READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Broken (Stolen, #2), by Marlena Frank
Bestselling author Marlena Frank is back with book TWO in the Stolen Series, in which Shaleigh Mallet finds herself back in the terrifyingly whimsical kingdom of the Garden. Today, you can read the FIRST TWO chapters of BROKEN here, exclusively on our blog!
EVERYTHING IS WRONG Shaleigh This wasn't how it was supposed to be. She was supposed to be at home, making sure her father was safe and getting to see Kaeja again. She was supposed to be worrying about what her life would be like after she got out of high school. She was supposed to be doing what most teens her age were doing: taking classes, going on dates, or binging on video games. Instead she was here, in a land where she didn't belong, surrounded by people who saw her as a trespasser. Teagan had tried to pull her back from the road, had known instantly where they were and the danger she was in, but she didn't listen. She thought they were back at her home, back in the Human World, but they weren't. The Madness had twisted Talek's mind, twisted his intention, and his magic had sent them to his home instead. By the time she fully understood what had happened, it was too late to escape. Shaleigh walked slowly, the metal chains heavy on her wrists. They looked similar to the ones that Talek wore when he was in the prison cell at High Castle, but they were far heavier than she had expected them to be. Already her shoulders were aching, and she could feel the pain moving down her back. Teagan was beside her but didn't meet her gaze. His eyes were downcast, and he hadn't spoken since they had been captured. They were being escorted, surrounded by five Faeries, all dressed in leather armor with white skirts and long spears. Shaleigh had been so shaken by the gleaming human skulls, used as lawn decor in the giant stone archway, that she hadn't realized the Faeries had dropped down from the trees and surrounded them. All she could do was stare at the gleaming white bones. Shaleigh had seen animal bones before. She spent enough time outside and amid forgotten buildings that she and Kaeja had discovered plenty of them. It just hadn't prepared her for seeing human ones. Nothing could have prepared her for that. All she could focus on was that they had different sizes, meaning some of them had to have been from children. And even though they had walked at least a mile by now, the images still lingered. She glanced at the guard holding her chains; these guards were nothing like the ones she had seen at High Castle. They had dropped down with barely a sound, moved in formation, and their speed with their spears was intimidating. They never spoke to her, only to Teagan. And other than clamping the heavy shackles on her arms, they treated her as if she didn't exist. "Are these truly necessary?" Teagan asked suddenly with a huff, holding up his arms. "I assure you I have no intention of fleeing. It would be fruitless to even try."
The dark-haired guard opposite Teagan arched an eyebrow and gave him an amused smile. "I don't blame you for being frightened. Queen Mab's wrath is something to behold." "Her wrath?" Teagan asked, a trace of worry on his face. "Why should she be angry with me?" "Everyone knows what happened at the Garden," the guard replied, keeping his gaze on the path ahead of him. "A magician has been traveling on the wind telling everyone the news. I'm sure our queen will have a few words for you," his gaze shot to Shaleigh, "and most certainly for the Human brat." Shaleigh narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?" The guard exchanged a smirk with the Faerie on the other side of Shaleigh, a tall woman with blonde hair, who gave a deep chuckle. Neither said a word to her though. It felt like high school all over again. Teagan sighed. "Don't pretend to be deaf, you heard her question. Why should she be of any concern to Queen Mab?" "Living up in that enormous tower has made your mind soft," the blonde woman retorted and gave Teagan a wide smile, looking past Shaleigh as if she wasn’t there. “You know how she is about Humans trespassing on her land. Knowing she's brought down Madam Cloom proves she's dangerous. If it was up to Sionn and me, we would’ve taken her head already." “Easy, Nora, no need to frighten the lamb,” Sionn said without a drop of concern on his face. The two exchanged another laugh without saying more. Shaleigh felt a pit form in her gut. As bad as the Garden was, at least there she had a chance to prove her usefulness - here she didn't even have that luxury. "It's not my fault!" she blurted out. She lifted her arms in protest, but only rattled the heavy chains instead, earning several glares from the guards. "I didn't know we were even here. How could we have trespassed when we had no control over how we got here?" Teagan glanced toward her, concern on his face. "Calm down. It will do no good with this group of fools." One of the guards scowled at them, his grip tightening on his spear. She wanted to tell Teagan that it was dangerous to threaten them, especially since they were surrounded, but she didn't want to risk them overhearing her. She didn't want to make things worse. Shaleigh felt her eyes burn as tears threatened. Here was another ruler with her own realm and her own unique set of demands. Here was another land where she had no idea