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The Witch in the Wood

Chapter Text

Listen close, child,

Listen quite well,

For deep in the trees,

There lurks something fell.

 

You sleep warm and safe

While inside your room,

But venture without caution,

And it will mean your doom.

 

Her face is a mask

Of bones and raw teeth.

She speaks but a word,

Your sword sticks in its sheath.

 

If there’s one thing you heed,

And your mem’ry is good,

Beware that dark evil,

The witch in the wood.

 

 

 

Kylo Ren, Royal Duke of Chandrila and knight-errant of the kingdom of Alderaan, looked at the witch’s keep and frowned in disappointment. When he’d been tasked with rescuing a princess from the gnarled grasp of an evil witch, he had expected to arrive at a tall, crooked building with chipped stone and cracking foundations that held as much malevolence as a pile of broken bones.

This was a tree.

It was indeed tall and crooked, and nearly as wide as the castle gate leading into Alderaan, and there were actual bones surrounding the tree—they sat on top of knobby posts in arrangements that seemed almost more sculptural than menacing—yet the strings of hanging moss and the almost whimsical twist to its branches gave the tree a softer feel. Tentative, green shoots burst from the crown in a stubborn refusal of the fact that winter still held on to the world.

‘Not for long,’ the little buds seemed to say.

The tree even had a short, crooked door with a round window, like something he would see in a fairy garden. A tree like this did not belong in the middle of a witch's wood.

Kylo’s black warhorse shifted impatiently in the snow as light flakes settled on his glossy mane. The animal snorted, the damp air steaming from wide nostrils. The feathered tufts on his fetlocks were damp from the snow, and his sleek flank shone with sweat.

They had ridden hard through the wood for nearly two weeks. His mother’s advisors had said that the witch was well-hidden, and they had not lied. Many had tried to find her before. All had failed.

But Kylo was different. His tenacity could leave dents in iron. He only had to follow the wiggling squirm in his gut, the foul sense of unease, and soon enough he was passing stacks of snow-covered cairns and crooked posts gouged with runes. The empty branches around him had almost seemed to reach out and grab his tabard. Perhaps it had only been his imagination. Perhaps it had been something else.

If he breathed through his mouth now, he was sure he’d be able to taste the cold, oily tang of magic in the air. A shiver tiptoed up his spine at the very thought of it.

Magic.

Corrupting, twisting, degrading.

Kylo rolled his shoulders against the lurking guilt and tightened the buckles on his bracers.

He could dwell as long as he wished on the past, yet that would not change it. Instead, he would complete this quest, as he had completed all of the others.

“You’ve redeemed yourself,” his mother had said one day, years ago, as she rubbed a speck of dirt from her crown with an embroidered silk square. “To me, at least.”

Kylo had said nothing in response; there was nothing to say. He’d plucked another scroll from Advisor Connix’s dainty hand.

Dystruction of an Ogre, the scroll had read. Fore the Safety of the Kingdomme.

He’d returned to the castle with the ogre’s head.

Another scroll.

Another battle.

Another victory.

Another feather-light weight on the scale of judgment.

In the edge of the clearing that contained the witch’s tree, Beck tossed his head impatiently and Kylo placed a gentle hand on his wide neck. The stallion had kept a remarkable pace through the snow, never shying from even the tallest arrangements of bones. They'd been together through far worse.

Kylo knew nothing of the girl imprisoned in this tree except that she needed rescuing. His mother had been awfully excited that he’d agreed to this particular venture.

Damsel Tayken, Lost in the Wytch’s Wood, Presumed Captured Bye An Evil Wytch, Thus Realised When Her Mount Returned to the Kingdomme, Grossly Disfigured by Magic.

No one else had sought out this quest, but his mother had smiled when he’d asked for the details.

“She’s a princess,” Leia had said, a twinkle in her eye. “I hear she’s beautiful.” Another twinkle.

“Are the beautiful ones easier to rescue?” Kylo drawled.

His mother had aimed a sharp look at him, obviously frustrated with his disinterest. “They are easier to marry.”

“I think not of marriage.”

The queen had snorted then, like an outraged goat, causing several of her attendants to startle.

It had been a little bit of a lie. Kylo had thought of marriage, but it had been in a passing sort of way, the way a rose would think of the bite of winter. There were some things in this life that would never meet. He’d found his peace with that.

Yet...despite his apathy toward romance, he still had dreams, year after year, of the woman with hazel eyes and hair like toasted chestnuts. Her face had never been entirely clear. That had never seemed to matter.

For, oh, they were wonderful dreams. At first they had been as light and airy as whipped butter, filled with a laughing girl and a flowering meadow, yet as he grew older and more mature, the dreams matured as well— she matured as well; those hazel eyes, once glimmering innocently in sunlight, now were heavy-lidded and sensuous, reflecting the guttering flame of a candle as he moved above her.

Some time ago, he had been traveling through Alderaan’s kingsforest in the summer and had passed an old oak. Gnarled and stooping, the tree was probably nearly as old as the kingdom itself, and every inch of its bark was covered in thick, verdant moss. Someone had nailed a crooked hive box to the trunk, and globs of honey oozed over the moss down to the dirt. Kylo’s feet had stilled and he’d stared at it for some time, startled by the way the sun glimmered off of the sticky mess, because it was the same color as her eyes.

Amber over green.

Honey and moss.

Enough of this musing, Kylo thought. Villains were never defeated with self-reflection and daydreaming; they were defeated with strength and steel.

He’d agreed to this quest because it was a chance to destroy a magic-wielder—not to muse, not to nearly freeze his toes through his fur-lined boots, and most of all, not to wonder at the color of a princess’s eyes. He was to destroy a witch.

Kylo slammed shut his helmet’s grated visor and unsheathed his greatsword from the long saddle scabbard. He never tired of the feel of it in his hand; its weight did more to comfort him than any warm flagon of honeyed wine ever had. The broad blade glinted in the scant light that filtered down from a grey sky.

He shifted his grip and eyed the broken side of the crossguard. A different knight would have taken it to the smithy to fix or melted it down into something new. Not Kylo. The jagged metal was a reminder, as much a part of himself now as one of the scars that marred his skin. If his hand slipped in battle and the burrs and cracks gouged his skin, the pain helped to focus him, to drive him onward with the brutal encouragement of a whip.

As he strode through the fresh snow, Kylo swung his sword with a controlled rotation of his wrist. Warming his muscles, loosening his joints. His oiled chainmail hardly made a sound in the clearing’s empty silence.

The door shattered easily when he kicked it. Old wood, older hinges.

From inside, he heard a startled gasp.

Kylo burst through the doorway and raised his sword with both hands. As his eyes fell on the figure at the other end of the room, he felt his heart stutter.

It was a monster. An abomination.

Its hunched body was covered in thick fur, its clenching fingers outstretched like claws, and its head…

Great gods, its head.

It had a face like a death mask—empty eye sockets, a hole where its nose should have been, sharpened fangs bursting from the upper jaw and sticking out over empty air. Antlers curved up from its white forehead.

With a brutal yell, Kylo swung his sword at its neck. The monster threw up its arms, and a shimmering disc appeared at its side. Kylo’s blade bounced off as if he’d hit a wall of stone. It had made a shield.

Ah, so this must be the witch.

The rage burbled in his veins, wanting to be let free, needing a release. He kept it inside.

Not yet, he told it. Patience. The witch was hardly a large enough foe to justify exhausting himself with a rage.

He swung again, at the knees this time, and another magical barrier shimmered into temporary existence. But it hadn’t been watching its other side.

Kylo swung a gauntleted fist at the creature’s temple. It was much smaller than him, he realized, even with its furs, and it barely managed to duck out of the way of his blow.

A woman’s high cry came from above his head.

“Help! Sir Knight! Please!”

The witch looked up at the cry, just long enough for Kylo to see pale skin underneath the edge of the skull, the curve of a jawline, the corner of a mouth. A mask, then. Not that it made any difference.

He’d found the witch, and he’d found the princess. Everything from here would be simple: kill the witch, save the princess.

The witch struck out with an arm. A blazing dagger of light speared from its palm and glanced off Kylo’s helmet, hard enough to set the metal ringing. He grunted at the force of it.

“Witch,” he snarled from beneath his helmet and brought his sword down again, and again, and again. The muscles in his arms burned, and it was a glorious feeling.

The last swing staggered the monster.

He’d backed it up against one of the crooked windows set into this dimly-lit hovel, and as he drew back his sword, readying it to thrust into the monster’s furred chest, sunlight streamed across the witch’s mask. A break formed in the snow-heavy clouds, and they parted to let a ray filter through rippled glass. The light was bright enough to glance over the dips and hollows of bone and illuminate the eyes behind the mask: wide, frightened eyes.

Hazel eyes.

Kylo felt as if he’d been kicked in the stomach.

No.

Gods, no.

The woman from his dream could not be this monster. She would not be this monster.

“What do you want?” Her voice quavered, muffled by bone, and Kylo noticed that she was gripping the wall behind her with shaking hands.

He kept his sword raised. The furs had slipped around her neck, and he aimed the tip of the blade at the tender skin in the hollow between her collarbones.

“I’ve come for the princess,” he growled.

A choking gasp, sounding almost relieved, burst from the mask.

“You want her? Take her. Please.” The witch lifted a hand and flicked her fingers, which Kylo now noticed were nothing at all like claws (how had he thought that?), and the sound of hurrying, slippered feet scuttled closer.

“I’ve had no idea what to do with her,” the witch mumbled. “Never had a prisoner before.”

What?

“Please,” she continued. “Take her, and there’ll be no violence from me. I swear.”

Kylo’s sword had been drifting closer to the floor. He raised it. This might be a trick, a cunning way to force down his guard, to cast a spell on him when he least expected it.

Fingers closed around his arm, clutching the leather and the steel, and he nearly jerked away before seeing that it was a young woman, large-eyed and dark-haired.

“I’ll...we’ll be off, then,” he said stiffly.

The witch nodded and made a gesture as if urging them to hurry.

He backed out of the witch’s house, through the broken doorway, and stomped through the snow. The witch didn’t follow, though he could see the shape of a single antler bobbing in the darkness.

Odd.

Should he return and finish her off? Although she’d given up her prisoner easily, she was still a witch. Magic was woven into the tree and the surrounding land like poisoned wool in a tapestry.

Hazel eyes.

“My lord.”

Kylo jerked his attention to the princess at his side. They’d made it halfway to his horse. He could see Beck at the edge of the trees, his ears pricked at the two of them.

“My lord,” the woman said again. She was pretty. Long, dark hair, high cheekbones. Her eyes were as black as beetles and almost as hard. Kylo tried to pretend that he didn’t feel his heart sink, just a little.

“I’d like to thank you,” she said with a shining smile. “Could you not remove your helmet?”

Kylo sent a glance at the tree. “Now?”

“Now.”

The witch was standing in her doorway, the empty eye sockets of her mask tracing the broken wood and the torn hinges, her furred shoulders lifting in a heavy sigh.

“...Here?” Kylo said.

“Yes,” the princess snapped. “Here.”

Kylo turned to her in surprise, taken aback by her tone, yet her smile was wide and honest. She held a large rock in her hand, close to her side, as if it was precious to her.

“I…”

The woman straightened, her thin dress doing little to hide her shivering from the cold. “Sir, I”—she lay a hand on her chest—“Princess Bazine Netal, must insist that you remove your helmet so I can bestow a proper favor upon you.”

Gods be damned, fine. Fine. What harm could it do?

Kylo unbuckled the strap under his chin and pulled off the heavy helmet. A burst of cool, refreshing air rustled the damp hair at his neck and around his ears.

Princess Bazine smiled again, her black eyes roving over his face. “Thank you,” she said sincerely.

“I...you’re welc—”

He didn’t expect her to swing the rock at his temple. Kylo could only gape at her, stunned, as she swung the rock again. He was in the snow, on his knees, pain flashing through his skull like witchfyre, when she hit him a third time.

Kylo fell. His cheek felt like ice where it lay in the snow. Something was warm, though, as it trickled across his forehead. He tried to move. He tried to stand. He tried to breathe. His rage thrashed in his chest, desperately wanting to erupt and destroy, to heal the break in his head; yet he was too tired. Too, too tired. His rage flopped around uselessly instead, like a fish in the dirt.

There was a brief tug on his feet, as if a beast was dragging him into the woods, and he wanted to grab for his sword and swing wildly, but it was no longer in his hand. He couldn’t feel his fingers. Whatever had been pulling on his feet was gone, replaced by a different sort of pull—the internal sort that dug soft hooks into his ribcage and urged him to his feet, toward her.

The world wavered in his sight like a tentative rabbit, and he was unsure when it would flee from him.

He could still hear, though it was fading.

Hoofbeats.

Silence.

Then, the slow crunch of snow: his own bare feet compacting the flakes as he staggered across the clearing.

His knees buckled, and the sky loomed high overhead. The last thing he saw before his vision went completely black was a figure hovering over him, antlered mask drifting from her pale face.

Brown hair.

Hazel eyes.

Honey and moss.

 

Chapter Text

Eyes closed, asleep, all monsters were less frightening. Maz had told her something like that once. Or maybe it had been the opposite—never underestimate any monster, even as it slept, because it didn’t need eyes to kill you. The old woman had been full of advice like that; sometimes she’d contradicted herself or spoken in such cryptic terms that she’d only seemed to. Same thing, in the end. She’d never had much to say about the monsters one saw while asleep . There had been no reason. Rey never told her about those nightmares.

Shrieking metal and the creak of leather. A sword like a cruel, jagged claw. The pounding of hooves. Something burning, always burning. The hulking dark shape of a black-eyed creature with a bull’s head and a bellow that raised thunder. He was a monster and he bled smoke and he had come to destroy her.

Today, she had thought it about to come to pass. Instead it had happened like this.

The monster had broken down her door, barrelled through all in a rage, and for a moment she’d believed it was her nightmare made flesh, proved more prophecy than harmless phantasm. This would be how she died. The great broadsword would fall, and so would she. But he didn’t want her; he wanted the princess. Who could want such a wretched creature, she was not sure, but she was happy to be rid of the princess Bazine, after weeks of her insults and threats. Magic only went so far, and it had certainly never bolstered Rey’s patience.

So she had thought this, inexplicably, was about to be the solution to her problem. If he was here for the princess, he could have her. Rey’s cooperation even bought enough of his good favor that he had left as if it was a bargain he’d sought from the start. It took her a minute or two to evaluate her shattered door and the rest of the mess left behind by his brief and tumultuous minutes in her home; and it was because of this that she missed just how badly botched his supposed rescue had gone.

Not a monster, then. A knight. Perhaps not a very good one.

She’d found him staggering noisily through the snow toward her home rather than away from it. His return was announced by the faint clatter of well-oiled armor and the less faint clamor of his snarls and curses, interspersed with the utter nonsense of someone whose wits and maybe more had been knocked out of him. His face was washed red with blood that seeped from beneath his dark hair. He’d left a bright trail of it behind him, and it had melted a splash of crimson in the snow where he had first fallen. He was barefoot. He wasn’t sure where he was, seemingly fighting his own forward movement, and he was barely conscious. She had put him into a dreamless healing sleep with a simple incantation, then dragged him inside. He was heavy, but magic fed her muscles and bones, bolstering her strength long enough to move him without too much fuss. Then, she had found her toolbox and begun her work.

He’d started to wake again as she was struggling to remove his greaves, and for her trouble she had narrowly escaped being kicked in the chin with one of his large feet. He either had one of those rare constitutions that was very stubborn in the face of magical persuasion over the humors, or . . . there was some other reason the usual spells weren’t working on him. It hadn’t been the time to figure it out, not while he was thrashing and hurling invective at her face and drops of blood onto her floor. She had redoubled the spell and snatched up a pot of valerian unguent, then used her thumb to dab a dollop of the thick salve into the proper signs over his temples, between his eyebrows, and over his lips for good measure. He’d drifted off again an instant later, just as he was about to try to bite her, and stayed down after that.

The not-monster was still asleep and deceptively peaceful, tucked into her bed. (As best as she could make him, at least, for his ankles and feet hung over the footboard, and he made the ordinarily adequate space look all too small.) She’d stripped him down to his shirt and trousers. The shirt was simple, linen, sweaty and grimy but in good condition otherwise; the trousers were well-made, dark leather, soft and supple with use. His monster’s trappings—not just the heavy pieces of armor but his tabard and jerkin as well—were piled in the corner near the hearth. Despite her brief effort to find them outside, the helm, sword, and boots were all gone, along with his mount.

She’d done her best to stanch the bleeding, clean him up, and begin knitting the gash on his head. Though she had hoped it would prove only superficial, the wound was rather terrible: a jagged tear to the flesh, long as her forefinger, and the bone beneath visibly fractured. She'd had to clear not only blood away but grit and pieces of whatever stone had been used to bludgeon him. A lesser man would be dead already, and a lesser attendant would have lost him. But Rey was very good at what she did and had fixed worse, and he was very fortunate to have stumbled into her clearing, if a fool. He would live, and he would heal well.

She did not have the good will to feel bad for him, not when her home was still a shambles because of his recklessness. Even so, she would do her best to see him back to health. And then gone. As soon as possible, goddess willing. Crouched on the floor near the head of the bed, she split her attention between watching him and preparing to see if she might learn some more of his person as he slept.

There was something very strange about him.

The soft sound of arrested wingbeats alerted her to the presence of another, though it was not until she felt the voice that she turned her attention from her unwanted guest.

Rey! I spied your door from aloft, what in the seven— There was an aggravated chuffing cackle and the click of a beak. Something hard and small clattered to the floor and rolled until it hit her heel. What is that in your bed? I did not think it your way to take lovers.

Rey chuckled sourly, then looked from the sleeping knight to one of the winding rafters overhead. A robust magpie was perched jauntily from a little twirl of outgrowth, regarding the scene with ruffled feathers and gleaming black eyes.

“Still not my way to take lovers, Finn,” she said. From her crouch on the floor she reached behind her heel and picked up the acorn he had dropped. It was a good fat one. “Raiding the squirrel nests today, I presume? This has Poe’s teeth marks all over it.”

He can call himself a flying squirrel all he likes , Finn groused. Has yet to do him any good catching me while I make off with his nut cache.

“At least he didn’t accuse you of kidnapping this time.” Absently, she picked some dirt—or maybe dried blood—from under her nail. “I presume.”

Finn gave a throaty scoff. True, I was wise enough not to take . . . what does he call it? Bee-Bee something. Sometimes I think he considers that stack of acorns a closer friend than he does me.

“Jealous?”

Please. It’s bloody weird, and he’s been on about it the last two autumns.

“I see you’re in a mood today,” she muttered in reply, the acorn already set aside and forgotten near her foot, an invitation for Finn to join her on the floor as she began her reading.

She had the man’s belt laid out in a straight line atop a stretch of faded red cloth, perpendicular to her boot toes. Off to the side she’d set a shallow dish filled with small bones and other trinkets she had added to her throwing set over the last decade: a smooth black stone; the rough-cut purple gem that had once been set in a gold band; a thumbnail-sized snail’s shell, abandoned and satisfying in the perfection of its swirl; a hellhound’s long, serrated canine tooth; a chipped wooden button; a bent doornail; and so on. Rey was about to begin when Finn alighted from the rafter to one of the bedposts and looked down at the man’s face.

So what is he, then?

“I’m not sure. Just a man, I suppose. I want to see if I can find out.”

Did he do this to your home?

Rey’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “Yes. He did. Threatened to kill me, as well. Though he offered to take that Bazine woman away, and I thought we might have struck a deal.”

She hummed with displeasure at the fraught weeks she had kept the woman here. Rey hadn’t wanted to, but the other option was to send her back into the wood, where she would surely have been killed within a day’s time. Indeed, Rey still regretted injuring the princess’ horse by accident; a poorly aimed spell had grazed his haunch and sent him bolting in terror. But she did not regret her reasons—Bazine had tried to kill Finn when he’d crossed her path, claiming him an omen of bad luck. In retrospect, she likely considered Rey’s appearance, like an avenging spirit, the very ill fortune she feared.

Besides, if Rey had let her go, Bazine may have brought people from the kingdom to harm her. The princess claimed she had no intention of returning to the kingdom, that she’d left because of some marriage arrangement she had no desire to fulfill—but Rey could not trust that. Kingdom-dwellers were known to warp the truth to their own ends. They would burn her home and kill her and probably consider it a service to the realm, much like ridding it of a parasite or a rotting limb. So she’d kept the princess, with no plan of how to be rid of her. She supposed she’d hoped things might get better, easier.

And then the knight had come.

“It seems as if Bazine struck him. Several times, with a rock. Then made off with his horse and sword.”

Sword? Finn fixed her with the magpie approximation of a glower and dug his claws deeper into the wood of the bedpost. Good riddance of that, at least. So, a knight, perhaps? Or more likely a rube who fancies himself one.

“No, a real one. I think so. Just a very unlucky one.” She reached down to run her fingers over the belt. It was thick, heavy leather but soft and smooth, with a beautiful tarnished buckle. It had witnessed much misfortune; much of it was the knight's own, but she sensed he had caused a great deal as well. It was all there in the belt’s fibers, impressions soaked deep like the mink oil he must have used to keep it so fine. “He would have died if I left him. If not from the cold, then the face-eaters after dusk. He was bleeding very much, and you know that draws them.”

Finn shuddered and cawed a corvid’s curse in agreement. You’re far kinder than most things in these woods, he said.

She knew he meant it as a gentle rebuke, but all she felt was the warmth behind his words. Besides, she couldn't claim that her actions were purely altruistic. She would have been a fool indeed to let the knight draw face-eaters or any other manner of malevolent creature near her home with his blood and bluster. He’d provided enough of both for one day.

“We’ll see. I’m going to have some unkind words for him when he wakes and is lucid enough to tell me how it is he found the tree. The bastard.” She narrowed her eyes at the blanket over his chest, rising and falling with his slow, even breaths. It was difficult to hate or fear him like this. Now she was merely curious. “I will throw bones for him and see what I can read. I’m very confused about the circumstances of his arrival. He should not have been able to see this place at all, let alone enter as easily as he did. Marched right past the perimeter wards. Maz made that door herself, and he kicked it down as if it were nothing at all.”

The hurt she felt at the loss of the door was surprising to her. It was a relatively minor thing. She could make a new one with fresher ward work, stronger wood bound to her own magic. But the things she had left of the woman who had given her the only real home she’d ever had seemed to be disappearing more and more. Soon it would only be memories.

Finn hopped over the center of the headboard and preened.

Peculiar. I don’t like it. Tell me what they say, he said, eyeing her setup from his new perch. In the meantime, want me to shit in his hair while I’m over here? He tried to kill you, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not interested in a bit of retribution on your behalf, if all you’re going to do is smear salves all over him and read his bones.

With the moments of panic and terror behind her, Rey rather doubted the knight would have succeeded in killing her, even if he hadn’t suddenly decided to leave with his quarry. Finn probably knew that too. He just didn’t like intruders; neither did she. Even so . . .

She grinned and tried to play it off as a grimace as she snorted back a chuckle. “Best not do that. Perhaps if he tries something stupid again.”

In part, she thought it would simply be a shame to get bird droppings in his hair. Despite her earnest efforts to wash the worst away, it was still matted with blood and dirt and sweat, plus the pungent, unctuous residue from her own ministrations, but it must have been quite soft and lush when it wasn’t. She liked the color of it too—how dark it was, like rich black earth after a summer storm. It threw the fairness of his skin, flecked with small scars and freckles and moles, into greater relief. His features were surprisingly unmarred for one so foolhardy, though a deep purple bruise now crawled down from his temple to his cheek. Despite that, she did not think it an unpleasant face. Which was an inconvenient thing to be dwelling on right now.

Finn groaned with reluctant agreement. Say the word.

“I will, I promise you. Now, if you please, let me focus here for a few moments as I throw these,” she said, giving her bowl a quiet shake. “And when I’ve finished, I’d love if you joined me for a meal. It’s been weeks since I saw you last. I suspect we’ll have stories aplenty to share, old friend.”

You’re right. I’ll leave you to it. His attention darted to the window. Some berries caught my eye by the stream. Shall I gather them for us?

“Yes, please.”

As Finn swept out into the open air, Rey rocked the bowl in a gentle waving motion, listening to the bones and all the rest clatter as she considered the knight and the day that had brought him. She tipped the bowl and let the contents tumble forth onto the cloth, where they scattered and settled like his blood over the snow.

Chapter Text

 

There was poison inside him. He hadn’t put it there. It roiled in his gut. He felt it smeared on his lips, coating his tongue, his throat; he felt it greased over his forehead, matting his hair where the wound stung and tingled. There was a softness underneath his back, though. Warmth in his limbs. A...comfort, of some sort, had spread through his bones. Kylo became aware of all this at once, and then his eyes opened.

He was lying on a narrow bed that was not quite long enough to prevent his feet from sticking over the end, and the backs of his ankles pressed into the rough board that formed the bottom frame. The surrounding room was dim and strangely curved. Textured wood formed the arcing walls, and snow glimmered through a single window. Kylo stared at it. Rippled glass, smooth-worn sill. It was familiar, somehow, but he couldn’t quite figure out why. He was angry, too, and fearful. But... why? The knowledge kept dodging him, as if he was trying to grab at his shadow. The air smelled thick with herbs and spices. A tea shop? An apothecary? He continued to cast about the room with just his eyes, for moving his head was excruciating.

An overburdened bookshelf, laden with thick, leather-bound books. Chipped rocks, burned-out candles, bundles of dried grasses and plants all sitting on a wooden table. A narrow ladder leading up to another room, half as wide as the one he was in. Compacted moss forming the floor like a dense, green rug. New wood wrapped and bound into a hastily-made door. A woman crouching in the corner and staring at him with a curious gaze.

The witch.

It rushed back to him in an instant—the skull mask, Bazine, the rock, the blood, the pain. The anger and fear he had felt before doubled. He tried to surge upright so he could spring to his feet and swing his sword against the witch’s unprotected neck but found that he couldn’t move.

Gods above. No matter how hard he screamed at his arms and his legs, they wouldn’t lift more than a hair above the furs on which he lay. He could feel the cords in his neck straining with the effort to do something, anything, because he couldn’t be at the mercy of magic like this. He couldn't be helpless.

Not again.

“It is to help you.”

At the sound of the witch’s voice, he froze, hands clenching into painful fists. He wouldn’t look at her. Couldn’t give her that power, on top of everything else.

“Lies,” he snarled at the ceiling.

“No,” she said simply. “You almost dashed your head on my wall, earlier. Then I would have had to patch you up again.” Her words were smooth and melodic, with a lilt that hinted at an outlander’s accent.

He looked at her, then, startled out of his efforts, and saw a girl. No—a woman. An average-sized woman, with light brown hair pulled over one shoulder, high cheekbones, pursed lips, the same curious expression on her face. The tilt of her head reminded him of how a bird looked at a worm. How long had she been watching him? The thought made his skin crawl.

The witch stood and smoothed the front of her dark dress. She’d removed the furs that had wrapped her torso and her forearms. Lacings traced down the sides of the utilitarian gown and around the seams at her shoulders. Trim waist. Long legs. Small bosom. Not that it affected him.

He made to surge upright a second time, and he felt something in the air around him give for only a moment, like he was pushing through a heavy curtain. Then she flicked her fingers at him, and he was forced prone without even a change in her composure.

Kylo was used to being the intimidating party. There were ballads written about his glower, and more than once he’d made an unsavory pub patron soil themselves just by standing up and looming intensely.

Yet here he was: an unknown, massive man in the middle of her small home, with hands that could nearly wrap full around her waist, and this witch, this lithe, pretty little witch, wasn’t afraid of him at all. And that made Kylo terrified.

If she didn’t think he was dangerous, how dangerous was she?

“You’ve cast a spell on me,” he said with a curl of his lip. Sweat beaded along his forehead and on his neck. A droplet trickled down the side of his head, and it must have met his wound, for a fierce sting erupted from the spot. Kylo held in his grunt of pain and twisted it with the fear, molding them both into a deeper anger.

“I had to.” She rolled her eyes when he snarled again, scoffing at him like he was a pouting child. “You would have bled out, otherwise. I may be skilled at patching wounds, but poultices can’t do much for a cracked skull.”

Kylo futilely struggled on the bed before falling still. He was panting now, embarrassing as it was.

The witch tipped her head once more. “She was very strong, your princess.”

“She’s not my princess,” Kylo snapped before he could stop himself. The very idea sent a tremor of disgust through him. How could he have risked life and limb for that...that...harpy?

A slow smile pulled at the witch’s lips. “Especially not after what she did, I’d wager.”

Kylo ground his teeth. His sword was nowhere in sight. Was it gone, stolen, or had the witch hidden it?

“If you’re going to kill me,” he said, “do so now. Patience has never been my companion.”  

The witch blinked in surprise. “What?”

“Do it. Do it before I find my sword and hack your life from you.” Kylo jerked his head up, exposing his throat. If he could goad her into killing him first, before she manipulated him, before she perverted his actions and his thoughts so far that he wouldn’t recognize himself…

“If I get free, I’ll do worse,” he continued. “I’ll—”

Her laugh interrupted him, a tinkling, light thing.

It was Kylo’s turn to start in surprise.

“You’re lying,” she said. Amusement glinted in her eyes. “I don’t know how you came to be here, sir, and I haven’t been able to glean much at all about your person, but I do know that you aren’t malicious to the extent you imply.”

That head tilt, the minute lift of her fine eyebrows, and it was as though she could see through him. Kylo shifted as if underneath his own blade. His head pounded in response.

“What do you intend to do with me, then?” Would she leave him like this, bound to her bed? Was he to be a cautionary tale, his own song sung to children before they drifted into sleep?

The witch huffed a sigh and narrowed her eyes at the window. “Well, you’re still injured. And I can’t let you go yet. It’s far too cold still, especially with your bare feet.”

Kylo glanced down and frowned at his toes. His armor had been removed, and he lay only in his linen shirt and trousers. Exposed. Vulnerable.

“Fetch my boots, then.” If he couldn’t reach his sword, he could at least reach the spare dagger hidden in their wrappings.

Her brows lifted higher at his order. “I can’t. They’re gone.”

“What?”

“Or stolen, I suppose. By your princess.”

“She’s not my—” Kylo cut himself off. His eyes landed on the pile along one wall: his tabard, jerkin, chain mail, bracers and greaves. There was no sign of his helmet, or his boots, or even his sword.

“My...my horse?” After he said it, he cursed at the weakness in his words.

The witch shook her head regretfully. “He’s gone, too.”

The loss of Beck hit him like a knife to the belly. The sword had been his father’s, and although the theft of that was an agony on its own, a sword was just an object. Another weapon could replace it. The black horse had been his companion for over a decade; they had trained and fought together, and Kylo could easily claim that he knew more of Beck’s mannerisms than those of the nobles in Alderaan’s court.

But neither his missing horse nor his missing sword worried him as much as where he was left without them.

On foot, it was close to a four-week journey back to the kingdom. Without his sword and his steel, he would be unable to defend himself against the beasts in the forest. Kylo felt the slow build of rage in his veins.

He was trapped.

With a witch.

The rage surged and writhed inside him until it burst from his lungs in a bellow that seemed to shake the straw pallet underneath and rattle the walls that were to form his prison.

Cool hands landed on him, one flat against his chest and the other on his forehead. Kylo thrashed against them.

Not again.

Not again.

“Please, be still.” There was a note of pleading in her voice and the barest hint of fear. She was afraid of him. Finally. She continued, “You’ll tear yourself open again; please, be still.”

Against the surging tide of his rage, he realized that, no, she wasn’t afraid of him; she was afraid for him.

What in the seven hells kind of witch was this?

“Please,” she whispered. “Benjamin, please.”

Kylo stiffened in an instant. His eyes snapped to hers, now so close he could see the flecks of amber against green.

“What did you call me?”

The witch flinched at the venom in his words, at his sudden stillness. She drew her hands away from him as if he’d bitten her. “It’s your name,” she said, seeming confused. “Is it not?”

“How did you—” He bared his teeth. “You looked into my mind, didn’t you, witch? You sank your claws into my thoughts and wrenched them from me without—”

“No.” She pinched her lips shut and glanced at the pile of his effects. “It was stitched into your belt.”

“Oh.” Now he remembered a maid’s swift needlework, his mother’s voice telling him, ‘I fear you would forget it, otherwise.’

He could see thoughts chasing each other across the witch’s face. Before, she had seemed calm, but his outburst had shifted her composure. The look she gave him now was hard and flashing.

“You don’t seem to understand, sir knight, that I have been trying to help you.”

Kylo opened his mouth to object, and the witch raised a silencing finger.

“Your real name, your self-inflicted name...neither matters to me. You may be strong and have skills with a blade, but I have my own skills, and you would do well to remember that. If I truly wanted to reach into your mind, I could do so. In fact…” Her voice returned to the tone he’d first heard: smooth and melodic. “I could take whatever I wanted.”

The words warred within him, all at once clenching around his heart with cold fingers and stroking warmly, lightly, across the skin of his stomach. The dichotomy of the sensations disturbed Kylo. How could he hold anything but loathing for this creature?

The witch straightened and gave him a flash of an unfeeling smile. “But I won’t. Because I am not that kind of witch. And I would prefer for you to tell me yourself.”

And with that, she walked away from him.

Kylo lay still, no longer seeking to wrestle out of her invisible bonds. Exhaustion draped over him like a scratchy blanket. The hard ride of the morning, the fight, the head trauma—each one compounded and added another weight to his eyelids, no matter how hard he fought it.

Though, perhaps, if he succumbed and closed his eyes, he would wake in the comfort of his own chambers in the castle or on a bedroll under the flirtatious blush of dawn.

The moment the thought crossed his mind, he dismissed it. Despite the appearance of hazel eyes and chestnut hair, he couldn’t be dreaming; the pain in his head was too real, too sharp. A dream would have been softer and more muted. A dream would have had little time between staring into those hazel eyes and soaring with the feeling of long legs wrapped around his waist.

So, no, he was awake. This situation was reality. Kylo strained against the urge to drift off; he couldn’t let himself sleep in the company of magic.

A cool wind gusted inside as the witch cracked open her window, and Kylo stared as a large magpie stepped over the sill. It cocked its head at the witch and then sent him an odd look. On a human, it would have been disgusted suspicion. He wasn’t certain why he could recognize it on a bird.

The magpie gave a low trill, and the witch chuffed. She sent a short, swift glare to Kylo.

“He has indeed,” she muttered, seemingly to the magpie, “although I might have preferred him when he was asleep.”

The bird fluffed its feathers and croaked. Kylo couldn’t help the brief sting of outrage that her words caused. Which was idiotic. He was insulted by something that a witch had said to a bird. Gods, what was happening to him? Perhaps he was dreaming after all.

The witch gave a short laugh, as bright as the gleam from the snow outside. Then her narrow shoulders lifted in a sigh, and she lowered her voice until Kylo could barely hear her. “He has a secret, Finn. And usually I can figure these things out, but with him…” A brisk shake of her head, and then an even softer question, so quiet that Kylo wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly. “Am I making a mistake, keeping him here?”

Her delicate fingers picked at a section of the rough windowsill. The magpie nudged her thumb with a blunt beak, and she smiled at it again.

“Right, right,” she said. “Off you go, then. Leave Poe a nut or two, will you? There’s a drop of winter left.”

The bird hopped out of the open window, and Kylo watched it flap into the grey sky.

He tried to remember all that he’d learned about witches from the old books left to moulder on forgotten shelves, the hushed whispers in near-empty hallways, the dry and uninspired lectures by his former tutor, and from the rotten taste left in his mouth on the night his father died.

The witch shivered in the chilled room. Her hair rustled at her shoulders with the motion, and it made some of the beads in her hair clack together. He hadn’t noticed them at first: bone and stone and bright glass—perhaps a half dozen of them. She padded across the mossy floor, picked up a few large logs, and carried them to a pile of ashen sticks that lay in a soot-stained hollow along the wall.

Kylo wondered for a moment why she hadn’t lit a fire earlier. Or had it been lit and only blown out when he’d kicked down the door? Had she been too busy with his skull and the pungent poultices, too occupied with watching him, to relight it?

That thought humanized her more than was comfortable. Kylo crumbled it in his mind.

The witch crouched at the hollow and methodically arranged the logs, then leaned backwards and held her open palm to the stack. She was whispering something, but he couldn’t hear it.

“Was that bird your familiar?” he said, and she must not have been expecting him to speak, for she let out a little yelp and nearly lost her balance. A burst of green light shot from her palm into the logs and thick tufts of grass erupted from the dead wood.

The witch cleared her throat, obviously flustered, and roughly scraped the loose moss from her dress.

“You…” she said. “Don’t...don’t do that.”

“Do what? Speak?”

Her pert nose wrinkled. “Don’t interrupt a spell.”

“That’s what that was, witch?”

She visibly bristled at the caustic tone of his voice, then spun to the hollow and whispered a few angry words. Fire bloomed from her fingertips and settled cheerily in the hollow, crisping and curling the grass within.

Kylo swallowed. A fire inside a tree wasn’t exactly a calming situation.

She seemed to sense his unease. “The tree is spelled,” she said. “This sort of fire, the kind for warmth, won’t catch.”

“If you’re trying to reassure me, witch, you’re doing a poor job.”

“Rey.”

“What?” He tore his gaze from the crackling blaze.

The witch fiddled with the lacings on one of her sleeves. “My name isn’t ‘witch.’ It’s Rey. Not that you’ve asked.”

Kylo’s hand twitched, and he found that he could lift his arm slightly. “Should I have...asked?”

“It would have been polite. Since I saved your life.”

He nearly choked on his laughter. “Politeness,” he muttered with a sneer. “Politeness is for courts and false cordiality.”

The witch looked as if she would like nothing more than to slap the sneer from his face. She strode to the window.

“Call your familiar back if you don’t like it,” he said. “Have the thing peck out my eyes.”

“Familiar?” The word seemed to give her pause. She said it again, rolling it around in her mouth. She had a wide mouth, Kylo noticed. Pert lips, pink as petals. “Is that what people in the kingdom call their friends?”

“What?” Kylo briefly tried to sit up so he could more effectively display his confusion. “No. Your familiar. Your…um...” He filtered through more old knowledge. “Your messenger. The spirit you’ve bound to you with magic so it can carry out your commands. The—” He broke off when he saw that her confusion nearly matched his own.

“Finn is my friend,” she said with a frown. “Just as your horse was your friend.”

Kylo flinched at her use of ‘was’.

She smiled softly as if he’d somehow agreed with her.

“He’s a horse,” Kylo snapped. “He can’t be my friend.”

“I can tell that you miss him.” He felt as if he was being read like one of the tomes on her wall. “He was important to you. You cared for him and he for you. A friend. He is—”

“A warhorse,” Kylo interrupted.

The witch sat in one of the chairs at the table and faced him. She leaned against one of the armrests with an air of poorly-hidden interest. “Were you in many wars together?”

He worked his jaw. “No. He was a foal during the last one.”

A look of puzzlement crept over her face, then she shook her head. “That can’t be true. The War of the Turning was—no. It isn't possible. If your horse aged as yourself, it would make the two of you nearly a century old.” She huffed, disbelieving, as she gave his unwrinkled skin a pointed look. “Then we would both be witches.”

Kylo nearly burst into a laugh. No matter how deep in the wood she lived, she couldn’t possibly be ignorant of that much. There had been no avoiding the spread of black magic, the reports of village after village burned to their foundations, the rotting carcasses and the fear of those left alive. When it had all ended, relief and happiness had spread through every corner of the country. Or so he’d thought.

His mirth faded as he began to realize that the witch was truly unaware of it all.

“How long have you been in these woods?” Kylo asked in a voice that emerged more gentle than he’d expected.

“Since I was four.” She was staring into the fire. Her brow furrowed. “So, eighteen winters. I...I think. It’s difficult to be sure, sometimes.”

Kylo moved experimentally and found that he could sit up slightly, enough to lean on his elbows. Her hold must relax when she was distracted. He tucked that discovery away.

“You’ve missed much,” he said.

There was a sadness in her eyes when she turned to him. “I’m gathering that.”

The light faded outside, and Kylo wondered how long he had been under.

The witch seemed to notice the change as well. “It grows late. You need to rest, sir knight.” She stood and made her way to him.

“My name is Kylo.” He wasn’t sure why he said it; wasn’t that something Tutor Luke had once mentioned? Freely giving his name to this witch was tantamount to cracking open his own chest and exposing his still-beating heart.

The witch only gave him a wry smile. “No,” she said, “it isn’t.”  

Before he could argue, she reached the side of the bed and lay a cool hand on his forehead.

His memories told him to struggle against her, to thrash out and incapacitate before she could take his free will and crumble it between her thin fingers. His body, however, basked in her touch and fell limply to the furs on her bed.

The last thing he felt before a peaceful sleep descended upon him was surprise, for her fingers lingered on his skin and trailed over his brow in a gesture that seemed far too tender to come from a witch.

 

Chapter Text

They weren’t all nightmares. Not always. When the monster hid away and bided its time, sometimes Rey dreamed of beautiful things. Cities she had never seen, the streets paved with smooth white stones, gardens everywhere, vines climbing walls, so many people . Cities were terrible places, dangerous places, places where someone like her would be reviled—she knew this. But in her dreams they could be wondrous.

She dreamed of flying close to the ground, tall grass painted amber and russet by the sunset and tickling the soles of her feet as she swept past.

She dreamed of a man.

For a long time he had been a boy, at study or at play. As long as she had been a girl, she supposed. But then she became a woman, and the boy was gone, and the man rose in his place. Those dreams were special. When she woke from them, she felt at one with herself. Contented and replete, as if she’d just finished a rich meal with the promise of more to come whenever she needed. Sated but for one thing: she never remembered his face.

Tonight was no different. After seeing the knight soundly asleep, she had checked the fire, prepared her supplies for the morning, and climbed up to the loft to retire. She had some concerns about leaving him, but the spell had been strong, now that she knew what it took to hold him, and she had long ago learned the art of a light slumber. Camping pallet rolled out and a warm wool blanket tucked around her, she was swift in surrendering to sleep herself. It wasn’t often she used her magic on another creature, but when she did, it was rarely a complicated business. Indeed, even Bazine had succumbed easily to straightforward wards. Yet this man was a case all his own; he was stronger, and it was not something merely physical. Binding him required hardier magic, and he seemed to burn the spells right up if she didn’t take extra care. Extra care was draining.

So she slept, and she dreamed, and the man was there, and she swore she saw his face. Part of his face. A scar, long and fresh, carved over his brow, his cheek, jaw, neck, hooked over his chest . . .

She slept too lightly. She woke too soon, dewy-faced and breathing fast. The impression of hard, heated arms wrapped around her, now just a shadow, still raised gooseflesh all over her neck and chest. Rey refused to open her eyes and admit it was over. Too soon. She rolled onto her belly, pressed her breasts against the pallet, tried to convince herself the rough feel of the hide rubbing through the light wool of her winter shift was callused hands caressing her. It worsened the insinuating slither of need where her thighs met, or brought it closer to relief . . . she could never decide until it happened. She tugged at the hem of her shift. Sometimes she would cling to the remnants and impressions and let them take her the rest of the way.

A kiss of warm spring sunlight on her naked back. Another kiss, hotter, wetter, at the hollow of her throat. Strong hands at her hips, soothing and coaxing. That scar curving, smooth and a little shiny, over the sharp rise of a milky collarbone. Knees stained green. The smell of crushed grass, mint leaves, new-bloomed saffron flowers, damp soil. Sweat and salt and sweet things.

Rey grunted in frustration and pushed her face into the thin pillow. She ceased the light, tentative stroke of her fingers between her legs. Musty pungent goddess, she could not do this while the knight slept below. Logic told her he would hear nothing, sense nothing, as he was blind enough to the world when awake—but. She rolled to her side and curled up, waiting for her heartbeat to settle and the throb of arousal to fade. She heard a wind in the branches overhead. A deep, groaning creak. The fire was low. The house was quiet.

Too quiet. Something was wrong.

She bolted upright, and in the next instant she was on her feet, padding to the ladder. She was halfway down before she looked. Her bed, in the dampened orange of the dying fire—it was empty.

No! No no no . . .

Her feet hit the soft-packed moss of the floor; her eyes darted to the new makeshift door. Closed and still intact. At least he had done that much. She ran to the bed, heart in her gut. The coverings were in place, though it was hastily done, and when she called a small bead of light to her palm and crouched, she saw a series of divots and ruts where the moss had been torn or dragged—heavy, clumsy footprints. They did not lead directly to the door. No, they circled first around to her largest trunk, though it was undisturbed otherwise, spelled tamper-proof; then to the small kitchen, where one of her cupboards stood open, contents ransacked; then to the door.

The knight had woken, though she knew not how—goddess damn him, how was a man so ignorant so impossibly able to throw her workings off?—had likely tried to find anything worth taking for a journey, then fled in a hurry. No boots. No cloak. No sword. He hadn't even taken the armor plating. Nothing to protect him from the wood at night.

He was going to die.

Unless she did something right now. How far did kindness go for one so undeserving? He seemed to court death as if it were a maiden; perhaps she should let him have her at last. Yet Rey knew, even as she considered it, that to do so would be wrong. It was not his time. She wasn't sure why she felt that so profoundly, but she did, so she moved to action.

Her gown was still stowed in the loft, so she dressed quickly in her hunting attire: deerskin breeches, the hem of her shift shoved messily inside, a padded jerkin, then her furs and tall boots. Last and most importantly, her mask—the skull of a wolf joined to that of a stag, protection in more ways than one—and her staff. She doused what remained of the embers in the hearth and set out.

It had been snowing again; not very hard, but it must have been going for a few hours. She remembered the tentative flutter of flurries past her window earlier as the sun began to set. Now a new layer of powder had settled over what was left of the last snowfall, not yet melted. The clouds were thick but patchy. Irregular bands of cool moonlight reached through the crowns of the trees to the blanket of white at their feet. That was good—a soft, pampered city child could probably have tracked the knight just as capably as she, for all the effort he had made to hide his progress.

Aside from the tracks in the snow, marked by his long stride and prowling gait, there were a glut of snapped branches, felled pine cones, and kicked stones to show where he had been. She hoped he wasn’t far. While she figured he probably had at least some idea of how to return from whence he’d come, it wouldn’t do him good for long. The wood could be dangerous by day if one was not respectful. By night, it was openly hostile to the unseasoned, regardless of intention. He might know that, but knowledge alone did little good.

She moved at a clipped, light-footed trot, following his eastward progress, telling herself this was no different from any other hunt. Not very far from her home, she found a hunk of what appeared at first to be tree bark, conspicuous in a clearing. When she looked closer, she found it was a strip of dried venison. He was being careless, then. She picked it up and slid it under her mask to eat, chewing aggressively as she continued on. Some feeling in her gut told her she was getting close. She would find him. She would persuade him.

The roar alerted her before anything else that she had found him. At first, Rey thought it was an animal. Perhaps he had run afoul of a bear, or a large lone wolf. She had even seen a few wild boars that rivalled such beasts in size, with tusks the length of her forearm. What she had heard sounded like all of those things and none of them. She reached another clearing just as the sound rent the air again—it was him .

The clearing, she realized, had not been there before. It had been a copse earlier that very day. She’d been very fond of it. Now, several small trees lay in pieces. Hunks of torn bark and wood and nuts were scattered over the meager covering of snow. Bare, spiny shrubs and short evergreen bushes were flattened or had great holes torn out of them. She could see dead grass where the snow cover had been entirely carved away in broad swaths.

Melted away? Burnt?

Everything looked wet. The yellow grass was blackened. The whole space stank of death and something metallic.

In the instant it took her to process all that, she processed one other crucial thing: the knight was not alone. He was yelling, snarling, and roaring as he attempted to fight off nearly a dozen face-eaters with nothing but his fists.

They were called mynocks, more properly, though the beasts of the wood—and Maz, and Rey—knew them as face-eaters. Nocturnal; limbless but for two leathery wings and a long, coiling tail that ended in a hooked claw; hairless green-gray skin always burning hot; two black, sinister eyes; an enormous, perfectly round mouth lined with teeth and suckers. They sustained themselves on smaller prey, birds and tree-dwelling mammals. But there was something about human beings that sent them into a frenzy: spilled human blood seemed to call them, sometimes from miles off. There was one small consolation to be found. Even drawn, they would leave a person alone if one was wise enough to shield his or her face—the eyes especially. Face-eaters were very fond of eyes. And when they latched on to a face . . . it was neither a swift nor a painless death. They did not so much eat as absorb, very, very slowly.

The knight had taken none of the usual precautions. How he was still alive with so many of the creatures upon him, Rey had no idea. They had been doing their worst. He was bleeding from several places, though it was hard to tell exactly where. Before her eyes, one of the face-eaters swung its hooked tail at his head, and an instant later there was a long crimson gash down the right side of the knight’s face. Blood spattered onto the snow and landed with a hiss. He hardly appeared affected.

Some lusty, wild thing inside her thought it rather spectacular, the way he fought, heedless of the damage he took, how he seemed to expand to fill the field of battle. But instinct screamed caution.

There was something very wrong happening here. Rey began to notice the dark lumps on the ground. She had taken them for rocks at first. They were bodies. Round, leathery-winged bodies—those whose wings hadn’t been entirely torn away. At least another dozen face-eaters were already dead. A few still struggled as their life slipped away, practically shredded and leaking dark, viscous blood. She hated face-eaters, and right now she almost felt pity for them.

Had he —?

No time. Rey had to help, or this would be the end of them both. She darted into the clearing, staff raised, and swung for the nearest face-eater. It collided with her weapon with the thick, dull sound of soft flesh and a high-pitched shriek and thudded into the snow. As it flapped and fought to right itself, unwieldy on the ground, she waved her free hand—a bolt of white light straight to its heart brought its frantic movements to a halt. Mercy, compared to what the knight was doing. She looked over her shoulder to see how he fared.

Despite his wounds, he was still fighting them off with inhuman violence. He was not merely doing so to defend himself. He was in a frenzy of some sort. Bigger . The air around him wavered as if with extreme heat. She had never seen anything like it. His skin was flushed and bright, and his eyes was wide and rolling. His teeth were bared in a way that should not have been possible for any human being, his lips drawn back and lined with a pinkish foam as he spat and raged. His shirt was slashed in places, and she could see veins practically writhing through the skin of his throat and neck, along his temples, in his wrists, like his entire body might combust as something tore its way out. He was hunched, and leaping, and rounding, clawing at the air with stiff, hooked hands already dark with blood—his own and the face-eaters’ both.

And the sounds he was making . . . nothing human sounded like that. It was like the way he had shouted at her from behind his mask but so much worse. It was the bellow of the monster in her nightmares, fire and smoke and pure, unadulterated ire.

This was not right at all. She knew what this was. It made no sense . . . it made too much sense.

And if she was right, he was as much a danger to her as he was to the face-eaters. With a growl, Rey batted away another one as it dove for her mask, ran it through with the butt of her staff, then slipped around the perimeter of the clearing, slunk low to observe. She wasn’t even sure the knight had noticed her at all. He was bent only on destroying his attackers. He snatched another, and another, ripped them apart, dispatched them as if they were little more than feathers or leaves.

In half a minute, it was over. He had the last, ill-fated face-eater clenched in one fist, its one unbroken wing flapping, and he squeezed . It burst like an overripe berry, and whatever remained of it dripped down his wrist. He threw the rest into the snow with utter disinterest, as if he had already forgotten there was anything in his hand at all.

Rey crouched deeper into one of the only whole bushes left, her staff clutched in both hands, watching. He seemed to still for a moment, just his head moving the slightest bit. And then he rounded on her and thrust his huge body forward in the rippling lurch of an unfeeling predator.

There was nothing in his eyes but bloodlust. Rey yelped, dodged out of reach, sprinted to the other side, and spun to keep an eye on him. He’d already turned around and was heading for her again as she brandished her staff and prepared a spell to stop him—

He swiped, caught her by the wrist, and threw her hard to the ground. She landed and skidded until her back hit a cracked tree trunk. He advanced again, blazing.

“Kylo!” she snarled, her own teeth bared now, calling on the power in his name. Power sparked in her veins, too, ready to erupt if she let it. If she had to kill him, she would. But oh, how she did not want to. “Benjamin! Stop! Stop this .”

The knight stumbled a few more steps, then slowed, only to bowl toward her once more. She swung her staff from her position on the ground. It clipped his forearm. He gave a roar of frustration, latched onto the end of it, and wrenched, dragging her a short distance before it slipped from his grasp. For just a moment, he again appeared to be confused. Rey snatched the weapon back.

Stop this,” she repeated and staggered to her feet, her staff a support. Her wrist throbbed, her back ached, but her voice and her resolve were solid. She clenched her fist, her whole body, tempered the power coursing under her skin, and directed its flow out of herself, into the ground, into him.

Please, please, please. I don’t want to

She tried again, throat hoarse. “Benjamin . . .”

He shuddered and made a sound like something that had forgotten how to breathe; a deep, pathetic, rattling gasp. Everything seemed to go out of him at once, and he collapsed where he stood. What snow remained where he fell sizzled and steamed.

Rey needed a minute. Her body and mind were quivering, and her vision swam. The abrupt lull in activity left her with the feeling of being thrown out of herself. In part, she just wanted to be sure that whatever power had moved the knight in the minutes prior would not reanimate him if she got too close and compel him to rip her head from her shoulders in a final burst of brute cruelty. He remained inert. When she felt ready, she crept toward him. He was sprawled on his back, long limbs bent oddly but at no angles that suggested fracture. It was difficult to tell what was blood and what was mere filth, and more difficult to tell where, exactly, he was bleeding from. She stared at his chest, saw the faint movement of shallow breaths, and held her palm in front of his parted lips.

Yes, he was alive. And burning. Heat was radiating from his body in palpable, visible waves, but he was shaking as if freezing. Curious, she rested her knuckles lightly against the side of his neck—his skin was sweat-drenched and hot to the touch. Whatever he required, she couldn’t do it for him here. She needed to get them out of the woods.

 

-

 

It took her nearly three times as long to get back to the tree with him in tow. She was not worried about a new pack of face-eaters in pursuit—the knight, Kylo, Benjamin, whatever his blighted name was, was coated in at least as much of their blood as his own. The creatures would not bother them tonight. In fact, she wondered if it might not be a long while until they returned at all. Those were the sorts of thoughts that kept her from letting herself drop down onto the frigid ground, draw her knees to her chest, and try to sleep. The meagerest, tiniest victory, though it hardly felt like one, and she had such work awaiting her. Assuming he lived through the journey.

When she pushed through the door, sorely tempted to give it a kick for all that her arms seemed to work, the first thing she did was start the fire. The warmth invigorated her immediately and rekindled her focus enough that she decided she could get through this. Again. It was so much worse this time.

He was too much a mess for the bed. She hoped to sleep in the damned thing again soon enough, and if she laid him in it in his current state, everything but the bed frame would be near irredeemable. So she found an old pallet, laid it in front of the hearth, stretched his body out on it, and began. She had to cut his shirt away. It was filthy and torn anyway, and she could address both problems while he slept. She needed to see the damage.

The long slice on the right side of his face, which she had thought ended at his jaw, proved to continue down his neck and didn’t end until midway down his pectoral. It appeared to be the worst of his injuries. There were other cuts, shorter or shallower, on his torso, arms, and neck; curiously, nothing on his back when she propped him up to check. Nothing new, at least, though she spied the scattered marks of old burns. (Later, she might find the irony that the face-eaters had not actually managed to do much damage to his face amusing. But for the one, he simply hadn’t let them get close enough.) His head wound had reopened, though it was not bleeding as terribly as it had the first time, being already nearly healed and the bone once again whole. There was a good deal of blood around his mouth, congealing in the dark, trimmed beard at his chin. For a moment, she had the horrifying notion that he had either been using his teeth to rend the face-eaters or was now bleeding internally—she pried his mouth open and found he had simply bitten his tongue and shredded the inside of one cheek.

Rey could deal with all that. One thing at a time. A body was a system. Always a system. All the while she expected him to wake and attack her, but he did not. He slept more deeply than he had under any spell of hers, though she felt no peace in his person. If he dreamed, which she doubted, it was fitful, and his body remained like a fired oven.

She soaked a cloth in cool water and placed it over his forehead in hopes of bringing his temperature back to equilibrium and likewise made sure she had placed his feet, nearly frozen when she’d dragged him through the door, nearest the hearth. That done, she made quick work of washing him and cleansing each new wound as she had before, preparing the salves and poultices and tinctures to draw out infection and dirt and encourage fast healing, and beginning to knit the proper spells together in her heart. Those would come last, and they needed time to grow in strength and intention. His skin was finally beginning to cool down, though he was still shuddering, and she could swear his blood was practically crackling with unharnessed, misused magic.

Did he know?

As she tended to him, her movements soon became automatic, and her mind drifted to memories.

Rey had been very small. Five, perhaps six years old. She had lived with Maz long enough by then to know her ways and her rules. She was beginning to feel something like affection for the peculiar old woman of the wood.

One morning in early autumn, Rey had become frustrated on a foraging trip. She had wanted to travel deeper into the wood for gooseberries, but Maz told her the path was too treacherous for a girl her size. Rey had argued and grown angry. She had felt the magic welling, but she had not yet learned to make it her own. Despite Maz’s patience and kindness, Rey’s instinct was still to fight it, try to bundle it up inside herself—it was what she had been taught for all her short years in the towns, through hateful words and the lash of a pine switch. So she had tried not to let the power out, tried to force it away, into some obscure, tiny corner of who she was, where she told herself the monster lived . . . and she hadn’t been able to hold it.

The next thing Rey knew, the stand of cedar saplings they’d been digging in was flattened, all but obliterated. It had drained her utterly. Maz carried her home. When Rey was well enough that evening, Maz had given her one of the earliest lessons Rey could still recall.

Magical ability was a gift, but people no longer remembered that, soured by generations under a reign of darkness. When someone began to show such power, they were taught to suppress and ignore it. Most would get by just fine in life, feeling perhaps like something was missing but managing just the same. Some, those possessed with greatest power and blessed by particular magical talents, would not. When those people denied who they were and what they were capable of, the power built up. It festered, or twisted. It exploded in hot bursts of uncontrolled energy. With time it would unbalance them, pervert their emotions. They would become vulnerable to darker influences and volatile in the face of lighter ones.

And in the very worst cases, such people developed a rage. A warp. A frenzy. It had many names, depending on the time and place. Maz had called it a berserker state. The power became so much that the person was no longer himself when something set it off. The more it was indulged, the worse it would become until he was barely a person at all but a mindless, rending monster, unstoppable, nearly unkillable, at the mercy of its own fury and constantly drained by the magnitude of its self-loathing.

Rey had read about it years later. Tonight she had seen it with her own eyes and nearly been killed by it.

Does he know? He must.

It would explain how deep his hatred of magic seemed to go. It would explain so much.

She lost her focus for a moment and shook herself back to the problem before her. His wounds were . . . healing already. Before she had even applied all the care that was needed. Something about the state he’d been in must have been accelerating the process—hard to be unkillable if he was going to bleed out during the frenzy. And indeed, the punctures and gashes had nearly closed, and shiny scar tissue was beginning to form where blood had flowed only minutes before.

How fascinating.

Mouth agape, she shifted back onto her knees and watched.

Watched, and started to stare a little in a way that wasn’t strictly necessary for what she’d been trying to accomplish. She certainly didn’t need to let her eyes roam over his body with slow attention. That was not part of the healing process.

It felt like it was part of some process, though, that had started when she’d been pulling his armor off him the first time. She remembered thinking, hoping maybe, that having him down to his shirt and trousers would make him seem smaller, less a monster, more a man. But no, he’d proven large anyway and hardly less intimidating, then and now. His chest was very broad and firm, surprisingly smooth, his shoulders as powerful and well-defined as the biceps below them, and the forearms below those, and the wide, long-fingered hands. His abdomen was taut and lined with muscle. A narrow trail of dark hair began just below his navel and disappeared into the waist of his trousers, where she supposed it continued to places she had no reason to see.

Certainly a man, then. Sometimes a monster. New scars continued to bloom under her gaze . . . and they continued to fascinate, in a way that made her want to touch.

She left the new ones alone. Though she supposed the power that flowed through him knew how to fix his body after what it had been through—his skin was nearly a normal temperature again—she still intended to add her own treatments and did not want to disturb the wounds just yet. As for older scars, there was no shortage to inspect in the flickering of the firelight, so she leaned closer, feeling her face warm.

The fire. It was because she was nearer to the fire.

An uneven, nearly circular patch on his left shoulder, deep pink and somewhat jagged, like it had been made with a serrated edge. A series of seemingly uniform but irregularly placed punctures along his right forearm, down to the wrist; some of those were so faded with age they were nearly invisible, while others appeared to be only a month or so old. Another scar hid low on his right side, partially concealed by his trousers. She carefully peeled the waist away just enough to see it: a long, slender line like a knife wound not far from his hip bone. When she brushed it with her hand, before she could stop from doing so, she began to perceive strong emotions tied to it: regret, self-recrimination, loss, horror, and grief so profound her stomach began to knot.

“I’m sorry,” she uttered. She was unsure whether it was an apology for her own unintended invasion of his private history or for whatever still pained him so.

Feeling like a thief, she slid her fingers up and away from it to turn her attention elsewhere. Soon she was quite swept up in the dozens more, curious about their origins, and she looked at them, and after a while she traced them with her fingers. She was gentle, resisting the instinct that urged her to read them more deeply. He already distrusted her, and she had told him she preferred anything she glean of him be given of his own will.

She was beginning to run her finger along the curve of a peculiarly raw, still purpled dip of a scar at the underside of his left pectoral (this one had dark magic origins, she would bet everything she had on it) when the knight grunted and stirred. Rey inhaled and took her hand away, glanced at his face. His features had softened and his breathing was regular, which pleased her because she didn’t want to have to put him under another spell. And no more touching, either. Not the way she had been. She had no business doing that, mapping and reading him, even just with her eyes and hands. She was fleetingly embarrassed by her intrusion. It was time to apply some salves and spells and go to bed. This had taken much out of her, and she thought she would sleep very well.

She was in the midst of dabbing the herbal mixture onto a small cut near an older scar at the bridge of his nose when she felt a twinge catch behind her lungs. That wound to his face—beginning at his right eyebrow, wending over his cheek, his jaw, neck, collarbone, and chest—was now a long scar. It was fresh, still tight and glossy, faintly pink against his milk-pale skin. The sight of it like this was painfully familiar. She had awoken with images of it fading from her mind’s eye. The man in her dreams had a face after all.

Rey darted back as if stricken, fingers still daubed with ointment. “ You .”

It could have meant nothing. Coincidence. As if she believed in such a thing.

For now, she would set it aside. They had much to discuss but not until he had awakened and would speak to her without such bitterness. When she was finished with him, satisfied that he would neither die nor succumb to fever or infection, Rey moved him to her bed and made him as comfortable as she could. She was stoking the fire one last time when she heard Finn’s arrival.

“A bit late for you, isn’t it?” she asked over her shoulder, waving away a small shower of embers that escaped the confines of the hearth.

I awoke to a rather dreadful roar. Thought it might be a bear too soon come out of its winter slumber, but then I worried . . . he said from his perch on the windowsill, then tapped his beak on the pane. Let me in?

Rey dusted her hands off on her breeches and moved to open the window to him. Once inside, he immediately flitted to his favorite spot near the table and gave a skeptical squawk.

I thought you said that man wasn’t your lover.

Rey narrowed her eyes, straightening the contents of her medicine chest more roughly than usual. “He isn’t.”

Then why is he always in your bed? And progressively less clothed? You humans are very strange about those things, but—

“He’s unwell,” she said simply. She clipped the box shut and returned it to its proper shelf in the kitchen. “I saved his life. Again.”

Finn clacked his beak and drew it over the glossy feathers of his chest. Ah, of course.

“And,” she added, “I have some things I must ask him when he awakens.”

This will be interesting, Finn piped. You know, I’m very glad I decided to come by and make sure all was well.

Rey crinkled her nose and started up the ladder to the loft.

“Stay until morning, then. You may have a while to wait.” She was in a terse mood. “I need to rest. This day has been trying.”

And the night as well, I presume? You’re a mess.

“Hnh.”

Night, or knight? She chuckled bitterly.

Are you all right?

“I will be.” She managed to wrangle a sick, tight smile onto her face. “I’m glad you’re here, Finn.”

I’ll keep watch a while. Sleep.

Her limbs heavy and her mind flagging, Rey gathered her bedroll and blanket and did not let her mind wander to what the morning may hold. Tonight alone mattered. And tonight, she would sleep on the floor beside the bed. No longer would she presume the knight might not rise and try to escape yet again, even after all that had befallen him. She was soon enough in the embrace of uneasy sleep, soothed at least by the pleasant sensation of Finn at her head, gently preening the tangles from her hair.



Chapter Text

When Kylo woke this time, he knew where he was at once. Raw skin on his chest and neck pulled tight as he sucked in a deep breath. He tried to lift an arm to prod at the ache on his face, then frowned. It seemed the witch had immobilized him once more. Not that he felt able to move, in any case. Frowning hurt his cheek, so he stopped doing it.

He’d broken into a rage last night in the woods. He remembered his rages, but they were distant, and it was always difficult to grasp the details. The witch had been there, though. Her bone mask stuck in his mind’s eye like a burr: white fangs against pale skin, all bathed in silvery moonlight. Had he injured her? There were more memories, obscured as if shrouded in gauze. She’d called his name; he could hear it clearly, just as clearly as he could hear the sharp crack of a body hitting bark.

Guilt squirmed momentarily in his gut before falling still.

Kylo would be lying if he said that he hadn’t wondered, just for a second, about killing her as she’d slept. He had struggled out of the lingering tendrils of her confinement, stood, stretched, tested his body. Her pallet was in the loft. A few steps, a long reach, a closing fist. She was a witch, and he was tasked with destroying not only her, but all those who channeled the foul power through their bodies. It shouldn’t matter that she didn’t have scales, or hadn’t visibly been raising the dead, or had an inviting smile.

Yet…

The witch had saved his life. No matter how hard he fought against it, he owed her a life-debt, and although Kylo considered himself a toughened man, there were some things that even he considered sacred. So he had let her sleep as he scavenged her belongings.

A handful of nuts, a pocket of jerky. No weapons, though—not even a bow, despite his searching. No matter. Kylo had what he needed, if not what he wanted. Snow could melt into water, a spear could be fashioned out of a stick, a deer could be trapped and killed to provide meat and clothing. Kylo had made do with less.

Right as he had been casting around for something to put over his bare feet, the witch let out a soft sound from her pallet—a tremulous, gasping moan, and it almost seemed to sneak underneath his clothing and stroke his bare skin.

Kylo had frozen with his heart pounding against his ribs. His pulse didn’t gallop because of the type of sound, he frantically told himself, but because she might wake at any moment. He had to leave. He had to leave immediately, before he found reasons to stay.

The door hardly squeaked as he closed it behind him and made off across the snow. Only then did he realize that he’d left his armor.

Idiot.

Now, Kylo shifted on the witch’s bed as much as he was able. His entire body ached with the lingering effects of his rage.

“The life of a berserker,” the castle healers had always said as they’d applied poultices. Hesitant smiles, cautious hands on his burning skin, afraid to hurt him even that much more.

He thought of the witch again. The scents of peppermint and yarrow drifted to his nose from whatever fresh poultices she’d applied to his new injuries.

The guilt squirmed with greater insistence.

Whenever he’d fought against a foe that required him to erupt into a rage, he would always make sure he was alone except for that which he needed to destroy. Once his foe’s blood cooled in the dirt, if there was nothing else that could be seen as a possible threat, the rage would fizzle like a doused flame. But not until he struck every last enemy down.

Kylo’s first rage had lasted a minute and had left him shaking, covered in his own sweat. They’d become more powerful over the years to the point that now he only reached for them as a last resort. Otherwise, battles were far too easily won. And he couldn’t have that.

He took another deep breath and braced himself against the pain. Every muscle felt as though it had been wrung out by an angry giant: not only the ones between his ribs, but the ones around his eyeballs, the arches of his feet, and gods, even in the backs of his hands.

The ceiling above him—or what passed for a ceiling in this bizarre living situation—had odd little rafters that tangled about. He expected cobwebs or layers of dust, not the strings of beads and found objects hanging like decorations. He recognized a tarnished brass button, the gleaming gold of a warped ring, and a pyramidal piece of rosy crystal.

There was a trilling burble by the foot of the bed, and Kylo looked down.

A magpie, possibly the same one as before, perched on the footboard barely a handspan from his ankles. Next to it, a large reddish squirrel with tufts on its pointed ears pawed at the magpie’s wing with gentle, almost playful gestures. The bird clacked its beak at the squirrel, and the squirrel rose onto its hind legs and splayed its front paws in the air, displaying a thin membrane in the crooks of its arms.

Their attention snapped to Kylo as if they could feel the weight of his shock. Was he in a gods-damned child’s story now?

Without taking its beady eyes from him, the squirrel swatted at the magpie, who let out a loud trill.

“Thank you, friends.”

He hadn’t heard her approach. There was something different in the way she was looking at him. A warmth? A familiarity? Whatever it was, it hadn’t been there before.

“How are you feeling?” The witch’s smile was bright, if a little hesitant.

Kylo grunted. “I am alive.” He frowned once more as he glanced at his chest, despite the twinge in his cheek. “Though missing more clothing than when I last lay here.”

The magpie puffed its chest and squawked, and the witch rolled her eyes and muttered what sounded quite like, “Don’t get too excited.” To Kylo, she said, “I had to heal you.” A pointed look at the new scar that snaked down to his pectoral. “Again.”

“It would have healed on its own.”

She gave a bitter scoff and threw her arms out to the sides.

Kylo worked his jaw. “Thank you,” he said stiffly.

The witch hmpfhed to herself with a little, proud smile. She perched on the corner of the bed, then nodded at the bird and the rodent. They gurgled and chittered respectively and left through the open window. It was still dark outside.

The witch had purple circles underneath her eyes and looked nearly as tired as Kylo felt. Had she been able to sleep at all with him in her house? The memory burst upon him, unbidden, of the soft sound she’d made in the loft right before he’d left. Despite his efforts to believe it was nothing more than a groggy grumble or a complaint of a too-hard pallet and a too-thin blanket, his mind said otherwise.

Kylo had limited experience with sex, yet he could recognize a pleasured moan when he heard it.

An unfortunate amount of warmth trickled along his spine. Kylo clenched his fists and stared at the ceiling, driving his attention to the brass button he’d seen earlier.

Only when the witch cleared her throat did he glance at her.

“How long have you been able to…” She paused, searching for words.

“To rage?” Kylo finished for her. “Years.”

“What does it feel like?”

“Feel like?”

“I’d like to know.”

“I don’t see why it matters.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “I’ve saved your life twice. The least you can do is answer a single question.”

Fine. What harm could it do?

A little voice in his head reminded him that the last time he’d asked himself that question, a princess smashed a rock into his skull and left him for dead. He shoved that particular thought to the side.

The tight skin on his chest stretched with his sigh. “It’s as if...there’s something within me. Perhaps it’s always been there. When I let it out, I feel…” He dragged a palm down the uninjured side of his face. She’d become comfortable enough to let him move that much, at least.

“It’s...power,” he said, struggling with the words. Kylo had never tried to describe the rage before. No one had ever asked.

The witch had shuffled closer to him on the bed furs, leaning in with her interest.

Kylo closed his eyes and pulled on both memory and lingering sensations. “When I let it out, it floods through my veins. I can sense everything. I can feel the worms beneath my feet, and the ants in the trees, and the midges that buzz high above my head. And I can feel everything within. I can feel the bones and sinews, and I know exactly how they work with the muscles to move my body. I feel invincible. I’m an inferno. I burn, and it’s not with pain, it’s with—it’s…” He grunted, unwilling to go on. There was no way he could tell this witch about how much he loved it all. There was an odd balance of not being in control of his actions while at the same time knowing that all of his actions were his alone. “This all sounds foolish.”

“No!” the witch cried.

He cracked open one eye to see that she’d shuffled even closer, her bent knee nearly touching his hip, a look of unabashed excitement tugging her smile wider.

His rambling had seemed to settle something within her. “I knew it,” she said.

“Knew what?”

“It’s because of your magic!” She took his shocked silence as encouragement. “Maz—the, um, the woman who raised me—told me years ago about what happens when powerful magic is contained.” Her hands cupped the air, as if containing a lightning bug. “If you keep it inside, suppress it”—she squeezed the air, crushing it between her palms—“then it won’t stay stable within you, it’ll come out in violent bursts. In rages.”

He was asleep. He had to be asleep. This couldn't be real. The tips of his fingers felt cold; his palms erupted in chilled sweat. His stomach churned as if wrestling with a snake.

No.

NO.

The witch was still talking animatedly, half to him, half to herself. “Is this what brought you here?” Her smile bordered on the maniacal. “Is this how you found me? Maybe...maybe it was fate.”

Bile rose in Kylo’s throat, and his tongue felt too large for his mouth.

No.

“Could it be destiny? Is that...is that too strange to say?” Her cool hand brushed against his elbow and gently settled on his forearm. “What if you were placed in my bed for a reason?” She paused, swallowed. Kylo couldn’t even pay attention to the gentle blush that brightened her cheeks. “I mean, um, placed you here for a reason.”

He struggled against her bonds. The tingling in his hands was spreading, becoming more of a stabbing now, like thousands of biting ants crawling up his arms.

No.

“And I could train you, I could—”

“Let me sit up, witch!”

She jumped at his snarling yell, the smile falling from her face in an instant.

A flutter of her fingers, and he lurched to a sitting position. There wasn’t enough air in this godsdamned tree. Not enough space. His head reeled, lights dancing in his vision as if he had been hit. “Is this not—” she started.

“Tell me you lie,” he managed to bite out.

The witch flinched as if he’d struck her. “No. W-why would I lie?”

“You make up falsehoods to try and break me.” He tried to leap to his feet, but the witch only blinked and shrank away from him as he jerked under her invisible restraint.

“No,” she said. A furrow formed between the delicate curves of her eyebrows. “It’s the truth.”

“Lies!” His bellow echoed through the tree.

She clenched her jaw. “You started the rage when you were barely into manhood. It’s been getting stronger. The more you use it, the more it drains you. It imbues you with strength greater than any normal human’s. The first time, it scared you, but it felt like something had fallen into place.”

He tried to interrupt, but she barrelled onward, and he could not stop her as her words gathered heat. Was this some new bewitchment to tie his tongue?

“It made you feel untouchable. Now you love it. Rely on it. When it all wells up, all that power, it's like fire. A fever. It burns. It burns out everything that’s wrong, everything that tries to keep it shackled. But...it’s—”

Her bright eyes darted from him, to the ground, then back to him. They raked over him with a curious urgency, and Kylo saw it again. She feared for him, and now it was deeper still.

“It’s tearing you apart. You know that it is. You can—you can see that,” she gestured with an open palm at him, “all over you. One day it will destroy you. Inside and out. It has cost you so much already. Too much. I felt it when I—”

The witch flushed again and looked abashed.

Through the buzzing in his mind, he wondered briefly what she had done. What had she seen? Despite her assurances, had she dipped her probing fingers into his memories?

“I know what it is, sir knight. No one should have to live that way.” Her voice softened, and she reached her hand toward his. She was trying to look him in the eye. For an instant of utmost foolishness, it was so, so tempting to reach back. “I’ll help you. Please...don’t be afraid.”

Those last words, emerging so tender and gentle from the witch’s mouth, struck Kylo like the punch of an arrow.

He let loose a roar, loud enough to make her scurry away from him. She was trying to speak, perhaps weave more spells of binding and calming, but he heard nothing except his blood’s pulse in his ears, screaming at him to get out of this place, get out.

His limbs thrashed against whatever scraps of power held him to her bed, and he could feel their desperate grasp slipping away. One last surge and he broke through, his feet propelling him toward her uneven door even as she called after him, even as the wood cracked beneath his fists and splintered into his kneecaps.

The cold air poured into his lungs and clamped sharp nails across his burning skin. Fresh snow melted under his bare feet. None of it mattered. The clearing around the witch’s tree was silent except for his own harsh breathing and the scream of his pulse in his ears. The storm had passed; moonlight trickled across shrouded canopies and wide swaths of unbroken snowfall like spilled silver.

Doubt and anger and horror stabbed deep into Kylo’s chest as the witch’s words passed through him:

“It’s because of your magic.”

The rage writhed up through his bones and burst out of his throat in a bellow of abject fury.

A stone lay at his feet, shining from the snow melted by the heat of his body. It was pockmarked and dark and roughly the size of his head. He wrenched it from the ground as if it were no more than a pinecone before hurling it into the distant trees. It must have impacted well; there came the sharp crack of splintering wood and then the low, surrendering groan of a trunk collapsing to the forest floor.

The rage seethed within him.

Rend, it growled. Fight. Kill.

But he couldn’t. The witch had told him exactly what he never wanted to hear, and it smothered the rage like water on a flame.

It’s because of your magic.

The sentence repeated in his head over and over until his shoulders slumped and his knees buckled. When he dropped to the ground, little flurries puffed into the air as light as pollen.

After everything that had happened to him, after everything he had done, after the way magic had darted inside him like an eel and twisted his mind and his body until he hardly knew himself, he had been bound to destroy it wherever he could.

Your magic.

His hands dug deep into the snow, and he clenched them into fists until they burned. The air hummed in his chest.

Hesitant footsteps crunched behind him.

“You should have left me to die.” It came from his aching lungs as a choking wheeze.

