THE DOORS THAT OPEN FROM THE FOUNTAIN OF PAIN LEAD TO A LARGE antechamber. It is a dark room. The sourceless white light seemed very dim and very grey here. Something crunched under my feet, and I looked down to find leaves. Dried leaves everywhere. I looked up and found that the vines that entwined above our heads were dry and lifeless. The leaves had folded in upon themselves or dropped completely.
I touched the vines near the door and there was no sense of life to them. I turned to Doyle.
"The roses are dead." I whispered it as if it were some great secret.
"They have been dying for years, Meredith," Frost said.
"Dying, Frost, but not dead." The roses were a last defense for the court. If enemies penetrated this far, the roses would come to life and kill them, or try to, either by strangling or by the thorns. The newer, lower growth had thorns like any other climbing rose, but there were vines deep in the tangle that held thorns the size of small daggers. But they weren't merely a defense. They were a symbol that there had once been magical gardens under the ground. The fruiting vines and trees had died first, so I'm told, then the herbs, and now the last of the flowers.
I searched the vines with my eyes for any sign of life. They were dry and lifeless. I sent a flash of power into the vines and felt an answering pulse of power, strong still, but faint, nothing like the warm pressing presence it should have been. I touched the nearest vines gently with my fingers. The thorns were small here, but dry, like straight pins.
"Stop petting the roses," Frost said. "We have more pressing problems."
I turned to him, hand still on the roses. "If the roses die, truly die, do you understand what this means?"
"Most likely, better than you do," he said, "but I also understand that we can do nothing for the roses or the fact that the sidhe's power is dying. But if we are careful, we may save ourselves this night."
"Without our magic we are not sidhe," I said. I pulled my hand back without looking, spearing my finger on the thorns. I jerked back, which broke a thorn off in my skin. The small dark thorn was easy to see and easy to remove with an edge of fingernail. It didn't even hurt that much, just a small dot of crimson on my finger.
"How bad is it?" Rhys asked.
"Not bad," I said.
A thick, dry hiss ran through the room like some great serpent gliding through the dark. The sound came from above us, and we all looked upward. A shudder ran through the vines, and dried leaves fell like a crumbling rain onto the floor, catching in our hair, our clothes.
"What's happening?" I asked.
Doyle answered, "I don't know."
"Then shouldn't we get to the other room?" Rhys said. His hand went for a sword that was not there. But his other hand went for my arm, and he pulled me toward the closest door, back into the hallway. None of them were armed, unless Doyle still had my gun. And somehow I didn't think a gun was what we needed.
The others closed around me like a wall of flesh. Rhys's hand touched the door handle, and vines spilled over the door like dry rushing water. He jumped back, pushing me away from the door and the reaching vines. Doyle grabbed my other arm, and we were suddenly running for the far door. They were moving too fast for my high heels. I stumbled, but their hands kept me upright and moving, my feet barely touching the floor. Frost was ahead of us, going for the doors. He called back, "Hurry!"
Rhys muttered under his breath, "We are."
I glanced back to see Galen. He was facing away from me, guarding my back with nothing in his hands but his own skin. But the thorns were not touching him. There was a sense of movement everywhere like a nest of snakes, but the thin, dry tendrils dangled above me like an octopus - reaching just for me. As Doyle and Rhys carried me farther into the room, the thorns receded behind me and fell above my head, brushing my hair, pulling at us. When Doyle turned his head to look upward, I caught a scarlet flash on his face, fresh blood.
The thorns wrapped in my hair, trying to pull me away. I screamed, jerking my head down. Rhys grabbed the handful of my hair and together we pulled it free of the thorns, leaving strands of hair behind.
Frost had the far doors open. There was a glimpse of brighter lights and faces turned toward us, some human, some not. Frost was yelling, "A sword, give me a sword!"
A guard started to move forward, hand on his sword. I heard a voice yell, "No! Keep your sword." It was Cel's voice.
Doyle barked out an order: "Sithney, give us your sword!"
The guard at the door started to lift his sword from its sheath. Frost held his hand out for it. The vines poured over the opening in a dry rushing wave. There was a moment when Frost could have dived through the door, could have saved himself, but he turned back into the room. The door vanished behind a reaching, slashing wave of thorns.
Rhys and Doyle took me to the floor. Doyle pushed Rhys on top of me. I was suddenly under a pile of bodies. Rhys hair spilled past my face like curly silk. I had a glimpse through his hair and someone's arm of a black cloak. I was pressed so hard against the floor I not only couldn't move, I could barely breathe.