what rules existed or how she was supposed to follow them. Her face flushed as a strange mixture of anger and fear battled within. She wanted to scream in frustration but was afraid they would see that as an attack. Instead a tear streaked down her cheek. Her shoulders and arms were so sore from the weight of the shackles that she didn't have the strength to lift her hand to wipe it away. Teagan reached over and took her hand in his, giving it a reassuring squeeze. His hand felt cool and dry compared to her own sweaty, trembling fingers. It made her feel a little bit better; at least she wasn’t alone. Shaleigh took a deep breath and tried to calm herself down, even as another tear fell. She tried to speak, but her throat clenched with the effort it took not to scream or bawl like a baby. Teagan was right though. It wouldn’t do any good to try to convince the guards of anything. They clearly didn't want to listen to what she had to say… At least in the Garden she had a voice; here she was worth even less. "I'm sorry," she whispered. Teagan looked to the ground, taking a moment to find the right words. "You didn't know what you were doing. Madam Cloom kept…” he squeezed her hand, “no, we kept you isolated. That was the plan. I asked far too much from you. It wasn't your fault." She gave a short laugh as another tear fell. "I knew what I was doing to some extent. Just enough to get us killed. I didn't expect," her throat constricted, "all of this to happen." "You didn't understand the consequences. We were careful not to give you too much information, though in retrospect that was a poor decision. We underestimated our enemies." He was trying to calm her down, trying to reassure her. Did he really think that was going to help? She was the reason they were trapped here. She was the reason that Mawr and Colin got left behind. She was the reason the High Castle of the Garden fell. If she hadn't been so naive, so blind to the danger, and so willing to help, they wouldn't be here. "Like Queen Mab?" Teagan smirked. "Well I wouldn't consider her an enemy exactly..." Sionn beside him snickered and Teagan glanced anxiously his way before letting go of Shaleigh’s hand. "Perhaps it's best if we hold off on our council for now," this time his voice was lower when he spoke.
She nodded before drawing a deep breath of the humid air, trying to clear her thoughts and the guilt in her heart. She pushed away the thoughts of Colin and Mawr, and of Madam Cloom's mouth disappearing. Shaleigh shuddered and took another breath in and out. She didn't need to think on that now. She needed to be in the present. She had to collect herself if she wanted to look like more than just a teenager who was way out of her league. If she had learned anything from Madam Cloom, it was that she needed to keep in mind how she was perceived. She needed to make a good impression - her life might depend on it… again. The guards that surrounded her probably thought she was a meek little pushover and she had to prove them wrong.
Another deep breath and her fingers stopped trembling. She focused on her surroundings to prevent herself from sinking into despair. The path through the old woods was carefully, oddly maintained. No weeds or underbrush grew on either side, despite the fact that the canopy of trees left big blotches of sunlight. Yet they passed large, red toadstools with white spots on them on either side of the road. They were bigger than any she had seen before, almost coming up to her knees. They were so evenly spaced that she assumed they were like mile markers on the interstate. ‘The exit numbers mark the miles’, her Dad's voice came back to her, as clear as if he had spoken in her ear. She hadn't allowed herself to think about him yet. Her fingers trembled once again as she remembered him crying in the passenger's seat of the SUV in the garage by himself. That was the last she had seen him. Why had she left him like that? Why hadn't she hugged him and told him it would be okay like she used to? Why was she so full of anger that day? The tears threatened again and her eyes burned with warning, but she shook her head impatiently. A cool breeze came by, rustling up a pile of dead leaves as they passed beneath a white, stone structure with square alcoves chiseled into the sides. In each one, a human skull stared out with empty eye sockets. The bone gleamed almost as white as the stone in the late afternoon sunlight. A shiver went down her spine; her arms broke out into goosebumps. Were these other trespassers? Curious urban explorers like she and Kaeja had been once upon a time? People sent to a mushroom ring like she and Teagan had been? There was no telling who they had been ages ago. All they were now were warnings and trophies, mile markers of their own. Stumbling, she felt something hard and cold pressed between her shoulder blades and realized she had lagged behind. The guard hadn't spoken a word to her, only pushed the base of his pike into her shoulder blade and gave it a nudge. She glanced behind to meet his annoyed gaze. "Sorry," she whispered, and hurried back to Teagan's side, her heavy chains weighing her down. She wasn't sure why she apologized. She was in no hurry to reach Queen Mab and her creepy beheading Faeries. Teagan reached out to take her hand again as she reached him. Perhaps it was as much to console her as it was to keep her moving.
