“Foolish little Crow, you’ve unleashed the darkness onto these Golden Lands.”
Solas’ words echoed into the night and pushed me from the dead king and burning kingdom of those who had caged me. Behind us, the Golden Court trembled under the cruel touch of a long-caged hell released from its belly. They would be the last court to Take me—a promise I made to myself when I’d struck the match on my way out of the dungeons that had once held me. Setting it to burn had lit a fire within my soul.
A certainty fell over me as I ran. I wasn’t afraid to die for freedom or what it would take to keep it. My fear rested in living, of being forced inside another prison and never tasting a choice that was my own. If Elphame had taught me anything, it was that nothing was free—not for Fae and not for a Crow on the run with a gnome and a fairy. And as we ran from Alfheim, I knew I’d pay for what I had done.
The Golden Forest plunged us into ominous darkness. The moon above and the carnage we left behind roused creatures, and the curious, rapacious beasts crawled out of their lairs, awoken by the smell of blood in the air, the promise of flesh and their duty to protect their cursed court. I muffled my screams, caught them in my throat and saved them for later, but I still jumped and twitched with each new squall and bloodcurdling cry that echoed through the forest and crawled up my spine. I watched as the trees came alive, transforming into a lethal playground. Whenever something bravely approached us, readying for a feast of traitors, they would be taken by something scarier, snatched off the ground and torn up through the treetops and into the sky above.
The lands around Alfheim, where no one freely ventured, were the deadliest. It was their first defense against invaders, and we willingly ran through them, through the monsters too fearsome and hideous to invite out of the shadows. I could feel them slowly pressing in around us, but I didn’t stop running. I couldn’t. The choices were to be eaten on the run or be caught and dragged back. I’d sooner become the next meal of a creature than ever step foot back into the Golden Manor. I could think of a dozen worse ways to die within the Golden Court, none of them as merciful as ending in the belly of a beast.
Tree branches grabbed at me, igniting my fear of being found. The limbs stretched out in front of me, blinding me to my way. The forest closed around us, forming a cavern of distorted arms and legs that reached for me as I passed. As I stumbled and staggered, tripped and skinned layers from my pants and soon, my bare knees, I didn’t stop running. Running was the only power I had that was my own, the only thing that would grant me the remotest of chances. I turned the pain and fear and the months of becoming one of them—one of the hideous beasts of the courts—into fuel. I left that person behind—the monster—and ran from her as much as I ran from the court that helped create her.
Pain clamped my chest like a deadly vise, and my lungs begged me to slow. My legs felt like rubber after miles of jogging at a constant pace. I swallowed down selfish breaths of air, never getting enough. But not even my starving lungs caused me to stop. Each time I fell, Nix was there, pushing and pulling until I got back up. The fear on his face drove me to stand each time. My feet dragged noisily on the carpet of moss and leaves and kicked up an easily trackable route. I hadn’t been worried about hiding my footprints, for it wasn’t mere mortals who would be hunting us.
“Close, Perdi—almost at the border,” Nix whispered from my side.
“Thank God,” I groaned. Despite my weak state, I curled my mouth into a smile. We approached the border, and the realization that I had actually escaped the Golden Court finally struck me.
We were stopped twice before we were free of the Golden Court. Both times, those who had found us let us go, for no other reason than what we had done for two dozen prisoners. The creature I had freed from the muck had spread the word of what we had accomplished. We had risked our lives to save those who were weaker, and for that, they would say they hadn’t see us. I took the freedom but left the gratitude behind. I didn’t want to be a hero, but I didn’t want to be a prisoner, either.
We climbed over a rock wall and landed on the other side—the Summer Court. The pace slowed, but the danger was not over and wouldn’t be for several days. Yet, I still felt smug about my small win. I was free from the clutches of King Aelfdene and his court of subjects, those who were mirrors of their leader. Once we crossed out of Golden Territory, I breathed a little deeper. The stench of flowers was almost gone, along with the tightness in my chest. I hadn’t realized how putrid the air had been until I took my first deep breath of something other than funerals.
The heat never changed as we crossed the border from the Golden Court—the capital of the Seelie Courts—into the Summer Court. The only difference was the cool breeze, and the stench of floral arrangements had almost disappeared. The grass was green but sunbaked in areas. The trees blossomed in brilliance but lacked the magick of the Golden Court. Where King Aelfdene forced perfection, the Summer Court allowed its natural flaws, and that’s what made it beautiful. The broken flowers, too heavy to hold their heads high, its mud and rocks and ugly barked trees had made it feel more like home than the Golden Court ever could. The reality of my freedom sank in as I pressed my hands into the rough tree. I was free. Even if it didn’t last, it was still worth it.