If it had been anyone but Doyle and Frost on top, I'd have been waiting for screams. Instead, I waited for the pile to grow lighter as the men were dragged away by the thorns. But the pile didn't grow lighter.
I lay flat on my stomach, pressed to the cool stone floor, staring out through Rhys's hair. The arm that was braced outside the curtain was bare of cloth, and slightly less purely white, so it was Galen.
My blood had been pounding in my ears until all I could hear was the beat of my own body. But minutes passed and nothing happened. My pulse quieted. I pressed my hands to the stones underneath me. The grey stone was almost as smooth as marble, worn away from centuries of passing feet. I could hear Rhys's breathing next to my ear. The shift of cloth as someone above us moved. But over all was the sound of the thorns, a low continuous murmur like the sound of the sea.
Rhys whispered against my hair, "May I have a kiss before I die?"
"We don't seem to be dying," I said.
"Easy for you to say. You're on the bottom of the pile." This from Galen.
"What's happening up there? I can't see a thing," I said.
"Be happy you cannot," Frost said.
"What is happening?" I asked again, putting more force into my voice.
"Nothing," Doyle's deep voice rumbled down through the pile of men, as if the other bodies carried the low tone of his words like a tuning fork straight down my spine. "And I find that surprising," he said.
"You sound disappointed," Galen said.
"Not disappointed," Doyle said, "curious."
Doyle's cloak slid out of sight, the weight above me was suddenly less.
"Doyle!" I shouted.
"Have no fear, Princess. I am fine," he said.
The pressure above me lightened once more, but not by much. It took me a few seconds to figure out that Frost was raising up, but not moving his body from the pile. "This is singular," he said.
Galen's arm vanished from my sight. "What is it doing?" he asked.
I couldn't hear anyone walking around, but I could see Galen to one side, kneeling. I parted Rhys's hair from my face like two edges of a curtain. Frost was kneeling beside Galen. Doyle was the only one standing alone on the other side of us. I could see his black cloak.
Rhys raised upward, bracing with his arms like half a push-up. "Strange," he said.
That was it. I had to see. "Get off of me, Rhys. I want to see."
He lowered his head over my face so he was looking at me upside down, still supporting his upper body with his arms, but pinning my lower body with his. Under other circumstances I'd have said he was doing it on purpose. But the material of my dress was thin enough and his clothing light enough that I could tell he wasn't happy to see me. Staring into his tri-blue eye from inches away but upside down was almost dizzying, and somehow strangely intimate.
"I'm the last body between you and the great bad thing," he said. "I'll move when Doyle tells me to move."
Watching his small round mouth move upside down made my head hurt. I closed my eyes. "Don't talk upside down," I said.
"Of course," Rhys said, "you could just look up." He drew his face back, pulling back until he was on all fours above me like a mare shielding her foal.
I stayed flat on the ground but craned my neck backward. All I could see was the snaking tendrils of the roses. They hung above us like thin, fuzzy, brown ropes waving gently back and forth almost as if there was wind, but there was no wind, and the fuzziness was thorns.
"Other than the fact that the roses are alive again, what am I supposed to be seeing?"
Doyle answered, "It is only the small thorns that are reaching for you, Merry."
"And?" I said.
His black cloak came closer as he stood above us. "It means I don't believe the roses mean you harm."
"What else could they want?" I asked. It should have felt silly talking from the ground with Rhys perched over me on all fours. But it didn't. I wanted something, someone, between me and the rustling of the thorns.
"I believe, I think, it may want a drink of royal blood," Doyle said.
"What do you mean a drink?" Galen asked it before I could. He sat back on the floor, moving so I could see most of his upper body. Blood had dried in spots and small trails down his upper body, but the bites were almost gone, leaving only the blood as proof that he'd been injured. The front of his pants was blood-soaked, but he moved better, less pain-filled. Everything was healing.
I would not heal if the thorns tore into my body. I'd simply die.
"The roses once drank from the queen every time she passed this way," Doyle said.
"That was centuries ago," Frost said, "before we ever dreamed of traveling to the lands to the west."
I propped myself up on my elbows. "I have passed under the roses a thousand times in my life, and they've never reacted to me, not even when they still had a few blooms left."
"You have come into your power, Meredith. The land recognized that when it welcomed you tonight," Doyle said.
"What do you mean the land welcomed her?" Frost asked. Doyle told him.
Rhys bent over to stare into my face again in that awkward upside-down movement. "Cool," he said.