“Sorry,” she muttered. She hated that he felt like he had to hold onto her to keep her from getting hurt. Though maybe he understood the dangers of the guards better than she did. He only gave her a small smile and a nod in reply keeping ahold of her hand. As they left the archway behind, Shaleigh wondered if the owners of those skulls had gotten the chance to even walk into the city. Knowing how quick and silent their guards had been, she doubted they even knew they were being hunted. If she hadn't had Teagan with her, she probably would have met the same fate. She could tell they were reaching some civilization, other than disturbing stone pillars and decapitated skulls. The dirt path grew wider with trees that had larger trunks than the ones she had seen before. She noticed the sun must have been close to dipping beyond the horizon, because the beams of light were diagonal across the path. How long had they been walking? For that matter, how long had they been asleep in the fairy ring? From the corner of her eye, she saw Teagan look up. He had such a sweet smile that it made him look far younger. Were those tears in his dark eyes? "It's been so long since I've been home." Shaleigh followed his gaze. Up above them, built into the very branches and trunks of the enormous trees, were houses. They were small by the standards of the ones she had explored back home, with maybe two or three rooms in each, and she could see candles flickering from within. Doors opened and Faeries looked down at them with their arms crossed; others leaned out their windows. If they looked at Shaleigh in disgust and annoyance, they looked at Teagan with absolutely lute hatred. One of them even spat onto the ground as they passed. It made an audible splat that had Shaleigh moving a little closer to the guards. "It may be home," Sionn muttered with a huff, "but don't expect to get a warm welcome. We all know what you did, and now this business with the Garden?" He shook his head in disgust. The glow that Teagan had in his eyes diminished and he stared down at his feet, once more cowed. The sadness she saw in his eyes hurt. It reminded her of the throne room with Madam Cloom, when the buildings of the Garden were burning bright below those giant windows, casting shadows throughout the dark room, and Teagan’s trembling hands. Shaleigh wasn’t always certain if she trusted Teagan or not; he had a bad tendency of doing whatever it took to survive, regardless of who it hurt, but she did pity him now just as she did then. She understood his pain. It couldn’t be easy to be hated by your own people. Shaleigh pursed her lips, realizing that if Teagan was so despised here, she would have to handle the negotiations herself. She wasn’t sure how well that would go if the Faeries didn’t even want to acknowledge she could speak. They might not care what she had to say, but they all looked as though they wanted to add Teagan's head to some grotesque shrine, and she couldn’t let that happen. __
Shaleigh could tell they were moving into the city; soon the treetop houses were joined with quaint homes on the ground. They were all made out of wood but rounded like large Chinese lanterns. She wasn't sure how they made the wood bend like that, but each little home housed at least one or two Faeries based on the faces she glimpsed through the windows. A good crowd had amassed both on the ground and up above them. The more Faeries that joined, the more the crowd stirred like an angry mob - Shaleigh was nervous. They weren't throwing anything yet, but the ones behind her were whispering amongst themselves. “How dare he come back after what he did.” “Did he really bring a Human with him?” “I guess his Garden won’t protect him now.” Shaleigh’s hands trembled and she clasped them together to keep the chains from betraying her fear. She glanced to Teagan, to find his gaze still on his feet.
