TYG hated pukhas. They were unruly, unpredictable, untrustworthy. Why the queen agreed to let the Cedar Clan return to Mysanhal was beyond her. Their allegiance meant nothing. They were probably just sick of the cloudy skies and fog looming over the Hy Borea. They had no interest in the affairs of other fae, and they would never devote themselves to Cree. Like the sylv, they had their own god.
A dozen Yewolyns accompanied the Cedar Clan to ensure they settled where they were instructed. The seven shapeshifting fae followed with little trouble, but they remained silent as they journeyed through the Hy Borea. Tyg had no doubt that they were trading secrets and plans telepathically. Tyg hated telepaths too, even if the queen was rumored to be one. Not many fae mastered the skill, and only pukhas took to it naturally.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the pukhas shift into a black cliff elk. It pranced ahead of the Yewolyns with a mocking gaze. Tyg pushed back the hood of her elk cloak, anger flickering in her chest. “Enough,” she snapped. “Do not think your impudence will go unpunished.”
All seven pukhas burst into laughter.
“She’s frightening, isn’t she?”
“I don’t think she could catch one of us.”
“Not if we become shadow.”
“Not if we become small.”
“What about large?”
“A bear, perhaps?”
“Have you ever wrestled a bear, Magus?”
The pukhas’ ever-changing forms and collective way of speaking gave Tyg a headache. She slid her glare to Callum, who had just lowered his hood as well. When she caught the spark of amusement in his eyes, she let out a furious huff. “Valor, surely you do not think their behavior acceptable?”
“I thought you had an appreciation for transformation,” he said with a wink.
The other Yewolyns shifted nervously around them, not sure what to make of their Valor and Magus. Another fit of laughter trickled from the pukhas’ lips, and they all became cliff elk.
Tyg’s face reddened, but before she could speak, she caught sight of a shabby, gray bird perched on a branch above them. She had to look twice. “Callum, a sluagh,” she said, nodding toward the grim messenger.
The company became tense all at once; even the pukhas stilled. Sluaghs only delivered bad news, and when not delivering messages, they only appeared to consume suffering and death. Though the Yewolyns employed at least a dozen, Tyg had never been able to shake the discomfort she felt around them.
The avian fae fluttered down to the ground and transformed into a woman with feathers poking up from her hair. She clenched her fists at her side, irritated to have the earth beneath her feet. “A message from Aygriel,” she said.
The mention of the high priestess caused Tyg’s expression to darken further. “What business does Aygriel have sending a sluagh to find us in the human realm?”
“I did not question the high priestess’s motivations. I am only a messenger. You know that well, Magus,” said the sluagh with a thin-lipped smile.
“Out with it then,” said Callum.
Before the sluagh could speak, Tyg cut in. “Perhaps it would be best to receive this news privately.”
Callum considered this, then nodded. He gave orders for the other Yewolyns to keep an eye on the pukhas. When Tyg tried to follow them away from the group, the sluagh glowered but did not protest. They walked until they were well out of earshot before the sluagh spoke.
“The queen has perished,” she said and paused to let the two dren process these words.
“Perished?” Callum repeated.
Tyg’s blood ran cold. It was not what she expected. Innes had been preparing to cross over to the spirit realm for years. It would have been a very different fate than death.
“Yes, she has died. A ritual gone wrong, as I understand.”
“And why have you been sent to us now?” asked Tyg. The news could have waited until they returned to the fae realm. There had to be something more for Aygriel to justify sending a sluagh to find them in the Hy Borea.
The sluagh gave a sly, knowing smile. “Because, my dear Magus, it is your human girl who was last with her. And it is yourhuman girl who has disappeared with—oh, but this hasn’t been confirmed, this is just rumor now.” She giggled at the shocked expressions both dren wore.
Tyg nearly shouted her next words. “With who?”
“It’s quite unlikely, but a guest and one of the guards swear the girl was with a pukha.” She punctuated the creature’s name in delight as Callum’s face went pale and Tyg’s turned red with anger.
“It’s impossible,” said Callum, shaking his head. “The girl was—she was name bound. She couldn’t have.”
Tyg’s rage felt as if it would burst from her chest. Between clenched teeth, she hissed, “She shouldn’t have.”
“A pukha?” her husband asked next, baffled by the whole story. “How did a pukha get inside the palace?”
The sluagh shrugged, pleased to have rattled them both. Without another word, she laughed and leapt into the air as a gray bird once again. While Callum contemplated what he had just heard, Tyg stormed back toward the Cedar Clan. Surprised by her anger, he ran after her and caught hold of her arm.
“Where are you going? Shouldn’t we discuss this?”
She jerked away from him. “I’m going to kill every last one of those pukhas,” she roared.
Tyg saw a flash of black fur in the brush. She knew right away it was one of them. Exasperated, she drew her sword and chased after the cursed creature. There were only seven of them. How had no one noticed it slipping away? How much had it heard?