“We need shelter,” I said through my gritted teeth. My legs began to shake and cramp. I was tired, scared, cold and hungry. “I’m not feeling too good here.”
“We need to keep going. We can’t stop, not yet,” Nix called back. “We need to get away from the estate of the Summer King, Morrow. To save his court, he’ll send us back.”
I cursed under my breath. “I’m not Fae. I can’t keep going.” My body tingled. I had used up all my magick and energy to get as far as I had, and there was nothing left in me to give.
“Just a little farther… We can stay in one of the fox dens up ahead.” He compromised once he saw me crawling through the dirt on my hands and knees.
I slinked on all fours, too tired to stand. I bargained with the gods and goddesses for just a bit more energy to make it to shelter. They hadn’t ever heard my prayers before, but today they might just think it was funny enough to let me live. Nix walked at my side and griped that he wasn’t big enough to carry me. He said he was strong enough, but my weight wouldn’t be balanced and I’d collapse around him, pinning him beneath me. The thought made me laugh.
“We’re here,” he announced and pointed to a dark hole in the ground at the base of a tree. “You rest, and I’ll find food.”
He didn’t need to convince me to climb in. I maneuvered my body into the mouth of the den and scooted in feet first in case something was in there that needed a kick. Inside the dirt mound was a twenty-by-twenty room carved out of the earth by claws too big to think about. It was large enough for me to stand, jump up and not touch the ceiling.
“You probably don’t want to see what an Elphame fox looks like,” he said, to my surprise.
“What are the chances that it’ll come home tonight?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I wish I could say zero, but the odds are extremely low. Mating season is here. They move up the mountain to find a mate. They’ll remain there until they need to give birth. Then, they’ll come home. We won’t want to be anywhere near here when they’re ready to birth.”
“And what exactly do I do if it comes back and you’re not here?”
He laughed. “It won’t matter if I’m here or not. We’ll all three be dead, one after the other.”
“I don’t know why I expected anything less than death,” I replied.
Nix went to forage, and my creature hovered at the entrance, keeping guard. The shadows in the crevices eased my weary bones, and when they moved, I relaxed. I picked a spot on the straw in the corner and closed my eyes. The ground was cold, as was my body. I shivered until the familiar warmth of darkness settled over me, and for once since coming to Elphame, I thought I had a good chance of surviving. I wasn’t scared. I was free. It didn’t matter to me how long I remained free, as long as I died that way. With a sigh that vibrated against the dark, I slept deeply, sleeping to the hum of dozens of soft voices.
For three hours, not even the gods, who ignored me at a constant, could have woken me from my slumber. Not even Nix or my creature could get through the shadows to wake me. Each time they tried, they hit a solid mass of black. When I woke and crawled from inside my cocoon, the shadows were gone as quickly as they had come. Nix was pacing and had marched a dent into the earth in front of my makeshift bed.
“Do you know what that is?” Nix yelled at me. My creature sat on his shoulder, shrilling words I couldn’t understand.
“The dark?” I asked.
“Yes, the dark. The mist. The bloody brick wall of shadows that I couldn’t get through. Do you know what that is?” he asked again.
“No, not really,” I answered. “They came to me when I first got to the Golden Court, then again when I was being lashed. They’ve been coming around since my first day. They helped me bring down the stone wall in the basement of the Golden Court.”
“They are what our nightmares are about. We don’t need any more nightmares, Perdi.”
I knelt beside his mound of food and ate. I was starving. I stuffed my mouth full of berries and roots, leaves and fruits. Nix had refilled our canteens with fresh spring water, and it tasted like liquid gold. After filling my stomach, I leaned against the wall and smiled. I had eaten some of the best meals that all Elphame could provide, but this was the finest I had eaten in all my life.
“I couldn’t get to you. Neither of us could. I couldn’t smell you anymore. I couldn’t feel you.” He sat on my knee and hung his head. “It scared me. I didn’t know what to do.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Solas was able to get to me before,” I answered.
“Solas can reach into hell and pluck the wings off a demon,” Nix replied. “You need to stop calling to them.”
“I’m not calling them. They just come.”
“You are calling them. You just don’t realize it. The darkness has only answered to one, and you don’t want him coming on the fires of hell next time. Perdi, he is feared by all, and we released him. He eats the souls of all. Do not call on his shadows, lest you wish him to follow them back to you.”