Sionn slammed the base of his pike onto the ground making a ringing sound; Shaleigh jumped. Their escort had come to a complete stop and she turned around, half expecting the mob to run at them. Instead, they had grown quiet, and somehow that made her more nervous. "This is Mab, the wise Queen of the Land of the Fae." Sionn bowed as the crowd murmured. "My queen, we found these intruders in the forest. We suspect they are from the Garden based on the news we received." The dirt path they were on came to a junction with four other dirt paths, making a sort of five-pointed star in the road. At the center stood an elaborate throne that looked like it was either sculpted or planted there: the chair grew out of a small mound of dirt and wound upwards; the back of it reached up toward the sky, ending in several sharp wooden spikes. A green vine wound its way up from the base to the vicious spikes above, bouncing in the breeze. It was covered in tiny white flowers, and occasionally Shaleigh caught their subtle, sweet scent. They smelled light and airy, not like the heavy perfume from the flowers that Madam Cloom kept. It was strange, as they were the first flowers she had seen since waking up amid the ring of mushrooms. They seemed out of place here amid the towering trees, dirt paths, and skull shrines. They seemed too delicate to survive. Her gaze fell to the throne. A short, middle-aged woman sat in the chair with long ears and a pale complexion. She had a pink glow on her cheeks and a wide smile on her lips. Shaleigh had expected the Queen of the Fae to be gorgeous, and she was lovely, but… she was nothing like Shaleigh had expected. She wore a simple white gown with flowers that had been stitched into the fabric. Most of the Faeries Shaleigh had seen wore tan colored robes or even leather hide, but the bright white of her dress stood out from all of them. The queen had the look of a woman who had seen a lot of heartache in her life, yet also had laugh lines along her mouth. She had warm, brown eyes, and looked genuinely happy to see them, which was surprising considering the mob that was merely feet away, still muttering under their breath about their unwanted guests. Queen Mab waved a hand to the side and the guards stepped away; their heads bowed. Teagan knelt to the ground, which brought on a new barrage of anger from the crowd. Shaleigh at first wasn’t sure if she should follow his lead or not, afraid she would rile up the crowd more, but slowly she knelt as well. The crowd moved in closer, even more enraged, but none of them stepped past the circle of guards that surrounded them. Kneeling, she realized that the center of the five-pointed star, where the dirt paths met, was stone not dirt. It had an intricate design carved into it that Shaleigh didn’t recognize. "It is good to see you again, Teagan," the queen said with a smile, her voice wavering as though she was close to tears, though she looked grateful. "It has been too long." "Yes, my queen," he said, looking up to her. "Far too long." She stood from her chair and came forward with her arms outstretched. "Kneel not before me, friend. Surely, I deserve a hug, don't I?” Teagan got to his feet and allowed himself to be embraced. Shaleigh stood as well, not sure what to say or do – just knowing she wanted to keep her head on her shoulders. Although the crowd went silent as soon as Queen Mab spoke, it was clear just by looking at them that they weren’t pleased. Each time Shaleigh stole a glimpse at them, most of them were glaring at Teagan, whispering to each other or trying to get a better look around the still growing crowd, but a few of them had their eyes on Shaleigh. Those were the ones that made her hands shake and forced her to turn back to Queen Mab and Teagan. She kept thinking back to the human skulls she had seen in the alcoves. She wondered how many of them had killed humans. The queen pulled away and looked at him almost admiringly. "You have done great and terrible things in your time in the Garden. I'm sure even I could learn a few tricks from you." It was a strange statement for a queen to make, especially when the guards had spoken of how angry she would be. It almost sounded as if she was genuinely praising him. Teagan gave the barest of smiles but wasn’t exactly gracious. This negotiation was going to be more difficult than she thought. At his silence, the queen’s gaze narrowed. "You look terrible," she said at last. "What did that horrible magician do to you?" Teagan looked away from her piercing gaze. His hands balled into fists and a flush came to his cheeks. “Please, don’t,” he whispered, his voice barely audible. "You have nothing to hide from me, you know that.” She put a hand on his cheek and gently urged him to look her in the eyes again. Teagan bit his lip as he turned to look at her, forcing his fists open. She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, quickly looking from his left eye to his right. A hush came over the crowd. Teagan’s mouth dropped open and tears went down his cheeks. It only lasted a few seconds, but it felt far longer. Shaleigh took a step forward, starting to get worried, but finally Queen Mab broke eye contact with him. Teagan let out a shaky breath and wiped at his face, blinking as though to clear the cobwebs. Queen Mab nodded. “Mmm, you have been through a lot." Teagan let out another shaky breath. Was she reading his mind? Could she do that? From the crowd one of the Faerie men could no longer keep silent and said, "Are you truly planning to let him return after all he did?" Queen Mab patted Teagan's cheek affectionately as though he was a child she hadn't seen in ages, then turned to face her people. Shaleigh was amazed at how quickly her kind eyes turned hard. "I have already declared that Teagan and Talek would be welcomed back to their homelands. This was a decision I made decades ago. Or have you all forgotten?" There were some murmurings before a woman spoke up, "What about the Garden? All those people are dead!" Shaleigh felt as though she had cold water thrown in her face. Mawr. Colin. “No!” Shaleigh called out, "No, that's not true, is it?" She stepped forward, not sure what the weight on her arms was until she looked down and remembered the shackles. She dragged the chains across the stone ground toward Teagan. “Not everyone,” she pleaded. Teagan stepped closer to her, dragging his own chains, and took her hand in his. His cheeks were stained with tears. The guards didn’t stop either one of them. Why should they if she was just going to be beheaded here soon? Any one of the Faeries could chase her down if she ran. Teagan squeezed her hand. He was trying to calm her, to get her to focus. She knew