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The Prisoner’s Throne: Chapter 23

Bogdana has one clawed hand around his wrist as she tugs him toward the water and the storm.

“I thought we were going back to Wren,” he says.

“Ah, did you think she was still here on Insmoor? No, I brought her to Insear. We were there together when Mother Marrow signaled me.”

He should have suspected Mother Marrow had a way to let Bogdana know her hostage was being released and regrets his generosity with her. All he is likely to get in the way of gratitude is a curse. “On Insear?” he says, staying with the part that matters. If Wren and Bogdana made it to Insear, what did that mean for his family?

“Come,” Bogdana says, stepping off the edge of the rocks. A swirling wind catches and lifts her, as it caught and lifted the ship. The storm hag’s robes billow. She gives a sharp tug on Oak’s wrist. He follows her, his hooves walking on what seems like nothing but knots and eddies of air.

The fog parts, and droplets of rain do not fall in their path as the wind carries them over the sea.

Minutes later, they drop onto the black rocks of Insear. Oak slips and nearly falls, attempting to find his footing.

And in front of him, he sees Wren and Jude.

They are squared off, his sister holding a sword in one hand, her eyes shining. Most of her brown hair has come out of its braids and hangs loose and wet around her face. Her cheeks are pink with cold, and the bottom of her dress is raggedly cut away, as though she wants to be sure it won’t trip her.

Wren wears the clothes she wore at the hunt, the same clothes she wore on Insmoor. They hang on her, as though there is even less of her now, as though more of her has been eaten away. Her cheekbones are sharper, the hollows beneath them more pronounced. Her expression is as bleak as the rain-streaked sky. As bleak as when she was going to let him stab her.

Behind his sister are four other Folk. The Roach, a dagger in one hand and a fresh wound on his brow. Two archers—knights that Oak recognizes, holding longbows. And a courtier, dressed in velvet and lace, hair and beard in braids, hands gripping a hammer. They are all soaked to the bone.

On Wren’s side are more than a dozen of her soldiers—armored, swords at their belts and bows in their hands.

Jude,” Oak says, but she doesn’t even seem to hear him.

As he watches, Wren lunges toward Jude, grabbing for her unsheathed blade. Wren’s blood smears over the bare steel where the edge catches her palm. But before the sword can bite more deeply, before Jude can wrench it from her grip, the metal begins to melt. It pools on the ground, hissing where it hits water, cooling into jagged metal shapes. Unmade.

Jude takes a step back, dropping the hilt as though it bit her.

“Nice trick.” Her voice isn’t quite steady.

“I see you have things well in hand, daughter,” Bogdana calls to Wren. “I have the prince. Now, where is the High King?”

“Shoot them,” Jude snaps, ignoring Bogdana’s words and instead focusing on the falcons transforming into soldiers. “Shoot all our enemies.”

Arrows fly, soaring through the air in a beautiful and deadly arc.

Before they can fall, Wren raises a hand. She makes a small motion, as though brushing away a gnat. The arrows break and scatter like twigs caught in a harsh wind.

Jude has pulled two daggers from her bodice, both of them curved and sharp as razors.

Oak steps away from Bogdana, hand on the pommel of his own sword. “Stop!” he shouts.

The storm hag sneers. “Don’t be foolish, boy; you’re surrounded.”

Several of the falcons have notched their own bows, and though Oak believes Wren doesn’t want more death, if they fire, he isn’t at all sure she’d stop her own archers’ arrows from striking. It would be a drain on her power, and her falcons would take it much amiss.

“I have your sister,” he calls, because that’s the important thing. That’s what she needs to know. “I have Bex.”

Wren turns, her eyes wide, hair plastered to her neck. Lips parted, he can see her sharp teeth.

“He’s stolen her from us,” Bogdana shouts. “Believe nothing he says. He would use her to fetter you, child.”

Jude looks across at them, eyebrows raised. “Blackmail, brother? Impressive.”

“That’s not—” he starts.

“You have some decisions to make,” Jude tells him. “The falcons follow your lady. But perhaps she wants your head on a pike as much as the storm hag does. Give her an inch, and she might take your life.”

Bogdana answers before Oak can. “Ah, Queen of Elfhame, you see how useless your weapons are. You’re married to the faithless child of a faithless line. Your crown was secured with my daughter’s blood.”

“My crown was secured with a lot of people’s blood.” Jude turns to her archers. “Ready another volley.”

“You cannot so easily hurt us with sharp sticks,” Wren says, but her gaze keeps drifting to Oak. She must be aware that this is his family and he has hers.

Wren’s magic harrowed her before they got to Elfhame. She sagged in Oak’s arms just the day before. She cannot stop arrows endlessly. He’s not sure what she can do.

