A Court of Honey and Ash - First chapter

Chapter 1

 

 

Feet and hands planted in the scorching sand, under an equally scorching sun, I held my position in an awkward downward dog, while I waited for the bellow from the Horn of the Untried. I swallowed hard, trying not to think about what it would mean if I were to fail the final test after so many years of extensive, brutal training.

Eight years had culminated in this moment of do or die.

Did I have it in me to become one of the fae of the Seelie court, or would I be cast out with the weakest of my kind?

“Fuck,” I whispered under my breath as bile crawled up my throat.

“You’re in a good position for it,” Rowan, another trainee, muttered from my left. Placed as I was, feet and hands buried in the sand, he flashed me a quick smile, but the tightness around his eyes and mouth said it all.

Those who’d ended up in this place knew the consequences of failure.

Those of us who were part human knew it even better.

And mutts like me—half human and half fae—knew it best. Sorry for being born, I guess?

I didn’t smile back and instead lowered my head to look at the sand between my fingers. The ache of holding this position was more mental than physical, and that was all part of the test. Sweat rolled down my face. The ache in my shoulders crossed to burning throb territory. The braid holding back my thick, dark hair unraveled more with every passing second. Loose strands plastered to my neck and cheeks as I fought to breathe evenly, the minutes ticking by with excruciating slowness while the pain and need to move increased in cruel triple time.

Someone down the line whimpered and I could guess who it was. Bracken. She was not cut out for this, but like the rest of us, had no choice but to train and pray she didn’t get cast out. Very few women were sent for training to begin with—the low numbers of fae born each year meant that women were kept as safe as possible.

Except when there was reason to hope that you were cast out so you had no part of the fae world—so that your bloodline was ended without the ruling class actually having to raise a finger.

Us bastards and orphans had no family to back us or our training. Here in Underhill, we only had each other, as frightening a thought as that was, and since many of us had come from the same orphanage there were years of history between a number of us.

“Hold, Bracken,” I bellowed. “Don’t you dare break now. We’ve only just started!”

She responded with another whimper, and a few of the other twenty-four trainees groaned their agreement.

In the distance, a long low whine built on the air, swelling until the deep keening cut through the sounds of heavy breathing around me and rumbled into the thunderous blast of the Horn of the Untried.

Just like that, I abandoned my downward dog and lunged forward with the others. Sand flew up everywhere as we ran, but my trainer’s sharp voice circled in the back of my head. As soon as you hear the horn, run. That horn doesn’t only unleash you, it unleashes Underhill’s beasties on your heels.

Beasties was a polite and totally inaccurate way of putting—

“Monster on the left,” Rowan hollered.

As one, our group split through the middle to face the first obstacle of the test.

Our self-appointed troop leader, Yarrow, took the right half, while I took the left. Rowan and Bracken were just behind me.

Our overall mission was to ‘collect the coins’ hidden on the course, but of course there were monsters involved. The big question was which beasties they’d given us today.

I got my first good look.

Fuck.

“Dragon,” Bracken screamed.

Her scream grew fainter as she fled. Damn it. Bye, Bracken.

I turned to the left, ignoring the loss of Bracken. I didn’t dare take my eyes off the ‘small’ issue suddenly towering over us.

It wasn’t just a dragon, but a three-headed dragon. That was two too many heads in my humble opinion. Flames spewed from each mouth in great rolling gouts. With scales of solid black, the beast didn’t look real to me—more like someone had cut and pasted it from one of those terrible movies humans liked, and that the orphanage had let us watch on Friday nights as a treat. If we were good.

Its limbs moved strangely, jerking at odd angles as it lumbered toward us.

Slow.

Stupid.

Unbalanced.

“Weapons,” Yarrow hollered.

I slipped my bow from my shoulder and drew an arrow clear of the quiver in one fluid movement. Snapping it up and into position, I sighted past the fletching.

The middle dragon head bobbled left and right, almost indecisively. I focused on its furiously rolling eyeball and loosed an arrow. The squelching thud of the sharp tip embedding in my intended target was lost to the surrounding mayhem, but the wet sound echoed in my head regardless.

The dragon’s middle head dropped like a wilted flower, but the beast kept coming, the remaining two heads not even glancing at the slumped head between them. I frowned. That didn’t bother the beast? There wasn’t even a reaction to the pain of a pierced eyeball.