that, but she could only think of her friends. “Teagan, they can’t be—” He shook his head in warning. Shaleigh could feel the anger aimed at her and she glanced to the crowd to see the fury in their eyes. She took a shaky breath and looked to her feet, trying to keep from saying more. Even if her friends were gone, she was still alive. She had to remember that, even if it hurt. If the voices she heard were any indication, she had already said too much. "How dare that Human speak!" one yelled out. "They're all so arrogant." "Ought to be slain..." Shaleigh’s mouth went dry as their voices continued. She drew closer to Teagan's side, gripping his hand tight. The tears she had worked so hard to stop back on the road were threatening again. The anger from the crowd was relentless, but one statement made her stomach drop - "Those Pello Pines won't leave any of them alive now that the Slumbering Forest has awoken." Shaleigh felt her bottom lip tremble. She thought of Mawr being so scared behind the library. Had he been killed because he decided to help some stupid Human? She thought of Colin getting so terrified about the kids that day. Was he gone too? He and Shaleigh had finally become friends. What about the children Mawr read aloud to? A soft hand cupped her chin and she looked up to see Queen Mab's face. Her warm brown eyes were searching, probing. Other than her long, pointed ears she looked more Human than Teagan. At first Shaleigh didn’t know what she wanted, then she remembered what the queen had done to Teagan only moments ago. She thought about pulling away, but she felt numb. A part of her just didn’t care enough to struggle. Suddenly she smelled the scent of sage, powerful on the breeze. The knot in her belly relaxed; her mouth didn't feel so dry and her eyes stopped burning.
Queen Mab dragged a thumb across her cheek. Her eyes were kind even as the scent of sage grew stronger to the point Shaleigh feared she would start coughing. Then it was over. The sage dwindled and Queen Mab stepped back, her gaze one of pity. "Take them to Teagan's home." "My home?" Teagan blinked. "But my queen..." She waved a hand to him. "I don't want to hear it, Teagan. I have not been your queen in many years." Teagan’s mouth dropped and he blinked at her. “But…” She didn’t let him finish. "Take them both. It seems I need to remind my people why we are free to do as we wish." She spoke loudly and dropped her hands onto her hips. "It seems I need to remind my people that the Fae will always have a home here. We do not judge what our brothers and sisters do outside of these woods, but we do ensure they will be able to return and recuperate. You will always have a home here for as long as I live. The Fae must remain a family: we remember when others do not, we endure when others do not, we preserve when others do not." The crowd, which had been so very boisterous moments before, became subdued by her words. The silence was almost eerie. Even the guards, who had begun to walk on either side of Shaleigh and Teagan, had stopped to listen. Queen Mab walked toward her people, and the crowd parted for her. "I have ruled over the Land of the Fae for many, many millennia.” She placed a hand on one man’s shoulder, “I have watched many of us fall and many reach great heights.” She took one woman’s hand briefly. “Sometimes it takes a plummet to the ground in order to learn to fly. Many of you have made horrible mistakes." She looked to Teagan with a dark gaze before turning back to the crowd. "Many of you have killed." She held up a hand at the murmurs of protest. "Or encouraged it, even if you refuse to admit it to those you love. I know better. I see what you hide and I accept you regardless. I understand and I support you despite it. If you have truly lived, then you have indeed made terrible mistakes in your time." At this, many of the Fae either avoided her gaze or shifted with discomfort. Shaleigh watched her, both fascinated and awestruck. Queen Mab spoke with such ease and authority that she seemed like a mother to them more than a queen. She was nothing like Madam Cloom. "Yet I have never prevented your return. I have always kept our realm open and I have welcomed you back with open arms. Each night you light candles in your home to keep away the darkness. I too keep a candle burning, I keep the City of the Fae alight with the hope that you will come home. I keep a safe harbor to which you can return. I do the same for you as I do for Teagan.” She had wound her way back through the crowd and stopped to give Teagan a long silent stare causing him to avert his gaze. “If you do not wish for me to do this, if you think you could lead our people better than I have, then please step forward. I'm happy to give up this position to anyone who wishes to have the weight of this land on their shoulders, the weight of our people on their minds." The group was quiet. A bird cawed from high overhead. Not a single one of them stepped forward. Shaleigh almost smiled. Queen Mab was impressive, but Shaleigh couldn’t help but notice that she hadn’t mentioned anything about Humans. She had loosened her grip on Teagan’s hand, but she hadn’t let go even though the cuffs of her shackles were painful. A part of her wished she could just melt into the ground and let Queen Mab forget she even existed. "Yet many of you have led, haven't you?” The queen continued, “You have organized groups of mercenaries, advised kings and queens, and helped with the building and sundering of mountains of beauty. You have seen with your own eyes the price of leadership, the pain of death, the blood of wars, and you have returned to me. You have come back, begging for refuge at my side, and I have granted it." Shaleigh had never seen anyone speak like she did, certainly never in person. She made Dean Hammond look like an amateur with a microphone. It was incredible to see the anger in the crowd transform into something more tangible, more useful. All Shaleigh could think of was how different Queen Mab’s speech was from ones she had heard before. She recalled Madam Cloom in her hot air balloon, mocking Shaleigh as she introduced her to the people of the Garden. Or the way she had insulted Shaleigh the first time they met in her throne room. Queen Mab was very different, and all the talk that Teagan made about leading with fear within the confines of the Garden - how did he ever think that was appropriate when he had seen this woman lead? One woman spoke up, "But he allowed himself to be in a pact, my queen. Pacts are not permitted!" There were murmurs of agreement within the crowd. “My queen, please, I can explain,” Teagan said hastily, but she held up her hands, silencing him and the crowd.
