“Have you found her?” My heart beat hard in my chest as I concentrated on the warrior before me.
The screams beyond him drowned out his first response. A Starved One stumbled toward the warrior, and fierce as I knew he was, he flinched. The creature was missing half its stomach and one arm, and mismatched skin tones made up the rest of its sewn-together body. Its open, gaping jaw was smeared with blood and its glassy lifeless eyes landed on the warrior’s mighty axe.
Shadows spun around my staff briefly, before whirling toward the undead creature, absorbing it completely. An unearthly shriek faded to nothing.
“Have you found her?” I repeated, my voice granite.
“I believe we have, my Prince.”
“We sail for her tonight. If anyone lays a finger on her, they die.”
“You cheated.” The hulking, ale-stinking man before me reached out a hand as he grunted the words, his dirty fingers hovering over my black playing piece.
His eyes moved up to meet mine. They were red-rimmed, and slightly glassy from all the ale, mead, and wine he’d consumed.
“Cheated? You are a sore loser, Skegin,” I told him, batting his hand away.
“And you are a freak,” he answered, casting a glance at my hair. Once, his words would have cowed me. Now they made me sit straighter, and a grin play on my lips. I lifted my hands, running them through my long copper hair.
“Rather a freak than a loser,” I smiled at him.
He’d actually almost beaten me. For all his stench and disheveled appearance, he was one of the better players in Upper Krossa, the closest town to the Palace of the Gold Court. He was drunk, though. Something I was sure as Odin going to use to my advantage.
His eyes darkened at my taunt. “If I had hair that color, I’d cut it off,” he snarled.
His own hair was a tangled mess of brown — the same shade of brown as all the humans in Yggdrasil. I had never, ever seen another human with hair colored like my own.
“If I had no hair, then how would I show off all the braids I’m going to earn?”
He snorted at my reply. “You’ll never earn braids. You must fight to earn braids.” He banged a hand against his chest, sloshing ale from the tankard in his other hand over his already stained furs. The few men gathered around us in the alehouse slammed their own chests, cheering, then drank from their tankards.
I could fight, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. And besides, to earn braids through fighting, you had to be honored by your clan. I had no clan.
I was owned by the palace.
“There are other ways to earn braids,” I said. I needed to keep him talking, keep him distracted. If he spotted the one move on the board that could easily defeat me, then I would be in trouble. I’d wagered far more than I could afford to on this game.
This time his eyes went to the gleaming golden rune etched into the skin on my wrist. “You are a thrall, just like me.” His tone had turned harsher, the friendlier banter slipping away. “That rune doesn’t make you any better than the rest of us humans.”
It was true. The golden rune on my wrist didn’t make me any better than the other humans, but it did make me more valuable to our fae masters. I nodded slowly. “I’m better than you at this though.” I pointed casually to the board. “How about a new wager? I’ll earn a braid before you will.” He gave a big belly laugh and swigged from his drink.
“You will never earn a braid.”
“Then take the wager.” The tiniest flicker of doubt crossed his face. It was all I needed. “No?” I leaned forward, trying to ignore the pungent smell of livestock and ale. “You fear I would win, Skegin?”
The expression of doubt turned to anger, and I knew I’d got him where I wanted him. The rickety chair he was sitting on clattered backward as he stumbled to his feet. “You help the fae! You copper-haired witch, thinking you can leave the palace and treat us warriors like the shit on your boots! You’re as bad as they are,” he hissed.
I schooled my face, determined to keep any emotion from showing.
He was right though, my conscience screamed at me. I enabled the greedy, cruel, brutal fae of the Gold Court to treat my whole race as slaves.
I stayed sitting on my own chair and shrugged nonchalantly. “You are too stupid to win this game, and too cowardly to take my wager.” My pulse quickened as I said the words, knowing what the response would be. “To be honest, most small children are smarter than you. The actual shit on my boot might even give you a good challenge. Are you a veslingr?” Fury took his every feature as I used the ancient insult.
Unlike the greedy fae, the humans of the Gold Court still valued what Odin had instilled in the beautiful court centuries ago. Valor, honor, and knowledge. If there was one way to goad a Gold Court human, it was to accuse them of being a coward, or of being stupid.
He kicked a foot out, sending the playing board flying toward the next table.
Victory surged through me. “That’s a forfeit then,” I said, standing quickly. I only just ducked the punch he threw at me. He had nearly a foot on me in height, and hadn’t aimed well, so it was an easy dodge.
He gave a gurgly roar and tried to pull something from his leather belt, but his thick furs were blocking his clumsy scrabbling.
I took a risk and turned my back to him, to the wager-master sitting at the table behind us. I held my hand out.
“My winnings, please.”
The younger, quieter man gave a coy look. “Well done, Reyna,” he said. “It wasn’t looking too good for you there.” He knew exactly what I’d done. I flashed him a grin and he handed me a small pouch of jingling coin just as there was another shout from Skegin. I spun in time to see that he had extracted a small axe from his person and was aiming at my head.
I gave him a small wave and a final smile, then ran.
Running may not have been the brave thing to do, but it was sure as Odin the smart thing.
I had no shield and was only wearing cotton clothes and workshop leather — I was in no position to defend myself. And besides, I had the coin I’d left the palace for.