The witch took another step. “Why?” Her voice drifted through the clearing: reluctant, confused.

It was her fault, all of this. He would have been fine if she’d never told him.

Although the rage was quiet, his anger wasn’t. In an instant, Kylo surged to his feet and whirled on her.

“Do you know how many witches I’ve killed?”

She stiffened as fear blazed across her face. Her cheekbones were more prominent in the moonlight, her skin as smooth as marble.

Kylo bared his teeth and stalked in her direction. “Do you know how many mangled heads I’ve brought back to the castle walls? How many bloodstained huts I’ve burned, how many innocent carcasses I’ve had to bury because I arrived too late?”

“I…” Her words died as soon as they hit the cold air. Perhaps she was trying to provide excuses for him or justification for herself. Kylo didn’t want to hear it.

“And do you know why I do this? Have you stuck your grubby fingers into my mind and read it yet?”

The witch pinched her lips and shook her head. “I’ve told you. I will never do that.”

“Pity,” he sneered. “It might be easier for you to understand.”

Something cracked in her expression then, as if he’d thrown a stone onto a frozen stream.

“Then tell me!” she shouted at him. She wrapped her fur cloak tighter around her shoulders, shielding herself from his anger. “Make me understand, Benjamin!”

“That is not my name!” He hurled the words at her. “Benjamin was weak. He was foolish. He fell victim to magic, and he nearly let it consume him. I scraped him off like an old scab.”

She blinked, startled out of her fury. “Why do you think him weak?”

Kylo clenched his fists around the chill air. His fingers were growing stiff with the cold, and he could no longer feel his toes. His breath rushed from his nose in thick, white puffs.

“Some twelve years ago, the mage called Snoke was at the height of his power.” He gave the witch a mean look. “Or were you too secluded in your woods to know of that?”

She swallowed; he could hear it from where he stood. There was a tremor in his stomach as if part of him balked at how he was treating the woman who had saved his life twice.

She’s a witch, he reminded himself.

“I knew of him,” she said primly.

“He came to the castle once,” Kylo said, “when I was young. He must have taken a liking to me. I never thought too much of it. He left. Years went by. The first time I felt the oily slick of magic was when I woke to find that he’d drifted into my mind and settled there.”

The witch sucked in a little gasp and brought her hand to her mouth.

“I felt it when he tried to force my sword onto the necks of sleeping villagers, when he whispered into my ear that the unworthy should be driven into the ground like they were no more than slugs.” Kylo rasped a bitter laugh. “More than once, I woke from a cloudy sleep to find that I stood at the side of my mother’s bed with a dagger poised over her heart. I fought him, every time. He didn’t enjoy that. When it became clear to him that I wouldn’t do what he wished, he inhabited...someone else.”

Gods, even now, the memories felt as foul and slimy as a rotten apple.

“He”—his voice threatened to crack, and Kylo fought against it—“he said things to me then, through his new vessel, trying to make me end my life because I was useless. I wasn’t worthy.” The last words left a bitter taste in his mouth. “Instead, I ended the body he inhabited. That...banished him, I suppose. No one was able to figure out what had happened, after it all.”   

The witch had stepped closer. Her eyebrows were drawn together and at first, Kylo thought that she looked at him with pity, until he saw that her lower lip trembled in anger.

“Benjamin wasn’t weak,” she said, voice fierce.

Kylo opened his mouth to argue, but she held up a hand.

“He wasn’t. He was strong. Do you know why? Because he is here. He shucked off evil and survived it.”

“Magic was the—”

“No.” There was finality in her voice, as well as compassion. “That wasn’t magic. Not from him, and not from the monsters you’ve killed. That was evil. They are nothing alike.”

For a moment, she looked as if she was struggling with a decision, then she stepped forward so she stood less than an arm’s reach away.

“I’d like to show you something. Would you trust me?”

Kylo almost laughed. She raised her hand to him, palm up, and then he did laugh, cold and biting.

She sucked in an irritated sigh. “You’ve been at my mercy twice. You’ve been immobile on my bed, inches away from death, and both times, I have brought you back. If I wanted to kill you, Benjamin, you would not be standing in my clearing, laughing at me.”

His name fell from her shining lips like a curse.

He stared at her palm, debating.

What harm could it do?

(He wondered for a second if this was to be his new mantra. A motto, perhaps, that he would have embroidered on his tabard when he returned to the castle.)

Magic had been inside him once, and he’d fought it off. This witch, for all her tricks, could not be as powerful as Snoke. He could free himself again, if needed.

Her palm was small and pale in the moonlight. It seemed even smaller when his own hand drifted to it.

“Please,” she whispered into the frosted air.

Their fingertips touched, and it was as if fire bloomed within his body. He realized he’d been tensing for another oily leech into his mind, but at the feel of her cold skin against his, the soft give of her flesh, the... rightness that seemed to settle somewhere in the pit of his stomach, he allowed the stiffness in his shoulders to ease.

“Breathe deep,” she said.

Kylo huffed.

The witch had a fierce glower, he discovered, and it made him feel like a chastised youth.

He took a slower drag of the sharp air. When he exhaled, he exhaled along with her, and the clouds of their breath mingled in the space between them.

She bent to grab a handful of snow, then straightened and held her fist in front of her, as if she carried something precious.

“Open yourself,” she whispered. Her warm breath ghosted across his bare chest, and it trailed ripples of gooseflesh.

Only when her gaze darted up to his did he realize that she’d been speaking to him and not the lump of snow in her hand.

Open yourself. It was like telling a dove to howl. He’d spent so many years closing off his mind that he wasn’t even sure the hinges still worked.

“But—” he began.

The witch gave him a playful smile, and it made his frozen toes feel ever so slightly less frozen. “I’ll be here,” she said. “I won’t let you fall.”  

Kylo almost laughed again; he was nearly twice her size. If either of them would be more capable of catching someone, it would be him.

She gave a little scoff, sensing his hesitation. “When you rage, you are intensely aware of...of being. Of everything. Return to that state. Feel the snow under your feet. Feel the breeze—there is one, if you focus, I can see it toying with your hair.” The smooth melody of her lilting voice nudged at him, relaxing. “Feel the air. The moonlight on your shoulders. Taste the ice in your breath. Let the world in.” Her thumb brushed over his knuckle.

Her fingers unfurled around the clump of snow. As he watched, it melted and trickled away to reveal a perfect sphere of hard ice that rolled in her palm like a marble.

At the sight of what was obviously magic, Kylo wanted to tear away from her and slink backwards like a kicked dog. She held him fast.

“What you experienced wasn’t magic,” she said. “Snoke saw the world as nothing more than a soft thing he could bend to his needs. Real magic, good magic, isn’t about force.”

Kylo stared at the ice marble. It should have been melting in the heat of her palm, trailing dampness across the creases and calluses, becoming smaller and uneven, but it did none of that.

“Real magic is about working with the world. You open yourself to the beauty, as well as the pain, and only then will the world think about doing as you ask.”

The witch pursed her lips, leaned in, and blew on the ice. It lifted from her palm to hover above her hand, and as it did so, it began to glow: dimly at first, and then as bright as the moon overhead.

“Illusions,” Kylo muttered without certainty.

She huffed a laugh through her nose. “What do you feel?”

Tentatively, he let the doors of his mind crack open. Nothing awful or slimy came through. He opened them a little more. He reached out with his thoughts and his feelings, like she asked, and then, with a suddenness that left him gasping, he felt everything. It was like dipping his finger into a water goblet and touching an ocean.

The ball was still the snow but tenderly crafted and molded with the care of a sculptor. The light was from the moon, channeled and refracted and given new intention. The air was made thicker underneath the ball so it had just the appearance of weightlessness. Was that then how she had kept him immobile on her bed? She hadn’t forced his body into stillness; she’d only rearranged the air around him.

Kylo opened the doors wider and let it all in. Nothing was oily. There was no taste of coal in his mouth, no lingering shivers of dread. He could feel her in front of him as solidly as he could see her body: she was as warm and fresh as sunshine on summer grass. He pushed harder, exploring her, sinking in as if into a heated tub.

A vision flashed through him—no, not a vision. More than a vision. He was in her head for a brief second, and he saw himself through the fog of a dream: saw the scar that now sliced down his face, glimmering and shiny and new; felt the barest hint of excitement mingling with the soft brush of lust; heard the rapid beat of her heart.

The witch pulled her hand from his with a jerky, uncomfortable swiftness, and he was once again in the snow-covered clearing. In the cold moonlight, Kylo was almost certain that her cheeks were ruddier than they had been before. The fur around her shoulders had slipped down as she’d done her magic, and her nipples pebbled underneath her thin shift. A tightness began in Kylo’s throat at the sight, and he fought to swallow it down.

She hiked the fur higher. “I hadn’t intended for you to see that,” she said.

Although he didn’t say so, he was glad of it. If she had been dreaming about him in the same way that he’d dreamed of her...wasn’t that important? Weren’t shared dreams the subjects of ballads and poems, of ancient tales and wistful stories? Those were solidly in the realm of good, not evil.

“Why did you show me, then?”

“I didn’t.” She gave him a small smile. “You found it yourself.”

Kylo frowned. “No.”

Her smile became wry. “Yes. You opened yourself, touched on your power, and peeked into my thoughts.”

His own words came back to him, sour and biting: ‘Have you stuck your grubby fingers in my mind?’

Kylo stepped back, aghast. “I didn’t mean to.”

“I know.” She looked up at him, expression earnest. “You need a teacher. Someone to help you. To show you your place in all of this.”

The numbness in his feet was fading, and the snow bit his toes with cold, sharp teeth. Kylo shifted.

“If I refuse?”

The witch shrugged. “Then you leave. I let you go. You’ll return to your castle, or your hut, or wherever you keep yourself, and you’ll wonder for the rest of your life what would have happened if you’d stayed.”

Kylo chewed the inside of his cheek.

“...And if I agree?”

Her smile was radiant, now. “Then I would show you the world.”

The stars glimmered above his head, and he stared at them as if waiting for them to align and spell out what he should do.

“I’ll stay,” he said, and when the excitement burst on her face, he continued, “Until I am able to leave the forest.”

The excitement didn’t waver. As they walked back to the tree, in the silence between their footsteps, he heard her smugly mutter, “We’ll see.”

They paused in the doorway, and the witch set her fists on her hips.

“Your first lesson will be in fixing my door.”

Chapter Text

It did not snow again after that night. By the next afternoon, the only signs that it had done so at all were the mud, the puddles, and the stubborn clutches of crunchy slush that lingered deep between tree roots or in the shaded nooks of boulder formations. Within a week the grass was imbued with a soft green that hinted at vibrance to come. The moss and lichen were embarking on their slow, invisible creep over stone and root. The sleeping trees dripped melted frost and bore their first tiny buds. Rey woke each morning to the tentative sounds of birdsong.

Though she loved the solemn, silver peace of winter, when all was still and frozen in wait, she craved the sense of renewal a change of season brought—and this was her favorite of all. It felt different this year. She had someone to show it off to. Such a ridiculous notion. The forest was not hers to boast of. Nothing in it was, not even the tree she called a home. Yet this was new, having another human being to share it with. Maz had seen much in her long life and seemed to find nothing surprising. Finn and Poe were creatures of the wood, and though she counted them her closest friends and confidants, they lacked her wonder in it.

Perhaps Rey should have been numbed to it by now as well. Was she truly so lonely? She was as much of the wood as they were, was she not? But she could not help the eager awe that fluttered in her breast with each shift in the shades of the forest, and she could not help wishing that the knight would feel it too.

She was not so certain he did, though she would credit him for effort. He was trying far more than she had expected he might. No doubt some of it was whatever sense of duty the folk of the kingdom instilled in a knight. Boys brought up to be obedient soldiers, conquerors, killers, living to be led. He likely knew far less of self-determination than he liked to believe, and part of her worried his seeming interest was only a way to keep her satisfied until he was able to leave her behind.

For the first few mornings, she woke expecting to find the loft where he slept empty and what remained of her already lean winter food stores cleared out again. She would be alone. Yet he was there every morning, and he was there when she retired after dark. Soon enough she trusted he would continue to be so.

He’d been there again this morning, awake before she was. It seemed to be his custom, and she wondered if it was because he still did not trust himself to sleep in her company. The thought disappointed her; she’d have preferred if they were past that. Yet he had accustomed himself to her routines with little complaint: quiet breakfast, tidying the house, preparations for the day, and then out into the wood. The sun had broken the horizon not long ago, and they stood beneath a particularly resilient larch in what remained of the copse he had destroyed the night of the face-eaters and his rage.

It was the first time she had returned there since then. The knight—Benjamin, Benjamin, Benjamin, she must remember, a beautiful name, it was a shame he shunned it—was standing near the trunk, regarding it in silence and seemingly disinclined to touch it. His impassivity frustrated her. There were times when his face was so open, but those were rare, only when he thought she was not watching, and she would not violate the promise she had made to him. She would take nothing of him that he did not freely offer her. So, if she had to guess, right now he was contemplating the task she was about to set him to. Until today he had been a companion and observer, acclimating himself to her life and providing an extra pair of hands when she had a need.

That was about to change. This would be a step forward. One at a time.

“Why are we here?” he asked at last.

She had been letting him enjoy the silence. Perhaps he was even listening for the voice of the wood, though she would have been shocked if he could hear or identify it when he had barely grasped what she had shared with him that first night. She did not know him well, but she did know he was a person who kept himself closed off. Another thing that would have to change. If she kept needing to prompt him to be more open, this was never going to work.

Rey leaned against the trunk of the larch and pressed a palm to the smooth bark. It was still cool and damp from the night. “Do you know what this place is?”

“Of course I do.” His brow furrowed slightly. “It’s where I . . .”

She followed Benjamin’s gaze to the span of brownish grass at the center of the clearing. The decaying remains of the face-eaters were still there, whatever had not been picked over by scavenging animals. His eye twitched, and he swallowed hard as his eyes scanned the rest of the area with new clarity. She had not expected the pain in his reaction. She hoped this had not been a mistake. It was not her intention to cause him guilt; he radiated enough of it on his own.

“It’s where you will have your first lesson,” she said with resolve. She leaned toward him and peered into his eyes. “It’s where you will begin to make things right. Within yourself. In the world.”

He wasn’t looking at her. His expression was far off.

“Benjamin?”

He blinked and dipped his chin as if dazed. If he was annoyed by her use of his name, he did not show it. “Yes.” He looked down at her keenly. “How shall I do that? There’s no shortage of wood. Perhaps you’d like another door.”

Rey chuckled to herself. He did have a sense of humor, though it was dry as sun-bleached bone. “Am I to take that as a warning that you plan to break the one you mended already?”

The knight was no carpenter, that was certain, but he had done a fine job of it nonetheless, and the new door of her home had thus far survived his comings and goings.

“Only if you give me reason to.”

She smiled tightly, uncertain whether that was his way of teasing her or merely a symptom of lingering distrust. “I will not.”

“Then what is it you wish me to see?”

With a quiet sigh, she pushed away from the comforting solidity of the bark and strode a few paces off to face Benjamin. She tried to remember the way Maz had guided her, so long ago. Maz had been better at such things.

“Your magic”—Rey caught the way his expression still curdled with that word, even now—“it knows what’s new in the world and what’s old. As we stand here, all of it is waking up. The sun rises. The soil is . . . it’s churning with everything that has been slumbering beneath. This tree seeks the sky and the light. Magic is part of all that. Yours. Mine. It’s all connected by the same force, in a balance.”

“A balance. Like a scale. Justice.”

“Er. Well, yes, actually. In a sense. More like . . . harmony. Partnership. Everything working together in the way it was meant to. A push and pull. Filling gaps left by what’s come before, making space for what comes after.”

“Wholeness, then.” He looked at her expectantly. “Yes?”

Rey nodded, satisfied with his understanding thus far. “That as well. Good.” The sun broke through the spidery branches hanging around them and fell across his head and shoulders, and she couldn’t help noticing the hint of warm brown in his hair and the amber cast to his eyes. Only in the sunlight. “I am going to help you restore this place. You are going to help it restore itself.”

His lips compressed, he looked away—and he laughed. It was an utterly humorless sound, almost a growl, low and uncomfortable as his mouth stretched into something that was not a smile. This was not a man who laughed often, perhaps ever. She suspected it did not feel good; it pulled at the scar on his cheek, still tight and stark.

“I think I preferred it when you fancied me a woodworker, little witch.”

“It will be more challenging than the door, yes,” she said, trying very hard to keep her patience. Little witch , indeed, the great oaf. “But it is a fitting place for you to begin.”

“Oh yes?”

“The wood is in a time of growth and rebirth. It wants to return to what it was. Even here. You’ll merely be lending it your own power to speed the process. It knows when one means to work with it. It will welcome you.”

She did her best to sound reassuring. She did not say that she thought it would be as good for him as it would be for the forest. There was something hurting him, a wound that had never closed very deep inside, and she did not think it was merely repressed magic. If this could show him how to help himself, she would consider her task doubly completed whenever it was he took his leave.

Benjamin sounded unconvinced but curious when he said, still eyeing the clearing, “Show me what to do.”

They began at one of the surviving larch saplings. It was surrounded by detritus and splintered wood, yet it appeared untouched but for a few shallow gouges along its trunk. Though it was still early for its buds to truly form, when Rey pressed her fingers to the tip of one of the thin branches, she could feel where they would soon emerge, a ticklish buzz of potential beneath the surface. That would do just fine. All the knight would have to do was locate that same energy, open himself to it, and encourage it. Let the larch take just enough of him to flourish until the branch was studded with green. He would barely need to do anything at all.

Or so she had let herself believe. The reality was much less straightforward. He did as she instructed, but she could tell that he felt foolish and, worst of all, that he was closed off. Soon after he began, he was growing frustrated. Magic took effort, but not usually the sort that would draw beads of sweat to his brow on a chill morning or make him grit his teeth as if steeling for impact.

“Wait,” she interrupted, placing a hand on his wrist to get his attention and divert him from the larch. She had not noticed the tremor in his arm until she touched him. A bright burning like the sting of a nettle sprang from his skin to hers and faded before she could process it enough to cry out.

He almost rounded on her, jaw clenched, brow hardened, like he was trying to compact himself. He stared at her hand until she released him, then heaved a sigh that shifted her hair against her cheeks. “I'm trying. I don’t . . . I don't feel anything.”

“I didn’t say it would be easy,” she reminded him, grateful for the cool air on her still-tingling palm. Only thought it, like a fool. She was far from a teacher, and she was more aware of it now than ever.

“No.” Benjamin shook his head and threw the tree a bitter look. “I do feel something . But it only feels like the rage building slowly. It is nothing like what you showed me in the snow.”

“What did you feel that night?”

“I felt . . . everything. Too much. And then I felt you.” His eyebrows lifted, and she wondered if he was reliving it. “Just you.”

The way his gaze settled on her when he said that, the way his voice dipped and quavered, the way his mouth hung open on the last word made Rey shiver. She knew what he had seen when he’d let himself be swept along in the current of magic connecting them. Nothing she had meant to show him, not when she was unsure what to make of it herself. Yet he hadn’t seemed very bothered. In fact, when she thought about it afterward, it seemed to be what had shifted something within him and made him agree to stay. Something they shared.

That was interesting. And it gave her an idea for how to approach his current problem.

“You feel the beginnings of a rage because the source is the same,” she explained. “You sense everything, feel everything. The worms. The midges. The currents of energy in the air. The currents of energy in your body. In my body.” Her neck felt warm, but she pressed on. “But you’re used to dominating and twisting it. And that’s what you’re trying to do now to this larch tree. It is no wonder that it rejects you. It seeks an exchange, and you are not offering one.”

To her pleasant surprise, he was listening, practically hanging on her every word, his expression that of a scholar absorbing. She offered a small smile in return.

“You’ll unlearn that, with practice. You’ll learn to open yourself.”

His eyes finally drifted away from her, and he looked up at the spindly, bare branches overhead. “You don’t know that.”

“I do. Take my hand, just as you did before. I’ll let you feel it through me.”

“No.” He said it so swiftly it felt like a barb. He must have realized, because he looked at her and was almost apologetic. “I— What happened that night. I don’t want to look into your mind again without intending to. I don’t control this. I can’t trust myself to—”

“You can. It takes time. That’s all. I needed time too.”

“What do you mean?”

It wasn’t a story she had ever told anyone but Maz—and even then, Maz had inferred most of what she’d needed to and never pried for the rest. Rey’s history was something she carried inside and kept hidden, not just for lack of anyone to share it with, but because it was one of the only things she had that was truly her own. This morning, she felt a bit differently. Benjamin might understand; he might even need it to know he wasn’t alone.

Rey sank to the grass and settled for a sit, then patted the spot beside her when the knight did not immediately move to join her. She waited until he was still to continue.

“I was born in the cities. I don’t recall which one. It’s been nearly two decades since I was last there.”

“Yes. I remember. Eighteen winters.”

The idea that he had actually committed that to memory—the words of a witch, about herself, even when he had hated her—was far more satisfying than it should have been. It loosened her tongue further, boosted her resolve to open herself to him in this way. He would hear her, she was certain.

“Yes. My memories of life before the wood are few, and the ones I have are unpleasant.”

She told him everything she could, faltering at first through the process of telling so much at once, like she was describing the life of a foundling in a sad cautionary tale rather than her own, but it became easier as she went along. Her parents, she believed, had been traveling traders or merchants, but dishonest ones. Con artists. She supposed they must have loved her a bit, but they used her too. A man and woman with a babe were more trustworthy. A sweet-looking, round-faced lass of three could totter about a town or village market, gather coins and castoffs, swipe things from stalls and shopfronts without being seen.

They had realized, at some point, that their clever, useful girl was not quite ordinary. Things fell from shelves or shattered when she was upset. She chattered on to their old mule, and he seemed to listen. She remembered once being delighted by a small cloth doll her father had given to her—so delighted that the basket of dried rose haws on the window of their caravan had sprung back to life, sprouting new berries and leaves as she laughed. Her parents were horrified, and then they were angry. They stopped taking her with them and instead left her confined to the wagon or hidden away with unsold wares. She would hear them muttering at night about an evil always with them, a darkling that cursed their fortunes. She soon understood that they were speaking of her.

One day, when she was still very young, they told her they had found some new business and needed to leave her with an uncle of her father’s for a day or so. She did not realize until nearly a week had passed that the uncle was not an uncle at all but another trader they had met only once and with whom they had made a deal: in exchange for a new wagon and horse, he would gain an industrious child that could take orders and would train up well as a servant. They conveniently forgot to mention that said child was showing signs of devious magical power.

They did not come back. The new merchant, an odious blob of a man called Plutt, seemed happy enough with his trade for a while, until he realized what she was and what she could do. He began to beat her when her magic slipped. Soon enough she was learning to hold it all inside. It hurt and it burned, but it was better than the switches he used to strike her and the vicious words he hurled at her when she let her wicked inclinations show.

“I ran away after a few months. He sent me to retrieve something from the other side of Niima village early one morning. It was near the edge of the wood.” It had been springtime. The trees were in bloom, and the breeze carried a sweet fragrance, like a beckoning. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I was a child, and I was afraid, but it was as if something called me, so I went.”

Benjamin had not interrupted her once, but when she paused to gather her thoughts, he spoke at last, doing little to disguise his disbelief. “You survived a two-week journey into these woods on your own as a child?”

“I wouldn’t have. I was fortunate. Maz found me before dusk, filthy and sobbing, curled up in an oak hollow far from the village. She brought me back with her and kept me safe from the things that roamed the night as we traveled.”

“Who is Maz?”

“The woman who once lived here.”

His face took on a slow cast of understanding. “The witch in the wood . . .”

“What?”

Eyes focused softly on his lap, he recited in a vaguely singsong tone,

 

Listen close, child,

Listen quite well,

For deep in the trees,

There lurks something fell.

 

You sleep warm and safe

While inside your room,

But venture without caution,

And it will mean your doom . . .

 

As he went on about bone masks and teeth, stuck swords and dark evils, Rey couldn’t keep herself from chuckling. When he seemed to have finished, she asked, “What in the world is that?”

“A children’s rhyme from the kingdom. About your old woman, I suppose. To keep them from doing exactly what you did. It’s very effective.”

“Evidently.” Rey wondered if her parents had ever taught her that. If they had, it must not have stuck, or Plutt had been bad enough to make death by evil witch sound preferable. With renewed amusement, she added, “What nonsense, though. Maz was old as the world itself, but she was no witch. Just an herbalist. A bit of an eccentric, learned in many things.”

Maz had had any manner of explanations for her expansive knowledge and exceptional longevity, and though they had begun as ways to keep Rey in line, they had grown winking and baudy as Rey aged: keeping her fingernails trimmed and clean; never reading when the candles burnt too low to see clearly; raw goose eggs, consumed every month at the full moon; a youth spent on the high seas in the company of roving pirates; having taken many lovers in her life, but never marrying any of them. Rey liked to think all of them must be true. Maz may have taught her everything she considered worth knowing, but the woman had remained a mystery until the day she died.

“She taught me of magic, though. She recognized what I was and how I was hurting myself by denying it. She was not afraid of it, or me.”

The knight shifted where he sat, trying to stretch his legs. “How did she know?”

“When I was six,” Rey said after drawing a deep breath, “it happened to me. I . . . raged. Or something close to it. Once after that a few months later. And never again. She wouldn’t allow it. She helped me to find ways to express my power, every day, as it was meant to be. She knew I had something great within me but that if I didn’t use it properly, it would consume me.” Her eyes fell shut, and she recalled the way Maz had phrased it years ago to a frightened little girl who had no idea what to do with the monster writhing in her heart. “ Powerful light, powerful —”

“Darkness.”

Her eyes snapped open and met Benjamin’s. They had a faint sheen, and the look behind them was one of compassion until he blinked, and it was gone. She swallowed the lump in her throat.

“Yes. How did you know that?”

“My— tutor. He was a scholar of old ways, of times when magic was practiced more freely. Before people realized what a scourge it was. He was tasked with . . . teaching me what not to become. He used to say those words, like a mantra.”

“He did not do well by you,” Rey said softly. The man had known no better, but she hated him anyway for misleading his student. She scraped her nails against the heel of her hand until the feeling passed. “I told you all this because it’s why I know you will succeed. Because I have done the same.”

“You’re very confident.”

“Yes, I am.” She rose and offered him her hand. “Are you ready to try again, Benjamin?”

He cast her a doubtful look, but when his hand met hers, she felt certain that he was not prepared to turn away.

 

-

 

Rey tossed in her sleep, but the dream that woke her was not her own. Without her spells to grant him a dreamless slumber, the knight did not prove a sound sleeper. She heard him, most nights—the pounding of a limb hitting the floor as he thrashed, a mounting rush of panicked, gasping breaths, or words broken and scattered over the edge of the loft, uttered with horror or anguish.

It should have been a wonderful thing to be back in her own bed these last weeks. Instead, she awoke nearly nightly, too aware of Benjamin’s presence in the loft and annoyed that she was alone. She told herself it was misplaced, that she merely felt bad for him, abandoned to whatever tormented him so.

His voice made her shudder.

No.

But she knew it wasn’t pity for him, or at least not that only.

I won’t.

Rey still dreamt too, and with him so near, the dreams grew more vivid, more real.

No closer, or I will—”

It was always him now. She saw his face, she felt his hands, and under hers the lines of his body—hard muscle and heated skin moving with desperation against her, his need matched by her own.

DO NOT MAKE ME DO THIS.

If she did not wake to his cries, she woke to the flush of desire that rolled through her, a tight, teasing thing that unfurled itself deep and low and spread like spilled wine until her fingers and toes and even her scalp tingled with it. Once or twice she wondered what might happen if she climbed up to the loft; if she found Benjamin awake too, from one of his terrors or perhaps from a dream like hers; if she were to offer him something she thought they both might want. She wanted it, or at least she did in the dark.

He would most likely consider it debasing himself, even if she knew how he sometimes looked at her. His gaze would linger. Just so.

She was allowing her dreams to influence her far too much. Maz had warned her against such things. Magic made one sensitive to messages and impressions from the planes outside of time and the world, and they were to be approached with caution and discernment. The minds of mortals were fallible and driven by fickle wants.

So every time, Rey remained beneath the bed furs, and if she rose, it was only to quietly heat some water for tea, something to ease her nerves and loosen that coil of inconvenient wanting. Soon enough the dreams would go their way, and so would the knight.

 

-

 

Through the dusty mirror, Rey glanced back at Benjamin and tried to discern his expression. He had been with her nearly a month, and she had learned to glean his moods and reactions, though she did not think he realized. In fact, he seemed to labor under the impression that he was skilled at schooling his face from revealing too much. Too much time spent behind that fancy helmet he’d once had—his face revealed nearly everything.

Right now, it showed the following: curiosity, confusion, and mild alarm. It occurred to her that he must not have seen her painting herself in such a way before. He’d watched her working with the mortar and pestle, crushing berries, mixing pigments, but never for use on her own body. She drew a thick stripe of ash beneath her right eye, then her left, and smeared a thumbful of deep red juice in a vertical swath beneath her lips.

“It’s part of a ritual,” she explained, turning at last to face him. He was sitting at the table, watching quietly and eating nuts by the handful. “I perform it every year on the first of spring. It strengthens the protections around this place”—she swept a hand overhead to indicate the entire tree and the grove around it—“and is a gesture of thanks to the Green Spirit.”

Benjamin frowned and flicked an empty nutshell across the table, where it skittered and bounced off the windowsill. Poe, who had been sitting by as well, uncharacteristically reticent, chirruped rudely in offense and bounded away. Casting an irritated glance toward the window and the overcast morning beyond, Benjamin cleared his throat and focused all his attention back on her.

“What is the Green Spirit?”

“Oh.” She’d never had to explain it before. Maz had told her of it, and Rey had been young enough at the time that it had seemed only exciting rather than strange or frightening. Rey had never carried any rituals out until years later, when she was old enough to stomach what it required of her and eager to test her limits. “It’s . . . well. I’m not exactly certain. There are many spirits that dwell in this forest, but only a few ever show themselves. The one I call the Green Spirit sleeps during the winter and awakens every spring, on the day when the dark and the light share the hours equally.”

“The equinox?”

“Is that what they call it in the kingdom?”

“Amilyn, the court astronomer, did,” he said, relaxing back into his chair. That was another thing she had noticed; he was letting his guard down more often. He treated her as an equal. “Twice a year, she said, when the seasons shifted.”

Rey nodded, pleased by his engagement. “Yes, exactly. The spirit awakens and sleeps again in the autumn. It chooses a beast of the wood as a conduit. I make a sacrifice to the beast, and it grants me its favor and protection for the green seasons.”

Benjamin nodded seriously, and for a moment it was almost easy to forget that this was entirely foreign to him. His jaw moved back and forth a bit, like he was chewing the empty space inside his mouth—or maybe he was just tonguing something from between his teeth.

“What is your sacrifice?”

“A fresh heart. Usually from a hart or a hind that I encounter at a particular point.”

Here was where she expected him to balk and tell her he preferred to have no part of her practices and her ways. It would not have bothered her very much; it was not the sort of thing he needed to bear witness to. By the time it would be necessary again, Rey presumed he would have found a way to return home to the kingdom. He would be a memory.

Or perhaps not.

“May I accompany you?”

Rey smiled to herself and turned back to the mirror, putting the small pots of pigment back in order. “I don’t require a chaperone. I have performed this many times.”

Today would be the seventh, but she did not need to provide him with specifics. Something told her he would not consider that “many times” at all.

“I know you don’t need help. I wasn’t offering,” he said after a few moments. “But I would like to see it. It interests me.”

“As you wish, then.” She threw him a warm look. “I’d be glad of your company for the walk. It is a bit far.”

Preparations in order, she stood and marched across the room for her staff. Today would be the first in a long time that she had not required her furs on a venture into the deeper wood—at this time last year, in fact, it had still been quite cold. Her gown and boots would suffice for the journey, along with a well-worn rucksack at her hip and her hunting mask slung over her shoulder in case they were out longer than she planned. Ordinarily she would be back long before sundown, but the wood was unpredictable, especially during times of transition.

The Waypoint was an hour’s walk through thickets and spinneys, across a stream still swollen to twice its normal size with recent snowmelt from the mountains, and down a rock-strewn incline to a broad, open valley. The grass there was high and sweet already. Rey had been there once or twice in the dead of winter to view it from above—it was the only place in the wood, perhaps the entire kingdom, that was impervious to the ravages of the colder months. The meadows never yellowed and died, the trees never dropped their leaves, the wild spread of bright flowers never withered. It would have been a fine place to live, but that anything not born of the wood was welcome only two days a year.

Had she tried to come yesterday, the place would have fought her. Vines would have grown up to snatch and twist her ankles; branches would dip and scratch at her; insects would swarm into her eyes, her ears, her nose and mouth; stones would roll to trip her. If she pressed on, the Waypoint’s onslaught would have worsened. It would kill if pushed to do so. Rey had no great desire to test it.

Today, though, it welcomed her and her guest. She had almost forgotten Benjamin was there. Though they had begun their journey indulging in idle chat, they’d soon fallen silent. His sharp intake of breath on seeing the valley was the only thing that reminded her of his presence.

“How is this place possible?” Emboldened by astonishment, he brushed past her and strode on, slowing only after he must have sensed how thick the air was with magic. He walked more cautiously then, inspecting with the aspect of someone suspicious of a trap. Still she sensed his excitement at the novelty. “The air is cool, yet it looks like the height of summer.”

While watching him gape at the place may have been an amusing activity otherwise, Rey had something to accomplish here and could not afford distraction. “The Green Spirit slumbers here during the winter. Beneath that stone.”

She pointed with her staff to a large, flat rock near the center of a dirt-covered bowl in the earth and beckoned Benjamin to follow her to it. In the distance, a small herd of deer grazed beside a pool of fresh water. One of their number stood apart. It noticed her arrival at the stone, dipped its great head, and began toward where she waited at an unworried amble.

Even from afar she could tell it was a stag, and a beautiful one at that. The tines of his antlers rose from his head like a proud crown, and his glossy chestnut coat rippled over the muscles of his frame. He had spent the winter season in the valley with his herd. The wood did not always choose a stag—more often Rey worked with does, and, once, a fawn—but every time the animal had been well-fed and protected within the valley during the lean seasons. It and its kin grew fat and healthy, their numbers expanded. And every time, it knew what it had been appointed to do. It came of its own accord, as the stag now did.

The beast would soon follow. Rey never saw it coming; it seemed to manifest from nowhere when it wished to be seen. She could not even be certain whether the beast the Green Spirit chose to inhabit was a true animal of the wood or something born of some other power, given form on the day of the sacrifice.

Benjamin was standing near but hadn’t uttered a word since they’d reached the stone, which hummed with a living warmth beneath their feet.

“I am going to prepare now,” she told him. “I work alone, but if you’d like to witness, you may wait by the tree just there.” She pointed to a stooping willow, the whips of its pale branches brushing the grass below.

“Can’t I—”

“No. You can’t.”

Without waiting to see if he would obey or require further encouragement, Rey turned from him and bent to remove her boots and stockings. She undid the laces of her gown and stepped out of it when it fell to pool around her feet, leaving her in her linen shift, the one she wore in the warmer months. The breeze ruffled the thin fabric across her hips and tickled her bare knees and shoulders as she swept her things into her arms and set them aside in the grass. She opened her rucksack and drew out a long, rather nondescript dagger—the handle was old and made of bone, worn smooth by the years and yellowed with use, and the blade glinted faintly in the sunlight. She set it on the stone, beside her right foot. The stag was close, regarding her with curiosity, its large, dark eyes warm and docile. This was always the most difficult part; the nearer he came to the stone, the more she sensed his mind and heart, the better she heard his voice. Soon she would lay her hands on him and feel everything as he did.

The stag’s hooves clicked faintly on the stone as he stepped up and approached her, and she felt the threads of his life wind between her own. Rey stretched a hand toward him, palm out, and he nudged his nose into it.

“Hello, friend,” she said quietly, drawing her hand gently up over the short, soft hairs of his muzzle, noticing the way they grew coarser the closer she drew to the top of his head, between his antlers. Up close, she could see that he was older than he’d appeared from afar, his coat ticked with silver.

Hello, hedge witch.

He pressed his forehead more firmly into her palm, and she felt his serenity. It calmed the eager flutter of her heart. Though she’d told Benjamin she had done this many times before, she had not told him that every time managed to feel like the first.

She stroked her hand down the side of the stag’s face and cupped his warm cheek. “Do you come willingly this day to feed the forest and the Green Spirit?”

For the forest and the spirit, I come willingly.

“And I will usher you on. Your heart in hand.”

An offering freely given.

“An offering gratefully accepted.”

She closed her eyes and breathed out, and felt the stag’s breath spill a hot cloud over her throat as he did the same. She slid her other hand down his neck and settled it over the steady thrum of his heartbeat, and her own slowed by half to match it. For a handful of moments, they were in equilibrium. She began to grow lightheaded. Then her palm filled with heat, a prickle surged up her arm and through her body, and a single bolt of white light left her hand and buried itself in the stag’s heart, stopping it in an instant.

“Thank you,” she whispered into the soft fold of his ear.

The life left his eyes, and Rey felt as if she couldn’t breathe; her throat was tight, her lungs were empty, her heart was a stone. Then it rushed to catch up to itself, beats strong, the blood coursing through her veins, and the stag’s huge body swayed. His legs folded as if in slow motion, like he was laying down to sleep. Rey drew her arms around his neck and did her best to gentle his fall, though she was lightheaded and her knees buckled a little, and she sagged beneath his weight anyway. Even a strengthening spell was not enough with her heart racing so. He was enormous, the largest she had ever sacrificed, and nearly too much to manage. Until another pair of arms joined hers and brought the stag easily to rest on the stone. Benjamin had returned to the rock, perhaps thinking the ritual done and seeing her faltering with the body. She was about to reprimand him—she could do this alone, she was meant to do this alone—but when she looked at him, she only saw what stood beyond, lurking at the edge of the stone.

The beast had arrived, silent and stealthy as ever, the Green Spirit’s conduit: a sleek, blue-gray she-wolf. Her amber eyes fixed on Rey and the stag, then drifted with interest to Benjamin. The wolf tilted her head and sat, waiting patiently.

“I take it that’s your Green Spirit,” Benjamin muttered tightly, as if Rey was the one who had imposed on him and not the other way around.

His face was wan. She would have thought him accustomed to this sort of thing; surely he had participated in hunts, seen things die. Seen people die. Killed them himself. Seeing his unease, she bit back an uncharitable retort and nodded instead as she braced her arms beneath the stag’s side and lifted. She rolled him onto his back, his rump facing the slight downward slope of the stone. Again Benjamin was there, lightening the load.

“Yes.”

“Is it always a wolf?”

“It is for me,” she said. “Please stand back now, sir knight, I would like to finish this and am not accustomed to being interrupted.”

He sniffed with evident irritation but said nothing as he rose and stalked back to where he had been waiting, where he should still have been waiting, beneath the willow.

He is like you.

The hairs on the back of Rey’s neck stood on end, and she glanced at the wolf. The Green Spirit did not often speak directly to her. Last time it had, it had been to tell Rey that by the end of the green seasons, she would be alone. Maz had died that summer, on the longest day of the year. So she did not take the spirit’s words lightly.

“Yes, he is,” she said, dipping her chin in acknowledgement. “I think so.”

He realizes it, though something keeps him from accepting it. There is a darkness.

“I know.”

She grimaced, then took up her knife and got to work. The blade was imbued with spells to strengthen it and lend it greater sharpness than it should have possessed; it sliced through flesh and bone like a finger drawn through water. It did little for the blood. As always, she was reminded why she preferred to do this in her shift. By the time she had the heart cut free, still hot and slippery, her arms were coated nearly to the elbow, and the smell was heady and unpleasant, but familiar, comforting in the strangest way.

She lifted it out carefully and scooted back on her knees, turning to the wolf.

“Spirit of the forest, please accept this offering of gratitude for your favor and foresight.”

An offering well made. Thank you, hedge witch. My eyes and teeth are at your service until I sleep again.

The wolf stretched its head forward, jaws open and slavering, and took the heart from her hands with shocking daintiness. It began to go, to return to whatever part of the wood it called its home, then paused and fixed its keen eyes on Benjamin. He was still stationed by the tree, to Rey’s relief, but even at a glance she could see the conflicting expressions of his face. Although his curiosity had not flagged, something else clouded it. He was still troubled, like he was seeing beyond what she was doing, something he did not want to see but couldn’t will himself to look away from.

She wondered what he must think of this. It was a lot to expect him to tolerate. His eyes were dark again; his high mood from breakfast was gone. Her heart fell at the sight.

Keep him close. And take care, the spirit said, then loped away.

Was it a warning? A suggestion? The spirit never seemed to think it necessary to specify, and Rey did not have much time to become too troubled over it. She had a stag to dress and a sledge to construct to take it home. The rest of the day would be spent butchering and preparing the meat for cooking and storing, the bones and hide for later use. She and Benjamin would eat well tonight, but they had more work before them first.

She did not take long and had the body wrapped soon enough. All that remained was the sledge. Usually she gathered loose branches and lashed them together by magic and rope. Benjamin had returned and was watching again, as if he wished to make sure all was in order.

He must have noticed the way she was casting about for suitable materials, because he stepped closer and asked, “Have you lost something, witch?”

Rey shook her head and hopped down from the stone—there was a promising thicket where she often found what she needed. It just never seemed to be in the same place as she remembered from the year before. Sometimes it was right next to the stone. Sometimes it was practically at the other end of the valley. This year appeared the be one of the latter cases, unfortunately.

“No, only looking for what I need.”

She realized at last that she had been treating him rather poorly in her desire for concentration. She had been alone a very long time and had not had occasion to notice how it had affected her ability to deal with another human being, even after weeks of his presence. So she stopped and looked at him and smiled slightly, aware she must be a sight. Probably the very image of the monstrous forest hag he’d imagined her to be: filthy and blood-smeared and nearly naked.

“I’m going to make a sledge to carry the stag back. If you’ll help me search for some suitable branches, I would be very grateful.”

He frowned, and his eyes darted over her, then settled to look on the wrapped body. “No need.”

Without another word, he stooped and hoisted the whole bundle over his shoulders. It was no small feat; the stag had been hale and heavy. The amount of strength it would take to lift and carry it back all that distance would be great indeed. And yet Benjamin was no ordinary knight. Even so, she saw the cords of his neck shift as he adjusted to the load and the muscles of his forearms flex and strain where he had rolled his sleeves back.
“Will you manage?” she asked, not wishing to insult him but preferring to be realistic. “I’d rather not get halfway and need to improvise the rest.”

“You won’t. Let me help, for once.”

As if to prevent any further protestations, Benjamin trudged past her and into the meadow, toward the edge of the forest proper, looking pointedly anywhere but at her. Rey watched him go. It was a few moments before she realized she was staring with far too much intensity at the handsome broadness of his shoulders with his burden slung over them. She gathered her things and rushed after him.

 

-

 

“This is quite something, little witch.”

Benjamin spoke with his mouth half full as his gaze drifted over the table, and he reached for his cup of mead to hold it primed for the moment there was space in his mouth to accommodate the wine.

The window stood open to let the light evening wind blow through and freshen the air in the room, which, halfway through their meal, was still heavy with the smells of smoke and herbs and cooked meat. A fire blazed in the hearth and cast a pleasant flicker over the table and all its offerings, the fruits of hours of labor—the venison they had not set aside for curing and storing, roasted with chopped herbs; the tender wild greens Rey had been able to gather on the trip back; some tree nuts, roasted over the flame until they crackled and steamed; dried apples from the winter, sliced thin; and, perhaps her favorite, the mead she’d been fermenting since last summer, flavored with wormwood and dandelion to balance the sweetness.

Rey’s observations of earlier had not been wrong. The knight was truly at ease here with her, sharing a meal, more so even than he had been that morning. Maybe it was just a trick of the failing light, but he looked younger and almost happy, like something (quite possibly mild inebriation) had temporarily eased the weight of whatever he carried within. The darkness the Green Spirit had seen in him, that Rey herself knew was there . . . she couldn’t detect it right now. It was well hidden. Perhaps he was even forgetting it himself, for a time.

She grinned and cracked a nut between her teeth, enjoying its warmth on her tongue before she answered. “I did promise you a good meal at day’s end, did I not?”

“Yes, but I admit I believed you might only be tempting me to secure more assistance in your work.”

“Tempting you!” she cried with a laugh, eyebrows climbing in a show of offense. “I told you many times I didn’t need help, and still you insisted.”

“And my back will pay the price. Your tribute was quite heavy, and I must have forgotten what a distance the walk was.” His tone was dry, but the smirk fighting its way into the corner of his mouth suggested his complaint was as false as her outrage. She wished he would let the smile come, but as ever, it was gone before it fully bloomed. “Perhaps you enchanted me to confuse my thoughts?”

Rey snorted derisively and did not deign to answer that. He still accused her every few days of acts of bewitchment, always on mundane matters; she had realized only recently that he seemed to think of it as a joke. And while it remained her instinct to feel it an insult, she tried to think on what it must actually mean: he trusted her well enough to tease her, and perhaps even make light of how foolish he had been not long ago.

“A clever ploy, yes. Temptations and enchantments,” she quipped instead. “How do you find the mead? As good as any in the kingdom, I expect?”

He dipped his head. “Better.”

“Don’t flatter me, knight.”

“I wouldn’t,” he insisted. “Though if you continue to pour so generously, my praises may become a good deal more colorful.”

He drank again, tipping his head back this time to drain what remained, no doubt so that he could help himself to more, and Rey watched the way his throat moved with each swallow. The cup in his hand looked absurdly small, as if it might crumble in his grip if he weren’t careful with it. She thought of how he had squeezed the last face-eater until it burst. She had not seen him use his hands for such an act of violence since that night; in fact, despite what inhuman strength they seemed to possess, she had seen that they were also capable of great care and finesse.

Though he’d had little success in his magic, she knew how he tried when she taught him and even when she did not. She’d noticed him in the clearing a day or so ago when he’d thought she was gathering water at the stream—she had returned to find him crouched by one of the burnt larch trees, running his hands over the blackened bark the way one might gentle a frightened animal and drawing his long fingers through the soil, and she had felt a pulse of his regret. It reminded her of one thing, at least: he had a lifetime of suppressing his power to overcome, decades of rages. The progress he had made already, though subtle, was admirable. And it had made her wonder what it might feel like to have one of those hands running up the inside of her thigh, one of his thumbs tracing along the side of her neck . . .

She had quashed the spark of such speculations before it could start a flame, announced her presence, and they had headed back to the house before darkness began to fall.

Her thoughts were beginning to drift that way again, as she chewed and watched him reach for the bottle. Fortunately, she had something else to distract her this time, though to her shame she had nearly forgotten it. She and Benjamin were not alone. Finn was above, roosting in the rafters after his first go at some of the spread, and Poe was lounging near her elbow, probably planning a bid for more nuts soon.

Finn descended and landed nimbly near the platter of meat, cocked his head with a look of discrimination, and darted forward to snatch up a juicy morsel.

Mind your eyes.

She tore her focus from Benjamin but not before she noticed his brow twitch. He put a hand to his temple, then scratched at his ear. “Did you—?” He frowned and stared at his cup. “Strong, too, this wine. I think I’m beginning to hear voices on the wind.”

Rey narrowed her eyes but just nodded and let her gaze dart from him to Finn to her food. She did not appreciate being chided for . . . well, whatever Finn thought she was doing with her eyes. She was allowed to look at her houseguest! It was polite, even she knew that.

“What do you suppose you mean by that, Finn?” she asked in a tone far too prim for someone speaking with her mouth full of meat.

Finn was occupied with his beak buried in the venison again, but Poe, as ever, was gamely set to offer his own opinions on whatever he thought his friend must have meant.

You’re beginning to look as if you’d rather eat that man over there than this fine meal you have set out before you. He shook his vibrant coat and scampered over to the apples to avail himself. Not that I’d mind. More for us.

Finn chuffed a laugh, feathers fluffed and wings spread. Across the table, Benjamin coughed, and when Rey looked to him she found him pale and slack-jawed.

“That— It—It’s not the wind, nor the wine.” He waved his empty hand at Poe, then at Finn, flailing for a few moments as he found his words. “Your familiars. I hear them.”

“Not my familiars,” she reminded him, barely able to keep the excitement from her voice, far better than the flash of annoyance at Poe’s unwelcome opinions. “But are you certain? Because if you understand them . . .”

This was progress. Real progress. Passive magic was still magic.

“Yes. I think so. It’s . . . broken.” Benjamin rose and leaned over the table, hands planted at the edges, and peered down at Poe, who regarded him with whiskers twitching and eyes shining. “This one. This rodent. It talks a lot. Something about . . . eating your meals, I gathered.”

She blushed—eating her meals, yes, that was it—and was grateful he’d missed it. He remained too busy staring down at Poe, head cocked and mouth slightly ajar, like he was waiting for something. Poe settled back on his haunches, undaunted even in the knight’s huge shadow, and lifted his chin.

So . . . who talks first? You talk first? I talk first?

 

Chapter Text

He is dreaming.

It is not one of the better dreams.

His father has just sent a page asking for Ben’s presence. It’s late in the evening—candles and oil lamps are lit on the walls, and they cast warm light across the hanging tapestries. Paintings of ancestors and distant relatives stare down at him. For the first time since he can remember, they don’t seem to curl their lips in disgust.

Ben strides through the hall with purpose, his feet feeling lighter than they have in weeks. Months, maybe. He isn’t entirely certain. The days have all been blending together.

This morning, he woke with a clear head. The voice—the foul and acrid whisper that had crawled into his thoughts—was gone. Had something driven it off? Had he imagined it all?

No, it can’t have been his imagination. If it were so, then he would be mad, and now, with his eyes finally able to focus on the paintings and the tapestries and the lamps, he feels impossibly far from mad. He feels whole. Happy, even. Perhaps it can now be a piece of his past that he will be able to look back on and slump in relief with the knowledge that it is all over.  

His father’s door is of thick oak beams, bound with hammered iron. Ben’s knock is barely audible.

“Enter.”

Han stands at the window, his hands on his hips, his attention on something beyond the leaded glass. The hour is late. He has already shrugged out of his doublet and wears only his shirtsleeves and breeches.

“I’ve been wanting to speak with you, Benjamin.” His voice lacks some of the typical gruffness, but he doesn’t turn.

For a second, Ben wonders at the use of his full name. He is ‘Ben’ every day, and ‘Benjamin’ either when he’s done wrong (misfiring a crossbow bolt into one of the most ornate stained-glass windows in the castle, sneaking a rat into the kitchen with the intent to feed it all of his unwanted vegetables), or proved his worth (breaking up a fight between two of the servants’ children, leaping from his horse to drive his knife into a rampaging boar that was about to bowl over the hunting caravan’s wagon).

Ben can’t think of a single recent action that would fall under ‘wrong.’ Could this meeting be one of fortune, then? Is he to be given his first quest? He has just passed his twentieth birthday, and most of his friends have already left the castle walls and returned with trophies and renown.

Of course, being the only son of the queen means that his life is more closely guarded than those of the children of bakers, and blacksmiths, and nobles, yet it is high time that Ben is given a chance to prove himself, in his opinion. For godssake, he’s been able to rage for years. He isn’t some fragile, tender-skinned prince. The rages had fallen oddly still while he’d had the oily voice in his mind, yet he can feel them under his skin like a bristling wolf: warm, and fanged, and waiting. Not that they’d ever been especially powerful, but a rage is still a rage, in Ben’s mind.

So, perhaps, this will be a meeting of fortune. Hope rises in his chest, fizzing and light.

“What is it, father?” Ben says, trying to tamp down the elation. Han is not the king, only his mother’s consort, yet even he must have the authority to dole out important tasks.

His father turns. Han’s eyes are colder, and they remind Ben of a knife in moonlight. Hard and glinting.

“You came here looking for direction, I suppose.” Han barks a jackal’s laugh.

Ben swallows, feeling as if he’s just been slapped. “I...I had hoped…”

Another laugh, sharper than the first. “Typical.” He strides to the decanter of whiskey on a table along the wall. As he pours amber liquid into a small glass, the decanter sparkles in the lamplight.

Ben clenches his fists. “I don’t know what I’ve done to offend you, but—”

“You always offend me.” Han says it with no more emotion than if he were commenting on the state of the stone floors, then takes a short sip of his drink. He’s looking at the wall as if he can’t bother to look at his son.

Unease prickles Ben’s stomach. Something is wrong here.

He’s never been close with his father, but their relationship, if not warm, has always been cordial. Ben watched his friends in childhood run up to their fathers and greet them with a staggering hug. And in return, they would receive a hair ruffle, a playful wrestle, a beaming smile, a proud pat on the back.

Ben received handshakes and curt nods. They are royalty, however, and royalty has different standards of affection. He has grown up inside it, become used to it.

But this…

This is cruelty.

He’d come into his father’s chambers hoping that now, finally, Han would give him some token of approval. At last, after all of the brusque words and graveled grunts, Ben would hear what he’d longed to hear: ‘You’ve done well. I am proud.’

“I’m sorry,” Ben says, though he isn’t sure what he is apologizing for, or what he’s even seeking to accomplish by doing so.

Han whirls on him with his lips curled and hurls the glass at the wall. It shatters, sending shards and gleaming liquid across the room, and Ben can’t help but flinch.

“You’re sorry?” Han snaps, as if Ben has just urinated on his shoes. “Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to your mother.”

“My—my mother?”

Han points a finger at him. The marks on his skin are more prominent: the creases of age, the spots, the old calluses from years of swordplay.

“How do you think she feels when she looks at you?” Han scoffs. “She expected a prince. Someone to be proud of. Someone brave, handsome, and strong.” He gestures at Ben in disgust. “She has you instead.”

Something is very, very wrong. His father is lying. His father is drunk. His father is not his father. The excuses fly through Ben’s head, one after another, seeking to land, but the terrible words don’t let them.

“I was there, you know. The day you were born.”

Ben stares at the stones under his feet, at the imperfections in the slate.

“It wasn’t common to let the father in the room. Still isn’t. I insisted. When your mother first saw you after you slithered out of her like a worm, she wanted to dash your head upon the ground.”

Ben looks up, hoping for...for anything that shows that his father isn’t being sincere, that this is but a horrible joke or a cruel prank. He would take anything over this. Whatever this is. He sucks in a breath and it trembles.

“That’s not true,” he says, and his words crack. A tear wells up and escapes, trickling down his cheek. His father looks at it as if it were bile. Ben curses himself and wipes it away with a rough jerk of a hand. Men don’t cry at criticism; that is a child’s reaction. Perhaps his father’s accusations are not so far from the truth after all.

“Oh?” Han snorts and steps closer to Ben. “I stopped her from doing it. I said that you had potential.” He shakes his head. “If I’d known how wrong I would be, I’d have let her.” As he walks over the glass, it crunches underneath his boots. His greatsword leans against one of the walls, the red bauble in the pommel gleaming like an eye, and for a second, Ben wishes that his father had struck him with that instead, because at least those wounds have a possibility of healing.

“Why are you saying this?” Ben moves towards the door, as if by putting distance between them, he can protect himself.

Han follows him step for step. He shifts so that Ben is no longer backing toward the door but toward the window.  

“A truth, bottled and sealed, will explode before long,” Han says. “Wasn’t that something your tutor taught you? Or are you as poor a student as you are a man?”

I’m not a poor student, Ben thinks. I have promise. Tutor Luke said so; at least he'd said it before....before—

A terrible thought nudges at the back of his mind, and he tries to grasp it, because it will explain what is happening here, because it will mean that this isn’t actually happening, because—

Han grins. It’s too wide for his mouth, and cracks form in his lips. Ben’s stomach twists at the sight.

“You’re weak,” his father says. “You’ve always been weak. You can lift as many sacks of flour and pull back as many bowstrings as you’d like, but nothing will never change that in here”—he points at Ben’s chest with that wrinkled finger, and has it always been that wrinkled?—“you are a weak, pathetic waste of breath who would have been better off as a bloody smear at your mother’s feet.”

There is cold air at his back. Ben glances over his shoulder. The window is open. The ground is far. The fall would be easy.

How many others think of him this way? Does his master of sword spit in revulsion whenever Ben misses his target? Do the visiting nobles whisper and laugh? Who else feels that he is unfit for the world?

The heels of his boots tap at the wall, and he grips the cold stone at his sides to steady himself.

His father leans in. Specks of blood shine on his split lips. “Do it,” he whispers. There’s a foulness to his breath. It smells familiar. It smells like—

“Do it!” Han says again, louder, and the order seems to snake its way through Ben’s limbs.

Perhaps he should. The window is open. The ground is far. The fall would be easy.

There’s a flash across his father’s face, an image of pockmarked skin, old and stretched beyond its means laid across the features he knows so well: the same flash that Ben himself had seen as he’d stared into mirrors. Up until this morning.

Realization spreads over him in a slow ooze.

Oh, gods.

“This isn’t you, father.”

“Do it. Rid the world of your parasitic breaths.”

“No.” The entity, Snoke it called itself, had indeed left Ben. But it hadn’t gone far.

“Just a little step, Benjamin. You’re worthless. You’re a waste. Do it.”

“I won’t.”

“Do it, or I will.”

Hands—not his father’s, now he knows this—rise up, palms out, fingers curled into claws.

Ben’s gaze lands on the sword against the opposite wall, and as he bolts to it, the hands swipe at him and close on air.

His father’s greatsword has always felt too heavy for Ben to use effectively, but the last time he picked it up must have been years ago because tonight it feels as if it has been made for his hands. It hisses as it slides from its sheath and glints in the lamplight.

Han strides toward him, and there seems to be a dark fog seeping from his skin.

Ben grips the sword, raises it.

“No closer or I will— ” he begins.

“Will what?” his father—no, the creature, Snoke—says. “Will you finish me? You can’t. You’re weak, Benjamin. I have no use for weakness. No one does.”

Tears fall from Ben’s cheeks and splash onto his tunic. He can feel the wetness of them on his chest.

His father’s mouth opens too wide around a laugh that is too harsh.

Ben knows what he has to do. He doesn’t know if he has the strength to do it. His father’s face is still there underneath the wavering, seething mask, and he remembers the times that it smiled at him. Neither often nor unabashed; yet there must have been times that Han had been proud of him, even though it was never explicitly stated. There must have been.

Snoke is closer, now. Within reach. There is a humming, a buzzing, some high note that grips Ben’s head with sharp fingers. Words within it, maybe music, as soothing as a poisoned thorn.

“Do not make me do this!” Please. He throws the thought out into the ether, and whether he asks the entity or whatever remains of his father, he doesn’t know.

“Goodbye, Benjamin,” Snoke says. All pretense is gone. There is no trace of his father’s voice. Han is gone. The humming grows louder, more incessant.

Ben thrusts forward with a yell, and the sword slides into his father’s body without resistance.

The hum becomes a whistle, crescendos into a wail that seems to pierce Ben’s head, and then it ceases abruptly. There’s a scream of anger and shock. A wave of energy bursts from Han’s body and tries to knock Ben off his feet. The windows crack, and a few colored panes tumble out. His father becomes limp. Ben’s ears are ringing. His hands shake, and the body on the sword shakes with them. A sob bursts from his chest.

And then, his father’s head lolls upright, and he looks at Ben with eyes that are clear and confused.

“Ben?”

Ben’s mouth opens around silent words. No. Please. No. I had to. I’m sorry. Please. There’s blood. He doesn’t see it, but he can feel it on his hands, slipping under his boots. Too much blood.

Han lifts a hand and cups Ben’s cheek, then he slides from the sword to the ground.

The dream shifts. He is in a clearing, in a valley resplendent with summer, and the body that lies at the toes of his boots is that of the deer. Just a deer. His shoulders slump; his breath rushes from his aching lungs.

There is a warmth in his hands, and when he looks down, it is not the witch holding the deer’s heart, but himself; thick blood drips down his wrists and between his fingers.

“Ben.”

It’s a whisper, as gentle as the breeze against his temple, and it comes from the deer.

No—not the deer.

His father sprawls on the grass with a hole gaping and raw in the middle of his chest, blood soaking into the dirt.

“Ben.”

 

He woke with his teeth clenched around a silent yell. Both breath and heartbeat were frantic and desperate, his forehead cool with sweat. The tree was silent save for the low crackle of fire and the creak of old wood.

A palm scrubbed roughly over his face did little to settle his nerves. Images of blood stayed in his mind’s eye as if burned there, and his hands clenched around air like they expected to close on an object both warm and slimy.

For all of its subtle variations, the dream was always the same. It never showed what happened afterward, as if the fight with his father's head guard—the frantic clash of steel, the dull crack as one side of the crossguard splintered under a powerful blow, the searing pain when Chewie's blade skittered across his hip—wasn't nearly important enough. He never dreamed of the maid either, who had rushed into the blood-splattered room crying out that she had heard all that passed in the moments before Chewie entered. Her voice stilled the swords and made it so that Kylo had been able to keep his head attached to his neck.

On the pallet in the witch’s tree, he scowled.

Kylo.

Who in the seven hells was that anymore? He'd changed his name after that damned night, hoping that he could bury who he had been.

Because Kylo Ren wouldn't have succumbed to magic. Kylo Ren would have cast off the clutching hands in his mind and struck down the enemy long before he would have had to strike down his father.

But there was no burying the past, not truly. He could pile on different names and complete enough quests to fill an entire tome yet it would always be there. The past wasn't a monster that needed to be slain; no matter how he tried, there would be no killing it.

It was a fool’s thought to believe that he could hide behind Kylo Ren. Yet he was no longer Benjamin: the carefree boy, the hopeful prince. At some point, he would correct the witch.

On her bed below, she shifted under her furs and snuffled in her sleep.

Ben rubbed the thin blanket between his thumb and forefinger. No, not ‘the witch.’

Rey. It was a pretty name, as slight and sweet as the woman who held it. He wasn’t certain why he couldn’t bring himself to speak it. Perhaps doing so implied closeness, or familiarity, and no matter how much he admired her capability, or her patience, or whatever magic she used to create that divine mead, she was still a witch living in a land that despised magic. In the end, Ben would return to the kingdom and leave the witch in her wood.

The ground had softened over the past month, and the air had warmed enough so that Ben would no longer freeze if he lay in the dirt without a bedroll. Game was plentiful, the streams were high. He even had a simple mask made from a slab of bark that he had used the few times going into the woods at night had been necessary, and a pair of shoes—really, they were less like shoes and more like thin leather sacks that slipped over his feet and tied around the ankles—that would protect his skin from pine needles and sharp stones. As the weather warmed, he would catch a look from Rey at least once every day: one of curiosity traced with disappointment. She knew he would be leaving; it was only a matter of when.

If he decided to leave, he could do so, and although it would take nearly a month to return to the castle, he would arrive alive. Not that it was imperative for him to return soon; no one in Alderaan would be missing him save his mother, and she undoubtedly would find distraction enough in the chaos of court life and her duties ruling the kingdom. When he left the witch, he could navigate through the dense wood by using the sun and the stars. Instead of following the visceral pull to magic, he would distance himself from it—head in the direction where it felt the weakest.

Yet…

The reasons to stay now outweighed the reasons to leave. For one, he needed better footwear. Although the foot-sacks were useful, they were hardly an adequate substitute for a solid pair of boots.

And he needed a weapon. With enough time, he could fashion a spear of his own. A point of flaked rock would do more damage than a point of whittled wood, which, of course, would require a long afternoon of work.

Ben was learning more about his power as well; he had yet to bring forth a single bud from the larch, but he had communicated with a rodent and a bird, which seemed to hint at some sort of progress. They had all continued to talk last night after dinner. Each time Poe spoke, it sounded less like chittering and more like words, and Ben fell asleep with the squirrel’s endless questions in his ear. Ben was the first human male that Poe had been able to speak with, and he found himself in the bizarre situation of dodging uncomfortable questions about his genitals.

Ben was finding that when he focused his thoughts the way Rey had directed him, the rage’s constant, simmering presence in his mind began to ease. It almost felt as if there had been an incessant whisper in his ear, and for however many brief moments he managed to pull his mind together, it would fall silent, allowing him to hear the world.

And the last reason, the one he had explored only with hesitation, was that they had both dreamed of one another.

He nearly snorted before remembering that Rey slept nearby.

Of all the reasons to stay in her home, it was by far the most sentimental. But Ben had been raised on tales of romance and fate. This was something that begged not to be ignored.

After a month in her presence, whenever he wasn’t wrapped in nightmares, Ben woke with the fading images of her bare body in sunlight and the sensations of her soft skin against his fingertips. Sometimes, he would hear sounds from her bed, although they usually didn’t last long, and afterward, there would be the clank of a mug and the bubbling pour of tea. Did she still dream of him? Thanks to the brief peek into her mind, he knew that she had done so in the past, but he had not peeked since that night.

Rey moved in her bed again. The wooden posts creaked with the suddenness of it. Her breathing was no longer deep and even, instead coming in little, sharp gasps.

A tendril of arousal curled low in Ben’s gut and he swallowed. He couldn’t help but listen; she was right beneath him, after all. She cried out suddenly in a high, trembling moan, and then it cut off into deep, ragged breaths. Woken herself, it seemed. If her dreams were similar to the ones he’d experienced, he knew that she would wake from them with desire pinning her in a near-painful hold.

She was quiet, almost strangely so. The thought crossed Ben’s mind that perhaps she was listening for signs that he was awake. But...why? Could...could she possibly be thinking of—

Another moan came from her bed. Much softer than the one previous, barely audible from his position in the loft.

Ben swallowed again, and his mouth drifted open. His lungs felt tight; his skin prickled with heat. The length of his cock twitched against his thigh. If his hands clutched the blanket any harder, it would surely tear.

She was panting. A whimper emerged. There was frustration in it, he felt, as well as lust. It came again, and again. Her sounds became muffled, as if she were burying her face in her pillow. He could picture it clearly: her eyes squeezed shut, her brow furrowed, her jaw slack and panting hot breaths into fabric and feathers. Or, instead, one palm clapped over her mouth while the fingers of her other hand stroked and stroked.

The blanket’s old fibers squeaked in his grasp. His cock swelled and began an urgent throb that echoed at the base of his skull and the tips of his toes. He could slip beneath the blankets, take himself in hand, pleasure his body in the same frantic way she was doing on the bed below.

Or, he could go down to her. He could descend the ladder rungs, slide under her piled furs, replace her fingers with his own. Her panting breaths would be quick on his cheek, her moans and cries would fall directly into his ears without any space in between. It would be a lie to claim that he’d never thought of doing so when he woke from his own sweat-drenched reverie, and she was always so close. It would only take a few steps. A whispered word.

She might welcome him.

But.

She might shrink away from him. For the one possibility that she would pull him closer and closer and into her, there were a thousand possibilities that she would scoff, or turn her back, or accuse him of simply wanting a quick lay because he was lonely and bored and craved a place to put his cock.

Ben gritted his teeth and steeled himself against the angry throbbing. He thought of fighting techniques; of old, dry poems; of his bloody dream. The pallet creaked as he flipped to his side, and it was far louder than he’d expected.

Her sounds stopped in an instant. The fire crackled. Filaments in the tree’s walls ground against one another. Over it all, Ben heard a single, heavy sigh, as frustrated as her moan had been, before stillness once more settled in the tree.

Gods damn it all.

 

-



Rey made no comments about her dream the following morning; Ben wouldn’t have expected her to do so.

The leather in his hands was stiff with its newness, and he gripped the edges more tightly so that the bone needle wouldn’t slip. Several days ago, Rey had made a passing remark that she needed to make a new bag for herself: large enough to fit foraged food, but small enough to sling comfortably across her shoulder. She had several bags already, yet each one boasted an assortment of holes worn through the bottom.

This morning, Ben had offered to make a bag for her from the cleaned and scraped hide they had processed the previous day. He could sew well enough for himself—fixing the hole in a shirt, repairing a broken bridle—and had never tried to craft anything more complex, so this would be a way to expand his skills. That, and he needed a task able to fully occupy his mind.

As soon as he’d woken, the tree had seemed much smaller. Ben found himself highly aware of whenever Rey brushed against his arm as she passed. He’d noticed the way her back curved when she crouched on the moss floor to study some of the ground pigment in her little pot, or how she’d hummed an off-tune melody while she dusted her table with an old scrap of fabric.

They’d eaten a breakfast of dried venison and goose eggs that Rey had fried over the fire. More than once, Ben had glanced up from his plate to see her eyes dart away from his face to rest on an empty spot in the rafters. Staring at his scar, without a doubt. After he decided to stay with her, he’d glimpsed himself in her dusty mirror a few times; the scar was a long, ugly weal that did little to improve his appearance. Mayhap it matched his long face and his long nose.

His attention focused inward, he had licked some of the runny yolk from his thumb and nearly missed the way the witch stared at his mouth as he did so: eyes darkening, her lower lip caught between her teeth.

She had jumped when he addressed her, then mumbled about how the day was getting late. There had been a flush to her neck and a clumsiness to her movements.

Ben reeled his thoughts back to his task. He poked the bone punch through the layers of leather so the needle could pass without snapping. He’d managed to sew a stretch as long as his hand. There was a ways to go, and it would not do to continue musing on blushes and stares and dreams.

Rey stood and stretched her arms over her head. He kept his attention on his bag-in-progress, forcing himself not to pay attention to the way the fabric of her dress stretched across her breasts, or the little ‘mmhf’ of satisfaction that emerged with her movement.

“I think I’ll go to the river today,” she said. Her eyes flicked to him.

“Are you gathering water? Do you need assistance?” She was strong for her size, but her appreciation had been apparent when he’d carried the deer carcass back to the tree.

Rey made an expression as if she was organizing her thoughts. “...No,” she said hesitantly. “I am going to bathe.”

“The water should be brisk,” he said as he made a desperate attempt not to picture her naked and wet and surrounded by a gentle current. She had been in just her shift yesterday for the ritual—a light, linen thing that bared her arms and hung down to her knees—and he hadn’t been able to drag his eyes away from the way the wind had buffeted the fabric against the curves of her body. It took little for his imagination to strip it away. It took even less to imagine himself stripping it away.

Ben was far from sexually experienced, but he was not a virgin. He hadn’t been one ever since he was seventeen, when the daughter of a visiting noble had convinced him to join her behind a set of thick drapes in a secluded corner of the castle. They’d kissed, and groped, and the very moment that her nimble fingers had snaked into his trousers, he’d climaxed into her palm. Even fifteen years later, the memory still flustered him. She’d only giggled, then shrugged and pulled his hand under her skirts. The next several minutes had been a lesson in the many ways he could use his fingers on a woman, as well as how long it took for him to harden once more. It had been quick then—a frantic, muffled rut against a wall.

And then there had been the lady’s maid, and the traveling harpist. Hurried, fumbled things, both of them: the maid constantly worried that her lady would notice her absence, the harpist needing a way to relax before her next performance.

And then he’d killed his father and sworn to spend his energies on nobler duties.

Ben focused on the leather in his hands, pushed the needle through a punched hole, pulled the gut string taut.

Rey’s voice jarred him out of his thoughts.

“I think it would be beneficial for you to join me.”

He jabbed the needle into his index finger instead of the leather.

“What?”

Rey turned to face him. “Join me in bathing.”

His breath stuttered. Sweet, sacred balls of Saint Garthey. Was she truly suggesting this? He was imagining it all before he could stop himself: naked bodies and desperate touches—-soapy, slippery hands gliding across the swells of her breasts—across her waist—lips against the hot skin of her neck—hungry and hurried—gasping cries—her body soft and warm and wet around each eager thrust of his cock—

“Benjamin?”

He choked on the air in his lungs. “I—you...you suggest—”

Rey rubbed her forehead before letting out a defeated sigh. “You need to bathe, sir. Fully submerge your person.” She pinched her lips. “I can practically smell you from across the tree.”

Ah.

An embarrassed flush warmed his ears and he stood. Nodded. “Cold water would do me a service.” In more ways than one.

The river was a good distance through the woods. Lichen sprouted on branches and covered the exposed roots that undulated over the forest floor. Colorful songbirds trilled and flitted between the budding branches above Ben’s head. A breeze tickled his nose with the fresh scents of the forest’s awakening: pine, and damp earth, and the sweet, fresh bloom of flowers. Stones and roots dug into his feet, and he focused on the pain of it, using that to force the now ever-present arousal to the back of his thoughts. New, thicker shoes would be a treat after all of this.

When Ben had wondered aloud how Rey had made her own—the tall, laced leather being of higher craftsmanship than anything he had watched her make—she had revealed that many of the items in her home had come from abandoned wagons and caravans that became stuck on their journey through the wood. Finn always kept a keen eye on travelers, and occasionally a wheel would break or a horse would founder and people would be forced to continue their travels without heavy trunks of belongings. Rey would journey to the spot and pick out what she needed: heavy boots, a woolen dress, a bundle of candles. Sometimes there would be an interesting stone, or a pretty piece of cut glass, and she would take those as well.

She had never needed to think about collecting a pair of boots for a large man. The next time she left, he could accompany her, she’d said. Perhaps he could find some suitable footwear and even a weapon.

The loose linen pants Ben currently wore had been part of one of these journeys.

“Those breeches need soap, too,” Rey had said, wrinkling her nose at said breeches as they left the tree.

“Next time, you carry the dead deer, and I’ll make comments on your odor.”

She had smiled, then. Ben had grown used to the distance and succinctness of Rey’s speech and expressions, both befitting someone who had lived alone for years. But, gods, when she smiled, it was as if the heavens themselves shone against his skin.

“A suitable deal,” she’d said with a laugh that dimpled her cheeks. “When the day comes that I carry a dead deer across my shoulders, you shall be allowed to address my stench.”

When they reached the river, they found it high and swollen with snowmelt from some distant mountain range.

Beck would have loved this place, Ben thought. Fresh shoots of grass, flowing water he could drink from and wade in up to his fetlocks, scrubby barked trees to rub against. Where was the horse now? Had the princess sold him to some heavy-handed trader? Had he foundered in the wood before they could make it back to civilization? Or was he back at the castle, luxuriating under a stablehand’s thorough curry comb?

Ben preferred to believe the last, no matter how unlikely it might be.

He slipped the leather from his feet and stepped into the cool water. Stones and silt shifted underneath him. It was clear enough to see to the bottom, even where the water ran several feet high. And after weeks of wiping with a damp cloth or simply splashing his hands in a shallow creek, it looked to be the finest bath in the world.

He tugged his shirt over his head and tossed it to the shallows to soak alongside his leather breeches, cuffed the linen pants to his knees, and waded in with a lump of soap in hand. Rey had taken the soap from a caravan as well. The cake she was using to scrub at the clothes she’d brought in a reed basket was scented like flowers, while the cake she’d given Ben smelled richer: spice and fruit. A nobleman’s soap. A king’s soap, maybe.

Ben scoffed before dunking his head underwater. Royalty would never be seen bathing in a river, which was one of the many reasons he had shrugged off his title. His mother had other nobles to whom she could pass the crown—Lord Dameron of Eschwing and Duchess Tico, to name a couple—so Ben had never felt guilty at the rejection.

He lifted his head just enough to scrub a thick lather into his hair, then ducked once more. The current buffeted him and tugged at his scalp with firm, almost massaging fingers. He stayed bent while he splashed water over his chest and shoulders. The chill soaked into his body, and he could easily pretend that it was dousing whatever fires the events of the night had ignited.

When he rose, he slicked his hair against his skull, then tipped his head backward and basked in the way the air chilled his skin further. Sunlight filtered through the trees and glimmered on the water droplets that clung to his eyelashes.

Rey glanced up at him when he started to wade back to his clothes, and it was as if a sudden bolt had hit her. She had been crouching by the riverbank, scrubbing at a stubborn stain on one of her shifts, but now the shift seemed forgotten. Her wide eyes stuck to his torso as if glued there.

Ben glanced down, confused. Water ran over his scarred chest in rivulets and trickled to the low-slung waistband of his trousers. Ah. His confusion twisted into chagrin. What must she think of his marred body?

The nobles who lived in and passed through Alderaan’s castle had an ideology: scars, like sores, were best kept hidden. Scars were reserved for poor farmhands, beggars who made their living from the mud, or warriors with so little influence that they had to actually fight their own battles. Whenever he returned to the castle with another weal or divot, looks of repulsion and shock always followed him.

Ben swallowed and went to run a hand through his hair, then paused as he realized that he would only be pressing it more tightly to his scalp. His ears would be sticking out like the handles of a jug. They were often a point of humiliation from childhood playmates and visiting nobles alike—at least, until he grew out his hair long enough to hide them.

The soap slipped out of Rey’s fingers and plunked into the shallow water. She jerked at the sound, snapping out of her odd fascination, and grappled for the cake amongst the rocks.

Ben turned his back to her and scowled at the wavering stones beneath his feet. He would bet that she’d been taken off guard by his appearance when he’d first arrived at her home. She had seen him without his shirt before today, but one would not be able to get a decent view of another when the other lay prone on a bed, or hunched in dim moonlight.

He scrubbed the spicy soap in harsh rasps across his arms and chest as if he could scour away the blemishes. Splashes announced Rey’s slow approach into the water. When Ben glanced over his shoulder, he nearly fell into the river with how quickly he spun to face her.

Her dress was gone. Where, he didn’t know and hadn’t the desire to find out. She was in just her shift—the same thin linen with the narrow shoulder straps—and as she waded deeper, she began to pull it up her thighs. To remove it.

“What are you doing?” Ben blurted. Panic and excitement battled within him. The panic won.

Rey looked at him as if he had just asked why water was wet. “I’m bathing,” she said slowly.

“But...you—” He flailed an arm at her discarded dress, which he now saw was draped across a sunny rock. “It’s—there’s...you can’t.”