Arrows and spears flew past me, some sinking into the monster’s haunches and barbed tail, many missing the mark entirely, and I withheld a sigh. Not-so-secret secret? Fae, even mutts, were shit at fighting with anything other than magic. And guess what rule we’d been given for this final trial to prove ourselves?

You guessed it, no attack magic. And for me, that was just fine seeing as my magic, well, it wasn’t what you’d call upper level.

I sighted down another arrow and took the left head.

“Get a move on it, Kallik,” Yarrow roared.

Alli. I preferred Alli and he damn well knew it.

“You’re welcome to help out,” I muttered. But I smirked as the third arrow met its mark. Now we had a bouquet of wilted monster flowers. Kind of.

The dragon heads thudded to the ground. From what I could tell, they were dead. But the body continued to move, staggering in the hot sand, dragging the heads along behind it.

Gross. Not the worst thing I’d seen in the last eight years though. Certainly not the worst thing I’d endured either.

I studied the beast. It was as if the brains weren’t connected to the rest of the dragon. The creature was simultaneously alive and not. Oddly fascinated, I lowered my bow and arrow to watch the bizarre display.

“Retrieve the coins,” Yarrow’s booming voice jolted me.

I drew green energy from the nearby trees and used it to fuel my indigo magic, wrapping it around my throat to amplify my voice. “The coins,” I yelled at magically enhanced volume to my half of the group. “Get the coins!”

Rowan clapped me on the shoulder. “Did Yarrow just manage to slip in an order before you?”

Yes. And I’d never hear the fucking end of it. Yarrow, the bastard of House Gold—one level below House Royal—had assigned himself as the bane of my existence since nearly the moment I arrived. If I thought too much about it, I could still feel his slimy hands sweeping over me as he pawed at my clothes.

I shuddered. Nope, not going there.

The two halves of our troop surrounded the beast.

An excited shout went up, and I spotted our treasure a beat later. Behind the staggering dragon body was a wooden chest strapped in iron.

Rowan reached the chest first, and gingerly holding the wooden edge to keep clear of the iron, flung the lid open. His deep brown hair caught the light, turning it a nice coppery shade as he bent to peer inside. Nope, it wasn’t his hair that was reflecting that color. He looked up, the copper shimmer on his face. “Shit. There aren’t enough coins.” His eyes darted. “Only twenty, tops.”

Then this wasn’t a ‘collect the happy coins as a team’ gig. It was a ‘get a coin or you’re out on your ass.’

He tossed me one and pocketed his own, then backed up as the others scrabbled and fought for the remainder. Yarrow shouldered his way to the front—dick.

Rowan tapped my shoulder. We’d been in the orphanage together, and while we weren’t tight friends, we’d known each other for years. “We should go. I think from here on out . . .”

I nodded, already slipping my coin into the pouch at my hip. “The next challenge is probably the same way. It’ll have even fewer coins, to eliminate more people.”

The game had changed.

Breaking into a run beside him, I didn’t slow to put my bow away, but instead kept it steady in my left hand, two arrows in my right. Better to have it out and ready before more beasties showed up.

But as we raced from the sand dune, something caught my eye: a crying Bracken huddled to one side of the course, shoulders shaking.

I tucked my arrows into my belt, ran over to her and grabbed her by the arm. “Up and at ’em, Bracken. Maybe we can help you get the next coin.”

She bobbed her head, long blond hair unbound and disastrously tangled already. “Okay?”

Rowan rolled his bright green eyes but said nothing, and neither did I. We couldn’t leave her behind. Underhill—the ancestral home of the fae—was dangerous even for those prepared to take on its unpredictable challenges. This area of the realm would be extra volatile for the next few hours after the sounding of the Horn of the Untried. Plus—I tightened my hand on Bracken’s wrist—it wasn’t her fault she got a shitty trainer. Rowan and I had been lucky to snag Bres. Old fart that he was, he was the best at mentoring young fae through this training.

The sand shifted under our feet as we ran, morphing from scalding and gritty to cold, wet, and heavy. A literal ocean appeared before us, extending as far as the eye could see, and I slowed my feet as a wave crashed to our right, stretching up the brand-new shore.

