Warrior Witch (The Malediction Trilogy #3)
Danielle L. Jensen
For KG, who allowed me just enough sleep to finish this novel.
My voice, the one thing about me that had always been valued, suddenly seemed inconsequential in the cacophony of voices filling the courtyard. Questions and demands fought with the cries of those whose nerves had collapsed in the face of this unknown adversary, their collective onslaught driving me back step by step until I stood apart in the snow.
Tristan raised one hand, silencing the din. “Your questions will be answered, but not here and not now.” To the grim-faced Regent, he added, “Assemble your counsel. We’ve plans to make and time is short.”
“You presume to give orders to me, boy?” the Regent replied, his tone as chilly as the air. He alone seemed calm, and I almost admired him for it, given that he must have known what, if not who, Tristan was. Almost, because I knew his scorn was directed at the one boy capable of saving us all.
Tristan’s flash of frustration made my teeth clench, and a prickle of unease burned between my shoulders, causing me to glance in the direction of Trollus. How soon would they come? And what would they do when they arrived? They were questions that likely sat heavily in Tristan’s mind, and both of us knew we didn’t have time to stand in a courtyard arguing.
“Presume?” There was almost no inflection in Tristan’s voice, but tension sang through the crowd. “Have you forgotten why you, and all those before you, have styled yourselves as ‘regents’? Or perhaps you’re unaware of what the title means?”
“I’ve forgotten nothing,” the Regent snapped. “I know our history.”
“Then you know it is no presumption,” Tristan said. “You owe your allegiance to my family and our crown; and if you do not offer it freely, it is within my right, and certainly within my power, to take it by force.”
He was silent for a moment, and I held my breath, uncertain of what he’d say next or why he believed that threatening this man was the right path to take. We needed him on our side.
“But instead I offer you a choice,” Tristan continued. “Side with me and fight for the freedom of your race.”
“Or?” The Regent wasn’t a weak man – was as born and bred to politics as Tristan. But I did not miss the unsteadiness in his voice.
“Or don’t. And I will walk away and leave you to fight this war on your own with no doubt in my mind that it will be over by morning. And all that your people will have lost – lives and loved ones and liberty – will be on your hands. That is, if my father allows you to live long enough for you to see the outcome of your choice.”
All the world’s blood will be on your hands… My mother’s, no, Anushka’s words, echoed through my thoughts, and I bit my lip.
The Regent’s eyes tracked to my brother, who remained disguised as Lord Aiden. “You knew this was coming, and yet said nothing?”
Wise enough to know the man would recognize that Fred’s voice was not his son’s, my brother only nodded and hung his head.
The horns of Trollus ceased their call, yet, in their absence, somehow seemed more present. More ominous.
“Choose,” Tristan said, and only our bond gave away his apprehension.
The Regent let out a ragged breath and inclined his head, the cords in his neck standing out as though his body itself fought the gesture of subservience. “Very well.” He turned his head to a man standing to his left. “Assemble the council.”
The crowd parted to make a path to the entrance of the castle, but the Regent stepped to one side. “After you, Your Highness.”
Tristan started forward, Fred and the Regent falling in behind him, and none of them looked back. I raised a foot to follow, then lowered it back into the puddle that the magic coating my skin had melted into the snow. I was not needed in this, nor, I thought, glancing down at my tattered and bloodstained costume, welcome.
The crowd of nobles dispersed, some calling desperately for their carriages so they might escape to the dubious safety of their homes, while others went to peer through the lowered portcullis, the wind having eroded away the dragon’s shape, leaving behind only a mound of snow. Many of them cast suspicious glances my way, understanding that I was somehow involved, but none of them guessing in what capacity. That I was responsible. That in the space of a few heartbeats, I had determined the fate of us all.
Almost from the moment I’d known the trolls existed, my purpose had been set. My goal known. Kill the witch. End the curse. Rescue Tristan. Free my friends. All of which I had accomplished.
I’d unleashed the trolls and worse upon the world with a vague certainty that it could be made to work, that we would triumph and peace would be had; but not once had I considered what role I would play. What part Tristan would play, yes. The innate decency of most of the trolls, yes. The ability of my friends to overthrow the wicked, yes. But of myself…
I swallowed hard, panic creeping in around the edges of my thoughts. Tristan had walked away without acknowledging who I was or what I’d done. Without so much as a backward glance. Logically, I knew that he would not have done so without reason. Good reason. But the dreadful grasping claws of doubt whispered something else.