“Randalin is dead,” the prince tells the storm hag. “He conspired against Elfhame. He poisoned the Ghost. He planned this coup long before he tried to involve you in it. There is no reason to let him drag you down, too.”

“Don’t let him manipulate you,” Bogdana says, as though it’s Wren he’s trying to convince. “He’s using you just as Randalin hoped to— Randalin, who wanted to help put Prince Oak on the throne. See how the councilor was rewarded for his loyalty? And this is the person you would trust not to use your sister against you?”

Once Bex was safe, Oak thought Wren would be free of Bogdana’s control. And she is, but that doesn’t mean she’s free. He has Bex. He can control Wren the way Bogdana did. He could make her crawl to him as assuredly as if strips of the bridle were digging into her skin.

He doesn’t know how to convince her that’s not what he intends to do. “You care for your sister. And I, mine. Let’s end this. Tell Bogdana to stop the storm. Tell your falcons to stand down. This can be over.”

Bogdana sneers. “He gave the mortal to Jack of the Lakes. Jack’s likely drowned her by now.”

Wren’s eyes widen. “You didn’t.”

“He’s bringing her to you,” Oak says, realizing how bad it sounds. Not only that, but he isn’t sure it’s possible for Jack to bring Bex here, if he even guesses where they are. Oak nearly drowned, getting across.

“You believe that, girl?” snaps Bogdana. “They would have delighted if one of their arrows had pierced your heart. Let’s find the High King and cut his throat. Your falcons can watch the prince.”

Oak may be able to draw and strike before Bogdana can stop him, but if Wren tells her archers to fire, he’ll be dead. He has no magical cloak to hide behind.

Jude shifts her stance. “Anyone who goes toward that tent, kill them,” she orders her remaining Folk. “And you, little queen, better not interfere. If Oak has your sister, I assume you want her back in one piece.”

“That’s not helping, Jude,” he says.

“I forgot,” she says. “We’re not on the same side.”

“You’re hiding the High King from me?” Bogdana asks. “He must be the coward everyone says, letting you fight his battles.”

Oak sees rage flash across Jude’s face, watches her swallow it. “I don’t mind fighting.”

Cardan isn’t a coward, though. Hurt though he was, he picked up a weapon when Randalin’s knights turned on them. How badly wounded must he be not to be here now—not to even have given Jude his cloak. Cardan was bleeding when Oak left—but he was conscious. He was giving orders.

“So before this battle happens and we all have to pick sides, I have a question.” Jude’s gaze sharpens. She’s stalling, Oak realizes but has no idea what she can gain from it. “If you wanted the throne for Wren so badly, why not let her marry him? She was supposed to marry Prince Oak this very evening, isn’t that so? Wouldn’t that have given her a straight path to the throne? After she became High Queen, all she’d have to do is what she intended all those years ago—bite out his throat.”

Perhaps Jude just meant to remind him not to trust Wren.

“As though you would ever let Prince Oak come to his throne,” Bogdana sneers.

“Generally speaking, one doesn’t have to let one’s heir do the inheriting,” says Jude. “Of course, perhaps you’re acting now because you had no choice. Maybe Randalin moved ahead without consulting you. You meant for the marriage to happen, but he set the thing in motion before you managed it.”

Bogdana’s lip curls. “Do you think I care about the treason of one of your ministers? Your courtly intrigues are of little consequence. No, with Wren by my side, I can return Insear to the bottom of the sea. I can sink all the isles.”

It would destroy Wren to do that. The magic would unmake her along with the land.

“We can all die together,” Oak says. “In one grand, glorious final act of stupidity fit for a ballad.”

Wren’s hands tremble, and she presses them together to conceal it. He notices how purple her lips have gone. The way her skin looks pale and mottled, such that even the blue color of it cannot hide that something is wrong.

Unmaking the sword and the arrows must have cost her—and he was uncertain if that was all she’d done since the hunt.

“I was the first of the hags,” Bogdana returns, her voice like the crash of waves. “The most powerful of the witches. My voice is the howl of the wind, my hair the lashing rain, my nails the hot strike of lightning that rends flesh from bone. When I gave Mab a portion of my power, it came with a price. I wanted my child to have a place among the Courtly Folk, to sit on a throne and wear a crown. But that’s not what happened.” Bogdana pauses. “I was tricked by a queen once. I will not be tricked again.”

“Mab is gone,” Oak says, trying to reason with her. Hoping that he can find the real words, the true words, ones that will be persuasive because they are right. “You’re still here. And you have Wren again. You’re the one with everything to lose now and nothing to—”

“Quiet, boy!” Bogdana says. “Do not try your power on me.”