I ducked past more uproarious drinkers and out of the doors to the alehouse, not pausing for a second before sprinting up the golden cobbled path toward the palace.
I knew he wouldn’t follow me. He was too drunk, and he would find somebody else to fight with soon enough. It was the Yggdrasil way. Drink. Fight. Fuck. Repeat.
At least in the human towns, that was the way. The fae, not so much. They drank, they fought, they fucked. But fates, did they do it differently.
I glared at the glittering Gold Court palace as I raced toward it. The fae had built their home upon the central peak of the land that made up the whole of the court, so that it towered over the villages and towns below.
More than twenty towers made of pure gold rose majestically from the beautiful, tiered courtyards, wrapped in staircases shining with gilded carvings, and peppered with magnificent stained windows reflecting the gleaming golden light of the rest of the Gold Court.
It should have been breath-taking.
Not to me.
It was the finest prison a girl could possibly despise. A gleaming noose around my neck, choking the life out of me.
The guards at the palace gates didn’t bother stopping me as I ran past. My copper hair gave away who I was instantly. Regular bribes meant they let me past reasonably often.
Hope burned in my gut. With the money in my new purse, I might finally have enough to pay someone to get me out of the Gold Court.
Enough to buy my freedom.
The same niggling doubts I always had crept into my mind in the form of Kara’s voice. “Reyna, you can’t leave the Gold Court! You’re rune-marked — every other court would try to kill you!”
But when you’ve spent your life humiliated, used and beaten by greedy, vicious fae the prospect of death loses some of its bleakness.
It wasn’t that I wanted to die, not at all.
But the dangers beyond the Gold Court had started to look different to me over the recent years, and things that had frightened me into obedience before, and still frightened my charge, Kara, no longer held the same terror. The Gold Court offered me protection, sure. But at what cost?
The stories about the Shadow Court still made my skin crawl, but I wasn’t stupid or cowardly, surely I could find a place in one of the other three courts where I could be free?
My feet flew over the gleaming tiles of the enormous stairways carved into the tiered gardens, until I reached the level that housed some of the lesser fae courtiers, and the gold workshop. The golden spires reached up toward the sky above me, casting a shimmering glow like a cat’s eye. Every step sent rays of light bouncing off of one another, and I shielded my eyes from the gleaming gold walls and sent an angry look at the main gates of the palace two tiers higher, before ducking through the servant’s entrance. I slowed down to make my way as inconspicuously as possible through the gleaming hall. A few courtiers cast uninterested glances my way as I moved toward the concealed servant quarters.
When I reached the workshop I lived and worked in, the guard frowned at me. She had smears of blue war paint on both cheeks and numerous braids in her brown hair, signifying that she was a human warrior of high respect. She was still a thrall though. A human slave.
“Where have you been?” Her barked words pissed me off instantly.
“Your husband’s place.”
Her spear thwacked me in the gut before I could react.
“You are pathetic, and a freak,” she hissed at me.
“Uhuh. Better in bed than you though, according to your husband,” I answered, trying to stay standing upright through the pain in my stomach.
Truth was, I was unlikely to be better in bed than anyone, based on the paltry and not particularly enjoyable experience I had in that area. Nor would I ever sleep with another woman’s husband. But she didn’t need to know that.
She stepped toward me, a nasty gleam in her eye. “You’re wanted in the grand hall.”
Icy cold trickled down my neck as a true fear took me. “The grand hall?” I failed to hide my concern and her smile widened.
“Yes. Lord Orm is making his selection today, and guess what? You’re one of the lucky final few.”
My stomach flipped, and my pulse pounded in my ears.
Lhoris had warned me this may happen. My mentor had told me to keep my head down, attract no attention.
But apparently I had failed.
There were a number of fates worse than death in Yggdrasil.
But an indefinitely long life as the bound concubine of the Gold Court’s most cruel Lord? Other than being ripped apart and eaten by the Starved Ones, I couldn’t think of any worse that.
I discreetly let out a long breath as I closed my eyes and counted to ten.
He might not choose me. He might not choose me.
There were five of us, lined up along the central carpet leading to the golden thrones at the end of the grand hall, framed by epic arched gilded windows.
I glanced at the other four girls on the carpet with me. Two were much younger than me, and very pretty. The next woman was a lot older, and absolutely beautiful. The last was my age and covered from head to foot in blue battle paint and furs, any exposed skin mottled with white scars. She caught my eye, bared her teeth, then spat on the beautifully woven golden carpet beneath our feet.
My lips almost twitched into a defiant smile, but I caught myself in time. There was a loud crack and her face contorted with pain. The thrall-master standing behind her snapped his whip back as her legs buckled.
“One day I’ll make you scream,” he hissed.
She kept her lips clamped closed as one of the younger girls whimpered and looked nervously at her own thrall-master. The hulking man behind her gave her a leery grin but didn’t move.
All five of us were thralls. Human slaves to the fae of the Gold Court. And all five of us had something one of the most powerful, and therefore wealthy, Lords of the Court wanted. I had no idea what the other four unfortunate women had to offer, but I feared my value would be higher.
I scanned the wrists of the other girls, my stomach sinking at the confirmation of what I already knew.
None of them were rune-marked. Which meant none of them were as valuable as I was.