Underhill strikes again.

And this time it had struck me where it hurt. My heart pounded as I studied the choppy surface. I worked to keep my expression clear of the panicked fear trying to claw at my throat, an old memory trying to push its way to the surface.

Cold, the water was so cold and I couldn’t breathe.

No, no I couldn’t let the past steal my future.

“Bres said we’d have three main challenges. Weapons. Bravery. Mind.” Rowan’s voice broke through to me. “What do you think this is?”

We’d completed the weapons obstacle, at least that was my thought.

I released a pent-up breath as the waves calmed and the surface stopped moving. “Bravery.”

Bracken hugged her arms around herself. “Why? It’s just water. Perhaps it’s Mind. It’s harder to hold our breath for a long time when danger strikes.”

No fucking kidding. That feat was even harder for mutts who had to battle back their human instincts to breathe. Harder still for those with a cloying fear of water.

My fists curled as I braced myself inwardly for what had to happen next.

Lifting my chin, I glanced into the water. A glimmer of something silver flicked into the air, end over end, then dropped down to the rolling ocean and disappeared.

“Did you see that?” I croaked.

I felt more than saw Rowan’s nod.

“Silver coin,” he grunted.

That was enough of a confirmation for me. Better get this over with. Before I could change my mind, I stripped out of my clothes and dropped my weapons to the wet sand.

Rowan didn’t question me before following suit, and Bracken stripped down after a brief pause.

“You a good swimmer?” Rowan asked her.

Bracken dipped her head. “Yes.”

He didn’t ask me—I’d worked hard to keep my weakness from becoming general knowledge. I mean, I could swim, but . . .  

I forced my feet through the shallows, hissing as the icy cold hit me.

The three of us were waist deep when the rest of the troop arrived. Rowan and Bracken swam off without further delay. The other Untried would take their cue from us. I couldn’t linger, I had to do this. Inhaling through my nose a few times, I clamped down on my panicky thoughts and dove forward.

The water was so cold it clamped iron bands around my chest and the top of my head—or was that panic? Movements frantic at first, I swam as far as I could before breaking the surface for air. Rowan and Bracken were ahead of me. Teeth chattering, I hurried to join them at the spot where we’d seen the flash of silver.

Rowan peered down into the depths, and I looked too, trying to focus on the mission. The water was exceptionally clear, allowing us to see all the way down, and right at the bottom was a chest identical to the one guarded by the dragon. Wooden. Banded in iron.

“Big breath,” Rowan said. “This is deep.”

Easier said than done, but I took the biggest breath I could manage and dove down.

I pushed hard, but I’d only reached halfway before my tightening lungs screamed at me to take a breath. Logically, I understood that being half-fae I didn’t need to take a breath for several minutes, but because I was half-fae, the human parts of my mind didn’t accept this as true, even without my phobia of drowning.

Rowan and Bracken were ahead of me, almost to the chest.

The pressure on my lungs surged. My mind screamed at me to urgently return to shore, but no, I wouldn’t give up.

I flat-out refused.

Bubbles slipped from my lips and streamed back toward the surface, but I kept on.

Almost there.

Rowan turned, a silver coin in his hand. He looked past me, eyes widening as he pointed.

I spun in the water as Yarrow caught up to me, swimming fast. Curved knife in hand, he slashed, dragging the blade across my left thigh. A bloom of red swirled up around us, but I barely felt the cut in the numbing cold of the water.

He took another swing, and I pedaled backward, bumping into something soft and squishy.

Yarrow turning tail to bolt was a decent indication of what the soft and squishy thing could be.

Watch for the unexpected.

I slowly turned and forgot about my breathing dilemma.

Tentacles erupted around me. I spotted suction cups the size of my head as the sea creature whipped its limbs outward to hook swimming troop members.

The tentacled monster didn’t pay me the slightest attention, instead turning to the other Untried. Was I too close to it for it to see me?

Shit, there was no way it would miss the scent of blood in the water, though. I yanked my belt off and tied it around my leg, then swam below the creature’s bulbous, pink body to the chest.

My eyes widened as I snagged the last silver coin. More trainees had swum past me than I’d thought. Grabbing the last coin was cutting things too close for comfort, and from the pattern we’d seen there would be fewer coins at the next stop.