“It lets me know what you want.” He glances at Wren. “I don’t need to charm you to tell you this isn’t the way to get it.”

Bogdana laughs. “And if Wren wants her throne? Will you stand aside as she plans to take it? Will you help? Let your sister die to prove this love you claim to have for her?” She turns to Jude. “And you? Bluff all you want, but you have only four Folk behind you—half of them probably contemplating turning on you. And a brother whose loyalty is in question.

“Surely your people do not want to face three times as many soldiers, all of whom can shoot at will while you return no volley. I would greatly reward boldness. Should one of them kill the King of Elfhame—”

“What if I give you Oak’s head instead of Cardan’s?” Jude asks suddenly.

The prince turns toward his sister. She can’t really mean that. But Jude’s eyes are cold, and the knife in her hand is very sharp.

“And why would I accept such a poor offer?” asks the storm hag. “We had him for months. We could have executed him anytime we wanted. I could have killed him on Insmoor less than an hour ago. Besides, wasn’t it you who reminded me how much easier to establish Wren as the new High Queen if she marries your heir?”

“If Oak were dead, that would thin the Greenbriar line by half,” says Jude. “Mere chance might do the rest. Cardan was hurt—he might not survive the night. I schemed my way to the throne, despite being mortal. Make me your ally instead of him. I am the better bet. I know Elfhame politics, and I am mercenary enough to make practical choices.”

He knows she’s not serious about her offer. But that doesn’t mean she’s not serious about wanting to kill him.

How foolish Oak has been, making himself seem like Cardan’s enemy. How can he prove to Jude now, here, that he has always been on her side? That he never plotted with Randalin. That he was trying to catch the conspirators so that something like this could never happen.

But how could Jude ever guess what Oak was planning to do when she has no idea what he’s already done?

“Oak wouldn’t fight you,” Wren says.

Bogdana’s eyes glitter. “Oh, I think he will. What if I make the prince this bargain—win, and I will let Wren keep you as a pet. I will let you live. I’ll even let you marry her, if she so desires.”

“That’s very generous,” he says. “Since Wren can already marry whomsoever she wants.”

“Not if you’re dead,” says Bogdana.

“You want me to fight my own sister?” he asks, voice unsteady.

“I very much do.” Bogdana’s lips pull into a grim, awful smile. “High Queen, I will not merely accept the prince’s head, struck off by one of your soldiers. Just as I was tricked into murdering my own kin, it will be justice to see you kill yours. But I will spare the one of you who kills the other. Let the High Queen abdicate her throne, and I won’t chase her. She may return to the mortal world and live out the brief span of her days.”

“And Cardan?” Jude asks.

The storm hag laughs. “How about this? Take him, and I’ll give you a head start.”

“Done,” Jude says. “So long as you’ll let me take my people, too.”

“If you win,” Bogdana says. “If you run.”

“Don’t do this,” Wren whispers.

Oak takes a step forward, his head spinning. He ignores the way Wren is looking at him, as though he is a lamb come straight to the slaughter, too stupid to run.

As he walks closer to his sister, an arrow hits the ground beside him from Jude’s camp. A warning shot.

He really hopes that was a warning shot and not a miss.

“Prince Oak,” says Jude. “You’re making some very dangerous decisions lately.”

He takes a deep breath. “I understand why you’d think I was planning to betray—”

“Answer me on the field,” Jude says, cutting him off. “Ready for our duel?”

Wren steps forward. The rain has plastered her long, wild hair to her throat and chest. “Oak, wait.”

Bogdana grabs her arm. “Leave them to sort out their own family affair.”

Wren wrenches free. “I warned you. You can’t keep me your thrall. Not without Bex.”

“You think not?” says the storm hag. “Child, I will have my revenge, and you are too weak to stop me. We both know that. Just as we know that the falcons will listen to me once you collapse. And you will—you overextended yourself when you broke the curse on the troll kings and again on the ship, and you’ve used your power twice today already. There’s not enough of you left to face me. There’s barely enough of you to remain standing.”

Jude is adjusting her dress, slicing it so that she can tie the sides of the skirt into makeshift pants. What is her game?

Had they not been isolated on Insear, the army of Elfhame would have easily cut down Bogdana and Wren and her falcons. But so long as Bogdana’s storm keeps them isolated, so long as Wren stops arrows, Jude won’t be able to keep them from Cardan’s tent forever.

Jude will never abdicate, though. She will never run, not even if Cardan is dead.

Of course, if Cardan is dead, Jude might well blame Oak.

He wants to see hesitation in his sister’s face, but her expression reminds him of Madoc’s before a battle.