The fae of Yggdrasil could only wield their loathsome magic with the help of vald-staffs. I looked down bitterly at the angular symbol burning bright gold on the inside of my wrist. The pattern was repeated larger between my shoulder blades. It marked me clearly to the fae as a gold-giver. A rare human who could craft magic staffs for the fae of the Gold Court.
A courtier swept past us with her escort, her fine embroidered dress and long braided blonde hair marking her as fae.
“Did you hear about the latest raids on the outer villages, my Lady?” the escort asked quietly. “Many human clans were dealt death.”
The female’s lips turned up, the tiny gold beads in her hair catching the light as she shook her head. “The stories of the Shadow Court’s might are wildly exaggerated,” she said. “They are but simple barbarians. Anyway, a few human clans are no great loss.” She raised her chin as she gave me an appraising look, then moved past me to join the rest of the shallow, whispering crowd of courtiers who had turned up to line the halls and watch the Lord choose his new bound concubine.
I kept my snarl back, barely. In some ways, I hoped the vile fae female was right. I had grown up being told the horror stories of how the Shadow Court’s telepathic powers were used to torture their slaves mentally, how they were brain-washed into killing their own loved ones, then forced to live in pitch-black dungeons filled with the decaying bodies of those they had murdered themselves. Their specialty was fear and madness, and they were utterly remorseless.
I sent a brief prayer to Freya that any humans killed in the Shadow Court raids were spared such a trial and had been blessed with swift deaths.
A loud bang signaling the doors to the hall being thrown open interrupted my prayer.
Lord Orm strode along the carpet, casting his ice blue eyes over each of us. His grandeur was undeniable. He had skin almost as pale as bone, high cheekbones and perfect pointed ears. His clothes were much finer than that of the attending courtiers. Where they wore corsets and skirts, or fine leather warrior garb, he wore robes of white. Golden lace trimmed all the fabric, making him shine and shimmer as he walked.
His thin, pale lips turned up in a delighted sneer when he saw the warrior woman.
“A human on her knees is a fine sight indeed.” His high-pitched voice rang through the room, and the simpering courtiers chuckled.
The warrior woman glared up at him, fury in her eyes. “I did not fight for Odin to be your fucking plaything,” she spat.
Something dark flashed in Lord Orm eyes. He tightened his grip on the staff in his hand, and a knot of helpless, guilty anger swished through my whole body. I recognized the staff. It had been the result of six months of my work.
“Playthings are for children,” he said, voice low. “I am a fully grown male, which you would find out on entering my bedchamber.” He gave her a sickening smile. “I think you may find that fighting your whole life will have prepared you well for what I have in store for my future concubine. I require a woman who is… robust.”
Blessed Odin, I would do just about anything to avoid a binding to this male, but the warrior woman deserved this fate no more than I did.
Of the five courts of Yggdrasil, most would have believed that the Gold Court was the preferable place to live. It was the most powerful, the richest, the most beautiful.
But the reality? The Gold Court was fueled by nothing but greed. The principles instilled by the ancient god Odin had completely died out, knowledge no longer valuable compared with wealth and magic.
It was through the gold that their staffs gave them magic, and the lengths they would go to acquire it had turned them into monsters.
Beautiful, glittering, sadistic monsters.
Lord Orm was known to be one of the most twisted gold-fae. It was common knowledge in the palace that two of his previous concubines had died at his hand. Details of how had never surfaced, though the rumors were rife and all of them made me feel sick.
“Strip. All of you.” Lord Orm whirled around as he barked the command. Grinding my teeth, I reached behind me to untie the leather band around my middle.
I was permitted to work in trousers and leather, whereas most female thralls in the Gold Court were forced to dress in skimpy shifts and thin skirts. My brown leather corset dropped to the floor around my feet as the ties came loose, and I moved my hands reluctantly to the belt at my waist. It was covered in small pouches that held the tools of my trade. Other than the gold I had to set into the staffs, of course. That was kept safe in the workshop, under fae guard.
I glanced either side of me as I slowly undid my belt, trying to stop my revulsion showing on my face.
Both the younger girls had already shed their thin garments, clearly used to being asked to disrobe. The older woman had her chin held high, and clear scars of childbirth showed on her stomach. The warrior woman had regained her footing, but her thrall-master was leering over her, pulling her fur-covered garb from her body as she hissed and clawed at him.
“You are making me weary,” Lord Orm muttered. “Some spirit in a female is preferable, but I fear I erred in asking you to take part in today’s ceremony.” He came to stop before her, and my fingers stilled on the waist of my trousers.
“She will do as you command, my Lord,” grunted her thrall-master.
Lord Orm cocked his beautiful head. “Hmm. I’m not sure that she will. Ever.” She moved quickly, making to stamp on his foot, close as he was to her.
His fae speed was no match for her fierce spirit. He side-stepped, so fast he was almost a blur. The gold entwined throughout his staff glowed briefly before he bought it crashing into the side of her head.
His fae strength was as instantly apparent as his speed had been.
The woman’s body dropped to the floor, lifeless. I turned my head quickly, to stop myself staring at the gaping hole in the side of her skull. Fear crawled icily through my veins, my breakfast threatening to rise up my throat.
