Ameryn woke up in a pool of broken glass. The first thing she felt was the sting of the shards against her exposed skin. The second thing was the sting of icy early winter air seeping in through the cuts and into her bones. It was still dark. Her eyes couldn’t focus on the shifting shapes around her. Everything was dark and blurred. She wondered if she were still dreaming. At first she couldn’t think of why she was lying on the flagstones surrounded by glass.
Then it came back in pieces, like the bits of Aileen’s shattered picture window stuck into her skin.
The locked door. Aileen’s scream. Then the conspiratorial whispers. Nayr’s voice and the princess’s. That blasted locked door. Tearing it down. She felt for the splinters under her nails.
But it had been too late.
Now she could see. All around her bustled members of the king’s Wolfguard, their noses pressed to the ground, searching for the beginnings of a trail. But Nayr, his knights, and the princess had vanished like smoke.
Painfully, she raised her upper body from the ground. Her hands groped for the source of the sting that seemed to be numbing her lower body. She found the green-fletched dart in her leg. The area around the wound was purplish and bruised. Slowly she regained feeling in her legs.
Her mask. She felt her face, but the mask was not there. She had thrown herself from the tower window without a thought to her appearance. She was fully exposed to the Wolfguard prowling around her, who gave her a wide berth and turned their eyes away.
Her ears awoke to the clamor of bells. Alarm bells. The castle gates were wide open. Beyond she saw the panicked throngs of townspeople, peering in on the open courtyard, their faces the picture of dismay. They knew the princess, their beloved princess, was gone. And there was only one person to blame.
“Don’t move—you’ll startle it!”
“Eh, what could it do? Useless creature. All that fear, all that mystery, all that menace, and for what? The princess is gone, and that thing couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
“I’ll have its hide.”
The captain of the Wolfguard signaled, and the gate was shut.
Ameryn shivered, but she saw no point in getting up and moving out of the cold.
She felt two firm hands on her shoulders. She was yanked up and wrenched around, finding herself staring into a wild-eyed, wrinkled face. The Tree-Man who awoke in the garden that day, many weeks ago.
“On your feet,” the man snapped. He was robed in blue, as before, but the fringes of his robe seemed reddish now, as though he had walked through wine or blood. He pulled her up on her wobbling legs, still unrecovered from the sleep drug.
“Come along, Guardian. There is work to do.” He turned and strode into the castle with energy belying his apparent age.
Who was this man, she thought. Her tongue had not found the strength to speak.
“I am Arato, my Lady Ameryn,” he shouted back at her over his shoulder. “I am the Keeper of the House of Wolves, and you would be well-served to stop asking questions and start following me. We are going to see the king, and there is much we must convince him of.”
Ameryn could only stare at his retreating figure, astonished. With a snort, the old man twitched the great willow branch he used as a walking stick, and Ameryn was yanked forward and followed him on a strength not her own, step after heavy, bewitched step into the castle’s shadowy halls.