Someone is going to kill you. Better it be me.

Oak thinks about being a child, spoiled and vain, making trouble. It shames him to think of smashing things in Vivi’s apartment, crying for his mother, when they took him there for his protection. It shames him more to think of ensorcelling his sister and the delight he felt at the red sting of her cheek after she slapped herself. He knew it hurt and, later, felt guilty about it.

But he didn’t understand Jude’s pride and how he shamed her. How that was the far worse crime.

Jude attributes most of her worst impulses to their father, sparing Oak’s provocation. Sparing Oriana, too, who never made room in her heart for a little mortal girl who lost her mother.

Still, that anger and resentment have to be in her somewhere. Waiting for this moment.

“I heard that Madoc offered the High King a duel,” says Bogdana. “But he was too much a coward to accept.”

“My father should have asked me,” Jude says, unbothered by the insult to her beloved.

“I don’t want to fight with you,” Oak warns.

“Of course you do,” Jude says. “Van, bring me my favorite sword since Wren ruined the other one. I left it where I changed clothes.”

The prince looks over to see the Roach, his mouth grim, walk toward the tent. A few moments later, he returns with a sword wrapped in heavy black cloth.

“I wasn’t part of Randalin’s conspiracy,” Oak tries again.

But Jude only gives her brother a grim smile. “Well, then, what a wonderful opportunity for you to prove your loyalty and die for the High King.”

The Roach unwraps a blade, but Oak can barely pay attention. Panic has taken hold of him. He cannot fight her. And if he does, he absolutely cannot lose control.

“There are twin swords,” Jude says. “Heartseeker and Heartsworn. Heartsworn can cut through anything. It once cut through an otherwise invulnerable serpent’s head and broke a curse. You can see why I’d like it.”

“That hardly seems fair,” Oak says, his eye on the sword at last. It’s finely crafted, as beautiful as one might expect one made in a great smith’s forge to be. And then he understands. He lets out his breath in a rush.

Jude moves into an easy stance. She’s good. She’s always been good. “What makes you think I am interested in fairness?”

“Fine,” says Oak. “But you won’t find me an easy opponent.”

“Yes, I saw you inside. That was impressive,” says his sister. “As was your cleverness. Apologies for not noticing what I should have long before.”

“Apology accepted,” says Oak with a nod.

Jude rushes at the prince. Oak parries, circling. “Cardan’s okay, then?” he asks as quietly as he is able.

“He’ll have an impressive scar,” she returns, voice low. “I mean, not as impressive as several of mine, obviously.”

Oak lets out a breath. “Obviously.”

“But what he’s really doing is getting the courtiers and servants off Insear,” Jude goes on softly. “Through the Undersea. His ex-girlfriend is still queen there. He’s leading them through the deep.”

Oak glances toward the tents. The ones that Jude threatened to murder anyone who went near. The ones that are empty.

“Swordplay is a dance, they say.” Jude raises her voice as she slashes her blade through the air. “One, two, three. One, two, three.”

“You’re terrible at dancing,” Oak says, forcing himself to stay in the moment. He will not lose himself in the fight. He will not let himself go.

She grins and moves in, nearly tripping him.

“Wren was being blackmailed,” he tells her, dodging a blow almost a moment too late, distracted by trying to think of what he can say to make her understand. “The thing with her sister.”

“I am not sure you know your enemies from your allies.”

I do,” Oak says. “And the falcons follow her.”

“Tell me that you’re sure of her,” Jude says. “Really sure.”

Oak thrusts, parries. Their swords clang together. If Jude really were fighting with Heartsworn, it would have sliced his blade in half. But Oak recognized the sword the Roach brought—it was Nightfell, forged by her mortal father.

As soon as Jude lifted it, Oak understood her game at last.

With as few soldiers as they had, she knew they had to get close to their enemy. Knew they needed the edge of surprise.

“I’m sure,” says Oak.

“Okay.” Jude presses her attack, forcing Oak back, closer and closer to the storm hag. “This dance I’m good at. One. Two. Three.”

Together they turn. Oak presses the tip of his sword to one side of Bogdana’s throat. Jude’s goes to the other.

The falcons turn their weapons toward Oak and Jude. Pull back bowstrings. On the other side, Elfhame’s knights are ready to return a volley of arrows. If anyone fires, as close as they are to Bogdana, the storm hag is likely to be hit. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be hit, too.

“He tells me we can trust you,” Jude says to Wren.

“Hold,” Wren tells the falcons, her voice shaking a little. He can see in her face that she, despite everything, expected to find one of their blades to her throat. “Lower your weapons, and the High Court will do the same.”