Lord Orm sighed, tilting his pale head. “Odin’s raven, I didn’t mean to hit her that hard,” he muttered. “No matter, she was unsuitable anyway. I shall reimburse you for your lost thrall. Please see my purse-keeper on your way out.”
Still unwilling to look, I heard the thrall-master, now void of his thrall, grunt. “Thank you, my Lord.” Heavy footsteps thumped through the room as he left the hall.
“And then there were four,” sang the Lord. “Why are you still dressed?” He moved into my line of vision, and I couldn’t help meeting his eyes. I stilled the tremble in my fingers as I resumed removing my trousers.
I moved my gaze to his staff, trying to focus on it, to calm my fear. Held in the end of the metal shaft was a gently glinting orb, the size of an eye. Around it was a ring, also made from gold, and flowing from the ring were twenty golden leaves. I had crafted every one painstakingly, and individually. No two staffs could be the same, and the stronger the design, the stronger the staff.
This staff has just caused the death of a woman. It’s hardly going to calm you down, Reyna.
The tinge of red against the gleaming gold made the tremble threaten to return as I crouched, sliding my trousers down my legs.
“Too slow.” Lord Orm lifted his staff as I straightened. A beam of bright light shone from the top, moving over my body like a torch. Everywhere the light touched, the moss-green fabric of my long shirt burned away. The garment fell in tattered ribbons around my feet, leaving me standing in nothing my cotton knickers.
In all my years as a thrall, my whole damned life in fact, I had never felt so vulnerable. I’d been made to strip many times. I had been beaten and thrashed many times. But I was too precious to my thrall-master to be soiled. My status as a rune-marked had provided me a degree of safety. At least, it had kept me in control of my own body. The energy required to use my craft was massive, so my mind and body must be alert and ready for work, always. Nothing was more valuable to the Gold Court fae than their staffs, and therefore the rune-marked who could forge them.
Now though, my thrall-master had no say. Lord Orm was not a male to be told no.
Slowly, he reached out a hand and placed it on my shoulder. My skin crawled at his touch, but I let him turn me around. He paused when my back was to him, and I felt him press a cool finger to the rune on my spine.
“A gold-giver,” he murmured. “Useful, to have a bound female that in addition to servicing my needs could also keep my staff in pristine condition.”
I sucked in air, trying to keep calm.
He won’t hurt me. Not here, not today. I’m worth too much to him.
“I could even rent you out to my friends. But whoever saw a human with hair this color?” He turned me back to face him and lifted a handful of my hair to wave it in front of my eyes.
Lord Orm’s lips pulled back in distaste as he dropped the clump of hair. “That would have to change.” A flash of defiance almost showed on my face, and I felt my lips part in protest.
For two decades, my hair had caused me nothing but grief. It made me different, made me stand out. It had made me a target even within the enslaved human community. But my treatment by those around me had made me stronger than the other humans. It had forced me to stand up for myself, constantly forced me to be one step ahead. My hair had become my armor.
“You have something to say on the matter, little gold-giver?” Lord Orm’s words were a whisper, almost seductive. Gooseflesh rose on my arms when the gold in his staff glowed.
An image swam through my head, hazy but impossible to dispel.
It was of me, tied to a bed covered in milk-white sheets, with four golden posts at each corner. I was face down, naked, the rune on my back criss-crossed with red welts from the whip.
“Nothing, my Lord,” I forced myself to say as his vision sapped my strength. My voice was small and weak. I hated it. Despised it. Despised myself for submitting.
Lord Orm stared at me a long moment as I tried to force the image out of my head.
“This one!” he announced with a flourish, lifting his staff and casting it toward me.
He hadn’t even looked at the others.
Blood pounded in my ears, and black dots flickered across my vision as the magical one of me on the bed faded.
The hope that had burned behind my fear fled as reality punched me in the gut.
I would become the cruel fae’s bound concubine.
Which meant the life of servitude I had lived so far would look like a fucking paradise.
“You’re uncharacteristically quiet,” sneered the guard when we were beyond the gates of the grand hall and in the lower echelons of the palace.
“Fuck you,” I hissed without turning to her, quickening my steps along the golden corridors. The beauty of the intricate paintings, marble carvings and glittering gemstones were lost on me entirely. My mind was moving at a pace I could barely keep up with, my stomach still churning as I held the pathetic blanket I’d been given around my shoulders, trying to conceal my naked body.
She chuckled. “Ah. There it is. The true nature of the copper-haired brat. Lord Orm will enjoy you and your barbed tongue, I’m sure.”
For a second my steps slowed as I almost turned and landed my fist in the middle of the smug expression I knew she would be wearing.
But I forced my legs to keep moving. Getting the lash for hitting my guard would take too much time. Time I no longer had.
I kept my lips shut tight as we made our way back to the workshop. I shared the space with four other gold-givers who had been found and enslaved to the palace. Two of whom I loved dearly, but other two? They could sail straight to Hel for all I cared. My copper hair had been all the reason they needed to treat me like dirt for years.
“Reyna!” Kara leaped up from her workbench and raced over to me as soon as I entered the workshop. The young girl’s face fell when she saw me. Her eyes flicked to the blanket around me, then back to mine.
“He’s coming to get you tomorrow morning. Clean up,” the guard barked, then turned and left, locking the heavy door behind her.