Queen Mab gave an eerily calm smile. That look, Shaleigh decided, was most definitely one Madam Cloom used. It sent a shiver down her spine. "You are right, of course, you are certainly right. We have not permitted pacts since The Night of the Red Moon, but rest assured that Teagan will be dealt with in that regard." She gave a sidelong glare toward Teagan, who immediately went rigid. "As for the Human, well..." her gaze turned to Shaleigh with just as much venom, "living Humans are not permitted within the City of the Fae.”
TOGETHER Colin Someone was shaking his arm so hard that his whole body shook. He scrunched his brows together in annoyance. Couldn't he get just a few more minutes to sleep? He was so tired. "Wake up! We need you.” The voice was vaguely familiar, and it made him feel like something was urgent. But he didn't want to wake up. He didn't want to feel the pain in his leg, and sleep was a way better alternative. Something about the frustration he heard in the voice only made him more determined not to respond. He groaned and turned his head to the other side in annoyance. "Colin, wake up - that's an order!" His eyes snapped open; he stared into the face of a very cross Captain Briar. She had a bandage on one hand and the skin around her left eye was swollen from a black eye. Colin's heart raced in his chest as he fumbled for words, trying to remember what the heck he messed up this time. Surely, he hadn't done that to her face. He would have remembered that. "I'm sorry, sir," Colin muttered, trying to sit up. A sharp pain flared up in his leg as he unconsciously tried to use it to brace himself, and he hissed before lying back down again. It was an oddly familiar feeling, something he had hoped was only part of a dream. He looked down to see it wrapped in swathes of white cloth, noticing also that his right pant leg had been cut off mid-thigh, exposing far more skin that he wanted in front of Captain Briar. "Oh wow, I’m so sorry." he didn’t know what he was apologizing for, but that was probably the best option. He reached sideways, trying to grab hold of the sheet he had seen. Captain Briar's glare softened into one that might have been concern. She reached down and pulled the sheet up for him, the faintest smile on her lips. “Here you go.” “Thanks,” Colin muttered, covering himself as best he could, then rubbing his fingers anxiously on the rough fabric.