“Get away from her!” a voice comes from one of the tents, and Bex steps into view. She’s soaked through and shivering, and when she sees them, her eyes go wide. “Wren?”

Horror clouds Wren’s expression as Bex steps out of the shelter of the canvas into the rain. One hand goes to cover her mouth automatically, to hide her sharp teeth. Wren never wanted her family to look at her and see a monster.

Oak notes her swaying a little with nothing nearby to grasp to keep her upright. Wren has been drinking up far too much magic. She must feel as though she is fraying at the edges. She may be fraying at the edges.

“Bex,” Wren says so quietly that he doubts the girl can hear the words over the storm.

The mortal takes a step toward her.

“She’s actually here,” Wren says, sounding awed. “She’s okay.”

“Oh no,” says Bogdana. “That girl isn’t your kin. You’re my child. Mine. And you, boy—”

Lightning arcs down out of the sky, toward Oak. He steps back, lifting his sword automatically, as though he could block it like a blow. For a moment, everything around him goes white. And then he sees Wren lunge in front of him, her hair wild and wind-tossed around her head, electricity flashing inside her as though fireflies are trapped beneath her skin.

She caught the bolt.

Her lips curve, and she gives an odd, uncharacteristic laugh.

Bogdana’s lips pull back in a hiss of astonishment. But she’s accomplished this—Oak no longer has his sword to her throat, and even Jude has taken a step back.

The storm hag shakes her head. “You imprisoned the prince. You threw him into your dungeon. He tricked you. You can’t trust him.”

Wren slumps to her knees, as though her legs collapsed beneath her.

“This is done,” Oak warns Bogdana. “You’re done.”

“Do not think to choose him over me,” Bogdana snaps, ignoring him. “Your sister is a game piece. He’ll use that mortal girl to manipulate you to do exactly what he wants, rather than use her, as I did, to help you take what is yours. And she is in more danger from him than she could ever be from me.”

Wren’s hands still spark with the aftereffects of the bolt. “You keep telling me that others will do to me what you have already done. I know what it is to want something so much that you would rather have the shadow of it than nothing, even if that means you will never have the real thing. And love is not that.

“You could have trusted me to choose my allies. Could have trusted how I would decide to use my powers. But no, you had to bring my unsis—my sister here and show her all the things I was afraid she would see. Show her the me that I was afraid for her to know. And if she spurns me, I am certain you will glory in it, the proof that I have no one but you.”

Wren looks across the mud at Bex. “Prince Oak will make sure you get home.”

“But—” the girl begins.

“You can trust him,” Wren says.

“No, child,” Bogdana snaps. Thunder rumbles. Dust devils begin to swirl around her, sucking up sand. “We have come too far. It’s too late. They will never forgive you. He will never forgive you.”

Oak shakes his head. “There is nothing to forgive. Wren tried to warn me. She would have given up her life to keep from being your pawn.”

Bogdana remains focused on Wren. “Do you really think you’re a match for my power? You caught one bolt of lightning, and you’re already coming apart.”

The falcons move toward their queen, turning their weapons on the storm hag for the first time.

Wren gives a wan smile. “I was never meant to survive. If we went through with this battle and the one that would inevitably come next, if you forced me to annihilate all the magic thrown at us, there would be nothing left of me. The magic that knits me together would have been eaten away.”

“No—” Bogdana begins, but she can’t say the rest. Can’t, because it would have been a lie.

“You’re right about one thing, though. It’s too late.” Wren opens her arms, as though to embrace the night. As she does, it seems that the whole storm—the spiraling wind, the lightning—recognizes her as its center.

Oak realizes what she’s doing, but he has no idea how to stop her. And he understands now the despair that others have felt at the sight of him throwing himself at something, not caring for the consequences. “Wren, please, no!”

She takes the storm into herself, drinking down the rain that pelts her, letting it be absorbed into her skin. Wind whips her hair, then stills. Dark clouds dissipate, blowing away on her breath until they are no more.

The pale moon shines down on Elfhame again. The wind is still. The waves crash no more against the shores.

With the last of her might, Bogdana sweeps her hand at Wren.

A bolt of lightning cracks through the sky to strike her in the chest.

Wren staggers back, bending over with the pain of it. And when she looks up, her eyes are alight.

She glows with power. Her body rises into the air, hair floating around her. Her eyes open wide. Hovering in the sky, she’s lit from within. Her body is radiant, so bright that Oak can see the woven sticks where bones ought to be, the stones of her eyes, the jagged pieces of shell used to make her teeth. And her black heart, dense with raw power.

He can feel it like a gravitational force, pulling him toward her. And he can feel when it stops.


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