“Oh no. Oh no, no, no,” Kara whispered, her eyes wide and round. “We heard you got called for consideration for Lord Orm. Please tell me he didn’t choose you?”
I took a deep breath. “He chose me.”
She bit down on her lip, making herself look even younger than she was. “Maybe… Maybe he won’t be cruel to you?”
“He killed a woman. In front of everyone. One of the women brought for consideration.”
Her brown eyes widened further. “Killed her? Why?”
“She tried to stamp on his foot.”
“Precisely the reason I schooled you in being meek around powerful fae.” The deep voice belonged to Lhoris, my mentor. I turned to him as he lumbered toward me. His age and experience in crafting vald-staffs meant he was allowed a single braid in his huge beard. He had fought valiantly for his clan before he was recognized and enslaved as a rune-marked, so a blue smear of war paint permanently adorned the cheek under his left eye.
I nodded at him. “I did as you told me. I bit my tongue. I even took my damned clothes off without a word.”
One of his eyebrows twitched, and anger flitted through his wise eyes. “I am proud of you, Reyna.” He paused, shifting a razor-sharp sculpting blade from one hand to the other. “And… I am sorry.”
I fixed my eyes on his. “Don’t be. I’m leaving, Lhoris.”
I saw no surprise on his face. Only sorrow.
Kara gripped my arm. “You can’t leave!”
“Well, I’m sure as Odin not being bound to Lord Orm.”
“But you're a gold-giver!” I looked at my young protégé, my emotions churning. I had to look strong for her. I had to hide how I really felt about abandoning her to this twisted fucking Court. I had to make her think I would be safe.
“I will find a way to hide my rune-marks,” I lied. There was no way the marks could be hidden. And even if they could, my copper hair drew attention like a flame to the moths.
“No, no, Reyna! The other Courts will find you, the raids are constant now! You would be running straight to your death.”
Her fears were not unfounded. The runes that marked me as valuable to the Gold Court also marked me for death in any of the other four Courts.
The wars between the fae raged long and deadly, and the quickest way to cripple an enemy court was to remove their magic. The highest prize besides killing an actual fae member of the Court was killing one of the rune-marked they relied on for their staffs.
Kara shuddered and whispered, “What if the Shadow Court found you?”
Which was the only reason I hadn’t left already.
If a gold-giver was found by Ice, Fire or Earth Courts, then they would be killed on the spot, then their body would be dragged back to their palace for a reward to be claimed. But if a member of the Shadow Court found a gold-giver?
The Queen of the Shadow Court, along with her stepson, was supposed to be the most cruel and vicious of all the living fae, and the war between Gold and Shadow was the oldest and most brutal of all the feuds. Odin help any gold-giver the Shadow Court got their hands on.
“I’ll stay in the Gold Court. Live with the humans in the lower villages,” I told Kara. Another lie. Lord Orm was too powerful to hide from in his own Court. Kara was looking at me, a mix of doubt and fear on her face. “Or the Earth Court,” I said cheerfully. “They aren’t known for exceptional violence.”
She gave me a look. “They burn thralls every full moon,” she said, fisting her hands on her hips. “And they get raided by the Shadow Court more than any others!” Her voice wobbled. “The Shadow Court make you kill your own friends,” she whispered. “And I heard they feed humans to the Starved Ones.”
I swallowed hard. Would that be worse than being bound to Lord Orm? Killing my own or being eaten alive, versus a life in servitude to that greedy, sadistic fae?
An image of the warrior woman’s crushed skull swam through my head. She had died quickly. She was honorable and a warrior, so she would go straight to Valhalla.
But Lord Orm wouldn’t kill me. I was too valuable. And as one bound to the fae, I would share his much-extended lifespan. An eternity enduring whatever he deemed his concubine deserved. My stomach knotted.
“You should dress,” Lhoris said, glancing between me and Kara’s tear-filling eyes. “And then, if you have time, I could do with your help with finishing a staff. Once it is complete we can discuss the practicalities of you escaping the palace.”
I nodded at him, feeling a swell of gratitude both for the offer of help, and his practical tone. My mind was swimming with fear and confusion, and I didn’t think I was hiding very well from Kara. I turned back to the girl. “Kara, can you prepare me half an ounce of gold, please?”
She nodded, then scurried toward the forge.
* * *
The rune-marked wing was essentially one giant workshop, with four rooms off it that housed two bunkrooms, a toilet and tub, and a larder. The workshop was split down the middle by a massive stone trough filled with molten brimstone, traded at a high price from the Fire Court. Lining the outer walls were our benches, well light by large windows that let in the sparkling light of the Gold Court.
I glared at the view. More than half the humans who lived in the towns below were thralls to the fae.
They said humans had been too barbaric to be allowed to rule themselves. They said that’s how the Starved Ones came into being. I shuddered. The ancient mythical clan were said to have become so hungry and desperate that they turned on each other. Ate each other. The gods punished them with the intensity such an abhorrent act deserved.
But that didn’t explain why the fae hadn’t been able to put an end to their miserable existence.
I forced down the familiar feeling that came whenever I thought about the Starved Ones and moved quickly to the bunkroom I shared with Kara and the other female gold-giver. To my relief, the room was empty. I dressed quickly in a black shirt, brown leather corset and black breeches and swapped the slippers I’d been made to wear in the grand hall for my leather boots.