If she continued and removed her shift, then she would be naked.

Completely and utterly naked.

Ben clenched his fists. He'd seen a naked woman before, though it had never been in a sexual way—the nobleman’s daughter had been too worried about being found to remove a single article of clothing; the lady’s maid had insisted on the candle being snuffed; the harpist had lifted her skirts and settled on him with the reasoning that she wouldn’t want her gown mussed. Before he began to travel, his knowledge of female nudity had come from hasty scrawlings and bad graffiti. Then he'd journeyed around the country on his endless chain of quests, and though he had seen much more of the world and of figures, there had been nothing erotic in the sight of a nursing mother, the half-clothed prostitutes that proffered their wares, or the blood-red body of an angry succubus.

The witch was preparing to wash herself. That was all. She was going to scrub off whatever dried flakes of blood remained from her sacrifice as well as the dirt caked under her nails. There should be nothing erotic about it whatsoever, yet with the witch standing before him in a shift pulled up so that the hem hovered just below her pubic hair, Ben’s heart felt as if it was about to pound into his throat. It was one thing to imagine or dream of her nudity. Quite another to be confronted with it in person.

Rey’s snort was neither quaint nor ladylike. “Are you telling me that I cannot bathe?”

“...No, but—” So much for the chill water; his skin felt hotter than a pile of flickering coals. “It’s not…if you’re unclothed...” He swallowed. “It isn’t proper.”

Her laugh burbled up so fast that she nearly choked on it. She stared at him, seeming to test if he was joking, then scoffed and dropped the shift’s hem.

“Fine,” she snapped. She snatched a scrap of rough fabric from the bank and waded deeper into the river, upstream from where Ben stood. “I’ll accommodate you and your...your... propriety.” The last word emerged as a snarl.

She began to bathe, and if he didn’t know better, he would think she were trying to remove her skin with the fabric. Her skin reddened under her ministrations, and the shift’s linen rapidly darkened with water. An attempt at scrubbing her back only made her curse, then curse more loudly when the fabric scrap fell into the river.

Ben watched as it twisted in the current. He bent to catch it as it passed. When he straightened, Rey was glowering at the woods upstream, her arms crossed over her chest. Guilt stung at him like a wasp’s barb. He was the one imposing on her life; how could he demand that she change her customs for his own sense of normalcy?

“This would be much easier if not for your...your mores,” she said to the trees.

Ben tossed his soap to the bank and began a steady approach toward her. The current nudged at his legs with every step. “They’re not my mores. They’re the world’s.”

“Then the world is far too difficult, and I am glad I am not more involved in it.”

He reached her, and her only acknowledgment of his presence was a jerky look over her shoulder, bare but for the thin strap of her shift. He stepped closer. Her nearness unbalanced him more than the pebbles settling underneath his feet.

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, meaning it. Whether he was apologizing for himself or for the world, he didn’t know. The little square of fabric was cold and heavy in his hand, and it dripped as he brought it to the wing of her shoulder blade. She sucked in a small breath when it touched her skin, and he almost pulled away until she gave a little hum of contentment.

“I think that might be the first time you’ve said ‘sorry’ to me, Benjamin,” she said in a voice as gentle as the water against his calves.  

“Ben.” He ran the cloth down her spine. It skimmed old, thin scars that stretched nearly the width of her back until they disappeared beneath her shift. From her childhood, he guessed. Anger simmered in his gut at the sight of them. He laved her back with the cloth as if he could heal them, somehow. It rasped over the linen strap, nudged at her arm. “It’s...it’s Ben.”

“Ben,” she repeated, as if testing the way the name felt in her mouth. She uncrossed her arms so she could pull her hair over one freckle-dusted shoulder, and he ran the cloth across the soft skin of her bared neck. Gently, reverently.

“It suits you,” she said. “Ben.”

And sweet gods, the way she said his name then, breathing it out, running her tongue along the consonants, tasting it. His hand clenched around the sodden piece of fabric, and rivulets of river water leaked onto her skin where they beaded along her collarbones. One ran lower, lower, until it hit the simple bodice and— gods above— the linen there clung to her body, practically transparent from her earlier washing. Ben was tall enough so that as he stood behind her, he could see the quick rise of her chest, see the flushed peaks of her nipples, see the perfect swells of her breasts.

He was hard in an instant. Blood rushed to his cock so quickly that it made his head spin. He could edge away slowly, submerge himself to the waist. She would never know.

But her foot slipped on a stone, and as she moved backward to steady herself, the solid head of his cock jutted against the sweet softness of her rump.

Rey gasped and began to turn to him, but Ben couldn’t bear to see the horror in her face.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted before he dropped the washing fabric, not even waiting to see if she caught it before it slipped from her skin, and strode through the shallow water and into the forest.

She called after him.

“Wait, I—Ben!”

He couldn’t listen. Couldn’t stay. Not like this. Twigs poked into his feet, leaves and seeds clung to his ankles, his cock bobbed heavy and angry against his trousers.

Embarrassment and contempt writhed in his chest. After he had agreed to stay with her—however long that would come to be—she had been nothing but honest and gracious toward him. And how did he speak his thanks? By whapping her with his erection.

When he was certain she wasn’t following him, he slowed and leaned against the trunk of a gnarled oak.

There were knights who would have stayed. They wouldn’t have been shy about the state of their arousal: would have been proud of it, even. Instead of jerking away, they would have pressed against her so there would be no doubt what was desired. And yes, a large part of Ben wanted nothing more than to have done exactly that: have her hand close around the length of him, lead her to the riverbank, cover her body with his own.

But.

Doubts swirled through him like a cloud of bats; for each one he reasoned out of the swarm, hundreds remained.

Still, Ben wasn’t returning to the river until this situation had been resolved. He pulled his cock from his trousers with a sigh of resignation. It jutted forth, ruddy and desperate, the veins along the shaft practically pulsing. His hand moved over it in quick, rough strokes. Over the last month, he hadn't been alone enough to partake in this activity, and the spark of pleasure brightened quickly and spread through his limbs.

He wasn’t going to think about her. He wasn’t. This was a necessity only: a way to lessen the tension that had been heating his skin and quickening his heartbeat.  

He wouldn’t picture the curve of her neck, or the shining plumpness of her lips, or her long, muscled legs, and he would definitely not think of any dreams where—

Seven fiery hells.

It was as if the very thought of those dreams pulled the supports from a dam. Images and feelings and sounds poured into his mind in a churning, brutal wave.

Her legs around his waist, holding him close; her thighs pressed to her chest, her cries pulling him deeper; the sweat from her neck salty against his tongue; her fingers twining in his hair, dragging his mouth down to her breast; the beads in her hair clacking as he mounted and drove into her from behind.  

Ben cupped his testicles, stroked a thumb between them. His hand moved faster along his cock with a pace that bordered on brutal. The rhythmic slapping of skin sounded far too loud and aggressive for the peaceful forest. Shame tickled at the edge of his mind, yet it was overwhelmed by other, sweeter thoughts.

Would she cry out with her climax or simply tense and breathe a little sigh? Would she squeeze her eyes shut? Would she look at him as she came, letting him see the very moment her orgasm crested within her?

The hand not currently pumping his shaft grasped the trunk of the oak tree, and his fingers dug into the bark hard enough to send cracked flakes of wood spinning to the dirt. Every inch of skin felt ablaze, and he stroked faster, faster.

He thought of how it would feel to have her cunt flutter around his cock, coating him and squeezing him and—

Ben came with a shuddering groan. He slumped against the oak, panting, and stared at the shining white droplets that glimmered on the grass. A sense of contentment settled on his shoulders, even though he should be feeling guilty, should be berating himself for using thoughts of the witch to bring himself to completion.

There was a creak and a scuttle from above, and Ben jerked his head up to see Poe sitting on one of the oak’s low branches.

I’d always thought that was an activity better done with a partner.

Ben snarled and stuffed his softening cock into his trousers. “What’s it to you, rodent?” His breath came in ragged gulps. The river water on his body was long dry, and it was instead sweat that slicked his chest and forehead.

Poe made an annoyed, chittering chuff. It seemed like she would have wanted more from you than an uncomfortable poke in a riverbed.

He stared at the squirrel. “You were watching?”

I live in the forest. You were in the forest.

Ben bared his teeth at the animal. Humiliation burbled within him, though it changed into a sudden lightness as Poe’s words sunk in: ‘ It seemed like she would have wanted more.’

More.

The scene at the river suddenly seemed to make more sense. She hadn’t been giving him a lingering, open-mouthed stare of shock; it had instead been one of arousal. She saw his bared body, and she liked it. Ben grinned at the wide swath of blue sky visible through the branches. He should march right on back to the river and finish what had begun.

Before he could convince himself out of it, Ben spun to return to the river. Poe scuttled along the branches over his head, his bushy tail held high.

Why didn’t you offer her more earlier?

“Because she…I…” Because I was a fool. He pressed his lips together.

Have you taken a vow of chastity? The squirrel leaped from one branch to another, gliding between those he couldn’t jump in an effort to keep up with Ben’s long strides.

Ben stopped and aimed narrowed eyes at Poe. “What does a squirrel know about vows of chastity?”

You’d be surprised what sorts try and travel through these woods. I have eyes. And ears.

Ben shook his head and continued walking.

To be honest, it would be better if you were not the first to lie with her.

His feet stilled again. “What?”

Poe stretched on his current branch and yawned, exposing a set of long, yellowed teeth. She’s never before taken a lover, and you’re…ahem. Beady black eyes settled on Ben’s crotch, and he forced himself not to place his palms in front of his groin.

“The devil do you mean by that?”

Of an imposing size. At least, more imposing than I've seen before.

Ben bristled. “If you know so much about cocks, why did you keep pestering me about mine?”

Poe leaned on his haunches and scratched his belly with a rapid, thumping foot. The river rocks underneath your feet. What kinds were they?

“I don’t see how that’s—”

How did they get there? Where did they come from?

Ben worked his jaw. “If you have a point, make it.”

Just because you’ve seen many, it doesn’t mean you truly understand them.

Although it pained him to even consider such an idea, he had to admit the squirrel had a point. Ben’s body was long and thick, and his cock was of similar proportions. He frowned at the front of his trousers.

All of his sexual encounters had been with ladies of some experience. They had known what their bodies needed in order to take him, and he had followed their instructions with enthusiasm.

Rey would not know.

Poe scooted along his branch so he sat closer to Ben. I’ve known Rey for my entire life. I care for her. I don’t want her hurt. His tail flicked a few times. You seem like the sort to hurt her, even if it is unintentional.

At the sensation of tingling in his fingertips, Ben lifted his hand and stared at the deep impressions left in his skin by the bark and at a shallow cut from a sharp edge of wood.

It was all too easy to imagine the bruises that would bloom on her pale skin from his impassioned grip.

If they lay together, he would hurt her—in more ways than one.

And... gods, what if he broke into a rage during the act?

Ben swallowed. He hadn’t felt the overwhelming crush of his rage since he’d destroyed the flock of face-eaters, yet he knew it was there. Rey claimed that it was only suppressed magic, and true, it had indeed lessened in intensity since he’d been trying to bring forth buds and levitate candlesticks and communicate with irritating rodents, but it still crouched at his feet, bristling and impatient.  

What if it rose up and shattered his self-control while she was in his arms?

No. He wouldn’t let himself do that because he wouldn’t let their interactions reach that point. He clenched his fists and began to walk toward the river.

Where are you—

“I must wash my clothing,” Ben bit out over his shoulder. With luck, Rey would already be finished with her garments and her body.

He was not lucky.

Ben saw her before he emerged from the trees, and halted so quickly that he nearly stumbled. She must have figured that he would be gone for some time, for she had stripped off her shift and was standing hip-deep in the river, her back to him. The water lapped at the round globes of her buttocks. Her skin shone in the sunlight, her wet hair clinging to her shoulders.

He finished washing much farther upstream.

 

-

 

They said little as they gathered their damp clothes and began the return journey to the tree some time later. Rey’s bathing had been thorough.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw her staring at him intently while they walked, as if she was trying to force out an explanation, only for her to snap away, lips pursed, when he looked at her. He could see frustration in the set of her brows, as well as confusion.

“I’m sorry.”

She stumbled a little when he spoke and almost dropped her basket.

“For…” She cleared her throat. “For what?”

Ben inwardly swore. He hadn’t thought this out that far. His damp breeches dripped between his fingers. “My actions in the river were imp—”

Her bark of laughter startled him. “If you say ‘improper,’ I might put a legitimate curse on you.”

Those words once would have filled him with dread; now, they made him huff and quirk his mouth into a small smile.

“If you must know…” She paused, seeming almost nervous.

“Yes?”

“I didn’t mind it.”

“Mind what?”

Her voice became softer, more of a hush. “Your impropriety.” She tucked a damp lock of hair behind her ear, and Ben couldn’t look away from the curve of her fingers as she did so.

His slippered foot caught on a root, and it was his turn to stumble.

I’m glad, he wanted to say.

“These roots are treacherous,” he said instead.

Ben didn’t realize at first that they had stopped together. She faced him, her hazel eyes shining with a lightness—mirth, or excitement, or arousal—and the most tender of smiles dimpled her cheeks. Oh, how he wanted to caress the spot, meet it with his lips, and hells, everything in his body was telling him to lean in and taste her because she’d be sweet and perfect, but he couldn’t, because he knew he wouldn’t ever be able to pull away.

There was movement over Rey’s shoulder, the barest shift in the air. Ben glanced up at it, and his breath seized in his lungs.

A bird perched on a distant branch, nearly hidden between the dense trees. No—that wasn’t quite right. He had seen birds: raptors, eagles, hawks. This wasn’t anything like those.

Large, silvery wings folded primly against a large, silvery body. The pale, downy feathers on its breast shifted in a breeze. Two horns, like those of an owl, curved from the top of its head. This might have been an eagle, once. But an eagle would have had eyes. It would have had a beak. Where a set of golden eyes should have stared into the trees, there were two misshapen, empty holes. Instead of a beak—gods, oh gods, why didn’t it have a beak?—its mouth was a gaping void lined with broken teeth that jutted out like old gravestones.

“Ben?”

Rey was turning to follow his gaze, and she would know; she would see it and shrug and tell him that it was just another forest spirit, and they would laugh together at his misplaced horror.

He rubbed his knuckles into his eyes, loath as he was to look away even for a second.

“What is it, Ben?”

His eyes shot open to an empty branch. The bird was nowhere to be seen. There had been no wingbeats; there was no circling shadow overhead. Perhaps it had never been there.

“A tired mind, I suppose,” he said uncertainly. The day had been long, and the woods were becoming dark. In the murky light, it was easy enough to imagine nightmares.

Still, he didn’t stop glancing over his shoulder until they reached her home.

 

Chapter Text

Later that night, Rey went over the events at the stream in greater detail. They coalesced around a single problem: even after weeks, Ben remained curiously concerned with rules that had little use out here in the wood. Although she had tried to be accommodating, well— what sort of person expected others to bathe fully clothed? She’d hoped that once she told him she didn’t mind his . . . “impropriety,” all would follow naturally between them. Surely with that encouragement, he might be coaxed from both his mores and his trousers. Yet nothing had happened at all, beyond a few more lingering, loaded glances as they made their way back to the tree before nightfall.

Since then, in the quiet and the dark, she had been reasoning out a few possibilities based on her observations, which were admittedly colored by the insistence of her own desires. Nevertheless.

Possibly, he believed that she would not want him. His reaction to the way he’d caught her staring at him as he washed (and maybe she should not have been so openly interested) gave her the idea that he was embarrassed. It made little sense. She had seen plenty of his unclothed body already, albeit only as she treated his wounds. He had nothing to be ashamed of. Could he have so badly misread her admiration of his face and form—dripping and in near repose, the water droplets at his eyelashes catching the sun like jewels—as . . . what? 

Repulsion? Shock? She hoped not.

Possibly, he was shy and used his silly rules as an excuse. All he might need was permission. An invitation. So she had tried subtlety, something that was rarely her forte. After he’d abruptly left her alone in her state of hopeful excitement and then deep disappointment, she’d wasted little time in stripping naked to attend to her ablutions as she was accustomed to. It was practical.

But she’d also had in mind the stories she used to love, ancient myths and romantic epics. One she had always found most diverting involved beautiful ladies who called the rivers their home, the daughters of gods and sorceresses. They spent most of their time lounging nude on the riverbanks or amongst the reeds, and they employed their grace and sensuality in tempting wayward, unscrupulous travelers to their doom. In truth, Rey was not certain she had much of either grace or sensuality about her, but she’d hoped the general theory might still hold. Ben would return, spy her awaiting him in her natural state, and understand at last that she had no objections to anything he might want from her. 

It had not worked at all. In fact, he had not returned until she was fully dressed and dozing in the shade. Which led to the third possibility.

Possibly, Ben found her unattractive. Yet that was plainly not the case. She knew how he regarded her when he thought he was being circumspect. And she knew she had aroused him today at the stream, which thrilled her each time she thought of it. He did desire her, and if it were only on the basest level, he would not have been so infuriatingly strange about it. So there was more to it than mere physical need.

In the end, it all led to her as she was now, curled up in bed beneath the quilts, tangled in her possibilities and lack of conclusions, staring at the struggling embers in the hearth. Should she have been more forward? Openly lewd? Should she have tried a more tender approach? Told him she thought him handsome—beautiful, even? He was beautiful, though in the stories that was the sort of thing the knight said to the lady he wooed, not the other way around, and Ben was certainly not wooing her. 

But why not ? At this point, she would be happy of another prick of his prick, though intentional this time, and not to her clothed bottom.

Her thoughts, tired and loosed of care, began to drift into a whole new vein of possibility like a raft in a current. What might have happened had Ben come back before she finished bathing? Had he never gone at all?

He dropped the washing cloth but stayed where he was. His hands continued their exploration along the planes of her shoulders. The shocking gentleness of his touch sent a stubborn pulse of need for more down her spine, radiating from some difficult-to-reach place, settling all over. Even her throat was tight with it. He pushed one wet strap from her shoulder, then the next. She felt his lips, soft as they were in her dreams even for the scratch of his beard, at the slope of her neck. He leaned, pressed his hard chest to her back, and stretched forward, his tongue ticking a bead of water where it had settled in the dip of her collarbone.

She’d had no dreams yet tonight, but she did not need them. Was Ben asleep already? Rey cast a spurious glance at the loft, twitched her fingers over her head to cast a mild sound-muffling spell, and slipped her hands back beneath the bedding and over her body.

His hands were roaming, down her arms, over her hips, back up to caress her breasts through the wet, sticking fabric of her shift. His teeth grazed her earlobe, then the side of her neck, and she shuddered and pressed herself into him more firmly. She felt the stiff, intriguing protrusion of his manhood at her rump once again as the slick bare skin of his torso slipped against hers, and he did not shrink away when she rocked back into him. He hooked his thumbs into the low neck of her shift, peeled it down, over her breasts, over her belly, baring her an inch at a time, pausing to touch her newly naked skin. He slowed at her hips where the fabric resisted a little, kissing, sucking, his moans low in her ear; or maybe they were assurances of how beautiful she was, how desirable, how precious.

She sighed roughly through her nose and let her eyes drift closed to shut out the dim nighttime distractions of the room around her. Shuffling beneath the quilt, she hiked her shift up and pressed a hand between her legs, the heel of one palm teasing over herself while the other traveled up to her breasts. Her fingers traced the swell of the underside, soft and sensitive over her already-warm skin, then brushed against her nipple, encouraging slowly until it tightened at the friction, enough for her to pinch.

They retreated to the banks, her shift forgotten somewhere in the stream, floating away. Maybe he carried her. Maybe she led him, walking backward, unwilling to break her lips from his even for a few moments, unwilling to part her skin from his wonderful, magnificent hands. There was a dry stretch of grass beyond the mud and pebbles. They were on the ground, Ben reclined beneath her, skin glistening, hands wandering up her ribs to fondle her breasts as she unlaced his trousers and shimmied them over his hips and down his legs. 

The movement of Rey’s hand between her thighs was more insistent now, her fingers well slicked as they massaged and stroked. She was trying to be quiet, be mindful that the muffling spells only did so much, that Ben might still hear, and maybe she wanted him to. She bit her lip to control the wanton moan threatening to escape and pushed a finger deeper inside.

He was . . . his . . . cock was . . . well. She had never seen one before. Not a real one. There was a book with drawings, some medical tome Maz owned. A thin volume she’d once found in a caravan, a sort of erotic manual, which might have been exaggerated. An artist’s portfolio of sketches. What was Ben’s like? She thought she had caught a hint of it outlined against a thigh as he waded wearing those loose, damp trousers. And then . . . it had felt big. He was big, so it must be. She knew they got hard, but she hadn’t really thought about what that meant until he’d bumped against her . . . it was so hard! Sticking right up on its own! If the touch of it hadn’t been so exciting and shocking, she might have laughed.

She added a second finger. He would be bigger than this. Stretch her more. Feel so much better. She pumped her fingers more vigorously, opened her legs wider and rolled her hips in the same rhythm. Her other hand had drifted down to give that sensitive little bud proper attention. The straw mattress whispered beneath her as it shifted with each movement. She tensed and breathed out and let a third finger, slowly, carefully, join the first two. That was better, tighter, but— 

Oh, he was perfect, perfect, perfect, every bit of him, and she had never reached this deep on her own, never felt this full. Their skin slapped and slid together like the water at the edge of the stream, and she could feel her own arousal nearly dripping down his length every time he drew out and thrust in again. The solid, weighty heat of his body was like nothing she had ever imagined, his mouth greedy and hot on her own, his voice a low purr, his hands holding her, petting her, pinning her, opening her— 

Rey managed not to cry out too loudly when she climaxed, and the hastily knitted spell broke over her like a cool mist. Her forehead was sweaty, her chest damp, her thighs and hands slippery. She pulled her shift back down and considered getting up for tea. The floor of the loft squeaked. Was he awake? She didn’t trust herself not to climb the ladder to find out what would happen if he was, so she stayed put and thought of the wind in the trees.

 

-

 

They were nearly five hours’ journey into the western reaches of the wood, and Ben was wearing his armor. She had tried to dissuade him. It looked ridiculous, all that metal and mail with the makeshift deerskin slippers on his feet and no helmet on his head, and it reeked of his weeks in the wood that had led up to their acquaintance. She should have thought to have him clean the tabard and jerkin at the stream yesterday and treat the metal when they returned. It was a wonder he hadn’t insisted, almost as if he’d forgotten their existence entirely.

Yet when she had tried to reason with him, she begrudgingly found she had little ground for her complaints. Looks and smells aside, they were making a long trip, they would be spending the night camped in the deep forest, and the perils throughout would be unpredictable. Best to take every precaution possible, and Rey was too delighted otherwise to put up much of a fight.

That morning, Finn had joined them at breakfast with exciting news—he’d spied an abandoned caravan the other afternoon, two of its wheels wrecked, the axles twisted beyond repair. Reaching it on foot would necessitate over half the daylight hours walking each way, but she had ranged farther on previous scavenging trips, and the prizes always made the effort well worth it. They would arrive with ample time to strip the interior of whatever seemed useful, pack and make camp, and set out at daybreak for home. Simple.

Rey was further excited because it was unusual to find the opportunity so early in the season. Ordinarily, very few people dared to traverse the wood in the winter, especially late winter, with its whims and sudden storms. The situation did not bode well for those who tried and failed, she knew, but she always forced herself not to think of what befell foolhardy travelers. They made their decisions. She made sure whatever they left behind did not go to waste.

She absently rolled the new bead in her hair between her fingers, a shiny little bauble Finn had brought her from their destination, and slowed her steps, pressing her lips together in brief exasperation at how loud Ben’s movements were behind her. He was light of foot when he wished to be (he knew how to hunt, and thus knew the value of stepping silently over brush and branch), but not so today, with the armor creaking and his stride more attuned to speed than subtlety. 

They had not spoken much for the last hour or so. It was just as well. She was focusing on the path, and he seemed caught up in his thoughts. Besides, silences between them now were nearly always the comfortable sort.

Though she had slowed at first to ensure they were keeping the course indicated by Finn, now she noticed something else. She froze, and Ben did the same, attuned by now to her movements in the wood and trusting her enough to understand she did nothing without reason.

After a few moments passed without interruption, he asked in an undertone, “Are you lost?”

Rey might have thought that insulting a few weeks ago, or detected a hint of bristling distrust in his words. Now, though, she knew he was earnest, his concern genuine, and the slight rumble of his voice made her shiver with pleasure. Luckily, he would not notice that. 

She shook her head and glanced over her shoulder at him, holding a hand up to indicate he ought not to move. 

“No,” she said, just as quietly. “I hear something. Nearby. Listen.”

He did, for a handful of seconds. His eyes flicked from a growth of moss on the side of a tree to hers. “Hooves,” he muttered. She nodded, and he went on. “Two sets. From the north.”

“Yes, I think so.” She tried not to sound worried, but it was unusual to encounter other human beings so deep in the wood. In fact, she never had, until Bazine and Ben. Anyone who had come this far was most unwelcome. “They’re approaching this direction.”

“Yes.”

“I . . .” She turned and drew a little nearer. “I do not wish to cross their path. But we will meet them if we don’t find a place to hide and wait for them to pass.”

“If we cut around in a wider arc from here, follow our way due west, around their progress, we may yet avoid them and lose little time.”

“Perhaps, if one of us wasn’t wearing a full suit of armor that hasn’t been properly greased in a month.”

Ben’s expression darkened, but she knew he could not deny it. “I suppose you’re right. Or . . . can’t you cast a spell? Obscure the sound we”—he caught her sharp look and amended—“ I make as we pass?”

“I could,” she admitted, already beckoning him to follow her into a dense growth of shrubs. Her face warmed at the thought of how she had used that very sort of spell the night before as she pleasured herself to thoughts of him. “And I shall anyway. But I would like to get the measure of these intruders. Perhaps find out what they are doing this far into the wood. I don’t like it, them being so near . . .”

He ducked into the undergrowth with her, scowling as a clump of holly caught in his hair. “If you’re concerned about the safety of your home, perhaps we should return.”

“It isn’t that. It is well-protected. I . . .” She felt silly and vulnerable admitting it, putting her fear on such obvious display to him, but she trusted him well enough. “People from the outside, being here. It isn’t right. Their intentions are never benevolent. The folk of the kingdom, they don’t understand. They only come to destroy things. They don’t belong, they . . .”

She caught the way he looked at her, probing and considering, and remembered he was of the kingdom as well. But he is different. 

“Never mind. Once they have passed, we can continue. We have time enough. Now, be still. Please.”

“As you wish, little witch.”

He didn’t smile, but his eyes were amused, and she indulged him with a huff of laughter as they made themselves as comfortable as possible on the ground behind the greenery. Once they were settled, she cast a spell on the immediate area to conceal their presence from notice, deaden any sounds they made as if underwater, encourage unwanted glances to slide over their persons like shadow. Then they waited.

It did not take long for the unknown travelers to reach them. Rey peered through a few gaps in the branches and saw two men on horseback. The horses were both reddish roans and looked healthy and cared for, though their tack was not of particularly fine make and was mismatched. The men appeared well-enough prepared for their venture into the wood, and they must have known a bit of what they were about to get so far—one was hooded and cowled, his face obscured, though his frame was narrow. The other was of middling age, or perhaps only appeared so because of how worn his face was. He was nearly bald but had several days’ worth of scruff about his jaw and chin, and he was barrel-chested, his legs short. They both wore light plate armor over their chests and legs, though nothing so exceptional as Ben’s, and carried swords.

“No colors, no banners. Not hunters, either,” Ben muttered with distaste. “Mercenaries, most likely.”

“Hm.” 

Immediately, her mind went to the very place she hadn’t wanted it to: what else could two mercenaries want but to root out the witch of the wood? Yet she tried to calm the panic that threatened to take hold. They could have other reasons, which she would find out if she remained patient and calm, for the two men were in the midst of conversation. Rey sensed that Ben was as eager to overhear what they said as she was, though she doubted his reasons were the same. Probably he was only bored and eager for the men to move on so she and he could continue their own way.

The hooded man, whose voice sounded youthful enough that she wondered if he could be the older man’s son or nephew, was carrying on in a grim tone. “Much as I’d like to think our odds of collecting on that reward are still good, can’t say I’ll be surprised to see us returning empty-handed.”
The bald man turned his head aside and spat. “You best not be suggesting we turn back. I haven’t lost a bounty yet, and I don’t intend to start on some waylaid princess and the hag that’s been keeping her all this time.”

“It’s been two months , nearly,” the hooded one insisted. “Surely even the nobles back in Chaaktil must know the odds of getting their heir back are slim, ‘specially if the rumors’re true and she was running away to begin with. Out here? All the tales of this place, the things that lurk, the terrible luck of travelers . . .”

“Don’t want to hear about your superstitions, Tik,” the bald man said dismissively. “Worst that we have to worry about out here are the mynocks, and even they’ve been slim. Tales exaggerate.”

“But the witch! Listen, last man who went in after her, that knight of Alderaan, the prince who stepped down— ah, whatever his name was. Changed it—Sir Kylo Ren?” A scoffing chuckle and the sound of spitting. “ He never came back, and you’ve heard the stories about him. We all have.”

The other man chuckled and shifted in his saddle. “What, that he went mad and killed his father in cold blood? Sure. What of it?”

Rey’s stomach flipped, and she felt another chill. Beside her, Ben tensed. She did not look at him.

“A man like that doesn’t come back, doesn’t that make you wonder just a bit what chance we have? He’s taken down necromancers, actual monsters, and—”

“Enough of your doubts and speculations. We have a job to do. We find the witch’s hovel, we slaughter the old hag, take Princess Bazine, burn the place, and return to collect our due payment. If Sir Knight-of-Disgrace couldn’t manage, all the better for us. You’re too green, so maybe you forget—he’s been taking all the highest paying jobs for nigh on the last decade. Doesn’t even accept the rewards!” A sharp, derisive snort. “I’m tired of competing for castoffs and middling bounties with an idiot who wastes all the good ones in the name of penitence.”

As the horses ambled past, Tik tugged his hood back at last, revealing a nondescript face and cropped dark hair, and shrugged. “Fair point, that. I suppose.”

You suppose . Glad you still have some sense, boy. Don’t forget that you knew what this job entailed when we accepted it,” the bald man muttered, then steered his horse toward an opening in the thicket. “So unless you intend to turn back and make your way alone, we head east until sundown.”

Their voices began to fade as they continued on, and the last thing Rey heard was one of the horses muttering to its companion that their riders were completely oblivious to their surroundings—hadn’t they noticed they were being watched as they passed those bushes off the trail? Well, it hadn’t been bandits, so no hair off their tails, in the end. Good grazing up ahead.

She and Ben stayed crouched in the shade until the hoofbeats were sufficiently muffled by distance. She wished he would say something about what they had both overheard. Offer to explain. Acknowledge it at all. He was the knight they were talking about, she knew that, but she hadn’t known the rest. How had he failed to mention that he was the prince of the nearest kingdom? She’d assumed he must be highborn because it was the common thing for knights to come from noble families, and he was clearly educated, if also unfortunately fixated on social standards. But it had not occurred to her that he might be descended from actual royalty.

Had he truly murdered his father? He couldn’t have. No one would walk free after that, not even a prince. Unless . . . she remembered what he had told her of Snoke’s last stand, over a decade past.

When it became clear to him that I wouldn’t do what he wished, he inhabited . . . someone else . . . I ended the body he inhabited. That banished him, I suppose.

She looked over at him. He was paler than usual, and he didn’t seem about to offer any further wisdom. It could wait, she supposed, until they had reached the caravan. No use in making the rest of the journey uncomfortable. Something nudged the side of her hand; it was his own. It had drifted very close to hers as they sat and was curled tightly around a clump of leaves and rotted bark, knuckles white.

“Shall we continue on?” he asked, so abruptly breaking the silence that she jumped. “We must be out of earshot now, even with this.” 

He moved his arm up and down and grimaced at the sound of the armor as he did so. Rey smiled tightly and nodded, scrambling from beneath the brush to push herself to her feet. The detour had proved minor indeed and worth avoiding the possibility of a confrontation, especially given that the mercenaries would not have been long in putting together who Ben was and perhaps who she was as well. She could take further solace in the fact that they had veered off in the wrong direction; whatever slim risk there had been of them running across her home, it was nearly nonexistent now.

As she and Ben recovered the path and started onward, he said with forced lightness, “Remind me to tend to this when we arrive. Sometime tonight, at least.” He bumped a fist against one of the vambraces a few times. “I’m beginning to think you may have been right.”

“Goodness, I’ll add this to my travel log,” she answered. If he was uneasy about what they had overheard, he was hiding it as well as she was. “‘Today Ben declared I was right about something.’”

“I said that you may have been right. And it’s hardly the first time.”

She was not so sure of that. Whenever he conceded to her knowledge or advice, it was with a stoic sort of acceptance that hardly constituted outright agreement. But she would let him think so, especially if this was to become a new trend. 

“Let me enjoy the moment.”

 

-

 

They did not run across any other travelers over the remaining hours of their trek, and while Rey was grateful for the return to normalcy, she could not shake the feeling that something was not well with the wood. Along the way, she found many of the markers she had set up at the end of the summer ripped from the ground or torn from the trees; it was usual enough for her to lose a few to weather or distempered animals, but the breadth of the destruction she observed this time was unprecedented. As they wandered farther west, she twice noticed half-eaten carcasses, abandoned and barely covered over by leaf litter and dirt. While that might have been common to find, both reeked of evil power—they hadn’t been directly cursed or ensorcelled, but they had come into contact with something that carried dark magic on its being. The meat would be tainted, the bones and whatever flesh remained ashy and brittle. Even the most wily of scavengers would not be inclined to finish it off.

Sights like these reawakened her unease, though she knew not what to make of them. The wood, as far as she knew, had long been clear of darker influences. Maz had spoken of times, generations ago, when the insidious strain of malevolent practices could be found nearly everywhere, but by the time Rey had come to the wood, such things were common only in more populated areas and the very edges of the wilds, where animals and humans were more easily corrupted. Were these things she saw today . . . tidings? She dared not think of what they might herald, though she wondered if Ben noticed. He did not know the usual mood of the forest, but she thought she had seen him looking over his shoulder more often than necessary, or his eyes scanning the branches, the tops of the trees, looking for something. Sometimes she thought she saw strange shadows pass on the forest floor.

The mercenaries and the news they bore had rattled them both. That was all.

When they reached the caravan, there were still hours until sunset, so they took their time. Finn’s report had been well made. The caravan was off the side of one of the overgrown dirt paths, partially hidden in some tall grass. Though the body of it was quite large and upright, it was severely lopsided where the two back wheels had been wrecked, which gave it the appearance of a giant wheelbarrow. Ben suggested they right it before exploring inside, and between the two of them—and some rather strenuous spellwork that tired Rey more than she would admit—they had it leveled out and open in relatively little time. 

It had been months since Rey had done this, and she was immediately reminded of how the first of the season was always particularly thrilling. She loved all of it: the strange smells of a place she had never been before (the inside of the caravan, sealed for days, was a bit musty, but still held the traces of sweet incense and mint, and with the windows and door thrown open, it would be fresh and airy by sundown), the glimpses into someone else’s life and history, the aspect of the unknown. And of course, there were the treasures waiting to be found and given new purpose.

The promise of a new gown or a better pair of boots. A stack of interesting books, a set of sharp knives, wax for candles. Wool for weaving and knitting, preserved fruits or meats, exotic nuts or hardy vegetables from the cities. Once she had even found candies. Yes, Rey disdained the kingdom, but she was a pragmatist, and while she was perfectly self-sufficient, she had learned from Maz to let nothing go to waste. 

Armor cast aside, Ben was nearly as enthusiastic as she was and required little encouragement or direction. He seemed to know the sorts of things she might find desirable or useful, and soon enough they had amassed a tidy assortment outside on the grass. Among the most exciting finds were a set of three old but useable smallswords, a great length of heavy fabric (perhaps destined for drapery) that was a bit ostentatious in pattern but would make good bedding or skirting, and— great fragrant goddess, yes!— two pairs of men’s boots, one of which was suitable for Ben’s large feet. He’d held those up with a victorious look that had her grinning far more broadly than the occasion warranted. 

As the sun was dipping below the western treeline across the clearing, they had packed most of their loot away and unpacked for their overnight stay, with a few snares set in the grass, hopeful of a rabbit or two to supplement the rations they’d brought and found. Though Rey had her usual canvas tent, they’d decided it would be sensible, and safer, to set their bedrolls up inside the caravan. Face-eaters had been very sparse since Ben had brutally torn apart a pack of them, as if they sensed something in the wood had no fear of their number, but they were not the only thing that prowled at night for an easy meal. The caravan floor had a soft woven rug, and though it would be snug (she felt a twinge of excitement every time she thought of how snug, so she tried not to), it would be secure.

It was a bit frivolous, perhaps, but another one of the things Rey had been most excited to find was a gown, packed away with some men’s attire in a trunk beneath one of the caravan benches. The fabric was lightweight and the cut rather generous, fitting too loosely over her slender frame, and, truth be told, it was not a pretty garment. It had probably been made for farm- or housework and was strictly practical in form—even the two gowns she owned, which she wore for everything from hunting and foraging to cooking and cleaning, had more personality to their design. While Ben was making preparations for their dinner outside, she quickly changed into it to see how it felt and let the one she had traveled in air out a bit. It was comfortable, if nothing else.

Yet when she hopped out to join Ben in his work, he glanced at her impassively, then did a double take, his expression that of a person who had just seen a dog juggling on its hind legs. He shifted some of the firewood in front of him and rose from his crouch, brows knitted in disbelief. 

“When you decided not to sleep in the tent I didn’t think it was because you intended to wear it instead.” He shook his head and approached her, dusting his hands off roughly, lips pursed. “What the devils is this?”

“A gown,” Rey said with deliberation. “And yes, I am aware it’s rather . . .”

“Enormous? Ugly?”

“Loose,” she finished, ignoring him. “I can alter it and use the leftover fabric for something else. Perhaps a gag.”

His eyebrows shot up. “We need a gag?”

I need a gag to prevent you from giving quite so many unsolicited opinions, sir .” Rey smirked at his affronted look and the way it faded slowly when he realized a moment later that she was only having a bit of fun at his expense. Though why his face had reddened, she could not imagine. 

“Perhaps you could make a smaller one for your rodent friend. He still has far too much to say.”

“And unfortunately in no way that I can prevent with a bit of fabric,” she said. She stood on her toes and peered around him at the ring of stones they had gathered to contain their campfire. “How is our dinner coming along?”

“Well. If you can finish the fire with one of your spells, I thought I spied an unattended nest a ways back,” he told her with a look behind him. “Goose, maybe duck. By that pond. I’ll check our snares, too.”

She nodded and brushed past him, ample skirts swishing, to see to the fire. By the time Ben returned, eggs wrapped in a cloth and yes, only one rabbit, but a very fat one that was practically the size of a hare hanging from one hand, the fire was crackling. They remained busy enough for a while that conversation was fleeting and confined to necessities, but soon they were seated and eating by the fire, the sun low, the air growing cooler, and Rey could not justifiably avoid the topic any longer. 

She also had no idea how to broach it with grace, so she made no attempt to do so. 

“Your princess never made it back to the kingdoms, it seems.”

“Not my princess,” he said curtly, mouth full. He waited until it was not to continue. “It would seem not, if hired men are being sent after her. The king of Chaaktil must be getting desperate. Do you think it means she was apprehended before she escaped the wood?”

He did not sound overly concerned, and for that she could hardly blame him, but he also knew the sort of fate that could well have befallen Bazine. The same that he had nearly suffered, or worse. 

“I’m not sure. The odds and timing were not in her favor.” Rey gnawed some gristle from the end of a rabbit bone and tossed what remained into the bushes. “Though she did have your helm and horse, and she was armed. Given her, ah . . . ingenuity and strength, I would suppose she may have fared better than most in her position.”

She could see that the mention of his steed still pained Ben and regretted the thoughtless way she had brought him up. It seemed likely that Ben was far more moved by the likely ending of Beck than of Bazine. Rey wished she could have met the beast. Before she could think of how she wished to proceed, Ben cleared his throat and fixed his eyes on her. 

“I suppose you would like to know about the rest, then. If what they said was true.”

Rey did him the courtesy of returning his gaze and leaving her meal aside for the time being. “Is it? Are you Alderaan’s prince?”

Did you kill your father after Snoke assumed his body? One thing at a time.

“By birth, yes. My mother is Queen Leia of the Organa line. But I am currently no prince. I relinquished the title and inheritance some twelve years ago.”

“Why?” She knew the answer to that, she expected, but she preferred to hear it outright than make assumptions.

“My mother’s twin brother was a scholar with little interest in ruling. I liked that about him. I was much the same . . .” Ben cleared his throat and appeared to refocus. “He was my tutor. When I began to exhibit magic, he was tasked with teaching me to restrain it. Magic was taboo, of course, but it was still a subject of which he knew much. He saw his role as preventative.”

Rey recalled Ben mentioning a tutor, but not their family relation. She also remembered how his tone changed when he spoke of him, as it was now: hard and unforgiving.

“A man came to the kingdoms when I was very young and learning to hide what I possessed. An outlander with boundless knowledge, touting relics and stories of the old ways, who called himself Snoke. Tutor Luke was intrigued by him. We hosted him at the castle for a time. I remember little more than Snoke’s interest in me. Before he left, he drew me aside to bestow some blessing—he sensed my troubles and wished to help me become stronger, he said. I thought he meant to help me conquer my magic, but I didn’t feel different at all.”

Ben’s jaw tensed and relaxed as he swallowed and continued to speak. Within months, he was having dreams—nightmares—in which he was overwhelmed by his power. Visions of carnage he would carry out in it service. He began to hear a voice insinuating the great things he could do with such ability. Ben feared it, and then he craved it, the release each loss of control brought. He began to resent his parents, his tutor, his position, the denial. Some days, when he was clear-headed, he began to resent himself for having such thoughts.

As he grew older, he understood Snoke wished to use him, a tool he could break down and refashion for his own dark purposes. Yet Ben lived in constant fear: if his family considered him a problem when he showed the merest suggestion of magical power, how would they respond to knowing the full extent of what was happening within him? So he began trying to fight off Snoke’s interference himself.

Ben drew a long, shaky breath and scrubbed a hand over his scarred cheek. “One morning, I thought I had succeeded. I woke feeling whole for the first time in years. Like I was truly myself. Free of his influence, that voice . It did not occur to me that he might have some new torment in mind. Punishment. A reminder that I was not in control.”

“How long was it before you realized?”

He scoffed. “A matter of hours.” 

He recounted for her how the queen’s consort had summoned him, how Ben’s hopes of a pleasant meeting with his father had turned out to be nothing of the sort. Afterward, Snoke disappeared altogether, the queen forgave her son, and the kingdom did not. Faced with the reality that he would never be accepted as ruler by the people of Alderaan, and the fact that he had never truly wanted to be anyway, Ben assumed a new name and the life of a knight of the realm, hoping he might eventually earn his own forgiveness.

Rey wanted to tell him how sorry she was for what had befallen him, for the choices he had been faced with, but she feared he would see it as pity rather than compassion. It was in his past. She would not have wanted his pity for her own.

“So you never did intend to marry the princess when you rescued her,” Rey said, almost to herself. “You never collect any rewards at all.”

“It is as the mercenaries said.” Ben shrugged and thumbed some egg yolk from the edge of his dish. “I live in the service of the realm, that is all. I will never marry. I will never rule. I will never command forces. I will never amass wealth. My life is not to be one of . . . of indulgence and . . . pleasures.” 

Rey looked at the remaining rabbit on the spit and contemplated whether she was still hungry as she resigned herself. This explained all her wondering last night and all Ben’s peculiar behavior before it. Self-imposed discipline and denial born of guilt. 

“I feared,” she confided, “as we waited in the brush, that you might decide to go with them. Make yourself known. Tell them their search is for naught. Return to the kingdom.”

Ben frowned incredulously. “Why would I have done that?”

“It was a chance to go home.”

“Alderaan is hardly my home. You heard how they spoke of me,” he reminded her. “I would be most unwelcome in their party.”

“What of it, you’re far stronger than both of them.”

“Perhaps, but they had done no wrong that I know of. And there is the matter of you being there. I would not endanger you.”

“I can protect myself.”

“I know. It is only that, when I return, it will be on my own terms, because I have decided it is time.”

Rey thought of all they had found in the caravan. He had food. He had his new boots. He had a sword. He had the mask she had fashioned him and his armor. He could go tomorrow morning if he so chose. Would he? Would she wake abandoned in the caravan and return to her tree alone? She was too afraid to ask.

So instead she asked, surprising even herself, “What is the kingdom like? Your family?”

She wondered at her own question. The kingdoms were overcrowded, full of cruel people, all artifice and selfishness and greed, smoke and carved stone and smelted iron. Kingdoms were prisons that had rooted magic out and kept everything else locked inside. Wasn’t that right?

Ben appeared at first as surprised by her question as she was. It might have been a very long time since he had been to Alderaan, and maybe he did not even know how to answer. “It’s . . . very beautiful, I suppose. Prosperous. The largest kingdom in the realm could easily fall to mismanagement and abuse of power under lesser rulers, but my mother’s subjects are cared for, as they will be whenever she selects a worthy successor. Justice and fairness are very important to her.”

“I’ve always thought of kingdoms as places where people are ruled over and controlled,” Rey admitted.

“There are places like that, yes. Alderaan simply is not one of them. In her youth my mother had a bit of a . . . reputation as a warrior queen, of sorts. She lent aid to foreign rebellions against more autocratic dynasties, was as skilled with a bow as most royal archers, gained much favor with the common folk and freedom fighters.” He made a sound of bemusement. “It’s how she met my father. He was lowborn, no family, notorious for his involvement in smuggling and piracy. But, he helped her in her war efforts, and when she returned to the kingdom newly married, there was very little outcry about the unseemliness of it. It only solidified the idea that she was a champion of the people.”

Rey smiled down at her hands. It sounded like a romantic tale, idealized and probably far less perfect than many would think, but lovely all the same. “She must have loved him a great deal.”

“Yes, I think she did.” His mouth twitched, and he set his empty dish aside and leaned back on his hands, fingers pressing into the dirt. “There would be a springtime festival around this time of the year. Perhaps passed only recently, in fact. A great feast in the palace courtyard, open to all. Flowers from the queen’s hothouses on display—she is very fond of bringing exotic species in. Music late into the night. The people are in good spirits year round, but this is the time to see the kingdom at its best.”

“You make it sound very tempting.” For the first time, Rey found herself thinking that perhaps her early experiences and Maz’s warnings, likely meant only to keep a curious little girl from wandering off and landing herself in trouble, had too negatively colored her perceptions. Or not—the kingdoms were all Ben had ever known. Of course he thought them relatively desirable. “Perhaps after you’ve returned, I shall pay you a visit next year for this festival and see if it is as enticing as you describe.”

Ben snorted and gave her a skeptical look-over. “Perhaps you will, though I would advise you to find a more suitable gown than this oversized sack of yours.”

“Oh yes, of course,” Rey sniped back, smirking down at herself and the way her found gown swallowed her up as she sat cross-legged on the ground. “I would be turned away at the door of any festival balls that might arise.”

“They might grant you entry, but you would not be sought for many partnered dances, that is certain.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Have you been to many? Balls?”

“A few.”

“So you must know all the fashionable twirls and glides and all that?”

Ben blinked at her, and then he laughed. Actually laughed. He grinned wide and his mouth opened and his shoulders shook, and he even tipped his head back, and the sound that came out built until it was loud and unrestrained. It was like seeing his face for the first time. He was another person entirely. The lines she had seen appear at one cheek or the other when he smirked deepened and became dimples; his eyes shone and crinkled at the edges; his teeth were charmingly uneven. He was almost boyish, even somewhat awkward, but Rey was enchanted.

So she stared at him, her hesitant grin turning into a true smile. She wasn’t sure why he had found her question so funny, but she was more concerned with the fact that she could not stop smiling at him and that her chest and stomach felt like they were full of tiny whirling feathers.

“‘Twirls and glides and all that’?” he finally said as his laughter subsided and his expression returned to something more like the solemn face she was accustomed to. But the hint of a smile was still there as he caught her own, his eyes still bright, his dimples not quite gone. “The dance masters would cringe to hear them called such.”

Rey was not sure what had gotten into her, but the next thing she knew she was on her feet and had trotted a short distance from the fire, her eyes still fixed on Ben. “Show me.”

“Excuse me?” 

“Show me some of the dances.” When he only stared at her, she pressed, “You can’t tell me you don’t know any. I thought all royals were taught this sort of thing practically from birth.”

“It—” Ben cast around as if he hoped to find an excuse hiding beneath the caravan wheels or writhing in the embers of the fire. “It has been many— many —years since I had occasion to do such a thing. And truth be told, I never enjoyed it much to begin with.”

“Then we will be well-matched.” She held her hands up in the position she imagined they would go were her partner real rather than imaginary, did a few awkward, skipping steps, and nearly tripped over the too-long hem of her gown. The sight elicited another, smaller, laugh from Ben, which Rey considered encouraging. “Come! Teach me something.”

He got to his feet, albeit slowly, giving her ample time to say she was only joking or for himself to think of a reason not to. “Have you been hitting that mysterious liquor bottle we found beneath the driver’s bench?”

Great benevolent goddess, she wished she had such an excuse. She’d had no idea infatuation with a person could make one act so giddily, especially when she had been perfectly composed in his presence for weeks, and yet . . . maybe being so far from the tree was what did it. The prospect of spending a night with him, secluded even from her usual woodland visitors, in close quarters, like anything might happen and it would somehow not count. 

Stop, stop, stop. 

“Not at all. I simply wish to learn something new.” She scrunched her face and folded her arms over her chest in what she hoped was a stern posture. “I have taught you many things these last weeks. This is very little to do in return, you know.”

His shoulders slumped and he nodded, rolling his eyes as he approached. “You will regret this.”

Rey began to smile smugly but faltered as soon as she realized he was not going to wait for her to ask what to do. He drew up in front of her, took her hands in his, and placed them on his body. It was what she had imagined, more or less, but the reality of it—of touching him in such a familiar way, of being touched by him in turn, and the fact that he was not recoiling as if he had done something wrong—was another thing entirely. Rey was grateful of the darkening wood and the warm light of the fire because she was surely pink-cheeked once again.

“Are they so forward at your courtly gatherings?” she asked, relieved that her voice was even as she adjusted her grip on his shoulder. It was a very firm shoulder, and she felt his muscles move as he drew his arm more tightly around her waist, his hand splayed at her lower back. Her other hand squirmed within his. “I didn’t realize it was the custom to grab ladies.”

Rey had, in fact, very few objections to being grabbed by Ben.

“You said you wished to learn,” he muttered. 

His mouth was very close to her temple. If she moved her head a fraction, his lips would brush her skin. That was absolutely the scrape of his beard at her cheekbone, and he did not move away. 

“I . . . do.”

“Then follow my lead.”

As dancers went, Ben could lead but was not very graceful, and maybe it was his being out of practice, but he seemed caught up in his own head again. He would relax for a moment or two, then Rey would bump against him as she misstepped, or her chin would knock into his chest, or she would dare to let herself melt into him the smallest bit because it felt like what she was supposed to do . . . and he would tighten up. At one point after they collided when she thought he was guiding her left rather than right, he squeezed her hand too hard, and she hissed in what she thought was good-natured annoyance. 

“I’m sorry,” he said, and seemed about to give up. He loosened his grip, so she wove her fingers more securely into his to encourage him to stay. “This is difficult without music.”

“So give us a song.”

“You don’t want that, believe me.”

She laughed softly. “It’s the dress that’s the problem. It really will need to be taken in. And up.”

His hand, still at her back, rubbed back and forth, and he pinched some of the fabric between his fingers. “Too light for this chill in the air, too, I would say.”

It was not yet dark, but the sun was very low and the air had cooled considerably, and a light breeze tickled her cheeks. Rey looked at him out the corner of her eye as they continued to sway in a slow circle. He had stopped trying to instruct or guide her. They were just holding one another now, moving idly, maybe forgetting that they were doing it at all. 

“Oh, I don’t know. The coolness will be perfect for sleeping. Besides, there will be body heat.”

If the rest of her stayed as warm as her face was right now, she would be entirely comfortable later. She moved her hand from his shoulder to his chest, absently traced where she knew his most recent scar cut across his skin. He tensed again but only for an instant, and then his lips really were at her skin, grazing her temple. He wasn’t kissing her, she told herself. He wasn’t. But she thought he might be contemplating what it would be like to do so.

Her heart leapt, and that feeling of being filled with feathers returned. 

“Ben . . .?”

He was playing with the ends of her braid. His forehead rested against hers. His nose bumped her cheek. Another shaky breath puffed against her jaw. 

“What is it, little witch?”

Would he?

Rey began to turn her face to his and caught a glimpse of him, his eyes closed, his lips pressed together and yet still so full and touchable, chin dipping like all he needed was for her to tilt her head back to meet him— 

A crash rent the air and effectively ended the moment, if it was a moment at all. Ben sprang back from her like he’d been stricken, and she sprang away too, narrowly avoiding tripping over her hem as she cursed it and gathered her skirts in her hand. She scanned the area for the threat.

Another, smaller crash followed the first, followed by a distinct, rolling chatter, and this time it was plain to see it was coming from the caravan. Whatever had been about to transpire forgotten, she and Ben bolted toward the wagon and inside. At the far end, a stack of heavy wooden trunks had toppled to the floor, and a trio of large raccoons were caught in a state of either panic or delight as they ransacked the contents and tried to avoid being knocked in the head by any other incidental projectiles. They appeared to think it was a game and were not impressed by the arrival of two very displeased humans.

She and Ben shooed the offending creatures off, Rey doing little to hide her annoyance and returning the raccoons’ rather obscene insults in full measure as they scattered and disappeared into the trees. She would need to ward them away before she and Ben slept, or else they might return for revenge in the night. Raccoons were the smart and mischievous sort. She did not have time for mischief.

Together they began to clean up the mess, which was considerable despite the size of the offenders and the time they’d had to make it. The space was tight, and she and Ben kept knocking into each other. At first it was sort of funny, but then it only reminded her of what had begun just before—their treasure hunt, their amiable, intimate dinner and ungainly dance—and made her think of what had been about to happen. Part of her wanted to call up that spark again, see if it was salvageable. Yet when she looked to Ben, he was studiously sorting a pile of scrolls and trying to slot them back into the cylindrical leather case from which they’d tumbled. His eyes darted to her and then away.

Oh, toadstools, this nonsense again, is it?  

Before she could open her mouth to speak, he cleared his throat, shoved the case back onto a shelf, and turned toward the door. “The light won’t last long. I must see to my armor.”

“Wh-what?”

“I need to polish my armor, or it will be shrieking all the worse during tomorrow’s journey.” He must have realized how curt he was, because he winced and raised a concerned eyebrow. “Will you be able to finish in here on your own?”

“It is what I’m accustomed to,” she said, unable to keep the sharpness from her own tone. “I’ll get the bedrolls situated as well.”

Ben loitered near the door. “On that matter . . . of the bedrolls. Perhaps it would be best if I make camp outside. We have the tent, and I could keep watch for those little menaces should they decide to return.”

Though Rey might otherwise have found the prospect of Ben making vigil for a pack of irate raccoons rather amusing, her mind flew immediately to her earlier fears. This was how it would happen, wasn’t it? He would sleep outside, with her tent, with his things. Morning would come, she would wander out to find the campsite abandoned, Ben long gone, back to the kingdom to seek his next prizeless, penitential quest, eager to forget her. The fact that she knew it was far more likely his scruples, as ever, that made him reluctant to sleep by her side did little to stamp out the smoulder of her anxiety. She scowled down at the half-folded shirts at her feet and refused to look at him.

“I have ways of keeping the raccoons away until dawn. And I think it would be safer to sleep inside. Together, as we planned. I would prefer it.” Her voice was so tight she worried it would break, and she felt a fool, but damn him . She had never been so infuriatingly flummoxed by another creature. “But go. Fine. Do what you want. Douse the fire when you’re done.”

She could tell he was still there, unsure of what to do or say, but a few moments later she heard his heavy footfalls fading and the faint sound of the armor being moved around, and she determined to ignore it all. When she was finished tidying up, she set her bedroll up as she would have were he there after all, shucked off the oversized dress, and left it folded neatly with her good gown as she put out the lamps and settled down in her shift. It was a touch chilly, Ben had been right, but she liked the air on her skin and knew she would be comfortable soon enough. 

For a while she could still hear the sounds of him at work outside. Then all became quiet, and she saw the change in the light from without when he drowned out the remains of their fire. In retrospect, perhaps she should not have been so short with him. He hadn’t done anything wrong. If either of them were at fault, it was she: she kept expecting things of him he had never made any indication he wished to give. Except when he seemed to do exactly that. As for the notion of him using this as some clever ploy to rid himself of her . . .  

She was being ridiculous. It was his right to depart when it suited him, whether or not he had succeeded in properly directing his magical ability, and she knew by now that he would not make to do so without first telling her. She considered getting up to apologize. Instead she chewed her lip and curled up tighter, shame and anger battling in her overtired mind. She could do it in the morning.

The door creaked open very slowly, and Ben’s voice followed, barely loud enough to hear. 

“Litt—” He huffed and cleared his throat. “If I—” Another pause, longer this time, so long she wondered if he had departed again and left the door ajar. “Are you awake?”

It was bizarre to hear him whisper with such uncertainty, and she did not know how to respond. She decided not to do so at all. It was best if she pretended she was asleep. She was not sure what she would say or do if she tried to engage him right now; he could not even be bothered to use her name, still . Had he ever committed it to memory at all, for all his desire that she call him Ben now? She’d thought that had meant something.

Yet he did not go.

A breeze puffed in, and she cracked an eye open to watch the sliver of muted moonlight grow wider as Ben waited, then heard his footsteps again as he climbed into the caravan and shut the door behind him. For a minute or so there was a lot of shuffling, and Rey fought the temptation to roll over and peek as she tried to figure out what was going on. Another bedroll unfurled beside hers, the edge of it brushing her back, which caused Ben to swear under his breath. His body shortly followed, stretched out with his back snugly pressed to hers, instantly warming her. She nearly sobbed with relief but swallowed it down. 

She was too tired to give much thought to how the sensation of him there comforted her in a way nothing else had before, or to make herself wait until she was certain he was sleeping to allow herself to do the same. He would not leave her. Not yet. In the morning, she would not be alone.

 

-

 

The narrow caravan was mostly dark when Rey awoke, and though her eyes needed time to adjust, she felt that something had changed in the night. It took her a moment to realize that it was the orientation of Ben’s body to hers. He was still beside her, still so close, but he had shifted—rolled over at some point as they slept. Now the front of his body was pressed to her back, his legs slightly bent to follow the curve of her own, and his heavy arm was drawn over her. His face rested at the back of her neck, buried in her sleep-loosened hair. She felt his lips at the top of her spine, his breath warm as he exhaled over her skin.

She blinked and shivered, and her mind tried to rouse itself further. It was a good thing that the realization rendered her temporarily breathless. He was holding her so close, so gently, she did not want to move at all for fear of ruining it. 

Ruining what? He’s not awake, he doesn’t know what he is doing

Did he?

Carefully, because his breathing suggested he was still deeply asleep, she deferred to a foolish (and groggy) part of her brain that compelled her to take his hand, sprawled over the bedroll in front of her, and guide it closer to her body until she could tuck it against her chest. The air was cool and damp and made her want to snuggle nearer, and while she managed to reason herself out of turning to face him to study his aspect as he slumbered, she did curl her hand into his. Though his body was magnificently warm, his hand was chilled, and she rubbed his fingers idly, both to warm them and take in the feel of them in a way she had not the night before as they danced: strong and thick, callused tips, blunt nails, a few spots still coated and scented with the lanolin grease he had used to treat his armor. She knew she was blushing for how much she had thought of his hands, the way it would feel to be touched by them. She let her thoughts wander anyway until he gave a faint, deep sigh, as warm a sound as his laugh had been, nuzzled his face more closely against her, then stilled again.

Was it too much to hope he only pretended to sleep, as she had last night? That lying entwined with her like this at once maddened and pacified him as it did her? That he wanted it to last as long as she would allow?

Rey wished she could stop thinking of him like this, whether it was lust or something else. The dreams made her hope there had to be more at work, but each day she felt those hopes falter. She tried to think of more fitting explanations. She was lonely and had never encountered a man before, let alone one to whom she felt so drawn. His inaccessibility, the air of danger that hung about him, the way he resisted his interest in her, all of it conspired to attract her even more because she was not meant to want such things. It was absurd. It was inexperience, if not a lack of knowledge.

Mind, Maz had made sure Rey was not ignorant of human sexuality. The old woman had always been very forthcoming when Rey had questions and had made it a point to see that she was well-informed of the changes she began to experience at the onset of womanhood—not just about the female body but, with little circumspection, the male body as well. Most likely, she had supposed Rey might strike out on her own one day, leave the wood to adventure, find her own legion of seventy or more lovers, and so on, and did not wish her to be easily taken advantage of.

Though, and here it came back again to the dreams, Rey could trace the start of the truly detailed talks of such things, the baudiest of Maz’s reminiscings and stories, back to a specific incident: after she had come to Maz one morning, blushing and a little cagey, to tell her of how she had dreamed of a man and how she had felt on waking. Maz had given her a knowing look, nodded with an amused Hah, yes indeed! , and told her that it was time for a real chat between women. It was the first of many, and those chats went beyond the rather detached science of things. How to make sure a partner took care of her needs. How to avoid letting a man get her with child. How important it was to know her own body, what it liked, what it did not. 

At the time Rey had been by turns fascinated and repulsed and always a little bashful. She had been of that age at which she hardly wanted to listen to anything Maz had to say, even of something so intriguing and seemingly impossible. Looking back, Rey knew that there were things she had let slip from her memory. But between what she had learned and read and the dreams, she knew enough. She wanted Ben, and there was nothing wrong with doing so.

But she did not recall the subject of what was happening right now ever coming up. That this might also be what it was like to lie with a lover. She had never considered it. Beyond the act of intercourse or congress or lovemaking or whatever one wished to call it—being close to someone else and enjoying how it felt to know he was sleeping beside her, at peace, as quiet and secure as she was. Though there were many things she would have been just as happy to do with Ben, things she had to admit may never come to pass, she did like this. Being held by him, even if he would not be hers. 

She could sleep like this. She could sleep and feel the small, insubstantial beat of his unguarded contentment. She did not mean to feel it; she wasn’t reaching into his mind, but it was there, mingling with hers, spread open and over them both like a blanket. She felt it with each faint pulse of his heartbeat against her back, with each puff of breath, as much a part of him as his body.

She did sleep. 

Until the sound of Ben letting out a short, sharp yell roused her so rudely that she wondered if his embrace had only been a particularly sweet dream.

Heart in her throat, Rey shot up and cast around the wagon. It was not much past dawn, judging by the golden light filtering through the open window. Ben was still close to her, and his arm brushed hers as he scrambled backwards in an absurd flurry of long limbs, his movements still leaden. She would forgive him the knee he nearly knocked to her cheekbone.

“What is it?” she demanded. Her staff—where? Why had she left it outdoors? “Ben?”

“There’s something in here with us,” he replied, barely enunciating. He truly had flown straight from deep sleep to fight mode. He coughed and climbed to his feet, fists clenched, muscles bunched, ducking a little because he was a touch too tall for the caravan. “Those face-sucking buggers, I thought they were only nocturnal, but I woke to some foul creature poking about on my forehead, and—”

“Shh!” 

Something had flitted by Rey’s ear in a panic, and she caught the same something, a blurry shape of shining, deep purple, diving into a barely open chest of drawers. 

“Do you not understand, there is something wrong here, and—”

“Hush! There’s nothing wrong.” Rey pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes, let out a long breath, and crept over to the drawer. She tugged it open a bit more and peered inside. “Rose, is that you? I’m so sorry . . .”

Inside the drawer, a puffed-up lump of feathers, small enough to sit comfortably in Rey’s palm, lifted its dainty head and puffed up even more.

Finn told me you had been keeping strange company, but he didn’t warn me they might be fool enough to mistake a hummingbird for a face-eater. Rose turned her head and fixed a beetle-black eye on Rey. Have you called off your mad dog, or will I need to poke my beak into a few eyeholes to ensure I won’t be batted across the room again by one of those ham hocks he calls hands?

Rey snorted back a laugh, more at Ben’s expense than Rose’s, and gave what she hoped was a solemn nod. “He has been called off, ham hocks and all.” 

She looked over her shoulder at Ben, who had relaxed marginally but now only appeared sour and rumpled. It was truly unfair that she should find him so attractive even with his hair sticking out at all angles, revealing one of those large ears of his, his shirt in disarray, his eyes glazed and barely focused, mouth slack. As if he sensed the reason for her lengthy stare, he scrubbed a hand over his chin, then ruffled his hands hard through his hair in an attempt to smooth it down.

“This is another one of your . . .” He gestured at Rose as she alighted from the drawer and settled more comfortably at Rey’s shoulder, still a ball of righteous indignation in miniature. “. . . friends?”

Well, that was a vast improvement over “familiars” or “creatures.” Rey smiled and stood, doing her best to straighten her shift as she did so lest she send him fleeing into the morning in another stiffened state of panic.

“Yes, she is. Ben, this is Rose. Rose, meet Ben, my strange company.”

Rose’s narrow wings sprang to action, propelling her into the air almost too quickly to follow. The early sunlight glinted off her compact body, highlighting the iridescent brilliance of purple and blue feathers shifting as she moved; a pale-orange cluster of tinier feathers ringed her head like a fiery crown, and her throat was a splash of white beneath an elegant black beak, long and thin as a pine needle. She circled Ben’s head in a flurry, then once again before landing on one of the window sills.

I was only curious about you, you know. I’ve been flying for weeks and have not seen a single human being , she said to him, her feathers smoothed now that her pique began to fade. You seemed very cozily nested beside Rey, so I didn’t think my presence would disturb you.

Ben’s eyes darted to Rey, then to the window. “We were only— The nights are still cool.”

They are, but warmer each time, I think. She returned her attention to Rey. Finn said I might still find you here. I hoped to do so before you set out.

There was an air of grimness to Rose’s tone that sharpened Rey’s interest. She was always glad of the hummingbirds’ return to the wood, heralded every year by the shift in the weather, but she had never known Rose, or any of the others, to seek her so far from the tree. Greetings could have waited another day or more. So this had to be significant.

“Is something wrong?”

To Rey’s surprise, Ben addressed Rose with very little of the remaining discomfort he seemed to have for his recent ability to converse with beasts.

Rose regarded him with cool interest, then dipped her head in an uncannily human manner. There may be. Not to cause alarm, but as my fellows and I have returned to the forest, we’ve noticed that things are not quite as they should be.

“Yes . . .” Rey said, twisting her hands. She had not wanted her suspicions to continue, but it was as if Rose had read her mind. “Yes, I . . . yesterday as we approached this encampment, many of my seasonal markers had been destroyed, and . . . I saw carcasses. But horribly mangled, steeped with—”

She sensed Ben tense across the room and glanced at him. His face had paled again, as it had in the brush as they waited out the mercenaries, and his expression was far away.

“Steeped with dark magic,” she finished. Her voice shrank. “To a degree I’ve never seen.”

Carcasses, yes. Rose zipped over to Rey and settled at the crook of her neck in a comforting sort of way, though what she said next was the very opposite of comforting. I saw one, but I didn’t stay long to figure out what it was. It gave me a bad feeling . . .

“Yes. One seemed to be a fox. The other was a goat.”

Rose’s feathers puffed, and her tiny claws dug lightly at Rey’s skin. I saw what I thought might be the body of a boar. Savaged, partially eaten. It was huge—I could only think a wolf or bear might have done it, but they would not leave so much behind, not after the winter. They would be far too hungry to let good meat go to waste. Her eyes flickered. There was something very wrong with it.

“Did you—” Beside Rey, Ben perked up with a tempered hopefulness that wrung at her heart, though at first she could not fathom the meaning behind it. “Over your travels, it sounds as if you see much.”

The hummingbird looked at him inquiringly and, Rey thought, with a hint of pride. I do see quite a lot, yes. I live on my own but migrate further south with my brethren when the leaves begin to turn.

“Did you see a stallion? Black, very large, very . . . very beautiful, flagged fetlocks . . .” He faltered and seemed to feel unsettled, then added, “He may have had a rider, a young woman.”

A black stallion? No. I’m afraid not. I did hear hoofbeats close to evening as I searched for a place to roost. But it was at least two sets and accompanied by male voices. Neither was yours. It is very distinct, sir.

Ben’s voice was quite singular, and were the circumstances slightly altered, Rey might have found herself thinking a great deal on how pleasant she found it. Yet now was hardly the time for such indulgence. As she watched him take in Rose’s report, she could tell by his lack of reaction that he had known the answer before he posed the question, and she touched his wrist as if to say she was sorry anyway. She couldn’t tell if the sharp intake of breath he gave was a response to the let down or to her touch. He was so tense again. Her curiosity from the day before returned: had he noticed the changes in the wood too? At first she had thought it unlikely, but when she considered it more, she saw it made perfect sense. Far more than she, he’d had lasting, intimate experiences with dark powers. If either of them was fit to recognize their touch, sense their presence, it would be him.

Yet beyond his fruitless concern over his long-missing warhorse, he said little else of the matter when Rose assured them she would continue to be on the lookout for strange happenings and things gone amiss. He was equally reserved when Rey agreed that she and Ben would tread carefully and remain alert on their long journey back to the tree.

“Will I see you there soon?” Rey asked as she and Ben made short work of clearing their bedrolls and other belongings from the caravan and followed Rose outside. 

In a few days. Seemingly reluctant to be still for long, Rose darted from the ashes of last night’s fire, to the edge of Ben’s breastplate, to a shrub. I found a good field near that stream you like, but the bees are getting a start as well. They seem to forget I have no interest in the pollen and get very defensive. It would be nice to have less bother elsewhere.

“Is the company not enough? Finn and Poe miss you!”

I thought my desire of your company was implied , Rose chirped. And theirs, too, I guess. And your friend here. Now that he knows I’m not trying to suck his face off.

Ben glowered as he sorted his jerkin out.

“Well, once you’ve had your fill of pushy bees, consider spending the season nearby. The wildflowers are beginning to bloom already—I’ll have a window box for you, as always.”

They were on the road again within the hour. Ben’s armor was much less distracting, at least when it came to sounds and smells, and she chuckled privately at the rather ridiculous picture he still painted. She thought she was chuckling privately, anyway, until Ben cleared his throat and adjusted his pack.

“You laugh, little witch, but you’ll be the one who’s sorry not to be taking extra precautions if we encounter whatever it is that’s been leaking dark magic everywhere.” Despite the dourness of the subject, she thought he was mostly teasing her. “Besides, it’s this or carry it back in hand.”

Rey laughed again and felt her fears ease marginally. She slowed her pace a bit, then reached forward to brush his hand with hers to get his attention. He did not respond, but he did not draw it away either. 

“I am sorry, though,” she said before she could overthink doing so. She had told herself she would apologize to him. “For how I acted last night, when you suggested the— an alternative sleeping arrangement.”

“You were well within your rights. I treated you poorly.”

“No, I was letting my imagination get the better of me.” When he gave her a puzzled glance, she took another leap of trust. “I . . . I had a moment when I thought it was your devising a way to leave. Go back to the kingdom without my knowing.”

He was silent for a few steps. “And now you see I would not do that to you.”

“Yes.” 

“I hope you finally believe it.”

“I believe it.”

She considered telling him more. How deep her relief was when he’d joined her after all. That waking in his arms as she had was the most wonderful thing she’d felt in a very long time. He would not welcome it. Rey contented herself to replay the experience in her mind and tried to memorize the way it felt to have her heart so full, if only for a few moments.

 

Chapter Text

“This isn’t working.”

“Because you are trying to push it to do so. Stop pushing.” 

Ben stared at the empty patch of dirt in front of his knees. Sweat prickled on his forehead. His entire body tensed with effort. 

“Encourage growth,” Rey had said this morning. Instead of taking him to the Face Eater Clearing (perhaps she had her own name for it; this was Ben’s), she’d settled herself in the meadow that surrounded her home. Ben couldn’t help but wonder if it was because of some irritation she held for the consistent lack of his ability. 

Not that this meadow was unsuitable; lush grass covered the ground, so thick and plush that he could drift into sleep here and be more comfortable than the best night spent on the witch’s shoddy wooden pallet. He’d slept poorly again in that blasted loft and woken too early, his palms sweating and his body tense with a now-familiar blend of arousal and fear. Whatever his dreams had been this time, he hadn’t remembered the specifics—only the generic feelings of her warm body against his lips and the sharp crunch of a talon into bone. Conflicting sensations that should never meet. 

Rey sat cross-legged in front of him. She breathed in stiffly through her nose. 

“Try again,” she said. “There are seeds beneath your fingertips. Possibilities. Draw upon them.” 

He did try. The magic was inside his bones, wriggling and thrashing about with excitement, but he couldn’t wrestle it out. Whatever seeds existed within the dirt stayed there, as hard and lifeless as stone.

He couldn’t do it. Ben growled through clenched teeth then stood abruptly. “I need a break.” Irritation was an itchy clamp on his neck, and he rubbed it with a vicious swipe of his palm. 

Rey’s lips were pursed. From the look on her face and the tone of her voice, her frustration with him nearly matched his own. Had her sleep the previous night been broken as well? Whenever he’d burst from dreams with his heart trying to escape through his ribcage, the tree had held the sort of silence that hinted at forced silence; but whether it was magical or natural, he knew not. 

Ben scowled at the ground, his new boots flattening the fresh grass as he strode to the edge of the clearing to stretch against a tree. They weren’t the nicest of boots, though they could be described as kingly when compared to his former footwear. Thick, supple leather protected his toes and laced up to the middle of his calves. If they had been the only treasure found at the wagon, then the journey would have been worth it. 

Yet he had found so much more than just a pair of well-worn, castoff boots. The swords would be useful, he was sure—once he found a way to sharpen the blunted metal. Fabric, too, and a dress that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a pile of flaming refuse. Ben found himself smiling as he thought of how Rey had flounced about within the yards of excess fabric. 

He toyed with the laces on his shirt collar absentmindedly. 

The discoveries within the wagon hadn’t been only those of the material sort. He’d found that Rey was nearly as bad at dancing as he, and the realization was a warming, endearing one. She’d accepted his grotesque past with little more than a considering nod and had still found the ability to smile at him afterwards. To dance with him. To brush her cheek against his chin and tip her head and part her lips in anticipation.

Ben let his forehead thud into the tree’s bark. If those blasted raccoons hadn’t been...well, blasted raccoons, then…

Then... what? What exactly would have played out? A kiss? A hasty grope under a hideous dress? A quick rut in an uncomfortable wagon that would leave her flesh bruised and whatever fantastical dreams she’d held of sex utterly dashed with one heavy prod of his cock? 

His sigh rustled the leaves at his shoulder. 

And—this was the discovery of most significance—Ben had found that while he slept beside her, the nightmares were gone; his dreams had been quiet, playful things. He’d woken in the early dawn to her warmth against his chest and the ghostly memory of small fingers rubbing his own. Rey had been asleep when he fully opened his eyes, her breathing coming as the sweet, even snores he’d grown accustomed to by now. She had fit so well under his arm that he found his thoughts wandering to possibilities of the future, of how it would feel to have this position be the norm and not simply a forced arrangement brought about by the need for warmth and safety.

Despite the pleasures at their campsite, the journey itself had not been pleasant. The vile bird-creature from the wash day seemed to haunt Ben’s vision; out of the corner of his eye, he would see it perched in the trees or pecking at the dirt, only to spin around and find that the dark shape was only a heavy clump of stringy moss or a broken, burned tree stump. Rey had seen nothing. Without fail, the bird ‘disappeared’ whenever he opened his mouth to tell her of it. 

Ah, well. Even if the beast was real, it couldn’t get past the wards that ringed Rey’s home. 

If it wasn’t…

That was a concern for another day. He had far too many already.  

Ben scrubbed a hand through his hair and spun to return to the witch in her meadow. She watched him as he stomped towards where she sat, one fine eyebrow arched. He stood before her and crossed his arms. 

“What if I can’t do it, witch?” he said. 

She cocked her head, and it reminded him so vividly of the way she’d looked at him when he’d first intruded on her home that he felt a prickle of shame. She was indeed irritated; now he knew for certain. But... why?

Rey lifted a shoulder in a shrug and pursed her lips. “Then you will not do it.” 

He couldn’t hold back his scoff. “You ask the impossible. I can’t”—he gestured at the tufts of grass at his feet—“ encourage growth. It’s like wringing gold from a...a squirrel.” Another sigh, another harsh scrub of his hair. 

“It’s because you’re pushing.” 

“I—”

Rey silenced him with a hard look. “Sit.” 

“Do you think that—”

“Sit.” 

He did, though he wasn’t pleased about it. 

Rey took a deep breath, seeming to calm herself, and lay a hand on the ground. She closed her eyes and an expression of peace filled her face: lips gently parted around a soft smile, eyelashes fanned over her tanned skin, sunlight glancing off her high cheekbones. A small lock of hair slid over her shoulder and brushed at the laces of her gown’s bodice; it was a simple dress, as green as the newly budded leaves that surrounded them. 