“Who?” I asked. “Solas?”
Nix shook his head. His eyes darted from corner to corner. “No. Not even I will say his name in the dark. He is made of shadows and stolen souls, and you just busted him out of his prison. Just stop, okay?”
“What’s the plan for today?” I asked, and he let me change the subject.
“Same as yesterday. More running, hiding, fear, the usual.” Nix jumped off my knee and began to pack up our gear. “Perdi, we have to get to the Court of Less.”
“I saw Solas in the hall before I killed the king. He told me to go to the Courtless Lands. That it was the only place where I won’t be hunted.”
“It’s the only place the other kings will not venture and live,” he replied.
“Besides Solas,” I countered. “Something tells me he goes wherever the hell he wants.”
“Well, there’s that.” Nix laughed.
“I freed his people, didn’t I? Doesn’t that buy us something? Won’t they help me?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Don’t count on it. And for the record, of those locked in the dungeon, not all of them belonged to Solas. What you freed—what terrifies us all—answers to no one, and you let it go without asking a favor in return, a payment for their freedom. He gave us a head start, as promised. Now he doesn’t owe you anything.”
“Great, let’s add them to the list of people to run away from.”
“Perdi, there is no list. We simply run from everyone, regardless of who they are. No lies or pretending, it doesn’t matter who it is. We run from them until we get to the Court of Less.”
“Remember all those survival classes they made us take growing up? Years of training on how to protect ourselves if ever we were Taken, and I can’t wait to tell them it’s a gigantic waste of time,” I half joked. “Nothing I’ve learned has come in handy. Why would I build a fire and signal to all Elphame where I am?”
“It is to keep you warm so you don’t freeze to death. The fire isn’t what will show Fae where you are, Perdi. They can smell you long before they’d see the smoke.”
“That’s not very comforting,” I muttered.
“It wasn’t meant to be,” he replied. “Least comforting of all is they will know where we’re headed. It’s where everyone goes who is on the run. Courtless Lands are the only safe haven. Fire, no fire, smell or not, they’ll know that is where we’re going. If they were smart, they’d just wait for us at the border.”
We finished our lunch, and my little creature lifted a small leaf of paste for the cuts on my hands. Once it touched my wounds, the burning stopped and brought a sigh of relief. She fluttered in and out of the den, bringing back plants and seeds, which I wrapped up and stuffed into my bag for her.
“I’m sorry, Nix,” I whispered.
“It’s okay. Just leave the dark alone,” he answered.
“No, I mean, for everything. I’m sorry I brought you back here and for subjecting you to that awful place.” My eyes watered and my nose tingled. My tears were close to falling. “I didn’t think of how all this would affect you or hurt you. I’m so sorry you’re in this mess. I’m sorry you had to watch all of that happen and be powerless to stop it.”
He climbed onto my crossed legs. “You didn’t drag me here. I choose to come. You didn’t subject me to anything. They did. Do not take responsibility for them, don’t ever do that.”
I nodded and wiped away the few tears that had escaped. “I know it may sound bad, but I’m thankful you’re with me.”
“Me, too. But the next time you plan to kill a king, let me know first. I’ll be a little more prepared.” He laughed. “I was in my sleeping gown, for God’s sake. What possessed you to kill him, anyway? That was a pretty provocative move, even for you. We spent months building your lies, and in a hot minute, you made your final move.”
“I bet no one saw that coming,” I joked.
“Not even I did.”
“Every single night, I could hear them scream. After the banquets, the parties, the dinners, Aelfdene would pick one woman, sometimes barely of age, and would force her into his bedchamber. He’d drag them down the halls by their hair. I’d hear them begging for help, followed by him laughing. They were just meat to him.” I cringed at the memories of their cries, their pain and my own inaction. “I was always too scared to help. I was terrified he would pick me to replace them. I didn’t want to take their place in his bed. I just wanted it to stop. I wanted him to stop. I needed to know he’d never do it again. The only way I could guarantee he’d stop was to kill him.”
“Do you regret it?” he asked.
“No. Not even if I die because of it,” I answered. “I’d do it again, only slower.”
“He needed to die, Perdi.” Nix patted my hand. My creature nodded.
“Yes, he did. Elphame is a better place without him.”
“Let’s hope the son who takes his throne doesn’t revel in the same delights. I’d hate to have to return for you to kill him, too. It’s a long journey back.” He grinned. “It’s time to go.”
I pulled on my pack and started to climb from the den into the light. I much preferred the darkness, where I could hide. I followed him out of our false safety and back into the hunt for a Crow.