“Kara’s right,” Lhoris said when I exited the bunkroom and found him waiting for me.
“About which part?”
“If the Shadow Court find you, they’ll kill you instantly.” He glanced over his shoulder at me. “Or worse.”
“I won’t be going anywhere near the Shadow Court. I’ll hide in the Earth Court. I’ve always wondered how they make staffs from wood.”
“Reyna, they’ll kill you too, the second they see your rune-mark. The other courts are-”
I finished his sentence for him, so often had I heard him say the words. “Cutting the head off the golden snake. I know, Lhoris.” He stared at me, and I laid my hand on his arm. “What would you do, in my position?”
It was a rhetorical question.
Pain turned to anger in his dark eyes. He would have made a fearsome warrior, had he remained free. Valhalla would welcome him for certain. “I would not become the toy of that monster.”
I shrugged, trying to keep my growing panic at bay. “Exactly. It’s the monsters within, or the monsters without. Only this one already knows where to find me.”
He nodded, resignation making his jaw tight. “Run.”
“Run,” I repeated on a breath.
Saying the word aloud helped. This is happening, Reyna. You’re really running.
Freedom. Just so long as I spent my likely short life in hiding.
“Do you really need my help finishing a staff? Or did you just wish to speak privately?”
He grunted and turned back to his bench. “You are better at feathers than I am,” he said. “And if you are really leaving, then you might want to use your craft one more time.” I followed him, trying to keep my face from showing my sadness.
I would miss him fiercely. And Kara. They were the only thing like family I had ever known.
And I would fear for them too. Lhoris could fight his own way to his destiny, but Kara? She was pretty, and easily cowed. A dangerous combination in a world where one was surrounded by gilded sharks. I had made some progress with her confidence over the two years she had been under my tutelage, but she could still so easily be taken advantage of.
Lhoris interrupted my thoughts once more as I sat down at his bench, leaning his bulk over my shoulder. He pointed to an intricate gem-set arch at the end of a gleaming staff laid across the worktop.
“You see this halo section, over the gem?”
“She wants feathers all along both sides.”
Kara appeared beside me and her small hand shot out, a tiny ball of shining molten gold in the middle of her gloved palm.
“Can I watch?” she asked me. “As… as it might be the last time…” She trailed off, eyes filling again.
“Of course you can.”
I took some forceps and lifted the gold from her hands. The rune on my wrist heated, glowing brightly — the signal that I could touch the heated gold.
None of us knew how or why, but those born rune-marked had access to a vein of magic within the gold itself, and it overpowered the senses like a drug.
As soon as I picked up the metal my vision changed. A tinge of warm yellow colored everything, and lines of shimmering liquid magic swirled around the nugget of gold. As they swirled I could see little runes in the ripples, sparkling as though they were made of glitter. With my other hand, I moved the arch I was supposed to decorate toward me. The runes changed, the magical streams flowing from the new nugget to the existing staff.
It was a language I had never been taught, but innately understood. The more I used my ability, the more runes I could read. They told me where to put my fingers, how to use my finer tools, exactly where to join the precious metal. They showed me the steps to a dance nobody could ever perform unaided.
I fell into the trance, my fingers moving practically of their own accord, following the playful, sparkling instructions of the tiny magical golden runes. I never knew how much time passed when I was working, never needed to stop for a break or for refreshment. It was an escape from the world entirely.
At least as long as I was doing it. Once the work was over… That was different.
When I had twenty tiny, perfectly detailed feathers attached in a flowing line over the arc, the golden vision fell away, the cold harsh tones of real life slamming back into place before my eyes.
Exhaustion seeped through me, bone-deep. “How is that?” I asked Lhoris, pushing the stool back. I knew what was coming next, and I wanted to be alone.
“Perfect,” he said, leaning in to examine them. Kara leaned in too, eyes darting over the details of the staff. “Rest, and then we will make plans.”
I nodded and made my way quickly to the bunkroom. The first wave of darkness hit me as I reached my bed. I closed my eyes as I sat down and drew a breath. There were usually three or four waves. The first was always the easiest. Shadows and dankness, a strong sense of unease.
I gripped the hay-stuffed mattress as the second wave hit. Unease changed to fear. Sounds I had never heard in real life before filtered through my ears, an unearthly screeching laugh. I saw nothing but darkness, interspersed with flashes of deep red.
I had always had the dark visions after working with gold, ever since I was a child. When I had been brought to the palace and Lhoris had taken me under his wing as my mentor, it had taken me months to build up the courage to ask him if he experienced them too.
He had told me that he didn’t and to keep them to myself.
The third wave reached me, always starting with a splitting scream, and followed by the awful screeching laugh. The shadows cleared a little, enough for me to see figures moving awkwardly, figures that were not right somehow. The smell of blood filled my nostrils.
You’re in your room, Reyna. There’s no blood here. It’s not real.
The smell always got me the worst. I didn’t understand how a vision could carry a smell.
A face started to come into view on my left, and fear crawled up my chest. The vision faded.
“Please let it only be three today,” I whispered aloud.
I’d never told anyone but Lhoris about the visions, and I hadn’t even told him the full truth.
I had never told him what I saw in the less frequent fourth vision.