Her hand fanned over the grass and the dirt and the pebbles. Ben swallowed, thinking of the barely-muffled moans he had heard the night before they’d left on their short journey. How had she used this hand to bring herself pleasure? What had those dainty fingers accomplished? Beneath the fasteners of his breeches, his cock stirred, and Ben willed it to settle. 

A small tendril burst from the loam underneath Rey’s hand and twisted up between her fingers. Leaves unfurled from the stem as it rose.

When Rey spoke, Ben forced his attention away from her dancing fingers. 

“It’s all an exchange,” she said. She bit her lip and a crease formed between her brows, as if she was picking her words carefully. “In the great poems, and the epics, they speak of...love. Romance.” A pretty blush stained her skin. “Have you read those?”

Of course. Ben devoured any he came across. “A few,” he said. 

One side of Rey’s lips tipped up in a puckish smile, like she knew he was lying. She continued, “They speak of it as giving part of oneself in turn for receiving part of another.” 

The tendril darkened with every inch it reached into the air. More leaves uncurled from the stem, lengthening and dividing like fractals, and a large bud stretched towards the sky. As Ben watched, the bud lightened and then burst open into a blue flower, as brilliant and bold as a sapphire. 

When he glanced up at Rey, she was looking at him with twinkling eyes and a suppressed smile that practically said, See? It is possible. You are the problem.  

Ben pinched his lips. “So I am to treat magic as I would a lover.” He spread his fingers over the ground, mirroring what she had done.

“That depends on how you treat your lovers.” 

His eyes snapped up to hers.

I could show you, if you’d like. I would be slow. I would explore your body, discover what makes you arch your back and what makes you scream. The words hovered at the edges of his lips, and he clamped his mouth shut in order to hold them in. His throat and his chest felt tight with the effort. With a start, he realized he was staring at her lips and jerked his attention to his splayed hand. The aged scars on his knuckles stretched as he flexed his fingers. 

Rey must have interpreted his distraction as nervous hesitation. She extended her palm. “Hold my hand, and I’ll help you.” When Ben made no move to take it, she continued, “The last time you used magic successfully, the night you agreed to stay, you touched me and peered into my mind. I could...guide you. It might be easier this way.” 

“I can’t.” 

“That’s why I made the offer.” 

Ben shook his head. “No, I mean, I...I can’t intrude upon your mind again.” Rey looked as if she was about to shrug off his words, so he went on. “I know the feeling of an invaded mind. I know what it’s like to have another’s thoughts and wants imposing on your own.” He stared at the way the tendons on the back of his hand shifted under the skin. “I won’t do that to you. Not again.” 

He heard a soft huff and looked up to see her giving him an amused smile. “There can be no intrusion with an invitation.” Another huff. “But I’ll respect your decision. And I’ll respect it even more if you are successful.” 

It was difficult not to glare at her, but he managed, if only barely. 

Ben closed his eyes, took a heavy breath, and let his thoughts scatter, leaving behind only the endless list of instructions he had accumulated from Rey over the past weeks. 

Focus on the world around him, that was the first step. Yes, he could feel the cool earth underneath the seat of his trousers, and the soft tickle of grass on his palm, and the sunshine that filtered through his linen shirt. A breeze toyed with locks of his hair. If he focused on that breeze, he could follow it back over the treetops and across the plains to where it began along a high ridge of snow-covered peaks. More passive magic, Rey would say. 

But he wasn’t to do passive magic today. 

Open the doors to his mind. Yes, yes, he’d done that, which was why he could follow a wind current. 

Feel the balance, the harmony within all that surrounded him. Right, of course—there was the slow churn of the worms in the ground as they tilled the soil which they then consumed, the slow rot of forest detritus, the fresh burst of new life. 

Yet even with all of this open and living within him, the magic had no release; it was still vibrating and impatient within him like a box filled with bees. 

Treat it as a lover.  

Ben chewed the inside of his cheek. He felt like a fool to even consider doing as such, but he had tried everything else. It was an exchange, she’d said. One last heavy breath, and he reached for the buzzing power inside his body as well as the frantic world surrounding him and he offered himself to them both: offered his pain, his grief, his anger, his uncertainty, and yes, even his lust. If he was asking the world to follow his directive, it suddenly seemed natural that he should show it why.  

And then, in a moment of absolute, startling clarity, Ben could feel, actually feel, the world. Whatever he felt earlier had only been a whisper; this was a shout, a vivid bloom of heartbreaking beauty. The magic crackled under his skin, snapped along his limbs and out through the tips of his fingers and into the ground. It was just like his rage, and nothing like his rage. The magic wasn’t taking him over; he was working with it. It would do as he said, as long as it wanted to do so. 

Grow, he told the ground. Please.  

The grass tickled his palm, and then something was sliding between his fingers. 

Rey let out a short cry of elation, and he opened his eyes to see a slender green tendril curling up from the dirt, twisting over the back of his hand. Thin vines unfurled over the grass like delicate ribbons. Along the stems, little buds burst open to reveal thin, luminous flowers, their tissue-thin petals striped with white and a pale orange that was almost golden.

He was laughing, a sound so carefree that he hardly recognized it. The plant curled around his knuckles, brushing his skin like a caress. It took very little effort to halt its growth, and when he did, he felt a release, like that of hands once clasped in partnership. With great care, he disentangled himself from the fragile vines. Everything around him hummed with exquisite possibility: the air was thick and alive against his body and his blood pulsed throughout his limbs, as light and sparkling as Rey’s mead. On a whim, he searched for the ever-present rage and found it not crouching and ominous, but sated. It was...pleased, like a carnivore after a fatty meal.

When he looked at her, Rey’s hands were clasped in her lap, joy dimpling her cheeks and glimmering in her hazel eyes. 

“How do you feel?” she asked. 

Ben could hardly laugh for the breathlessness. “Happy,” he said, and realized for the first time in years that he meant it. “I…it’s…” He tried again and again to verbalize the thrill and the ecstasy surging through him and settled on, “I’m happy.” 

Rey brushed her fingers along one white-gold petal. “I’ve not seen these before. They’re pretty.” 

Finally seeing the blooms before him, sadness pricked at his chest. “They’re Candlewick flowers,” he said. The stem of one broke easily between his fingers. He spun it slowly, watching how the petals shimmered in the bright sunlight. “My mother grew them in her garden at the castle.” 

“Does she have many? Gardens?”

“Several. Hothouses, too. Her prized garden is behind the castle, though. It’s quite large. Perhaps the size of four of your clearings.” He gestured at the meadow in which they sat to illustrate.

Rey tucked her legs to her chest and rested her head on her knees; a position of one expecting a story. “Are there many of these plants there?” 

“Hundreds.” He spun the flower so that it formed a blurred disk. “They are her favorites, and you can hardly take a step without almost landing on one. Thick clusters of them climb the castle stones and lay draped over pergolas—large, um, wooden structures without walls. The flowers glow at night.” He gave the tiny vines at his knees a wistful smile. “There are so many that the entire garden seems to be alight. It’s…” Ben huffed a laugh through his nose. “Before I knew what true magic was, it was like something out of a storybook. It looked magical.” 

Rey gave a soft “hmm” of contentment as she watched the flowers dance in the meadow’s breeze. “It all sounds grand. And—” She broke off and turned a distant gaze to the woods.   

And you’ll return there soon. The unspoken words were as loud as the crash of a stone against glass. 

Then she flashed him a brief, forced smile and inhaled shortly. “It’s impressive, but I told you to encourage growth from an existing seed, not craft your own.” 

Ben clenched his jaw and was about to bite out a harsh retort when he saw the smirk that tugged at Rey’s mouth. 

“If I had known the extent of your demanding nature,” he said, “then perhaps I would have thought twice about agreeing to stay.”

She tipped her head backwards and let out a yipping laugh. “My ‘demanding nature’?” Her voice rose to a near-impossible pitch when she was highly amused, and it charmed him endlessly. “Apologies, Sir Knight! Please, tell me how this plant will benefit my meadow.” 

Ben frowned at the flower. 

“Can it be ground into medicine?” she said.

“Well, no, not as such.” 

“Can it be eaten?” 

There had been something in a castle tome about Candlewick flowers, but Ben couldn’t remember if it was a warning or a recipe. 

“Unlikely,” he said. 

“Then what am I to do with this?” 

“It’s...pretty.” 

Rey chuckled; it was a low, melodic thing. “And what am I to do with ‘pretty’?” 

Before he had time to think on it, Ben leaned forward and tucked the white flower into her hair, above her ear. He was so close that he could see the dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose, the flutter of her lashes over those eyes of honey and moss. Her lips were parted. Her chest rose and fell in an uneven rhythm. 

“Do courtly ladies wear their hair as such?” She sounded nearly as breathless as he felt. 

The pads of his fingers fluttered at the soft hair by her temple. “Some.” 

“Why?” 

“They think it enhances their beauty, I suppose.” He wasn’t even certain that she would hear him; were his words in his mind or in the air? Ben was aflame with her nearness, as if every nerve and every inch of skin was intensely aware of how little motion it would take to make contact. 

“And...and you?” There was a new tremble in her voice, one that he hadn’t heard before. She was staring at his shoulder. Was she nervous? Had he made her nervous? 

“And I what?” 

“What do you think? Of flowers enhancing beauty?” 

The release of magic had left his mind as wild and unsteady as the legs of a newborn colt. He could say what was proper or what was courtly—simple words that would discourage her just enough that he wouldn’t feel the gnawing guilt of her disappointment. But Ben found he no longer wished for any of that. He wished for her. 

“I think you need no flowers, Rey.” 

Her name had been thrumming inside him, begging to be released. It hovered around his head now, warming his ears, sending a thrill to his thundering heart. 

His touch drifted lower and as it skimmed her cheek, his fingers brushed against her tentative smile. Lower still, over her jaw, feather-light on the pulse in her neck, down to that hollow between her collarbones where her heartbeat clamored under her skin. She moved closer to him, and he caught the sweet fragrance of her: fresh grass, and warm honey, and newly-bloomed violets. 

Ben felt her swallow more than he heard it.

“Do you not desire me?” she said in a hushed voice.

“Yes.” Of course. I desire you as the sun desires the dawn.  

“I never knew you for a poet, Sir Knight,” she said, smiling, and Ben realized with a bolt of panic that he had spoken out loud. 

Gods damn everything. Embarrassment pooled in his gut. He started to pull away, but she laid her own hand over his and held him in place. 

“Don’t feel shame for your pretty words,” she said. “If I could, I would adorn myself with them instead of the flowers.” A shy smile flashed across her face, and it was so startling and genuine that it chased his embarrassment far away. She strummed her small fingers over the back of his hand. She was so much smaller than him in so many ways. Yes, he desired her. Yes, it appeared that she desired him in return. 

But…

He felt her chest rise and fall under his palm before she spoke. “Why do you continue to shy from me?” 

“I’ll hurt you.” It came out too quickly, too loud.

She rasped a harsh, disbelieving scoff.  “You think I haven’t been hurt before?”

“Not like this.” He wasn’t thinking only of her body but of her mind too, and her heart, when he had to leave. He was thinking of his own mind, his own heart. Gods.

“And if I were to make my own decisions? Would you accept them?” 

Ben flinched, feeling chastised. He could no more direct her life than he could direct the flow of the continents beneath his feet or the very passage of time. He should not be directing her life. And here he’d been crafting assumptions based on his own damned uncertainties.

“Yes,” he said in the end. “I would.”

There was a brief moment where Rey appeared to be weighing options in her mind. Then her free hand drifted to her bodice and with practiced, even motions, she loosed the laces. 

Ben became oblivious to all that surrounded him. Was there once birdsong? Wind through the trees? A sky as blue and clear as glass? He knew nothing except the rough sound of the thin leather as it fell from its knot and the way her dress parted down the middle to reveal golden skin and the top swells of her breasts. 

Her fingers tightened on his hand—his enormous, ungainly hand—and then she was guiding him across her collarbones, down the silken skin of her chest. Lower. Lower.  

Ben had held back long enough. His lips crashed into hers the very second that his palm slid beneath her shift to close on her breast. And gods, her breast: it was small and soft and perfect, her nipple already pebbling at his touch. 

She gasped into his mouth as his lips began a hungry glide across hers, and she gasped again at the feather-light flick of his tongue, and yet again when her jaw slackened enough that he could enter and taste her. 

It would be foolish to claim that she tasted like berries, or exotic spices, or any number of delicacies—all rhetoric that would be more fitting coming from a pompous bard. She tasted like Rey: the woman so fierce and lovely she made his bones ache. 

He brushed his thumb over her taut nipple and she arched further into him with a cracking cry, driving him to cup and stroke her breast, to rasp his calloused fingers across her tender skin.

A terribly sobering thought struck him then and dashed a chill over the flames licking at his groin: this was to be her first kiss. 

Ben was no stranger to physical and mental pressure—he’d felt the surge of adrenaline as a tight coil in the pit of his stomach every time he charged into battle and risked life and limb—yet this sudden realization made him more nervous than anything had before. 

Seven fiery hells. Her very first kiss—a wonderful event that graced nearly every romantic tale Ben had ever read— and here he was, fucking her mouth with his tongue and groping her tit in the sunshine. 

This would not do. He had to make it good—no, he had to make it impeccable. 

Ben slowed his movements against her mouth, then pulled his hand out of her dress. He brought it up so he bracketed her face with his palms, holding her as he would hold something precious, kissing her with all of the care that her introduction to lovemaking should have entailed. 

But Rey didn’t seem to want ‘care.’ She wriggled under his gentle ministrations in frustration and let out a little whine, then tugged his shirt over his head with an urgency that nearly split the seams. 

He hardly had time to see where she’d hurled his clothing before she let out a thrilled, victorious 'Ah!’ and touched his torso as if she could consume him with her hands. Ben’s skin sang with each bold swipe of her fingers over his abdominals, his ribs, the muscles that dipped above his hip bones. He wanted to feel self-conscious of the jagged weals and long-healed gouges, but Rey wasn’t letting that thought linger. When she licked along his newest scar from his pectoral up to where it curved over his chin, Ben was fairly certain before today was done he wasn’t going to remember his own name. 

She lay back in the grass, pulling at him in silent instruction to follow, yet he had to pause to marvel at the way the sunlight bathed her bare breasts, how it dipped along her collarbones and trickled along her neck, how it shimmered in the strands of her chestnut hair. 

“Ben…” There was a tight eagerness in his name, a desperation that sang in his veins and surged into his cock so it it strained painfully against his breeches.

He lay his body over hers and kissed her sun-warmed neck before he returned his devotions to her breasts. Heavens, they felt divine; they were perfect for his hands, or maybe it was that his hands were perfect for her breasts. And they were perfect for his mouth, too. She keened and gripped his head as he took one nipple gently between his lips and sucked, then she let out a startled giggle when he nipped the underside’s plump swell. 

“You do well with your mouth, sir,” she said around gasps as he licked and then nipped the other breast. 

“I’m glad it pleases you.” Her nipple puckered even more as his warm breath brushed it. Too pretty. He couldn’t help himself and took it into his mouth once more, basking in her moan.

“But…” 

Ben lifted his head. “Yes?” 

Her skin was flushed and shining. She bit her lower lip, yet instead of speaking, she took his hand in hers and began to guide it down past the worn fabric of her crumpled bodice.

Wherever she wanted to guide him, he would be ecstatic to follow. Their joined hands skimmed her stomach and scraped the thin belt around her waist before settling between her thighs. She pressed his palm close and he could feel the heat of her cunt through the fabric and hells, did it make him ache. 

Rey’s whisper tickled his skin, sending currents of fire down to his toes.

“Please.”  

Together, they yanked up the hem of her dress until it rucked around her waist. He could feel the strength in her legs, the muscles firm and trembling. She was gripping his shoulders hard enough to bruise, and as he traced the delicate veins on her thighs that led to her sex, he felt the slightest shaking in her arms. 

He would have stopped if not for her whispers—’Please,’ and ‘Ben,’ and ‘More’—and the upward cant of her hips that guided his fingers closer, and closer, until gods, he was brushing the soaked thatch of hair between her thighs. A trembling moan burst from her parted lips. Her clitoris felt softer than silk under the broad pad of his finger. As he rubbed in slow, sweeping motions, her breathing became short and ragged, and her hold on his body tightened into something nearing pain. 

A harder rub, a grind of that little bundle of nerves, and she spasmed beneath him. His middle finger slid lower until it was teasing at her entrance. He longed to shout, to cry out at the rightness of the warm, wet glide of his skin against hers. 

Ben wanted to bury his face in her neck as he buried his hand in her, but no, that would be too impersonal, because he needed to watch how she responded to the very first breach of another into her body. He put his weight on an elbow, leaning back just far enough to see the look of exquisite wonder flood her face at the slow push of his finger into her cunt. She was unbearably tight and hotter than a flame. As he went deeper, a high, frantic cry came from her, like the desperate keening of a wild thing, and she gripped him harder. 

“I’d...I’d wondered how this would…” Rey’s words dissolved into a cracking moan as his hand bottomed out, his palm flush against her soft hair. Brows creased, she licked her lips. If she hadn’t been trying to say something, Ben would have captured those lips. She huffed a breathless laugh at the sky above, and he was so close that it tickled the hair of his beard. “I supposed it would feel nice, but I...I had no idea.” 

Ben withdrew his finger to the tip before pressing it back in. Tight, and wet, and perfect. 

“You’ve thought about this?” he said. Another thrust of his hand, firmer this time, made her arch against the grass and gasp. 

“Yes,” she whispered. Her eyes settled on him. “Haven’t you?”

He could have answered truthfully— Yes. Every day and every night— but instead, he added a second finger, feeling inexperienced muscles give and stretch. Her pleasured cries echoed through the meadow until Ben covered her mouth with his and consumed them. Her hands tangled in his hair and held him fast, though he had no wish to ever leave. His arm around her shoulders kept her pinned against his quickening thrusts. There would be grass stains on her dress, on her shift, on the knees of his breeches. Should he care? Perhaps, although a large part of him could only look forward to future river visits.

His thumb rubbed faster and harder—and there was a tickle at his ribcage and shoulder, but he would worry about that later—then she was stiffening in his arms, clutching the grass above her head until it ripped from the ground, trembling and shuddering as if she was coming undone. In the past, he had only heard her pleasure when she’d been muffling it in her bed; now it burst free, clear and loud and beautiful in a sobbing cry that brought a tightness to his chest and a fire to his skin. 

Ben slowed his motions, although he couldn’t bring himself to remove his fingers.

Rey’s eyes were glassy, her chest flushed and shining, her nipples stiff and rosy. She moaned as he sucked one nipple into his mouth, just because they looked so pert and were so exposed, and he no longer appeared to have any self-control with this woman. 

There was another tickle at his ribcage, and he turned to frown at it. It was a cluster of primroses that hadn’t been there before; he would have known not to settle his body on top of such a large plant. Rey let out a high, contented sigh, which was when he noticed more flowers surrounding her: asters bobbed above her limp arms; the dark leaves of peonies brushed her bare, freckled shoulders; violets burst through the mussed locks of her hair tumbling over the ground. 

“Does this always happen?”

She blinked serenely at his question. “Hmm?” 

Ben cocked a brow at the peonies, and Rey followed his glance. 

“Oh.” She looked around and giggled, tapping one of the blooms with a finger. “No, this is a first.” After a pause, she said, “One of several firsts for today.” 

Her hips shifted against his fingers as if to remind him that, yes indeed, his fingers in her cunt was a definite first. Her teeth caught her lip, and her eyes fluttered shut. They snapped open when Ben curled his fingers into her front wall, and she squeaked out a little startled ‘Ooh!’ 

The hem of her dress had ridden up farther; his palm appeared so large and imposing between her thighs. The sudden urge to see her, all of her, struck him. Ben pushed himself upright. His mouth went dry immediately. 

Her sex was flushed and swollen with arousal and fairly shining in the sunlight. The sight of her stretched around his glimmering fingers…

Gods above.  

He could divest himself of his breeches, he could ease into her, feel that sweet clench around his cock instead of just his fingers. She’d climaxed, which would ease his entry (one of the main lessons from previous experiences, although previous experiences were the last things he wanted to be thinking of now). Perhaps. Perhaps he would make her come again, just to be certain.

“You look at me as if I were something to be eaten,” Rey said with an air of amusement, pulling Ben from his thoughts. 

“Why not? You are delicious.” 

She let out a disbelieving snort that would have been shocking at court. “You can’t mean that,” she said as she struggled to her elbows. 

He pinned her with a look that begged no argument. Oh, he certainly did mean that. As he eased his fingers from her warmth, she groaned. Her eyes went wide when she saw that he was bringing those fingers to his mouth, wider still when he dragged his tongue along their lengths from palm to tip. 

Ben growled at the taste of her. But it wasn’t enough. Not nearly. He shuffled down and covered her cunt with his mouth, licking, sucking , his tongue flicking across her slick skin and tracing the ridges of her sex. She cried out above him, part moan, part surprised shriek, and he would have slowed had she not twined her fingers in his hair and kept him pinned.

He focused his attentions on her swollen clitoris as one finger re-entered her cunt, then two. She was smeared across his lips, covering his palm, soaking the hair on his chin. He was delirious at the feel of it all, more drunk on his little witch than from any mead or beer or spirit. Heat seared up his spine. His fingers moved faster, harder, deeper. Soft, wet sounds came from where he pumped into her and harmonized with her trembling moans. 

Ben’s free hand dug into her hip. He could feel her intimate muscles fluttering around each thrust, and it made his iron-hard cock pulse with need. The heat spread from his spine throughout his bones, hotter and hotter, flames licking at the back of his skull. 

A third digit pushed into her tight sex. He would fill her with his fingers and then he would fill her with his cock and then he would— 

Above, through the encroaching haze in his mind, he felt her flinch, heard a yelp and a hiss of pain. Ben froze. 

It would be better if you were not the first to lie with her.  

The words hit him with the strength of a lash.  

He withdrew his fingers and his mouth, fully prepared to apologize and seek forgiveness for hurting her when he’d already said that he couldn’t bear to do so, but Rey grabbed his ears and yanked him up to her waiting mouth. 

“But I—mhrhn,” Ben said. 

Rey wasn’t listening; she had somehow already undone his breeches and was— wait, wait— closing her small hand around the length of his erection. 

“Rey—”

He didn’t know what he expected from her. Shock? Fear? Definitely not undisguised fascination, which was how she was regarding his genitals: peering at his cock from different angles, leaning towards it— wait, wait— running her palm along the heated, taut skin from the base to the head as if mapping a new landscape. She cupped his balls and lifted like she was testing their weight and— 

“Rey, it’s—” 

No one had touched him like this in a decade. It was too much. It was glorious, and spectacular, and far, far too much. A tingle raced from his toes to his knees, and higher, higher…

Her hand closed over the shining, ruddy head, and she squeezed lightly at first, and then harder, and— 

The tingle shot from his thighs to his balls and through his shaft. He came with a choked groan as ejaculate spurted in a hot, thick stripe up Rey’s thigh and spattered over the hem of her dress. 

Ben squeezed his eyes shut as if somehow not seeing her look of disappointment would make it sting less. Not that it mattered much; if she couldn’t quite take three of his fingers, she couldn’t take the rest of him.

Rey’s curious ‘hmm’ forced him to open his eyes. 

She was staring at the pearlescent streak with interest. As he watched, she swept her index finger across where it had landed on her thigh and rubbed it between finger and thumb. 

“I...uh…” Ben said, unsure how to bring about a full sentence. Sweat cooled on his forehead and neck and chest. The world seemed unsteady and heavy around him. He chose to clear his throat instead. 

Rey brought her fingers to her nose and sniffed. Oh gods, what did she smell? Ben wanted to bury his head in the dirt. She gave the streak another quizzical look. “I’d learned of...this...but I hadn’t realized there would be so much of it. Does this always happen?” she said, quoting his earlier question. 

Ben shifted and tucked himself into his breeches, then cinched the laces with unsteady hands. Who wasn’t going to ask questions about his anatomy? 

“...Y-yes,” he said finally. 

“Hmm.” She rubbed her fingers together again, then brought them to her mouth. Before Ben could wonder what exactly was happening, she had licked the smear of his spend from her thumb. 

His sated cock managed to give an excited twitch beneath his breeches while Ben was only able to gape. 

Rey shrugged at his expression of disbelief. “You’ve tasted me; this is only fair.” Her eyes flicked to his trousers. “Will it take long for you to…” She pursed her lips, thinking, and her eyes sparkled with excitement. “For you to return to your previous state?”

“I…” His shirt was nearby, and he snatched it from the grass. “It...varies.” He took a heavy breath and turned to Rey. “But we can’t.” 

“What? Why?” she said, baffled.

“Because I...because what we did...it pained you. Any more would be worse.” 

Rey shook her head. “Perhaps at first.” She took on the expression of someone explaining a beloved subject. “With adequate time and preparation, I hear it can be—” 

“It’s not just that,” Ben said through clenched teeth. She looked ready to argue, so he reached over and shoved the hem of her dress higher, a hair rougher than he’d meant to. Five fresh bruises bloomed on the curve of her hip. 

Ben surged to his feet and wrestled his shirt over his head. Although he’d expected the bruises to be there, the sight still turned his stomach. His rage might be content and curled at his feet, but that didn’t mean it had gone completely. The slightest lapse in concentration was all it had taken for the rage to reach out and grip her soft skin with the force of a monster. 

The nobleman’s daughter hadn’t minded though. Nor had the harpist, nor the lady’s maid. 

Several days after their alcove tryst, he’d passed the nobleman’s daughter as she chatted with her companions. Too wrapped up in their conversation, they had not noticed him as their hushed whispers fluttered into his ears. 

“And?” one girl asked, giggling. “How was it?” 

A slow grin hardly hidden behind a bejeweled hand. “Rough.” 

“Oooh.”

“I think it was close to how it would feel to fuck a barbarian.” 

More giggles. “Sounds awful.”

Ben had hurried away, face aflame and stomach twisting at every repetition of their words in his head. His first time, a moment which should have been filled with awe and beauty, had been reduced to fodder for castle gossip. 

Whatever the harpist and the maid had thought he never really knew, aside from the fact that they’d left the bedchamber smiling. 

Of course, all of those couplings had occurred in the rage’s early stages; even if Ben didn’t have much of a hold over his strength, it wasn’t so wild as to inflict accidental damage. And—although admitting so made chagrin pluck at his ribcage—it wasn’t as if any of those times had lasted long enough to trigger a full loss of control. 

If he were to compare the beginning rages to those of the present day, they started out as an unsteady cub content to swat at flies and romp in a forest. Now, they were more like a dire bear. 

The bruises on Rey’s leg burst into his vision like hideous flowers, quickly followed by the memory of the judgment in Poe’s beady black eyes. 

It would be better if you were not the first to lie with her.  

Ben would be too rough, too brutal, too...big for her innocent body. 

He looked over his shoulder and his attention snagged at the sight of his witch: her lips pressed into a thin line, her gaze pinned on the bodice laces while her fingers wrenched at them with frustrated pulls. 

If he were to go back to how things were before, with only hidden glances and the barest of touches…

No. He couldn’t go back to that, not after knowing how she felt beneath his hands and around his fingers and against his mouth. A rather strong impulse told him Rey would agree. 

As Ben returned to where she sat, he resolved to himself that, yes, they could kiss and touch and feel; there simply wouldn’t be more than that. 

Rey’s head jerked up when he dropped to his knees in front of her. She huffed and opened her mouth. Ben knew words of frustration were about to emerge, so he sealed them inside with a kiss gentle and tender enough to make her gasp. 

He took over the task of re-lacing her bodice. Although a trace of suspicion lingered on her face—the quirk of a single brow letting him know she knew there was something more to his actions—she let out a contented sigh and let herself be tended to. 

Yes, Ben thought again as he secured the bow in the laces. This would be fine. He could control himself. It would be fine. If not, then he would leave. 

It would have to be fine because he did not want to leave.

After all, there was still much to learn.

Chapter Text

With a breathless cry, Rey dipped around Ben and found herself behind him. It was the second time this had happened in the last five minutes, and she was beginning to think he was allowing it. That seemed rather unwise—she had a sword. Granted, so did he. And granted, the swords were, even to one fairly unfamiliar with them (as she was), of middling quality. Certainly nothing like the one she remembered him wielding before it was stolen: the enormous, two-handed weapon with its red-jewelled pommel and broken hilt. She remembered the feel of its point at the hollow of her throat, too. It was difficult to believe that had led here.

She jabbed him with her own, a tap to the small of his back, where his sweaty shirt was sticking. It was giving her ideas rather removed from a bout, but she had agreed to let him teach her some techniques, and it seemed implicit that the offer of an afternoon of swordplay was not meant to be a double entendre. 

Pity.

Ben gave a grunt of displeasure and spun. He had more than enough time to evade a follow-up swat to his hip with the flat of her blade, but he let her land it anyway. As her antics continued, he cast a half-hearted though judgmental glare, then parried her next less jesting lunge. 

“Are you taking this seriously at all?” he asked. She thrust forward again, and he flicked her blade aside with annoying ease and a slow smile. “Or am I boring you, little witch?”

Where those last two words might have provoked a squirm of uncertainty only a few days ago, Rey felt a warm pulse of delight that started behind her ribs and traveled very pointedly southward. They had been at this for the better part of an hour, and yes, perhaps she was becoming a bit more playful than their agreement warranted. Yet some alternative pursuits might be a fine way to take a break, and it would be an easy thing to goad Ben into, despite her promises to herself that she would listen and learn. She had listened plenty and learned enough for now; Maz had taught her some things. It was all coming back. 

A few other things were coming back too. She couldn’t be blamed. His face was flushed, his neck and forearms gleamed with exertion, he was breathing loud and hard, and his eyes were vibrant with something close enough to arousal that of course she thought of him as he had been that day in the meadow. There had been a few times since then, and he always drew back before it got that far. But now, maybe . . .

Some of his mussed hair was stuck to his jaw with sweat, right beside the curving scar. She rather desperately wanted to lick that spot and as much of the rest of him as he would allow.

“I believe you are letting me best you, sir .” She was gleeful and breathless as she tossed her braid over her shoulder, the beads knocking heavily between her shoulder blades. “That’s two blows in a row.”

She gamely tried again, only to be rebuffed as he advanced on her. 

“Were those blows?” The corner of Ben’s mouth curved as he struck at her with an insultingly slow swipe, which she blocked with little concern and mounting amusement. “I thought I was being besieged by bumblebees.”

Rey gasped with false outrage and whapped him again with the flat, this time on his forearm. He snickered, pushed it aside, and continued to press her backward. She tried to dart to his right, but he followed. There was a change in his demeanor and the way his gaze followed her. If he was trying to figure out her next move, it was in no way that involved her sword.

“You would not be so confident if our combat were confined to the magical sort, I think,” she said.

“And yet it’s not. Which is, you may recall, the point.”

As far as she was concerned, he was fast forgetting the point himself. He’d just said all that to her breasts, judging by where his eyes appeared to be fixed. 

“Oh?” Rey cocked her head and took a step back, then dropped her sword. It landed with a soft thud in the grass beside her feet, and she held her arms out in a mockery of surrender. “Surely a noble knight of the realm wouldn’t advance on an unarmed woman.”

He was eyeing her like she was a meal again, a look she had become accustomed to and had not yet tired of. She didn’t think she ever would, though the realization carried an implication of permanence, or at least longevity. If she thought of that too much, it always led her to the depressing conclusion that no sort of permanence with him was feasible. So, as she did every time the unwelcome thought of his eventual departure encroached, Rey buried it deep with the other things that were too painful to dwell on and fixed her eyes on his face.

“And yet . . .” His eyes flashed, and his tongue darted out to wet his lips. “You are no ordinary unarmed woman.”

Oh, she did like him like this. Focused and intense, all that energy like lightning in a jar, directed at her . She could feel him so easily now, without even having to touch. The touching was just for the pleasure of it.

Just a day ago some similar mood had stricken him as they laid snares near a field of tall grasses. He’d begun to kiss her, sweet and careful at first, and the next thing she knew he had her feet off the ground, and her legs had wrapped around his waist. He’d pressed against the smooth trunk of a flowering tree, his mouth ravenous at her own as it caught every gasping breath she puffed out and his hand inside the front of her bodice. Pale purple petals had shaken loose overhead and fallen around them like a fragrant snow shower. The wind had whispered through the leaves like a secret shared. She had sensed his mounting excitement, felt the eager push of him through their clothes, felt her own anticipation roiling and ready to take him, all of him, whatever he would give . . . it had been marvelous. 

And then he’d stopped. He’d set her down gently, and kissed her forehead and her lips like it was an apology, and wandered off to tend to the snares or himself. She had been too flummoxed to find out. Today would be different, she told herself.

She’d told herself that every other time, too.

She grinned wickedly and charged at him full on, head low and arms primed to grab him around the middle and attempt to bowl him over. If she started like this, perhaps he would allow it to last longer—her hands on him, her body pressed against his, their sweat mingling as they bumped and shoved and spun. Sure enough, the moment her arms latched at his waist, her head butting at his chest, she felt his arms close around her and hold her more tightly to him. It was a pathetic go at a grapple for them both, barely more competent than their dance had been, though a good deal more vigorous. He lifted her but overbalanced and stumbled several steps backward before catching himself, just in time for her to squirm in a way that drove her knee against his thigh. 

The next moment they tumbled to the ground in a flurry of strangled laughter and grunts, though it was far too controlled a movement to be genuine, as if Ben had just wanted to get her on the ground with him. She hooked a leg through his and wrestled him into the grass briefly, skirts hitched around her thighs, but it was only another second before she was the one pinned beneath him, her chest heaving and damp as she shook with exhilaration.

Ben was smiling too, the open neck of his shirt leaving his sweat-slicked chest and throat temptingly exposed but just out of reach—he’d settled his weight against her belly and hips and was holding her arms above her head, his grip loose on her wrists but tight enough that she couldn’t quite lift herself to get at him. 

“Hmm.” He pressed his lips together and leaned back to make a show of looking her over. The look in his eyes flickered, then he dipped his face close to her ear, his breath heating her skin and hair as he said, “Perhaps we were approaching this lesson from the wrong angle. You seem much more invested now.”

She tried to think of something clever to say but settled on nudging her hips against him. One of his thumbs was running a tight, almost nervous circle at the inside of her wrist. She would have much preferred to have its attentions elsewhere, but when she opened her mouth to suggest as much, all that came out was a sharp yelp of surprise at the feeling of his lips on a ticklish spot beneath her ear. Reflexively, Rey bucked into him, but he only huffed a laugh against the spot, which made her squirm all the more as he continued. 

The side of her neck; the smooth hollow of her throat; the tip of her chin; the stark line of her jaw. If she tried to turn her face and catch his lips with her own, he snickered and wound his fingers through hers or ground his hips harder into her as he found some new spot to kiss. Piqued but happy enough with the arrangement—if she tilted her hips just so, she could rub herself against his thigh in a most enjoyable way—Rey squeezed his hands and let her nails dig into the skin between his knuckles. He gave a low groan, and she felt his teeth graze her collarbone as his mouth wandered lower again.

It was the day by the tree all over again. Ben flirted. He found excuses to touch her, to kiss her, to be near her. He accepted her advances. To a point. 

During their first tryst in the meadow, she’d been too carried away by the euphoria of having him as she had, his mouth all over her, his fingers inside her, the hard length of his cock in her hands, the taste of his spend on her tongue. That day, she had not noticed how he seemed to lose himself in a particular way. But she had noticed it since then, again and again, how something slipped when the moment grew too heated, too impassioned. 

Every time, just like that, he would snap back to himself with something like fear and pull away from her. He made his excuses, always. Referred vaguely to reasons they couldn’t do this. She had yet to discern what they were, but his words, It’s not just that , continued to rankle her. Then what was it ? Was it some lingering knightly code of honor? No—what?—deflowering of maidens? Surely he could simply say as much, if it were so? She could quickly rid him of the notion.

Yes, Rey did crave the way he’d so boldly explored her body and taken such delight in her pleasure. Sometimes she thought of the wanton, shameless way he’d locked eyes with her as he licked her from his fingers, and she could feel the warmth of his mouth between her legs like it was happening all over again. She’d never considered that witnessing how much he desired her could itself be a source of arousal. She could have been happy with the touches, the looks, the kisses, the words (sweet goddess, the things this man said sometimes, who knew a warrior could be so poetic?), but . . . it was difficult to enjoy any of it when she did not understand why he continued to deny them both what they wanted. The natural, desired end of such things.

Ben released her hands and cupped her face instead. Perhaps he had tired of his game. Her mouth pursued his and when she caught him, she kissed him with such urgency his whole body tensed for an instant before he melted into her and welcomed the parting of her lips and the gasp that slipped between them. One day she was going to get over her worry that he would be embarrassed to hear it and tell him how beautiful she found his mouth, the slight downward cast at the corners and the plush pink fullness of his lips. So pretty, so eminently nibble-able . . .

She sucked at the bottom one and then she did nibble it, slid a hand into his hair and wound her fingers tightly through it. When he gave a muffled moan against her, she forgot herself and bit again, harder. His hands were moving more freely over her now, long fingers plucking at the neckline of her gown, missing the laces entirely, more like to tear it than anything else. A throaty chuckle reached her ears, and she realized that it was her own, and that her leg had angled out again to keep his thigh in place between hers as she ground into it.

And he was becoming so hot. Where she had slipped a hand beneath his shirt, his skin under her palm was damp and radiating feverish warmth to a degree that did not seem ordinary. She dragged her nails along his scalp, eliciting a growl against her chest and a tightening of his hand at the underside of her bared thigh—even his fingertips were shaking as they kneaded the soft flesh. It reminded her of the night in the clearing, but rather than alarm her, the thought only intensified the rapacious drive to have more of him. Was this what scared him so, what kept him from being with her? She didn’t care.

“Ben . . .” She loved the feel of his name on her tongue. She loved the way it sounded to her ears. She loved that it was hers to call him. He shuddered with a sigh and sucked the skin just above her breast firmly against his teeth. If he stopped at any time, it would be too soon. “Don’t— Stop—” 

She wanted to tell him not to stop, but it came out all wrong, like a plea for exactly that, and the solid press of his leg between her thighs drew a breathy gasp from her before she could try again. By the time she found her words, hoping to burble a rushed clarification— do not stop doing that— she knew something had changed. In the span of a few shaky breaths, he stopped gripping and pressing her body as if he couldn’t get close enough to her. He stopped kissing her. His mouth tightened, though it still rested against her collarbone as he caught his breath, like he could hide himself in her. His throat bobbed with a concerted, anxious swallow. He began to push himself up and disentangle his legs.

This time it was Rey who growled, and she fisted a hand into the collar of his shirt and pulled before he could stray too far. 

“What is it?” She sought his eyes and brushed her hand against the side of his neck, coiled a finger into the finer hair behind the shell of his ear. “I wasn’t trying to tell you to—”

His eyes were fixed on her chest. Though his face still bore the abashed look it always did when this moment came, she also saw some stunned amusement in his expression and followed his gaze to her bodice.

The laces were neatly undone and loose at her ribs, the front of her gown pulled open and baring her sternum and the rise of her breasts beneath her shift. It was such a tidy undoing that she knew he hadn’t managed it with his hands. She didn’t even manage it with such finesse under the best of circumstances. He had magicked them open, perhaps by accident. A success, then. 

“Did you . . . ?” His eyes darted between her chest and her face, then he licked his lips and chuckled with the realization. “That’s a new one for me, isn’t it.”

“So useful, too, sir.” Rey bit her lip and grinned. “Well done.”

The thought of it instantly rekindled all her unchecked desires, and before he could say anything else, she pulled his face roughly to hers to resume where they had left off. For a moment he kissed her so well, so thoroughly, she thought she had him again.

“Wait— That’s enough. I can’t— Rey, stop.”

The way he said her name with such desperate affection still startled her enough to make her pause, and he took the moment to free himself of her grasp and shift his body off to the side of hers. She tried to focus on the fact that he had not moved entirely away, that he was still touching her, a hand at her hip, his chin tucked against her shoulder. If she did not, she would be far too aware of the way her throat tightened with disappointment and, yes, some hurt. It hurt a little more every time this happened. Still, she could not help glaring at him, and he caught the look instantly, and all the frustration behind it, and pulled a hand through his hair.

“Let’s stop for a while,” he said with finality.

“And then what? Return to more training?”

His eyes had fallen shut, and his brow furrowed as if he were feeling the onset of a headache. “Yes.”

“Well, thank you, then, for this fumble in the grass.”

“Rey—”

“Truly, it was most— most stimulating. Very enlightening.”

“That isn’t fair.”

She snorted and began to retie her laces, then thought better of it and left her gown as it was. No, she was not just going to move along as if that hadn’t been going somewhere. As if there was any good reason to stop. How dare he speak of what was fair? It was absurd. It was insulting. She sat up and looked down at him, trying very hard to temper her annoyance.

“You’re right, it isn’t fair at all.” So much for tempering her annoyance. She inhaled and held the breath until she felt her hands still. One of his had inched over them, still hot, the rough, callused palm folding gently over her knuckles. She looked down at the back of his hand and studied the small, pale scars that flecked his skin. “I’m sorry. It’s only that—the day we . . . did what we did in the meadow”—oh, it had been so much more than that to her, but he would know what she meant—“we agreed that my decisions are my own. Yes?”

His eyes were still half-closed, but he nodded. “Yes.”

“And that you would accept them if I told you they were true. That you trust me to know my own mind.”

“Yes, we did.” He huffed a miserable laugh and sat up, still cradling her hands. “But it goes both ways. I’ve told you—”

“No. You haven’t told me. Not all of it.” She regarded him warily, fearing he might do what he did the last time she tried to get to the heart of it and walk off, only to return and ignore the matter entirely by distracting her with kisses and sweet gestures. Not again. “Is this some knight’s code? Because—”

“It’s not a knight’s code.” He released her hands and cast a rueful sideways look toward the treeline.

She lifted her chin to look him in the eye. “Well then, what? I won’t force you to violate some personal . . . standard, but if this is how it is going to be, I deserve to know why. I want to understand. Because I know you want more than this. As much as I do. Don’t you?”

Ben looked at her for what felt like a very long time. The slanting afternoon sunlight cast his irises with a warm amber hue beneath his long eyelashes. His fingers traced her jaw, and then he dipped his face to kiss her again, feather-light as he coaxed her back onto the grass with him. Rey already knew this would go nowhere, but she sensed too that the explanation she sought was forthcoming and that maybe that would suffice for today. So she stretched out beside him, her chin resting on his chest, and waited for him to speak.

“I feel it curled at my feet,” he murmured against her hair.

 Now did not seem the time for metaphor. Her eyes narrowed. “What?”

“The rage. I can feel it sometimes, still. Simmering, looking for a way out.”

“Yes, but . . .” By the goddess, she had been right. Of course. He still feared causing her harm, but not for the reasons he had stated before. “You’ve been learning to redirect it into purer magic. You understand how to manage it.”

“Maybe. Yes. Sometimes. When I can focus on what you have shown me.” His chest rose with a deep breath and fell sharply beneath her cheek as he released it. “But when I can’t focus. When I’m . . . experiencing heightened emotion. Excitement. Anger. Or . . . lust, or . . . I’m not thinking. I’m not controlling it. And I can feel it waiting to climb up.”

“And that’s why you won’t . . .”

“Do you see now?”

She managed not to scoff, though her mouth twisted into an incredulous smirk. “When you said you worried you would hurt me, I thought it was because you’re . . . of your, well, rather large—”

Ben tensed, and she caught a glimpse of his jaw squirming with annoyance. “What did the damned rodent tell you?”

She barked a laugh, then pulled herself on top of him, her knees in the grass on either side of his thighs. 

“What did he tell you ?” she muttered against his skin as she nuzzled his jaw. 

Had something happened between him and Poe? She might have to find out later. Poe liked nothing more than chatter; if there was a story, she wouldn’t need to bribe him for it.

“Nothing. Never mind. I . . . misunderstood.”

Rey issued a skeptical snort. “You may recall I had ample time to make my own assessment of your attributes.” She smothered a cheeky grin and rubbed herself against him. “They are very fine indeed.” 

He had the grace to huff a laugh, though his face flushed and he nodded with the air of someone accepting a death sentence. “The feeling is mutual.”

Good, he was in better humor, at least. If they could reason through this, perhaps he would see things differently. They might understand each other better in the end, if nothing else could be gained.

“I’m pleased to hear it,” she said as her face warmed. More quietly, she returned to the point. “You won’t hurt me, Ben.”

“You say that with such certainty.”

“Because I would not let you. I feel your intention, and it is not to harm.” Far from it—as far as she was able to tell in those moments, his greatest desire was her gratification. She slipped a hand inside his shirt and caressed his chest for a few moments before settling it over his heartbeat. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten that you’re not the only one of us with power crackling beneath their skin.”

He was quiet for a while, deliberating as he brushed some hair back from her temple. His fingers continued to comb through her hair. “Do you remember what it felt like? The times you let the rage rise?”

It had happened so long ago, and only twice, that Rey was surprised not only to hear him ask it, but that she did remember. The singular, horrifying sensation of losing control but wanting it—the power, the lack of culpability, the absence of caring who or what was destroyed in the process.

“Yes. Yes, of course I do. It never went away completely—the potential for it. But . . .”

She nibbled at her lower lip a moment. Now she tried to conceive of what it would be like to experience that feeling every time she began to lose herself too much with him. What it would be like to feel so free and ecstatic, yet sense the rage waiting and watching with hackles raised. Each bright, beautiful moment would darken and disintegrate like spoiled fruit. 

Would she not be afraid too? Would she not begin to dread the loss of control that attended passion? 

“I know what it felt like,” she said. “Of course I do. But it’s mine to direct, as much as my body. And yours is no different.”

“I will keep that in mind.” Next time? Right now? Was it merely hypothetical? A way to get her to leave off? He was still petting her hair gently, like he no longer noticed he was doing so. “And I apologize if my actions have made you feel ill-used.”

“They have, a bit.” 

She was surprised by how easy it was to admit. Perhaps his words had not been a suggestion they try again immediately, but he had acknowledged that his efforts not to hurt her were causing her another sort of pain. That was new. It felt like possibility. 

“I’ve never . . . well. Obviously, I’ve never found myself in this sort of circumstance,” she said. “I never considered that I might. When I read about such things in stories, it always sounded so . . . simple.”

He chuckled, a warm puff of air against her forehead. “Is there a thing under the sun that you have not ‘read about’ somewhere?” 

She lifted her chin primly and returned his jesting tone. “I will not be teased. It’s a pity you’re only passingly familiar with the great epics, or you might have learned some things.”

She strongly suspected that he had read more than “a few” of such works, despite his brusqueness on the matter a few days ago, and was determined to goad the truth out of him eventually. 

“This is the first you’ve expressed dissatisfaction with my knowledge.” The hand that was not still stroking her hair was skimming tellingly close to the rise of her rump. “Pray tell, what would you have me learn?”

How to accept what I want to give you. 

How to give yourself to another.  

How to stay.

Rather than say any of that, she looked away and plucked at some grass by his elbow, then rolled the blades between her fingers, focusing on the strong, steady beat of his heart beneath hers. As if he sensed her sudden melancholy, he rested his mouth against her forehead and wrapped his arms around her.

“You talk a great deal of stories,” he said. “How is it you came to be so well read?”

Rey gave a small smile, remembering how he had expressed some surprise when he’d first realized she was literate and then tried to conceal it, as if even then he had not particularly wished to insult her intelligence. She supposed he could not be blamed for such presumptions given his prejudices and what little he knew of her then.

“My parents taught me my letters. Some, at least. It was useful for me to know simple words and signs.” She felt his body tighten the way it did whenever the topic of her parents or the merchant Plutt came up. “Maz taught me how to make sense of it all. Though her books were more of the . . . practical sort, at first. She had a few full of legends, too. Long poems. Epics. I devoured those as soon as I was able. There were others I found after she had died. Some of them are in languages I still can’t decipher, I suppose from the time she spent abroad in her youth . . .”

“You should show them to me. Perhaps I can make sense of them.”

“Hmm.” She tilted her head back to look at his face. “You must have had lessons in such things. Languages of the realm?”

“Yes. Are you going to hold that against me?”

She snorted. “Hardly. I wouldn’t mind having some help. Judging by the illuminations in some of them, I’ve deduced the contents must be quite . . . er. Interesting.”

“‘Interesting’?”

“Graphically erotic. Possibly of an instructive nature.”

“. . . Ah.” 

There was a smirk fighting its way onto his lips and a pulse of heat that spread from his chest and down his limbs and right through her own.

“Does your offer to translate still stand?” she asked.

“I would need to examine them to determine if I would be of any use, but yes.”

She flashed him an impish smile and let her eyes drift skyward, where fat white clouds lazed over the sun and cast shadows below. Though she had inherited all of Maz’s reading materials, Rey had not stopped collecting her own when she found something particularly compelling on a scavenging trip. Yet the entire collection still filled but one shelf, tucked away behind a creaky carved door in the loft of her tree. Ben had already seen some of them, mostly the ones pertaining to the direction of magical ability. Although, she had also noticed a few of the more ornate volumes out of order on the shelves and sporting suspicious place markers—a long, romantic ballad from one of the southern kingdoms (one of her favorites) and a rather tragic old epic known for its scenes of gallant virtue and heroic sacrifice. 

It was a modest selection, yes, but it had history and meaning, and evidently Ben had been doing some reading of his own. He still woke in the nights. She supposed he must need to pass the dark hours somehow, and she was glad he had found a means of escape. Those stories had served her well in the same way for many years. There were friends and journeys between those covers, always reliable.

“Did you have many libraries at the palace?” she asked, suddenly very curious about what it must be like to have an unlimited store of information at one’s disposal. 

He made a thoughtful humming sound that vibrated pleasantly through her chest. “One large library. My tutor had his own collection, as did the astronomer, but I spent most of my time in the big one.”

“Reading . . . ?”

Ben pursed his lips. “Books.”

“Books! How shocking!”

He barked a laugh. “What else do you expect me to say?”

“What sort of stories you liked, perhaps?” she prompted. “Or even what your favorite was? I’m very curious about what might have led you to take such an avid interest in Maz’s old copy of The Tragical Exploits of Lord Plagueis the Wise.

The accusation was answered with a groan. “I didn’t make much effort to replace it where I had found it, did I?”

“Not at all. Though I might have overlooked it if not for your rather obvious method of marking your place.” Both that volume and the other she had noticed out of order had, a few weeks ago, rather suddenly seemed to sprout dried flowers pressed between the pages, stems and leaves protruding to indicate where the reader had last left off. “I usually use a bit of ribbon. Less likely to break or crumble, you know.”

“But less pleasing to the eye.”

“Oh, yes, of course. Those concerns for decoration and beauty so popular in the kingdoms. I had no idea they extended to literature.”

Ben cleared his throat and looked at her with surprising seriousness. “If they didn’t, your collection would be sadly lacking in so many illuminated volumes.”

Ah. He did have a point there, and Rey herself had a tendency to be drawn to the prettier volumes when she had the luck to stumble upon a few. “You have an eye for such things?”

“I . . .  ah.” He chuckled and rolled his eyes. “I once endeavored to create one myself.”

Rey pushed herself up, carefully pressing her elbows to his middle to balance her weight, a pleasant and maddening reminder of how wonderfully solid he was. “You’re an artist, sir! I knew it.”

“Having an appreciation for what is beautiful does not make me an artist,” he said, eyes fixed fondly on her face as he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Nor does the fact that it has been a very long time since I brandished a quill for anything but dispatches.”

“Perhaps.” She gave him an appraising look. “So what was it you were trying to illuminate?”

“You asked me what my favorite story was. Well, it was not one to be found in our library, or any library.” Ben’s gaze had become distant. Whenever she asked him about his life before the wood, he began to look that way, as if part of him had gone walking toward some unreachable destination. The thought occurred to her that he had probably never been asked such things by anyone and that he must have been learning how to answer without derision. “It was one my mother used to tell me. I think parts of it must have been true. Things that happened to her. Lessons she wished me to learn.”

He fell silent then, and it wasn’t until she began to worry he was about to fall asleep that Rey prodded him in the ribs and craned her neck to check on him. 

“Will you tell me the story?”

“If you allow us to get back to our practice afterward.”

She narrowed one eye at him. “I suppose that will do.”

“It has no title, of course,” he began an instant later, as if that made any difference to her. She suspected he would have told it with or without a bargain. “But it begins with a knight and his squire, shortly after they have been tasked with rescuing a princess they have no interest in seeking.”

“Sounds . . . familiar . . .”

“Hush,” he said with a quiet laugh. “And listen.”

It was the sort of story Rey had read before in many iterations, though imbued with a certain glow of life from the fondness with which Ben recounted it. He wasn’t just recalling a tale he’d been told countless times at his mother’s knee; he’d made it his own. His voice carried it a with confidence that seemed to ease her aching muscles.

The knight and his squire, it turned out, were an ill-matched pair indeed, brought together by chance to undertake a mission for a rather odious lord: rescue a princess from the clutches of an avaricious dragon known for hoarding gold and maidens alike. They were to slay the beast and return the princess for marriage to the lord, and as their reward they would have all the dragon’s gold and a generous royal bounty to boot. When the two men weren’t bickering along their journey, they were trying to abandon or undermine each other to claim the spoils for themselves. 

“Until, one moonless night,” Ben went on, his voice low, like he was telling her a secret. He drew a deep breath as he paused for effect. “They were attacked by a night ghast—gaunt and crooked and cloaked in shadow, reeking of rot, with eyes as white and iridescent as opals. They felt the cold grasp of the chilled air that preceded its arrival, but too late did they realize what was happening. It fell upon the knight first, drawn by the smell of the meal he had eaten hours before, eager to suck the flesh from his bones and consume his soul as he died. The squire had a choice before him. This was his chance: he could abandon the knight, continue on to claim his prize, or abandon the quest entirely. Or . . .”

Rey’s eyes had fallen shut long ago, though her mind was awake and dancing with the scenes he described: a sun-baked dirt road at high noon as its travelers trudged toward their goal; a broad river crossing on a makeshift raft, the sounds of argument rising above the rushing waves; a forest by night, soaked blue and black and purple like spilled ink, where the shadows reached after wanderers to pluck and pull at them. She had never seen a night ghast, was not even sure they truly existed, but in that moment they felt quite real.

A slow smile came to her lips as he brushed the pad of his thumb over them. “Or?”

“He chose to save the knight’s life rather than leave him to die. Together they slayed the ghast with a sword set alight with lamp oil. They kept its cloak of shade for protection in the dark and continued on their way when the sun broke the horizon. The experience created between them a life debt and newfound respect.”

As he continued the account of the two noble travelers and their trials, recounted each victory, each step closer to their goal, each moment that deepened their fire-forged friendship, Ben proved a shockingly adept storyteller. So much so that Rey was beginning to wonder if he might have missed his true calling; it certainly seemed to be the case when he interrupted himself to tell her to let him up. She was confused at first, and even more confused when he continued right on with his story as he stalked back toward their swords, eyeing the practice dummy as if he really were about to engage in battle with a dragon. As he took up his weapon, his voice practically quavered with the emotion of the scene—a breathless, desperate fight, racing adrenaline, mounting determination.

“The squire lay sprawled over the smoking ground, injured but alive— just —dragged to the safety of a stone outcropping by his friend the knight as the dragon raged and sought them . . .” 

He gave his sword an entirely unnecessary flourish, the metal of the blade singing through the air, and cast about until he spied her own weapon, still abandoned and partially propped against a small stone. A bright, boyish expression flashed across his face as he approached it.

“The squire’s sword had fallen amongst a pile of precious stones and bright coins, so blinding in the flickering light of dragonfire they nearly obscured the weapon entirely. Yet he found it, and he took it up with his own”—here Ben slipped the toe of his boot beneath the blade of the sword, just where the hilt ended, and in one smooth movement had lifted it into the air and flipped it nimbly into his waiting hand; Rey suspected he was barely keeping himself from checking to see if she was impressed—“and watched the beast from behind a hillock of locked chests, waiting for an opening to engage.”

The story became markedly less verbal as he dodged and darted around the dummy, dealing blow after blow to reenact the scene. He wielded the two swords like they were extensions of his limbs, like they were a single weapon rather than two, like he was a weapon, as she supposed it must be for someone who had learned to swordfight years before he’d begun to sprout a beard. Yet there was enough narration, increasingly broken by gasps and grunts with every thrust and parry, for her to imagine the dummy as a dragon, and Ben as . . . well, himself, armored and gallant rather than dirty, sweaty, and gamboling about in a half-open linen shirt. Though she liked him like that, too.

Soon she wasn’t following a narrative at all, and neither, she thought, was Ben. She was too caught up in watching him move. The sight was making her heart pound, her skin grow damp, and her mouth dry up.

She sensed the explosive climax a moment before it came. His arms tensed just a bit too much as he crossed them before him. The veins along his forearms and neck bulged. His whole body gathered itself, like a cat bunching before a lethal pounce. For a blink the air around him crackled. And then he snarled and struck, a symmetric, final swipe, both blades passing within a hair’s breadth of each other—and the dummy was all but obliterated. The sound of the wood rending was like a yell as hunks of it spun with alarming velocity and cracked to splinters against nearby trunks and stones. A cloud of chips and dust exploded into the air and coated Ben’s hair and shoulders as he stilled at the other side of the shattered remains, hunched and coiled. It now more resembled a lightning-struck stump than a carefully crafted piece of equipment.

Her eyes darted between it and Ben, who was breathing hard and straightening up as he raised a hand to push his hair out of his eyes. His shoulders rose and fell with several gulping breaths before he turned, his swords held casually over his shoulders and that spark still in his eyes. Watching him destroy the thing by accident should not have made her want to jump to her feet and rip his clothes off, and yet here she was, trying very hard to come up with some new activity to give her a moment to collect herself. Judging by the look of him, he might be in need of the same.

“That was . . . a very stirring story, sir knight,” she said with a chuckle. Her grin was too wide, but she was unable to tame it and knew she must look positively deranged. “Did the queen typically act it out in such a dynamic fashion?”

What tension still held him dispersed as he huffed with amusement. “Fortunately, no. She did do some marvelous work with the voices, though. Her dragon was particularly fearsome.” Brow knit, he cast a regretful look over his shoulder at what he had done. “Apologies, as it happens. It wasn’t my intention to do that.”

“Don’t bother yourself too much. You can make us another, for next time.”

He wandered over to her and offered her one of the swords. “I can try the spells now, if you like. No need to cut this short because I got carried away.”

“It was a good carrying away.” She smirked at his raised eyebrow and rolled the hilt of her sword between her palms. “Actually, let the dummy construction wait. What would you say to trying something new?”

“What might that be?” He edged his gaze toward her slowly, as if he feared that looking at her straight on might cause him to lose his composure.

“Something I’ve had in mind a few days.” It could be a bit complicated. But the longer they spent together, the closer they became, the more she became aware of how palpable his magic was to her. She was curious about how they might use that. “Watch. And don’t be alarmed.” 

Rey stepped back, sword still in hand, and fixed her eyes on the grass at her feet until her focus softened so much that everything was a gentle blur of green. She breathed deeply, slowly, and felt the threads of power that brushed around her. She bid them stay with her, invited them to bind themselves to her like a spider weaving silk around a catch. She was still herself—she knew where and who she was—but just a step removed, hidden just behind the veil that separated the material world from everything beyond it. She drew a quiet, careful breath and glanced up at Ben. He was staring at her, or the spot where she was standing, with alarm.

“What have you— Rey?” He blinked rapidly and squinted, then took a few faltering steps toward her. “Is this some trick?”

He did not see her. She was standing just in front of him, an arm’s length away, and his eyes slid over her even as he reached for her. When the tips of his fingers brushed her cheek, he gasped and stepped back, then frowned. “You have made yourself invisible.”

She chuckled and shook her head. “No. Only let the world hide me from your view.”

“Yes, I see that.” He smiled uncertainly. “I don’t see that, but . . . I can feel where you are. If I stop trying to figure it out. If I stop focusing only on what is before my eyes.” His arm outstretched again, and he traced the air around her face and shoulders with his open hand—not touching, but so close she could feel the warmth of his palm on her skin and the slight disturbance in the air moving the hairs at her temple. His eyes were fixed on her, though unseeing, and the intensity behind them drew a blush to her cheek. “There’s energy here. Clustered. Warm and alive.”

A surprise, but a pleasant one. He explained it so well for one who had never learned. Goosebumps prickled her arms. She grinned brightly and with a blink let the veil drop. This time Ben only seemed gratified by her reappearance, and his hand settled on her arm and lingered.

“This is how you hid us that day,” he said. “From the mercenaries.”

She nodded.

“How do you do it?” he asked. 

She had not considered how deeply pleased it would make her, after weeks of drawing him slowly out of his fears, to find him eager to begin and excited to learn more. 

“You already know how to follow the veins of connection that let you understand the world and hear its voice.” 

“What I felt in the meadow, you mean,” he said, then reddened and rushed to clarify. “When I made the Candlewicks bloom.”

“Yes, that.” Rey pressed her lips together. “This is not so different. You reach out, but instead of letting it go so soon, tether yourself to it. Feel yourself sink into it, like a shadow beneath the trees at dusk. Hide yourself in it.”

He took a few steps back, and his jaw was set with concentration, his brow creased, his eyes fixed on the ground with a silent question—and suddenly he was gone. Rey’s mouth dropped open. She had not expected him to manage it so quickly. He had been improving at a much faster rate, to be sure, but the degree of confidence this suggested was new. A moment later she laughed with approval. 

“I did not think you would be such a natural at this particular skill.” 

He was still there in front of her, she could feel him: his pulse in the air, the heat of his skin, the mere essence of him like a beacon that was felt, though not seen. She pressed her hand to the spot and was met with the resistance of his chest and the soft fabric of his shirt.

“There you are.”

His chest twitched beneath her palm as he gave a short, rather humorless laugh. “I’ve had many years of practice at hiding.”

That was something she understood too easily. She smiled softly and drew the world around her again, felt herself sink into its embrace as her body melted from view. Ben was still there, a shimmer of heat, and she stretched up and pressed a kiss to his lips, following her certainty that they were there.

“Then let’s practice finding,” she suggested, standing close and enjoying the feel of their energy mixing. “I am going to take a walk. Can you still feel me?”

He was smiling. She didn’t know how she could tell, but she was positive. “Yes, I can.”

“Good. Hold on to that.” She turned her hand palm up and summoned a ball of light, round as a marble and crackling with its own life. She held it out toward where Ben was and felt his hand brush hers as she dropped it into his palm. “Wait until this fizzles out. Then come find me.”

“Are you going somewhere?” he asked as she turned to make her way deeper into the wood.

“Wait and see.”

His low chuckle sent her off, and she made her way at a loping jog, steps light over the grass. Done with particular finesse, the spell they were using could also silence one’s movements, as it was doing for her now. If Ben was expecting to be able to follow the impressions of her feet over the rain-softened earth or the sound of her arms brushing branches and leaves as she went, even perhaps the sounds of her excited breaths as he drew nearer, he would find it impossible. He would need to rely solely on his perception of her magical signature in the air. 

She had traveled several minutes when she heard movement nearby. She froze and fixed a probing look on a clump of tangled berry bushes. An elegant canine face was regarding her from behind it, the ruff of thick, dark-gray fur around the beast’s neck glossy and lush. For a moment all Rey could think in her surprise was that its amber eyes reminded her of Ben’s in the sunlight. She shook her head and raised a hand in greeting—the Green Spirit would not be affected by something intended to fool mere human senses, even those sharpened by magic. 

“Hello, Spirit,” Rey said in a low voice, approaching with respectful caution. 

She did not expect an answer. The guardian’s words to her on the day of the sacrifice had been unexpected enough. And so Rey’s stomach squirmed with alarm when she heard the voice of the Spirit in her head, pure idea caressing her mind like a warm breeze over her bare skin.

Hedge witch. Greetings. The wolf tilted her head in what, for some reason, felt like a smile, then stepped from behind the bush to sit primly before Rey. She was reminded of how large the guardian beast was; seated, her snout came nearly up to Rey’s collarbone. The season agrees with you. You look very well.

This was most unusual. The spirit was never so chatty, and though her words were pleasant enough, the feel of them presaged something solemn. “It has been a . . . er.” Rey cleared her throat. “A bountiful growing season, yes.” 

And your companion?

The pink in Rey’s cheeks might have betrayed her, though she was not sure a wolf would register it. Yet this was no ordinary wolf, and if there was suddenly a knowing cast to her sharp eyes, Rey tried not to think about it.

“He is well. Still here.”

Yes, I sense him nearby. The wolf tilted her head back, nostrils flaring, ears twitching. He has come into his power rather quickly.

“He is making progress.” 

Indeed. The wolf’s eyes returned to Rey’s face, and she felt the way she searched and saw into her. I am pleased to find you here, witch. Something is not right in the wood. 

Rey remembered what she had seen on the walk to the caravan, what Rose had reported—strange sights, signs of dark power, the slimy leavings of magic rot. She remembered the way Ben sometimes seemed to be looking for something, cautious and tense.

“We have sensed it too, Spirit.” She frowned at her feet and looked back up at the great beast. “Do you know the cause? It feels like darkness, but there has not been anything like that in these woods in . . .” 

So, so long. Never that Rey could remember.

It has dark origins, yes, but I cannot yet root it out. I have been unable to trace it—its tracks disappear suddenly, and what it leaves behind is too corrupt to make anything of.

That was hardly reassuring, though Rey tried to take solace in the fact that the guardian was, well, guarding. The worst she had ever had to worry about before was bears, hungry and disoriented after months of hibernation.

I will determine its source and seek you when I know more. Take care until then. Warn your companion.

“Thank you, Spirit,” Rey said with a nod. “I will.” She held a hand out and the wolf nudged her wet nose against the palm, whuffed a hot breath over Rey’s skin, then darted away like an arrow, her form melting into the shade of the deep forest.

Maybe it was just the talk of dark presences among the trees, but Rey suddenly felt as if something was off. Stock-still, she checked her surroundings. It was nothing physical, but it was  . . . Ben? She couldn’t feel Ben. She’d been able to just before she ran across the Spirit and had stopped noticing in her alarm, but she should have been able to recover her sense of him easily. There was no trace of him. A knot of dread formed in her belly. Had he run afoul of something? 

She spun and took a few steps toward where she had come from, when she had last been able to feel the thread of magic that connected him to her, to everything, to—

“Do I have this right?” 

Rey yelped and spun again, dropping the spell as she scanned the trees around her for any sign of Ben. His voice was right in her ear. She’d felt his breath on her neck. “Ben?”

“Yes?” 

He was behind her now, his voice amused, and she felt his presence again. It was like pulling back the curtain of a darkened room and letting sunlight flood the space. The intensity of its return rolled over her and heated her whole body.

And that was before she felt his hands on her. She still could not see him, but his palm was brushing her throat and then resting there, grasping lightly, the tip of his thumb pressed to her jaw, his long fingers tracing over her quickening pulse. She swallowed, and he stroked his thumb gently over her tender skin, began to caress the side of her neck, pressed his body against hers. Her legs trembled and that heat returned, an insistent pulse at her core that shuddered through her bones and sang through her nerves.

Ben’s mouth brushed the shell of her right ear, and she caught a flash of his dark hair out of the corner of her eye. “Are you pleased?”

“You certainly surprised me.” She managed a high-pitched laugh. “How did you— oh.”

His other hand was over her stomach, traveling swiftly north, but it was his mouth on her neck that made her forget what she was about to ask. Light, exploratory tugs of his lips at first, growing more bold. His mouth opened against her skin; his tongue swiped a line from her clavicle almost to her ear; his teeth nipped and teased at her throat where his hand still stroked. 

He was going to drive her insane. Or was this just an overture to other plans he had? She knew she shouldn’t expect it, but it was a hard thing to do when it felt as if he was trying to consume her where she stood. Rey tipped her head back and gave a frustrated moan as his hand left her throat. He wound that arm around her waist to hold her to him, and his other hand skimmed over her breast, then cupped it to fondle her. The feel of his fingers through her gown sent a dizzy fuzz of pleasure straight to her head and another flood of heat to her sex.

“Ben . . .” 

His fingers slipped inside the collar of her gown, pushed her shift aside, and brushed her stiffening nipple. The hand at her waist drifted lower.

“Hmm?” His lips against her collarbone sent the tiniest vibrations over her skin, and she squirmed against him. The familiar hardness of his aroused cock rubbed against her rump.

“Are—y—” She drew in a sharp breath as he caught her earlobe gently between his teeth and pulled. “Are you going to—”

She should have been asking him how it was he’d known how to hide himself so thoroughly. She should have been asking if he was ready to be sought. She should have been able to form a coherent thought. Instead, all she could think was that she had a few ideas about some other things he could hide and where.

Not helpful.

He stopped his ministrations and pulled away as abruptly as he had started. The sight of him melted away as she stumbled forward a step, still half limp with bliss, and looked over her shoulder with outrage. The last she saw of him was a puckish grin, a lascivious spark in his eye, and the pink that tinged the tip of his ear where his hair had tucked behind it. 

“Your turn to find me, little witch,” came his voice. It sounded a touch strained. “No cheating.”

Rey was still catching her breath and processing it all at half the speed she otherwise would have, so by the time she had the wherewithal to shout after him, he was already well on his way. That didn’t stop her from trying again.

“Ben!” She balled her fists and squinted into the trees. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to laugh or scream or cry. “When I find you, I’m going to— to—”

Maybe she shouldn’t have been shouting into the woods that she was going to find him and ravish him to the seven hells. For one thing, he probably wouldn’t let her. But his teasing had left her far too frustrated, and she could only hope it took her long enough to find him that she wouldn’t throw herself immediately back into his grasp. This was going to come back to her tonight as she was trying to sleep, she could already tell.

For now, she forced herself to channel that feeling into the light she created, the same as the last, and glared at it, pacing, until its glow ebbed and fizzled.

At least she could feel him this time. Whatever he had done as he’d searched for her to block her perception of him, he had not done again, and she could follow the pull of his magic clear and easy. Yet it was a bit of a walk, even at her brisk pace, and when she felt herself getting close, she slowed to let her breathing return to normal. She stopped short when she caught sight of him standing not far from the wrecked dummy.

He wasn’t supposed to be visible, she’d thought. That was part of the point. Find by feel. It was the way he stood, though, that tipped her off that something was wrong, a feeling confirmed a moment later as she felt a flash of his unease slicing through the link between them. His back was to her, and a branch had snapped under her foot as she’d halted, but he didn’t even move to indicate he’d noticed her arrival.

“Ben.” She stayed where she was, hesitant to approach him. Whatever prurient mischief she might have had planned for him had fled her mind entirely. “Ben?”

He didn’t budge. Rey drew a small, shaky breath to steel herself, then crept to his side. His face was pale and still, his wide eyes unblinking, his jaw clenched. She tried to follow the line of his gaze, but all she saw was empty forest. Sunlight filtering through the trees. A chipmunk digging aggressively at a divot in the dirt. A drop of condensation rolling off the tip of a flower petal. Peaceful, and pure, and perfect—nothing Ben should have been regarding with such abject discomfort.

She pressed her palm to the warm skin of his forearm. The contact shook him from his trance. His nostrils flared and he blinked, eyes still trained ahead. “Did you see—?” He finally looked at her, but he seemed to find little solace in her presence. 

“Did I see what?”

“Um.” His jaw worked like the words were fighting to be released. “Have you ever noticed a large black dog in the woods?”

Rey frowned and glanced back toward where he’d been staring. “A black dog? No.”

“Enormous,” he went on as if she hadn’t said anything at all. “Its head would reach your shoulder easily. Hackles always raised.”

“I’ve never seen anything like that here,” she said, more firmly this time. Unless . . . “Perhaps you caught sight of the Green Spirit. She was here not long ago at all. I spoke with her before you found me.”

Yes. Yes, that was it. Ben had seen the wolf; the description was close enough. Huge dark canine. Except the look on Ben’s face told her enough to know he had not seen the Green Spirit, and the Spirit’s words to her returned like a chill crawling over her skin.

Something is not right in the wood. Take care until then. Warn your companion.

“Perhaps I imagined it.” Ben cleared his throat and turned abruptly, taking her hand in his to lead her with him. “There are times when it’s still hard for me to tell a dream from reality.”

“I . . .” She didn’t want to alarm him. But she didn’t want to stay here anymore, either. She felt instead an overwhelming urge to return home and not leave for the remainder of the day. It was late afternoon anyway. Supper would not prepare itself. “Let’s go back to the tree. Once we have dinner started on the fire, we can have a look at that book I told you about.”

She had meant to sound playful, but her tone was somber at best. Ben put forth no argument, and they gathered their supplies and began the short journey back to the tree. As they crossed the invisible wards that marked the edge of the clearing they had been using for their spar, he pressed on as if nothing would stop his progress toward the familiar shelter of her tree, but Rey’s steps slowed. There was a white lump in the grass, then another, and a pile of twisted sticks and bones near that. She drew up to it and crouched, already sure it was one of her ward-keepers, the one with the wild goat’s skull and ribs mounted on a frame of elm branches. 

The cracks in the sun-bleached skull, once hair-thin and fine, had deepened and oozed with sinister energy that filled every crevice and pore like oil, and the proud horns that curved from its crown were brittle and filled with holes. The grass around it was scored with deep marks as if someone had dragged a rake through it over and over. The smaller bones had been crunched almost to dust. Rey saw a shaking hand reaching for the skull, realized it was her own, and pulled it back as if burnt.

Ben was behind her, his frame casting the corrupted ward bones in shadow. “What’s happened?”

“We need to burn this. Right now.” A purifying flame, white and cool, sparked to life in her palm. “Something was here.”

He helped her destroy the bones and sticks without asking why, like he already understood, and together they buried the ashes that remained. When they resumed their journey, he slipped his hand into hers and did not let go until they had reached the tree.

Chapter Text

The forest was alive beyond the window: ripples in the glass shifted over greenery and made branches twitch and roots flex. Ben could see nothing truly moving in the forest, though, aside from small, scurrying rodents and the occasional flash of a bright bird. 

Even so, he watched. 

The black dog from yesterday remained so clear and vivid in his mind’s eye that it was as if the beast was standing in the clearing that ringed Rey’s home. He could imagine the ridge of fur on its hackles tossed gently by the breeze, its red eyes squinting in the bright sunshine, the large ears swiveling at the sound of the door creaking closed as Rey returned. It might sniff then, the way it had done in the forest—lifting its saliva-streaked muzzle; ribs heaving in deep, crackling whuffs he could hear from fifty paces away; jaw hanging open to let a mottled purple tongue loll between teeth as long as Ben’s fingers. 

Although the clearing was empty, and although the sunlight caught on neither matted fur nor yellowed fangs, a chill crept along Ben’s spine. 

What other fell creatures would he continue to imagine? 

And...had he truly imagined it? The destruction of one of Rey’s wards signaled that a physical presence had been, well, present. Hallucinations couldn’t crush bone or poison the earth.

Just as with the eagle, Rey hadn’t seen this second monster. She had appeared uneasy, certainly, but was it due to Ben’s uneasiness or from her own sense of the world? He had only seen the wolf spirit. Rey had said so with confidence. 

Ben wanted to believe her. The two animals had been of similar size and build. But the she-wolf he had seen only briefly during Rey’s sacrifice of the stag had been a wolf: blue-gray coat, amber eyes, elegantly tapered snout. There was no confusing her with whatever it was he had seen. 

A shuffle behind him announced Rey’s approach. He shifted and rubbed his eyes. 

“Looking for fairies?” 

Ben turned and aimed a raised brow at her question. 

Rey shrugged. “I see what you’ve been reading. Perhaps fables and myths have gotten the better of you.” 

Her smirk was warm and playful, and it pulled a low huff from him. Nightmares could be made flesh and still the very sight of her threaded a thrill through his bones that was so soft and lovely he couldn’t dwell on anything horrible for too long. Visions of a slavering creature disappeared, flooded out by the sweeter memories of yesterday: sneaking up behind her, wordlessly teasing in a way that he’d learned would vex and arouse her all at once, dragging his tongue along her neck and tasting salt and sweetness while he cupped her soft breast. How easy it would have been to go further then. He could have shoved her dress up her thighs, pressed her against a tree, and driven into her until neither of them could remember any reason why they should not do so.

But even though his mind had been dizzy with lust, he still remembered the promise he’d made to himself and that madding dedication to restraint. So he had stepped away and disappeared once more before Rey could see the massive erection that tented his trousers. 

“I only read those myths and fables,” he said as he took the cluster of herbs she’d just gathered from her garden and began to tie them in bundles with short lengths of twine. “What about the person who made a collection from them?” 

Ben felt the warmth of her body first, followed by the living glow of what he now understood as her energy, and as her arms wrapped around his waist, he almost felt as if he could drown in it. No...not drown; he could float, the very feel of her buoying him along through the universe.

Rey hummed thoughtfully against his back while he looped one bunch of thyme on a bent nail to hang in the sunlight. 

“Perhaps it means the collector of such books is of great wisdom,” she said. 

Ben snorted a laugh, then grunted as her tickling fingers dug into his ribs in retaliation. 

He was about to turn to her, ready to press kisses against her smirking lips and her dimpled cheeks, when he saw movement at the edge of the woods and his blood froze in his veins.

It was not the false movement of rippled glass, nor the steady bob of wind-tossed branches. 

Long, black legs wavered beyond the window as it stepped into the clearing. Bright daylight glanced off its large body, making the black fur shine.

Thoughts pummeled Ben’s mind, one after another, so quick that they almost blurred together.

No.

Not here. 

It can’t be here. 

The wards are still standing. Has it destroyed the wards? 

Where are the swords? 

Rey. She will—no. It will kill her. 