It made me smile, but I pushed his head up out of my face anyway. "The land recognizes me as a power now."
"Not merely the land," Doyle said. He sat down on the far side of me from Galen, spreading the black cloak around his body in a familiar gesture, as if he wore a lot of ankle-length cloaks. He did.
I could see his face now. He looked thoughtful, as if contemplating some weighty philosophy.
"This is all fascinating," Rhys said, "but we can discuss whether Merry is the chosen whatever, later. We need to get her out of here before the roses try to eat her."
Doyle looked at me, dark face impassive. "Without swords we have very little chance of making either door with Merry alive. We would survive the roses' worst attentions, but she would not. Since it is her safety that is paramount and not our own, we must think of a way out of this that does not require violence. If you offer the roses violence, they will return the favor." He waved his hand upward, vaguely including the trailing vines. "They seem to be quite patient with us, so I suggest we use their patience to think."
"The land has never welcomed Cel, nor have the roses reached for him," Frost said. He crawled around me to sit near Doyle. He didn't seem to trust the roses' patience as much as Doyle did. I agreed with Frost on this one. I had never seen the roses move before, not so much as a twitch. I'd heard the stories, but never thought to see the reality of it for myself. I'd often wished to see the room covered in sweet fragrant roses. Be careful what you wish for. Of course, there were no blooms, just thorns. That wasn't exactly what I'd wished for.
"Just because you put a crown on someone's head doesn't make them fit to rule," Doyle said. "In olden days it was the magic, the land, that chose our queen or king. If the magic rejected them, if the land didn't accept them, then bloodline or no bloodline, a new heir had to be chosen."
I was suddenly very aware of all of them looking at me. I looked from one to the other of them. They had almost identical expressions on their faces and I was half afraid I knew what they were thinking. The target on my back just kept getting bigger and bigger. "I am not the heir apparent."
"The queen will make you so, tonight," Doyle said.
I looked into his dark face and tried to read those raven-black eyes. "What do you want of me, Doyle?"
"First, let us see what happens when Rhys opens the way for the thorns. If they react violently, then we will go no farther. Eventually, the other guards will rescue us."
Rhys asked, "Do you want me to move now?"
Doyle nodded. "Please."
I wrapped a hand around both of Rhys's arms, keeping him above me. "What happens if the roses pour over me and try tearing me limb from limb?"
"Then we throw ourselves on your body and let the thorns rend us before they touch your white flesh." Doyle's voice was bland, empty of meaning, but still interested. It was the voice he used in public at court when he didn't want anyone to guess his motives. A voice honed by centuries of answering to royals that were often not quite sane.
"Why is that less than comforting?" I asked.
Rhys flipped his head upside down to peer into my face again. "How do you think I feel? I'll be sacrificing all this toned and muscled flesh just when I thought someone else might get to appreciate it."
It made me smile.
He smiled at me upside down like the Cheshire cat. "If you'll let go of my arms," he said, "I promise to throw myself on top of you at the first hint of danger." His smile widened to a grin. "In fact, with your permission I'll throw myself on top of your body at every opportunity."
It was almost impossible not to smile at him. If I was about to be torn limb from limb, I might as well go smiling as frowning. I let go of his arms. "Get off of me, Rhys."
He kissed me lightly on the forehead and stood.
I was left lying on the floor all by myself. I rolled onto one side, gazing upward. The men had all gotten to their feet. They stood above me, but only Rhys was looking at me. The others were looking up at the thorns.
The thorns swayed gently above us as if they were dancing to some music that we could not hear.
"They don't seem to be doing anything," I said.
"Try standing." Doyle held his hand down to me.
I looked at that perfectly black hand with its pale almost milky-white nails. I looked from the hand to Rhys. "You'll throw yourself on top of me at the first hint of danger?"
"Quick as a little bunny," he said.
I caught Galen giving Rhys a look. It was not a friendly look. "I heard that about you," Galen said. "That you were quick."
"If you want on bottom next time, help yourself," Rhys said. "I'm more of an on-top man myself." His teasing had a bite to it, and he didn't look happy either.
"Children," Doyle said, a soft warning in his voice.
I sighed. "The proclamation hasn't even been formally announced and the bickering has already begun. And Rhys and Galen are two of the more reasonable ones."
Doyle made a small bow, putting his hand just inches above me. "Let us take our problems one at a time, Princess. To do it any other way is to be overwhelmed."