I knew what I was seeing, but I didn’t know how it could be possible. I didn’t want to know.
Bile rose in my throat as a feeling of pure terror washed over me. “Fuck,” I swore, then blackness took my eyes. The face moved clearly into view, a maniacal grin on the blood-stained maw. She had once been human, but it was clear she wasn’t any longer. Parts of her cheek and her ear were gone, ragged edges on the torn skin. Her eyes were completely black, and she had no lips. A gnarled hand moved toward me, three fingers missing.
I hissed out a desperate curse, and the vision cleared. Panting, I dropped back onto the bed. Sweat seeped through my shirt.
It didn’t matter how many times I saw the Starved Ones, it always terrified me like it was the first.
“So, you need to get past the guards on our door, the guards on this floor of the palace, the guards at the gates to the palace, and then… All the way to the tree without being recognized or stopped?”
Kara was staring at me like I’d lost any sense I might once have possessed. And I couldn’t really blame her. I rubbed a hand across my face.
“What if I become Lord Orm’s concubine and find a way to cut his balls off instead?” I offered.
Kara blushed and Lhoris snorted a laugh. “Prick would deserve it,” he grunted.
“I’d be doing all females a favor.” I was trying to keep my banter up, but the truth was that my head was still spinning. I was facing impossibilities on all sides. The impossibility of being bound sexually to a male like Lord Orm versus the impossibility of surviving outside of the Gold Court’s protection. Not to mention, the impossibility of actually escaping the Gold Court.
“The guard really said he was coming for you tomorrow?” asked Kara.
“Yes. Tomorrow. We only have tonight.”
We were sitting around a small table in the larder room. Fortunately, there had been no sign of our fellow gold-givers. They must have been on private jobs. It often took weeks to do repair work and it was not uncommon for the gold-givers to stay in the fae quarters during the jobs. Most rune-marked needed massive amounts of rest once they had worked. I had never found that to be the case, but I chose to keep that to myself. It gave me a chance to be on my own when the visions came.
“I’ll miss you.” Kara’s voice was tiny. I felt my face heat, my usual reaction to emotion. Tears did not fall easily for me, but I felt my emotions no less than those who cried. For some reason, my body reacted with flushed anger in place of salty tears.
“If it were not so dangerous, I would take you with me in a heartbeat,” I told her. I’d never known any family other Kara and Lhoris. My resolve wavered as I looked between them. Was the risk worth it?
Was the loss of the only two people in the world who loved me worth it?
Another unexpected internal battle had arisen within in me. Every time I thought of never working with gold again, a flash of fear burned me. Was I addicted to the work, like a warrior to ale, or the peasants to the poppy? The sparkling golden runes were a part of me. Perhaps I needed them.
Lord Orm is one of the Queen’s favorites. He might let me continue to work in the palace with Lhoris and Kara, and the gold.
At the thought of the Lord though, the vision he’d sent of me naked and tied to the bed took over my mind. Revulsion rushed through my veins at what he might do to my body, and I hurried to stem my spiraling thoughts.
No. I would rather risk death than let Lord Orm do whatever he wished to me, for an interminably long time.
The light streaming in through the large windows dimmed and all three of us froze.
The light never dimmed in the Gold Court.
“What’s happening?” whispered Kara.
“Hush,” hissed Lhoris.
We all strained our ears, listening, barely breathing.
The distant sound of metal clashing reached me, and I looked at Lhoris. He gave a tiny nod, and I leaped to my feet, tugging Kara up.
“You hide in the larder cupboard, and you do not come out,” I told her, pulling her toward the wooden towers of cupboards. Her face was a mask of panic.
“I don’t know. Tell me you understand me.”
She nodded, face pale. “Don’t come out of the cupboard.”
“Good.” I knelt, pulling rolls of dried meat and sacks of vegetables out of one of the lower cupboards and stuffing it all hastily into another. “There, there should be space. Get in.”
She threw her arms around me, her slight body trembling. “I don’t want you to leave.”
I tightened my own around her, heart pounding. “I know. I’ve loved working with you, Kara. You’re going to be the most amazing gold-giver ever, and don’t let anyone give you any ideas otherwise. You’re in charge of you, nobody else. Now, hide.” I placed a kiss on the top of her head, so light I wasn’t even sure she was aware of it. She released me, and ducked down, folding herself into the cupboard. Her cheeks were streaked with tears.
“Stay silent until Lhoris comes for you.”
I whirled before the sight of her terrified face could compel me to stay with her, breaking into a run.
Lhoris was at his bench. Anything that could be used as a weapon was gathered before him, heavy hammers, sharp scalpels, and his own hard-earned battle-axe.
“What’s happening?” I panted as I reached him. His face was grave as he looked at me. The sounds of swords and spears clashing was louder now, some very human sounding shouts audible too.
“Only one thing can make the light of the Gold Court dim.” Fear coiled in my gut. I knew what he was going to say.
“The Queen’s sister?”
He nodded grimly. “Or her son, the Prince of the Shadow Court.”
I made to grab for the smelting hammer on his work bench, but he reached out a hand and stopped me, grabbing my wrist.
“This is your chance.”
“To what, die? If the Shadow Court are raiding the palace, then things have escalated between the Queens.”