This time, we were walking and not running. I was thankful for the slower pace. My body needed the break. My wounds required time to scab. We stayed undercover and stopped when we heard the faintest of noises. Nix ran up ahead every so often and returned to tell us it was a bird or an animal or something to avoid. My creature zipped in and out of the trees, her wings as fast as a hummingbird’s. At times, Nix would make us go back and find a different route, either because he had run across a farm with Fae in the field or because the animal was big enough to eat us. Other times, he would march us past a farm and farmers with bushels of food, a thank you for what we did. Nix had said the news had spread across all Elphame and likely into the mortal realm. A Crow had escaped with all the prisoners and killed a king who was feared by all on her way out.
“A Crow, a gnome, a creature and a slave escaped the Golden Court and freed everyone along the way.” He was proud of himself. “I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. If it weren’t an immediate death sentence, I’d be shouting it from the rooftops.”
“I certainly hope everyone is as happy about this as you are,” I answered back and threw my apple core into the bushes. I stopped in my tracks. My apple hit something with a thud and a scurry. “Nix, we’re being followed.”
“Like I wouldn’t notice? Nothing escapes the nose of a gnome. Give me some credit here. They’re with her.” He pointed his thumb to my creature. He jumped down from my shoulder and whistled. From every branch and fallen tree, small creatures came out from their hiding spots. “They travel in packs. They’ve never been too far away. But in the Golden Court, they’d have been killed, so they waited in the trees.”
“They’re so cute—terrifying, but cute.” I laughed as I was swarmed. The joy I found in my laughter surprised me. It felt like a lifetime had passed since I laughed with the full force of my soul.
“You can’t keep them, Perdi,” he teased. “One is bad enough, and she’s a pain.”
For the next three hours of walking, the creatures didn’t hide, but mine was the only one who rode on my shoulder. Her shrills, from her perch, sent the group up and down, left and right. She commanded them, tucked into my hair, warm from my body. When one strayed, she would grab them, scold them and come back to me. She was scary when she wanted to be, and not many of her people tested her patience. I likely wouldn’t, either.
Nix told me stories of the Summer Court, ruled by King Morrow. He was as cruel as the next but wasn’t feared for his dungeons or his taking of the unwilling. He was known for being vicious in war and protective of his people and family. The smallest slight was war, plain and simple. I could respect his ruthlessness. If he wasn’t willing to do what it took to keep his people or family safe, no one else here would. His territory spread along the entire bottom of the Seelie Court, and there was no way around it. It edged the river that was used to bring me to the Golden Court on the barge of the dead. It was the river that separated the Seelie Court from the Unseelie, with the Courtless Land spanning the top.
“How do we get over the water?” I asked. “I’m not getting in it. I know that much.”
“I’m not getting in the water, either. What a waste of a trip this would be, only to be eaten,” he answered. “That’s not even our biggest problem. We have to get to the water first. The grounds won’t be as deserted as they were on your arrival.”
“Naturally,” I grumbled under my breath.
“Perdi, we’ve come this far. We can do this. When we get to the water—and we will—there are a few bridges, and if the barge is there, I can bargain for transportation.”
“I wish I had your confidence.” I smiled weakly.
“If we were in the Court of Blood and Bones or the Court of Shadows, I would be more concerned about trying to sneak around. But once you’ve been to those two courts, this isn’t nearly as scary. The first one, no one has ever made it back out of. The second, without an invite, is a quick death, no questions.”
As the night sucked the sun from the sky, we took refuge in an old cabin no bigger than my old bedroom in Whitwick, that looked much like the abandoned cabins in the hills back home. I tried to ward the doors and windows, but each time I did, the creatures and Nix would be dragged outside by a wind of my making. There were too many cracks and crevices for my spell to work and not bounce wildly around, seeking something to grip. Nix tried to tell me to keep the wards and they’d sleep outside, but I couldn’t risk them. If my friends died because of me—by weather, creature or Fae, when I could have given them a better chance at surviving—I’d hate myself. I wouldn’t separate us. We were stronger together, no matter how big any of us were or weren’t. In Elphame, size was not a deciding factor.
Together, we hunkered down in the farthest corner, under old and musty blankets that smelled of years of weather and animals. Together, I felt tougher, like we could take on whatever came through the door or walls. I tucked Nix and my creature into my jacket for warmth and willed my bones and muscles to relax. As hard as I tried, my muscles remained flexed, ready to bolt from danger.
“I feel strange here…like every nerve is alive.” I twisted around. I felt antsy and restless.