“You were stabbed," she said flatly. "Fortunately, I can mend wounds the old-fashioned way instead of relying on the Healers." Colin was only half listening. He stared at his wrapped thigh, his heart pounding as he recalled fleeing from Keriam the Magician and the crazed Faerie Talek. He had stolen the magician's staff and he and Mawr had run for it. Talek had attacked them with a blade that was stronger than even Mawr, the stone lion. He had stabbed them both, pinned them together… They had laid in the pouring rain covered in mud for what felt like hours but was probably only minutes. He feared if he moved, he would have injured them both further. Colin remembered trying to pull out the knife with slick fingers and must have blacked out. Had he been bleeding that badly though? He remembered a brief vision of red water all around him when a flash of lightning struck the stormy sky. He put a hand to his forehead. “Colin…” How could he have forgotten all that? How could he have forgotten Mawr asking him questions, his voice worried and filled with fear. Colin had tried to comfort him, but it wasn’t enough. He swallowed to get his throat to work properly. He had to know if Mawr was alive, but was almost afraid to ask. Captain Briar might know old fashioned ways of fixing up Colin's leg, but nobody alive knew how to fix a Living Statue. Tears filled his eyes as he stared down at the thin sheet. He wound the fabric tightly around his hand, trying to keep himself from panicking, trying to keep the tears from coming. If Mawr had been killed because of his poor decisions, he would never forgive himself. He was too nice to die because of Colin's infamous stupidity. "What's wrong, soldier?" Captain Briar asked, her voice surprisingly gentle despite how bloodthirsty she could be on the battlefield. Colin let out a shaky laugh. "I'm no soldier, I'm just a Seeker.” He grimaced. “But I guess I was trying to play hero too." She was silent for a moment, then, "People have died for less." Her words might have been a death toll to his heart; his throat clenched as he fought back a sob. He wiped at his tears, unable to stop them from seeping out. He was back to being that small lost boy wandering the alleyways of the Garden looking for food. Back to that threadbare thief picking fights he couldn't possibly win. "I didn't mean to get him killed,” he said, his voice pitched higher with the effort not to bawl his eyes out. “Talek was so fast and we couldn't go fast enough. I shouldn't have taken that damn wizard's staff." She put a hand on his shoulder, steady and grounding. "Calm down, now. I'm not following you." It took an effort to get his voice under control to reply, "I got Mawr killed." "Really?" she asked with a small smile. "You do realize that Mawr is a Living Statue. I think it would take a bit more than a blade to kill him." "It wasn't just a blade, it was different. He made it stronger than stone." There was an annoyed groan from nearby. Colin looked up, to see Madam Cloom with a scarf wrapped around her face, covering her mouth. She stared at him with her gaze full of fire and shook her head in annoyance. Colin blinked. It was bizarre seeing her in plain clothes and he almost didn't recognize her, especially with that scarf. "Wait," he looked between the two of them, “so Mawr is alive?" The captain smirked before climbing to her feet. He struggled into a sitting position. His back was stiff and sore, and he had to stretch it carefully before he looked around to take in his surroundings. The three of them were alone in a burned-out building that still had the odor of smoke in the air. The floor that he was laying down on was one of the few patches of wood that was still stable. He could see the sky, dressed in gold and oranges, through a giant hole in the roof. If Colin had to guess, he would think that it used to be a storage house judging from the sections that had once been divided off. But whatever goods had once been here were either reduced to partially burned remains in the corners or had already been salvaged. There was only a crate or two of supplies that had been brought in, probably for these two to live off of. Overall the place was a wreck. They were still in the Garden, at least — or whatever remained of it. Was it morning or evening? He was almost afraid to ask. It was like he was stuck in some kind of timeless void. He unwrapped his hand which was still balled up in the sheet and realized that the sheets must have been borrowed from the barracks, judging from the number of holes along the edges. Oddly enough it reminded him of being in training, especially with Captain Briar ordering him awake, but things had gotten so much worse than he ever imagined they could.
Captain Briar pulled his attention back to the present, saying, “Madam Cloom and I want you to-" Madam Cloom elbowed the captain in the arm then threw her hands into the air: she acted like she wasn't able to speak. Captain Briar rubbed her arm in annoyance, then began again, "Geneva and I want you to approach the Magician and offer your services." Colin's eyes went wide. "You mean — the guy that I stole the staff from?" Madam Cloom nodded. "The guy that burned the Garden to the ground?" Captain Briar crossed her arms. "Actually, that was due to his Shadow Wolves and Mad Faerie, but yes, close enough." Colin shook his head and regretted it instantly because the world took a minute to stop turning. He put a hand to his head. "No, I can't do that. You're going to have to get someone else. I can't." "Why not?" He gave a nervous laugh. "I don't want to get stabbed again, for one! And I don't want to die. I also don't want to get put into some kind of pact that makes me lose my mind." He flung an arm at Madam Cloom who glared at him. "And I don't even know what he did to her!" Captain Briar took a step forward, her hand falling to the hilt of her sword which she still wore. He hoped