I had to get a move on.

Rowan and Bracken swam for the surface, already far ahead of me. The sea beast unfurled a giant tentacle in their direction, and Rowan paused to slash at the limb.

The monster shrieked and recoiled.

It didn’t like pain, huh? Good to know.

Coin in mouth, I grabbed the chest and smashed it against the rocky pedestal it had sat upon. The splitting noise rippled outward, and I grabbed a long piece of slat with a jagged edge.

Kicking hard, I swam underneath and behind the tentacled beast. It rose in the water to grab for Rowan and Bracken, and I followed it upward, readying myself to stab the creature if it succeeded in hooking them and dragging them downward like it had done with some of the other Untried. From what I could see at least seven fae were caught in various tentacles. I couldn’t save them all, but maybe this would help a few.

Its free tentacles reached out for Rowan and Bracken, and I jabbed its soft underside with the long slatted piece of wood.

The monster shrieked again, the sound reverberating through the water, and diverted its attention to the sea floor, a few of the Untried released from its tentacles. That was the best I could do.

I took my chance and swam out from under it.

Breaking the surface, I didn’t dare slow, but swam as hard as I could for the shallows.

Panting for air I technically still didn’t need, I crawled onto the wet sand, surveying my surroundings.

Bracken was crouched in front of me, but Rowan wasn’t there.

He’d gone ahead. Didn’t blame him, this was the game.

Bracken watched me closely with those bright blue eyes of hers. She blinked a few times and held out my bow and arrow. “The boys wanted to smash them.”

And she’d kept them from being broken? I slipped my silver coin into the pouch at my hip and took my weapon from her. “Thanks.”

“Least I could do,” she said. “You helped me get a coin. Maybe they’ll let me be a tradesperson now instead of casting me out into the Triangle.”

I’d gone into this determined to retrieve a coin of each color, but she was right—they’d probably dole out consolation prizes to those who’d succeeded at some challenges but not others.

“Let’s go.” Limping along, I made myself pick up speed even though my leg throbbed like I’d been kicked by a mule, now that the numbing effect of the water had worn off. A quick glance showed me that the wound was more surface than I’d first thought. That was good.

“What happened?” Bracken asked.

“Yarrow,” I spat. Goddess damn him to the depths. “How many got out ahead of me?”

“Fifteen or so including Rowan. A bunch of them banded together though and reached the surface before me and Rowan.”

An alliance. Great.

We jogged, and the landscape changed from ocean to a thick jungle that sloped steadily upward. My thigh muscles loosened with the sudden and cloying heat and the wound, while still irksome, wasn’t holding me back. As the foliage changed, so did the footing, and it wasn’t long before we stood in front of a steep rock face.

“You think we go up?” Bracken asked quietly.

A shimmering gray overlay was on a part of the rock wall. I put a hand to it and a tiny zing of energy slipped up my fingers, all but beckoning me forward. “Yes.”

 Climbing the steep rock face, hand over hand, carefully finding footholds and finger grips, we made our way up.

No safety nets waited below, and after the hectic anarchy underwater a moment ago, the ascent held an eerie quality.

This had to be the bravery test.

Teeth clenched together, I controlled my breathing. In through my nose and out through the mouth. I wouldn’t freak out, heights didn’t bother me. This was far more my element than the ocean.

Water pounded somewhere above, but I forced those sounds aside as my hand found the top of the cliff at last. I scrambled over the ledge and turned on my belly to peer down. Huh, Bracken was right there.

I held a hand out, helping her up the last few feet. “You did it. Good work.”

“Glad you could join us,” Yarrow called out.

Whirling in a crouch, I faced him.

Them.

The boys were spread out in a semi-circle around Yarrow, Rowan included in their midst. Fifteen of them.

“As troop leader,” he drawled, “I insist that ladies go first. Though I’m not sure that word applies to someone of your . . . dubious heritage.”

He was always careful not to call me mutt when higher-ups might be listening in.

Yarrow laughed, and the others laughed with him. Rowan included. Oh, hell no. Rowan hadn’t crossed me by joining the winning side—that was just smart—but being an asshole? That landed him on my shit list.

My guess as to why the boys waited for us? Something really dangerous lay ahead, and Yarrow wanted to watch someone else screw it up first. Not an unintelligent idea, though it was a cowardly one.