“It’s Elphame. You’re feeling the constant thrum of energy and magick. The longer you’re here, the more like here you’ll become.”
“I don’t want to become Fae.”
“Elphame doesn’t really care much for what you want, Perdi. It’s what happens to mortals of Fae blood who come here.”
Another reason to hate the place was added to my list, which had grown into a book.
“Do you think we’ll make it?” I asked, fearing the answer. “No lies.”
“I hope so,” he finally answered as if he’d weighed our options first. “If we don’t, we died free, and there’s no better death than a free one.”
“Solas will find me. I can feel it. I can hear them, his people. I can hear the flap of their wings, their groans rolling across the clouds. They’re not far from here.” I said what we all knew and didn’t want to acknowledge. “I can smell him on the wind from their wings.”
“As do I. Together, they are the very darkness that haunts Elphame.”
“How do I kill the darkness?” I whispered in fear that they’d hear me.
“You can’t. You just hide.”
“If Solas controls the Sluagh, why didn’t I see any of them at court, protecting him?”
“They’re always a few steps behind him and would have rained down like fire from the sun had Solas needed help. But he doesn’t need help or protection. He’s a force on his own.”
I nodded. “If I’m caught, will they kill me for what I did to the king?”
He popped his head out of my sweater and hugged me as best he could. “Yes. No. I don’t know. They’ll either want your head or sentence you to prison. You killed their king, Perdi. How else should they respond? To do nothing would show weakness. As you’ve learned, weakness is not an affordable commodity in Elphame. But honestly, no Crow has ever had the gumption to attack a Royal, let alone kill one. Though I’m sure they’ll be adding that to the next negotiations.”
“I’m not that brave. I was terrified to my core.”
He kissed my nose. “Yes, you are. Bravery doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It means you still rise to the occasion. And as it turns out, sometimes that occasion is killing a king.”
“You’ve read too many mortal books, Nix,” I replied, my small laugh quieting into a yawn. “I killed someone. I’ve never killed someone with my bare hands.”
“You should rest, Perdi. Don’t think about things you can’t change or things you don’t want to change.” He slunk back down into my sweater. “Tomorrow comes fast when you’re exhausted.”
I nodded but had one more question. “What about the oath? Will they kill me for leaving? Will the mortal world suffer for what I’ve done?”
“You didn’t break any oaths since you’re technically still in Elphame. The oath says you must remain here, as the Crow, for seven years, but it doesn’t say where in Elphame you must remain. It’s an agreement among the Fae where the Crow will live, not part of the oath with mortals. Teind, the tithe we pay to the Gods, is for a sacrifice to Elphame. You’re still here, so I don’t see how they could call you an oath breaker and ask for your life as payment. We’re walking a fine line, but you haven’t crossed it.”
I had no more questions. He had no more answers.
I wondered if we’d make it through the night.
We scheduled turns to keep watch. We ate a snack, and I gave my creature a drop of my blood since she couldn’t eat what we had. I offered her a leaf with several drops of my blood for her people as a thank you. She seemed surprised by the offer but eventually took it. The others, scattered around the room, each took a taste. With my blood on their lips, the creatures blanketed us while we slept. They kept watch in appreciation for my life essence.
I slept, finally, once my body realized it wouldn’t be able to fight without rest. I dreamed of darkness, the cabin and its inability to protect us, with walls as broken as I. The howling from the forest had slinked into my dream and haunted me, followed me. Creatures I couldn’t see nipped at my ankles. I dreamed of eating them, of letting my Malice out like twisted black roots and letting her feast on the souls of others. Rather than winding my Malice around their souls and forcing them to feel what I wanted them to feel, I pulled. I yanked with all my might and took away everything that kept their hearts beating—their very will to live—as I drank them down, refilling my cup of magick with their energy. The darkness from the dungeon watched from the shadows I had created with the souls I had taken.
“Why are you here?” I glanced to my right to see a man standing in swirling shadows.
“Because you are here. Save your energy. You cannot eat them all.”
His mouth didn’t move, but I heard every word as if he were whispering into my ear.
“I’m not here. I’m dreaming. I can feel it. I feel Nix curled into my neck as though he were here right now. I can hear my creature.”
“Think, little Crow. Why do you hear your creature? What could make her shrill so loudly?”
I thought about it for a moment. Trouble. I only hear that noise when there is trouble.
“You need to wake up. The real games are about to begin.”
“I don’t want to play anymore.”
“If you don’t open your eyes now, when you do, you will play games you do not wish to play.”
“Don’t leave me.”