“Escape, Reyna. If there was ever a distraction that could be taken advantage of, then this is it.”
I stared at him, recognizing the determination in his eyes. “Are you going too?” I whispered.
A pang of longing sparked in the deep brown, but he shook his head. “I’ll stay. For Kara.”
Relief washed over me. She would be safe with him. “Thank you.”
He gave a grunt, then spoke. “You should take this.” He held up the staff I’d finished for him earlier, with the twenty feathers.
“What? No! You would be thrashed to within an inch of your life!”
His shoulders squared. “It would be worth it, for you to have such a valuable bartering tool on your journey. And besides, I believe enough chaos has struck the palace that I will be able to plead ignorance to its disappearance.”
I only hesitated a second longer. “Thank you.” I closed my hand around the staff. “Again.”
“Thank me by making something of your life that I never could, child.” The honest emotion in his face made my own burn. “Now, get your bag. This is it, Reyna.”
I sprinted to my bunkroom. I threw my meager belongings in a shouldersack, but took care to wrap the staff in the only thick fur I owned. The painted metal handles of all the staffs we made were designed to collapse in on themselves, so that they could be stored, transported, or in this case hidden, easily. I could feel its weight though, when I donned the bag.
“I’m ready,” I said, running back into the workshop. I tried not to feel alarmed by how much darker the sky outside had become. The glittering, reflective golden light had never been absent from the workshop, in all the time I had lived there.
There was a loud thump from the locked doors, and Lhoris swiped up a razor-sharp scalpel, raising it alongside his axe.
Apprehension skittered through me as I moved to his side, picking up the hammer.
“Be ready,” he murmured, as another thump sounded, even louder.
I opened my mouth to reply, but my words faltered at the cold that shrouded me suddenly.
Something was wrong.
Fear that ran too deep to be attributed to the fight-ready battle tension I’d been experiencing a minute ago was crippling my thoughts.
There were shadows moving under the door, like lethal black smoke.
Slowly, painfully slowly, the shadows tightened, forming long black snakes.
My fingers trembled around the handle of the hammer.
I’d heard of the shadow snakes.
They said the snakes were the last thing any of his enemies saw, before they lost their sanity completely. There was only one fae in all of Yggdrasil who could conjure them.
The Shadow Court Prince.
Fear, not just for myself and my friends but also for what I might be forced to do to them, made me want to cry out, or even hide with Kara.
You’re stronger than this, Reyna, I half shouted at myself in my mind. This is your chance to escape!
But none of this was what I had expected.
I had expected the human clans who fought for the Shadow Court. I had expected blood-thirsty warriors wielding axes and spears, too intent on killing each other to notice my escape. I had expected Lhoris and his axe to stay in the workshop and defend Kara if any of those warriors strayed too far from their fight.
I had been wrong.
The doors creaked, then burst open, revealing a figure seven feet tall and shrouded in black.
The fight had come to us, and it was no human warrior.
“Good evening, little gold-givers,” said the Prince of the Shadow Court, stepping out of the shadows and into the room.
For a beat or two, I couldn’t catch my breath. Icy fear doused me from head to foot, and numbness took my fingers.
Shadows were pushing at my mind, edging my vision, making my thoughts cloud.
Was this how it started? Was he about to take over my mind and force me to kill Lhoris? The huge man beside me hefted his axe with a snarl and the Prince chuckled from beneath his deep hooded cloak.
Was he about to make Lhoris kill me?
Paranoia and magic-induced fear was paralyzing me. For the love of Odin, get a grip on yourself, Reyna!
My fingers finally moved, tightening on the hammer handle.
Slowly, the Prince lifted his staff. Shadows swirled gently from the end of it. The staffs I made were topped with huge gemstones, or if the owner was very wealthy, orbs of gold, but this staff had a skull. A black skull, barbed with spikes, with a halo of twisted thorns arching protectively over it.
The shadows tightened into ribbons, then rushed toward the Prince’s head, pushing his hood back.
I sucked in a breath and did everything I could to hold my ground.
He was wearing a mask that matched his staff. The black skull covered his own, save for the gaps large enough to see his bright grey eyes through. His black shadow-fae hair was braided away from his face at the top, but fell over his shoulders. The beads in his braids were skulls too. His body was wrapped in black furs and leathers, and everywhere my eyes skimmed I could see the gleam of weapons.
“My Prince!” roared a voice from beyond the doors he had just broken through.
The shadows whirled from where they were circling his neck, flying toward the heavy doors and slamming them closed.
Odin help me, he was strong. I was around magical fae regularly, and whilst gold-fae magic was less visceral and violent than shadow-fae magic, few of the fae I knew could control objects like he just had.
“You will come with me. Now.” His voice was deep and rich, and I couldn’t tell if the command was laced with magical compulsion or if he just had lethal authority.
What I was certain of though, was that the command had been aimed at me.
I tried to force my racing thoughts to slow enough to think straight.
Lhoris stepped forward. “We are going nowhere.”
Where the fuck were the guards? The gold-fae had a chance at repelling him, but us? We had absolutely none.
The numbness seeped from my limbs and adrenaline began surging through my body in its place. I gripped the hammer, lifting it higher. If I was going down, I was going down fighting.
The Prince took a step toward us. “I do not need you. Just her.”