I gave him a hard smile. “Not what you said the other night, troop leader.

He tightened his grip on the handle of his blade, knuckles tensing, but I made myself walk straight past him as if my leg wasn’t throbbing after the climb, and about to buckle.

Because beyond them was the next challenge. And with limited coins on offer, it made sense to go first.

Ignoring their jeers and taunts, I took the only path leading away from the ledge. The pounding of the water swelled to a furious roar that echoed the sudden pulsing of my blood in my ears.

Not again.

My eyes rounded.

A vertical waterfall shot straight down what could only be hundreds of feet into a pool of water that looked impossibly small from here. My exhale wheezed out at the thought of diving into it. They couldn’t mean for us to do this.

Yet the path that shimmered a light gray had stopped at this exact point and there was nowhere else to go.

We were definitely meant to jump.

I slid a foot back. No. No way. I couldn’t do it. Just because Underhill often felt like a dream, didn’t mean we couldn’t die here. If I jumped, I’d either smash against the rocks or drown.

I slid another foot back.

“Alli, watch out,” Bracken cried.

I choked on a scream as a large hand shoved between my shoulder blades. I only had a split second to push off with my good leg, catapulting my body away from the cliff face.

And then . . . free fall.

A scream lodged in my throat, filling my mind. Panic hit me, so strong that black crept in on the edges of my vision. I closed my eyes and surrendered to my fate.

Flashes of memories hit me—something that often happened when I was precariously close to death. Growing up as a mutt outcast. The orphanage. Fighting to get here to this testing.

Without warning, I slid into a calming warmth that gently slowed my fall, rocking me in its arms. Water. But it was so soothing, my landing so seamless, that for a moment I thought I’d died on impact.

Magic was at play.

I thrashed against the water’s peaceful hold as it moved me to the base of the waterfall.

A familiar wooden chest awaited me on a flat rock.

Shaking and moving on autopilot, I pushed back the lid and took one of eight gold coins out, then took another for Bracken too. Those guys could kiss our asses.

Still in shock, I forced myself to enter the water once more to swim to the edge of the warm lagoon and pull myself out.

Land. Glorious, firm, non-drowning land was finally under me. In a crouch, I sank my fingers into the dirt and watched as each of the other Untried hit the water. Not one of them came to harm—which confirmed that there wasn’t actually any danger in the landing. We’d just needed the courage to jump.

Or the lucky misfortune to be pushed.

Yarrow was the fifth to take the leap. Still in time for a gold coin. Bastard.

Rowan was the eighth to fly the nest.

He trudged out of the water empty-handed with his head hung low.

I didn’t give him the extra coin. He’d set the tune, and I’d dance to it.

Bres and the other trainers emerged from the jungle, and I vaguely noted the sopping wet arrival of most of my fellow Untried behind them, those who hadn’t made it to the final hurdle.

My attention was fixed on the cliff top. Bracken hadn’t come down.

“Dive, Bracken,” I whispered.

I doubted she would—I wouldn’t have if I’d known no good would come of it—but if she didn’t complete the challenge, they might give me a hard time about handing over the coin.

A moment later, there was a sickening whoosh and a rapid streak of blond. She hit the water with barely a splash. A few seconds passed before she floated to the surface.

“The coins were all gone, but I thought I’d jump anyway.” She shrugged, joining me.

I slid the extra gold coin into her palm and winked at her gaping expression. See how Rowan liked that rotten egg.

Someone clapped, capturing my attention.

Bres stepped forward. “Those with three coins will enter into the Elite of the Seelie. You will receive training in the area of your choosing, along with a stipend, your own home, a crest, and two human servants.”

Yarrow puffed up his chest.

I wrinkled my nose, but the deep yearning that had filled me from the second I started training rose hard within me now.

My own home.

My own money.

I had three coins. I’d be an Elite. They could keep the crest and the servants, but the rest . . .  that was independence and freedom right there.

Bres continued, “Those with two coins will enter into the Middling of the Seelie. You will receive training in the area of your choosing along with a half stipend and shared accommodations with those of your status.”

Bracken grabbed my arm, squeezing it hard. “Thank you, Alli.”

Better than she could have hoped for.