I stared into his dark eyes and slid my hand into his. His grip was firm and unbelievably strong as he lifted me to my feet almost faster than I could stand. It left me off center and wobbling, forced to catch his hand tight to keep from falling. His other hand came out to catch my arm. For a moment it was very close to an embrace. I glanced up at him. There was no hint on his face that he'd done it deliberately.
The thorns gave a furious hiss above our heads. I was suddenly looking upward, hands on Doyle's arms, but not for support-I was frightened.
"Perhaps you should give us the knives you carry before we go farther?" he said.
I glanced at him. "How much farther are we going?"
"The roses desire a drink of your blood. They must touch you at the wrist or elsewhere, but usually the wrist," he said.
I did not like the sound of that. "I don't remember offering to donate blood again."
"The knives first, Meredith, please," he asked.
I looked up at the quivering thorns. One thin strand seemed lower than the rest now. I let go of Doyle and reached a hand inside my bodice for the knife within the bra. I brought it out, flicking it open. Frost looked surprised and not happy about it. Rhys looked surprised but pleased.
"I did not know that you could hide such a weapon under such a small piece of clothing," Frost said.
"Maybe we won't have to do nearly as much protecting as I thought," Rhys said.
Galen knew me well enough to know I always went armed at court.
I handed the knife to Doyle and raised my skirt. By the time the skirt was to my knees I could feel the men's attention like a weight on my skin. I looked up at them. Frost looked away as if embarrassed. But the others either looked at my leg, or my face. I know they'd seen more skin than this on longer legs. "If you keep watching me this closely, you're going to make me self-conscious."
"My apologies," Doyle said.
"Why the sudden attention, gentlemen? You've seen the court ladies in much less than this." I kept lifting the skirt until I bared the garter. They watched each movement the way that cats watch birds in a cage.
"But the court ladies are off limits to us. You are not," Doyle said.
Ah. I lifted the knife, hilt and all, from around the garter. I let the skirt fall back into place and watched their eyes following the movement of the cloth. I enjoy being noticed by men, but this level of scrutiny was almost unnerving. If I survived the night, I'd have a talk with them about it. But as Doyle said, one problem at a time or you are overwhelmed. "Who gets this knife?"
Three pale hands reached out for it. I looked at Doyle. He was, after all, captain of the Guard. He nodded, as if he approved of my looking to him for the choice rather than making it myself. I knew who I liked the best of the three, but I wasn't sure who was the best with a blade.
"Give it to Frost," Doyle said.
I handed the knife to him handle first. He took it with a small bow. I noticed for the first time that there were faint blood stains on his pretty shirt. He'd been pressed against Galen's back wounds. He'd need to soak the shirt or the bloodstains would set.
"I realize that Frost is worth a stare or two tonight, Meredith, but you are stalling," Doyle said.
I nodded. "I suppose I am." I looked up at the dangling thorns. My stomach was tight, my hands cold. I was afraid.
"Hold your wrist out to the vine that is the lowest. We will protect you to the last breath in our bodies. You know that."
I nodded. "I know that." I did know that. I even believed it, but still... I watched the thorns and my gaze slid upward into the dimness. Vines as wide as my leg twisted and turned upon themselves like a knot of sea serpents. Some of the thorns were as big as my hand, catching the light in a dull black gleam.
I brought my gaze back down to the thin tiny thorns on the vines directly over my head. They were small, but there were a lot of them, like a bristling armor of tiny pins.
I took a deep breath and blew it out. I started raising my hand slowly upward, hand balled into a tight fist. My hand was barely even with my forehead when the vine poured downward like a snake down a hole. The brown thing wrapped around my wrist, and the thorns set in my skin like hooks in a fish's mouth. The pain was sharp and immediate, coming a second before the first trickle of blood slid onto my wrist. The blood tickled down my skin like tiny fingers caressing the skin. A fine crimson rain began to glide down my wrist, thick and slow.
Galen hovered by me, hands fluttering around me as if he wanted to touch me but was afraid to.
"Isn't that enough?" he asked.
"Apparently not," Doyle said.
I looked where his gaze was fixed and found a second thin tendril hanging above my head. It stopped as the first one had stopped-waiting. Waiting for my invitation to come closer.
I looked at Doyle. "You must be joking."
"It has been long since it fed, Meredith."
"You've endured more pain than a few thorns," Rhys said.
"You even enjoyed it," Galen said.
"The context was different," I said.
"The context is everything," he said, softly. There was something in his voice, but I didn't have time to decipher it.
"I would give my wrist in your place, but I am not heir," Doyle said.