No. 

Rey.

The image flashed before him of sharp teeth sinking into her skin, and his blood turned even colder. 

“What is it?” Rey said softly. Ben hardly felt the curious jab of her fingers. 

The beast still approached. 

But...

There was something odd about it. Hunting canines loped smoothly with their heads low and their bushy tails held out. This creature’s head was lifted high. Its tail swished from side to side. And its legs didn’t bend as a dog’s would, they struck out in front of it just like the movement of a— 

The realization hit Ben like the blow of a mace. Without a word in response to Rey’s alarmed stammering, he spun and ran to the door, all of his dread scattered like blown seeds. 

The door squealed when he flung it open. He’d forgotten his boots, and the damp grass was cool under his bare feet. Dew collected between his toes. A rock jabbed into his heel.

As he rounded the tree, the beast saw him and halted with its ears pricked. 

Beck flared out his upper lip as he whinnied long and high, then came forward at a trot. 

Ben was running now, too caught up in relief and joy to worry about how foolish an action it might be to run toward a horse. 

About time I found you, you louse-arsed shit-for-brains.

It took a moment for the words to sink in, and when they did, Ben stumbled over his own feet.

“I...I beg your pardon?” he said, unable to do much more than stand and stammer. 

Beck pranced to a stop. He tossed his head and looked at Ben sideways, then made a snort that sounded awfully like an uncomfortably cleared throat. 

Ah. So you’ve learned to listen.  

Ben opened his mouth around words that wouldn’t come. 

The horse whuffed once before ambling forward again. In any case, I’m glad to see you alive. 

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Ben said with a frown, still struggling through his shock. Of all the reunions with his horse he’d imagined, none of them had begun with insults. 

Last time I was in this clearing, you were bleeding out over the snow.

“Oh.” 

Beck reached Ben and butted his shoulder with his nose. As if he couldn’t help himself, Ben scratched the horse’s forehead and began to comb through the snarls in the mane with his fingers. Mud clumped the long strands of hair above the wide hooves. Ben would attend to those later. The stallion’s coat wasn’t as glossy as it used to be, and there were long scrapes on his flank, but otherwise he appeared to be in decent health.

And—oh, why was Ben just now noticing this—attached to the saddle, still hanging in its scabbard, was his sword. The sun glinted off the jewel in the pommel and the jagged side of the broken crossguard. Ben yanked its securing knot, amazed that it hadn’t fallen off, or been stolen, or used by the princess to barter. 

Then he was holding it in his hands, feeling the solid heft of it. The wrapped leather around its handle needed greasing, and the blade undoubtedly needed sharpening. Minor tasks. His father’s sword had returned to him; all else was inconsequential.

As if the horse could tell the direction of Ben’s thoughts, he said, I ran off before she could sell it.

Ben dragged a palm over the blade. “Thank you,” he murmured. 

Beck tossed his head. I know what it meant to you . Then he stamped and let out a frustrated snort. Are you ever going to take off this saddle, you son of a foundered nag? Or will you have me stand here and chafe until my bones poke out the sores?

Ben blinked for only a second before he set the sheathed sword gently in the grass and wrenched at the girth buckle with a growl. ‘Son of a foundered nag?’ Not the worst thing he’d been called, but definitely not the most flattering.

“Forgive me for not instantly catering to your every whim,” he muttered.

Beck craned his neck so he could bump his nose against Ben’s hip. 

Apologies. I forget that you can listen now.  

Ben paused, about to undo the saddle’s breastcollar. He frowned. 

“...You’ve always spoken to me like this?” 

Beck nuzzled his shirt and lipped at the rolled cuff of his sleeve. Could be. Does it bother you?

Between clenched teeth, Ben replied, “Only to know that my horse believes me to be a fool.” He loosed the rear breeching—great stars, why had he ever needed so much decoration on this damned saddle?—and slid the whole contraption minus the saddle blanket from Beck’s back.

I haven’t always thought you a fool. Only as of late.

Ben scoffed and unfastened the bridle’s brass buckle. Beck spat the bit from his mouth and it fell, reins and all, to the grass. The horse yawned wide at the sky. The ends of the thick reins were tattered and mud-stained; they must have dragged along the ground for weeks, and the inflamed corners of Beck’s mouth hinted at the number of times they had become snagged. 

“You only think me a fool as of late? I suppose I should feel relieved.” 

Beck pinned his ears. The wench was holding a bloody rock. I could tell in a second what she was up to. Can’t believe you were blind to it.

Ben grunted, mostly because he didn’t know the answer himself. Perhaps it had been due to the long journey or a startling vision of hazel eyes. The part of him that had reveled in reading a dozen fantastical tales over the past few weeks whispered that in light of all that had happened since that fateful day, perhaps it was destiny. 

He almost scoffed. Fate, destiny—such things lived in saga-worthy tales and bardic performances, not in a wildflower-strewn meadow where he took insults from a horse.

Beck blew out as Ben removed the saddle blanket. The stallion hadn’t been exaggerating earlier; where the saddle leathers came into contact with his coat, they had rubbed his skin raw. Dried blood ringed the sores and flaked to the grass as Beck shook himself.

His flank twitched underneath Ben’s gentle fingers where he traced the wounds. 

Ben eyed the scrapes, including one deeper gouge at the edge where the saddle blanket had rested. “Did she mistreat you?” 

No. The saddle and the forest mistreated me. 

Ben took up a hoof and began to clean out the stones and larger clumps of mud using a stick. “What happened after she left with you?” 

It was a slow journey. Frequent stops. When she finally dismounted in a port town and there were no trees to tie me to for the night, I ran off. Back. To find you.  

“Even though you think I’m a fool?” Ben looked at his horse from under his brows before moving to the next hoof. 

Beck lipped at Ben’s hair until he batted the stallion’s muzzle away. For all your idiocy, you are a good human. I speak with other beasts, and few have been treated as well as I.

Ben gave a noncommittal grunt and picked out another stone.

 “You must be the horse I've heard so much about.”

He hadn't heard Rey approach; she spoke her from somewhere above his head. When he stood, he saw that she was looking at Beck the way a crow would look at a phalanx of soldiers: with the intrigue of something new, different, and interesting, but with more than a little trepidation. 

“Yes, this is Beck,” Ben said. Had she never seen a horse so big? Was this why her shoulders tensed?

Rey smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Hello, Beck.”

Beck tossed his head and snorted. Witch. There was suspicion in that word, as well as curiosity. 

Rey gave a huff of mild insult, then handed Ben a small, earthen jar. 

“A salve,” she said to him when he lifted the lid and sniffed it. “It should help with the wounds.”

The jar smelled like honey and goldenrod and was as thick as grease on his fingers when he scooped out a dollop. It spread easily over one of the raw weals from the girth strap. Beck almost seemed to sigh in relief at the feel of it. 

Much better, witch. If only I’d run into you sooner, then—ooh. What’s...ooh! 

Ben turned to see the horse lipping at something in Rey’s open palm with unabashed excitement. She ran her other hand down the long bridge of his nose. 

“Dried honeycomb,” she said in response to Ben’s raised brow. “I had some extra and figured his belly would like something besides grass.” 

Beck whickered and nudged at the folds of Rey’s dress in search of any crumbs that might have fallen. 

I like her. Much better than a spoiled princess. Let’s not leave right away. The castle can wait a bit longer, don’t you think?

Right. 

Of course.

With the arrival of the horse, he could now swiftly travel through the wood and return to his duties, his kingdom, and his quests. 

It felt as if this thought hadn’t bothered him in weeks, although it had surely been less time than that. He had been so caught up in exciting discoveries and the maelstrom of desires that churned within his body that when he considered ‘home,’ it no longer conjured up images of stone walls, threadbare tapestries, and a rattling iron portcullis; now, he could only imagine a crooked tree and an enigmatic witch.  

A knot formed in his stomach, and when he glanced at Rey to see if she had somehow noticed the change in his demeanor, he was struck with the sudden change in hers. She had appeared uneasy at the horse’s arrival, but now her face twisted in distress.

“Rey…” 

Before he could say more, she stammered out, “I—I must…” in a tight voice and made her way swiftly into the woods. 

Ben frowned after her, then frowned at Beck’s amused snort. 

“What?” he said to the horse. “What did I do?” 

Another snort. How should I know? I’ve been here for minutes. You’ve been here for over a month. But you must have done something. One dewy brown eye pinned Ben with far too knowing of a cast. Or it might be something you have not done.  

Ben scowled and rubbed salve over Beck’s chest with a bit more force than necessary. “And who are you, to suddenly appear and advise me on all of my errors?” A harsh sweep of his fingers caught the edge of a fresh scab.

Careful! Beck squealed and whipped Ben with his tail. Go after her then, after you’re done smashing salve into my skin.  

“Glad to obey,” Ben said, prickling with unexpected irritation. “The jar’s empty, in any case.” He tossed it on the ground and wiped his hands clean with a dew-damp scrap of fabric Rey had thoughtfully brought along. It was just like her to do such a thing; he cursed himself for whatever he had done to offend her. 

Beck’s ears twitched backwards. Don’t be like that. I was only trying to help. 

Ben breathed out in a huff, and the rag joined the empty jar in the grass. “Well, I never asked for it.”

I think you were more pleasant before you learned to listen.

You were more pleasant before I knew what you were saying,” Ben snapped. He couldn’t help but think back to all of the times the horse had balked at a saddle, swatted him with a vicious swipe of his tail, or sneezed in his face. What unheard vitriol had accompanied such actions? 

The sun was high and it warmed his shoulders through the thin linen of his shirt. He could smell the grass stains in the fabric, as well as the faint bite of dried sweat. He eyed the edge of the forest where Rey had disappeared. 

What had happened? It was as if the arrival of the horse had set off something within her. And if she had left because of his actions, he was sure she would be forthcoming and quick to enlighten him on any of his missteps, unintentional and unknowing as they were. 

Ben aimed a hard look at his horse. “If you are so keen to help, you can help yourself to the grass in the meadow. I should return soon.”

If a horse could roll its eyes in exasperation, Beck would have done so. You overreact.

Ben flapped a hand and began to walk toward the forest. 

Wait, Ben.  

He would have ignored the horse but for the sudden serious tone in his words. Also, when had he become ‘Ben’? How long had Beck called him this? He would have to ask, later. 

“What now?” 

His large hooves sank into the grass as he approached Ben. On my journey, I saw much. Most, you wouldn’t care to know. But there was something…

Ben turned fully so he faced the horse. Beck’s black flank shivered in the sunshine as if he was trying to shake off a memory. A chill, feather-light and sinister, teased the back of Ben’s neck. 

“And?”

When Beck reached him, he pushed his heavy head against Ben’s chest in a universal gesture of needing comfort. He stroked the horse’s forehead. 

Perhaps a day’s journey from here, toward the main road, there were two bodies. 

Ben instantly thought of the animal corpses Rey had mentioned to the hummingbird. A fox, he thought she had said, and a boar. 

“Wild beasts?”

No. They were human. Armored. One had much hair on his face, but none on his head. The other had a sword in his hand. Well, what was left of his hand. 

The chill thickened and oozed down Ben’s spine. Two armored men, one of whom was bald and bearded. They must have been the mercenaries he and Rey had seen on the road. 

“What…” He swallowed against the rising dread. “What killed them? Could you tell?”

Beck tossed his head. It looked to be a large predator, the way their parts were scattered. But they hadn’t been eaten. There was something… A quick snort and the whites of his eyes shone. There was something wrong. A darkness in them. Like spoiled blood or blackened oil. I don’t know what could have done it. 

Ben was thinking of the foul dog creature, but denial rose up and called a strong rallying cry. “A wolf, perhaps?”

The day a wolf toys with a kill in that fashion without eating any of it will be the day the sun rises up and eats the moon. 

The image burst into Ben’s mind of that awful creature sneaking up on Rey as she wandered alone in the woods she considered her home. His pulse leapt under his skin and his mouth dried. 

“Is she in danger?”

It must have meant something that Beck did not need to ask to whom Ben referred. He spun to run into the forest, but yellowed teeth closed on his shirt and held him fast.

She is fine. Her wards are strong.

“One was destroyed just yesterday out to the east and—” 

The stacks farther from her tree don’t have the same feeling as the ones closer. I could sense the change. There was a...a shift in the air when I passed through the close ones. I felt lighter. Cleaner. My wounds ached less, and I no longer wanted to sprint as if sharp teeth nipped at my heels.  

Ben glanced at the trees as if he could somehow see through them to the far-off ruined ward. When he and Rey had sparred the day before, they had been a fair distance from the tree and closer to the river—where Ben had seen the first foul creature. 

East, he thought. It was coming from the east, whatever it was. The sun no longer seemed as warm; the forest appeared a fraction darker. 

You should still go to her, the horse said. It appears that the two of you have things to discuss.

“I...yes,” Ben said, thinking of how she had fled from him. “It appears we do.”

Stay close, though, just in case, Beck added with a soft nudge to Ben’s shoulder.

Ben gave the horse one last scratch behind the ear, picked up his sword, and started through the trees. As always, the solid feel of his weapon in his hand calmed the troubled trill of his thoughts. If he were to come across either of those awful creatures now, perhaps he could do more than just stand and gape and sweat like a scared child. 

He held it loosely by the scabbard. The red jewel in the pommel winked in the scattered light that filtered through the canopies. When he was a child, he’d asked his father where the stone had come from. 

“I plucked it out of the nose of a dragon,” Han had said. When Ben gasped in shock, the dual onslaught of his father’s quick wink and cunning smirk had assured him that, really, it had not come from any sort of nose, least of all a dragon’s. 

Over the years, Ben had continued to ask, and Han had continued to make up outlandish origins for the jewel. A drop of blood from a banshee, frozen by time. The eye of a gigantic fire newt. A ruby worn smooth by eons spent in a troll’s stomach. The soul of a child who kept feeding vegetables to a pet rat.

When Ben crossed paths with a traveling merchant on one of his early redemptive quests, he had lain the sword on the wagon’s chipped table: not with any intent to sell it, but only to see which of his father’s jokes had come the closest to the truth. 

The first discoveries hadn’t held any shocking revelations; the jewel was not polished dragon snot, nor ancient blood, nor a magical eye. Upon closer inspection, the merchant announced that it wasn’t even a ruby. The shining bauble that had begun a thousand curious questions was, in fact, a garnet. Polished, yes, but deeply flawed and hastily shaped. 

Somehow, that knowledge endeared the sword to Ben even more. 

He tightened his hold on the scabbard as he ducked underneath a low branch, then used it to nudge a clump of hanging moss out of his way. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps he should be looking for traces of Rey’s passage in bent grasses or softly-outlined footprints, yet he found that just as they had practiced the day previous, he could sense the wild burn of her body as if he was catching the scent of a distant meadow. And after another dozen paces, he hardly even had to do that—he knew where she would be.

Rey was sitting on a felled tree at the edge of the clearing. Any trace of the face-eaters was long gone, their small corpses having been dragged off by carrion eaters or consumed by the worms. She fiddled with a small piece of leather in her hands and didn’t look up as he approached. Her unbound hair fell loose and shining over her shoulder, the little beads glimmering in the light. He wanted her to raise her eyes to him, wanted that pretty hazel gaze to once again meet his with warmth and an alluring playfulness, but her attention did not drift from her lap.

Ben chewed his cheek, unsure what to say. Stomping into the clearing and shouting ‘Sorry!’ seemed too brash, especially since he had no idea what his apology would be in response to. 

Rey spoke for him. “He’s larger than I’d expected.” She swallowed, her gaze stuck on her hands.  

It took a moment for Ben to realize what she meant. “He’s a destrier,” he said, confused at the topic.

“Destrier,” Rey said slowly as if trying to find meaning within the word.

He stepped toward her, and her eyes flicked to his boots briefly before returning to her lap. 

“A knight’s horse,” he explained. 

“Ah.” She pinched her lips and even flinched, like the word ‘knight’ had pricked her. 

Ben frowned and set his sword in the grass. “Destriers are meant to be strong. Fast, too, and quick to learn. And even-tempered.” He paused and sucked his teeth at this last part; in any other situation, he would have laughed out loud at it. 

Had the size of the horse taken her off-guard? 

“Large horses can carry an armored rider more easily,” he said, as if further explanation would somehow help. 

Rey was silent for another long second. When she spoke, her voice was hushed, the words emerging unwanted and bleak. 

“I suppose you’ll be leaving, then.”

Understanding bloomed within him. Gods, how had he been so dense? It was not the size of Beck or the suddenness of his arrival that had so disturbed Rey; it was the implication of it all. With the horse, Ben could begin the return journey to the castle with ease. He could leave. He could leave her.

He closed the distance between them in long strides and sank to his knees in front of Rey, taking her chilled hands in his own.

“Rey,” he started.

She spoke over him. “You can go, if you’d like. I won’t—” Her voice cracked and she bit her lip. “I won’t be offended. You have quests to finish, I’m sure. A life. I’ll be—”

“Rey,” Ben said again with more force. He stroked the edge of her jaw with his thumb and tipped her face up to his.

And finally, she glanced up at him. There was a weariness in her eyes he’d not seen before. But there was hope there, too, and that gave him strength.

“I…” Ben took a breath. “I don’t know.” 

Hope flared, though she hid it behind a tart smirk. “There is much you don’t know, sir. You’ll have to be more specific.”

He huffed, pleased that she was joking with him, even though it was drier than usual. 

“I don’t know if I would like to return to questing.” Oh, now that sounded too certain. Too imposing. “I mean,” he added, “it’s not...imperative that I return to that life. For a time.” Gods, he was cocking this up. He brushed his thumb over the soft skin of her chin as if it would somehow distract her from his bumbling words. 

She swallowed under his light touch. “Do you not wish to leave?” 

No. “Do you wish me to stay?” he said instead.

“I wish for you to do what you feel must be done.” 

Ben never cared for the verbal dancing that was done in courts by gaudy nobles and painted ladies. No one ever spoke plainly; instead, they all arranged words in a way that neither party could take offense but would assume whichever meaning benefited themselves the most. 

He could feel it happening now between him and the witch. 

No more wriggling out of this. 

“I would stay with you for as long as you would bear my presence,” he said at last. 

A smile crested on Rey’s face, and it shone brighter than the sun above their heads. She laid her hands on his cheekbones, softly, reverently. He turned just far enough to press a kiss to her calloused palm.

She gave a short, breathless laugh. “I’ll have you know that I have become rather accustomed to your presence,” she said. There was a tremble in her voice. “But would you be happy without castles and quests?” 

Ben’s gaze raked over her face, taking in the clustered freckles across her nose and cheeks, the delicate softness of her lips, the barely-restrained joy in her honey and moss eyes. 

“I would be far happier with you, lady.” 

She kissed him with a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. Then she was in his arms, having thrown herself against him with a fierceness that had him grunting in surprise. Her lips slanted against his and her fingers tugged at his hair, and he was about to twist to lay them both down in the grass when she slowed, then pulled away. 

“I…” She paused, her breath coming in short pants. Her eyes flicked to his and she wet her lips. “I want all of you this time, Ben.” 

Seven bloated hells. His cock twitched in his trousers, and he fisted his hands in Rey’s dress. “You know that—”

“But you don’t know.” Determination settled on her face. She stared at his chin and clutched the collar of his shirt. “I can’t explain what I feel because I don’t know how to…” Her brow furrowed and she let out an unsteady sigh. “Look into my mind. See it.”

“I can’t—”

“Please.” The desperation in her voice tugged at him. She was asking for this; it wasn’t as if he was creeping into her thoughts with neither her awareness nor her approval. She had indulged him with more lessons and training than he’d ever anticipated. She had greeted his stubborn refusal to use power with the patience of a nun and then embraced whatever he had been able to perform. After so much that she had done for him, didn’t he owe her this, at least?

“Please,” she whispered again. 

Ben took a steadying breath and rested his forehead against hers. He thought back to the night outside the tree where they had stood in the snow and their breath had fogged into the night air. He thought of how he’d opened himself to the surrounding world, expecting to hear an irritated woodland creature or intently feel how the cold soaked into his bones, and instead sank fully into the witch’s thoughts. 

Slowly, cautiously, he opened to her. She was right there to meet him, her crackling energy surrounding him like a warm mist. Thoughts burst in her mind and shot directly into his. There was her cautious happiness, because true, he’d just admitted that he would like to stay with her, but what then? What would happen in a year? Five years? Ten? Would they come to love each other only for her to one day find him staring out into the forest with the same twitching impatience and sense of impetus that had brought him to her tree in the first place? 

Those thoughts fluttered away, and Ben felt instead the bright novelty with which she considered those other emotions, the ones she’d never before felt: excitement at a touch, anticipation of conversation, the thrill in her belly every time he smiled in the way that dimpled his cheeks and bared his crooked teeth. 

And then another thought clamored over the rest, as loud and wild as a summer storm. She understood that he feared hurting her, being rough; yet it wasn’t a perfect and gentle lovemaking that she wanted: she wanted him and whatever he had to give her. 

Were it as simple as that.

He felt his own fear bubble up and instead of closeting it away, he let it rise so that Rey could understand. Visions flared in his mind of bruised skin, of tender flesh torn and bleeding. He thought of pain; he thought of regret. Rey could speak of the ease with which she worked with whatever rage she had experienced, yet she had done so only twice. Ben had opened himself to the fury hundreds of times, which made it that much more difficult to pin it down and demand fealty. 

Rey pressed a soft kiss to his lips before pulling away once more. She lay a hand on his chest, then gave him a tender smile. 

“Don’t worry, sir knight,” she said. “I won’t let you fall.”

The same words she’d said that night in the snow. Ben remembered how he’d been tempted to laugh at them. He could not laugh now. 

She closed her eyes. Her warm breath tickled his collarbones, his neck. But no, it wasn’t her breath—it was a different sort of warmth, a shimmering and prickling one. He felt as she twined power around the ever-lurking rage and lulled it into a stupor. If he had thought of the rage as a beast lurking at his feet, teeth always flashing and muscles tensed to spring, now it was curling up to sleep. He was calm. His actions would all be his own. 

Lust roared a victorious howl in his blood. 

Ben’s mouth crashed upon Rey’s hard enough to elicit a startled squeak. Even through the fabric of her dress, her skin felt hot underneath his firm, roaming hands. He pressed her body flush against his, tugged at her skirts, cupped her plump ass. Little gasps and moans shuddered out of her as he dragged his open mouth down her neck, licking, nibbling, sucking. 

His name flared on her lips and fluttered into a warbling cry. Unspoken words crackled in her mind: monosyllabic pleas that urged his tongue to tangle with hers, that drove him to grind his stiffening cock against the heat of her cunt. The tension in her limbs, that clutch of want that was so sharp it was nearly painful, burrowed into her body, and he felt it as if it was his own. Perhaps it was all his own; he could hardly tell where she ended and he began. 

A caustic snort threatened to emerge at that. Too much prose. He went to stroke the curve of her back and met the roughspun fabric of her dress. Too many clothes. 

Ben fumbled with the lacings at her bodice, but no, he could undo those with magic and then she would be bared to him, and he could take her breast in his mouth and taste her skin. In the moment that it took to shift his mind from physically undoing the ties to shifting the air around the laces, she took advantage of his pause. He hardly had time to react before she was twisting in his arms so her back was to his chest and her rear nestled against his groin. Then she was hiking up her dress, bucking backwards into him, bringing his hand around so his fingers brushed the fine hair of her sex. 

This was...well, it wasn’t terrible. Quite the opposite, really. But it was more akin to animals in the forest than anything he’d assumed she’d seen in the erotic manual. Rey reached behind her and grasped at the closure of his trousers. 

“Ben, please, I...please,” she said, blurting the words between high gasps. She grabbed at him with a madness that implied she still wasn’t entirely certain he wouldn’t shuffle away and deny her yet again.

His hips bucked at the sight of her nearly-bared rump pressed to the front of his trousers. He could do it like this. He could shove her dress over her hips, plunge into her slick cunt, fuck her into the grass until her voice was hoarse and her limbs could no longer take her weight. 

Yet that would be like his own loss of innocence: rushed and hard and bordering on uncomfortable, with only the thoughts of how he’d expected it to be—nicer, sweeter, more intimate—to keep him company after the act. 

He stilled Rey’s hips and spoke over her whine of protest. 

“Wait, Rey...I’m not...”

The bitter flood of her disappointment roiled over him. Her shoulders sagged, because— Gods, no, wait, fuck— she’d concluded that this would begin his retreat away from her and into the forest.    

Perhaps he could have shared how leaving in any sense was impossible, especially now, especially after what they’d both admitted, but he didn’t trust his unchecked thoughts to not expose every single ludicrous, lewd fantasy he’d had about her. He leaned forward, swept her hair over her shoulder, and nipped the back of her neck. She shuddered beneath him. 

“Why…” Her question dissolved into a choked cry as he sucked at the pulse point beneath her jaw. 

“I’m not going to rut you like a beast,” he rasped against her skin. Not this time.  

Rey gasped, high and broken, and Ben realized he hadn’t quite managed to reel that particular thought in. He would have been more embarrassed had it not been for the fluttering thrill she suddenly radiated outwards. 

She whirled around and threw herself at him, grappling at his shoulders, sucking his lower lip between her teeth as frantic and feral as a wildcat, only parting from him to slide his shirt over his head. Her hands roamed across his skin with abandon, drawing a frisson of gooseflesh in their wake. 

Rey worked herself closer until she straddled his hips. He dragged her skirts higher, but the shift clung to her spread legs and the dress was tangling at her waist. 

It took less concentration than he’d thought to convince the linen to slide free and encourage the air to carry her clothing fully up and off her body. 

Then she was bared to him, flushed and glowing in the sunshine, breasts rising with every rapid breath. It came to Ben then that despite their flirting and petting and playing, he had never seen her naked. When they had lain together in the meadow by her home, her clothing had been bunched around her middle. He had seen her bare breasts—kissed and fondled them, even—and gazed enraptured at the shining beauty of her cunt—and kissed and fondled that as well—therefore, it hardly seemed logical that the sudden reveal of her waist should arouse him so. 

Yet it did. Oh, how it did. His cock was harder than oak. It pulsed beneath his trousers as he traced the lithe curve between her hip and her ribs. He flattened his hand over her navel and the plane of her belly before trailing it up and up until it lay between her pert breasts to rest above her pounding heart. 

Her skin was soft and warm and humming under his touch. Freckles dusted almost every exposed inch. He wanted to lick each one, connect them with his tongue, but there were not enough hours left in the day to do so. Later, perhaps. It wasn’t as if he had anywhere to be in the coming months.

Ben leaned in and sucked one of her nipples into his mouth, then groaned when she tangled her fingers in his hair and held him closer. He slid a palm up the inside of her thigh and dragged a finger across her soaked skin before nudging it inside. He pulled back to watch her; he loved how she responded to his touch, how she arched her back and keened to the sky. A second finger joined the first, moving in deep, languid thrusts while his thumb brushed her clitoris. He increased the pressure until her legs twitched and her moans caught in her throat. Rey slumped into him, her arms slack around his shoulders and her breath quick on his neck. Her arousal coated his knuckles, his palm, his wrist. 

His trousers were becoming uncomfortably tight. Ben groaned in relief when he felt them tugged low by an unseen force. They hadn’t even passed his knees before Rey was stroking his exposed cock. 

She held the ruddy head in her nimble fingers. The sight of it so very close to where his own hand pumped into her flushed and shining cunt made his pulse pound a dull beat in his ears. In less than a handspan, he would be nudging at her entrance. 

Ben squeezed his eyes shut and forced the tingling in his toes to cease. The only reason he wasn’t currently coming in her hand, repeating their last tryst with disturbing similarity, was because of what he had done early this morning. 

He had drifted into consciousness before the sun rose, the fuzzy warmth of sleep still wrapped around him, his dream vibrant and burning beneath his skin. It had been one of the especially good dreams, and he’d woken overheated and achingly hard. He’d lain under the threadbare blanket in the loft and fucked his hand while Rey slept below. 

Rey tightened around his fingers and gasped against his neck, and hells, he realized that he’d just sent that memory directly to her. 

Ben’s ears burned with shame. True, that was exactly what she had done numerous times while he was in the loft, but it felt dirtier somehow since it was her home and her pallet, and, lest he forget, her blanket that he’d wanked into. 

A twist of her hand around his cock made stars burst behind his eyelids, and he nearly missed her next words.

“What happened in it?” 

Ben’s eyes fluttered open. “What hap— ahhn.” Another twist, another surge of pleasure. “What happened in what?” he managed to say. 

“The dream.” Her words were light and tremulous, and her breath fluttered the fine hairs by his ear. The movements of his hand must have slowed, for she lifted her hips slightly, then sank down onto his fingers. He heard her swallow. “...Show me?” 

It rushed to the surface of his mind in an instant, hardly needing encouragement. He was chasing her in the forest. This was not the magic-led training of searching for auras; there was an undercurrent of desire that fueled their steps, that pulled him after her as she darted around copses. She wanted to be caught. When he grabbed her, she squirmed under his hands, panted his name against his sweat-slicked skin even as she wriggled to maintain the illusion of capture. It wasn’t a very good illusion, not with the way she’d already loosened her dress and tugged it down to her waist. Her summer-warmed hands grasped at his clothing, then grasped at a mossy boulder when he spun her around and bent her over it. 

There was more to the dream—he was certain that at some point, he’d kissed a meandering trail down her torso and then up underneath her skirts—but Rey was shuddering in his lap, her cry thin and wailing as she seized around his fingers. Ben quickly added a third finger to stretch her further while he fucked her through her orgasm, his free hand grasping her nape and holding her pinned against the upward pumping of his hand. Slurred curses and prayers stumbled from her lips. If she flinched, he couldn’t tell; her fingernails were digging into his shoulders, her entire body convulsing in his arms as her cunt fluttered around him. 

“Ben, please, you...please, I want...please.” Ragged breaths heated his neck. Her forehead was slick with sweat as it lay against his collarbone.

She whimpered in protest when he removed his fingers. Gods, he could hear how wet she was, and if that wasn’t going to grace his every waking thought for the rest of his life, then he would don beads in his hair and call himself a witch. 

Rey looked down between their bodies. Her gaze stuck on the way he smeared his fingers over the head of his cock and then along the veined shaft. A necessary action, yet from the way she tightened her hold on his shoulders, an arousing one as well. Would she want to watch him stroke himself in another situation? The idea brought forth a sweet clench low in his belly. 

A thought for later.

He eased into her gently, inch by torturous inch. Gods, the feel of it all: the barest brush of her against his chest, the dull tug of her fingers in his hair, each one of her little desperate pants tickling his cheek. The rage twitched in his chest and encouraged him to yank her hips flush against his, to claim her, to fuck; but Rey’s forced stupor kept it in check. 

Not yet halfway inside, he still held his resolve for gentleness, although it made his arms shake and his lungs bark in objection. But Rey did not hold that same resolve. She gave a high whine of frustration and in one swift motion sank fully onto his cock. 

Ben’s eyes shuttered and he let out a short, low groan at the sensation of this perfect closeness. He was about to move when he glanced up to see pained furrows creasing her brow and her lips parted around a silent cry. 

“We can stop,” Ben said quickly, though every part of him railed against that suggestion. “We don’t have to—”

“No, I…I want this...” Rey's voice quavered and her grip tightened on his shoulders. Emotions radiated outwards from her like the ripples in a lake. There was pain—more than she’d expected—and then the slightest trace of fear; because was this , the discomfort and uncertainty, what sex was really like? Had all the romantic novels and sultry poems she’d pilfered from broken-down caravans been filled with pretty lies?

No, no, he couldn’t let her believe any of that. Ben whispered her name into her skin, weaving into it apologies and praise. When he brushed a feather-light kiss against her neck, her rapid pulse thrummed beneath his lips. He stroked her back, her arms, her sides. Long strokes, calming ones, like those used to soothe a frightened animal. 

“Hush, little witch,” he murmured, his voice low and graveled. 

Rey looked at him then, and something inside his chest twisted to see that her eyes glimmered with unshed tears. She blinked. One rolled down her cheek. 

Ben cupped her face and swept his thumb out to catch the drop before it reached her chin. “I won’t let you fall.” 

He swept his hands up her sides and cupped her breasts, brushed her stiffened nipples, pressed tender kisses to her skin until she began to move on him hesitantly, rising up on her knees and then sliding down to envelop his cock within the hot, tight clench of her body. 

“Is...is this…” Her words were unsteady, her breathing doubly so. 

Ben nodded. “That’s it,” he choked out. “That’s...just like that.” 

Her movements took on a new resolve, though they were still slow. Pleasure flashed through his limbs like a bolt of fire each time she sank onto him.

Despite the beauty of his dreams, they did not do justice to reality. No dream could convey the minute changes in Rey’s moans: how they were high and trembling one moment and low and throaty the next. No dream could have prepared him for the sun-warmed smell of her skin and the heady taste of it against his tongue. 

He eased backwards until he lay on the grass so he could stare up and look at her; she filled his vision like a wild-haired enchantress. There could have been a herd of red deer stampeding through the forest, or flames licking the rocks at the edge of the clearing, or one obnoxious squirrel silently judging his technique (to the seven hells with Poe, if he was), and Ben would not have paid attention to any of it. She was all he could see; she was all he wanted to see. 

They had been arranged like this yesterday: Rey straddling him as he reclined on the ground. In that moment, Ben had wondered how it would feel in a different context, though he hadn’t dared imagine how beautiful her bouncing breasts would look as she rode him, nor the strength of her palms against his chest. 

That final ecstasy buzzed under his fingertips, and he realized he didn’t have much longer to feel her unravel around his member before his own release crashed upon him. Ben hurriedly brought his hand to where they were joined and rubbed her, but it must not have been the correct angle, for she swatted him out of the way and replaced his hand with her own. 

He watched her face the entire time, bewitched by the way her teeth caught her lip hard enough to whiten the skin. And then her back bowed, her body stiffened, and she screamed as she came (and Ben would never tire of that broken, keening sound), and oh, the feel, the very feel of her was nearly enough to bring him to his peak at once. 

But no. Not yet. 

Ben rolled them over together so she was beneath him. Her hair lay tangled in the grass amongst the newly-bloomed violets, her eyes wide and a delighted ‘Oof!’ lingering on her lips. When she smiled up at him, dimples pressed into her flushed cheeks. Her face shone bright with giddy excitement at their switched positions, and he could sense her anticipation of what was going to come next. Was this what she’d thought about when she stroked herself in the night? Had she stuffed her fingers into her body while she imagined him hovering over her, pressing her into the ground? Against her straw mattress? 

If he kept along these thoughts, it would all be over. 

Not yet, not yet.

Ben bucked into her slowly, experimentally; his eyes connected with hers for only a second before her lashes fluttered closed and she breathed out, “Oh...yes.”

The grass was cool underneath his elbows, and it made the heat of her skin seem that much warmer. His thrusts quickened until he was grunting with each one. He directed her thigh higher to open her, to encourage her leg to wrap around his waist. She cried out, and her moan was so light and fluttering that it almost seemed to float into the canopies over their heads. She squeezed him with her fingers and with her legs and with her cunt and gods, Ben would remain trapped like this for eternity if only the world would let him. 

The buzz in his fingers bloomed, tightening and spreading until he gasped and jerked out of her warmth to spill himself into the grass. 

Ben’s arms trembled to hold his weight off her body; his lungs shuddered to draw enough air. He sent a quick glance downwards to assure himself that none of his spend had landed where it should not have, but his eyes stuck on the sight of his cock: thick and flushed, coated both in her arousal and the bright, pink tinge of blood. 

Horror roiled within him. What had he done? Ben’s fingers dug into the dirt and he cursed himself. Despite the rage having been placated, he had still hurt her enough to draw blood. But before his mind could explode into a tirade of self-loathing, soft hands on his face quieted any such thoughts. She stroked his cheeks, smoothed the backs of her nails along his jaw, threaded her fingers through his hair. She was soothing his worries, just as he had done to her earlier. 

When he looked at her at last, the unfiltered happiness in her expression disarmed any remaining concerns. Damp strands of her hair clung to the side of her neck, and her chest rose high with each of her panted breaths.

Rey brushed her thumb over the shell of his ear. 

“I would not have had you differently,” she said. 

Ben worked his closed mouth. His pulse still thundered in his chest, and he spoke around air that felt much too thick. “I could have been more gentle. I could have been slower with—”

Her choked laugh interrupted him. “If you had taken any more time, then I might have razed this clearing to the ground again out of sheer impatience.” 

She nudged him over onto the grass and then lay with her head on his pectoral, her cheek resting at the terminus of his scar. A clump of freshly-grown daisies prickled at his hip. He pushed the blooms to the side, shimmying slightly in the quest for comfort. One of her arms slid across his middle, and Ben luxuriated in the contentment the position brought. His fingers danced over her skin, unwilling to stay in one spot for long.

“Was it worth it?” His voice rumbled from his chest. How would it sound to her, pressed against him as she was?

“Was what worth what?” It came out slightly mumbled and thick with drowsy satisfaction.

Ben rubbed one of her braids between thumb and forefinger. “What we just did. Was it worth the impatience?”

There was a crease on her cheek when she lifted her head to look at him, and he wondered for a moment if it was an indentation from his scar: the rippled remnant from one of the events that led to them lying here in the grass, in the sun, entwined with each other. A mark of fate, temporarily shared by them both. 

“Yes,” Rey said, looking somehow both confused and amused. “Of course it was.” 

Ben’s lips twitched briefly into a smile.

She returned her cheek to his chest and hummed in thought. “It wasn’t at all like the books, though. Or the poems.”

“I’d gathered as much.” At her raised head and quizzical look, he added, “From your thoughts, I mean. They seemed to go between us easily during the...er, well.” He cleared his throat and stared at the shifting clouds overhead.

Rey chuffed at the absurdity of his embarrassment over naming what they had just done, but he went on.

“Perhaps it might not have been as flawless and elegant as the authors—oof.” It didn’t hurt when she smacked him, though it startled him enough to grunt. 

“That’s not what I meant.” She folded one arm on his chest and lay her chin on the back of her hand.  

He glanced down at her without moving his head. “Oh?”

“It wasn’t like what I’d read because it was better.” 

He cocked one brow, remembering how she’d seized at that first breach, remembering the feel of her warm tears on his thumb. 

But she nodded. “Yes.” Her lips quirked into a soft smile, the kind that hinted at secrets and undisguised infatuation. “Yes,” she said again. “Because it was with you.” 

They kissed until the air chilled and the birds warbled songs of an approaching dusk, then walked back to the tree with their hands intertwined.

The sun was still an hour from setting when Ben penned a short note to his mother, speaking of how he was safe and healthy and would not return to the kingdom. He had found happiness, he said, and wasn’t that what she had been wanting for him? 

The pigeon he convinced to take the note was a stupid, bug-eyed creature. It took several long minutes to explain to the beast that the little scroll of parchment would not taste good, nor would it fit easily in a nest, and upon arrival at the castle (which was north and west, and—no, no, that was north; for gods’ sakes did it even migrate?) someone would take the scroll from its leg and then it would be free to do its own business, whatever that was. 

It rose ungainly into the air and flapped over the forest. 

Ben watched it for only a moment before he wrapped his arms around his witch and settled his chin on her head. Beck was in the meadow, leisurely cropping grass. The setting sun cast the inside of the tree in golden warmth that tickled Ben’s skin and made the jewel in the sword’s pommel twinkle as it rested beside the door, looking entirely as if this was where it belonged. 

Ben felt the same.

 

-

 

He should have stared through that wavering glass window a little longer. If he had, he would have seen the large creature more monstrous than any bird fly through the purpling sky like a cruel arrow. He would have seen the pigeon flutter in surprise and try to dodge as thick talons crunched into its brittle body, how its broken wing was torn away like the poor bird was nothing more than tissue. And he would have watched as the pair of them hurtled to the forest floor where dull teeth ripped through flesh and gristle and bone until nothing remained except a few scattered, grey feathers.

 

Chapter Text

He’d sent a note to the kingdoms to say he would not be returning, and still she could hardly believe it. Ben was here. He wasn’t leaving. He didn’t want to, because he wanted to be with her. It felt like an impossible dream. The entire day did.

Rey was unable to keep from smiling to herself as she crouched before the hearth and coaxed the embers to sleep. Ordinarily, Ben took care of it if she was otherwise occupied, but at the moment he was outside with Beck, seeing that he was comfortable for the night, and she didn’t wish to disturb them. She suspected Ben and his destrier—his friend , whatever he might have claimed to her once—had much to say to one another. 

She had a lot to say to Ben as well but had not yet figured out how or what. This afternoon had been a start. Much could be said without words, and it hadn’t been just the strand of their shared thoughts and feelings throughout the act. It was the stillness that had filled him at her touch; his concern for her comfort and pleasure; his gentleness and patience. She’d felt safe and cared for. She hoped he’d felt all that she returned, and how much more she wanted to give. Because that was new, too: the sense of permanence this change had brought.

Rey was not so naive as to think anything that had transpired today or last week or a month ago was tantamount to love. But there was mutual affection and care, and it was the start of something, not the end. Where would it lead? And what else would change? She was very eager to find out.

Outside, she heard a low nickering as Beck chuckled at something Ben had said, and she wondered what they spoke of. The weather had turned so fine she’d been able to leave the windows open even into the night all week. Tonight, a light breeze was puffing in at intervals, brushing her curtains aside and freshening the room with the fragrance of honeysuckle and crushed grass. Rey always slept best at this time of year, when she could strip off her shift, stretch out beneath the quilt without feeling a chill, and wake with the pleasant, cool damp of morning settled on her bare skin. 

She’d been putting it off for Ben’s sake, which, in hindsight, was absurd. After today, it hardly seemed necessary. She was stowing some dried plants and helping herself to a few bites of honeycomb when the door creaked open and Ben entered, brushing his hands off on his thighs. His eyes caught on her and he smiled fleetingly, as if he was embarrassed to find her regarding him with such fondness. 

But then he strode over to her, wrapped an arm around her waist, and pulled her near to press a slow, lingering kiss to her temple, and it was Rey who found herself blushing and flooded with warmth at his closeness.

She smothered a long sigh and fixed her arms loosely around him. “How is Beck?”

“Settled.” Ben chuffed and loosened his hold on her to let her lean at the edge of the table. He smelled of horse and medicinal herbs, and she loved it, so she didn’t move too far. “He’s pleased to have a place to rest where he is guaranteed to wake, he told me.”

A tiny thread of unease wormed through Rey’s belly. She thought of the broken wards, of the things Ben had claimed to see, and of what he’d told her over dinner about Beck’s long journey back from the kingdoms and the signs of dark magic he had sensed. 

She smiled slowly. “Remind me tomorrow, there’s a field where the grass is particularly sweet. We should take him there—or tell him the way, if he prefers to go alone. He seemed a very independent creature.”

“That’s a charitable way to put it,” Ben said with a grimace. “Though he did also tell me to send his thanks to you for the honeycomb and ointments. He’s feeling much stronger already.”

Rey glanced at her cabinets, then began slowly toward her bed. “There’s enough salve left for the next day or so. I’ll make more tomorrow, though I think it will deplete my honey supply. We’ll need to forage some this week.”

“I’ll try to make the time,” Ben quipped.

“Do. Perhaps I will teach you how to soothe the bees.” 

He chuckled at that as she paused at the edge of her bed and began fiddling with the coverings and pillow, too aware that he was watching her from the table. Perhaps he was waiting for her to ask him to join her. She doubted he would presume, even now that they’d crossed a certain line of intimacy. Propriety, bah. If he knew the sorts of things she was currently of the mind to let him do to and with her, he would probably combust from blushing so hard.

His footfalls thudded behind her, and she saw him at the edge of her vision heading toward the ladder to the loft.

“Are you going up?” she asked, cursing the way she sounded almost panicked. It was a stupid question, too, when that was clearly what he was doing.

“Yes, I . . .” He paused with a foot on the bottom rung, hands clutching the sides. “You seem to be preparing to sleep. It’s late.”

“You don’t—” She rubbed a hand nervously along the smooth top of the bedpost. “You could . . .” Rey huffed and fixed her eyes on his. “Stay down here. With me.”

“Oh?”

“Share my bed.” When he didn’t release his hold on the ladder, she shook her head. “Really? You won’t sleep beside me after—”

To her surprise, he laughed. “No. Gods, no. It’s just, well. I’ve been in your bed, and it’s . . . snug.” 

His true reasons amused her, and she pushed away from the bed to approach him with a teasing smile. “Oh, is that your complaint? I thought you might enjoy the snug ness.”

“I would. A good deal more than I’ll enjoy the cramped muscles and neck aches the next morning.”

Rey lifted her eyebrows at him and raised herself quickly on her toes to kiss his chin. “I’ll leave it up to you, then. But know you are welcome.”

With that, she moved back toward her bed, undoing her laces as she went and stepping out of her gown as it slid down her legs. She gave it a quick shake to get rid of the worst of the dust and dirt that had settled in the fabric—tomorrow was laundry day, she remembered—and hung it over the back of a chair to air out. Ben was still there by the ladder, watching her undress and seemingly uncertain of whether he wished to accept her invitation and all its implied discomforts. Perhaps he needed further convincing. Rey drew her shift over her head and left it with her gown, then made her way back to her bed, wickedly amused by the way his eyes locked on her naked body as she did so. 

She pulled the coverings back and sat on the edge of the bed, regarding him with a cool look. “Shall I douse the candles?”

“Er.” Ben cleared his throat and— finally— abandoned the ladder. “No, I can— I’ll do it. Give me a moment.”

Rey snorted and laid down, snuggling under the lighter of her quilts as he took care of the remaining lights with the simple spell she’d taught him. In the faint moonlight filtering through the windows, she watched him pull off his boots and socks, then shed his shirt and trousers as well before approaching the bed. He was little more than a long, pale shape in the dark as her eyes adjusted, but his skin was so fair she could make out the faint curves of limbs and muscle as he moved and sank down beside her. She gave a contented sigh and shuffled herself toward the wall to make space.

When he had settled beneath the quilts, their knees brushing and their faces nearly nose to nose, he huffed a bemused chuckle. “This is even more preposterous than I thought it would be.”

She pursed her lips and found his belly with her fingers, then pinched. “Not all of you agrees.”

They were very tight in the bed, and she could feel that certain parts of his anatomy were not so skeptical of the arrangement. His face, neck, and chest were warmer the instant she acknowledged it.

“Never mind that,” he muttered, though good-naturedly enough, and shifted his hips to put some space between her and his groin. “Unless you . . .?”

“This is enough tonight.” 

She was sleepy (and, truth be told, a little sore) from the day’s many exertions; there had been actual work to do too. Sleeping beside him like this was as long in coming as everything else. Sometimes—now—it felt as if she had known him for ages. Rey tipped her head back to press her lips to his in a series of short, sweet pecks that built to a longer kiss. 

“Good,” he said when she broke away. “Because I fear attempts of anything more strenuous may see this thing collapse entirely.”

She snorted with amusement. “Such a jester now, aren’t you.” 

She kissed him once more, let him nip at her chin and jaw a few times and tickle at her ribs until she was shaking with little tremors of laughter, then pressed a hand to his chest to urge him onto his back. When he was still, she snuggled as close as she could and rested her face in the crook of his neck. 

“The night you slept beside me in the caravan,” she murmured after a few moments had passed in silence, “I wondered how it would be to have you with me another night.”

He had drawn an arm around her shoulders and was toying with the ends of her hair, rolling the beads between his fingers and tucking loose strands behind her ear. “You’ll have me with you as many nights as you wish, my lady.”

It was just a term of respect, probably one that had been trained into him until it was a reflex. This wasn’t even the first time he had addressed her that way. But it filled her with the sweetest flood of serenity she’d ever felt in this bed or in his arms because of what it promised. He would stay, and she was his. Rey pressed her lips to the warm, soft skin of his throat, then tucked her face back into his neck and let her eyes fall shut.

 

-

 

She woke perfectly warm. When she lifted her chin from the coverings, the room was bathed in the hesitant gray light of oncoming dawn and smelled of dew-damp grass. Sometime during the night, Ben had rolled to his side—she was pressed to his broad back, a hand resting at his waist—and was now facing the windows. Her first bemused, drowsy thought was that he might have done it on purpose out of some sense that he was protecting her like that. Which led to a second, rather more entertaining drowsy thought of some threat presenting itself and him springing to her home’s defense stark naked. 

Maybe with a sword. Two swords. 

As absurd as the notion was, more the fare of farce than erotica, she may as well just have awoken from one of her dreams for how keenly she felt in need of some relief right now. Ben was right there, and she still had so much to learn of his body, and last night he’d expressed some willingness to . . .

Rey dragged her hand from his waist up his side, rubbed her fingers gingerly over the curve of his shoulder blade, then kissed the back of his neck. 

“Ben?” His breathing changed slightly, but he was silent as she nudged a knee at his thighs. “Are you awake?”

He twitched with a thick, muffled chuckle and rolled into her a little. Awkwardly, he stretched an arm back and groped at her, seeking her hand but finding her face instead. She winced and made a small sound of protest.

“I am now,” he said, his tongue deadened. At last, he grasped her hand and pulled it to his lips to kiss the tips of her fingers as he rolled to face her. “Good morning.”

His eyes were still heavy, his hair askew, and his mouth slackened with almost comedic slowness until she realized he was yawning. Either he was pointedly ignoring the amorous look she had fixed on him, or, more likely, he was still too half asleep to notice it. But if he was half asleep, why did it feel as if he . . .

Rey’s eyebrows shot up, and she scooted back just enough to peer beneath the coverings bunched at their waists. He had an erection, or at least the beginnings of one.

“Has it been like this all night?” she asked.

“Has what been like—” His sentence broke into another yawn as he passed a hand over his eyes; though a moment later the yawn, too, was choked off. “— Oh .  Gods, what are you— what are you doing?”

“What I should have done hours ago, apparently.”

She’d reached down between them and closed her hand around his cock, too curious to wait. By now, she was familiar enough with its heft in her hand, but she’d never actually felt it hardening or watched it do so. It was both intriguing and amusing, the way it changed, how the smooth, tender skin grew hotter and firmer and just grew , like it was a separate entity from the rest of him. But if he’d fallen asleep partially aroused, she almost felt bad for having put him off as they settled in. Surely, it had not been a comfortable night.

“You don’t have to—” Ben was fully awake now, his eyes darting between her face and her breasts and her hand wrapped around him. His whole body tensed as his hips gave a sharp twitch. “It’s not actually a probl—” Cheeks flushed, he hissed a curse between his teeth and managed to regain enough composure to finish his next sentence as she continued to touch him. “It’s just something that happens sometimes. At night.”

Her hand slowed and released, and he looked both disappointed and relieved. “Oh. I see. So it . . .” With her finger, Rey mimicked the motion of a male member rising to attention, then let out a short chuckle and shook her head. “While you sleep ?”

He nodded and seemed almost amused at her fascination.

“That seems very inconvenient,” she muttered. 

“Only at times.”

The entertainment value must fade after a while, though she stole another look at it anyway. It was as stiff now as she had ever seen it.

“Well, if now is one of those times, I'd hoped you might wake up and want to . . .” She glanced at him shyly. She could ask him for what she wanted, but she'd never had to, and she was improbably bashful, as if the fact that they were already naked and in her bed somehow changed things. “Er . . . make love.”

She wasn't sure that was the right thing to say; but this was a romantic sort of thing, wasn’t it? What they’d done yesterday hadn’t been a fuck . Why were there so many words for this? No wonder it had been simpler to let him look into her mind and perceive what she wanted. She hadn’t needed to find the words at all. He’d understood, finally, in such a pure, perfect way; they both had.

“Because I want you,” she added lamely, as if it weren't already clear. She wished he would say something to keep her from stumbling further.

Instead, his mouth curved in a small smile as he kissed her hotly and eased her onto her back until she was pinned beneath him, her pulse racing. His hands were all over her, his mouth worshipping her breasts, her legs tangled behind his, and it was impossible to believe that just moments ago they had still been dozing. Yet his body and his movements felt slowed down and hazy, like everything between her and him was blurred. Maybe this was a dream. One of the very good ones.

His voice was a purr against her neck. “Do you want it like yesterday?”

“I . . .” 

That had been wonderful, the way he'd felt, the way he had gazed up at her with such heated reverence. But the bed did not offer much room to move, and she didn't think he was entirely wrong last night to joke that their activities might cause a collapse. The wooden frame was already creaking, and Ben barely had space to stretch his legs out. If she rode him, she doubted her ability to keep her movements . . . well, tame. 

“Can we try something else?”

He hummed against her lips, a hand caressing her face. “Roll onto your side.”

“You’ll need to let me up first,” she said with a laugh when he broke away. But he only returned to her breasts and seemed disinclined to let her do much of anything beyond enjoy the way he was lavishing them with every part of his mouth. She gave a squeak of delight as his tongue flicked teasingly over her nipple. “Ben!”

He made another throaty sound that must have been assent, because he lifted his weight from her just enough that she was able to scoot out from under him. She settled on her side in the spot he’d slept, facing the doorway and open windows, where the sky had reached the barely pink color of early dawn. There was a noticeable dip in the mattress. She didn’t have much time to consider whether that was a problem or not, because Ben immediately spooned up behind her to curl around her body the way he had in the caravan.

The rest was not like the caravan at all. He reached a hand around, his mouth sucking at the skin behind her ear, and gave a low, satisfied moan as his fingers pressed between her thighs. She clenched reflexively, then parted her legs to give him more space and felt his cock pushing there from behind. The length of it slid over her, more insistent each time his hips moved in and back—not entering her, but slicking himself with her as his teeth found her earlobe. It felt as good as it ever did when he touched her there, the shudder of heat over her whole body and the impulse to drive herself back into him. But then she felt him at her entrance, just the tip pushing, and hissed with unexpected discomfort that made her jolt away.

It took him a moment to register it over the ragged sighs and quiet praises he’d been breathing into her skin, but when he did, the change was instant. He froze and pulled himself back, his palm soothing at her shoulder.

“Did I—”

“I’m just sore,” she said before he could blame himself. “I think. From yesterday. I didn’t realize that could happen.”

“Ah. Yes.”

She heard him swallow and the sound of his back hitting the wall as he withdrew. The silence that followed only lasted a few seconds, but it felt weighted.

“I was too eager,” he added. “I’ll go slower. More like the last time.”

It was true that in the meadow he had spent a good deal of time making sure she was ready to take him. This morning, there had barely been any lead-up at all. 

“Maybe,” she allowed..

“Or . . . no. Another time, then. I should have realized.” He cleared his throat, and she did not argue. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, of course.” She moved onto her back and let her head drop to the side to look at him. He was already on the verge of guilt again, she could feel it. The corner of her lips quirked in a suggestive smile. “We don’t need to stop altogether, you know. We could do something else.”

Rey slid her hand beneath the quilt, dragged it down his abdomen, and found him still hard, his skin slippery where he’d rubbed against her. He actually twitched in her hand, and his pulse raced where she drew her finger along a vein. She lifted an eyebrow and sought his eyes with hers. “What do you think?”

“Only if you— fuck—” He looked to be caught somewhere between amusement and desperation as her hand explored, but his body relaxed and his gaze softened. “This hardly seems . . .”

When he didn’t finish the sentence, she squeezed him more firmly and sped the glide of her hand over his soft, taut skin, slowing only as she drew near the head of his cock to coat her palm and enjoy the way his eyelids fluttered. “Seems what?”

“I don’t know,” he managed. “Fair? Can you—” Rey felt the fleeting, barely tangible flash of what he wanted. She didn’t think he had let her see it on purpose, but she bit her lip and let her thumb brush lightly between his balls anyway. His head tipped back and his eyes snapped open. “Gods, yes, that. That’s . . .”

“Good?” 

She stretched forward to kiss his throat and did it again, more slowly. He practically quaked with a groan that made her whole cunt throb. 

“Hn. Yes. Don’t . . . just keep . . .” Without warning, he reached for her again and pressed his palm at the apex of her thighs, then pushed two fingers through her folds to caress her clitoris. Rey bit back a cry—first of pleasure, then protest. Ben remained enthusiastic, but it was too much for how tender she still was. 

She gave a little growl and slowed his hand with her own until he pulled away. “I think I’d better take care of myself as well, this time.”

He appeared to be beyond wrongly directed guilt; in fact, he had some ideas of his own, judging by the way his eyes darkened and settled somewhere behind her head.

“Sit by the headboard,” he said, shifting down the bed slightly to give her room to move. “So you can . . . so I can see.”

Why had that just sent another wave of lust to her core? Rey scooted back to position herself between the pillows as he knelt in front of her, between her bent knees. Distantly, she wondered at how she didn’t find this utterly ridiculous—spreading her legs wide enough that Ben would be staring right into her flushed, aching folds, his cock stiff and neglected against his belly as she touched herself. But then he leaned forward, balanced over her with one hand, grasped himself with the other, and gave a single, deliberate stroke.

“Gods, you’re too beautiful like this . . .” His breath ghosted over her chest as he scooted forward, setting the headboard creaking behind her. “Do you want to watch me?” 

Rey was already distracted by the gentle wash of pleasure brought on by her fingers carefully pressing inside herself, the heat radiating off his body so close, the droplets of his sweat that had just fallen from his face onto her skin. She pressed her feet into the mattress, tilted her hips to grind against her palm, and let out a gasping sigh of relief. Oh, yes, that was what she needed right now. 

“What?”

“You liked it yesterday. I felt it. You enjoyed watching me touch myself before I fucked you.” His chin dipped, and she could feel the weight of his gaze as it settled between her legs where her hand was moving slowly, everything laid bare and open for him to see. Ben’s mouth dropped, and he made a strangled sound in the back of his throat, then bit his lip so hard it went white. “Look at you, you like it now, too. You’re so wet for me.”

She liked when he was poetic. This, though . . . she liked this too. A lot. And she had no idea how to respond.

“I did. I do. It— I was— ” She gasped again and let her thumb glance over her clitoris, stretched her fingers gingerly along the soaked skin around it. “Do it again.”

 His hand was moving faster, harder, far less gently than hers had, less carefully than it had the day before in the field as he prepared himself. He was right: the sight of him giving himself pleasure, the quiet sound of his skin slapping, seeing how he liked to be touched, how easy and familiar his movements were over his own body, how he must have done this when there was no one else to see, upstairs . . . Rey whimpered and swallowed. The arm that was supporting him gave a faint tremor, and he fisted the bed coverings into his hand. 

“Does it make you wonder what it would feel like to have my cock in your hands again?” he rasped, bucking into himself. “Buried in your delicious little cunt?”

If she’d had any breath left in her at that moment, she might have gasped with delight and shock in equal measure. Ben had never said things like this to her before. He spent so much time diverting any seemingly unsavory urge, it hadn’t occurred to her he might ever let anything slip but pretty words and sweet sentiments. Were these the sorts of thoughts he fought to keep at bay around her?

That he was capable of blurting such things without inhibition and with every intent to arouse her further, as if the sight of him doubled over her, fucking his own hand while he watched her wouldn’t be enough—

She sank a finger inside, muscles fluttering at the milder intrusion, pressing gently at the hot walls until her palm was wet and flush against her mound so that she could rub herself. 

“Yes . . .” Her eyes were fixed on his face as he stared at her movements with hazy adoration. “It was— I liked seeing how you make yourself feel good— How you did it when you thought about me . . .” 

He looked up at her then, perhaps just to see her face in the moment. But she locked her eyes on his and he held them as she kept babbling and rolling her hips into her hand. She didn't remember beginning to touch her breasts, but her other hand was there, tracing, cupping, pinching. Ben’s eyes darted there once, then back to her face. His shoulders were heaving with each breath. 

“—the way you spread me all over yourself—” she said between gasps. “I wanted to—” 

She lost her train of thought. Saying such things was new to her, and her ability to think was swallowed up by light touches and wet sounds and searing looks. Ben’s eyes bored into her own; his face was pink and his chest covered in a sheen of sweat. Rey felt the rush of building pleasure finally break over her as her words melted into a barely suppressed cry—and then a spurt of something hot on her forearm and stomach as Ben finished with a final jerk of his hand and a moan that cracked in his throat. 

His spend was on her skin, on the bedclothes between her legs and the quilt bunched beside them, on his hand and wrist. She thought she even spied a few drops in his beard. He looked dazed for a moment, then expelled a long breath and moved back enough to let her sit. Rey was slower in rising; it was tempting to lie there and enjoy the gradual fade of her release until he joined her again. They should probably clean up, even start the day, but suddenly she was as drowsy as she had been when she first woke and found him there breathing slowly and smelling of straw and bed linens.

It was early yet. They could rest longer.

She wiped the worst of the mess from her belly and thighs with a corner of the blanket, then stretched out beside Ben, ignoring the damp patch on the bedding and the utter disarray of everything else. She kissed him until she forgot she was doing so at all and let the cool of the morning and the warmth of his lips at her forehead send her back into a doze.

The room was awash with mid-morning light the next time she woke contented and alone. Alone. Confused, Rey patted the dip in the mattress left by Ben’s body. It was cold. The wet spot from earlier was still there, nearly dry, also cold. She was covered, but she shivered anyway. 

Where is he?

“Ben?” she called meekly, then cleared her throat and spoke with more force as she sat up. “Ben!”

Her eyes swept the immediate area, and when she neither saw nor heard any sign of him, she stretched out with her mind in hopes of sensing his presence. He was some distance away. She scanned the room again, taking the details in more fully. His clothing was gone; his boots, his sword, Beck’s tack . . . all of it was gone. The venison they had dried was missing from its spot in the kitchen. Panic erupted in her chest as she scrambled out of bed and stumbled toward the window. 

Empty meadow. Quiet, perfect morning. Ideal for a person embarking on a long trip.

“No . . . no, no, please . . . he wouldn’t . . .”

He wouldn’t have left her. Never. It was impossible. She was being irrational. She was letting her fears get the best of her. They were too old, the promise of his presence too new. 

Still, her breath was coming in gasps and her stomach was tight as a knot when she burst out of the tree minutes later, her shift and gown thrown on in haste, her boots in her hands as she sprinted barefoot into the wood, following the pull of his presence and power. He wasn’t too far. If she caught him, if she found him, if he was leaving, she could convince him, if she could only find out why he’d decided to leave at all, if— 

Rey! Finn’s feathered body flashed in front of her in a bolt of black and white. He rounded her head and swept on ahead to keep pace with her. Where are you off to so fast? Even Benjamin didn’t seem to be in such a rush when— 

“Benjamin? Ben? Where is he?” The idea that Finn had seen him, perhaps not so long ago, lent a lightness to her steps that sped her along. “Is he far? He was gone when I woke and—”

Calm yourself. He and that foul-mouthed stallion of his are near the pond. I saw them walking out an hour or so ago. He paused and did a jaunty little wheel in the air, then added smugly, I thought to wake you but had a feeling you might appreciate some extra rest.

“So he’s not . . .” Gone. She suddenly felt very stupid indeed and slowed her mad rush.

Your knight is tending to the stallion’s coat and doing something to that awful saddle he arrived all trussed up in. He seems to be in a fine mood, for once. He even offered me a bit of jerky when I passed through. Finn’s beak clacked with irritation. Benjamin, that is. I’m still not convinced his mount isn’t actually an ass.

Rey suppressed a smile and drew her hands over her face, squeezing her eyes shut for a few moments to reorient herself. “Thank you, Finn. I . . . I worried that . . .”

Yes, I know. Try not to. He cares for you. He landed on her shoulder just long enough to nip affectionately at her ear and nudge the beads in her hair with his beak. I’ll see you later, I think, hm? Rain approaching.

She could feel that, now that she was calm again. So far the sky was clear and blue, but in the distance she felt gathering pressure and the heaviness of humidity, and she could hear the faint whisper of precipitation in the clouds to the south. Grateful for Finn’s news, she made the rest of her way to the pond at a more relaxed pace—if she was jogging, it was only because she was eager to see Ben and meet Beck again. 

The destrier had known Ben a very long time and knew things about him she did not. She hoped to befriend him as well, despite Finn’s evident low opinion. The salve and honeycomb seemed to have won Beck over on their first meeting, but she’d also sensed he was a proud creature and might require more coaxing before true trust was forged between them. That was no problem; she understood those traits too well. 

She slowed near the pond to let her breathing return to normal, suddenly embarrassed by the possibility Ben would notice how she’d rushed and wonder if she so readily doubted his desire to stay. She thought she had gotten over her fears, but every time she became too complacent, they returned. 

No more of this, she demanded of herself. Enough. Not everyone leaves.

Over the sound of bird calls and small things scurrying in the underbrush, she could make out the voices of Ben and his destrier in amiable conversation, and her heart leapt. Though she knew she ought not to spy, and rather doubted that Ben wouldn’t feel her approach, she couldn’t help dawdling on the other side of a wide tree, her back pressed to the rough bark as she tried to suss out what they were talking about.

“—no reason I need to return to Alderaan or any other kingdom with haste,” Ben was saying. His tone was firm but not unkind. “Or at all.”

There was the sound of a horse’s skeptical snuffle.

Ben scoffed. “I thought you said you liked this place. Or was it just the honeycomb?”

Of course I like this place, maggot-head. That would be Beck. I told you that yesterday. And I like her, too. Your lady witch.

Rey smiled to herself and peered around the tree. Ben had his back to her, his hair damp and his sleeves rolled back to the elbows as he rubbed something into Beck’s flank while the stallion grazed. 

“I— She— Yes. I’m glad you do.” Ben seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to scoop some salve from the jar, then dabbed it with care on one of the sores that stippled Beck’s body. “So why press the issue of the queen at all?”

You know your mother’s ways. To assume she will approve of a hastily scribbled missive sent via a very stupid bird is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard you say. 

Ben scoffed. “She won’t send anyone after me.”

Perhaps not. She’s more like to come after you herself. 

“Oh, indeed,” Ben said with a barking laugh. “I believe even the Archer Queen of Alderaan’s adventuring days are over.”

Do you not worry how she will feel to know you have no intention of ever seeing the kingdom again? Of seeing her again?

“I’ve considered it.” He crouched at Beck’s hooves and rummaged in his bag. “She long ago accepted how I chose to lead my life. And it has long been her wish for me to move on. Find happiness. The lasting sort. I think I have found the place I can do so. A person I wish to do that with.”

Have you told her that?

“In the letter, yes.”

No, not the queen. Your lady.

A pause. “Yes. In a way. I haven’t—”

Good. She is standing just beyond that tree and has been for some time.

Rey’s face felt as if it were on fire in an instant, and she gave a little groan before rounding the trunk and trying very hard to look as if she had only just arrived. She could tell by the way Ben regarded her first with alarm and then amusement that she had failed utterly.

“I apologize,” she said as she drew up to them. “I didn’t intend to eavesdrop. I . . . er. Was afraid I might interrupt.”

Beck snorted and gave his right forehoof a gentle stamp against the grass. Ben’s spent the morning telling me a great deal about how clever and fascinating and beautiful you are. He didn’t mention that you’re a terrible liar.

She took no offense, but Ben’s face had darkened to a charming shade of red. He cleared his throat and gave the stallion’s rump a whap with the back of his hand, as if to play off the shift in the color of his face as outrage on her behalf.

“Quiet, you rude beast,” he muttered, and just managed to avoid Beck’s tail as it whipped his way in retaliation. 

“It’s all right, I suppose I earned that.” She drew up to Beck’s head and held out her palm—his velvet-soft muzzle pressed firmly, then lipped at her fingers.

No honeycomb today?

Rey chuckled. “I left the house in a rush. I will give you some later, though.”

He dipped his head approvingly.

“There’s a field not far from where I live,” she said. “I’ve been told the sweetest grass grows there. Do you like rosemary?”

I’m not sure. I’ve never had it.

“It grows there, too, with many other things to eat. You will have to try it and find out.”

Yes, I will. Ben, you hobble-hocked hay-for-brains, why have you never offered me rosemary? Beck groused, though Rey felt the thread of fond humor underlying the accusation. You were right—she really does know all manner of things you don’t.

“We can take you there today,” she said, fighting a grin. 

“If he can stop saying everything on his mind, perhaps,” Ben cut in from the ground as he handed the jar of salve to Rey. “You two seem to be getting on. If you can finish with Beck, I can see to my saddle and sword. They need treating and are less prone to be insulting.”

“It will be my pleasure.” She drew a gentle hand over Beck’s withers, enjoying the way the heat had soaked into his dark coat. The sunlight pouring through the trees enhanced his exceptional form. She had seen some truly magnificent creatures in her life but had never expected one so fine to come from the kingdoms. “Nice day to work out here. I can see why you ventured out so early.”

Ben was quiet for a moment. “I didn’t mean to worry you,” he said in an undertone. “You looked peaceful, that’s all.”

She hadn’t told him of how she'd set out in a state of anxious dread, but of course he knew. “It’s all right. I found you in the end.” 

His face softened, and as he hefted the saddle into his arms, he leaned down and brushed her lips with his. He left behind the cool, bitter-sweet taste of mint leaves. 

“You always do.”

While Ben got to work, Rey took over the task of seeing to Beck. Even over the span of a single evening, the sores and scrapes that had plagued him during his weeks-long journey were already healing well. Another day or so and he would not need the salves at all. He wasn’t in a talkative mood without his knight to heckle, but she could sense his contentment and curiosity about her. When she finished, she left him to graze and waded into the shallow water to gather some pond lilies for cooking until Ben was ready to head back to the tree.

They did not spend long there. Rey remained only long enough to gather the laundry into a basket to haul it down to the stream for washing. Ben offered to join her, but she instead provided him a short list of herbs and flowers she required for her routines—poultices, cooking, spellwork—and where they could most easily be found. Some were new to her. Last night, she had consulted one of Maz's old medical manuals and paused over one page in particular as a tea recipe caught her eye, said to prevent a woman from falling pregnant. Suddenly, that seemed useful. And so her list had grown.

The stream was a much shorter distance from the tree than the river they’d bathed at, and that fact was particularly agreeable today, as she found her load larger than usual. She now not only had a handful of gowns and other garments to wash but Ben’s clothing and the bedding as well. If they were going to continue on the way they had been, she was going to need to find a more efficient way of keeping things clean—she didn’t own scores of sheets, after all, and even the easy walk to the stream took valuable time. Still, the task of washing always relaxed her, and as she sat by the shore scrubbing a stubborn stain from her hunting breeches, she heard a familiar skitter of pebbles behind her.

“I’m afraid I don’t have any nuts with me today, Poe,” she said, eyes on her task. “Though if you visit later, I’ll let you take a few walnuts.”

She glanced over her shoulder at him, then did a double take. Poe was perched on a mossy stone near her reed basket, his red fur brighter than ever even under the growing cloud cover. Next to him sat a pair of two fat, stacked acorns, almost perfectly round. Rey turned away and grimaced down at her breeches. A dubious honor indeed, to be visited not only by Poe but by his . . . friend as well.

Just a few? Poe called back, drawing his forepaws over his whiskered snout a few times and giving his tail a shake. I’ve got mouths to feed, you know.

“Of course, how could I forget.” She winced and shook her head. “Hello to you too, Bee Bee Acorn. Nice to see you both enjoying the sunshine.”

It has been a few days since I last spoke with you, Poe chirruped in a terrible bid for innocence. I thought I’d find you and see what’s new.

Rey cast the breeches aside with a snort to give her hand a break from the scrubbing and let the stream soak the rest of the stain away, then rose, pulled her shift over her head, and waded in further to rinse it as she bathed. It had been about a week since she’d done so, though today the sun-warmed water felt particularly kind on her muscles and skin. As she passed the washing cloth over her body, she felt Poe’s eyes on her. He was fascinated by human habits—and bodies—and she was never shy about answering his questions when he had them. Yet today she sensed he had something rather more prying in mind and found herself uncharacteristically protective.

“I’m planning to forage some honey, perhaps later today if the rain holds off,” she said conversationally, throwing him a look as she crouched to duck her hair under the water and run the soap through it a few times. “That’s new.”

You forage honey every spring . Poe was clearly unimpressed. He maintained a few moments of silence, during which Rey attended to her ablutions and gave him no reason to continue on. So, you and Sir Benjamin have coupled, then? Another pause, and then, as if she required clarification, Mated, I mean? You’ve lain together? 

Rey blinked down at the water and nearly dropped her cloth. He’d stopped referring to Ben simply as “the knight” or “the man” some time ago, but she suspected Poe used this current form of address as a method to cause annoyance. Judging by Ben’s intermittent complaints—he seemed to believe Poe was mocking him—it worked.

However, Poe did not usually annoy her. He did today.

“Yes,” she said, then shook her head at her own terseness. No reason to be snippy. Poe wasn’t mistaken, and it was natural that he should be as curious about her life as he ever was.

And do humans mate for life?

She felt a blush burning her cheeks. Ridiculous. She was being ridiculous. She splashed some water over her face.

“No. Well. Some do, though they call it marriage. Intercourse and marriage are not one and the same.”

Ah, interesting. Poe paused again and chattered to himself, and she spied him nudging B. B. Acorn with a forepaw as if in conversation. Then, when Sir Benjamin nurses on you, is that to prepare you for the eventuality of nursing his kits one day?

This time, Rey did fumble the washing cloth, and recovering it gave her time to wonder if she’d completely misheard Poe. He seemed to think her mute bewilderment an indication to continue.

Because he keeps spilling his seed outside of you, which does seem counterproductive. Poe tutted sympathetically. Does he not think you are ready to carry offspring? You ought to tell him you— 

“Have you been watching us, Poe?” she managed to force out, her voice strained. 

Yes, why not? Poe answered without an ounce of penitence. I’ve never witnessed human breeding habits, and I have to say, they are far more peculiar than I expected.

“They are not,” Rey insisted, aware of how lame her attempts to assuage both Poe and her own sense of discomfort were becoming. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been embarrassed in this way. What was happening between her and Ben was as natural as anything, but speaking of it felt different. Private.

Then why does he nurse on you? He even left a mark behind.

Rey blinked rapidly and glanced down at herself. Indeed, there was a small, round, reddish mark on her left breast, just above the nipple, like a bruise. She had not given it any thought until now. She’d left some marks of her own on Ben.

Perhaps if she continued to answer Poe’s questions with her usual easy candor, he would exhaust himself and go away.

“He isn’t nursing . It is nothing to do with reproducing,” she said as she scrubbed her hands over her scalp and through the ends of her hair. “It . . . It’s to . . . give me pleasure. It feels good.” 

Very good. Even talking about it now was sending a little quiver of excitement through her. Ben’s mouth was . . . magnificent.

As if he’d read her mind, Poe scratched behind his ear and said, And is that why he puts his mouth and fingers on your nether regions as well?

Rey nodded tightly and wondered if there would be no end to this torment. She suddenly had a great deal of renewed sympathy for Ben’s disposition during his first weeks here. 

“Yes. Poe, I’d love to answer more questions for you, but as you can see, I am quite busy at the moment and do need to return soon. Perhaps you can visit the tree later and we can talk some more then?”

I could ask Sir Benjamin, if you don’t have the time.

“Please don’t. He’s also very busy.” She gave Poe a pleading look. “Later, yes? Bring Bee Bee with you.”

If this satisfied him for now, it was difficult for her to tell. But he scampered across the banks a bit, then returned to his rock and took the stacked acorns up in his mouth with marked gentleness. 

Very well. I’ll stop disturbing you and visit later . As he scurried into a tree and launched himself from the tip of a branch to glide deeper into the wood, she heard him call, Don’t forget the walnuts!

 

-

 

The clouds continued to gather as she finished her laundry, and by the time she was halfway back to the tree, they released a pattering spring rain that increased in strength as she drew nearer to her destination. It could have been worse: she and the laundry were already wet, and the raindrops striking the leaves would be pleasant to hear as she hung things to dry and inspected Ben’s findings. He was there, waiting—she could feel it long before she arrived. 

When she pushed her way through the door, carrying her soggy load (and rather soggy herself), the first thing she noticed was him. He was leaning against the table with his back to her, preoccupied with something in his hands.

He glanced over his shoulder at her and smiled before returning his attention to whatever it was he was doing. “Hello, little witch.”

“Hello, sir knight.” 

Rey let her eyes linger on him a few moments. He must have gotten caught by the weather as well, because his hair sat heavy and damp, slicked back from his face, and his linen shirt clung to his back and arms with each movement as he . . . juggled walnuts? 

Still eyeing him curiously, she wandered further inside and set her basket down by the hearth. The fire he’d lit was giving off just the right amount of warmth and light to keep the room comfortable. He had even hung the line she used to dry her things across the twisted branches of the ceiling. On the table she spied the spoils of his foraging trip—nearly the entire surface was covered with greens and berries, fungi and strips of bark, neatly arrayed—and went to investigate.

“You had some success,” she said with approval. “Is this everything on the list?”

“It is.” He sounded pleased with himself.

“These, though”—carefully, she held up a small bunch of blue flowers with thin, slightly curved red thorns just beneath the blossoms, tied together with a thread of vine—“Crowned laceflower? I don’t believe I asked for these.”

“Is that what they’re called? I had never seen them before. They’re eye-catching. I thought you would not mind the thorns.”

She twirled one of the stems between her fingers and admired the way the light shone through the almost opaque blue petals. “So they’re a gift?” 

“Yes.”

“Thank you.” Rey brought them to her nose to breathe in the sweet, mild fragrance—and to hide the stupid smile Ben’s gesture inspired. He turned to look at her, and it was difficult to take him seriously when he was still tossing walnuts around. “Did a court jester teach you that?”

Ben snorted. “No. It was a traveling jester.”

“Oh, my apologies!” Rey chuckled and returned to her laundry by the fire. “Is there really a difference?”