I couldn’t respond, slightly numb from hearing about the future they’d outlined for me.

“Those with one coin—” he called out. Several of the sopping wet group looked up at that. They must’ve failed to pass the tentacled monster. “—you will be trained as tradespeople and given shared accommodations with those of your status.”

There were only twenty-four left in our troop after the eight years of training. Two of the four without coins started to cry, the other two trembling more than Bracken had up on the cliff.

“And those with no coins,” Bres announced, “will also become tradespeople.”

My gasp joined those from the others.

“I knew they wouldn’t do it.” Rowan sidled up to me. “They wouldn’t cast us out, not with fae numbers so low and human numbers so high.”

He was not trying to talk to me after pulling that crap. Moron.

I ignored him.

Bres spread his hands wide. “Eight years of hard work. If you’re still here, you have proven your worth one hundred times over. Each of you is worthy to join the court of the Seelie, no matter in what capacity. All that remains is to take your oath to our revered king. It is my honor to introduce our Oracle to hear your pledges.”

A ripple ran through our masses. Most would have seen the legendary Oracle at their sorting—the time when you were put into the Seelie or Unseelie court—but I had not been sorted.

The old, hunched woman shuffled from the jungle to stand between the trainers and our awed troop. A hood masked her face, and I wasn’t alone in craning to catch a glimpse of what was concealed in its depths.

The trainers ordered us into a single line, and I tacked myself to the back of the line behind Bracken. Those ahead of me knelt to speak the oath that would bind them to the Seelie king and the Underhill we shared with the Unseelie court. It wasn’t an oath a fae could just un-speak. Breaking a pledge to the court would see a fae magically bound and exiled.

I released a pent-up breath, having half expected them to rip my three coins away on some bogus technicality. Excitement bubbled in my chest as the line dwindled. What area should I choose to train? And to live? Unimak Island situated in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska was filled with beautiful nooks and crannies. Tears pricked at the edges of my eyes.

My whole life I’d dreamed about this moment.

It was finally happening.

Bracken knelt and murmured the pledge we’d all hoped to one day utter when we first entered the Underhill.

When she joined our laughing and grinning comrades, I tilted my chin and knelt in her spot. The last to speak the pledge.

“Your hand,” the Oracle demanded.

I tried again to peer inside the old woman’s hood, but only glimpsed a strand of long gray hair—a testament to her age, as the fae did not age like humans.

I held out my right hand, and she pricked the palm with the tip of a crystal knife. The blood climbed up the blade.

“Swear your oath now, Kallik,” she said in a softer voice. “And may the goddess help us for what comes after.”

With a speed that belied her age, the Oracle drove the crystal blade into the ground at my feet.

I frowned. She hadn’t done that with anyone else. But the Gaelic words had been drilled into me in preparation for this moment, and they flowed from my lips now, melodic and harsh.

“I, Kallik of No House, do swear to protect and uphold the laws of Underhill.” My hand warmed where I’d been pricked, and I rubbed at it. “I bind my soul to her power. I bind my sword to obey the orders of King Aleksandr.” The heat grew, spreading liquid fast through my now-trembling body. “Should I ever fail in this, then I shall forfeit my place in this world, the Underhill, and whatever lies beyond.”

The final words left my lips, and my magic rolled through me and outward in a blasting wave as the earth heaved. The very air around us cracked with a burst of green lightning. Ice shards of the same color, sharp as razor blades, shot around us as the world exploded.

I hit the ground, hands over my head as the fae screamed.

But there was no hiding from the ground morphing beneath my very body.

Jungle, water, sand, honey, cloud, thorns, ice.

Underhill was unpredictable to the extreme, but in eight years it had never done anything like this. What was happening?

As the world continued to shake, I rose onto all fours, staring down at what was now a very normal dirt floor covered in pine needles. Too normal. It was unlike anything I’d seen since . . . since I’d traveled here.

I lifted my head and my gaze slammed into the Oracle’s. She’d removed her hood, and while one eye was sealed shut, a great slash across it, her other eye was filled with every possible color.

She regarded me in condemning silence.

“What’s happening?” I whispered over the screams and thunderous rumble.

Somehow she heard me.

“Underhill is no more, Kallik of No House,” the Oracle replied. “You have destroyed it.”

 

 

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