I gritted my teeth. What’s dead is alive, what’s alive is dead. This time, I met Reina’s gaze and nodded. Yes, I confirmed. It’s as we feared.
“Can you describe these undead things?” I asked McElson, hoping for some rational explanation.
He shook his head. “I haven’t seen one myself.”
“It might just be a misunderstanding,” Reina said, her voice thick with hope. “Perhaps nothing more than desperate farmers needing help with a wild animal?”
“Wild animals don’t walk on two legs,” Grandmother Elle said. “The Governor’s reports describe instances of both four-legged and two-legged creatures.”
McElson nodded, toying with the corner his napkin once more. “I have reports from two different residents who tried to approach one of the…things. They spoke of unseeing eyes and mindless wandering in these creatures.”
I let the conversation lapse into silence a moment, knowing I needed to respond, knowing they waited for my thoughts. I allowed my gaze to wander over the far corner of the painted recessed ceiling with its gold trim and cornflower blue center.
“Has anyone tried to capture one?” I said finally, turning back to McElson. “Or kill one?” I added as an afterthought.
McElson’s gaze dropped to his lap. “No one who has lived.”
“They’ve killed! The undead creatures you speak of?” Reina cried. “Why didn’t you say that from the start?”
“It’s happened twice, so far as I know. The first time was in the middle of the night, and the farmer’s son found him facedown in the fields the next day. It appeared he’d been…mauled.”
“If he was alone in the middle of the night, and his son found him the next day, how do we know he wasn’t killed by an animal?”
“We assumed it was a wild animal at first, too, Sibyl. A bear. A boar. We didn’t yet know what was roaming the lands there. A week later, there was another death, this time a smith traveling home late at night. He met with local friends at a nearby pub after he closed shop, then ran into an undead on his way home. His friends…they said they begged him not to intervene, but he insisted he wouldn’t see his town terrorized, that he wanted to protect them all. He was a big man, you understand.
“I don’t know if he knew the scope of what he was up against. The witnesses say it was a person, but not. A human form, but no soul. Sightless eyes filled with blackness. They…saw it tear him apart much in the same way we’d found the first man. That’s how we concluded the mystery of the first man’s death.”
Appalled, Reina sucked in a breath beside me.
“And the man’s friends…they lived?” she asked.
“They did. One was injured when he tried to assist briefly. The other fled and was unharmed.”
I’d hoped for more time. I ran a hand along my jaw, going over the options in my mind.
Finally, I said, “You brought these reports with you?”
“Meet me in the west wing study. Half-hour. Bring the papers,” I said, standing. Reina rose to her feet beside me, her chair scraping along the polished floor.
“Where are you—”
It was time to do what I warned Reina against doing the last time we relied on Tarrowburn’s words—translate prophecy.
Where was my father when I needed him most?
A ridiculous question.
Being a governor, my father was still in Barnham, probably explaining to everyone in the town exactly how his son had become ruler of the entire kingdom. He and my mother planned to journey to Irzan eventually, but since Barnham was nearly as far from Irzan as one could get without boarding a ship, it was better for him to stay put to help restore order on the other side of the kingdom.
Now, in the cool, dark library, I stood over the book containing the prophecy. My hands gripped the edges of the thick wooden table, knuckles whitening under the pressure of each word read. Blasted prophecy. It was supposed to have ended with the finding of the White Sorceress. We were promised peace.
“I wish to speak with Reina alone.”
I could have been wrong, but as she dismounted, I swore I heard Reina say, “Oh, I bet you do, but you won’t by the time I’m done speaking with you.”
I dismounted, took a moment to stretch my legs, and waited for her to follow. I guided us behind a thick spray of bushes and trees that would block our argument—for it would be an argument—from view.
“Blast it, Reina! You were supposed to stay in Irzan. What were you thinking?” I hissed at her as soon as we were far enough.
“What was I thinking? How about what were you thinking? Quinn, have you gone daft? Did you forget about the prophecy entirely? The part where we have to travel together, you, me, and…and…him?” She swung a pointed finger to where Ingram sat on his horse, somewhere behind the bushes we’d put between us.
I shook my head. “Why did you bring that conceited fool?” I asked.
“You know I can hear you, right?” Ingram’s voice rose from behind the curtain of greenery.
I ignored him. “I told you I’d return soon, and with more information. How else are we to find out where we need to go and what we need to do?” I said.
“You told me? You did no such thing! Or was that in one of the notes you left for your advisors?”
I narrowed my eyes at her.
“No, it was in the note I left for you,” I said, forcing the calmness in my voice.
“The note you—”
“—left in your medicine bag. You’re always in that blasted bag. I figured it was the best way to make sure you saw it.”
Reina’s face went pale.
I reached out to steady her with a hand on her arm. “What?”
She swallowed. “I left the medicine bag in Irzan.”
“You never saw my note?” I groaned and put a hand to my head, rubbing my eyes, then pulling my hand away again. I’d never be able to tolerate the feeling of fingers on my eyelids. Not ever.
“No, but Quinn. It’s worse than that. I left the bag in Irzan. The bag with all my supplies.”
She turned, sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, and put her head in her hands.
“But you’ve got the talisman.”
The medicines in her bag were helpful, but not having them wasn’t the end of the world. She could heal faster with the talisman than with any amount of her herbs and tonics.
“The talisman hasn’t been…working right,” she said reluctantly.
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