Home > A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(10)

A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(10)
Author: Brigid Kemmerer

Then another, directly below it.

He collapses on my feet. Blood flows over my boots and into the white snow. I give a short scream of surprise and jump back.

“You are to leave this property,” calls a newly familiar voice. “By order of the Crown Prince of Emberfall.”

Rhen and Grey. They’re on horseback, just behind me. Rhen has a bow in his hands, another arrow already nocked.

The woman gasps and draws closer to me. Her hand suddenly grips mine and her fingers are shaking.

The men all shout and move like they’re going to charge forward with their swords.

Rhen’s arrow flies. The man in the middle takes it in the shoulder. Then another in the leg, so fast it’s almost a blur. He cries out and falls.

The other men hesitate.

“I have enough arrows to kill you all twice,” Rhen calls. Another sits ready on the string.

One man grits his teeth and takes a step forward, right toward the woman. She gives a short scream and stumbles back, pushing the children behind her.

Swip. Swip. The man takes two arrows to the chest and falls.

That does it. The last man scrambles and runs.

Silence falls like a guillotine, broken only by the ragged, terrified breathing of the children.

And my own.

I stare up at Rhen and Grey, their faces flickering with gold from the still-raging fire. They look furious.

There are dead bodies at my feet and children whimpering in the snow. Any minute, my brain is going to catch up and I’m going to collapse into sobs.

Instead, I say the only thing my addled mind can come up with. “Thanks.”



I wonder what path the curse would have taken if we had arrived a minute later and found Harper dead.

I’m so furious that I’m tempted to nock another arrow and find out.

Flames billow toward the sky, countering the wind and snow that whip around us all. I look at Grey. “Check the men. See who they are.”

He swings down from his horse.

I hook the bow on my saddle, then climb down more gingerly than he did. My insides still ache, and hard riding to chase after Harper hasn’t helped.

The pain is doing nothing to improve my mood, either.

That and the fact that Harper is glaring at me as if I single-handedly caused all this.

Grey stops beside one of the fallen men, kicking him onto his back. “This man wears a crest,” he says to me. “But I do not recognize it.” We so rarely leave Ironrose anymore that it’s not a surprise. Well, Grey does—but only in an effort to lead the monster away from the people.

Grey moves to the next man and pushes the flap of his jacket to the side, pulling a knife from his belt. “Decent weaponry. Better than common thieves, I would think.”

The infant fusses to my right, and the barefoot woman pales and tries to hush her when I look over. She seems to be clutching Harper’s hand. Considering their clothes and the thinness of the woman, this family has little worth taking—and even less now.

When I approach, the woman gasps and falls to her knees in the snow.

“Children,” she hisses, and they all mimic her immediately, though they draw closer to their mother. The toddler clings to her shoulder, huge dark eyes staring up at me.

The woman tugs at Harper’s hand. “He is the crown prince,” she whispers. “You must kneel.”

Harper meets my eyes, and hers are full of wary defiance. “He’s not my prince.”

I stop in front of her. Snow is collecting in her dark curls, and she lacks appropriate clothing for this excursion. Her hands are streaked with dried blood.

There’s blood on her lip, too, and her cheek is swelling. I give her a narrow look and reach out a hand to lift her chin. “Do you still claim to be uninjured, my lady?”

The woman gasps and lets go of Harper’s hand. “My lady,” she whispers. “Forgive me.”

Harper brushes my hand away. “I’m fine.”

Beside us, the smaller boy’s breath is hitching as he shivers in the snow against his mother. I look at the woman. “Rise. I will not have children kneeling in the snow.”

She hesitates, then rises from the ground, keeping her head down. Each time her eyes shift to the burning structure at my back, her breath shakes.

“We are in your debt,” she says. “Take all we have.”

“I will not take from those who have nothing,” I tell her. “What is your name?”

“Freya.” She swallows. Her eyes are as large as serving platters. “Your Highness.”

“Freya. Who are these men? What do they want with you?”

“I do not know.” Her voice trembles. “Rumor speaks of an invasion in the north, but—” Her voice breaks. “My sister and her husband are dead. This is all—this is all we had—”

Two of the children start crying, clinging to their mother’s skirts.

Harper moves close to Freya. “It’s okay,” she says gently. “We’ll figure something out.”

Her censorious eyes shift to me.

Clearly I am to figure this out.

“There once was an inn just north of here,” I say. “Do you know it?”

The woman chances a look up. “The Crooked Boar? Yes, of course, but …” She glances at the flames again. “I have nothing. I have no money—nothing to pay.” She pulls the infant closer. A shaking hand swipes at her cheek.

The girl moves closer and speaks through her own tears. “But we’re together. You always say all is well if we’re together.”

From the looks of it, they will all freeze to death together. Even if I can get them to the inn, they cannot stay there forever. I consider Lilith’s threats and wonder if it would be more merciful to kill them all now, before the monster can hunt them for eternity.

This woman and her children are so thin. My kingdom has fallen into poverty, and I am unable to do anything about it. A reminder that if I manage to break this curse, I will still be left with nothing.

Harper glares at me. “Staring at them isn’t helping.”

I imagine her criticizing my father this way.

I then imagine him backhanding her across the other side of her face.

If he were here right now, he would likely backhand me for not doing the same.

She has been here one day and I am already exhausted.

“My lady,” I say tightly. “Perhaps I could have a word with you privately.”

“Fine.” She stomps away, her limp pronounced, leaving me to follow.

At ten paces, I catch her arm and turn her around. I glare down at her, incredulous. “Just who do you think you are?”

“Who do you think you are?” she says. “You’ve got a huge castle with a hundred rooms. You can’t give them a few to use?”

My eyebrows go up. “Ah, so you run from the castle, but you’d submit another woman to your fate?”

“You’d rather leave them to freeze in the snow? Some prince you are.”

She moves to turn away from me, but I catch the sleeve of her wool blouson and hold her there. “Do you know why those men were after her?” I point to the bodies in the snow. “Do you know they meant to kill you? Do you wish to invite more?”

She sets her jaw. “I know they would have slaughtered those kids if I hadn’t shown up. I know they were trying to claim her land for the crown. What do you know about that?”

“They would have slaughtered those children if Grey and I hadn’t—” I freeze, my irritated thoughts seizing on her second statement. “What did you just say?”

She jerks out of my grasp. “I said those men were trying to claim her land for the crown. That’s you, right?”

“If that is what they said, they were lying.”

One of the children laughs, full out, with pure glee. I snap my head around.

Grey has laid his cloak in the snow for the children to stand on. He looks to be making ridiculous faces at them. A little boy of about four has found the courage to step in front of his mother, and the toddler giggles between shivers and says, “Again, again.”

When Grey sees me looking, he straightens and sobers immediately.

Harper has lost patience with me. “They’re all freezing,” she says. “Either help them or get out of here. But I’m going to help.”

She returns to Freya’s side and unwinds the satchel from around her shoulder. “There’s food in here,” Harper says, biting back a shiver. “It might be a little squished, but it’s something.”

The woman’s eyes go from Harper’s face to the bag and back. “My lady,” she whispers. “I cannot—”

“You can.” Harper gives the bag a little shake. “Take it.”

The woman swallows and takes the bag like it contains something poisonous—though the children begin digging at it.

“Mama!” says the toddler. “Sweets!”

“The Crooked Boar is not far,” I say. “We will ride ahead and arrange for a room for you and the children.”

Harper looks startled. “You’re going to leave us alone?”

I ignore her and unfasten my own cloak. “Grey, divide the children between the two horses.” I stop in front of Freya and swing the cloak around her shoulders.

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