"Neither yet am I."
The vine moved lower, tickling against my hair like a lover trying to caress his way to the promised land. I offered my other arm, fist closed. The vine wrapped around my wrist with an eager speed. The thorns sank into my flesh. The vine pulled tight. It brought a gasp from my throat. Rhys was right. I'd endured greater pain, but every pain is singular, a unique torture. The vines pulled themselves taut, raising my hands tight above my head. There were so many thorns that it felt like some small animal was trying to bite through my wrists.
Blood ran down my arms in a fine, continuous rain. I'd been able to feel each individual line of blood at first, but my skin grew dead to so much sensation. The pain in my wrists drew all my attention. The vines raised me up on tiptoe, until their grip was all that kept me from falling. The sharp biting pain began to fade into a burning. It wasn't poison. It was just my body reacting to the damage.
I heard Galen's voice as if from a distance. "That's enough, Doyle." It wasn't until he spoke that I realized I'd closed my eyes. Closed my eyes and given myself to the pain, because only by embracing it could I rise above it, travel through it, to the place where there was no pain and I floated on a sea of blackness. His voice brought me back, wrenched into the kiss of thorns and the spill of my own blood. My body jerked with the suddenness of it, and the thorns answered that movement by jerking me into the air, free of ground.
I cried out.
Someone grabbed my legs, supporting my weight. I blinked down to find Galen holding me. "It's enough, Doyle," he said.
"They never drank so long from the queen," Frost said. He'd moved up to us, my knife in his hand.
"If we cut the vines, they will attack us," Doyle said.
"We have to do something," Rhys said.
The sleeves of my jacket were blood-soaked. I thought vaguely that I wished I'd worn black. It
didn't show blood as badly. The thought made me giggle. The grey light seemed to be swimming around us. I was dizzy, light-headed. I wanted the blood loss stopped before I got nauseated. There was nothing like nausea induced by blood loss. You felt too weak to move and still wanted to spill your stomach onto the floor. My fear was fading into a light, almost shining, sensation, as if the world were edged with fog.
I was perilously close to passing out. I'd had enough of the thorns. I tried to say "enough," but no sound came out. I concentrated on my lips and they moved, forming the word, but there was no sound.
Then there was a sound, but it wasn't my voice. The vines hissed and shivered above me. I looked upward, my head falling back bonelessly. The vines rolled above me like a black sea made of rope. The thorns around my wrist pulled upward with a sharp hiss. Only Galen's arms on my legs kept me from being lifted into the nest of thorns. The vines at my wrists pulled, and Galen held, and my wrists bled.
I screamed. I screamed one word: "Enough!"
The vines shuddered, trembling against my skin. The room was suddenly thick with falling leaves. A dry brown snow filled the air. There was a crisp sharp smell like autumn leaves, and under that, like a second wave of scent, was the rich smell of fresh earth.
The thorns lowered me toward the ground. Galen cradled me, picking me up in his arms as the vines let me down, slowly. Both Galen's arms and the vines themselves seemed strangely gentle, if teeth could be gentle while they tried to bite your arm off.
The sound of the door banging back against the wall was the first hint I had that the vines had pulled back from the door.
Galen was holding me in his arms with the vines still pulling my wrists above my head when we all turned to the spill of light from the open doors.
The light seemed brilliant, dazzling, with an edge of soft mist. I knew the light only appeared bright after the dimness, and I thought the edge of mist was just my ruined vision -until a woman stepped out of that light with smoke rising from her fingertips as if each pale yellow finger were a snuffed-out candle.
Fflur moved into the room dressed in a gown of unrelieved black that made her yellow skin the bright color of daffodils. Her yellow hair fanned around her dress like a shining cloak twisting in a wind of her own power.
The guards spilled out to either side of her. A handful had weapons; the rest came into the room bare-handed. There were twenty-seven men in the Queen's Guard and the same number of women in the King's Guard, which now answered to Cel because there was no king. Fifty-four warriors, and less than thirty came through the doors.
Even through the faintness I tried to memorize each face, tried to remember who came to our aid and who stayed behind in safety. Any guard that hadn't come through those doors had lost any chance they had at my body. But I couldn't focus on all the faces. A flood of new forms swept in behind the Guard, most of them shorter and much less human.
The goblins had come.
The goblins were not Cel's creatures. That was my last thought before darkness spilled over my vision and ate the mist across my eyes. I sank into that blissful darkness like a stone thrown in deep water that could only fall and fall because there was no bottom.