“The traveling jesters had more interesting stories. And I hadn’t annoyed them enough that they would turn down my interest in learning some of their tricks.” 

The table creaked as he stood to follow her without missing a single catch.

She threw him a disbelieving look. “You know, I thought I’d already found out the biggest surprises about you, but you keep proving me wrong.”

“I’ll need to devise ways to continue doing so,” he said distractedly, half a smirk curling his lips as he maintained the flow of objects between his hands, into the air, and back again. She watched for a few moments, tracing the pattern with her eyes, yet her attention was drawn from the nimble motion of his hands to the faint twitches of his arm and chest muscles through his damp shirt.

“Teach me.” 

"To juggle?"

"Yes, of course." She tore her eyes away and stretched up to hang one of his spare shirts. “Perhaps after you help me finish this hanging?”

“I confess I’ve been enjoying the view. You’re very pretty in the firelight.”

“Funny, I was having the same thought about you.” She raised an eyebrow as she began to loosen the laces of her dress so she could hang it with the rest.

The walnuts hit the floor with a faint clatter, then Ben cursed under his breath. One rolled past Rey’s feet and beneath the edge of one of her trunks, and she dropped to her hands and knees to grope for it. 

“Think I’m pretty, do you?” he asked lightly as her fingers coaxed the fumbled juggling prop from under the trunk. 

“I said what I said.” Though technically, she hadn’t. “You’re very beautiful.”

He gave a derisive, disbelieving snort, and she realized he was right behind her. Still on her knees, she shuffled around to look up at him. He was holding a hand out, either for the walnut or to help her to her feet, but she remained there, rolling the thing in her palm. There was something she’d been considering for a few days; something Poe had inadvertently reminded her about. She stole a look at the window, as if the thought of Poe might summon him bodily to the tree.

The window was blessedly empty and let only the soft sound of the rain through.

“Ben . . .” Rey ran a hand down his thigh, lips pressed together. “Can I put my mouth on you?”

Something in the hearth popped. “Put your mouth on me?” From below, the sight of his jaw working was even more endearing. “You want to kiss me?”

Now he was being deliberately obtuse. 

“No. I mean the way you’ve done to me. Here .” Her hand slid from his thigh to his groin, and his cock gave a reactive twitch from the light stimulation. “Would you like that?”

For the second time, the walnuts fell noisily to the floor, and neither of them pursued them. 

“Y— Yes.” Ben cleared his throat and took a few steps back. “Now?”

“Unless the juggling is really that diverting,” she said, amused by his poorly concealed eagerness. He blinked down at her, and she sighed. “Yes, now. Though I suppose the offer stands.”

“Now is good.” 

Oh, thank the bloody goddess . Rey shuffled closer, still on her knees, and made to grab at the laces of his trousers.

“Ah, wait. I can sit.” Ben caught her wrists and huffed a short laugh. “I think it will be easier that way.”

She stood and followed him back to the table and chair. “Have you done this before?”

“Had a lady take me with . . .” He trailed and shook his head as he sat, looking at her with a wry smile. “No.”

To her surprise, she liked the idea that she would be the first person to pleasure him this way, the way he had been for her. She knew he was more worldly and experienced in many ways, and it meant little to her. Yet it was a funny feeling to know there was plenty left undone and that he might experience some things for the first time with her. 

She eyed him expectantly. “Should I . . . er. You’re not quite ready, I suppose.”

Ben raised his eyebrows, his expression puckish despite the faint color the bluntness of her statement and gaze brought to his cheeks. 

“Do you not know what to do about that?”

Rey smirked and stole closer. She pushed his damp hair back from his face, then leaned down to kiss his temple gently as she straddled his lap and settled against him. He deepened the kiss immediately, catching her lips and opening his mouth to hers, his hands bracketing her cheeks. With a fluttery sigh of contentment, Rey wrapped an arm around his neck to pull herself flush with his chest. She drew her other hand along the back of his neck and up into his hair before digging her nails against his skin the way he had seemed to like before; he liked it now too, given the lascivious growl he issued against the hollow of her throat.

She felt a flash of what he claimed was the rage digging its claws fast into his mounting arousal and attempting to ride that surge to its own release.  Yet Ben wasn’t shrinking away at the first sparks of it the way he usually did. He rucked the skirt of her gown up with a frustrated huff and gave her rump a slow, deliberate squeeze before dragging his hand down her thigh and tugging at her bodice laces with his teeth. 

“Take this off for me.”

“Soon.” 

Rey was rocking herself against him, enjoying the lazy spread of desire and the feel of him getting harder with each roll of her hips. She crushed her mouth to his so hard their teeth bumped together and clenched her thighs around his waist to hold herself to where he strained against his trousers. Only when he expelled a desperate moan and broke away, his thumbs digging at her hip bones, did Rey release him slowly and slide to her feet.

“I need you to calm it.” His voice was husky when he dragged her near again and tipped his forehead against her belly. “Before you touch me again.”

For a moment, she was tempted to deny him and insist the thing he felt might not be the rage at all but part of himself: his desires and his needs, even the ones he deemed unvirtuous or unsavory, just another thing that made him human . . . but she did not wish this to become an argument. She wanted to know what he tasted like and hear him cry out when he climaxed from the work of her mouth and hands alone. 

Her eyes fell closed and her breathing slowed as she let her lips rest against the crown of his head, her hands held lightly at his temples, and willed calm and peace over him. The bunched muscles in his neck and shoulders loosened. He pressed his face against her stomach for a few moments like he wanted to breathe her in.

“Good?” she asked.

“Yes. Thank you.”

She tutted and finished unlacing her gown to let it fall around her feet, then laid it out in front of him to give herself a soft surface on which to kneel. Her shift was hardly transparent, though it clung enough that Ben’s jaw went slack as she settled in front of him, pushed his knees apart, and made short work of his laces.

“I’ve thought about doing this to you since the day you finished all over my thigh,” she admitted with a smirk as he lifted his hips to help her tug his trousers past his knees. “Tasting you again.”

“I’m glad you found that so inspiring,” he said, “because I thought it was mortifying.”

“I could tell.” She shrugged. “Still, I thought you’d ask for this at some point, but you never did.”

“I feared it would offend you.” He paused a moment and then laughed at his own ridiculousness. His thumb brushed her cheek.

Rey gave a light chuckle and pushed his shirt up so she could see more of him. His abdomen was tight, the lined muscles twitching with anticipation. With a finger, she followed the trail of dark hair from his navel to where it ended in coarse curls around his erect cock. There was already a small amount of that wetness she had felt on him this morning, something like his spend emerging from the tip in little drops. But it was the scar at his hip that drew her first; how she had wanted to kiss it and every one of the scars that marked him, even the first night she’d seen him. 

She started there, caressing his chest and stomach as she pressed her lips tenderly to the jagged, poorly healed twist of skin. She heard his surprise in the way he sighed and felt it in the way he gently stroked her neck with the backs of his nails.

“Will you tell me if what I’m doing pleases you?” she whispered, trailing her lips over and then lower, peppering kiss after kiss and pausing only to catch the scent of his hot skin or the tremor of his pulse. “How you want me to do this?”

“Yes, if you—” His breath hitched as she drew her hand loosely down his shaft and cupped beneath his balls. “If you want me to.” He chuckled. “Though I think you’ll be able to tell if you’re doing something right.” 

Rey drew back and stroked him dry a few more times as she remembered that yesterday he had smeared her arousal along his length before penetrating her. There was . . . quite a lot of him. She’d known that, of course, but she had never been face-to-face with it, so to speak. Was he expecting her to be able to take all of that into her mouth? And what would she do with her hands? What if she bit him by accident? It wasn’t like her to overthink this sort of thing, but suddenly she couldn’t stop herself.

“You can just . . . try bringing your lips around the head at first,” he muttered after a few moments. “If you’re unsure about being able to— ”

His sentence ended in a strangled grunt as she ran her flattened tongue in a long swipe up the underside of his cock, spreading her saliva with her thumb as she went. She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting—it just tasted like the rest of his skin, smooth and hot, the solid thickness of it pleasing against her tongue, a slight salty tang from the moisture she’d licked away from the tip. She took him in her mouth then, just as he’d suggested, one hand braced on his thigh as the other continued to curl carefully around him. Experimentally, she rubbed beneath the head with her tongue in short back-and-forth swipes, pressing and sucking until he made that sound again. Her whole body pulsed as a blush swept up her neck.

“Good. Like that. Yes . . .”  His hand was in her hair, not pushing or tugging or trying to guide her movements but petting her lightly. He shifted a little in the chair. “Use— You can use your hand, too. The way you have before. It’s much the same.”

She broke away to take a breath and eyed the shiny slickness of her saliva on his reddened skin, then wrapped her lips around him again, swirling her tongue, curious this time to see how deep she could draw him before it felt like too much. She moved slowly, acclimating to the way he filled her. His hips began to tense and tremble. She drew back before the head of his cock brushed her throat, curling her tongue against him as she reached the tip again and stroked his shaft more firmly.

Ben only offered a few more intermittent statements in the way of guidance—harder and slower with her hand; try a twist of her wrist when she squeezed; her tongue and lips were perfection, his little witch; he liked when she let her fingers glance over his balls on a downstroke—before his reactions became mostly nonverbal. A catch in his breath, a low moan, a hand caressing her hair, a finger stroking her cheek or curling over her ear. Soon, she’d found a rhythm that worked for them both, bobbing and pumping her head and hand in unison and daring every so often to test herself again and let him brush the back of her throat, always letting up before she risked gagging herself. She couldn’t take all of him, but she was surprised by how much she could fit.

His hips did move when she did it another time, once and then again, pushing deeper like he was about to start thrusting into her. He gave a hiss as if in apology and stilled himself when she began to pull back, his hand tightening in her hair.

She hummed against him and felt goosebumps spread across his skin under her palms. It had startled her, but she wondered too what it might be like if he did let himself be rougher. She could ask him to, though as it had earlier, the thought of actually saying so made her belly squirm with nervousness. She could think of how to ask next time. For now, the fact that she was the one drawing each sound and quiver from his body was its own kind of magic, a sort of control she had never experienced before. She moved her free hand between her legs and clenched for some relief.

“Little witch . . .” His hand slid to her shoulder as she teased him with a flutter of her tongue. “You should probably . . . gods .” His hand tightened as if to dissuade her. “Pull away and let me finish myself so you don’t . . .”

Why ? Rey’s brow knit with a small frown, and she took her mouth from him just long enough to thumb a string of saliva from her lip. He was looking down at her with parted lips and glassy eyes, his breathing shallow, his hands still curled in her hair. With a slow, wolfish smile, she kept her eyes locked on his and enveloped him in her mouth once more, working her lips over him and squeezing his slicked shaft as she drew back up toward the tip.

Rey —” 

If he’d been about to warn her to draw back again, he didn’t finish the thought. Instead, he shuddered and climaxed with a tight gasp and another buck of his hips that sent a shocking gush of hot spend over her tongue and down her throat. Rey’s hand twitched and tightened as she gave a close-lipped peep of surprise and swallowed reflexively, then a few more times with each pulse of his cock until no more came. She released him and drew the heel of her hand across her chin to catch whatever had escaped.

“Did you just . . . I didn’t have to finish in your mouth like that, it’s—”

“I didn’t expect you not to,” she said, licking her lips with a look of consternation. She glanced at his softening cock. “Is that wrong?”

“Ladies do not always . . . desire it. That’s all.” 

She narrowed her eyes. “You said you had never done this before.”

“I haven’t.” There was a hint of worried defensiveness in his voice.

“Yet you seem very certain about what a lady must desire during such an encounter.”

“I have overheard things. In certain company.” When she only regarded him with curiosity, he continued his hurried explanation. “Some find it unpleasant and prefer to spit it out. Or have the man finish elsewhere.” 

“Oh. Well. I didn’t find it unpleasant.” Rey sank down to rest her bottom on her heels, her chin at his knee as she ran a hand idly up his abdomen. “It was surprising, I suppose. It won’t be the next time.”

He was silent a moment, then shook with a contented snicker and brushed his thumb over her lips. “So long as this isn’t what you thought I meant when I said I would find more ways to surprise you.”

 

-

 

The rain tapered off a few hours later. When they ventured out of the tree to take Beck to the grazing pasture for his promised rosemary and sweet grass, the sun had returned enough to set the trees and plants glistening warmly in the late-afternoon light. The pasture was good for more than just grazing—it was thick with brambles and fruit-laden bushes. As Beck trotted off with a delighted whicker to fill his belly and let the sun warm his coat, Rey and Ben picked berries at their leisure. Every so often, he stopped her to ask about a plant he did not recognize, but otherwise their work was silent. 

Rey was seated on a tussock of reddish grass, stripping bark from a curling liana vine, when a chill swept over her whole body and made her pause. An instant later she heard Beck’s shrill cry of alarm, followed just after by a shout from Ben. She threw the vine down and leapt to her feet, knife clutched tightly in her hand as she took off toward Beck, who was half-hidden behind a dense clump of blackberry bushes. A short distance away, Ben was running as well.

The horse was high-stepping awkwardly, ears pinned tight against his head, nostrils flared, eyes wide, and swearing worse than ever. 

“What is it?” she asked when she reached him. She was not confident enough in his regard to place a comforting hand to his neck, but she hovered close. She could tell that Beck wanted to bolt but was held back by years of training. She scanned the area hastily and found nothing amiss. “Beck, are you—”

Ben practically slid to a stop in the wet grass. “Were you bitten by something? A snake?”

I wish it were a snake. Look there, Beck demanded, tossing his head in the general direction of a strange divot in the grass, then finally giving in to the depth of his distress and prancing several meters away. It’s what I told you of . . . it was not this close before.

A sickening knot formed in the pit of Rey’s belly. She did not want to look. Still, her feet carried her toward the spot Beck had indicated when she willed them to do so. Ben snatched her wrist.

“Wait—don’t . . .”

“Don’t what?” she asked with a scoff. 

“Don’t just . . . go . Let me examine it first. Whatever it is.” 

From the way his face had blanched, Rey suspected Ben had a very good idea of what awaited them. 

“Then be calm and come with me. If it’s another broken ward or a carcass, I’ll show you the purifying spells. It may be best if we both do them this time anyway. I think you will take to them easily once you understand the magic involved.” She found some comfort in explaining the familiar to someone less initiated; it kept her voice steady. “It’s a bit like weaving.”

“I have never woven a thing in my life, little witch.” 

If he was trying to hide his worry with levity and endearments, it wasn’t working. Rey took his hand and pulled him along with her as Beck stood by, his agitation filling the whole pasture as if amplified by something malign. 

The dip in the grass, which might have been a spot a deer had bedded down a night or two, was scraped gracelessly as if with huge claws. Deep lines were raked into the dirt. Tufts of dark, coarse fur were caught on shriveled branches and thorns like blackened dandelion puffs. Nested at the center of it all was a pile of half-eaten carcasses. They were torn apart and mangled to such a degree that Rey could not distinguish one from the other, much less identify what species any of them had been, but to her eye there seemed to be at least ten. Her only comfort was that none were human.

And then she noticed something laying across the top of the pile. Holding her breath, for even the air was more rank than it should have been with all the gore, Rey crouched slowly to try to make it out. She recognized it and froze. It was a string of bone beads she had carved, blessed, and threaded together last year for one of the ward posts close to the clearing. Their clearing. The beads were gnawed and spattered with blood and flecks of mud. 

Whatever spells she’d set on it had corroded and were soaked with darkness instead. She could feel it pulsating from the carcasses and into the earth and grass. Rey jolted back so sharply she nearly dropped her knife. This was worse than the last time. Nothing was keeping it away, and they still didn’t know what it was.

A warm hand was stroking her back, a second caressing her hair. Ben had crouched beside her and she hadn’t even noticed.

“What are the purifying spells?” he asked. When she didn’t respond right away, he took her chin gently between his fingers and turned her face to his. “Rey.” She saw her own dread reflected in his eyes. “How do we start?”

She breathed out and closed her eyes to center herself. “Um. First we must—”

A twig snapped somewhere behind them, and Beck whinnied. Something is coming .

Rey’s eyes opened as relief began to dull edges of her fear. “I feel it too.”

“Wait here.” 

Ben was off before she could tell him to wait, yet she shouted after him all the same. “Ben, stop, it’s not—!”

Only meters away, the large, sleek body of the wolf-formed Green Spirit dodged Ben’s blind advance and circled around him. He whirled nearly in the same moment, his body bunched and coiled, and from the wild look in his eye, Rey feared he was about to give in to his worst impulses. He hadn’t raged in nearly two months. Was he even capable of it anymore? 

She didn’t want to find out. Not this way. Yet the Green Spirit was unbothered. In the same instant Ben appeared to realize his mistake and tried to draw himself back, the Spirit swatted him onto his back with a single swipe of her great paw and pinned him beneath her. She wasn’t touching him—her forepaws dug into the earth at either side of his head, her back legs boxed him in at the ankles, and her snout was inches from his neck.

Ben’s chest was heaving, and he looked as startled as he had the day Rey had found him ghost-pale and staring into the darkened trees. “I— You’re not— My—"

If the hedge witch had not claimed you as her own, I might have knocked your head from your shoulders, Knight, the Spirit said. 

Despite her harsh words, Rey knew her well enough to realize she was toying with Ben; though he did not see it that way. He grit his teeth and attempted to scramble clumsily backward, as if afraid to touch the Spirit and unable to throw her magic from his limbs. 

“I mistook you for the creature that did this, come back to wreak more carnage.” He turned his face away. “My sincere apologies. I’ve seen things. A large canine beast.”

Is that so?

The Spirit licked her chops and gave a groan of dark amusement, then let him up and loped toward Rey as he stood and brushed himself off. Beck was regarding the latest developments with caution, and though he seemed to sense the wolf was no true beast and would not do him harm, he did not come nearer.

“There are more bodies, Spirit,” Rey said, fighting the quaver in her voice. “Like the others. Desecrated and full of darkness. Part of a ward post, too. The creature should not have been able to touch it, but I know it’s mine.”

For the first time, Rey wondered if this was a message of a more personal nature. Whatever was doing this knew where and who she was. Or perhaps, where and who Ben was. Had he brought this evil to the wood?

She could not let herself think that way.

I was grazing, Beck cut in. He ambled a few steps nearer, then threw his head back. I didn’t notice until I tasted the grass around it. Slimy and bitter, like it had been tainted and left to rot in the dark and damp. I’ve never tasted anything so foul. It’s still on my tongue.

Ben lingered near Beck, one hand resting on the destrier’s cheek as the other stroked his snout. “Rey is going to purify the area, as she did the last time.”

“We both are,” Rey corrected, throwing him a sharp look. 

Let me inspect it before you do anything further , the Spirit said. Have you moved or touched anything?

“Of course not,” she replied.

Good. Leave it to me this time. The perpetrator may not be far, and night will be upon us soon. The wolf prowled toward the pile of corpses, her head low and tail relaxed. Her nostrils twitched with each breath as she carefully nosed at the remains. Rey had no idea how the Spirit could bear to be so near it all, let alone touch it. With a low whine, the wolf pawed at the ground and inspected the marks her claws left behind. The three of you should return to the tree. Do not venture out until morning. 

Ben seemed about to protest, but Rey caught his eye and stared at him until he nodded. “As you say.”

“Thank you, Spirit.” 

I will return with news when I am able. Tread carefully until then. 

The Spirit fixed them with her steely amber gaze until they began to move away, as if she had no intention of continuing her routine until she felt certain they would obey her command. With haste, Rey packed the rest of the berries, herbs, and stems into her bag, then followed Ben and Beck toward the treeline. They were barely out of the pasture before Beck bent his head toward Ben to whisper something in his ear. 

“He says we will travel more quickly if we ride,” Ben told her. He slowed beside the horse. “Would you like to?”

“Oh.” Rey had never ridden a horse before. She had a foggy memory of riding her family’s sweet-tempered old mule once; he’d told her funny stories. Beck was much larger than the mule had been and not as kindly. She was at once flattered that he had offered and intimidated by the prospect of moving at speed astride his enormous back. “Yes, maybe that will be best. How do I get up?”

“Come stand beside him. I will help you mount and then sit behind you. You won’t fall.”

You may hold on to my mane. But don’t pull at it.

She clucked her tongue as she approached. “I’m not afraid of falling.”

Ben gave a skeptical hum but said no more as he lifted her effortlessly to help her onto Beck’s back, then hoisted himself up as well. As he settled behind her, his legs boxed her in securely, and his chest against her back felt solid as a wall. He cleared his throat and pushed her forward a bit more, then drew his arms around her to weave his hands near hers in the long tresses of Beck’s mane.

“Grip with your thighs and keep your middle engaged to stay centered. Lean against me if it helps,” he said into her ear as he adjusted his position behind her, then muttered to himself, “This is a good deal easier with a saddle.” 

One of Beck’s slender ears swiveled and twitched.

Your arse is heavy enough without one of those blighted torture devices thrown into the mix, thank you. He swatted at Ben with a flick of his tail.

And then they were off. Under any other circumstance, the simple, uncomplicated elation of the new experience would have lifted her spirits for hours afterward. Instead, it was only a minute or so until Rey’s mind wandered back to the Spirit and her evasiveness. 

Rey did not like being uncertain of what was going on. She did not like knowing that something lurked nearby, growing bolder and hungrier, and that the Spirit was intent to face it alone. Yet this was what the Spirit was tasked with. Protecting the land. Protecting Rey and her home. Protecting those she cared for—Finn, and Poe, and Rose. Ben.

The intruder would be found. She only needed to be patient and vigilant. Soon the wood would be safe.

Chapter Text

The storm returned during the night and then fled before dawn like an illicit lover.

Ben walked carefully across the slick roots and damp grasses. Although the rain had gone, the clouds remained; the light filtering through the trees was muted and weak and did little to chase away the thin fog that hovered at Ben’s knees. 

Rabbits lolloped between low shrubs and paused to shake the condensing droplets from their ears, their fur darkened by dripping foliage. Songbirds perched in high branches and fluffed themselves, and droplets as fine as mist puffed out from their bright bodies with each quick flutter of their wings. 

Ben was grateful for the animals’ appearance; with nothing hopping about or warbling softly overhead, it would be far too easy to imagine a black-furred monster slinking out of the dim undergrowth. Somehow, the sight of a yellow warbler whose feathers were so fluffed it looked nearly spherical felt almost as comforting as the leather grip of his sword against his palm.

The honey was close, Rose had said early this morning. She’d buzzed about the windowbox then landed on a hollyhock near the sill. After preening the water from her feathers, she spoke of a sizeable hive a few hundred steps in the opposite direction of the sunrise, sitting low in a gnarled oak that grew at the base of a short cliff. Easy pickings.

Rey was hesitant about him going off by himself, and in all honesty, Ben had felt the same, but she needed to repair the beads and the wards upon them and she couldn’t very well do that while slipping over moss-covered roots.

The Green Spirit still prowled, he’d assured her. The most dangerous thing he’d encounter would be one of her great paws cuffing him again as if he were no more than a misbehaving pup. And it wasn’t as if he was going very far; the honey lay well within the strongest wards. 

In order to further assure Rey how safe he would be on this tiny quest, he’d even left his armor in the tree, taking only his sword. She accepted his confidence with uncertainty, though now as Ben stepped through a forest as bleak and murky as the underworld, he wished when he’d gone through the door, he’d been a bit less confident and a bit more armored. 

Perhaps a bit more leisurely in his leaving, too. The memory of her hot mouth closing around him pulsed low in his belly despite the ominous chill of the surrounding air. If he’d stayed longer after they’d broken their fast, would she have wanted to try another one of the situations she’d discovered in her ‘erotic manuals?’ 

Ben tightened his grip on his sword. He needed to be alert to his surroundings, able to react instantly if any threat appeared, yet all he could think of was the soft cry she’d made as he watched her bring herself to completion, the first hesitant swipe of her tongue along his cock, the hungry way in which she’d swallowed his spend.

A little stream lay ahead. The water was clear and looked cool enough to temper the thoughts racing through his mind. He crouched at the bank, skimmed his fingers over the surface, and was about to bring a cupped hand to his mouth when there came a scraping skitter behind him. 

Ben whirled, or at least, as much as he could whirl while crouching, and yanked his sword partly from its sheath, then stilled his hand with a growl.

Poe blinked at him from the base of a thin tree. The tension in Ben’s lungs came out in an irritated huff. His sword hissed as he shoved it back into its sheath. 

“Yes?” he said to the squirrel. 

Poe rose to his haunches, nose twitching. You chose not to take my advice.

“What advice?”

Beady black eyes darted to Ben’s crotch. His fluffy tail twitched. You mated with her.  

Of all the foul pestilences on the planet, why did he have to be plagued by this one? Fury roiled through Ben’s veins. That moment in the clearing with Rey had been pure, and perfect, and—more importantly—it had been theirs alone to experience. He had wished the loss of her innocence to happen without prying eyes or gossiping mouths, as had been the case during his own, but for all of his wishing, he hadn’t accounted for Poe. 

Ben spun on his knees to face the squirrel and stabbed a finger at him. “Listen here, you mangy, bucktoothed bastard,” he snapped. “That was private. An...an act of...intimacy,” he added at the confused cock of Poe’s head. He worked his jaw and tried again. “Not meant to be viewed by any passing creatures with unhealthy, voyeuristic curiosities.” 

Poe swished his tail and chittered. Then why were you out in the open, if not to allow others to observe? He jumped at Ben’s frustrated ‘Gah!’ and his tail lashed with more vigor. 

Ben could have said the clearing held a significance to them both and somehow seemed the logical place. Or he could have said he hadn’t actually thought too much about it, because the moment he’d wondered about potential viewers was the same moment Rey had begun riding him as if he were a warhorse himself. But those reasons were personal. Private. 

“Just...don’t do it again,” he said instead. 

Poe gave a little chuff of irritation, then began to fastidiously groom his tail. 

A clump of moss dipped in the stream worked well enough as a sponge, and Ben used it to scrub the dirt from the leather sheath, needing to focus on something other than this conversation. 

The sun hadn’t quite risen yet when Ben had woken to the warmth of Rey’s hindquarters pressed flush against his groin. It was a miracle, really, that she hadn’t started out of sleep at the insistent prodding of his hard cock, and Ben had briefly thought about waking her so he could ask if she’d like them to try being intimate again. Yet the Green Spirit’s warning had seemed too close, the piled carcasses still too fresh in his mind. 

Now, after Poe’s admission, Ben could only feel relief neither Rey nor himself had tried anything; at Rey’s insistence, Finn, Poe, and Rose had all slept high in the rafters the previous night. 

The thought of beady eyes analyzing their coital methods in a too-small, creaking bed made Ben’s skin crawl.  

Poe patted the ground with his forepaws and Ben was reminded of a child stamping his feet in frustration. I just wanted to know, he chittered. I hadn’t seen human mating before. It was utterly unlike anything I’d—

“Don’t do it again,” Ben repeated. “We will not be fodder for your...field notes.”

I don’t have field notes.  

“Then your…journal, or your diary, or whatever scratchings you’ve made in bark.” He’d been gesturing at random, and he realized his gesticulations were now mimicking the strangulation of a squirrel. Ben forced himself to clench the grass by his hip. 

Poe bruxed in irritation. How can I write my observations if I don’t have thumbs?

Ben felt one of his eyelids twitch. 

Besides, I don’t need notes. My friend has an excellent memory.  

Oh gods, not that again. Ben normally couldn’t quite decide between humor and pity when it came to Poe’s short stack of acorns, but now it hovered on the edge of fury. He spun away from the squirrel and dipped his cupped palm in the stream. 

And I’m not mangy.

Ben sent a glower over his shoulder. “What?”

You called me mangy. My fur is pristine. He hopped in a tight circle, showing off his glowing coat. 

“Fine,” Ben muttered under his breath as he raised water to his mouth. “I’ll just stick with ‘bucktoothed bastard.’” He ignored the offended ‘harumph,’ and drank. The water was so cold it hurt his teeth, but he was thirsty, so he reached for another handful. 

In the meadow, why did you supply your nutrients to the grass instead of Rey? 

“What?” Ben said again, not even bothering to turn. The hell did that even mean? He gave up on scooping water and knelt down to drink right from the stream. 

Your seed. And why did she seem so keen on ingesting it later, when she was taking your organ into her mou—oh, great nuts! Are you all right? 

It felt as if half the stream had gone up Ben’s nose. His chest seized in hacking coughs and his eyes teared at the awful sting surging through his sinuses. Damn that rodent. Damn him.  

“You...you little...flying...fuckwit!” Ben shouted through choked splutters as he entertained a brief fantasy about punting Poe through the trees. 

Poe shuffled his paws. I asked Rey, but—

“You asked her?” It exploded from him in a bellow that pinned Poe’s tufted ears to his head.

Yes, of course. She didn’t seem to want to tell me anything, though, and I’d hoped— 

Ben surged to his feet. “She didn’t tell you because it is none of your fucking business!” His voice echoed through the forest and startled a concealed rabbit into bolting. “I don’t know why our private matters continue to be of such perverse fascination to you, but the next time I see you lurking where you should not be lurking, I’ll pluck out your beady eyes and feed them to the birds. Perhaps you’ll truly learn something, then.” 

He could feel the rage under his skin, bright and prickling. It urged Ben to unsheathe his sword and swing it with such force that it embedded deep into the soil; it urged him to destroy, to crush his foe under his boot. 

Ben paused. His ‘foe.’ At the moment, his enemy was a squirrel whose body barely stretched the length of his forearm. 

The hairs on Poe’s tail were sticking straight out like the bristles on a brush. The poor creature stared up at Ben with terrified, unblinking eyes, his paws spread wide and his little legs trembling. 

Ben hissed a curse. Poe might have been an intrusive, irritating prick, but he was still just a squirrel. Raking both hands through his hair, Ben sucked a deep breath through clenched teeth, then tipped his head to the sky and let the air out in a tight growl. His hair was damp where he’d nearly fallen into the stream and it dripped water along the collar of his shirt. On a warmer day, it would be refreshing; this morning, it was just another addition to his frustration. 

When he looked down at Poe, the squirrel flinched. Ben rubbed his forehead. 

“I won’t pluck out your eyes.” 

Then why did you say it?

He tapped his fingers on the sword’s pommel. “I was angry.” 

A blinded squirrel could have seen that. Poe hadn’t moved from his crouching stance, though his tail wasn’t quite as bushy. 

“It’s…” Ben chewed his cheek. A low pain pulsed in his temples. “You have a nut cache. It is yours, yes?”

Poe nodded. 

“And you don’t wish to share it with anyone.”

Another nod. The magpie tries, though. 

“If he succeeded, how would you feel?” 

Poe sat up straighter and scratched underneath one arm with a hind foot. I would feel like I’d need a better hiding place.  

The pain in his temples burned brighter. Ben scraped his palm down his face. “You would be mad because he took something that wasn’t his.” 

Well, yes, I suppose so.  

“When Rey and I were together…when…” He bit back a grumble. Poe could have watched any number of their interactions; perhaps specificity was not on his side. “Whenever we are together, what I say and what I do are for her. Those moments belong to her. To us.”

Ah. Poe settled on his haunches and sent a lingering look at his stacked acorns. They are your nuts.  

Blazing balls. Fine, he would follow that logic if it meant the animal was beginning to understand. “Yes.”

And...and I am the magpie. 

Ben breathed out in relief. “Yes.” 

Just as it is not the magpie’s business what I do with my nuts, it is not mine to know what you do with yours.  

The tight clamp of Ben’s lips barely held back his startled snort. He cleared his throat. “...Correct.”

If Poe had intended to make a pun, he didn’t show any sign of finding his own words humorous. But at least he was understanding. 

The air felt crisp on Ben’s damp collar. As he brushed downed leaves from his shirt, he caught sight of a large, gnarled oak in the distance. Rey would be worrying, he was certain, and he wasn’t inclined to make her stew in anxiety longer than she had to.

“I must fetch the honey,” he said after a moment of uncomfortable silence. 

Yes, yes, of course, Poe said absently. His mind appeared to be elsewhere. On the mating habits of hedgehogs, possibly.

Ben jumped over the narrow stream, and Poe called out, You...you weren’t serious about my eyes, then?

He sighed and glanced back at the squirrel. “No. But I was serious about you keeping them off things you have no right to see.”  

Right, right. Poe said it quickly, as if he wasn’t entirely convinced his eyes were safe. Consider me learned. He tenderly picked up his acorn stack between his teeth and tried to chitter a goodbye through it.

Ben waved him away. The oak was close, and home was waiting. 

 

-

 

When the door swung open, Rey was sitting primly in her chair, her legs crossed and her face a calm mask. Unlit candles stood in clusters on the table and surrounded wooden bowls and a long string of white beads. There was a new braid in her hair, though it lacked a fastener. Her posture was the sort of forced calm held only by someone who, seconds earlier, had been watching at the window and had darted to a chair in an attempt to imply composure. 

He’d sat in that same chair yesterday, when she’d gotten to her knees in front of him and dragged her tongue along the length of his cock. 

“Did you find it?” she said, standing and brushing invisible debris from her dress. 

In response, Ben held out the earthenware jug, still a bit out of breath from the return journey and now the wayward tumble of his thoughts. The honey was dark and thick and filled the jar almost to the lip. 

When Rey saw it, she let out a happy ‘ooh!’ and snatched the jar out of his hands. “There’s so much!” She glanced at him with a bright, proud grin. “And not a sting on you.” At first clinical in her search for welts, her gaze lingered on his neck, his chest, his hands. Ben heard her swallow as her attention returned to the jar. 

“All was well?” she asked, seemingly to the honey. 

“Yes.” Ben unbuckled his sword and set it against the wall. “The forest feels...calm today. Better.” The only disturbance he’d felt was when he’d been asked about his ejaculate. Remembering the conversation led to remembering the situation that had inspired the conversation, and his neck prickled with heat. He cleared his throat. “I tried calming the bees in the way you suggested earlier. It worked well, at first.” 

She raised a brow. “‘At first?’”

A drop of honey had oozed down the side of the jar, and Ben swept his thumb over it before it could drip to the floor. “You didn’t tell me they would be so irritable when the spell ended.” He brought his thumb to his mouth. Underneath the sweetness, there was a spice to it that reminded him of cinnamon. 

“But you have no welts,” Rey said and licked her lips. Days ago, he would have wondered what she found so appetizing; now, the slow crawl of her gaze over his body left little to misinterpretation. Never had Ben realized how delirious it felt to be craved like this, and to crave in return.

“I ran faster than the bees,” he said.

She broke into a startled giggle, and the honey jar tipped dangerously. 

Ben took the jar from her, unable to keep his smile at bay. “Careful, you can’t taste any if you spill it over the floor.” 

“Is it so good, then?” 

“Good enough to warrant a sprint through the forest.” 

Laughing, Rey dipped a finger into the jar. “Maybe we’ll read about it in the next epic tome: ‘The Knight and the Bees.’” 

Ben would have responded to that—because he did have some very good ideas about grand poems of love, lust, and stingered insects—but when Rey sucked her finger into her mouth, he forgot them all. 

Her eyes fluttered closed as she let out a lascivious moan. With a pop, her shining finger emerged from her plump lips. 

Desire coiled in Ben’s stomach so quickly his knees almost buckled. In an instant, he was remembering how she’d sucked his cock; how it had shone with her saliva in the dim firelight; how when she’d moaned around him, her throat had vibrated against the aching head. 

“I think you might be right,” she said. “This is worthy of a dozen sprints through the forest.” It took a moment for Ben to realize she was still talking about the honey. 

“I...it…” he said. Any other words tangled on his tongue as she plunged two fingers into the jar and noisily sucked them both clean. Gods above.  

Rey caught him staring and slowed the pull of her fingers from her mouth. A drop of honey glimmered on her skin close to her chin, deposited by her enthusiasm. She gave an embarrassed chuckle and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. 

“You might think after these months I would grow used to no longer being alone,” she said. “I never had to worry about eating daintily before.” 

Ben couldn’t tear his attention away from that drop of honey. Without explanation, he bent down and licked it from her skin. The taste of her mingled with that of the honey: one just as sweet as the other.

Rey’s surprised gasp brushed his forehead, and she closed her fingers on his shirt’s front. 

He was about to pull back, ready with an apology at his impulsive action, but—no, with the way she was arching into him, an apology would be far from her mind. 

“Ben…” She said his name like a plea, like she could wrap it around him and hold him within it. 

He dragged his lips to hers, and they opened at once against the eager press of him. She sucked his lower lip into her mouth and nibbled it—she seemed to enjoy doing that, he’d noticed; not that he minded one whit—and his hand closed on her waist, holding her, squeezing her.

Shit, the honey. Ben righted it just in time. He guided the two of them to the table with little grace, as Rey was more interested in kissing him than figuring out how to walk backwards, and set down the jar with a dull thump. 

Both hands now free, he made swift work of her gown’s laces and was about to slide it over her shoulders when she said, “Wait!” and stepped away. The conniving glint in her eye halted any worry. 

He reached for her dress once more. “Why?” he said, then grunted when she smacked his hand away. 

“Take off your shirt.” 

Ben tilted his head and gave her a disbelieving smirk. “Are you unable to do so yourself, little witch?” 

A pleased flush brightened her cheeks, as it did whenever he used the name on her. “I like seeing you do it.” 

Although the frantic haste in which she stripped him of his clothing would always heat his skin as if he were made of embers, she appeared to have something particular in mind, and he was more than willing to pursue it. Ben tugged his shirt from his trousers and yanked it over his head, then cupped her nape and dipped down to take her again. Before his lips could claim hers, she held her palm out to him and, just as had happened on his first night in this tree, he found his body frozen. 

When he’d first woken to the sensation, it had been frightening to suddenly realize he was unable to move; now, it excited him. The air around his limbs felt like the tight, eager hold of a lover. 

“I told you to wait.” There was a melody to her voice and, just like the grip of the air, this too reminded him of those first nights. But when he’d been pinned to her bed, she hadn’t grinned at him. 

Rey returned to the honey jar. 

Ben’s lips twisted into a wry smile. “Are you going to eat as you—aahn.” His sentence broke into a groan when she smeared the coated pad of one finger across his pectoral. 

She licked the remaining honey from her finger, letting her gaze roam freely over his torso. 

Ben narrowed his eyes at her. “I’d been wondering when I’d next be sticky enough to warrant a scrub in the river.” 

“Don’t worry, Sir Knight,” she purred. “I’ll make sure you won’t stay that way.” 

Then she gripped his sides, leaned in, and licked the honey from his body with one long swipe of her tongue. 

Ben choked on the air in his lungs. “Witch,” he whispered, as if it were the most wonderful curse. He wanted to twine his fingers in her hair, tip her head back and expose her neck to dribble honey over her, but her hold on him was just as solid as it had ever been. 

She scooped out another dollop of honey and trailed it over his stomach nearly to the band of his quickly tenting trousers. Not one long lick this time; no, she nibbled at his skin as she cleaned the sticky mess from his abdominals. Blood rushed to his groin in a mad swirl of arousal. With a quick look at the obvious growing ridge, she bit her lip and slid her palm over the length of him. 

But he still couldn’t move, couldn’t buck his hips into her touch, couldn’t do a single damned thing except choke out a groan. 

Or...well…

He focused on the air around her dress and forced the fabric to slide over her shoulders and down until it slithered to the floor. Rey made a monosyllabic squeak of protest, which Ben ignored, instead shucking off her shift in the same fashion. Despite the lazy fire within the tree, the air was chilled and Ben watched as her skin puckered with gooseflesh, watched her nipples pebble into firm peaks. The mark he’d sucked onto her breast hadn’t quite faded yet. He stared at it, oddly delighted by the sight.

Rey huffed in outrage and aimed a finger at him. “That is...that is unfair, sir.” 

Ben cocked an eyebrow. “When you chose to tease me in this way, you gave up any claim to ‘fairness.’” He raked his attention over her bared body as she stood before him seemingly unsure whether she should be more flustered or impressed. He tried to move and found she continued to hold him fast. No matter. He’d never used magic to move another person, but...well, this would be the perfect opportunity to practice. 

The air firmed around Rey’s body and then twined about her wrist so it could pull her hand toward the honey jar. Her mouth fell open in shock as stuttered, half-formed words tumbled out. 

“What— When did you learn how to…” she managed. Her breath was coming fast, her shoulders rising quickly with each inhalation. 

“I’ve had a skilled teacher.” 

“But…” 

Ben encouraged the air to dip Rey’s finger into the honey jar. Droplets landed on the table and the mossy floor as he guided her hand to her chest, then dragged her finger over her nipple. She let out a short, high gasp. 

“Ben!” 

He made her hand return to the jar and smear honey over her other nipple. A drop fell from her breast and landed on her belly, beside her navel. Her stomach tensed when the droplet trickled lower. 

“Ben!”  

The look he gave her was entirely devilish. “Let me go, little witch, and I’ll clean you off.” 

Her breath hitched and she flicked a heated look at his groin before settling it on his mouth. “And what…what would you do if I let you go?” 

It struck Ben that she appeared to be waiting for him to speak the way he had yesterday morning: lewd profanities that burst out unchecked, admissions of such shameless lust they later made his ears burn to think on them, even though Rey had so obviously enjoyed hearing it all. He’d never said such things out loud, and it was with more than a little thrill that he realized he enjoyed hearing them as well. 

“What would you like me to do?” he said in an attempt to goad her into speaking her own desires. They were in her mind, he was certain; they only needed to be guided into the open.

She blinked rapidly and stared at his chest. “I...er…” Her flush darkened and spread to her neck.

The honey shone on her nipples, as enticing as any lavish dessert. “Tell me,” he said, struck by the low rasp of his own voice. 

Rey visibly trembled at the sound of it, and she shut her eyes as if to help her concentrate. “I’d like you to…” She bit her lip and furrowed her brow. “Make love to me.” 

It amazed Ben that such small words could hold so much promise and generate such heat. The way she said it, too—like it was an order—sent a tingling flutter beneath his skin. But he forced himself to ask, “Are you still sore?” 

“I…” She gave him an unwavering look. “You could find out.” 

Her fingers flexed and the air around Ben rippled, releasing its pressure against him.

Rey squeaked as he lunged at her. His hands closed on her waist to keep her still as he covered her breast with his mouth and sucked the honey from her nipple. Sweet and perfect. 

Her squeak deepened into a throaty moan, and she twisted her fingers into his hair. The light scrape of her nails against his scalp drove him higher; her incessant tugging made his head swim and his skin sing. 

Her other breast was as delicious as the first. Ben thanked the stars that he’d retrieved the honey—despite the murky forest, and the awful conversation, and the fact that he’d had to run away from bees. 

He bent lower to suck the droplet from her belly, then leisurely made his way up to her neck. She felt so small enclosed within his hands, even as she wriggled and keened against him like a vixen in heat.

With one arm wrapped around her back, he reached to cup her sex. Gods above, she was so wet for him. His cock pulsed painfully against his trousers. The trousers were too tight. The trousers needed to go.

“I...I liked when...your fingers…” Rey said, panting before she broke into a moan.

At least she was making a solid attempt to speak her desires. 

A growl of satisfaction rumbled from him when he found her soaked and as hot as a furnace. He slowly eased one digit into her, ready to withdraw the instant she flinched, but she only moaned and bucked her hips to take him deeper. If she no longer felt pain from the act… Possibilities exploded in Ben’s mind. Rey wasn’t the only one who had gotten ideas from flipping through that instructional tome. The concept of ‘face-riding’ seemed especially alluring; perhaps they could try it today. She could straddle his mouth, squeeze his head with her thighs, come against his tongue. 

Heat roared in his skull. His palm brushed against her clitoris and he ground the heel of his hand against it. Another finger slid in alongside the first and together they pumped into her, coaxing broken cries from her mouth, and slick, wet sounds from her cunt. The heat roared louder. 

When he kissed her again, it wasn’t sweet; he pillaged her mouth until his lips felt bruised. His hand moved faster, harder. 

Red flared behind his eyelids and he felt the rage flash up his spine like wildfire. 

No. Not like this.

Panting, he pulled away from her and withdrew his hand, though she let out a little whine of protest. She’d done away with his trousers, he noticed, and as his cock brushed her stomach, it left a shining trail of precum over her skin. The rage had sensed his shifting focus and was sinking its sharp claws into his flesh.

“I need you to do it again,” he said desperately to Rey. “Please, I need…” 

Her eyes brightened. She dropped to her knees and before he could stutter out an alarmed ‘No, wait, not that,’ she’d wrapped her hand around his shaft and sucked the tip of his cock through her lips. 

This shouldn’t be happening. 

But gods, her mouth was a wonderful, skillful thing. 

It was too much. 

She sucked him deeper, swirling her tongue around the head, using her saliva to ease the pumping of her hand.

He would hurt her.

A crackling heat spread through his limbs.

He would…

Ben twisted her hair around his fists, keeping her still as he bucked his hips into her. He heard her sharp inhalation, felt her hands tighten on his wrists. Her mouth was so wet. So hot. The rage flared in satisfaction as it urged him onward. Another buck of his hips took him deeper, and deeper, until he was nudging at the back of her throat and feeling the vibration of her muffled yelp. Her throat convulsed, and through the red haze, he heard her gag around him. 

Awareness crashed upon Ben. He lurched backward in horror and slid out of her mouth with an obscene pop. His waist collided with the table and rattled it against the window. 

“I-I didn’t...I’m sorry,” he stammered. 

Rey’s eyes were glazed, her breathing ragged, her lips reddened and shining with saliva. She brought one hand to her mouth and jerkily wiped it across her chin. A short laugh burbled from her. 

“No, no, it…” Locks of hair tangled over her shoulders where he’d used them to pin her. “I hadn’t expected...that.” Heavy-lidded eyes flicked to his, and she licked her lips. “You’ve found another way to surprise me, it seems.”

Ben’s breath stuck in his lungs like the honey he’d so carefully collected. She’d somehow accepted the side of himself that had haunted him for more than a decade. She hadn’t run, she hadn’t shrunk away, she hadn’t driven one of the chipped swords through his gut. But this wasn’t the full rage. It lurked at the moment, impatient and irritated at the interruption, and could still come back even stronger.

He gripped the edge of the table until he could hear the wood creak. “I need you to calm it,” Ben said, then added quickly, “Before we do more. If you want more. Or we don’t have to—” 

“Ben.” Her smile was crooked and held more than a little skepticism. She rose to her feet and brushed the moss from her knees. “I’m not nearly done with you yet.” 

His cock, curse it, twitched under the heat of her gaze. 

Then she turned from him and padded to the bed. “But I’m not going to calm you this time.” 

Did she not remember how the rage had driven him to crush a face-eater with his bare hands? Did she not remember how he’d thrown her against a tree? 

“You can’t mean that,” he said tightly.

Rey perched on the edge of the bed so she faced him. “If you want it calmed, then you can do it yourself.” In response to his disbelieving frown, she continued. “You’ve stopped it numerous times before you” —she waved a hand dismissively— “fully lost yourself, as it were. You obviously have more control than you wish to believe.” She arched a brow and gave him a sly smile. “And when you’ve...settled…” She leaned back on her elbows and lifted one foot to the mattress, opening herself to him. “Well, come to me when you’re ready.” 

He could feel the rage pricking up at the sight of her shining cunt bared to him; it screamed orders to throw himself on the bed and take her, take her hard, take her now. Ben turned to the window and squeezed his eyes shut, breathing as hard as he’d done on his race through the forest. 

He could do this. Right? 

He had made a flower grow in the middle of a meadow, he’d learned to talk with wild animals, and he’d manipulated the air in order to make Rey drizzle honey over her own nipples. 

Communing with the perversion of suppressed magic within himself would be just the same. 

Certainly.

One deep breath, then another. He focused on the flow of air through his nostrils, through his throat, became aware of the tender stretch of the muscles between his ribs. It was a simple task to open himself to the world, but he had never tried to open himself up to himself. There was something sharply disquieting about trying to do so, as if he was preparing to peel away his flesh and observe what lay underneath. 

The deeper he looked, the more weightless he felt. And then, in a rush of vertigo that had him bowing over Rey’s table, he saw it in his thoughts, pacing and snarling like a wild thing caged: 

The rage. 

Rey had claimed it was his suppressed magic, and perhaps it had once been just that, but after so many years of companionship, it had become its own entity. With a jolt of pained realization, he understood that he would never be rid of it. 

There were times over the years he had wished it gone. After several years of waking with limbs as weak as soaked reeds and a headache that could cripple a giant, it was only natural to hope for a day in which he could live without the rage directing his battles as if he were nothing more than its doll. 

As he watched it pace, limbs swirling and rearranging like it was made of a heavy fog, another realization struck him: of course he would never be rid of it. The rage, the magic—whatever name landed upon it—was as much a part of him as his heart or his bones. Trying to banish it would be the same as trying to slice off a limb. 

The more he focused, the more solid its feelings became. The rage acted out of self-preservation; if Ben was killed, then it too would cease to exist. Yet when he had felt it rise up while with Rey, it hadn’t been from the need to inflict pain or destroy an enemy, but from the need to take her. Not with any sort of violence, though— just as Ben craved her with a desire so powerful it left him shaking, the rage wanted her too: although in a rougher, more carnal fashion.

That wasn’t necessary. 

Ben aimed his concentration at its pacing form. Settle, he told it. Take a nap. You’re not needed now.  

He didn’t so much see its suspicion as feel it vibrating against his chest. 

Settle, he ordered again. 

If Ben thought about how impossible it would seem to open himself up to what was essentially still him, he probably wouldn’t have tried. Yet when he did just that, the rage seemed to recognize some feeling Ben hadn’t yet discovered. Contentment oozed from it and it tucked itself into a tight ball like a tired hound. 

He knew then that it would come when needed, and though it might crack open an eye and strongly encourage certain actions, it was happy to leave him in control for now. 

Ben opened his eyes. Candles and bowls littered the table where he hunched over it. His hands had curled into fists and he forced them to relax, then pushed off the oak surface and straightened. 

When he breathed in, he could feel the rage as a feather-light brush at his fingertips, as cool as a summer storm. 

Rey still perched at the edge of her bed. She’d been watching him. Her bent leg had relaxed and tipped outward, further exposing her pink cunt, and she was idly winding a braid around a finger. 

“Well?” she said, canting her head to one side. 

He was settled. Or, at least, part of him was. The rest of him wanted nothing more than to finish what they’d started. His eyes roamed over her body, remembering how her heated skin had felt pressed underneath him, how her moans had tickled his skin, how her slick sex had fluttered around him as he filled her. 

Perhaps his thoughts had shown on his face—Ben had never been overly schooled at controlling his expressions—for Rey’s eyes widened and she shifted back on her bed, her small breasts rising with each quick breath. He started for her, stalking across the distance between them. The awareness that had focused internally now expanded outward, and he could feel the skipping thrill in her chest at the change that had come over him. 

Ben stopped at the edge of the mattress. Rey had shuffled to the middle of the bed, anticipation bringing a bright flush to her skin.

“And?” she said as she darted a quick look at his rapidly returning erection. She bit her lip. “Was that so...hard?” 

Ben only smiled at her, the same sort of smile he’d imagine a fox would give a mouse, then pinned her hips between his hands and yanked her forward. She let out a surprised squeak, which tangled into a broken moan as the head of his cock prodded at her entrance. 

Her head lolled on the mattress, and her hands fisted the blankets by her head. “Oh, please.” She said it as a soft cry, a desperate plea. 

Ben hummed in thought. “You may have to wait, little witch.” He swept his thumbs over the sharp ridge of her hip bones, pressed his fingers into the curves of her ass. “I fear the honey has done nothing for my appetite. I find myself still hungry.” And before she could utter another word, he dropped to his knees, spread her legs, and covered her cunt with his mouth. She arched against his face, her fingers tangling in his hair as his tongue swirled over her soaked skin. The taste of her overwhelmed him, even more so when he stiffened his tongue and pushed it into her. And, oh, the sound she made then—a crescendoing ‘ooh!’ of surprise and delight. He kept at it, sucking and licking and even scraping his teeth across the sensitive bundle of nerves he was beginning to know so well, thrusting into her with two fingers until his lips and his chin and his hand were covered in her. 

The rage perked up, then. He could push harder, bite the soft skin of her inner thigh, fuck her with his fingers until— 

Ben shooed it away. Mine, he thought. This experience was not to be shared. A little idea flitted across his mind that, perhaps later, he would use the nut metaphor and see if that worked on the rage as well. He frowned against Rey’s labia. No, dear gods, best to forget about that entirely. 

Instead of any further musings, he doubled his focus on the woman splayed out in front of him: tasting her, feeling her clench around his thrusting fingers. Her moans grew louder, her hold on his hair tightened. For a second, he feared she might yank locks straight from his scalp, but he didn’t cease his onslaught until her legs trembled and she came with a high scream, squeezing his pumping fingers with her cunt and shuddering out broken, lovely strings of incoherent praise. 

When she stilled at last, Ben pulled away, wiped his mouth, sucked her from his fingers. His shoulders were damp with sweat from the backs of her knees, his blood pulsed low and urgent in his cock.

Standing, he ran his palms along her thighs to her waist, then from her stomach to her breasts. She was so soft; he wondered for a moment what she thought of his roughened, callused hands on her delicate skin. 

Rey arched against his touch, her breath coming in gulping, ragged pants. She’d shut her eyes at some point and made no move to open them, not even when he lifted her to the center of the mattress. She rolled on her side as if her bones had turned to putty.

Muttering a short prayer to hopefully extend the lifespan of the bed frame, Ben climbed up to straddle her leg. She did crack open one eye then at the heaving jostle: an unfortunate combination of large man and ancient timbers. 

He lifted her other leg against his chest and dragged the head of his cock through her slippery folds. Gods, she was achingly wet. Unbearably wet. Ben groaned at the feel of her, then pushed the tip inside. 

Rey let out a long, high moan, pressing her open mouth against the blankets. 

“Tell me if this is too much,” Ben said, sounding strained to his own ears. “Tell me if I...if I need to stop.” 

She shook her head rapidly. “More,” she blurted. “Give me more. Please. Ben.” 

A swift buck of his hips, and then he was filling her. Gods, she was heaven. Soaking and hot and so tight he felt likely to burst. He lifted her leg higher against his chest and thrust again. Pleasure flooded him, white-hot and intoxicating. He thrust again, and again. Her breasts bounced and her hold on the blankets tightened. 

There came a loud snap from the ropes underneath the mattress. Ben froze. 

“Oh no…” Rey’s cheeks were flushed and shining, and though she still panted, she looked to be biting back a laugh. “You might have something of a prophet in you, sir,” she said breathily. 

This damned bed. 

He glanced around the room and his eyes landed on a section of inner trunk by a bookshelf that appeared smooth. Rey squeaked in surprise when he scooped her off the bed and lifted her in his arms. She wrapped herself around him as he went to the wall, squeezing his waist with her long legs, her fingers digging into his shoulders. Ben realized then that he had never carried her. He would use any excuse to do so, after this. 

Rey’s back met the wall and she let out a little ‘oof!’ It was a tricky thing then, to balance her with one arm while his free hand aligned his cock with her, especially when she was moaning softly and wriggling against him, but soon enough he was gliding into her, grunting against her neck, drowning in the perfect feel of her body. 

She shifted, and her moan became one of irritation. Ben pulled his face from the warm hollow of her throat. 

“What?” he said. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s… The bark is rough. My shoulder blade, it’s just…” Rey shook her head quickly as if to shuck off any importance of her words. “Please…” Her hands swept across his back in frenzied movements. “D-don’t stop.” 

But Ben had to. 

It was bafflingly idealistic to think he could prevent her from experiencing any more physical distress. Perhaps it was the chivalric tendencies that had been branded into every one of his actions since he’d first learned to use a sword; perhaps it was the accumulated, rosy poems that spoke of protection, and love, and devotion; perhaps it was just as simple as not wanting to see her pretty face twist in pain ever again. Naive as that all seemed, it didn’t make him feel it any less.

Ben stepped away from the wall and cast about for a more suitable surface. The floor, although covered in moss, would be too hard. The ladder? Perhaps, though...how? He hadn’t yet reached that chapter in the book. Rey’s table was cluttered with bowls, candles, and trinkets. Or maybe her chair— 

Rey began to move on him, squeezing his hips with her thighs and driving herself onto his cock. She tugged his hair, dragged her nails along his scalp— gods above, how he loved when she did that—then licked a long, slow stripe up his neck and nipped at his earlobe.

Any remaining patience scattered. 

Ben spun them both around and made his way to the bed, then tossed Rey upon it while he remained standing. “I’ll make you a new one,” he growled. 

She gave a little breathless giggle as he dragged her hips to meet his. “That should be…” Her groan mingled with his when he entered her, and she arched her back. “Ahnn…interesting.” 

Even with her tight, silken body surrounding him, Ben had to narrow his eyes. “‘Interesting?’” 

A coy bat of her lashes did little to disarm him. “I’ve seen how you... mmhh ...I’ve seen how you craft a door.” Her breasts were bouncing again, the bed protesting with sharp squeals. 

The nerve. 

Ben gripped her thighs and lifted them high against her chest. She cried out at the deepness of it as her cunt took him to the bollocks. Her heels dug into the tops of his shoulders, her hands scrabbled at his forearms. 

He bucked into her hard, though not as hard as he would like. The rage, having been unnaturally silent so far, slithered into his mind and whispered to him how nice it would be if he turned her over, fucked her from behind, drove himself in her fiercely enough to break the damned bed into kindling. 

With far too much coincidence, a beam on the headboard cracked in half. 

If the bed broke, it would interrupt this. Ben wanted no interruptions. 

He pulled on the rage’s squirming fervor and twisted it into the magic he knew how to control, directing it to the old wooden posts. The rage wanted him to wind his fingers in Rey’s hair and pin her to the mattress with it; instead, he called out to the tree’s fibers and roots and encouraged them to grow up around the failing bed frame. The rage wanted him to rut into her as if he were no more than a beast seeking its pleasure; instead, he poured magic into the broken wood, directing it to thicken and double over its splintering weak points.

The bed no longer squealed. It no longer shook. When he glanced up at it, the headboard was now covered in a lattice of finger-thick woody vines from which sprouted fine green tendrils and even a few pale pink flowers. Ben huffed in triumph. 

“Ooh.” Rey had followed his gaze to the newly structured wood. 

Excitement lit her face when she looked at him, and her smile was more beautiful than any bloom. 

Ben cleared his throat. “Are you...pleased?” He pursed his lips at the pink flowers. They were charming but rather unnecessary. 

“Mmm. It seems stronger.” Rey’s smile turned sultry, and Ben grunted when she began to circle her hips. “Worth it to check, though.” 

He tightened his hold on her thighs, then flexed into her with one swift thrust. No creak, no shake. He thrust again, just to be certain. Satisfied, he began a steady rhythm.

Sweat gleamed on Rey’s chest, her neck, her stomach. There was a delicate blush staining her cheeks. Gods, she was beautiful, laid out before him like this. Her blush deepened when he told her as such. 

A teasing corner of her mind brushed his, and he had the sudden urge to keep talking. She wanted him to. 

Ben glanced down at where they were joined. “Do you have any idea how good this looks?” he rasped. “How nicely your sweet, pretty quim takes me?” 

Rey shook her head, her eyes wide. 

Tell me. It came through his head in a whisper, a gentle breeze of encouragement. 

He grunted with the next thrust. Sweat was beading on his forehead, dripping down his chest. He watched her eyes track one drop as it skimmed his pectoral. “You’re so spread out, I can see all of you.” Returning his gaze to her cunt sent a pulse of pleasure through him. “Soaking. You’re— Gods, you’re dripping. Flushed and swollen, parting around my cock. I want to have you come on me all fucking day.” 

Rey gave a soft whine and bit her lip. She tightened around him, and Ben praised her on that as well: how tight she was, how wet, how perfect. He praised her breasts as he cupped one, endless endearments about how lovely her body looked in his hands. 

He kept his thrusts slow, though the bed no longer showed any signs of weakness. 

A guttural moan burst from Rey’s throat. “S-see?” she slurred, her eyes heavy-lidded and glassy. “You didn’t need me to... ahhn, calm anything. It’s...it’s gone.” 

Ben trailed his fingertips over her stomach. “It’s still there,” he said, then added quickly at her sharp breath, “It’s calm.” He stroked the swell of her hip in a gesture meant to reassure. “But it’s there. It wants to…” The sentence ended with a chuff, and he shook his head. 

“What?” Rey asked with barely restrained intrigue, glassy-eyed no more. “It wants to what?”

He’d thought that revealing the rage’s designs would frighten her, yet her responses to his talk thus far gave him pause. Perhaps she would like this, too. 

Bracing himself on his elbows, he leaned forward. Rey cried out with the change in angle; her legs remained over his shoulders, allowing Ben deeper than he’d been before, if that had even seemed possible. His balls brushed her drenched entrance, and he had to tip his head against her chest for a moment at the overwhelming feel of her, unable to do anything more than clutch the bed covers in his fists. 

Her unsteady breaths ruffled the hair at the crown of his head. Ben had never felt the urge of possession so strongly; buried within her like this, he wanted to shout to the sky that she was his. His witch. His beloved. It made him simultaneously exhilarated and skeptical, for Rey could belong to no one but herself. 

He could claim her breasts though, he thought as he nipped the bottom swell of one. If her soul and her heart belonged to her, he could at least lay claim to these wonderful, pert parts. And her nipples; he would claim those, too, he thought as he dragged his tongue across one and sucked it into his mouth, basking in her pleasured cries and the unbridled arch of her back that pressed her torso against his. 

Oh, and her neck. He licked along it just as she’d done to him earlier, from her clavicle to the edge of her jaw, tasting her skin and her sweat. Thoughts were rapidly fleeing from him, so before they could leave completely, he whispered the response to her question into her ear.

 “It tells me to pin you down,” he said. “It tells me to take you so hard your teeth ache.” 

Rey gasped, and he felt the sharp bloom of her excitement and the rush of warmth where they were joined. 

He gently closed his teeth on the shell of her ear. “I think you might want that too, little witch.” When her only response was a tight moan, he grabbed her wrists and secured them over her head with one hand, using the other to hold her hips still as he jerked into her once, hard. Her cunt fluttered around him; her limbs trembled. 

“Do you want that?” Ben asked. He longed to hear it. Let me hear you say it.  

She blinked rapidly. A crease formed between her brows, and Ben caught her swift flash of longing. At first confused by it, Ben pursued that yearning until he came to the memory that was its source: the rough manner in which he’d responded when she used her mouth on him the second time. It burned bright and wild in her mind, titillation swarming with surprise at the unexpected thrill of his actions. 

“Ah, you do,” he said, soft and satisfied. “You enjoyed when I took your mouth hard.” The rocking of his hips into her quickened.

Rey nodded rapidly. “I...I liked when…” Her words dissolved into moans. 

Ben released her hands and set his palms alongside her hips for better leverage. “Say it.” 

Her face scrunched, as if she was holding back what she wanted to say. But Ben had to hear it. He needed to hear how her voice cracked around her desires. 

“Say it.” 

“I liked when you f-fucked my throat,” she blurted. 

And oh gods, it sounded better than he’d imagined. Go on. Please. More.  

Perhaps she heard his thoughts, or perhaps the first admission was the crack in the dam. “I want you to...to rut me from behind,” she said around gasps, “and... ahhn... push my face into the blankets.”

Hells. His hips bucked faster.

“I want to ride your face until I soak your beard.” She spoke more smoothly now, gripping the bed covers with one hand and his forearm with the other, her eyes trained on his. “Your cock is so hard, Ben. It’s so big. I love feeling it stretch me out.” 

Seventeen sons of Saint Sebastian, any more of this and he was going to finish sooner than either of them would like. 

“Touch your pretty cunt for me,” he grated. “I want to watch.” 

She attacked her clitoris with a frenzy he’d not seen before. Then she was crying out as she seized around his cock, little convulsions rippling along the whole length of him. 

The warm tingle swirled through his balls, and although he said nothing, Rey must have known somehow. 

“Wait!” she said and scrambled farther onto the bed. “Get on your back.”

Ben’s breath stuttered, his brain and his cock trying to come to terms with the fact that he was no longer inside her.

“Get on your...oh, just…” Taken off guard as he was, she was able to grab his shoulders and shove him onto the bed. Once he landed, she—well, to say that she pounced on his cock might not have been the most flattering term, but it certainly seemed to be the appropriate one. She sucked him into her mouth, smearing her own fluids across her lips and her chin and, blazing cods, the exquisite suction and the rapid pumping of her fist sent him over the edge with a strangled yell. 

She kept sucking as he came, and what cum she couldn’t drink down dribbled from her mouth and ran along his cock until it was caught up by her fist. 

He twitched underneath her ministrations, the pleasure quickly becoming too much, before she ceased and straightened. A hand swiped over her mouth sent a few droplets of his spend from her chin to her breast. Ben couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. After a moment, he realized that his jaw was slack and he snapped it shut. Swallowed. 

Rey crawled over to him and snuggled against his side. How was she so mobile after what they’d done? He could barely manage breathing, and his heart pounded into his ribs as if it was trying to escape. 

She bodily lifted one of his arms so she could nestle underneath it. Her happy sigh tickled his chest. 

“I need to fix that poem about you,” Ben said at last, when he rediscovered how to form full sentences.  

“Mmm. Which poem?” 

“‘Listen close, child, listen quite well, for deep in the trees’—” 

“Oh, yes,” Rey interrupted and wrinkled her nose in distaste. “What do you need to fix, other than the whole thing?” She shifted to drape an arm across his waist.

Ben rubbed her wrist with his thumb. “It’s missing a verse.” 

Rey gave a short, inquisitive grunt. 

Ben put on his best bardic intonation as he said, 

“‘Tis a shame how she plunders

The hills for a weed,

But far deeper she’ll delve

In search of your seed.”

Rey’s gasp of outrage lacked weight, mostly because of her giggle, though the slap of her palm still stung against his stomach. “Did you just make that up?”

“No, I’m not that skilled,” he said with a smile. “It’s been on my mind since…” He lifted his head to look at the chair across the room, then cleared his throat. “Since yesterday.”

“Oh.” There was a grin in her voice, and Ben turned to look at it, leaned in to kiss it softly. She hummed happily against him before shimmying higher on the bed. “Aren’t you uncomfortable?”

Ben glanced down. When she’d tossed him on the mattress, he’d landed with his feet on the ground and his legs half-off the bed. He hadn’t had the wherewithal to rearrange himself. 

In Rey’s shimmying, her breasts passed close to his face and he held her still, despite her squeak. 

“No,” he murmured against her chest. “This is fine, right here.” Her laugh vibrated through his lips and he kissed the swell of one breast. “The kingdom has a saying, for the winter. ‘Colder than a witch’s tit.’” It came out a little muffled, for his mouth was occupied. 

Rey snorted. “Flattering.” 

“Utterly wrong, though.” 

“Glad you’ve found the error of their ways.” 

“Someone had to.” 

His position was becoming uncomfortable, and his toes prickled with chill, so he followed Rey farther onto the bed where she again nestled against him. There was a scar on her right bicep, he noticed, and he ran his thumb over it. 

“What was this from?” he said. 

Rey glanced at it. “Wild boar. I was trying to hunt it, years ago. Meat had become scarce that winter, and…” She shrugged. “It charged. I’m lucky to have such a small scar. That’s when I first learned the magic to kill.” She said the last part softly, as if it still held some pain. 

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, since he didn’t know what else there was to say. 

Shifting onto her elbow, she looked down at him, traced the purpled weal on his pectoral. “Where did you get this?”  

Ben grunted. “Spelled blade from a necromancer. Don’t think it ever healed how it should.” No thanks to the poison also coating the knife. 

Her fingers trailed a semi-circular series of puncture marks on his right arm. “And this?” 

“Ah, that.” He huffed a short laugh. “A gloomwitch had been taking infants from a town, using them as temporary lodging for passing demons. I didn't know as such when I picked one up.” 

Rey’s brows shot up and she stifled a laugh. “This is from a baby?” 

“From a demon baby,” he said defensively. 

Mirth twinkled in her eyes. “Oh, of course.” She tipped her head and traced another scar, and soon, he found himself spilling the tales. The jagged blemish on his shoulder was from a sawfish that fed on livestock and children who wandered too close to a riverbank. A dire wolf cub left the short, white line above his eyebrow. The divot in his thigh was an old jousting wound. A cave-dwelling hag witch had thrown acid his way and left a long, snaking scar above one elbow. Thankfully, Rey didn’t ask about the divot on the bridge of his nose, caused by a night of far too much mead and forgetting about the low clearance of the apothecary’s door frame. 

Rey traced the puncture on his side from the fight with his father’s guard. “This one, I know,” she said. 

“Oh?” 

An embarrassed flush lit her cheeks. “When… Er...the night after you raged. In the clearing. After, I was applying poultices to your body. And I touched it.” She gave him a nervous look. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t. But I felt it and knew that it was… That it still caused you grief.” Her lower lip whitened between her teeth. 

Perhaps once, he would have felt angry at the supposed invasion of his history, but now he only felt curiosity. 

“Could I do that? Feel you. In that way,” he added. 

She guided his hand to her face and the little scar on her cheek. Ben explored it with his thoughts, plumbed the memories of muscle and skin, and then he saw a girl—teenaged and gangly and freckled—shrieking as her spell twisted under her fingers. He felt her fear and then her pain as a shard of shattered rock grazed her cheek. 

Ben brushed his lips against it, and her cheek dimpled beneath him as she smiled. 

When he lay back once more, Rey swept a finger down his newest scar, from above his eyebrow, along his cheek and his jaw, to his chest. “What would I feel here?” she murmured. 

What, indeed. If she tried, she might sense the uncertainty that had driven him to leave her tree and risk the perilous night over whatever possibilities lay with remaining under a witch’s power. She might sense the sharp pain of a lashing tail and a jagged claw, or the biting chill of a lingering winter. 

Or, she might sense that, recently, whenever he caught a glimpse of the long weal, he could only think of how it had bound him to her as effectually as if they had been tied together. Through the curling threads of fate, or destiny, or the combined wallop of dumb luck and impulsive decisions, he had stumbled to her doorstep and she had taken him in. And now, he could not imagine his life without her bright smile and her stubbornness and the way her honey-and-moss eyes narrowed when she was impatiently waiting for him to answer a question.

Ben lay his hand over hers and pressed her fingers into the healed skin. “You,” he said. 

She scoffed, though her mouth twisted in a pleased smirk. “Not the face-eaters? Or gaping, bloody wounds?”

“Now that’s—" 

“Or a stubborn knight sprinting into the snow without his boots, convinced I was a monster?” 

He glowered at her. “Hush, witch.” When she opened her mouth to continue her argument, he kissed her, cutting her off quite effectively. Her displeased grunt eased into a moan as he rolled on top of her. She tangled her limbs around him, tipped her hips against his. 

The day was growing late; the woman beneath him was warm and giddy. They could stay like this until the moon rose, twined about each other, and the world would be content to wait. 

Suddenly, Rey squirmed out of his embrace and sat up, panting, her eyes wide and her face blanching.

“What’s wrong?” Ben said and reached for her, but she shrugged off his hands. "Rey?"

There was no knife, no blood, yet she gasped and shuddered as if she had been stabbed, curling in on herself with a low, broken wail. 

“Rey!” He closed his hands on her shoulders. He wanted to fight whatever was hurting her, but there was no foe, nothing that he could defeat.

When she looked up at him, her cheeks shone with tears, and her wide eyes were red-rimmed. “Do you feel…” A horrible realization seemed to descend upon her then, and she whirled around as if expecting to see demons skulking in the shadows or perched on the high rafters. 

“Feel what?” All Ben could sense was her own horror and grief; it struck at him like a hail storm, cold and stinging. 

Rey stilled. Her gaze darted to the window and lingered there. “No…” she whispered. And then she bolted from the bed, swiped her shift from the mossy floor, and darted through the door before he could reach out an arm to halt her. 

“Rey!” he shouted. “Wait, stop!” The sun was too low on the horizon. Night was too close. The forest might have appeared calmer earlier, yet the Green Spirit had instructed them to be wary of the woods until it said otherwise. And they had not seen the wolf since yesterday. Ben stumbled from the bed and grappled with his trousers, worry and fear churning like acid in his gut. As he passed his sword, it leapt into his open palm; he wasn’t certain if he called upon the air or upon the metal, and didn’t much care to take the time to discover which.

He sprinted through the open door into the clearing surrounding Rey’s tree. The moment he passed over the step, the sense of wrongness hit him like a club. On any other day, birds would have been singing raucous melodies as they put themselves to bed. The woods would have dripped and creaked and snapped with movement. A breeze would have rustled leaves and brought the smell of distant rain. 

Now, there was only silence. All of the surrounding foliage seemed faded, as if the world had gone sour. Ben sucked in a breath and gagged; the oily tang of dark magic oozed through his nose and into his lungs, coating his tongue. The air seemed to pulse and writhe against his skin like a leech.

Was this what Rey had felt? No, there had been more, he was certain. A feeling such as this would not draw him farther into the woods and away from the safety of home; if he alone had felt this, it would have urged him to light a fire and seal the door tight. 

Yet he was not alone. 

The white flash of Rey’s shift disappeared between the trees and Ben chased it. Stones sliced at his feet and thorns raked across his bare chest. He had to be faster; he could not be faster. 

Raising his hand to his mouth, he blew out a screaming whistle between his fingers, and with a promptness that washed relief over his shoulders, he heard the approach of galloping hoofbeats. 

It’s all wrong, Beck said as he reached Ben. The forest. The...the damned world. All of it. Nostrils flared and head tossing, he let loose a terrified squeal. Dread began a slow churn in Ben’s stomach. The horse had stoically remained by Ben’s side through encounters with night hags and river wyrms and monsters so fanged and fearsome any other mount would have fled without a second thought. Never before had something affected his proud, brave companion like this. What in the hells was going on?

You have to do something, Beck continued. Tell the witch to fix it. She has to make more of those dead animal posts. A beast is here, it must be, and it—oof!  

  Without waiting for a logical finish to Beck’s distraught ranting, Ben had vaulted onto the horse’s back. “Go after her,” Ben ordered. 

Beck pinned his ears and reared, and Ben had to twine his fingers in the horse’s mane and squeeze the wide flanks with his thighs to avoid tumbling to the forest floor. 

Like hell I’m going farther out that way, Beck squealed. You can—gaah!   Years of heavy training allowed a swift kick to override any of Beck’s reticence. The horse galloped through the forest, his curses and insults unheard over the rushing wind and the frantic, wild worries in Ben’s head. What if he didn’t reach her in time? What if the horrible... thing that tainted the forest closed in on her before he could even unsheathe his sword?

But a horse was faster than a woman, even a magical one, and they caught up to Rey quickly. She was standing at the edge of a bramble patch, as still as if she’d been chiseled out of granite. Her skin was pale with the cold, though she didn’t shiver. 

Beck clattered to a halt and reared again, and Ben slid from his back before he could be thrown from it. The horse shied, twigs snapping underneath his large hooves, his mane tangling in thin branches. Ben could feel Beck’s conflict as easily as if it were his own: he didn’t want to be here, but here was where the weapon was. 

Ben drew his sword and approached Rey slowly, like she were a bird he feared he’d startle into flight. She was staring at something a short distance away, her lips trembling around empty words, her face a mask of horror and disbelief. He followed her gaze to a depression in the tall grass.

The wolf lay sprawled on its side, blue-gray fur matted with blood. Its throat had been torn out.

Many years ago, Ben had burst into a crippled hut in search of a troll. The instructions he’d received from the castle had been vague, and only when the timbers settled did he discover the object of his quest was not just a troll, but an ice troll: fourteen feet tall, tusks as long as Ben’s shins, and skin that glimmered like morning frost. He had been so startled by its appearance that when the troll swiped at him with one gargantuan hand, he hadn’t thought to dodge. Fingers as thick as bread loaves closed around his torso and squeezed. The cold from that icy hand had soaked through his armor as if it were no more than tissue. 

Although Ben had spent winters trudging through snow as deep as his horse’s chest, and forced his way through blizzards thick enough to blot out the sun, he had not felt anything like that since. 

Yet as he stared at the spirit’s corpse, it was as if that frozen, crushing grip had enclosed his chest once more. 

A clammy sweat slicked his palms. He swallowed back the bile tickling his throat and forced himself to look at the scene as a fighter. As someone who could fix this. 

The soil around the body was churned and bloody, the lower leaves ringing it stained a blackish red and shriveling as if they had been doused in acid. Not all the wolf’s blood, then. The wolf’s jaw clenched closed, the hair around its mouth burned away, and between teeth yellowed with age were tufts of wiry black fur. The monster, that dog-like beast he had seen before; it must have done this. 

Old tales filtered through his thoughts: stories of serrated teeth and black fur, of blood that burned and an appetite that never waned. Stories intended to frighten children into behaving or explain the unexplainable. Ben had always thought hellhounds lived only in twisted imaginations and tattered books; what foul magic had brought one to the woods? 

And if it had killed a forest spirit, what hope would Ben have against those massive jaws? The back of his neck prickled. He spun around, and though the forest behind him was empty, every shadow seemed to wriggle. Death prowled through the trees on tufted paws.

He turned to Rey when she let out a small cry. It bubbled up from her throat and emerged broken and crumbling, and as she stepped toward the body, Ben couldn’t find it in himself to hold her back from doing so. Even though they needed to return to the tree. Even though they were in danger. 

Without either birdsong or breeze, the only sound was that of Rey’s quiet, hiccupping sobs. She crouched beside the wolf slowly, her legs stiff with the cold. Her knees sank into the sodden earth. The hem of her shift reddened where it brushed the ground. 

