villages of the plague, thus giving Nyfain more time to break the curse. We didn’t have to be together to work together. Just like we didn’t have to get along to feel the rush of each other’s kiss…which I probably shouldn’t be thinking about either.
Letting go of him might be a little trickier than I’d thought…