The pukha barreled out of the brush as a hare. Tyg’s furious cry of “stop the pukha” followed, and all the Yewolyns looked up at once, throwing back their cloaks. The nearest tried to catch hold of the runaway pukha, but it slid through his hands like water.
“Eiko has returned!” the pukha cried to the rest of the wide-eyed clan as it ran past.
They looked between each other for only an instant. Then, in a swirl of black shadows, they dispersed and flew after the hare. Each took the same form, mimicking the first. The Yewolyns did not know what to make of it all, especially when their furious, red-faced Magus stormed past.
Just as Tyg lost track of one, she would see another and charge after it. This went on for several minutes until she at last gave up altogether and slashed at the brush with her sword.
“If you ever set foot in the fae realm again, I will skin you all alive!” she shouted, a preposterous threat against a pukha. It was almost impossible to catch one without snaring it in an enchanted trap. And so, her mad chase had been just that. Mad.
Knowing she had made a fool of herself, she did not return right away. She sheathed her sword and kicked at clumps of moss. Whenever she got her hands on that stupid, insolent, disrespectful brat of a human, she would do far worse than she promised. A gutted pig simply was not enough.
“Tyg!” It was Callum. He pushed aside a hemlock branch, having finally caught up to her. “The girl is not bound, is she?”
She froze, chest rising and falling with heavy breaths. A long silence passed between them as she searched for the right words.
“Did you know?” he asked.
“I knew,” she said slowly. “But I thought I could keep her under control. To preserve your reputation, Callum. Bringing an unbound human into Mysanhal is—”
“You should have told me,” he said, voice growing colder. “This could have been avoided.”
But she would not so readily take the blame. “It’s that stupid thachwing who Innes lets watch over the humans. She’s useless. You know that!”
“No.” Callum took a step toward her, gold eyes aflame. “It was foolish of you to think leaving an unbound human with Wynn was a good idea. I would never have allowed such a thing.”
He cut her off, unwilling to hear any excuses. “You lied to your queen, and you have lied to me. Because of you, she is dead. You have betrayed us.”
“You would have been made a fool! You would have lost rank!” she shouted. “Is that what you wanted?”
“It could have been handled privately.” He took another step toward her and grabbed her arm. She tried to pull away, but he only held on tighter. “I’m taking you back to the palace. We will let the court decide what to do with you.”
Tyg met her husband’s gaze with a look of shock. “You’re joking.”
“It is not the first time you have defied the will of our queen. When you went after the sylv, I stood up for you, but this … this I cannot overlook. It’s treason, Tyg!” He rarely raised his voice, and she did not know how to respond. He even managed to pull her along for a few steps.
If Callum had known his wife better, he might have guessed that she would fight tooth and nail to avoid being held accountable before their peers as a traitor. She was too proud. Neither prison nor execution would be her fate. No. In Tyg’s eyes, it was Callum who had betrayed her.
“If you do not stop this instant, Callum, I will no longer call you my husband.” Her voice fell darkly. Like all Tyg’s threats, this one was not empty.
“As if I could call you my wife after this,” he said without slowing his pace.
“Have it your way.” She drew her knife with her free hand.
The movement did not go unnoticed. Callum turned just in time to block the blow. He held her wrist at a distance. The blade shook in her grip. Incredulous that she should even consider drawing his blood, he searched her gaze for regret.
“I have always known you to be cruel, but I did not think you so entirely heartless,” he said.
“I’m the heartless one?” she scoffed and struggled against his grip. “You want to have me tried as a traitor! I only sought to do what’s best for you. For us.”
She was hysterical. It was the first time Callum saw tears in her eyes, but he did not know what provoked them. Was it sorrow or the heat of her own anger? “Drop your knife, Tyg,” he said, voice hollow.
“Very well.” With a little smirk, she let go of the knife. Then, she pulled him into her knee. Breathless and taken off guard, he staggered back. As he did, she swooped down to retrieve her blade.
“Tyg!” he growled as he regained his balance. “Think of what you’re doing.”
“Oh. I am.”
She lunged at him.
He blocked the knife and struck her face, bruising her cheek.
She took another jab at him. He blocked and hit her hard in the stomach.
Winded, she doubled over.
Callum twisted her arm behind her, peeled the knife from her grip, and pressed it against her throat. “Tyg, do the honorable thing and—”
Her fist slammed into his groin. The knife nicked her throat as he crumbled.
She drove her knee into his face, breaking his nose. The pain blinded him for an instant. Then, with a swift spell, she sent him sprawling into the mossy earth.
Tyg could have run from him. She could have left him there until he regained his senses and returned to the others. There are so many things she could have said. But her mind had become twisted with anger, with pride. He had betrayed her. He had chosen his side.
There was no hesitation in what she did next. She picked up the blade and drove it into his neck.
“I will decide my own fate,” she growled and let him drop to the forest floor. Then, she lifted the hood of her elk cloak and fled.