It had been her companion, in a way, Ben realized, though not in the way Beck had been to him. In a life with absent caregivers and testy maternal figures, with single-minded squirrels and migrating birds, the spirit had been the constant presence in this wood, comforting and protecting. Perhaps not a friend, but a guardian. 

Rey reached out tentatively with one hand and brushed its pelt with trembling fingers. Had she not touched it before this? The idea that she was only doing so when the once-powerful body was cold and stiff sent a profound ache through his throat. Another sob wrenched out of her, torn from somewhere deep and fractured. She buried her face in its side and clutched the blue-grey fur as if she could keep it in this world by the force of her grip. 

Far off in the woods, trees groaned as they shifted against one another. Ben’s skin crawled at the sound. They needed to return home, and soon. Neither of them had a mask, and though the face-eaters were no longer as much of a threat as when he had first journeyed here, the ones that remained never balked at an opportunity if it presented itself. Still, not the most pressing danger at the moment. The sun was dipping below the horizon, sending out spears of pink and golden light through clouds as flat and grey as lead. 

They needed to return, for darkness approached. 

Chapter Text

“Maz, come quick.”

It was just past dawn, and Rey had pulled a chair up to the window. Arms stacked on the sill, she rested her chin there and watched as a family of rabbits emerged from their burrow to feed on the dew-damp grass. Yet as a few yearlings embarked on a playful scuffle, she’d noticed something else: a slim she-wolf, dark-furred with bright amber eyes, skulking through the thicket just beyond. Rey had no fear for the rabbits, for she knew the wolf—she had seen it only yesterday and was convinced she would never forget the feeling of its eyes meeting hers as it accepted the doe’s heart from her shaking hands. 

The Green Spirit had left the valley. It was here, now, just outside her home. Rey’s heart leapt with excitement, and she bolted up straight. Was this an honor? Was it ordinary? Did the Spirit even know this was where she dwelled? 

She looked over her shoulder and hissed with greater urgency, “ Maz! Look, quickly, it’s—”

“Yes, yes, child, I’m coming. You know it’s far too early in the day for such impatience?”

There was a shuffling behind her, and Rey found Maz already close by with a look of fond exasperation on her face. She was small of stature and spindly of limb, with bright white hair, always braided, and a round, wrinkled, dark-skinned face. At sixteen, Rey was mostly done growing (upwards, at least), but it was only recently that it had occurred to her how very tiny Maz had always been. She barely reached Rey’s shoulder as she stood beside her and peered out. 

“Well.” Maz was blinking out the window at the sight of the Green Spirit slinking by, its nose to the ground, tail low and sweeping gently behind it. Her spectacles, when she pulled them down from where they rested atop her head, magnified her small brown eyes. It was the first time Rey had seen Maz look surprised. “Isn’t this something.”

It wasn’t just surprise. Maz was impressed. Proud of her, even.

“I told you it went well yesterday,” she said, fighting the smile tugging at her lips. “I just didn’t realize I would see it again so soon.”

“Nor did I. A wolf, too. Bigger than any I’ve seen.”

Rey quirked an eyebrow. “It is very large . . . perhaps it would let you hitch a ride?” 

“And offend a forest guardian? I think not. Rude girl!” Maz did not look very outraged at all and only swatted Rey fondly. “Those are fierce, clever creatures. Proud , too. I doubt it would have taken such a form for just anyone.” She clucked her tongue and nodded with approval. “You see? Your power is greater than you know, even now.”

The wolf laid down in the grass to bask in the returning sunlight, and Rey basked in Maz’s compliment and the Spirit’s stolid, comforting presence. She watched it for hours until it stood and stalked into the trees. Just that once, Maz had not scolded her for neglecting her chores.

 

-

 

Last night, Rey had burned the Green Spirit’s ruined body while Ben stood by and watched the wood for remaining threat. The corpse slowly caught in the magic flames that formed a casket around it. There was no smoke and only the barest sour tang of dark magic in the air as it all dissolved in a crackling of fur, flesh, and bone. As she watched, throat tight and every muscle in her body screaming, she felt a creep of anxiety and then horror. 

She had a thought, insinuating and offering comfort: if she threw herself into the fire, she would not have to feel any of this.

An instant later, the thought was gone, and it left behind a feeling of having been violated somehow. Of course she felt violated. Something was destroying her home and threatening the things she loved. She was disturbed and sad. She was angry. But her work was not done.

She buried the ashes and cast a series of purifying spells on the area. Ben had helped with that part, and his magic fortified her own, bearing half the burden. Still, she’d wished that the monster that did this might return and end the roaring, hollow ache in her chest. She did not know how to live in a home besieged by something so evil. She was not sure she wanted to.

The yawning despair had ebbed in the hours after as she lay in bed, wrapped in Ben’s arms, staring at the mossy floor. Beside her, his breathing was slow. At least one of them had slept. Rey had tried, but every time she got close, she felt the softness of the wolf’s fur in her hands and the thick tackiness of its blood against her palms. So at the first sign of sunrise, she’d extricated herself from Ben’s grasp and crawled out of bed to stand by the window and watch the empty clearing. The only sign of life now was Beck grazing uneasily a few yards off, like he was afraid to stray any farther.

The burning rite had been as much a necessity as a gesture of respect. If she had not purged the darkness of the spirit’s violent death from the body and the area, the space around it would have begun to rot. Yet her grief was a rot she couldn’t burn out, worse than when Maz had died. At least then, she had known it was coming. Maz had known too. She’d said goodbye to Rey one morning, told her she loved her and was proud of her, walked into the wood, and not come back. Rey mourned her and held a funeral. Time passed, and the ache faded. 

This was not an ache. She could not explain it. Her body was in pain, but she couldn’t identify where it hurt most or what the hurt was like. She didn’t think it was all physical. The best she could do was liken it to the way Ben had crushed that face-eater in his hand—everything she was struggled in vain as an uncaring force slowly compressed her. It was what the wood felt now. It left her sore and smothered. It made her want to go back to bed and not get out again.

But if she did, she would not sleep. She would only think and languish. Nothing good would come of it. There were things to be done.

Behind her, something scuffed across the floor, and she knocked against the windowsill with a yelp. 

“I’m sorry,” Ben said hurriedly, his tone placating. “I thought you heard me get up.”

She should have; for all the improvements he’d made to the bed the day before, it still creaked, especially under his weight. Rey looked over her shoulder at him, forced a smile, and nodded. “I was thinking.”

Ben’s hands came to rest on her shoulders as she returned her attention to the window, and she wondered if he thought she was about to swoon like some frail maiden in a ballad. It was only under his steady touch that she realized she had been shaking. He didn’t comment on that, but he did weave his hands through her own and draw closer until her back rested against his chest. He was as tender with her as he had been last night, after the worst, when he’d laid beside her to hold her and murmur comfort against her hair. The tremors in her limbs began to still.

“Beck is fine,” she said, as if Ben couldn’t see that perfectly well for himself.

He chuffed. “That’s good to know, but I came to check on you.”

“I’m fine too.”

“Is there anything else we need to do?”

Rey liked that he didn’t appear bothered by her curtness. She liked that he spoke as if they were a unit. She liked that he wanted to act. He could sense the remaining stink of darkness in the forest as well as she could; it saturated the earth like rain after a storm. But he didn’t know that ache. She frowned at the trees, then turned and looped her arms around his middle. 

“I need to eat.” She gave him a weak squeeze. “So do you. The spells we cast last night demanded an exchange. Physical energy. It’s why you slept so soundly when we returned.”

It was clear he had not expected an answer so unrelated to the larger problem and her evident misery, but he didn’t argue. He kissed the top of her head and released her, then helped as he always did with preparations for breakfast. They ate eggs and dried meat and berries, and Rey sipped tea made from the plants he’d gathered—it was bitter and rather unpleasant, even with honey added. Nothing tasted quite right anyway. 

Ben was drinking mead. She had never seen him do so over breakfast and found it bothersome, but she didn’t suggest he stop. She did wish it might loosen his tongue, though. He was unbearably quiet and appeared lost in thought. She was tempted to catch the echoes of it, just to know what had him so preoccupied, but the idea withered quickly. He had not invited her to do so, so she maintained her own silence.

 

-

 

“I need to make new ward posts,” she told him as they cleared the table afterward. 

Ben looked at her dubiously, leaning against the table and flicking his nail against the edge of a walnut shell Poe had left behind. “Will that be enough?”

Annoyed by his doubt, Rey turned and poured herself more tea. “No. Probably not. But it’s better than what we have now, which is next to nothing.”

He was silent for a few moments. “How can I help?”

“It’s advanced magic. And this place is my home, so the spells to ward it are tied to me and to the land. The wood knows you, but it doesn’t know you. I should be the one to do it.”

When she turned back with her refreshed cup steaming in hand, she was dismayed to find him looking almost hurt. It confused her at first, but then she understood, and his next words confirmed it.

“Because it’s your home. Not mine.”

Rey sighed. “It’s more that—”

“I understand. You forget, I’m still learning.”

She wanted to tell him it was his home, to her, but that in this she preferred to act alone. Ben was a capable learner, but she could not spare the time or energy to instruct him as she worked. Saying as much would further the perceived insult, though, so she didn’t. 

“Right.” Her smile was still tight, but it felt more genuine, and she crossed over to him and slipped her hand into his. “You said last night that you believe it’s a hellhound. The creature that’s done all this?” 

“Yes.” His thumb traced slowly over her knuckles, back and forth.

“Have you ever encountered one in your travels?” 

“No, unfortunately.” He frowned and chuckled darkly. “Fortunately, that is. Many accounts suggest they no longer exist at all. But the fur left behind, in the Spirit’s teeth . . . no other creature I know of causes burns like that on contact.”

The tea scalded Rey’s throat as she thought of the singed fur around the wolf’s mouth, the blistered skin of its lips, tongue, and nose. She swallowed and put the cup down. 

“Do you know how to fight one?”

“Not specifically. They’re not invincible. Just very strong and difficult to engage directly. Quite craven, actually. It’s said they like to hide in shadows until the moment they decide to attack.”

“All right. Well. I suppose that the ward posts will have to do, for now. Until it comes again. And then . . .”

“What about the Spirit?”

Rey pressed her lips together. “It’s gone, Ben.”

“Is it, though?” When she looked at him wide-eyed, he held up his hands and looked back firmly. “It’s a . . . forest . . . deity, right? Spirit ? So that body, that can’t be all it was. You’ve said so yourself.”

“Yes, but—”

“So make a new one.”

Rey gaped at him. “I can’t make anything. I can’t make it a new body. I can’t go find some other wolf and lure it down to the Waypoint and ask the Spirit to inhabit it without a sacrifice, without— I can’t enter the Waypoint at all until the next equinox. I can’t— I can’t just replace it like it’s some—”

She was beginning to gesticulate wildly and was making very little sense to herself, so she was grateful when Ben grabbed one of her flying hands and steadied her. 

“All right. I’m sorry. I misunderstood.”

“It’s . . . we’re wasting time. I need to make new ward posts,” she repeated. “And mend my hunting breeches. And change the bedding. You can—”

“Don’t worry about me, little witch.” Even now, hearing him call her that warmed her to her bones, though he sounded weary and distant. He slowly let go of her hand. “Focus on your posts. I’ll do the rest.”      

It turned out there was something Ben could do to help with the posts after all: before he left her to her spellwork, they spent an hour or so gathering nine strong, thick branches in the vicinity of the tree and stripping the greenery and bark from them. Once that was done, Rey set her tools up outside—larger bones and partial skeletons she’d scavenged over the years, wooden figures she had carved, dried greens known for their potent magical properties, lengths of leather string and catgut—and passed the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon engrossed in her work. At some point before noon, Poe, Finn, and Rose made their presence known, expressing their distress over the latest developments and their sorrow for Rey. She appreciated it, but it was a distraction. Ben stepped out not long after and left her some food, which she nibbled at and promptly forgot about.

She was nearly done with the fifth ward post (and growing tired from hours spent knitting bone and wood together) when the sound of the door shutting drew her attention. Ben’s shadow fell across her at a much different angle than it had the last time he’d been by, but she was too engrossed to look up.

“You haven’t eaten,” he said.

“I had some. I don’t feel well.”

“Stop for a while.” She said nothing, just ran her finger over the seam between the jagged end of a broken boar’s tusk and one of the branches and watched as it fused. He crouched beside her and pressed on. “You said the magic takes a physical toll. And you haven’t eaten since this morning. If you’re not well, it’s most likely because—”

“Benjamin. Please.” Rey stopped and clutched the post until her knuckles went white. “This isn’t that sort of magic. I feel unwell because the wood feels unwell. And this is what I need to do until I can figure out how to stop it. I understand you mean well, but you being out here is not helping. There’s too much else to do and I’m barely half done.”

“Everything else is done. The daily work. I sewed your breeches. I fixed the bedding. I even entertained the rodent’s chattering while I sorted the food for dinner. He didn’t ask about my cock for once, so I think we’re making progress.”

 Her attention on the ward post faltered, and she set it down on the grass in front of her, suddenly aware of how hungry she was and how rude she was being. Feeling foolish, she groped around for what remained of the food he had brought out before and dutifully bit a huge chunk out of one of the apples. 

“Thank you,” she mumbled through her very full mouth.

The tension in Ben’s face eased somewhat, and he almost smiled. “And after I finished all that, I spent some time up in the loft, inspecting your library.”

“What for?”

“I was trying to find information on hellhounds, how best to combat them, though I now see you’re sorely lacking in bestiaries.” He eyed some of the roasted nuts, and she nudged them toward him. “But then I thought how neither you nor I know much of what’s happened with your Green Spirit. What comes next. If something can be done. So I found the tome you told me about, where you’d learned the ritual to summon it, and—”

Rey scowled and spat an apple seed into the grass, and Ben stopped short.

“What?” he asked.

“I don’t want to talk about the Spirit anymore.”

“I’m trying to ease your mind. If you could be assured that it will return, whether now or next year, it might give you some—”

“But you can’t assure me of that, Ben. You can’t.” Rey fixed her eyes on his and didn’t blink, even when she saw the fire in his gaze dim. “Can you?”

“No.” He looked away, and for a moment she thought he was going to rise and leave her. Instead he put a hand on her back and rubbed lightly. “I hate that you are suffering. I wish I could make it stop. I would destroy the cause if I could, and I . . . I’m sorry my efforts to do so are having the opposite effect. Truly. If you want me to leave you undisturbed, say as much and I will.”

Rey sighed and dug her thumbnail into the juicy apple flesh over and over, leaving little crescent moons behind where she wasn’t mashing it to a pulp. 

“It’s not that.”

“Will you tell me what it is, then? Because you seem to think this is yours to face alone. But I’m with you, Rey. Until the end, if it comes to that. Should you desire it of me.”

She felt something in her chest expanding behind her lungs, the same sort of quick, feathery flutter she experienced when Ben did or said something that excited her, but she could not determine the cause. It was so sudden, and then gone just as quickly, that she didn’t have time to grasp it. It felt good, though, fierce and strong.

Rey chuckled, chasing the echo of that sensation. “You sound as if you are pledging fealty to me, sir.”

“Never mind.” Ben looked . . . embarrassed ? Unsure? “But remember one thing, if nothing else—you’re not alone.”

Had he read her mind? She didn’t think so. But it was difficult to fathom explaining to him that, with the Green Spirit gone, it was her responsibility to protect her home from whatever threat was menacing it, bolder and hungrier every day. It was all on her. She was alone. She had been, at least. When he said those words, words that reminded her in no uncertain terms that she no longer needed to live that way, something gave way inside her. 

Rey had cried her fill of tears last night, but she let herself crumple against him as she tried to accept his words and what they meant. 

“Neither are you,” she said quietly. Her head lolled against his shoulder. “I’d been spending so much time trying to convince you of that, I didn’t realize . . . I forgot how it felt. Since you’ve been here. Even when you still hated me, I wasn’t lonely anymore.” 

Shifting under his arm, she plucked some grass from the ground and focused on the smooth coolness of each blade. 

“And now it’s difficult. It’s difficult for me to accept help. I’m more accustomed to seeing when others need it. Do you understand?”

“Yes, little witch. I believe I do understand that.”

“It was easier with you. You needed help, that much was clear.”

Ben shook with a short laugh, and Rey smiled slowly, emboldened by his acceptance of her vulnerability. She had thought she could not explain it to him; but if not him, who? 

“I don’t know what comes next. This has never happened before. The Spirit has never fallen. I don’t know if it can die, or if only the vessel has died, or if it sleeps under the stone in the valley again now. Perhaps it has fled. Perhaps there is a way to call it back, and I don’t know what it is, so I can’t.”

“Hm.”

“I don’t understand any of this, and that is the most terrible thing I’ve ever felt.”

“There’s a solution. There always is. We just need to find it.”

“It isn’t only the Spirit, though,” she went on, unable to stanch the flow of anxieties now that she knew Ben would hear them without judgment. “All sorts of things have been happening that have never happened before, since you came to the wood. It has always had its perils, but not like this. The dark presages of something approaching. Traces of so much evil. Things feel so wrong . It’s been happening for weeks.”

Ben’s expression shifted—a flicker of doubt in his eyes, a downward twitch of his mouth as his lips tightened—and his body tensed, taut as a bowstring. 

“Since I came to the wood.” His voice was low and dark.

“What?”

“That is what you said, is it not? Since I came to the wood, things have been wrong.”

“That isn’t—” Rey cast about for a suitable explanation, because she had said those words, even if he insisted on misinterpreting them. “It was not a suggestion of causality. But it is true.”

Yet had she not entertained, a handful of times, the worry that Ben was somehow to blame? That these evil tidings had arrived with him, followed him like a shadow, and had only become more pronounced as he lingered? As his power grew?

Blast it, she was doing it again, right now. It was an anxious fallacy. She knew Ben. She knew what sort of man he was. This was not his doing. 

So why was he looking at her as if she had just told him it was? Why did he look as if he would believe it if she did—might already believe it?

“No, you may be right,” he said, moving out of her reach. “I’ve had more than a brush with dark magic in the past. You can see it on me, and that’s only on the outside.”

She’d forgotten how frightening he could be, like his very words might cut.

“Ben, listen to me, I didn’t—”

“All my questing. What I let Snoke do to me. Why shouldn’t there be something of that remaining in me? You’ve felt it.”

“Yes, I have. But I also know it is not what it was once. You know it too. It’s part of you, and you control it. It isn’t a darkness .”

“It is a darkness. And maybe I only believe I’m in control of it because it wants me to believe as much. You forget, I have allowed myself to be fooled before.” 

Oh, he truly was ranting now, edging beyond reason, and she had no idea how to draw him back to his rationality of mere minutes before. She’d dug up a well of buried fears—if only she had known it was there at all. 

“Why should darkness not follow me where I go? Where I choose to call home. Hurt the people I—” He drew a sharp, shaking breath and seemed to swallow his words. “Perhaps that’s what you think.”

That stung more than anything. Rey couldn’t tell whether he was speculating freely or speaking from the depth of some privately held suspicion. Was he hiding something?

“No. But try to understand. Please.” It was very hard to keep her voice from shaking. “This place has been a safe haven all of my life, and so much has changed in the last months, and you’ve been the very best part of it. But—I don’t know. Your power has grown. It could have . . . attracted a presence.”

“Indeed it could have.” His voice was toneless, like if he didn’t maintain control he would unravel entirely. “In which case my choice to stay was ill-made. I should have gone the first chance I had and spared you and the wood so much pain.”

His careless suggestion made her temper boil. 

“That is not what I meant. I want you here. Nothing has made me happier than having you with me. Don’t you dare suggest—”

He rose so quickly she almost jumped in alarm, as if her attempt to reassure him had hurt. “I’m going to fetch water.”

“Wh—” Her mouth moved wordlessly as she clambered to her feet. “No, we aren’t finished here.”

“Between scrubbing the blood off our hands last night and all your tea drinking this morning, we’re low, and we need it for later. I’m going to the stream while the light is good.”

He began stalking off like the decision was made—but he was deliberately ignoring her outrage, and that just made her angrier.

“Are you daft?” she called after him, stomping to keep up. With her bare feet, the effect was somewhat lost. “You’re going to wander off alone, after all that’s happened? No.”

“I’m hardly wandering off anywhere. You need to finish your posts. We need water. I’m getting it. I know the way.” 

He halted, seemed like he would much rather bolt, and looked at her over his shoulder. It annoyed her that he wouldn’t do her the courtesy of turning to face her fully, but at least he met her gaze. There was anger in his eyes, but also hurt, and, always familiar, guilt. She hated seeing it and almost wished he wouldn’t look at her anymore. 

“I’ll take Beck with me,” he said. “To hasten the trip.”

In the distance, around the other side of the tree, Rey was certain she heard a snort of protest. Wonderful; they had an audience.

Deflated and embarrassed (she could just imagine what Beck would have to say about this to Ben, and why did she care so much?), Rey bobbed her head and exhaled roughly. 

“Fine. Take your sword.”

He scoffed, but she didn’t wait for him to say anything else, and she didn’t look at him again. She didn’t want to see what his eyes held or feel anything off of him. She wanted him to go away awhile so she could forget how he’d just said he wished he had not chosen to stay. 

 

-

 

Not even the animals bothered her after that, and she barely processed the receding sound of galloping hoofbeats a few minutes later as she lost herself in her work again. The fifth post was finished soon enough, then the next, and the next, each laid out neatly beside its completed siblings. When she was preparing to start the eighth, she decided to heed Ben’s suggestion after all and take a break. As she stood to stretch her limbs, the sun was noticeably lower than it had been last she checked. She was not sure when that had been. 

It was getting late, though, and the feeling that things were just getting more wrong with each minute she wasted was worse than ever. It coated every thought like birch tar. Even her spells came more slowly, struggling to take hold through a mire of self-doubt.

And Ben was not back yet.

Damn him. She hated that he’d gone, that she was still angry with him, that she was worried anyway.

Her supply of dried heartmoss was diminished; last she’d checked, there was an extra cache in her cabinets. As she entered the tree, though, her eye caught immediately on Ben’s sword, leaning against the doorframe. Which meant it was not with him. She was beginning to wonder if her first assessment of him as a reckless, unlucky fool was accurate after all.

The cracked red jewel in the pommel winked spitefully at her. Ben had told her once that it was a garnet; according to one of her books, garnets brought stability, strength, and devotion to one’s cause, which she’d thought quite fitting, cracks and all. Right now, it made her think of blood congealing. The feeling of unease roared back like a fire fed, and she trudged across the room to her supplies, suddenly disturbed by the sight of the sword by the door.

She was sniffing at a desiccated snarl of pungent heartmoss in one of the jars when she heard something outside—the snap of wood over a flame. There was a snap in the air too. It was the first bite of bitter cold at the start of winter. All the springtime warmth had been leached away. The waning sunlight turned gray as a bruise. Rey shuddered and dropped the jar, which landed with a dull thud on the mossy floor. 

Another snap outside. She had broken her arm once. The bone had poked right through the skin. It sounded like that, like bone splintering and spearing through flesh, and something about it made her want to scream the same way she had that day.

Without thinking, she grabbed her staff and bolted out the door. She was halfway back to the posts before she realized she should have grabbed Ben’s sword too, but by then she had seen it.

The hellhound was hunched over her line of finished posts. It was huge, at least as large as the Green Spirit, though leaner and deeper chested. Its body was covered in a thick coat of wiry black fur, with a ridge that ran the opposite direction up its back and between its pointed ears. The air around it reeked of brimstone and hot metal.

One of its elongated paws was pressed to a post to hold it in place. The hellhound grasped the other end in its jaws and, with a seemingly lazy twist of its neck, broke a hunk of wood and bone clean off. She could smell the wood burning where it touched the hound’s fur or where gobs of saliva dripped onto it. It raised its head and looked her in the eyes, and she could have sworn it smiled at her, flashing rows of curved, gleaming fangs before it closed its jaws and shattered wood rained down around its forepaws.

Hello. It drew four long claws through the earth, the corners of its mouth still peeled back. Little witch

That was Ben’s name for her. She hated hearing it in this creature’s voice—a male voice, crisp and cold. His eyes were even darker than his fur; if she didn’t see them glinting with malevolence, she might have thought they were merely empty sockets. The hellhound cocked his head, then nudged at the post he had just broken and took the other end of it in his jaws. 

Where is your friend the knight?

Stunned, the only answer she could give was the tightening of her hands around her staff.

I know he’s near. You reek of him.

“What do you want?” 

He tossed one ruined post away as if bored, and she felt the magic fizzling out of the smoking wood as he moved on to another. This time, he opened his mouth around the long wedge of a boar’s skull like it was a delicate morsel and crunched it to pieces in a single bite.

I just told you. I came for Kylo Ren. The hound fixed an eye on her again as he licked his chops, and the fur of his snout sizzled as the air grew colder. I can wait. As you must know by now, I’m very patient. And you’ve left me something to do.

She brandished her staff and took a step forward, gathering the air around her to send a wall of it his way if he lunged. The ease with which he dispatched the magic in the wards was disturbing, but she couldn’t retreat. White sparks of power crackled at her fingertips and swam through the veins of her forearms, ready to burst through her skin.

Get out .”

The hellhound just laughed, the dry sound of dead leaves underfoot. 

Are you surprised, little witch? He seemed to delight in how his use of the name made her stomach curdle. You thought wood woven with some pretty spellwork would keep me back? Stupid girl. I’ve had weeks to learn the way through it. Your Spirit was a challenge, I’ll grant you. He was gnawing the end of one like it was a toy and turned his head to flick an ear at her—she realized half of it was missing, bitten off and still healing. She could see now where patches of fur were missing from his frame, the bared skin scabbed and scratched. Such sweet blood, though. It spoiled too quickly, or I might have stayed for more.

“Everything you’ve touched in this wood has spoiled, you filth,” she snarled back. She refused to be cowed by his mockery. It had been years since she had felt such hatred toward anything. She could hardly think. “Take your darkness and leave, or I will blot you out where you stand.”

Heavy words, but she had no idea if she could support them. She had killed things before, yes. None of those things had possessed any resistance to her magic, though; none of them had slaughtered a forest spirit with only a few wounds to show for it.

I don’t think you will. In fact, I’m beginning to find you distracting. Perhaps I’ll rip your heart out and leave it as a gift for our good sir knight when he returns. His tongue drew slowly along his black lips. Or do you find that too literal?

Rey seethed. The magic was positively roiling inside her, so strong it almost compelled her muscles to move of their own accord. She let it have its way, holding control over it just enough to guide its trajectory—both hands raised in front of her, palms out, she threw two dense bolts of white light toward the hellhound. They moved so fast she barely saw them, but she knew they would strike in the chest, strong enough to kill him, maybe even obliterate his body.

Yet he was faster and stronger. He turned aside and let the bolts hit his flank. The smell of burnt fur filled the air for a moment, and he let out a snarl, but it was a sound of annoyance rather than fear or pain. His muscles spasmed beneath his skin where the bolts struck, like he was trying to shake a bothersome fly away. 

Fighting the urge to panic, Rey drew on the currents of power in the air again, let them build inside her until the hairs on her arms and neck began to stand up, and tried again. Another flash of light, bigger and sharper than the first two, snapped forth. The hound dodged it easily, and his hackles raised as it stabbed into a tree some distance behind him and sent it splintering in all directions.

You are not very bright, are you? 

He didn’t wait for another barrage. His muscles bunched, and an instant later, he lunged for her, teeth bared, spittle flying, claws reaching. Rey cried out with alarm and threw her hands up to draw the air tight around her in a shield. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t very large, but it was just enough to keep the hellhound from bowling her over and tearing her throat out. His body collided with it and he rolled off to land hard on his back, startled but still vicious. He was up quickly, but Rey had enough time to create a better protection for herself. 

If she cloaked herself, the hound would only track her by scent; he might even see right through the deception. But she could ward him away from her body and the tree. The air wobbled around her and expanded outward, forming a perimeter that crackled with veins of blue light. She could feel the strands of invisible energy that connected her to it—she could pull it closer to her, and she could push it further out, though it was already near its limits. It was also consuming her energy, cycling it through the ground under her feet and returning it to her slightly altered. As long as she stood, the ward would stand. It was good enough while she tried to figure out what to do next.

Yet the hellhound was relentless. Whatever magic he possessed, it didn’t render him impervious to the ward’s effects, but it did allow him to weaken it by degrees. Frothing at the mouth, he threw himself at it a few times. Every collision sent a dense vibration through Rey’s bones until stars began to erupt in her vision. Each brush of his body burned, and darkness began to seep along the bottom edges where he paused to sniff, looking for cracks and weaknesses, dragging his claws across the dirt. 

Rey couldn’t hold it. She was tired. She had never not been tired, not since she found the Green Spirit slaughtered on the ground. Spending the day out here with her wards had felt like what needed doing, but all it had done was drain her, and it had been for nothing. Ben had been right. She should have stopped. She should have made herself stronger. But she wasn’t strong, and he was gone . She was angry, and terrified, and swiftly losing the will to continue.

The thought from last night returned. 

Throw yourself on the pyre. Throw down your shield and let the hellhound take you. This is a waste. You are not enough.

The ward quavered and fell for an instant before she threw it back up. The energy it took to do so was almost too much. She opened herself more and sank into a trance-like state to let the magic take whatever it needed from her. She heard a voice, on the wind or in her head. She couldn’t find its source, but it was deep and heavy with disdain.

  FINISH HER AND BRING HIM TO ME, HUX. HE IS THERE.

She was right; Ben was right. He had brought this plague to the wood. He should have gone. She should not have made him feel he needed to stay.

Her legs buckled when the hellhound reared back on his hind legs, pressed his forepaws to the ward, dug his claws in, and slowly shifted his weight forward. When the fretwork of veins flashed blue again, they were shot with black. It looked like a limb beginning to putrefy. The ward started to disintegrate, peeling away in long swaths.

Rey prepared herself to fight. If she was going to die, she was ready, but she wasn’t going to welcome it. There were tears on her face and blood in her mouth, her body was drenched in cold sweat . . . she’d empty everything she had. Her heart was racing so fast it sounded like hoofbeats against her skull.

It was hoofbeats, cutting through the clearing at a hard gallop. It took everything she had not to look.

It couldn’t be.

Ben’s hand grasped hers so tightly it hurt. She tore her eyes from Hux as he worried at the withering wards and fixed them on Ben. He stared back, and a new understanding passed between them. His energy danced around hers, found the parts that were fraying and barely holding together, and flew in to fill the gaps and build it back up. There was more power here than she’d had before, and Ben’s was there too. It was not just the power of two individuals. They’d made something that was bigger than both of them. 

There was a dropping sensation in her gut. The ward had collapsed. Yet Hux wasn’t charging through to claim his prize. In fact, he appeared to be stuck in place, even as he looked at Ben with the eyes of a hunter victorious.

Rey had no idea what was happening. She hadn’t done this, and she didn’t think Ben had either. His face was contorted with concentration, but his confusion pulsed over her. A lot of his emotions did, rolling from him and right into her, all of them raw and unfettered. Too many to parse. They were a distraction. Her anger at him was hotter than her relief, so she poured all of it into whatever they were creating.

A final shock of magic roared through her, pulled from a space she’d forgotten existed, and was wrenched outward from where her hand was still joined to Ben’s. She couldn’t make sense of what she saw after that.

Hux’s body was twisting, but in no way it should. He seemed to elongate—like honey dripping in slow strands from the end of a spoon—and then be drawn up and back and around. It was difficult to tell whether he was writhing in pain and terror or something was simply pulling him. His jaw was open wide, but he wasn’t making any noise. The air smelled metallic and became heavy as it did before a storm.

A sharp crack cut the air, and the hellhound was gone. If not for the debris he’d made of her wards, there would have been nothing left behind to suggest he had been there at all. 

Ben’s hand was still clenched over hers, and he only tightened his grip. “What in the seven hells was that?”

“I . . . I have no idea. Did we— Is he dead?”

She slipped her hand out of Ben’s grasp and approached the broken posts with caution. They should have been swimming with traces of the dark magic Hux had left, but there was nothing aside from the feeble remains of the spells she’d cast on them before. The air was warm again, even with the sun below the treeline and the stars beginning to appear overhead. A few evening birds were singing. The wood still felt a touch off, but the oppressive darkness was gone.

“I don’t feel him near,” Ben said, suddenly right behind her, making her jump. “I don’t feel him at all.”

He put a hand to her elbow as if in apology. She turned and strode past him. 

“Neither do I. He’s gone.”

“Rey?”

He had the nerve to sound incredulous as she left him behind. Her body may still have been thrumming with adrenaline and the high of their success, but she hadn’t forgotten the hurt Ben had caused her.

He was at her heels when she reached the tree and entered. “Rey, what the—” 

“Decided you’d like to stay after all, have you?” she asked, whirling on him and crowding him against the table. There was something satisfying about the way he backed away in surprise until his thighs bumped it. “Or have you just come to collect your sword? Apparently, you didn’t think you needed it earlier.”

Ben’s brow furrowed as he shook his head and drew himself up, no longer cowed. Ah, now he was angry. He remembered. Good. She’d thought she was done fighting for the night, but she had one more in her. And he looked like he had a pointed rejoinder on his tongue. 

“I forgot it.”

Or not.

Rey scoffed and stayed where she was, refusing to give him any space to walk off. If he wanted to, he’d have to push her or move her with his magic, but she didn’t think he would dare right now.

“Ah, of course. You were in such a hurry to get away.”

“What was I supposed to do?” he demanded, leaning over her until she had to bend back. “You told me to!”

“I did not! You were going on about going to fetch water and how you should never have stayed, and I was sick of hearing it, so why would I have stopped you? You wanted to leave. And you clearly regret not doing so the last time I stopped you, so I didn’t.”

“Rey . . .” 

Now he looked confused. And now she was crying. She pushed his chest hard with her palms, then a second time for good measure when it got him out of her face. 

“You told me , you said it, you told me I wasn’t alone. You promised me I wasn’t alone and that you would be with me and you weren’t . How could you do that? You know what that does to me, what it means, and I don’t care if I didn’t try to stop you, you shouldn’t have left!”

Ben looked deeply troubled, like he was barely keeping himself from shouting back. Because that was what she was doing now. Shouting at him.

“I was trying to be useful. I wanted to give you space. You knew where I was going. I did come back— I was with you. I just didn’t feel like fighting with you over . . . over some misunderstanding.”

“What was there to misunderstand? You said you should never have chosen to stay. I suppose it’s easier to say that, now you’ve had your fill of me.”

The color of his face deepened, his jaw went rigid, and his voice shook. “Is that what you think? Truly?”

She stared back at him. No, that was not what she thought. She didn’t know why she had said it.

“Let me tell you something,” he went on, his voice very low, almost dangerous. His hands were digging into the edge of the table. “About why I said what I said.”  

She was usually good at reading his expressions, but she had no idea what the look in his eyes was or why she felt so paralyzed before it, stuck to the spot by no magic she knew. 

Ben’s eyes darted over her face. “It wasn’t about you. It was about me, and what I’ve done. Because I am to blame for everything that’s happened since I made the choice to stay here.” His head shook a fraction as he swallowed. “I spoke from a place of foolishness and guilt, but I have long wondered if my leaving you be might have ended it all much sooner, if I’d been less sel—” 

Stop saying you’re to blame,” she interrupted. “That’s ridiculous. How would your leaving have fixed anything at all?”

“Because then you would have been safe! It wanted me, not you!”

“It’s too late for that! It knew I was here—it—something, some voice, knew, and it might have been you it was after, but I’m the one who almost died today .”

He blanched. 

“I wasn’t safer because you left. I’ve never felt safer in my life than when I’m with you, and you— !” she cried. “Today I thought I was going to die alone because you felt guilty ? By the bleeding goddess, is there anything in this world that doesn’t make you feel that way?”

She thought he was about to give in, say he had been wrong and apologize, but he just drew himself up, gripped her shoulders, and shot back, “I felt guilty because I am . I’ve been selfish, and because I’ve been selfish, your life here has been ruined. You didn’t ask for this. I should have left when I began to suspect, to spare you. I could have, weeks ago.”

“Oh, back to this? Where’s the water you brought in? I’m going to make some tea; it seems we may be here a while yet.”

He ignored her and tightened his hold. “But I didn’t. If I had, it would have been tantamount to leaving a piece of myself behind. It would have been torture. And I’m tired of pain, and I’m tired of being alone, but if leaving you here would have kept you safe, I should have done so. I should have accepted that, rather than let you suffer in my stead just because I couldn’t bear the idea of being parted from you.”

“You aren’t making any sense.”

“Rey, I love you .” He looked stunned by his own words and the ferocity with which he said them, looming over her, inches from her face. “I love you, and I’ve done nothing to prove it but bring difficulty into your life. So—”

She wove her fingers tight into the front of his shirt and kissed him with such force he stumbled into the table again. She didn’t want to hear him prevaricating anymore; not after what he’d said.

Ben loved her. She had felt it earlier, that fierce pulse of something deep and elusive. She’d felt it again, swimming in the emotions coursing through him as they finished the hellhound. She hadn’t known what it was. How could she have known?

How could she not have known? He loved her, and she loved him, and she didn’t want to fight him anymore. 

His hands had landed at her waist, but now he was dragging them up her back as a ragged sigh quavered from his mouth to hers. The barrier between them was almost nonexistent as little flashes of his emotions escaped into her mind like echoes. His terror on realizing she was in danger; his wrath toward the creature that had threatened her; his joy that she was safe; his unadulterated, selfless adoration of her. 

It was so, so much coursing through her, and in the wake of everything before, Rey was shaking again. There were tears still drying on her cheeks. It was adrenaline and anger with nowhere to go; but it was relief, too, and shock, and the completeness of how much she had wanted to hear him say that, how much she felt it too. All of it built up until she was a dam about to break. 

She backed Ben into the table, and he went willingly. It was closer than the bed. Too eager to be gentle, she grabbed at his shirt and whipped it off over his head just as he was turning them around to pin her. Now she was the one being crowded, loomed over. Ben covered her body with his, and she felt his excitement, the physical evidence of it when his hips met hers and the raw emotion clawing through him. He was sweat-streaked and feverish. He smelled like the forest: dirt, grass, horse, the metallic, lightning tang of the magic they’d wrought. He was kissing her so hard and deeply she could hardly catch her breath. Having him like this was better than air anyway.

While she groped at his laces, he was already working on the front of her gown. They’d both used magic for this part enough times. It was easy. There was a current of fun and mischief to it. But right now Rey craved the tactile element of taking Ben out of his clothes and letting him do the same to her. Fingers tugged at cords and clasps, scraped at skin, wrestled with uncooperative fabric. Legs and hips nudged against one another, bent heads brushed, and urgent breaths mingled between kisses. 

She hardly had the patience for it, though. Heat washed across her face at each touch. A fuzz of it wrapped around her neck and trickled down her throat. It filled her lungs and made her stomach feel impossibly light. It settled between her thighs as fainter tickles of it rolled over her quivering limbs. Ben practically ripped her gown off after finally dealing with the laces, then tore his boots from his feet and shucked his trousers before returning to relieve her of her shift. The handful of seconds it took was unbearable by then, and the moment she was naked, Rey lunged for him and pulled him against her, drawing him back onto the table. A few fat, stubby candles toppled and went rolling to the floor, and the table slid out of place as Ben landed too heavily on top of her. 

She imagined a bruise blooming on her backside from the force of his pursuit. Round, deep-pink marks where his fingers clutched her hips and sides, where his mouth sucked at her breasts and throat. She imagined him realizing and drawing back, alarmed by the heat of the moment, wary of hurting her, desperate to settle that thing before they came together.

There it was. She felt it. The thing he once feared. The rage that was no longer a rage, crackling, coiling, awakened by the fight and the force of their magic. Fed on adrenaline and violence and protective fury, it was hungry and barely hidden beneath the surface. The thing that wanted to possess, claim, take .

Pin you down. Take you so hard your teeth ache.

Rey already ached. She felt a rush of wet warmth between her legs, where Ben’s hand was only just beginning to stray, and she had a thought. She’d calmed it before. It had tasted her magic, and it knew her. Now she wondered if she might encourage it. Ensnare it, draw it out, set it loose.

With a snarl of impatience, she wrapped her legs around Ben’s waist and dragged him to her until his hand was trapped between their bodies, two fingers parting her folds, coated with her arousal and poised at her entrance. His forehead dipped against her shoulder. His hot breaths tickled her neck and chest. She breathed his name in a full-throated moan as she dug her fingers into his back, first just the pads of her fingertips, then her nails. An experimental squeeze. Then harder. 

He huffed with surprise and pushed her back to hold her down, hands flexing hard at her shoulders. Beneath her back, the wooden table was smooth and cool but unforgiving. And that look in his eye, like a shadow passing over a mirror, something prowling in wait—she knew that. 

It wanted out. Ben was struggling. Holding her in suspension. Trying to settle it.

No, not this time .

His erection gave a needy pulse against her thigh, and she bucked her hips into him, teasing him, denying him, because she knew that what he wanted to do was plunge right into her. And the rage, when her mind brushed it again, it was stirring, it wanted to—  

“Let it go this time.” The words tumbled from her lips, barely coherent between quickening breaths. “Let it come.” 

When Ben’s eyes went wide, Rey bucked again and raked her nails over his back, feeling each muscle tense and twitch. She imagined the lines of red she might trail over tender skin, her own fretwork of marks woven between each scar. This is mine. She stretched up to kiss him, a bruising, searing thing to take him in, push him back, take him in again.

Let it out ,” she implored him, surprised at the animal rasp of her voice against his cheek. She caught his ear with her teeth and bit, twisting the hair at the back of his head until he rocked into her with a harsh sigh. “I want it. All of it. Pin me down. Make me yours. Fuck me so hard my—” 

Witch.

He growled through gritted teeth and wrenched himself away, pulling her roughly with him. She was on her feet so fast she barely had time to balance herself before he was turning her around and pushing her back down onto the table with a hand splayed between her shoulders. Bent at the waist, she connected with the surface hard enough that her breath left her in a hoarse moan of surprise. When she caught it a moment later, she lifted herself on her hands to drag herself forward, legs splayed behind her, feet scuffing shallow divots in the mossy floor. The cold friction of the wood against her nipples was so delicious she almost didn’t notice that the heavy ‘ whuff ’ behind her was the sound of Ben dropping to his knees. 

His palms were pressed solidly to her ass one instant, spreading her thighs the next, tilting her hips, his breath frenzied and hot on her skin. And then his mouth was on her with such fervor her knees buckled. Muffled against her cunt, he let out a groan of wanton, obscene satisfaction. It felt as if his face was buried in her. She could feel his nose nudging her entrance, his open mouth hungrily enveloping her folds, his tongue dragging over her clitoris. She cried out like she’d been plunged into frigid water. Reflexively, her hips thrust away—but there was nowhere to go but the table. Ben’s hands reached up to steady her under the vigor of his attentions. 

She had known his mouth was artful, but this was another thing entirely. There was no art to this. The sounds he was making were like none she had heard from him before. The greedy, insatiable growls of a starved animal finally offered a meal. His hands were vises at her hips, thumbs kneading her buttocks as he pressed still deeper. Something wet, warm, and stiff entered her—he was fucking her with his tongue. She could imagine the way his neck flexed with each movement, the thrust of his chin, the muscles in his arms and shoulders straining and shining with sweat; and herself, desperate for everything he was giving, spread open for his pleasure, her delicious, soaking, pretty little cunt. All his.

Rey’s legs shook and her hands grasped for purchase on the table; finding none, she threw an arm out to the side and gripped the edge so hard the tendons in her arms felt aflame. Every time she tried to buck back into him his hold on her tightened, and he moaned against her, scraped his teeth teasingly at her labia, or drew away to nip at her buttocks and thighs. She couldn’t help it. She was unsteady. The table and his hands were the only things keeping her even somewhat upright. She could hardly form a thought beyond what a glorious thing it was to have him in such a state, beyond words and reason, focused solely on their mingled pleasure. 

When she bowed her back to increase the friction of the table against her breasts as his lips returned to suck at her clitoris, there was no slow build to her climax. One moment she was trembling and squirming, choking on short, gasping cries, her eyes screwed shut. The next, her entire body was flooded with a hot, rushing buzz of release as she came with a shout that made her quake into him.

Her limbs were useless. The heat of her orgasm roared through her muscles and nerves in time with the blood pounding in her ears. There was heat at her back, too—a slow trail of it climbing her spine. Ben was leaning over her, dragging his mouth over her skin, his weight settling on her hips as he rocked his erection against the dripping mess he’d made of her. She could no longer tell if the sensation of his hands at her hips was truly that or just the memory of being held so tightly.

Rey melted into the table and angled her rump into him, trying to get a look at him over her shoulder. She saw his torso, all taut muscle and damp skin, his chest heaving, a forearm planted beside her chin. There were things she could have said, about how much she wanted him to drive her into the table. How good it felt to be held here by the weight of his body. How she wanted to feel his cock pulsing inside her this time when he came. How she wanted to lick herself from his face. She even had the thought that she could ask him to carry her back to the bed. 

All she managed was a considerably less impressive, “Do it—right here. Rut me. Like a beast.”

He’d wanted to. She remembered. She wanted it too.

Ben did not hesitate. She felt the head of his cock breaching her entrance and then the swift, aching pressure as he entered her with a thrust of his hips. She could hear the wetness of her cunt parting around him. He drew out slowly, and she wondered at his sudden control—until he squeezed her hips hard enough to bruise and bucked back into her with such urgency the table shifted again. This time, it slid enough to knock against the wall, and as Ben did the same again, and again, and again, Rey thought she heard the window rattling beneath the clamor of their cries and moans.

It was not long before he was nearly sprawled on top of her, his chest pressing heavily on her back, his movements almost furious. He was no longer holding her hips in place. He didn’t have to with the table providing leverage and resistance. Instead his hands were clasped over hers, keeping her arms flat on the table and splayed above her head as he kissed and licked his way over her neck and back. He’d been scraping his teeth there too, nibbling her ears and shoulders. It had almost tickled. He was no longer so gentle. With one hand wound in the tangled, sweaty mess of her hair, he pulled until she tipped her head back, then closed his teeth around the slope of her shoulder. 

As Rey tensed and cried out, he relented only long enough to find a new spot. She felt the frantic surge of his emotions and the way the rage swam through them like a tempest—it wasn’t all about taking. Ben’s arousal thrived as much on his own pleasure as on a desire to bring hers to a peak. She had drawn it out, teased it, bewitched it. This was its reply: ferocity tamed only by an urge to satisfy her. All at once she understood how it could be as beautiful as it was terrifying.

She wanted to tell him. He had to know. He had to know how she loved this part of him too. This brutal, wonderful thing.

“Ben . . . Such praise required more mental facility than she had at her disposal right now. Rey tried again, her voice barely more than a whisper as his forehead burrowed between her shoulder blades. “ Ben.

It really was no use. She didn’t need words right now anyway—could barely use them. He had proved little better. Later.

Yet his reaction was immediate, and for an instant she wondered what had gone wrong. He pulled out of her. Her hips were still rocking forward in anticipation, her muscles still bracing to take him, but there was no pressure in return. The heat of his skin was gone. She was painfully empty of him. Rey made a sound of consternation and tried to push herself up, but he lifted her to her feet first, then spun her around and kissed her as if she’d just showered him with lines of the most finely wrought verse instead of a lust-garbled utterance of his name. 

Not that she had any complaints. She kissed him back, tugged at his lip with her teeth, then drew her nails down his chest and hoisted herself back up onto the table, daring him to follow. 

It was a big table. She’d always thought so. Though maybe that was more as a surface for working or eating than for sex. As Ben clambered up to pursue her, she began to reevaluate that stance. Suddenly, it seemed a wonder the table had ever held anything at all. There was hardly any space for them , at least, and if a table couldn’t hold two naked, writhing human bodies, what good was it? Indeed, it wobbled and creaked when Ben lowered himself over her, and she had to wonder if it would hold. A broken table seemed fairly in character for them, considering what had nearly become of the bed. Considering what he’d done to her door. Considering . . .

Ah, well. 

This was better, anyway. She could look at him—and oh, she loved looking at him, especially like this. His expression was one of pure, heedless wanting, the intensity of his eyes enough to paralyze. She could move, though, better than before, even with him hooking an arm beneath her leg and drawing it up until it bent over his shoulder. He entered her with a throaty growl and resumed the frantic pace of moments before. Rey hadn’t thought he could bury himself this deep inside her, and the stretch to her muscles was almost too much until it receded to a dull, gentle burn through her thighs and backside. Almost of its own accord, her other leg wrapped behind Ben’s thighs and pushed until it was bumping against his buttocks with every thrust. Even too much of him wasn’t enough. 

Above her head, there was a snapping sound. She had no idea what that was; not the table, though it was surely being put to the test each time it rocked against the wall. The meaty slope of his shoulder was pressed beneath her chin, but she was able to twist her neck enough to catch it with her mouth the next time he shifted. She kissed and licked and clipped him with her teeth, the taste of sweat and dirt from his skin heady on her tongue. She’d been wanting to do that since they began, one good turn for another, but now it was just as much for relief. She was getting close again, and she needed just a bit more from him, and—   

He shoved a hand between their bodies and began to stimulate her clitoris with urgent strokes of his fingers, and again she was thrown rather than coaxed over the edge. He continued to buck into her as she arched and moaned, moving his hand only to return it to where it had been tangled in her hair. There was a finality to each movement in and out. His breaths in her ear were coming quicker and shorter. Rey felt his legs shift, his arms flex, preparing to pull himself away at the last moment to spill outside of her.

Yet her leg was still there, held fast against his thighs, and she pressed into him as if in reminder. “Don’t—” He tugged at her hair and her words became tangled in a breathy cry. She caught the shell of his ear with her teeth. “Don’t pull away this time. Finish inside me. I want to feel your cock spilling into me. Please, Ben—you feel so good.”  

Ben tensed and finished with a cry cracked and muffled against her neck. His cock throbbed against her walls, but she almost didn’t feel his spend at all. Everything was already so hot and wet, it just felt like . . . more. Not the shocking spill of him into her mouth or the messy spurt onto a thigh. This was gentler, a slow-spreading warmth as he continued to pulse. She clenched around him experimentally, delighted by how it heightened the sensation until it was a pleasant, satisfying tingle as he stilled.

Beneath her palms, his back rose and fell with shallow breaths as he began to soften and slide free of her. A faint trickle of the same wet warmth followed as his spend leaked along her thigh. And probably onto the table. She hadn’t considered that when it came to their choice of surface. Not that it had been much of a choice—the table had just been there. As for Ben, he still seemed to be coming down. He was kissing her throat and chest, a leg tangled between hers, his limbs trembling. With a contented sigh, Rey wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his sweaty hair. 

The table gave an ominous groan as Ben pushed himself up just enough to move off of her, and it rattled against the wall again as he practically fell beside her. She heard that odd cracking sound again and tried to crane her neck to see. Ben noticed first. He groaned nearly as deeply as the table and waved a hand in the general direction of the window.

“What is it?” she managed, still trying and failing to see for herself. She could sit up, but she was not inclined to do so just yet. 

“We broke a window,” he slurred.

“What!” 

Here she had been worried about the table. Which they had, to be fair, thoroughly sullied and moved a good foot or so across the floor—until it was knocking against the wall right under the windowsill. She leaned her head over the nearest edge and squinted. Yes, there were the marks the table legs had scraped into the moss of the floor. She craned her neck the other way and caught the window out the corner of her eye. It wasn’t completely ruined, but there was a thick crack down the central pane, with a few smaller spidery ones near the bottom. 

Rey laid back again and began to laugh, still exhilarated and delirious. The events of the last day and a half felt years in the past. She felt safe and happy and good . Bugger the window. What problems remained could be seen to tomorrow.

Ben rolled onto his side and threw his arm over her, seemingly as reluctant as she to relocate. She pressed a kiss to his forehead, drew a hand through his hair, and smirked against his cheek. “Par for the course with you.”

He groaned again.

“It’s not too late,” she said.

“For what?”

She bounced her legs a few times until the table protested. “I bet you could do the table in as well.” 

He drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly, a warm puff of air that tickled her ear. “Another time, perhaps.”

 

-

 

At the edge of the wood, in the guttering gray of twilight, the hellhound nursed his wounds. Pesky thing, what had happened. He wasn’t sure what that was, exactly. One moment, he had her—the witch. He had the man, too, the knight. Kylo Ren. Benjamin Solo, former prince of the Organa line, Duke of Alderaan, knight of the realm. Whatever he called himself these days. 

It mattered little to Hux. He knew what his master commanded. He knew he had been on the cusp of success, after weeks of careful tracking, following the traces of the man’s burgeoning magic and the way the witch’s seemed to magnify it. The echoes of it lingered in the air. It traveled in the wind. It soaked into the earth when it rained. Enormous power, unleashed not as rage but channeled into something fine, controlled, and useful. Just as his master had said. 

He knew also that all his work was not supposed to end with him where he was now, trying to soothe pains he couldn’t reach. The hurt was inside , like his guts were all scrambled, like there was something pressing on his lungs, shaking his bones, tickling his throat, ringing in his ears. Currents of protective magic that had twisted him through space itself and deposited him here, far from the witch’s tree. The magic still hadn’t left him and would not let him reenter the wood without great discomfort.

Hux gave a discontented snarl and rolled in the dirt again. It did little for what ailed him, but it was a distraction. Probably all he could depend on; for surely, his master would be most displeased and have little relief to offer. No, Hux would not return to Snoke’s stronghold. He’d wait here for the night and begin again at dawn. The witch’s magic would fade by then; whatever she and the knight had done was not permanent. He lived. He would return. He knew where they dwelled now. His master knew as well—he had seen it through Hux’s eyes.

A voice that was not his master’s but just as familiar sounded from above.

Look at you. Contorting yourself, foaming like a rabid cur.

With a shudder, Hux sprang to his feet. As if the soil of the wood was still angered by his presence, his paws felt aflame as they hit the ground. He curled his lips tight over his fangs to keep from crying out. 

Yet his visitor was no threat. He tilted his head to look aloft. There she roosted, high up in a pine: the monstrous blood eagle. Her horned head was dipped to scrutinize him with the empty sockets of her eyes—not sightless, somehow, and all the more unsettling for it, even to him. The curved black void of her mouth, almost human, twisted as if attempting to smile. Her teeth only protruded further, uneven and hideous. The bark of the tree seemed to writhe in pain when her talons, each the length of a man’s finger, dug deeper into the branch.

Hux whuffed dismissively and shook himself off. 

Phasma. Where have you been? You missed my success.

She was, in theory, his ally. Yet the master’s right hand was always a spot in contention between the two of them. Right now, Hux could tell she thought her odds were good to edge him out. 

The sound that came out of her mouth was a laugh, though to his ears it was more a shriek. Success? Where is the knight, then? Where is the witch’s heart?

The knight is where I left him. At her tree. He lifted his head and drew his tongue over his lips. As for the witch’s heart, it is still inside her body. I know you prefer your meals fresh from the source. 

You were supposed to kill her and bring him here . Phasma flared her wings, shaking the branch beneath her and sending a shower of flaking bark and brittle, browned pine needles down around him. Was something about the master’s orders unclear? Or have you simply failed that miserably?

The ridge of fur along Hux’s back rose up, and his ears pressed flat against his head as he barked up at her. They displayed more power than we expected. I will not make the same mistake again. Settling slightly, he raked his claws over the dirt and cocked his head. If you think you can do any better, it’s surely a shorter trip for you by air. 

Phasma scoffed and began to preen the silvery feathers at her breast. It is not my task to complete, cur. I observe. I report back. Master Snoke would be disappointed to hear you are trying to shirk your duties. 

I’m shirking nothing. They banished me. When the spell has worn away, I will return and complete the objective. Their protections are all but destroyed. Snoke will have his prize by the next full moon.

I hope for your sake that he does. It would be a shame for him to decide he has no further use for you.

Hux flashed his teeth at her. Indeed it would.

Chapter Text

It was easy to pretend nothing had ever been the matter. Easy to hear the birds and the breeze and the lively sounds of the forest—the chatter of squirrels, the low warble of a lark. Ben could stare out the window and keep his gaze far away from the crumpled posts. Some of the grass in the meadow was still burned and curled as if live coals had been set upon it. Earth remained churned and broken. 

But Ben didn’t want to look on any of that, didn’t want to think on it. The blackened tufts of grass only brought forth feelings of guilt and self-loathing; if he’d not stormed off in a petulant fury, then he would have been able to stand by Rey’s side when the beast arrived. The hurt he’d seen in her eyes ached more than a blade in his chest. If he’d only— 

No. 

Enough guilt. 

He could practically hear Rey scolding him over it, even though she would be miles away at this point, having left him alone in the tree with just his sword and his thoughts. She was going to the Waypoint, she’d said as she painted her face this morning. The spirit was gone, but so was the hellhound. The sacred valley might yet be open; she wished to see, now that no serrated teeth waited to tear at her throat. As if knowing the words before they left him, she’d added that going alone would be best. If the Waypoint was open, the new spirit might not accept Ben as easily as it would accept Rey. And if it was closed—well, she had a few remaining words to let out into the air. 

Ben had seen the lingering traces of grief as easily as he had seen her determination. 

So he’d looked through the cracked window as she went off and tried not to focus on the cracked wards over which she passed.   

The beast was gone, Ben told himself for what must have been the thousandth time. He tore his eyes from the window and dipped the leather scrap into the jar of fat to smear another glob over a joint in his armor. It was gone. She would be safe. Even still, he kept a corner of his mind open, the magic connecting them as if they were joined by a length of thread. He felt her steady pulse brush against his skin like the barest flick of a dragonfly wing. Distant, yet there. Comforting. 

He’d already made the bed, washed the linens, gathered greens from the nearby forest for dinner. Beck was brushed and shining. There had been little else to do, and Ben despised empty waiting. The armor hadn’t been in need of greasing, but it was keeping his hands occupied. 

At some point, he would make an attempt to fix the broken glass in the window. Bark, perhaps, or maybe a thinned piece of wood. He’d tried to mend it with magic and failed; glass wasn’t alive, and the panes couldn't be coaxed into fusing once more. With enough time and determination, perhaps he could manage. Grains of sand turned liquid, he thought as he circled the leather in the tallow jar, or a candle flame convinced to burn much hotter. 

He glanced at the spidering cracks. A part of the frame was splintered as well. 

Or, he could not fix any of it. Whenever he looked at the broken pane, at the split wood, he would have to think on how they had formed: the rushed whispers, the dig of her heels into his buttocks, the hot taste of her arousal on his tongue. Tension and release and the victorious surge of the rage making claim to her body. And she’d loved it all. 

Ben’s hands stilled on his armor as he drifted into reverie. 

Rey had teased him about breaking the table while they’d sprawled on its surface. Perhaps in the future he would aspire to do so, though the opportunity hadn’t yet arrived. Last night, they’d both been too exhausted from the trials and pleasures of the day to do much else besides eat and collapse onto the bed. Rey had curled into him and started snoring softly within a few short moments. 

This morning, however, there had been no opportunity for breaking the table. A zinging warmth trailed from his chest to the tip of his cock, like the slow press of a fingertip, at the reason why.

Ben didn’t remember how the argument had started. One moment, they had been chattering over their breakfast of nuts and fruit, and the next, they’d been flicking quick words at each other. It hadn’t been a real argument, not like the one they’d had yesterday. This had been the kind with smirks and play and insults that lacked any serious sting. When he found himself lacking in a witty riposte, Ben licked the juice from a half-eaten peach without taking his eyes from her, dragging his tongue over the dripping cleft in a way that left no room for misinterpretation. 

Rey’s rebuttal had stumbled, just for a moment, before she regained her composure. 

“You s-seek to...distract me,” she’d said. 

It seemed to be working, by the way she stared at his shining mouth. 

“Don’t blame me for the instability of your convictions.” He licked the peach again, because he liked the way it made her stammer.

“My points are sound.” She swallowed. “Whatever they...uh...were.” 

“I think your argument will sink like a minstrel in the ocean,” Ben said, “because there is no ground for it to stand upon.” 

They were so close she had to crane her neck to look at him. He could feel her breath on his collarbones, short and quick.

“You speak too much, sir.” 

“Then make me stop.” 

They kissed until kissing was not enough. The bed was close, their clothing soon gone. As he carried Rey to the bed, he kicked the forgotten peach across the floor and it rolled beneath something. 

So distracted by reminiscing, the fat-smeared armor slipped from Ben’s hands to the mossy floor. Bollocks—he’d forgotten about the peach. He stood slowly, hindered by a tightness in his trousers and a brain filled with sweet thoughts, and knelt to grope beneath a bookshelf. There it was: sticky and half-eaten. 

He couldn’t remember what he’d said to make her frustrated as they’d scrabbled at each other on the bed—something about her clothes, perhaps, or a joking insult about her mead. He wished he could remember, so he could say it again. She’d let out a wordless grunt of irritation and wriggled to sit astride him, her eyes narrowed, her jaw clenched. 

Raising her arm, she muttered a quick word, and the hideous dress from the caravan floated into her hand. 

He snorted. “If you think that mass of fabric is going to affect me in any way other than disgust, then you’ve—” 

Rey tore a strip off the hem. “Ben.” 

He blinked at her. “Yes?” 

“You speak too much.” 

She pounced, using magic to help still his limbs while she bound the thickly wadded strip around his mouth. 

As she leaned over him, her smile had been awfully conniving. He could only blame himself, she said, since it was he who had given her the idea in the first place. She kissed him over the improvised gag, and it was enough of a distraction that he didn’t realize the headboard’s vines were wrapping around his wrists until he was already bound. 

She had restrained him before—multiple times, even—yet this was different. More physical. Tangible. Her magic around him had been firm and solid, yet it was really only the air, and air had no texture. Here, he could feel the light scrape of the vines on his wrists, the dry fabric on his tongue, her tied knot digging into the back of his neck. 

Astride his waist, Rey lifted her eyebrows in a silent question. Is this all right?  

He nodded, a little too quickly, as her palm slid from his bicep to his pectoral to his stomach. Her touch was ecstasy. Her mouth, heaven. She sucked on his cock until he trembled, then rode him hard enough to set her breasts bouncing and the bed rattling. 

If he’d focused, he could have undone the bonds on his wrists and the fabric tied around his face; but he found he liked the pressure of the vines when he tugged against them, liked how his grunts were muffled by the coarse fabric. 

Ben had assumed the rage would pace and snarl at this domination, yet it had glowed warm and happy in his chest. Because it would be happy with anything, as long as he was with her. 

Gods, thinking about it made his neck burn in embarrassment even though no one could hear his thoughts. He got to his feet, threw the peach through the open door, and wiped his hands on a scrap of cloth. 

Despite the rage’s contentment, Ben had still listened when it encouraged him to plant his feet on the mattress and thrust into her with enough force to set her screaming. She untied his gag with the barest brush of magic and he spat it out. 

“Ah, so you’ll let me use my mouth again?” His sarcasm lacked sharpness.

Rey had thought of something, it seemed, for her grin widened as she struggled to her knees and made her way up his torso.

“Yes,” she said, and settled her cunt on his mouth. 

She must have read the same chapter in the book. He’d exchanged one gag for another. This one tasted better, at least. 

With a strangled cry, Rey seized above him and her thighs shook against his ears. She clutched at the headboard, her eyes shut tight, not noticing when Ben encouraged the vines to loosen on his own wrists and tangle around hers. Before she came down from her climax, he’d wriggled out from between her legs and gotten on his knees behind her, nudging her thighs wider, nibbling her shoulders, cupping her breasts. 

The rage rose up, excited by her moans. Though it enjoyed what had happened before, it thrived off of this. Just as he had done yesterday, Ben let it flood through his body. 

He’d fucked her like that, with them both on their knees, her hands bound in front of her and his body driving into hers hard enough to set the mattress ropes creaking. Flames licked his skin until he felt consumed by them. And it wasn’t frightening to feel so out of control; it was thrilling. He heard his name fall from Rey’s lips over and over, and the rage surged forth. He’d cuffed the back of her neck, slid his hand into her hair and pulled back hard enough to bow her torso. 

Ben willed himself to focus on the peach’s remnants. The dry cloth wasn’t so much cleaning his hands as it was spreading the tacky juice across them. He needed water, and perhaps soap. He wasn’t certain he would be able to live down the moment if Rey returned to the tree to find him sticky-fingered and sporting an erection. Too many questions. Too few remaining peaches. 

So he would return to greasing his armor. He would sharpen his sword again. He would focus on anything but the memory of how she’d fallen apart around him and how he’d loved her with an intensity that would convince her that...well, he loved her. 

Ah, yes, that was the thought that would wilt his arousal. 

He’d opened his heart to her and admitted something he’d only said to three people before in his life, and in response, she’d thrown herself at him, convinced him to thoroughly pillage her, and begged him to spill himself into her cunt. 

As far as responses went, he could think of far worse. 

But...

She didn’t have to tell him that she loved him. She didn’t have to think it. Love didn’t have to be reciprocal. Wasn’t that one of the castle bard’s favorite songs? ‘Love is a Dagger, Not A Dual-Tipped Lance.’

Ben gave up on the peach juice and went to toss the cloth into a shallow basket by the door. He’d never been fond of that bard, mostly because his songs made little sense. He paused, the cloth still in his hand, and looked out at the meadow. Strange—the birds had stopped singing. Was it already so late in the day? No, the shadows were short, the sun bright. 

He remembered the jug of water on a short shelf by the table. He’d soak the cloth; then he’d stop feeling sticky. Gods, the trials of a single piece of fruit. 

Ben had just sloshed a good amount onto the cloth when the air shivered against his skin, as if in fear. It was utterly nonsensical—how could the air be frightened? He shook himself and scrubbed his fingers. 

But then he breathed in, and the air oozed over his tongue and down his throat: vile, bitter, thick as sludge. His heart beat a frantic rhythm in his chest, hammering against his seizing lungs.

Impossible. 

They’d destroyed the hellhound. It had buckled under their magic and vanished like dust in a rainstorm. 

Or...not. 

Through the cracked window, a black shape slunk along the edge of the clearing. Not the shape of his horse. No, he knew this thing. 

Maybe Ben should have thought of weapons or magic, but he could only think of Rey. She was in the forest still. Far away. He wasn’t sure if he felt better or worse about this: if she was away, then she was protected, yet she was still far more skilled in magic than he, and only by their combined strength had they managed to...well, only banish the monster, it seemed. The magic that had sapped Rey’s power had given them not even a full day. 

A horse’s scream hurtled into the tree through the open door. Panicked and desperate, accompanied by the sort of delighted snarl that would forever lodge in Ben’s nightmares. 

Ben was running before he realized his legs were moving. The water jug shattered as it fell to the ground, the sound muted by his panic. He could feel his horse’s fear as if it were a living thing coiled about his chest and squeezing tight. 

The rage, which months ago had sat alert for the slightest chance to blaze through Ben’s veins, was uncomfortably silent. Too sated by recent events, it relaxed within him, content and purring and shrugging off Ben’s attempts to rouse it. Atrocious timing. Absolutely the worst. 

As he sprinted around the tree, Beck was rearing, his eyes rolling white and his nostrils flared and pink. The hellhound crouched just feet away. It was almost as large as the horse: the crest of its broad shoulders almost reached Beck’s withers. The perfect height for sharp teeth to meet an unprotected neck. The beast seemed to be toying with him, driving Beck backwards, scaring him into tossing his head high to expose his long throat. 

Saliva dripped from its teeth and crisped the grass where it landed. Its thick black fur rose along its hackles, rippling over tensing muscles. The scents of hot metal and acrid stone burned Ben’s nostrils. It tensed to spring—Ben was too far, still too far—and Beck tried to jump away to avoid its snapping jaws, but one huge paw lashed out and raked a wicked set of claws over the horse’s chest. Beck let loose a high, pained squeal and stumbled.    

A wordless bellow erupted from Ben then, loud enough to snag the monster’s attention. Beck took advantage of the creature’s distraction and bolted for the trees, his thoughts shrill and flashing. I’m sorr—I can’t—It’s too—I can’t— 

 Go, Ben sent to him. Get her.  

It occurred to him then that he had neither boots nor a sword and was sprinting towards a beast armed with two sets of claws and teeth that could cut clean through his neck. It turned to face him, and thin lips pulled over slavering jaws into something far too knife-like to be a smile, but far too delighted to be a snarl. 

A little gust of wind brushed Ben’s back. The sword. He’d called it into his hand once before; he could do so again. No, he must do so again. If he couldn’t have the rage, he would have his weapon. As his bare feet thudded into the damp ground, and the beast’s hackles bristled all along its spine, he felt as the air twined about metal and leather, and yanked. The hound tensed and widened its jaws. Ben was close enough to see the serrations along the edges of each tooth, the bits of leaves and dirt caught in its wiry fur. 

The wind surged behind Ben. Without slowing, he threw his arm out and caught the sword by the grip, then used its momentum to slice across the hellhound’s shoulder. The beast twisted away, its jagged ears pinned to its head, but it had not moved fast enough: a gouge appeared in its black fur, sickly red and glowing like molten rock. 

Ben whirled to face the hellhound, holding his sword ready with both hands. 

It snapped its jaws and sniffed the air. Pity your witch isn’t here. 

The monster was trying to goad him into a thoughtless strike. Not likely. They were circling each other, though the hellhound had a limp on its left side. Thick red liquid oozed from its wound and splattered onto the ground; the grass shriveled and the dirt burned where it landed. 

“You’ll not get her as long as I stand.” 

Then I should knock you down. 

When it lunged, it hit him with the force of a boulder. His sword flew from his hand and he landed on the ground with an impact that sent the air scurrying from his lungs. The hellhound was on him in an instant, one heavy paw pressed to his neck and another pinning his hip. Gods, it was huge. He needed the rage. He needed...something. Anything to get rid of the crushing weight on his chest. He couldn’t defeat this beast on his own; he had been a fool to think otherwise. An arrogant fool.

The paw on his neck pressed harder, and spots danced in Ben’s vision. He struggled against the creature and tried to shove the heavy paw off his neck, even though his palms burned and the tips of its claws pressed harder into his skin. 

The hellhound tipped its head and brought its snout closer to Ben’s face. I’m surprised, it said. I thought you’d fight harder. A drop of saliva fell from its jaws and landed on Ben’s neck with a sizzle and the stench of burnt flesh. His shout emerged half-choked as pain surged through him like a poison. It was all too easy to imagine the hellhound’s drool burning a hole straight through his body. 

That woke the rage, finally, like a swift boot to a sleeping bear. It crawled up his throat, seared the roof of his mouth, set his skin ablaze. 

The hellhound appeared not to notice. Maybe he’ll think you’ve not gotten as powerful as he thought. Maybe he’ll let me eat you. An excited rumble came from its chest. She will be the appetizer. But you, oh...you will be a fine main course.  

As the rage rose within Ben, something else rose as well: an awareness of the world around him and how it longed to rid itself of this monster. The hellhound didn’t belong. This thing had not been born of the earth and had not roamed with other creatures, giving and taking equally of nature. The ground beneath Ben was vibrating with impotent fury, unable to strike. When he called on the magic this time, it didn’t take much effort at all. 

He focused on the ground, the dirt and the stones far beneath him, and pulled. There was a ripple in the clearing, like that of a pebble dropped into a lake, and the hellhound swayed a fraction. It looked around, ears back and nose twitching, and its paw tightened on Ben’s neck. 

It might have been expecting him to strike; it didn’t expect the earth to do so for him.

Ben urged the ground to rise up, and a great mass of dirt and grass arced through the air as if it were no more than water. It slammed into the hellhound’s muzzle, knocking the beast off Ben and sending it tumbling. 

Ben rose to his feet. The rage unfurled within him, bright and glorious. Its strength was his strength; its power was his power. He was no longer its servant; it was part of him in a way he finally understood, and together, they would crush this enemy. The burned flesh on his neck no longer stung, and he could feel the punctures in his hip knitting together. 

The hellhound thrashed in an attempt to right itself, but Ben stilled the air around it, encouraged vines far below the surface to erupt and wrap around its legs. His sword flew into his hand and he rotated it in a quick circle, using its weight to loosen his wrist. 

The hellhound snarled and surged upright through the air’s shackles. The vines tried to hold tight, but they withered and crisped against the caustic fur. The beast’s jaw hung crooked and shattered and the mottled tongue lolled out over broken teeth. Dark eyes no longer gleamed with delight. Ben could swear the hound glared at him. 

The rage whispered to him that before the hellhound charged, it would tense. The muscles in its forelegs would vibrate just so. So when the creature lunged again, Ben expected it. He jumped to the side and forced it off-balance with a blast of wind, then called on the vines and urged them to wrap around its neck and pull it to the ground. Heavy paws scuffled at the dirt as the hellhound tried to squirm upright. Ben sent his sword down at its neck in a vicious arc, yet it managed to snap the vines. Instead of embedding deep into the hound’s body, the metal only grazed its neck and split open the fur and flesh to reveal more of that sickly red glow. This wound was wider than the first, and if Ben looked close, there seemed to be movement inside, like insects darting beneath fabric.

So distracted by the sight, Ben dodged the beast too late and several serrated teeth raked across his thigh. He shouted at the explosion of pain, unable to remain stoic at the feel of his skin crackling around the gash. It only ignited the rage more. A fresh surge of heat rushed over him, and as he glanced at his sword, a bright aura, like translucent flames, dripped down the metal until it coated the whole length. When he swung, it was with strength he’d never before felt. 

Still, the hellhound dodged him. Yet with every missed attack and narrowly-avoided killing blow, the hound was slowing. It no longer caught Ben off guard. Its wiry hide was a mess of open wounds and matted fur, and when it snapped at him, its jaws closed around empty air. 

The breeze blew beneath Ben’s feet, the earth rose up where he landed. The possibilities of how he could rearrange the world were flying fast around him, and it responded to any encouragement in an instant. As the hellhound lunged once more, Ben made the ground sink beneath its hind legs. Startled, its forepaws buckled, and it fell onto its stomach. His sword sang as he brought it down onto the beast’s spine. Powered by the rage and his own strength, the metal sunk deep into flesh and bone. 

Its howl was a guttural screech, filled with such pain and fury that the hairs on the back of Ben’s neck stood on end. As it twisted on the ground, Ben saw its hind legs no longer worked; they lay splayed behind it, gashed and useless. It attempted to lunge, but its movements were pitiful, flailing things. 

Its eyes had dulled, though the broken mouth still snarled. It watched Ben the way a snake would watch a hawk. It had become the prey.

Movement flickered out of the corner of Ben’s eye, and he glanced down to see that the same fiery aura coating his sword was surrounding him as well. Painless flames licked at his bared arms and the skin revealed by his torn trousers. There was no sound to it, and he would have thought it was only his imagination if not for the warmth skittering over his body. 

The world, the rage, the magic—all of it was an electrifying thrill that now felt as comfortable as an old cloak. Power was flowing through his body, heady and thick, and for once, it was right. He was whole. 

He would win.

He knew this, now.

The hellhound curled its upper lip. It gave a roar that shook its entire body, and its jaw hung lax far beyond what would have been natural. The expelled breath stung Ben’s exposed skin, smelling like ash and acid and rotten things. It surged forward on its front legs faster than he’d thought it could move. 

Yet he was faster. 

One last blast of wind hit it broadside. It struggled for only a second before Ben gripped his sword with both hands and drove the blade deep into its chest, pinning it to the churned soil like a stuck bug. 

A long exhalation left its battered snout and then it was done. The fight was over. 

Smoking blood trickled through the grass at Ben’s feet, and he staggered backwards to avoid it. The rage fled from him, and although he had worked with it like he had never done before, it still left him just as weak. 

He fell to his side and lay gasping as the sky cleared overhead. A yellow-breasted bird flitted across his vision. Something chirped in the distance. The pommel of his sword winked at him in the bright light. 

Then Ben saw the man.

Right at the edge of the trees, where the shadows still held some sway, he flickered between the shade and the sunshine like a specter. A long tunic hung from his narrow shoulders, and his wrinkled hands were clasped in front of his chest, fingers squirming around one another like shriveled worms. 

Dread punched through Ben at the sight of those beady eyes, the sunken cheeks, the scattered wisps of hair, the gaps in that crooked grin he remembered seeing in his own mirror so many years past.

He needed to stand. He needed to get his sword and shove it into this monster’s chest just as he had done to the monster currently steaming at his feet. He needed to fight. But his limbs wouldn’t listen; every muscle simply twitched in response to his commands. His lungs felt tight and hard and worthless in his chest.

Snoke unclasped his hands and flicked one finger at Rey’s tree. It ignited as if made from straw. 

Her tree. Her books, and her bed, and her food stores. The hand-carved bowls, the little crystals she’d collected and hung from the rafters as if she were a magpie herself. Her home. Their home. 

Ben pulled on whatever remnants of rage lay scattered in his body and forced them to snap awake. He rolled to his feet, though the rage was more like a tickle than the bright fury of earlier. Part of the tree’s canopy exploded, and the air stunk of burning sap. 

The blade of his sword reflected the green of the forest and the blue of the sky and the flickering red of the fire. He reached for it, yet right as his fingers touched its grip, Snoke’s hands darted out and a black, sinuous mass flew from his wrinkled palms. It engulfed Ben in an instant, surging into his mouth and twisting up his nose, clogging his lungs and darkening his sight as if it were soot given substance. 

He heard the voice, then, the same one he’d once feared and loathed, prouder than he’d ever heard before. Each word bit into his mind with sharp teeth.

Good, Benjamin. Very good. 

The fire had dimmed in his vision; it was just a blurry, red glow now. 

Perhaps it was going out, Ben thought hopefully. Perhaps she had returned. Perhaps— 

Then the darkness consumed him, and his thoughts drifted away as if they were no more than empty scraps of paper.

Chapter Text

They were too late. They tore through the wood at a breakneck gallop, sending sprays of grass and dirt behind them. Beck’s body was a coursing ripple of bright urgency as Rey clung to his mane and urged the wind to speed their progress. Yet it wasn’t enough. She knew it to be true even before they broke through to the stand of trees around her home. She could smell the destruction, the choking stink of darkness, and the acrid smoke of burning wood. To see it was worse still.

This wasn’t her home anymore. Her tree—with its great trunk and reaching branches and whispering leaves—was an eruption of orange flame and black cloud as Beck veered along the edge of the trees. He halted suddenly, his muscles bunched and twitching beneath her as if he wanted to rear back and flee again. Rey slid a hand down the side of his neck. It was meant to be soothing, though the tremble of her fingers betrayed her. 

He was here when I left , Beck explained hurriedly. His nostrils flared and he snorted hard, then shook his mane as he danced in place. He and the beast. The creature you destroyed yesterday, only— 

“We didn’t destroy him,” Rey finished in a voice so thin she hardly recognized it. “I need to . . .”

The end of her sentence shriveled in her throat—what did she need to do?—so she slid down from Beck’s back. The earth and grass felt warm even through the soles of her boots, but not from the sun. It reminded her of a scorched surface cooling too slowly.

Where are you going?

“Nowhere yet.” Rey touched a hand to Beck’s neck again, and he flinched. She’d forgotten the deep, burnt scratches on his chest. With a sympathetic hum, she stroked his cheek. “I’ll see to your wounds in a moment. I want to make sure it’s safe here.”

It isn’t . Forget my wounds. I’ve suffered worse. Ben isn’t here. We should leave.

“Soon.”  

First she wanted to confirm that Ben’s body wasn’t lying on the ground, lifeless and ruined. If there was no body, there was hope. 

She scanned the area, trying hard not to look at the way her tree burned as the grass and nearby trees remained untouched. It was an eerie sight; whatever power set fire to her home had wanted it alone to burn. Eyes averted, she raised her hands and pulled at the air, depriving the fire of the forces that fed it. Though it resisted her at first, soon the flames began to die until only the husk of the collapsed trunk stood, smoking and full of embers. 

Rey drew a shaky breath. Later, she would see what might be salvaged.

The rest was bad enough. The ground had been disturbed in a most peculiar way: ripped up and gouged, rippled and warped as if someone had taken it in hand and shaken it out like a blanket. Vines and foliage lay torn and scattered, and hunks of shattered bark littered the ground the way they did after a powerful storm. Dark magic hung in the air, a mist dispersing, and Ben’s too. Beneath it all, the pain and violence of what had come before she’d arrived was an erratic, sickening throb that was difficult to tune out.

No body, though. No Ben.

Her relief was short-lived as guilt and panic threatened to swell in its place. He was alive, probably. But gone. She crouched, a palm pressed to the dirt. If she could read what had transpired, call up the wood’s memory, she might find him. 

If he was still alive. 

If .

No. He was alive. He had to be. He was strong. If she couldn’t feel his magic, it was only because the chaos here had not yet dissipated. Something truly evil had passed through very recently—something that was not the hellhound, something that had wanted to take Ben only a day before. She remembered now, that other voice. The one she had not been sure she’d even heard. Until now.

She would focus until she could see through the darkness. She would feel Ben and follow. She’d done it before. 

Overhead, the trees shifted in the breeze, throwing the sunlight across the grass at a strange angle. Something glimmered in the corner of Rey’s vision. There was a twisted, blackened mass crumpled not far from what had once been the entrance to the tree. Ben’s greatsword protruded upright from its center, the garnet winking in the sun. With the flames raging she hadn’t noticed it, but now . . .

She crept closer. The hellhound’s twisted corpse was a horror to behold, more broken than whole, and for a moment she felt pity. He had perished in great pain. The sword was run through the body, stuck several inches into the ground. It hummed with traces of the magic Ben had left soaked into the blade. That might help. Rey was reaching with both hands to wrench it free when a new presence seized her attention like a cold hand grasping her throat. She saw the shadow pass overheard just before Beck’s shriek of panic rent the air.

Rey! Another one!

Rey spun in time to catch sight of a huge eagle wheeling around in a wide arc. It passed low over the jagged edge left over from the wall of her home, then dove straight for her head in terrifying silence, talons open and reaching. She just managed to dodge out of the way, though it was a close thing—the tip of a glinting primary feather brushed her scalp. It was sharp, as if made from metal or glass, and a thick drop of blood wormed down her temple a moment later. Stunned, Rey was reaching up to wipe it away when the eagle turned sharply in midair and climbed higher to dive again.

Don’t fight . There was mocking laughter in her voice as she stretched her talons and peered down at Rey with fathomless eyes. Master Snoke promised me I would feast on your heart when he had claimed the knight. If you don’t resist, I will give you a quick death before I take it from your chest.

Rey couldn’t be moved to care about the threat. All her attention had seized on one word.

Snoke. 

That name. The shadow that had followed Ben nearly all his life. A dark figure of great power, an opportunist, a liar, a monster—not vanquished after all. Only waiting. The thought made her flesh crawl. Goosebumps began to dance along her skin as she reached into the world to invite its power to her, trying to block out the memory of the low, insinuating voice that now had a name. It sent a flare of fury through her that burnt away all thoughts but one: she must rid the wood of this creature as quickly as possible and find Ben before it was too late. Rey tipped her face skyward and bared her teeth.

“Look down,” she spat, gesturing roughly at the crumpled body of the hellhound. “What sort of promise do you suppose your master made to him?”

There are no promises for those who fail; only punishment. The eagle circled as if bored. The wheeling movement of her sleek body was hypnotic as the wind whistled a high, wobbling tune through her silvered plumage. The cur was a slavering fool.

The blood from Rey’s head wound was still flowing freely. As she reached to wipe her eye clear, she found herself unable to break her gaze from the eagle’s wretched face. The eyes were completely empty of warmth and life. But it was the beakless mouth that most disturbed her. Beyond the row of crooked, almost human teeth was a maw of such perfect black that light curled in on itself and disappeared within. And yet it beckoned her eye and consumed her attention.

Your knight, though, the eagle went on as Rey stared, he showed much promise. And now the master will see his plan for it fulfilled at last. 

Rey wanted to scream with fury or throw a bolt of magic right into the creature’s breast. But she couldn’t. Her tongue refused to form a single word; her throat was too tight to utter a sound; her hands felt empty of power; her veins were filled with ice. Her eyes stayed fixed on the void of the eagle’s mouth. The darkness there entranced. The high whistle beyond rooted her feet to the dirt.

I admit I could not see the reason for Master Snoke’s fascination , the eagle said as she circled lower, her face always angled toward Rey. The knight had no control of himself. All fear and fury. What use would such a wretch be?

The world lay just beyond Rey’s grasp, lapping at the tips of her fingers, brushing her cheeks, threading through her hair. It called to offer exchange and aid. Yet she could barely hear it over the words swirling above, let alone respond. The eagle was close. Her talons flashed like black glass. Her mouth was impossibly wide, impressively deep.

But the Master is wise in ways I am not. He knew the knight’s use to him. And you prepared him, witch. You showed the knight how to harness his power. You strengthened him. Without you, my master might never have sensed him at all.

Rey stared into the void. Her doubts joined the eagle’s taunts to shriek back at her with monstrous intensity. It was all true. Everything Rey had done to help Ben only made him a target. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t known. She’d fatted Ben like a lamb and had been too ignorant to see the lions prowling. 

She deserved this. She deserved to be swallowed up in the blackness, the first but not the last.

Rey was too entranced to react when the eagle dove again. The heavy feathered body collided with her chest and knocked the wind out of her. Broad wings beat her backward, slicing at her arms and face until her back crashed against the husk of her tree. Though she was still stunned, the sear of pain and violence brought her back to herself and her sense of the world around her.

Power was coursing in Rey’s limbs and tickling her scalp, a ready, waiting reserve that had never left her. It diminished her grief and confusion and fed her determination to recover what had been taken from her. It thrived on her desire to live. It itched for her to give it an outlet. The forest wanted to expel the unnatural darkness too.

She tried to twist away and raise her hands to gather a spell, but the eagle was too close. The talons and wings boxed Rey in, scraping the crumbling bark at either side of her head, buffeting her with wind, the terrible face leaning close. This near, the eagle reeked of gore, and Rey nearly gagged on the stench as she attempted to duck down and roll out of reach.

And now you’ll die alone. Just as you would have. The eagle furled her wings as a talon dropped to Rey’s shoulder and dug in just enough to break the skin. At least you served some purpose .

Rey dragged in a breath to keep from crying out in pain as the talons dug deeper. Something shimmered in her mind’s eye, though it was a moment before she recognized it. Ben. The barest thread of his presence unspooling, a flicker of light in the void, very far away, struggling, but there . She clung to that, wound it like a steel wire through the bright swim of magic that already fortified her, and wrapped her hands tight around the eagle’s legs. With a sharp thrust of her upper body, she wrenched herself forward and threw the creature to the ground.

The eagle landed with a heavy thud and expelled a strangled garble of surprise as Rey thundered forward and pinned her to the ground, a foot on each outstretched wing. She gathered the air into a dense wedge and drove it downward. The eagle’s body buckled under the invisible weight, and her gaping mouth sucked soundlessly at the air; this time Rey refused to look at it. She glared into the eyes instead, and though the sockets appeared empty, she could feel the fear beneath the arrogance.

“I’m not alone.”

She was angry, hurt, and terrified. But she wasn’t alone, and her purpose was not to die here as fodder. The power she drew around her now felt more like the sort she’d found when she arrived here—the hungry fury of a fire, the electric chaos of a storm. It wasn’t the type she usually drew on. Gentler, more judicious forces were enough to accomplish most tasks and would not leave her feeling as if she’d just been ravaged by a fever. 

Rey had no desire to be gentle.

The energy of the magic roared in her palms as the air crackled around her, then hardened and stretched and shot like a bolt of light straight into the eagle’s mouth. The body shuddered and then stiffened, feathers standing on end; the gnarled talons stretched and grasped at nothing, scraping Rey’s ankles uselessly. She ignored the sting. It was nothing at all compared to the power pouring out of her, so bright she wondered that it didn’t burn. There was so much—she felt as if she could feed the magic on her anger and grief for hours and never grow tired of the feeling it gave in return. 

Below her, the eagle was being torn apart from the inside. That was the only way she could describe it. Light flickered between each pinion and lanced outward to join the beams of the sun; the eyes grew wide and full of blinding white; the exposed flesh along the legs and talons glowed, then crackled, then burned away to oblivion.

Rey was standing over nothing. The grass beneath her feet held only the faintest outline of shadow to suggest anything had been there at all, and in moments even that had faded. The rush of magic ebbed, echoes of it still shivering out of her extremities and fading in her ears. She dropped to her knees and dragged herself away from the singed grass, questing for fresher air and a place to rest her screaming head until her sweat dried and the worst of the aches melted from her body. 

She let her eyes fall shut for a few moments and held on to her sense of Ben’s presence somewhere far from where she was. Trembling, she coiled it tight in her chest and imagined that she could bask in its warmth. She needed to follow it, but she could hardly stand. Her palms burned and stung as if she’d just scooped a handful of embers from the hollowed remains of her tree.

Beck ambled nearer and nudged her cheek with his nose, then lipped her hair with concern. Are you all right? 

“Yes. Are you?” She eyed his wounded chest and winced as the sight reminded her of her own condition. “I’m sorry. I just need a few moments to recover my energy. I know which way we must—”

A branch snapped somewhere nearby, and Rey and Beck whirled in unison, expecting another attack. They were greeted instead by the sight of a squirrel, a magpie, and a hummingbird huddled together on the twisted branch of an old oak, looking bewildered and hesitant to approach.

Finn was the first to fly to her. He landed lightly on her knee and tilted his head, inspecting her with an air of apology. 

We heard a commotion, but when we arrived, the tree was burning and Ben was gone, and that thing . . . 

His eyes drifted to the hellhound’s body, and his feathers ruffled with agitation. Rey followed his gaze, gritting her teeth at the sight.

“I think Ben must have finished him. Before he was taken.”

We tried to save what we could. Not much, but we brought it to Poe’s nest for safe-keeping. We wanted to help you when we saw the blood eagle, but we didn’t know what to do.

“Thank you,” Rey said, leaning down to touch her forehead to his. “It was very brave of you all to go into the fire. I should have been here sooner.”

He eyed her and clacked his beak. But you’re not staying.

The others had joined them by then. Poe chattered expectantly as Rose roosted in the crook her her neck. 

“No, I’m not.” Rey peeled the shoulder of her gown away to get a look at the punctures left by the eagle’s talons. Some blood had soaked through the fabric, but they weren’t terrible. The bleeding from her head had already slowed, and the rest of her bruises and cuts would be manageable. She could travel and heal at the same time. “I know where Ben has been taken. Or . . . I don’t know , but I know the way there. There’s still time. I’m going to get him.”

It sounded so simple, phrased like that, as if she’d just declared she was going to forage some mushrooms. 

Do you want us to come with you? Poe asked, rising up on his hind legs.

“If it were likely to be less dangerous, but . . . I don’t think it would be wise.”

No kidding , Rose agreed with a puff of her feathers. Though let us help you prepare, at least. You won’t want to waste time.

Yes! Poe was already scampering off toward the path that led to his home. Wait ‘til you see what I saved for you! 

Finn took to the air and darted after him. She doesn’t need that for a journey! Just bring the nuts and be done with it!

Their bickering faded, leaving Rose and Rey to pick over the smoking, burnt-out tree. There was not much worth saving aside from what was tucked away in an underground nook near the hearth. Maz had dug it out years ago beneath the moss floor and sealed it with magic. Rey found her own emergency store of items there, untouched in the earth—medicinal herbs and potions, leftover winter rations, bandages, a patchy old bedroll, a cloak and mask she hadn’t used in years. She emptied it out and added the contents to the bag of supplies she had taken with her to the Waypoint that morning. Most of what she needed she could find along the way, but this would be a start. 

Rey saved the sword for last, after she had secured her bag between Beck’s shoulders with a makeshift harness. To see the blade standing upright as she worked had been a reminder of what she intended to do, but now it was time to go. The leather-wrapped hilt was soft and unexpectedly warm when she grasped it with both hands and pulled firmly upward, and it came free with surprising ease. It was heavy and felt awkward in her hands, but she slid it carefully into the scabbard, which she’d found scorched and cracked in the ruins. Slung across her back, the sword was a constant, comforting weight.

She burned the hellhound’s body until all that remained was a smudge of ash over the earth. With a few hours of sunlight left in the day and nothing else to delay her, Rey bid her friends farewell and set out to see what lay east of the wood.

 

~

 

His mind was not his own. It hadn’t been for a while—but he didn’t know for how long. If he’d had worries, he’d forgotten them. There was a constant flicker of dark magic keeping him smothered, and it wrapped around his consciousness like a heavy, mouldering sack. Flashes would come through on occasion: the gnarled limbs of a dead tree, the feel of his mouth speaking acrid-tasting words, the chipped stone of a broken castle wall. The magic he’d spoken, it seemed, had warped the air and shredded a hole within it in order to ease his travel to some destination. For some reason, he couldn’t find it in himself to care.

His mouth tasted of acid and ash. When he last ate, he had no idea. Sometimes, he would wonder if he should be hungry, because wouldn’t that be normal? Wasn’t that a sign he was still alive? Always, as soon as he entertained them, those thoughts—be they of hunger, or breath, or sleep—were taken away as if someone was yanking the toy out of a child’s hands. 

 He never stopped hearing the voice, though. 

You’ve done so well.

Finally, you’ve made me proud. 

Such power, Benjamin. Such great things we will do.  

It crawled along the inside of his skull like a bug, whispering promises and praise that made his stomach heave to hear, but that he somehow began to crave, because at least then he wasn’t surrounded by silence. The silence was far worse. When that voice rasped in his head, he would remember, just for a moment, his hatred for the monster who supplied it. Then he would remember his name, and the rage that had once surged in his body, and the bite of a winter night, and the warm skin of his witch, and hope would explode within him that perhaps he could feel it all again someday. 

He would remember her, though. If he could picture her eyes and her laugh and pretend he was feeling the touch of her lips, then it wouldn’t so much matter if he lost everything else. 

But the voice always trailed off, and the silence always returned, and when the heavy embrace of ignorance enclosed him, it squeezed a little tighter each time. 

 

~

 

For the first few days, Rey found traveling hours at a time on horseback a strange and uncomfortable experience. Even her longest journeys were usually made by foot, and walking helped keep her focused not only on the destination but all she passed along the way. Grateful as she was for Beck’s accommodation—and his considerable speed—each time they stopped for sustenance or rest, she always discovered some new ache of a muscle or unfamiliar stiffness of a joint. And to have traveled so far in such a relatively short time into unknown territories was disorienting, particularly when it felt as if they were no closer to finding Ben. 

By the third morning, as she stretched the kinks from her back and stowed her bedroll, Rey was happy to find that mounting Beck felt easier and more natural and that her body had finally figured out how to move with him and anticipate bumps or jostles. It wasn’t until the afternoon that she was stricken by a much less comforting realization: the current of magic between her and Ben was more difficult to follow. Once a strong, steady tether that leapt to her when she quieted her mind, now she had to seek it. When she found it, it was timid and inconstant, like a guttering flame in the wind.

What’s wrong? Beck asked her as they picked their way over a rock-strewn field of tangled grass and slippery moss. You’ve become tense all of a sudden.

For once, Rey wished Beck was less attuned to the moods and needs of his rider. Well-trained and perceptive though he was, she would have liked to not give him cause for worry.

“I’m having a hard time feeling Ben. His presence feels weaker than it did last time I reached for it,” she confided in a low voice, as if afraid Snoke might have ears hidden in the cracks between the stones they wended past. 

She’d been having fitful dreams the last few nights. They left her with the same wretched feeling she’d had when she heard Snoke’s voice and sensed his influence on her mind, distant and tentative but aware of her presence beating back. It made her wonder if she was seeing and feeling the things Ben was—and if that were the case, if he knew she was coming for him. 

“It could be that I’m only overtired—our rests have been short. This part of the wood is less familiar to me as well. We’ve traveled well beyond the areas I’ve seen in my life, and—”

Remember when I said you are a terrible liar? Beck gave a rough snort and sped to a gallop. You have yet to improve.

It was nearly evening when they arrived at the edge of a vast expanse of high, reddish grassland. In the low light, it looked as if the sun had spilled its gold onto everything below, and the stretch of land before them was so wide that Rey couldn’t see anything beyond it—it simply fed into the horizon, smooth and flat, unbroken by so much as a tree or hill. It was a fat, bright border between the wood she knew and the darkness that waited ahead. She gave Beck a gentle kick and together they surged onward into the rustling sea.

Though the grass reached nearly to Beck’s shoulders, he moved with an ease of strength and confidence, as if pleased by the change in terrain. Rey felt her own spirits bolstered in turn; but it wasn’t just her mount’s mood that did it. Even as the meadow stretched on before them, things began to appear familiar, and she began to feel she was returning to a place she hadn’t visited in a very long time.

It hit her as she glanced down to watch the russet-amber blur of their progress. The grass brushed her feet and ankles, and the sight stirred a memory. No, a dream. In the dream, she was barefoot. But the grasses were soaked in sunset, just as they were now: bright and warm as melted copper, tickling her as they whispered beneath her heels. She’d thought she was flying—but she had been riding . She had been here. She had dreamed it, again and again, for years. Just as she had dreamed of Ben.

Her confidence soared.

“We’re heading the right way!” she proclaimed, leaning low over Beck’s outstretched neck and grinning into his damp coat. “This is right!”

Well, that’s good to know. I assumed you were guiding us aright to begin with , he replied with a fond but sardonic nicker. 

She had been, but with her perception of Ben flagging, this was just the assurance she hadn’t realized she needed.

Can you feel him?

Rey straightened up and let her eyes drift shut until she was aware only of the long, undulating movement of Beck’s muscles and the coarse hair of his mane tangled around her fingers. She sank further into the world. She could feel the playful brush of the grass through her boots as if she wasn’t wearing them at all, and the wind whistling through the beads in her hair began to sound like music. A few moments passed before she caught the flickering thrum of Ben’s power somewhere ahead. Closer now, but also farther, somehow. Like he was being enshrouded, swallowed up, snuffed out.

Suffocated.

Oh, please hold on, she sent. It won’t be long.

She wasn’t sure if he could feel her, let alone hear her plea, but it made her feel better to try. Rey waited a moment more, then released her hold on the connection and returned fully to herself. Perhaps it was unwise to leave herself open too long. Who knew what Ben might be subjected to even now? She did not let herself dwell on what state she might find him in.

“Yes. I feel him. He’s there.”

Beck asked for no more details, and she did not offer any. It was another hour until they reached the other end of the red grassland, which tapered off against a thicket of sheltering shrubs. A small stream babbled quietly nearby, running parallel to a footpath that was overgrown with brambles and weeds. Old, long-hardened wheel tracks were carved deep into the clay. That was where they needed to follow next; it would take them the rest of the way. Yet they were both growing tired, and the sun was nearly past the horizon. 

“Let’s stop here,” Rey forced herself to say. 

Beck had already slowed to a gentle trot, and his nostrils flared at the smell of good grazing. It would be a comfortable, safe place to sleep for the night. A few hours, anyway. She dismounted and unburdened Beck of her things, then watched as he ambled off to feed. Soon enough she had her camp set up—really it was just laying out her bedroll and getting a fire going—and was foraging the brambles for ripe berries and fallen nuts. She’d been prudent with her rations, but there was much to be said for freshly found fare. Yet by the time she finished her dinner, Rey found herself too unsettled to lie down and sleep. Beck was still roaming, and her mind seemed too given to the same habit. 

What right did they have to stop? Every moment that passed without progress was wasted. Every moment they did get closer to their goal, so did the chance they would fail anyway. That Snoke would have molded Ben into something she did not recognize. She would have no home to return to, if she returned at all. She might have to make an unbearable choice.

“Stop,” she commanded herself through gritted teeth. “Thinking that way is no good.”

She jumped to her feet and, unthinking, grabbed the greatsword. As ever, its heft was at first clumsy in her hands, but despite its outward flaws, it was well-balanced, and she soon had a sense for how to wield it. Well enough, at least, to make a passable attempt at the drills she and Ben used to run through. It was good to do something. Something physically taxing, something angry—but beautiful, too, in its aimless brutality.

Soon Rey was gasping, grunting, and gulping down great breaths of air, sweating and breathing hard. She was certainly no longer mindful of how much noise she might be making with every thrust and swing. Until she spun and realized she was being watched.

She nearly dropped the sword in her shock, and she swallowed the strangled cry of alarm that fought its way up her throat as she tightened her grip. Holding the weapon in a defensive stance, she crouched and glared at the intruder. Her only thought was that anyone she met out here—a wanderer from the towns, a merchant traveling between cities, a disreputable thief looking for an easy victim—could only pose a threat.

“What do you want?” she demanded, brandishing the sword. Best the intruder believe that was her only line of defense. If forced to defend herself, she preferred to keep the true nature of her strength a secret until she called upon it.

The figure, as it stepped into the firelight, proved to be a man. He was bearded and perhaps in the later years of middle age, with a rough-hewn look about him. His hair was long and dark gray, and he wore a long cloak with the hood down and simple traveling clothes. In his right hand was a long, knobby walking stick, and he was looking at her with gruff disdain.

“Where did you get that sword, woman?”

His accusatory tone was worse than the one in Ben’s voice when he’d still thought her a monster. Rey shook her head in confusion but didn’t shrink away.

“It’s mine,” she lied. She didn’t owe this man an answer, yet she couldn’t ignore the flicker of recognition in his eyes. “And it’s no concern of yours why. Now travel on, or I may have cause to use it.”

The man grunted (or scoffed, or chuckled—she couldn’t tell which). 

“This is my home, not yours, trespasser.” He eyed her fire with distaste, then fixed his gaze back on the sword as she squinted into the thicket, seeking any sign of a hovel or cottage hidden there. The sharpness in his voice snatched her attention back before she could see anything. “And that greatsword belongs to the disgraced prince of Alderaan.”

Rey’s breath caught. “You know Ben?”

The man only stared at her in affront.

“He’s not the prince anymore,” she went on cautiously, eyes narrowed. “He hasn’t been in—”

“Thirteen years.” His expression was dark and distant as he tore his eyes from the sword and ground his walking stick into the dirt. “Gods, it’s been a long time.”

“Who are you?” she demanded. The magic was needling her, tickling her palms, compelling her to use it and let it use her. She shook it off; the tremor in her voice remained. “The last mercenaries to come through this way did not end well, I must warn you, sir.”

He stared at her a while longer, like he might be considering letting himself be amused by her. “I lived at the palace in Alderaan, a long time ago. Thirteen years. I knew the prince—taught him, once. And I am very familiar with the sight of that sword. Which is why I find it most curious that it has come to be in the possession of an outlander.”

“You’re . . .” Rey tilted her head and let the sword fall ever so slightly. It was all for show anyway; she could hardly fight with the thing. “You’re Luke. You were his tutor.”

His uncle . This was the man who had been entrusted with Ben’s education but also with making sure he never embraced his power or even let it breathe. Luke was the one who had taught Ben fear—fear of magic, fear of his nature, fear of himself. Powerful light, powerful darkness; but darkness most of all. The twist of impersonal hatred she’d once felt when Ben spoke of his misguided tutor returned suddenly and fully formed. 

And now the man had a face. It flickered with doubt. “He spoke of me?”

“Yes.” 

She swallowed hard. This man hated magic. He hated people like her. Oh, how great was the urge to show him the barest hint of her power. Would he cower? Or would he try to oppress her as he had Ben? 

“He spoke of you,” she continued. “Better than you deserve, in my opinion.”

Luke glowered and stepped closer, his eyes flicking over her as if hoping to ascertain something in particular from her appearance alone. “I’ve told you who I am. So return the favor. How do you know him—Kylo Ren?”

“I . . .” What a question. The first answer that came to mind was “ thoroughly” followed shortly by “ as completely as I know myself, ” neither of which answered what Luke was asking. “Ben found his way to my home during one of his quests. I invited him to stay. He accepted.”

The look of utter perplexity on Luke’s face might have made her laugh if she was not still battling her instinct to despise him. What Rey knew of the man before her did not paint a flattering portrait—but then, her first impressions of Ben had not been the flattering sort either. Those early days and weeks, she’d had very little reason to trust him, let alone care for him, accept him, and love him. But she had done all of those things since. Surely there was something in Luke worth . . . well, tolerating, at the very least.

Leery of letting him know what she was, she subtly reached for him with her mind. All she desired was a sense of his emotional state. Beneath the defensive bluster, she identified remorse and curiosity. 

Fine, then. She could treat him with kindness. Careful, measured kindness.

“Will you join me awhile by the fire?” she suggested, gesturing toward it. “There are some things you should hear, I think. But it would be more comfortable if we could sit. And see.”

“What, instead of this vaguely threatening stand-off?” Luke did that odd grunt-scoff-chuckle thing again. “Yes, that will do.”

“My name is Rey, by the way.”

“Luke. But you already knew that.”

As they settled onto the soft earth and warmed their hands, Rey threw a glance toward the thicket again. “You really live here?”

“Yes. For the last decade or so. I spent a few years traveling, then settled. I live off the land.”

“I’m familiar with the concept.”

Now that she had time to really look, Rey did see the faint outline of a small cottage not far down the path, mostly hidden behind a fallen tree and some haphazardly piled stones, as if Luke had once considered building a wall and then given up. She could see how her loud exercises might have drawn him out, or else the sound of hoofbeats before. 

Those same hoofbeats were returning now at a trot, and Beck stopped short as Rey caught sight of him. She waved an unconcerned hand in a way that she hoped conveyed nothing was wrong. It seemed to work; Beck gave Luke a long stare and whuffed before returning to his grazing closer by with a casual flick of his tail.

“Handsome animal,” Luke commented.

“Yes, he was— is —Ben’s as well. Like the sword.”

“Must have been after my time. And you must have so many things of his because . . . he lives with you?”

“Yes. We . . . he’s my—” 

Toadstools, what was Ben? And why was she telling Luke? 

“It’s a story for another time,” she said, beginning again with a phrase Maz had uttered to her countless times. “There’s something you must know. The dark mage who once claimed hold of Ben has taken him again.” 

She wasn’t sure what sort of reaction she’d been expecting from Luke, but stony silence wasn’t it. Perhaps he just hadn’t understood? 

“Snoke has taken Ben,” she clarified. “He’s holding him captive.”

“That’s not possible.”

“How can you say that? You know what Ben is, the sort of power he has,”— though you’d done your best to snuff it out , she recalled bitterly—“and now Snoke will use him again as he pleases, I fear to far worse ends. I’ve felt it.”

“I did what I did to protect Benjamin,” Luke cut in, “from his own corrupt nature. And it failed. I failed him. I exposed him to an even more wicked force than the one already inside him. It twisted him, encouraged his darkest impulses, made him resentful, angry. He rejected the help I offered. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Rey bristled at the insinuation that a gift such as Ben’s was an evil to be eradicated. “I’ve heard this tale.”

“And you know how it ended?”

“I do.”

“Then you see why I’ve decided to live my life the way I have.”

“What, in exile?”

“What my nephew has chosen is not so different. We’ve both done terrible things, and this is our due,” he said with world-weary indifference. Apparently overwrought self-flagellation was a family trait. “But as for Snoke, he was driven out. Destroyed. There’s not been a trace of him for thirteen years. Whatever the nature of your . . . relationship to Kylo Ren— Benjamin— whatever name you know him by, it is far more likely that he has simply resumed his life of repentance.”

“You’re not listening. I’ve seen the dark creatures Snoke sent into the wood to track Ben down after he began learning to work with his magic. I’ve heard Snoke’s voice. In my head. And I can feel Ben, right now, struggling to beat back his influence. He’s strong, but he is not going to be able to do that forever. I need to find him, and if you were any sort of family to him you’d help me by—”

“What do you mean you can feel him?” Luke was regarding her with a stilled sort of horror—cracks spreading over the surface of a frozen pond. “You’ve heard Snoke’s voice?”

Rey drew a sharp breath, hesitated, then said, “I’m like Ben. Do you understand?”

He seemed to consider leaving right there and then. His eyes dropped suspiciously to her hands, as if forks of lightning might leap from her fingertips. “You’re a witch.”

She had become so accustomed to hearing the term as an endearment from Ben that the disdain in Luke’s voice as he said it hurt doubly so. It was worse than the mocking way Snoke’s familiars had spoken it—it sent her right back to her childhood, the bitter rejection of her parents and Plutt’s cruel, punishing treatment. Rey hadn’t felt so small in a very long time.

“Yes.”

“I should have known,” he said darkly. “These roads aren’t well-traveled, but I hear rumors—some months ago the knight Kylo Ren set out to retrieve a princess who was being held captive by a witch.” His eyes narrowed. “And now a witch is freely roaming the land with his sword and horse and who knows what else. Whatever dark influence you wish to work over me—”

“If I wished to harm you,” she interrupted, willing her voice to remain steady as the situation slipped even further from her control, “I would have done it already.”

“Snoke came bearing goodwill too. Patience. Subtlety. Such is the deceptive nature of magic.”

“You had something he wanted.” She drew a shaky sigh, trying to control her frustration. This man was maddeningly obtuse. “The only thing I want from you is help. This won’t stop with Ben; soon no place will be safe. Please.”

As Luke looked her over again, all she could see was his distrust and unease. “I have no help to offer you.”

She’d been expecting that already and wasn’t particularly disappointed by the thought that her dealings with him were at an end. But Luke had met Snoke before and seen how he worked. He might have known something that could make the task that lay before her easier. So yes, the rejection did sting, just a bit.

  “Stay here for the night if you must,” he said, rising to his feet with surprising nimbleness, “but I want you and your horse gone by the time I venture out in the morning.”

No skin off her back; she was planning to leave before dawn anyway. Rey said nothing, just watched him retreat down the path until the dark had swallowed him up. Did he truly care nothing at all for Ben? He spoke as if he’d given him up for lost long ago. She wondered if Luke would remain awake tonight, waiting for her to steal by his hovel and ensnare his will in some devious enchantment.

Rey was glad to be rid of him. The quiet crackle of the fire was the only company she needed—and Beck, when he approached to nuzzle her temple with surprising tenderness.

I think you have everything you need without him, he told her, lipping at the hair near her ear. 

She waited for the insult or the sardonic qualifier to come, but it didn’t. Beck snorted and ambled off again to find a more private spot to sleep, or graze, or whatever he got up to at night. For her part, she soothed the fire into a gentle dying glow, then curled up on her bedroll, hopeful of a few hours of uninterrupted sleep before she and Beck were on the move again. She fought the temptation to reach for Ben. Every time she found him now, it was more difficult to ignore the despair nibbling away at her hopes. He was barely there.

Rey tucked her legs up and swallowed a sob, then bit her tongue until the urge to scream passed. She fell asleep instead, and for once, no dreams troubled her. 

The next day passed in an uninterrupted blur of riding and meager stops, and though she met with no other resistance or unfriendly travelers, the landscape itself began to feel very wrong. It was no wonder to Rey that no one had ever found Snoke’s stronghold or discovered that he still lived—nothing about the land surrounding it invited exploration. There was no evidence of animal life. The ground was dry, barren, and cracked. Long-dead trees twisted and groaned, though no wind disturbed them. In fact, the air itself was unnaturally still and empty, as if every vital force had been drained out of it. Something about the sky made it impossible to tell what time of day it was. 

If she did not have such a compelling reason to continue into the heart of this place, she would long ago have given in to the instinct that screamed at her to turn and run as fast as she could the other way. 

Beck’s flanks were soaked and heaving, and Rey was beginning to worry about the state of their water reserves—nearly nonexistent at this point, and she couldn’t recall when they had run out or when they had last stopped at all—as they crested the rock-strewn hump of a hill. Her breath caught. The castle was there, suddenly, as if it had burst out of the ground after lying dormant. It was an ugly thing that blighted the horizon, all dark stone and jagged, not-quite-symmetrical towers. As it stood stark against the colorless sky, the stronghold exuded an aura of abandonment and despair. 

And sure as she saw it, Rey felt seen in turn. Someone knew she was coming. She didn’t think it was Ben; she couldn’t feel him anymore. It was too difficult to push past the darkness. She sent her heart to him anyway as they surged closer over the final stretch of dead earth.

 I’m coming, Ben. I’m with you. Until the end.

Chapter Text

He was floating in darkness. When it whispered to him, he heard it like the dry crackle of a flame; when it touched him, he felt it slither across his skin. The darkness was as constant as the air he breathed. His name was long gone. His anger, too. The former emotions that had risen within him and let him break free of the black long enough to get some sense of place were far away; trying to reach out to them felt like he was grabbing at wispy threads too easily broken in his fingers. 

Thoughts he was certain hadn’t originally been his own wriggled into his mind. He was strong now. He could destroy whatever he wished. He could take entire kingdoms and decimate them, split their keeps and melt their weapons, crush their inhabitants until the ground wept red.

At first, he’d quailed at the coldness of it all: this was not him, he could not do such things. She would be so disappointed—but exactly who she was began to chip away at him, because he couldn’t quite remember—except for the smell of violets, for some reason. Violets and sunshine. The scent had dug itself into him like a thorn. 

So as those cold thoughts continued to squirm within him, they began to seem a little less cold and a little less frightening, and just a little more natural. 

You were weak before, the voice would croon. Now you are powerful. Now you are as you should be. Now you are mine. The voice was not just a voice, of course. It was a presence, like soot and oil...and had he felt it once before? Had he ever not felt it?

And then, through the heavily weighted darkness, he felt that presence bristle. It let out a low snarl that sounded as if it had come from the throat of a demon. 

Something was coming. 

No...someone. 

He could feel a pinch in his chest, almost like there had been a cord wrapped around his heart and whoever approached was tugging the other end. It wasn’t an altogether terrible feeling, and it stirred the barest hint of memory, but the moment he wondered if he would get a glimpse of it, the growling presence within him extinguished any further recollection. 

It must not have been worth remembering. 

His body uncurled from wherever it had lain. There was a stiffness in his knees and his elbows, and something sticky on his side tugged at his skin. One of his hands twitched around empty air as if it expected to grip a tangible object. He wondered what it might have been. 

Not that it mattered. The intruder was closing in; the dark presence within him hissed beneath his skin and released a flood of disgusted fury that curdled in the back of his throat. How dare it come here? How dare it impose on the plans he had made, the future he was only now beginning to craft for this shell? He no longer knew if those thoughts were his own or if they had been shoved into his mind like blades. 

The stones beneath his palms were cold and tacky with a sort of dried substance as he pushed himself upright. Yet even as he felt the chill on his fingers, the sensation dulled, as if he were being pushed back farther into his own mind. The presence would deal with this intruder. 

And the part of himself he once thought to be steadfast twitched once and then fell still.



~

 

The emptiness of the castle was more frightening than any of the horrors Rey had let herself imagine. She’d expected more creatures to dispatch: Snoke’s sendings, all dark eyes, cruel threats, and wide, razor-fanged mouths. Surely the place would have a guardian. Yet there was nothing. Just cold, still air and so much shadow that the slanting spills of light along the floors and walls appeared as perverse oddities struggling to take hold.

She’d left Beck outside—he’d been uneasy at their parting, but she could not justify risking his life more than she already had. Now, though, she missed his company. His solid warmth, the smell of his coat, the sound of his hooves. Even his dry, distant way with her. Any of it would have been welcome, a reminder that there was a world outside this nightmare of a place. She kept forgetting. She was forgetting a lot of things. Talking to herself in hushed, careful whispers wasn’t even helping.

Was there anything outside these walls? Wasn’t this just a tomb? 

Your tomb.

Rey halted midstep, nearly tripping over a buckled section of the floor. The tip of the sword she’d been carrying at the ready knocked against the cobblestones, and the sound of steel scraping against stone was unnaturally loud, like a shriek right in her ear. It echoed far too long. She winced and fought the wash of terror that now clutched and squeezed at her until it was difficult even to draw a breath.

“Who’s there?”

No one was there. Of course. 

You’re alone .

Completely, perfectly, coldly alone. How could she forget? Not even Ben was there anymore. She’d tried a few times, even after meeting with a solid, smothering mass of dark as she’d arrived ( arrived where ?) and reached for him ( who was ‘ him ?) to remind herself it wasn’t too late ( for what ?).

It was hard to think clearly. Shouldn’t she be meeting with more resistance?

Hadn’t she already wondered about that?

Why was she carrying a sword?

“I’m here to find Ben,” she said quietly, with far more resolve than she felt. Her hand tightened on the hilt, and she pressed on.

Ben is gone. You’re too late.

Her heart skipped. That was him. It was Ben. She heard him in her head, the way she did when they communicated through the power that linked them. Not words or sound, but him just as much as his voice was. And she felt him too, the smallest flash. A spark in all that shadow, and then gone. There was something not right about it—like someone was using their bond to reach her. A hunter disguised as quarry. Never had his presence made her feel so full of dread. 

“Ben?” 

She felt like a fool the moment his name crossed her lips. Whatever she was hearing, it wasn’t him. No, this was that other presence. The one she felt in the wood, coiling in the back of her mind like a snake through undergrowth. It was the thing that had made her think it might be a clever idea to throw herself onto the fire to burn with the Spirit’s body. It was the thing that urged her to give up fighting and let the hellhound tear her throat out.

Snoke ,” she spat. “Get out of my head.”

Again, she felt that familiar thrum of Ben’s awareness at the other end, a note she knew hidden beneath a compelling strain, discordant yet perversely placating. It would have been better if you’d stayed away.

She turned on her heel, suddenly all too aware that she had no idea how deep into the castle she had traveled or how long ago she had left Beck at the crumbled gates.

It would have been better if you’d burned in the tree. 

If there were any way to get those ideas out of her head, she would gladly take it. There were windows. She could leap from one, hope for an easy landing. Or not. It didn’t matter. Rey pelted down a corridor, heedless of where it was leading. No more windows. Down, then. She was moving down, under the earth, into the castle’s hidden, dark heart, following the strand that stretched ever-thinner between her and Ben.

Are you afraid yet? 

“No,” she said between gasping breaths. The sword was heavy as she ran, her legs were screaming, her feet felt as if they were made of stone. Every inch of her body wanted to be gone. “I’m not.”

You will be, little witch.

Blinded by purpose and panic, Rey collided with a wall. It had appeared only as more darkness, and suddenly it was there, solid, unforgiving, and smooth. Whatever it was, it knocked the wind out of her and sent her sprawling onto her backside. She fumbled the sword, which clattered away, the garnet glinting scornfully back at her. The entire front side of her body was an ebb and flow of dull pain. Her vision was swimming. She had bitten her tongue. She spat blood onto the floor and climbed stiffly to her feet.

“What . . .” 

Rey limped forward, testing her legs, stretching her aching muscles. Nothing was broken. She was only stunned—and more disoriented than ever. She’d barely realized what she was doing. If she hadn’t been stopped when she had, she might have kept running forever.

Torchlight sent meager pulses of light over the immediate area. She was in a wide, low-ceilinged chamber, like a catacomb or a dungeon. It smelled like wet straw, stone, and mold. Water dripped nearby, a rapid, maddening patter. The space she’d thought was more open corridor was . . . well, not a wall, either. More like a pane of smoky glass, though it wasn’t truly a physical thing. She could feel the magic that made it, like her protective wards, but rather than working through an equitable exchange, the power that fed it simply took. Standing before it, she could feel it eating away at her magic too, nibbling slowly like a seethe of hide beetles. 

Well, that was helpful. It meant there was something beyond it Snoke wished to protect. There was only one thing Rey could think of that fit that description. The connection between her and Ben was alive again. Oh, it was so alive, wild, clawing, grasping. Her relief at its return was so great she didn’t have the heart to notice how twisted it felt, how taut and close to snapping. 

Yes, yes, I’m here. I’m so close.

Good, it said. That’s right. Come closer. 

She crouched and groped for the sword until her hand found the hilt, then dragged it toward herself—and froze.

There was something just beyond the threshold, a blurred, dark outline moving against a wall. A shadow? Her own? It did not move as she shifted her weight and rose. She swallowed and peered deeper into the chamber, pressing her hand against the ward barrier. The magic stung her palm as the shape uncurled and pushed itself up to sit.

“Ben.”

Rey tightened her hand around the sword again, this time only to stop the tremor in her arm. Her empty hand twitched with fury and horror. It burned with unused power. She wanted to obliterate the wall and run to him. And just as suddenly as it was there, the wall was gone, as if it had sustained itself solely on her despair and confusion and had no idea what to make of this surge of will. Even with nothing to keep her from going to his side, she hesitated. Ben didn’t seem to realize she was there at all. He remained hunched against the wall, his posture like that of a cornered animal.

He looked so . . . drained. Used up. 

On one side, his shirt clung to his skin in a dark stain of dirt and dried blood. Even under the warm glow of the torches, his skin was ashen, and the hollowed lines of his face and shadowy rings beneath his eyes made him appear nightmarishly gaunt. It had only been a few days, but there was a pinched, starved look to his form, and the sight of him in a state of such abject vulnerability disturbed her in a way that even his darkest moments of rage never had.

It made her wish she had brought rations with her. What an absurd thought. There would be time to right wrongs later. They needed to go. Right now. 

Rey stepped into the chamber, sword low, her empty hand stretched outward in a placating gesture. She felt the gentle buzz of magic over her skin as a small ball of light coalesced in her palm. 

“Ben? It’s Rey. I’ve come to get you out of here.” He was unresponsive, but she was certain he was watching her. The weight of his attention was so much that her steps slowed. “Can you stand?”

At last he turned to her—or at least turned his face to her. When his eyes settled on her, the look of triumphant recognition that altered his depleted features made her skin crawl.

“Witch.” 

Ben stared up at her. A tight smile stretched the lower half of his face but did not reach his eyes, which flickered but held no light. His lips were dry and blistered. The scar over his right cheek deepened like a fissure that might bleed and open up to reveal a nasty, spreading rot deep inside. 

With disquieting fluidity, he rose to his feet, entirely ignorant of his battered state. His clothing hung loose and filthy, his hair lank and matted. “How did you find me?”

She didn’t like the way he asked. It was the same smug way someone posed a question they already knew the answer to. 

“The connection between us,” she said carefully. It was becoming more difficult to believe he was simply disoriented. He sounded lucid. Sharp in a way he never was with her. “I could feel you fighting. You called to me. It was enough.”

“Yes, it was enough. I am happy you found me.” He shuffled a few steps closer. His face strained further with that mirthless smile. She knew Ben’s smile. The mouth was his, the full lips—the expression was that of another. “I very much wanted you to see this.”

The smile dropped from Ben’s face. He grew very still, his limbs stiff, expression slack, as if he’d forgotten how to move and breathe. His eyes glazed, and she saw it—not the slimy familiarity of moments before, but true, intimate knowing. Relief, fear, and longing. That was Ben. 

His mouth twitched, opening to say something, and then he was gone, the glimpse she’d had replaced by a brittle mask. 

 

~

 

There was a new presence here, and it didn’t hurt. He could feel it faintly, as if he were reaching for it behind a heavy curtain, but it was there all the same. Bright. Warm. Violets and sunshine.

It called him ‘Ben.’ 

He pushed against the clinging darkness and felt it give just enough for him to hear her say again, ‘Ben.’ 

Her.  

Gods, it was her.  

Rey.

He pushed harder and harder, and the darkness slid around him like a cloud of eels, and he heard her voice more loudly now, though she was as muffled as if he was listening to her speak underwater. 

“This isn’t you,” she said in a voice like a snarl. 

He could see the outline of her. Something glinted in her hair: a little glass bead, amber enclosed within swirls of brown and green. It had always reminded him of her eyes. 

Memories slammed into him, and if he were able to breathe, it would have left him gasping: the glint of that bead beneath fresh, green boughs; how it would slide against a threadbare pillow; how it clacked against the others in a rhythmic tap; the feel of it pressing into his skin as she lay her head on his chest. 

Ben—yes, yes, that was his name, Gods, how could he have ever forgotten it—shoved his way through that horrid, murky curtain until he could see her, but— No. No, this wasn’t right. She was scared. Sad. Baring her teeth at him like a cornered animal. She was trying for strength and it was failing her. 

The presence within him squeezed his conscious self until it felt as if his eyes would burst, and Ben shrank away automatically. But it wasn’t really a presence. It was Snoke. His enemy. This was who had corrupted his mind and overpowered his soul, and who was using his body to slink toward the woman he loved, making her face pale and her breath seize. A light was glowing in her palm. If he focused, it almost looked as if it was brightening her whole body, surrounding her like an aura.

“A stunning revelation, little witch,” he heard himself say. “And you come thinking you can rescue him with your tricks?” A wave of Ben’s hand made the light wink out and the darkness return. “You can’t save him any more than a dead fox can save its fur from the hunter.” He could feel each word passing through his mouth but couldn’t manage to snatch them back.  

Whatever her response, it was smothered by the darkness clogging Ben’s ears like wax. 

“I’ve seen into his heart,” Ben’s mouth said. He felt his lips crack, and he tasted the rusty tang of his own blood. “I know what thoughts he’s kept from your tender, young ears. Do you know how relieved he was to finally be away from you? From your pathetic hopes and your grasping hands, and the stupid trinkets you’ve collected as an attempt to be part of something you’ve never known from the start?”

When she spoke, her voice was as thin and fragile as glass. “You’re lying.” 

It wasn’t his laugh that emerged. “You’re a child playacting at life. Nothing more. The wood doesn’t need you, nor does the world, and you would do it all a great favor if you took that sword you’ve brought and threw yourself upon it.”

No.

No.  

The false words stung at Ben like a swarm of insects. Anger roiled within him at the words he heard himself say, and through the blurred haze of Snoke’s hold, he could feel the flicker of something stirring deep in his chest. He focused inward and found it wasn’t just anger; it was... more : a wisp of flame, familiar and once feared, rising through the darkness. 



~



She almost had to say it again, if only to remind herself. 

This isn’t you. Ben, it isn’t.  

But her mouth was dry and every word shriveled up on her tongue. Even as she struggled to cast aside the cruelties he spat at her, for an instant Rey swore she heard her own name, in his voice, in her head. No . . . less a name, more pure emotion. The sensation of hearing him address her. The solace of home. 

The echo of it was fading already, but she tried to latch onto it anyway. 

“Ben . . .” Rey swallowed her fear and crept closer, sword at the ready, magic bristling in her limbs, though she did not think she could bring herself to use either on him. “This isn’t you,” she repeated, harder. “It’s Snoke. You’ve conquered him before. You can do it again. He is weak. You aren—”

Her plea broke off into a strangled cry of alarm as the creature wearing Ben’s body lurched toward her. Like his sour smile, his way of moving was foreign, not right , not Ben. The gait was too long, too brutish, the swing of the arms too predatory, the lean of the torso unbalanced. He was a poorly controlled puppet. If he was fighting, it was not enough. The next moment, Rey felt her back collide with a wall she hadn’t realized was there. 

The stone was wet and slimy. She couldn’t move. Magic was holding her there; it was not the soft caress of Ben’s power but a gnarled, grasping paw of something she did not know. She never wanted to be touched by it again.

He hovered close, so near she could feel the heat of his skin and the nauseating tickle of his breath at her ear. Yet he drew closer still, until his face was practically pressed to her neck. Rey could smell him—it should have been days of sweat and blood, dirt and fear, but it was altogether worse. He stank of burnt oil and spoiled things, a distillation of dark magic so potent it made her wish she had no senses at all. She shrank further, more in disgust than fear, then tried to push him from her with a swell of magic.

The spell buffeted his chest and withered away to nothing. Snoke twitched Ben’s mouth. She had merely amused him. The sword felt impossibly heavy in her hand, but she refused to let it fall. 

“You think there is something to save here, witch?” he asked with a sneer. He paused and drew a long breath, nose nuzzling just behind her ear. The beard at Ben’s chin rasped her skin. “No, you know the truth. I smell it on you. How afraid you are that you’ll never leave. Not with him. Not alone either.”

“You don’t know anything.”

When Snoke only laughed again, twisting a sound familiar and dear to her, it made her so angry for a moment that she managed to thrash against him, jaw snapping as she tried to bite him. He redoubled the power holding her still. She refused to let him see how much it hurt, though he surely sensed it.

“I know everything . I have seen into Benjamin’s mind. Every secret. Every thought. Every desire, and fear, and pathetic hope. And do you know what I have seen?”

The physical invasion of her space was nothing compared to the feeling of her mind being pried open like a cockle. His power was honed knife sharp. Before she could fathom that he was doing so, her thoughts and memories were laid bare to him. And then so were Ben’s. She saw it all, exactly what Snoke had spent days tearing through, consuming, and toying with. Ben’s decade of loneliness and anger and hopeless wandering. Countless losses of his humanity to the rage. Coming to the wood, finding her, being found, finding himself. 

Every moment they had spent together. Every flash of intimacy. Every affectionate gesture, exchange of looks, brush of hands, tangle of bodies. Every—

“Get out of my head,” Rey managed to snarl, even as Snoke dug deeper. “Those aren’t yours.”

“No, they certainly are not. Such piteous scantlings are of little use to me. Just as he had little use for you, in the end.” He made a low sound of indifferent disgust. “He did like fucking you, though. He liked how you squirmed beneath him so, like a scrappy, mewling animal.” 

“You’re a filthy liar.”

“The only liar here is you.” 

His fingers stretched further inside her mind, pushing aside her defenses with slippery ease. Immediately, Rey knew what he was looking for. She felt it all over again, fresh and new, as if she had never conquered it at all: her fear of abandonment, her certainty that Ben was only waiting for an opportunity to leave, her foolish insecurities about what he wanted from her.

He came to me willingly , Snoke’s voice told her. It wrapped tight as vines, slim tendrils sinking deep inside her head, invisible and winding. He had all he wanted of you. He knew he would find true power here. You’ve known it the whole time. 

Tears were streaming down her face, though she couldn’t remember beginning to cry. She wasn’t sad. She wasn’t frightened. She had never experienced this sort of anguish.

You can’t lie to yourself anymore, Rey. 

He kept taking and tearing until she couldn’t try to keep him out anymore. Even things that could not possibly be of use to him were inspected and sneered at and brushed aside as he sought every weakness and doubt, each morsel of knowledge and power. Rey felt as if she were drowning. 

And then, as quickly as it had started, it stopped. She gasped a desperate breath, and the pain was gone in an instant that shocked her.

Snoke shook his head as if disappointed. “This body is quite schooled in causing pain. These”—Ben’s large hands rose and flexed, the air between them wobbling visibly as if in extreme heat—“could crush bone so easily. Take you apart. With the right prompting.” 

His head cocked and he looked appraisingly at her. He opened Ben’s mouth to speak again, but Rey charged forward. She shoved him away with a roar, satisfied to see him briefly unbalanced, and swung the sword in a clumsy arc. It missed, and he laughed. The discordant slide of Ben’s true laugh was just beneath. She clenched her fist, now sticky with Ben’s blood, and Snoke advanced, magic snapping, eyes dark as obsidian.

“Let’s see if he can make you squirm again.”

 

~

 

Ben felt each vile word slither out of his mouth. The little flame was burning brighter within him, yet as he listened to the obscene, poisonous things Snoke said to the woman he loved, it leapt higher. It was angry. He was angry. 

There was a flash of metal, and his body lurched backward out of the path of a sword. Perhaps, now that Snoke was pulling on magic and focusing on a new threat, the grip on Ben’s mind was lessening, for he could actually see that sword: the broken hilt, the red jewel in the pommel. 

Another memory hit him like a bolt—holding that sword, swinging it down upon the heads of monsters, driving it into his father.

Ah, yes, Snoke whispered in his head. Remember that night. Do it. Remember how utterly you failed. Can’t you still feel the blood on your hands? It was hot, straight from his heart. 

I didn’t fail.

The presence within him wavered for just a second, as if startled at Ben’s ability to respond. 

I didn’t fail, Ben repeated. It was all because of you. It all happened because of you.

But you did fail, boy. There was glee in that voice, as sharp and twisted as broken wire. You failed to kill me outright, and you had to do so through your father’s body. If you had been stronger...perhaps you would both be alive today. You were weak then. You are still weak now. Don’t you understand? Only with my power will you be strong. You need me.

Rey grunted with the force of another swing, and although Snoke had been able to control Ben fully earlier, the monologuing must have been distracting; Ben’s puppeteer couldn’t pull him out of the way fast enough, and the blade sliced across his arm. The skin parted and grew warm with blood. Rey cried out in pain as if she were the one who had been injured, and Snoke took the moment to send a bolt of energy straight at her, skimming her shoulder. She nearly buckled but threw one arm up and blasted his body with a heavy force that made him stagger backward.

The flame within Ben grew, and as it did, he pushed against Snoke’s iron-fast hold, though the attempt seemed as successful as hurling weeds at a stone wall to get it to crumble.

The darkness in his vision was ebbing. Snoke was fighting two battles now: against Ben’s will and Rey’s magic, and he seemed not to be able to keep blinding Ben against the world. 

She was crying. Blood was on her hands and in her hair and smeared across the sword. Her posture, once proud and strong, seemed wilted.

“Do not make me do this.” No longer as muffled by the presence, he could hear how her voice was thickened with tears and grief. She raised the sword to point at his chest.

I know you remember those words, Snoke said. You used them yourself.  

Despair sank sharp claws into Ben’s shoulders. Gods, yes, he had said those exact words seconds before he skewered his father like a beast. He recognized the look in Rey’s eyes, too: hesitation, desperation, an overwhelming sadness. The same look he was sure he’d given his father as he prepared to destroy evil at the cost of love.

Ben’s fury stuttered. He stopped fighting, and in that moment, Snoke lunged at Rey, wrapping Ben’s hands around the blade and pulling it to his sternum. 

“Can’t you do it, witch?” Snoke said through Ben’s grinning mouth. “I’ll make it easy for you.”

He was toying with the two of them, playing them off each other like they were his dolls, figuring out which one would break first. 

It appeared that Rey could not do it. Her face twisted into a mask of agony and she made to wrench the sword away from him, but Snoke clenched the blade more tightly, tugging it into Ben’s chest hard enough to break the skin. A thin trickle of blood snaked down to his stomach. Pain bloomed within him at the wound on his chest and the slices on his palms, and it was as clarifying as the crack of a palm across his face. 

The flicker of anger became a roar, and as it rose, Ben saw it as it truly was: the rage. This howling part of himself had been beaten and caged, and now it wanted to bite the hands off its abuser. He felt it flood through him. Oh, what a brilliant, lovely sensation: warmth, strength, joy.  

Snoke howled within Ben’s mind as tendrils of more dark magic wrapped around that flame, seeking to extinguish it. Ben threw all of his strength into making it burn brighter. He felt magic skitter through his veins and he drew upon it, forcing back Snoke’s scrabbling grasp, jamming his consciousness into his limbs and wresting control of them. 

His hand was outstretched to Rey, the fingers like claws seeking to enclose her neck; he yanked it to his chest, and a frustrated scream rattled his thoughts because he shouldn’t be fighting back, he should be pliable and easy. A surge of Snoke’s power made his throat clench in pain, and his pulse fluttered with the lack of air. Still, Ben fought against it.

A tremor thundered through his body from the magic, light and dark at war beneath his skin. The two of them were like mongrels tugging at a stretch of rope—the more they tugged, the more the threads snapped. 

There was a shift in Ben’s nose. Blood streamed over his lips and chin, the coppery sting of it coating his tongue. His bones ached as if they were being bent. When he pushed against the power seeking to tear into his will, he now did so with hesitation; the pain was becoming greater, and if he pushed too hard, what good would it do if he was torn apart? 

Snoke had no such qualms. A broken body could still be manipulated. Dark magic battered at Ben’s temples until it felt as if his skull would crack. 

He could stop. 

The thought floated through him like a light breeze. 

It would be so much easier. If he gave in, there would be no more pain. He would be healed, and he would be strong, and he would be whole.

No…

Not whole. 

He would never be whole without her.

Rey. He blasted that one, beautiful word through his thoughts as if it was a war cry.

 

~

 

That feeling from before returned, a surge of still, perfect clarity in the storm—Ben calling to her. She staggered back a few steps and threw the sword aside as if the hilt was made of hot coals, finally free of Snoke’s grasp. Another moment and she might have run Ben right through the heart. She would not be used again. Not like that.

He was shrinking away from her, one lurching step at a time, fighting his own body and Snoke’s flagging hold over it. It should have been encouraging. It should have been the end. Yet it was impossible to look at Ben and not see what was truly happening. He was on fire with the rage, and Snoke would sooner tear him apart than let him go. If he could not break his mind, he would break Ben’s body first. 

There was so much blood, from the slice she’d left on his chest, from his palms where he’d grasped the sword’s blade, from his nose. He sounded as if he could hardly breathe—each breath was a shuddering gasp, forced in and out with uncooperative lungs. When his eyes weren’t screwed shut, they rolled and darted as if in panic. Veins bulged at his temples, his neck, his arms. Muscles flexed and shuddered and moved too slowly, then with enough speed and force to tear. 

And Rey felt it, she swore she felt all of it. She just wanted it to stop.

The spells she threw at him now were not those designed to injure. They were healing spells, words to mend bone, to relax muscles, to soothe a fever, to ease agony, to dispel confusion. They rolled off him like rain. She understood what was happening. Ben had let the rage come and begin to drive Snoke off—and now Snoke used it to keep her from helping Ben. This battle was bearing out inside him now, and though she felt it and saw it, she could not get in.

Hating herself, she let her hands fall and looked at the sword where it lay on the ground a few feet away, all but inconsequential now. Her eyes traveled with horror back to Ben, who had dropped to a knee and did not seem to have much fight left. One of his arms was hanging strangely at his side. She could see where the shoulder had been dislocated, yet he still tried to use it. 

If she took the sword now, she could end his pain. He was vulnerable, lost in the havoc his body was wreaking on itself. She could win the fight where he could not. It might kill her too—but she could do it. 

“No . . .”

Rey tore her eyes from the sword and ran to Ben just as he collapsed onto his side. His weight pinned one of her legs against the cold stone, but she hardly noticed the pain of it over the way his body felt in her arms. There was far more damage here than she had realized. He was hardly moving at all beyond a few perfunctory twitches of his fingers and face.

“Ben,” she choked out, smoothing the hair back from his face. 

His breathing was so shallow she almost thought it had stopped altogether until a bubble of blood and spit popped at the corner of his mouth. She wiped it away uselessly and pressed her palm to his chest, right over the wound the sword had dealt him. His heartbeat was erratic—slow one moment, racing the next. Rey shut her eyes and focused all her power on that one point: close the wound, keep his heart beating. Her skin was hot and covered with needles. He burned right back.

It wasn’t working. He lay there inert. She sensed him inside, the same flickering light as before, nearly gone, and the shadow just behind it, waiting to flood back in for good.
“No. No, no . . .” she repeated. “Ben. Ben!

Rey grabbed his face with both hands, bracketing his cheeks in her palms, and leaned close until her forehead rested against his. Where his skin had been a mess of fever and sweat before, it was already growing eerily cold. He felt like a corpse. Another breath rattled out of him and puffed wetly over her chin. She couldn’t hold back the sob that shook her in return.

Twisting her fingers into his hair, she kissed his lips once, soft but lingering, heedless of the blood and blistered skin. If this was the last time she spoke to him, the last time he truly heard her with his own ears, she wanted him to hear one thing only. Not her voice trembling over his name or a broken plea for him to fight just a little harder. Something she should have said a long time ago.

“I love you.” 

 

~

 

It came to him like the tender brush of silk against his skin. 

I love you.  

Had she really said it, or was it a false whisper sent into his mind by the same evil currently tearing his body apart? 

He could still feel the echo of her lips on his, and her arms were warm against his skin as she held him. Her knee dug into his ribs, his own weight pressing it deep. None of it felt like a lie. 

Then she said it again.

Ben, please...I love you.  

Through the fracturing agony in his bones and his mind, he reached out to her with his thoughts as he’d done in that cold, moonlit clearing. A chill was creeping across his skin just as it had then, biting at his fingers and toes. But it wasn’t the snow or the winter air this time—this sort of cold would not fade away come sunrise. 

Her presence hit him with the force of a club. Where there was darkness, now he was blinded by the sparkling heat of her, and as he basked in it all, he realized there had been no lie. Every one of her emotions careened through him: her fear at the clammy cold of his skin, her fury at the enemy tearing at him from within, and her love. Not the light, joyous love of song and poetry—no, this was a painful love. It was the sort of love that fought and screamed, the sort of love that clenched sharp talons and didn’t let go. 

She would never let go.

So neither would Ben.

Her power was washing over his body in her attempt to heal him, and as it spread over his chest like salve, he pulled it inside and channeled it, let it stoke the dwindling fire within until the rage erupted as fierce and wrathful as an unchained lion. Magic was swarming around him, and it suddenly seemed absurd that he’d not been able to find it earlier. Beneath his bare feet, the stones hummed with the impatience of rock formed over eons and then hacked into blocks. Magic was in the sickly moss on the walls, the stale air against his cheeks, the flicker of life just on the other side of the crumbling keep. 

Ben sensed it all, and drank deep. 

Snoke was shrieking within him, yet the darkness had shrunk until it felt like no more than the tip of a spear embedded in Ben’s chest. With the rage, and Rey’s magic, and the vibrating vitality of the world, he took that black spear and with every ounce of power and strength remaining, he pulled it out. 

And then, Snoke was standing before him, no longer an oil slick in his mind, just an old, staggering man, with thin wisps of hair sticking out of his wrinkled head and liver spots dotting the backs of his hands.

Ben didn’t know when he had gotten to his feet. He didn’t know when the rage had overwhelmed him, or when the fiery aura once more set his skin glowing. 

For a second, he saw himself reflected in a set of cloudy blue eyes: power and flame, an avenging demon come to collect. 

Snoke’s dry lips twisted into a snarl. “You can’t,” he rasped. “All I’ve done for—”

The sword flew into Ben’s hand, and in a single swing, he brought the blade through Snoke’s torso. 

Two pieces of old man crumpled to the ancient stone. Dark blood oozed out, as thick as syrup. 

Air rushed into Ben’s lungs and he gasped, the muscles between his ribs barking in shock. Then every other muscle joined the riot, and his bones, and his teeth. There was a pop and a blinding jolt as his shoulder settled back into place. But he rejoiced in the pain, because he could feel it all—truly feel it, not just the outline of it as if he were groping through fabric. He could see everything, from the chips in the keep’s slate archways to the specks of dust swirling through the needle-thin, sickly beams of light trickling into the dungeon. 

The gore-covered sword clattered to the floor, and Ben nearly wept at the sharp, clear sound. His prison was dissolved, his enemy split upon the ground. Still, relief wasn’t an easy thing to grasp; it danced before him, too light and skittery to catch. 

Rey’s unsteady whisper was loud against the empty keep.

“Ben…?” 

Seated on the ground, her gown was stained with blood—his blood—and tears streaked her cheeks. She looked at him with hope and worry, and the tension that shook her lower lip seemed to show she felt the same hesitant relief as he. Wreathed in flame that did not burn him, was he still the person she loved? After all that had happened, was there anything left?

Words suddenly battered at Ben, words that were not his but came from his mouth, and his stomach twisted in revulsion. He dropped to the stone in front of her. The rage was knitting the skin together on his hands and chest; it would heal the bruises on his knees soon enough.

“I’m sorry—” His voice cracked around the words. He’d allowed a monster to claw at her heart. A simple apology would never be adequate.

Yet she seemed not to hear him. Her eyes roamed over his face and the glowing flames twining above his skin, and as she reached for him, her breath hitched. She hesitated for a moment, fingers poised at the edge of the flame. Would his power crisp her soft skin? 

Determination flashed across Rey’s face, and she pushed through the aura. Then, Ben felt the cool touch of her hand on his cheek. In that touch, he felt her heartbeat, her breath, the soaring joy of relief matched by his own. She let out a cry that was halfway between a laugh and a sob.

He blurted, “It doesn’t...hurt?”  

Rey shook her head. “It’s warm. You’re warm.” Tears glimmered along her lashes and tripped down to her chin. Her thumb brushed his cracked lips. “I was so...I was so scared. You were almost gone.” 

Ben stroked her jaw, her neck, watching how the pale flames reflected against her skin and flickered in her eyes. “It was you who kept me here, little witch. Thoughts of you. Memories.” He rubbed the little green bead in her hair between his thumb and forefinger. “Nothing could ever make me leave.” 

With another strangled sob, Rey threw herself at him, burying her face in his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist. He held her tightly, and as he watched, the flames of his rage leaped and surged until she was covered in them as well. 

Ben breathed deep. Violets and sunshine. 

They would have to leave, soon. Even so far away as they were, Ben could sense the wood’s irritation at their absence. At their absence. His throat felt thick as understanding settled upon him: he was a part of the land now, just as much as Rey. Whatever had gone on here—be it the battle, or the victory, or the aftermath—the world was accepting him in a way it had not done before. Or, perhaps it was that he was accepting it.  

Perhaps the specifics didn’t much matter. 

The dim light in the room was becoming dimmer, the stone walls almost seeming weary at the day’s end. A nighthawk trilled in a distant meadow, and a premature owl gave a cautious hoot.

Together, he and Rey would return home and build a life of their own. The tree was gone; they would need to find its replacement. Food must be gathered, game hunted, wards re-crafted—though with less strength than what was needed before.

But those were tomorrow’s worries. 

For now, they would stay wrapped around each other, coated in flame, a single light to burn against the darkness.

Chapter Text

The wood is changed. 

I can feel it in the air; I can feel it in my paws. Where there was once an old tree, there is now a stone hut. 

That’s...well, that’s about it, actually, so I suppose not much at all has changed. The magpie continues to try and steal my food stores, the hummingbird threatens to poke me with her beak, Rey and her knight live in copulating bliss. 

It wasn’t like that at first, though. 

After the tree burned and the mage’s pawns fouled up the wood, Rey was gone with the horse for several long days. We waited for her in the cold and the dark, hoping for her return, but dreading what would happen if she returned alone. 

Thank the nut gods she didn’t. 

They rode into the clearing together and looked at the burnt tree for some time. Rose, Finn, and I had gathered as much as we could from the charred mess, as it was something for us to do during the day other than fret. (Finn can fret an awful lot; I was halfway tempted to offer him a nut every day they were absent just to keep him sated.)

Both Ben and Rey had new injuries, though they were fairly well healed. Old blood covered their clothes. When the knight slid from that angry horse, I saw he had no boots. It was an odd complement to his original arrival in this clearing so many months past—perhaps he is simply meant to travel through life without adequate footwear. 

Rose had already scouted a new location for their home, as she tends to be more optimistic than either Finn or myself about such things. 

The witch and her knight lived in a bed of salvaged pelts covered by a stretch of fabric as they constructed their hut. It took very little time to make, what with magic flying from them so quickly, and I nearly got my tail burnt off more than once. I must say, the finished place looks rather charming, with its puffing chimney and its little garden plot out front. There’s a separate shack, too, for mead-crafting as well as the storing and drying of meat. A fine home. 

Both Rey and Ben were a touch displeased that they had to leave behind a certain meadow, but they now live close to a small stream and a veritable thicket of blueberry bushes, with which Rey made a pie once the fireplace and chimney were finished. 

I can tell they are happy to have created something that is truly theirs. Neither of them have outright said as such to me of course, yet I can tell from their proud smiles and the tender way they pat the doorway as they pass through it.

And then the copulating. Great nut gods, the copulating. They didn’t for a while; maybe the cold ground was too firm for them. But once they made the bed and stuffed a mattress full of feathers and sweet-smelling grasses, it was constant. At first, they would be gentle with each other, more so than I’d seen them be before, almost like they were afraid the other would break. A silly notion, if their previous bouts have anything to say about it. There was quite a bit of gazing into eyes and slow touches. 

It got more exciting after that, thankfully. And louder, too—I’m almost amazed no other forest creatures have been lured to the hut’s window out of curiosity. So far, they’ve used every piece of furniture in the hut as some sort of coupling prop. I fear they might have to make another chair though, after the last one abruptly snapped beneath their vigorous bouncing. 

Rey was delighted to discover I had saved her book on human mating. Even though one corner was crisped from the tree’s fire, all the important bits were still legible. Whenever she brought up the subject of the tome though, Ben would always comment on the possibilities for injury. (The acts in the second half of the book were apparently of a more acrobatic sort.) Rey forged on, undaunted.

They both had a moment’s pause, however, after the most recent experiment. They followed the book exactly. I watched through the small window for several long minutes as they lay in their new bed afterward, staring at the ceiling, saying nothing, both appearing a little pale. Sound doesn’t carry well through the thick glass in the window (the pane was a trade with a merchant for some of Rey’s mead, I think) and I could barely hear Rey say something to the effect of, “Never again.”

They burned the tome after that. 

I cannot deny that my heart breaks a little at the loss of such beautiful illustrations and such exquisitely curious words. Sir Rocky of Flynt Stone created a marvelous collection, and I am sad to see it turn to ash.

Ah, well.

Maybe I can convince Rey to trade a bottle of mead for another copy, if only for my own benefit. 

Of course, she has changed too. For as long as I have known her, she has relied only on herself. Even after Ben arrived, she remained stubbornly self-reliant (though I cannot blame her there; the man was a disaster at the start). 

But she understands the value of asking for help now. Travelers and traders come through all the time these days, and she does not hide from them or wait for their caravans to break down and be abandoned as salvage. She seeks them out herself, offering guidance or provisions or tanned hides in exchange for goods from the kingdom or sometimes just news and fellowship. Indeed, the home she and Ben have made has become a popular stop for wanderers of all sorts.

I’m not sure I entirely approve—I see the strange looks on their faces when she speaks to me or to the angry horse or any of the others—but it makes her happy. She’s bold in a way she had not been before. Less guarded. It’s a side of her I never saw, and her life is fuller than ever, so I won’t begrudge her that.  

Perhaps it will give me opportunities to observe human behavior of the less copulatory sort, though thus far, nothing else is quite as interesting.

It isn’t all visitors, either. She herself has left the wood on more than one occasion with Ben in tow. While it is not so strange now, their first foray was most surprising, so much that Finn, Rose, and I briefly conspired to accompany them. But the horse caught me trying to hide away in his saddlebag and revealed our plot to the knight, who repeated his threat to put my beady eyes out (and then laughed, so perhaps he was only joking, though I do not believe he has a sense of humor). We stayed behind in the end, with Rey’s assurances that they would only be gone a few weeks. Even so, her evasive and nervous state did make me wonder those first few days exactly what they were off to accomplish. 

I soon forgot to pay such questions any mind. In my defense, the life of a squirrel is fraught with adventure and peril, and at that point, Rey and Ben had proven capable enough of not getting themselves killed by outside dangers. When they did return, it was with gifts and stories, the latter of which I will do my best to relay here, as Rey told them to me.

They had gone to the kingdom of Alderaan, to the castle where Ben had grown up, to meet with his family. Well, his mother. And his uncle, the unhelpful old hermit Rey had encountered on her journey to rescue Ben—and who’d had a change of heart and proved not-so-unhelpful after all. It was he who returned to the kingdom first and alerted the queen of the dark mage’s stronghold to the east and of what Rey had told him. Though the queen and her forces arrived too late to assist in the fight, Rey tells me they have since destroyed what remained of Snoke’s stronghold and are working to restore the barren wasteland around it, to ensure such evil never rises there again.

And that’s enough of darkness. 

I wish there was a way I could adequately describe the emotion in Rey’s face when she spoke of Ben’s reunion with his family. Such warmth and light. She spoke of many tears shed, her own included, and of apologies and promises and forgiveness asked and granted. She said she felt the weight of grief and guilt lifted from Ben at last, and told us of his surprising eagerness to show her the place he’d once called home.

There was something called a “ball.” I still don’t quite understand what that is, but it seems to involve a sort of grand courtship ritual, much feasting, and dancing, which Rey tried to make Ben demonstrate with her for my benefit. He refused, so perhaps it’s another mating thing (in which case, I am sure I will see it eventually). She was given a gown to wear, one which had belonged to the queen’s own mother, and she danced for an entire evening in the palace ballroom to music so rich and melodious she still hums snatches of it without realizing. She ate her fill of foods with flavors and textures she hadn’t realized were possible, and as the night grew late and the party more subdued, she snuck away with Ben to walk by moonlight in the royal garden. As they spoke of plans and the future, the candlewick blooms shone around them like a thousand earthbound stars. (Her words, those. I considered asking how it was the whole place didn’t burst into flame, but she looked so content in her recollections, I couldn’t bear to put her off.)

They were given a grand bedchamber to share while they stayed—bigger than her old home in the tree, bigger than the new hut she and Ben have built. The bed was soft as spring catkins and large enough for even Ben to stretch out. Each morning, she sat at the enormous windows to watch the sun rise over endless distant mountain ranges. The walls were decorated with paintings and tapestries, and every surface glimmered in the soft glow of lamplight. In fact, Rey spoke with much enthusiasm about one surface in particular: a mirror near the bed. There was a mysterious gleam in her eyes and a small, secretive smile on her lips as she recounted how brightly it shone, how beautifully it caught the light, and how clearly it reflected everything.

I interrupted to ask what she meant by that, because “everything” seems to me a very general statement, and surely it didn’t show everything there is to see. All she did was turn very pink and tell us that it was private and she was sorry to get carried away by memories. She then embarked on a lengthy description of what the villages were like, which was disappointing. 

I’m afraid I’ll never understand humans’ fascination with seeing their own reflections. If I had a nut for every time I bristled at the sight of myself in a river or a windowpane, well, I’d spend far less time foraging and far more on recording such useful notes as these. Luckily, B. B. Acorn remains a steadfast research assistant. 

Anyway, I suppose I might ask Ben sometime about these all-seeing bedchamber mirrors, though I will wait until he’s forgotten about his vendetta against my eyeballs. The brute.

I say that with love.

Lingering mysteries aside, what I remember most fondly of the stories Rey told of her visit to the kingdom is that she was made to feel welcomed, respected, and accepted there. The people had heard of what she and Ben had done. Their views on magic were changing. They were remembering its place in the world and the good it can do. And so where she had expected to be feared and reviled, she felt loved. She had never found that anywhere but the wood before. 

Though, she was quick to remind us all, the wood will always be the first. It will always be home. And we are happy of it.

There has been yet another change in the wood, too; great nut gods, I can't believe I had at first been so forgetful of all the changes. My mind must be fuzzy from lack of sleep (I was awake observing yet another lengthy copulating session last night). 

The travelers through the woods have been singing a new song as they go along the road. It has the same tune as one I’d heard years ago, but it sounds brighter, like more of a true song and less of a warning. I’ll try to reproduce it here. Forgive me; I might get a few of the words wrong.

 

Listen close, child,

Listen well to me.

There once was a witch,

Who lived in an old tree.

 

She longed for excitement,

Adventure she did lack,

‘Till in burst a knight,

His armor jet black.

 

His anger was fierce,

But she tamed him quite well,

And soon they were one,

Those tales—later, I’ll tell.

 

Their peace was soon shattered,

By a mage of fierce skill,

Who took hold of her knight,

And snatched his free will.

 

But our heroes prevailed,

As oft the tale goes,

And the mage was defeated;

True love won, I suppose.

 

Their home lies to the East,

In the forest once much feared.

The land is now kind,

Its dark evil disappeared.

 

So if through the trees you travel,

And heed me, you should,

Look for those two,

The witches in the wood.