it was just an unconscious move, but it still made him nervous. "There is no one else, Colin. My army is in shambles.” She sighed. “Trust me, I'm just as annoyed by it as you are. You weren't my first choice either, but Madam —” she paused, “but Geneva insists that you're the best person for the job.” Madam Cloom gave a slow, reassuring nod that did nothing for Colin's nerves. He wasn't sure whether to be insulted or not. "Why me?" he asked. "You must have someone more qualified than me." The captain turned to Madam Cloom, who nodded again, then pulled out a scroll. "First, you're a Seeker. It's your job to find people, and that's what we need right now. Second, you're friends with Shaleigh, and she trusts you." As Captain Briar spoke, Madam Cloom watched him with a disconcerting intensity. "And finally, because you're a friend of Mawr." He blinked. "What does that have anything to do with it?" She rolled up the piece of paper. "Because he has already been asked to help find them.” Colin barked a laugh. "Good luck! Mawr's terrified of everything." Neither of them seemed amused, and once again, Colin felt like he was back in training, surrounded by people who wouldn't know a joke if it bit them. He sighed deeply. "Okay, okay, I'll do it. You two saved my life, after all." Captain Briar smiled. "Come on, I told Mawr to wait outside." She tossed some clothes on the bed that Colin recognized: a soldier’s uniform. “And get dressed,” she added as she and Madam Cloom turned away to give him privacy. Colin pursed his lips to keep from saying something he would regret. They never doubted once that he would join them; had assumed he’d go along with whatever they asked. He wondered what Shaleigh would do if she was in his situation, but then remembered, that it was following her advice that got him in this situation to begin with… __
Colin had never seen crutches outside of the Human World. It was strange to see them leaning against the wall, waiting for him as he struggled to stand. Captain Briar was quick to get them but handed them over awkwardly. She clearly didn't know how they were supposed to be used, only that they were good for injured legs. Madam Cloom folded her hands together and watched him with such coldness that eventually he couldn't take it any longer and grumbled, "I really wish you would say something, ma'am. It's starting to really get to me." She groaned, the corners of her cheeks raising to crinkle her eyes in a smile that must have been hidden by the scarf. He couldn't help but shudder. He put his hands on the grip of the crutches, instructing Captain Briar on how to adjust them for his height, until they felt comfortable. They were clearly not designed with comfort in mind though because just putting his full weight on them made his armpits ache. He groaned with the realization that he would be using these for days, weeks, possibly even months. "That looks correct," Captain Briar said with a frown that made her words fall flat. "Don't give me that, you have no idea how these work." Her glare was answer enough. "Where did you even get these anyway?" She gestured to Madam Cloom before realizing that the woman was apparently mute. "These were being kept over in the Pasture, supposedly no one knew where they came from, but I suspect they merely didn't want to say who retrieved them." Colin nodded, trying to look shocked about the revelation. He had heard of a black market where magicians would venture to the Human World and retrieve supplies for a price. Word had it that even Seekers had stolen a few times, though that was far riskier with the weight of Master Teagan watching their every move. Or, at least used to be. He hobbled over to the door, clumsily trying to figure out the best way to adjust his weight to keep from falling on his injured leg and trying to remember to keep that leg off the ground. It was hard trying to forget he had a limb. He reached for the door handle, but someone grabbed his hand, pushing something into his palm. He nearly toppled before Captain Briar clasped his shoulder to steady him. "You are jumpy still; I'll give you that!" She laughed, slapping him on the back a little harder than he liked. He turned to see Madam Cloom eerily close, her keen eyes studying him. In fact, she was so close that he could see the dirt that was smeared on her cheeks and a darkness on the scarf that might have been blood. Her eyes were hollow; she reminded him suddenly of a caged, wild animal. Colin looked down at the rolled-up parchment she had pushed into his hand. He went to unroll it, but she slapped his other hand away and shook her head. "Ow, okay! I'll read it later then." He shoved it into his breast pocket, grateful to Captain Briar for getting him some soldier clothes since his old ones were probably a bloody, muddy mess.” “He reached for the door again when Madam Cloom took his hand and gave it a squeeze. Colin gaped at her; were those tears he saw in her eyes? "Madam Cloom, are you okay?" Captain Briar sighed and gently pulled her back. "She will be. You need to get close to the Magician and, more importantly, get them out of the Garden. Take them on a wild goose chase for all we care, just get them out. We can handle the Shadow Wolves while they're gone." Colin gulped down his nerves and nodded. "Alright, I will. Thanks for the leg, by the way." Captain Briar cocked her head to the side and arched an eyebrow. "Quit thanking me and get to work!" He gave a nervous laugh before pushing the door open and stepping out into the daylight.
The sunlight streamed in, revealing scores of dust and debris in the air from the fire that had only recently been extinguished. He turned back to look at them; Captain Briar and Madam Cloom looked faded with the sun in his eyes. He noticed then how frail Madam Cloom was, how she twisted her hands together anxiously, how wide her eyes were as she watched him. She was terrified. Colin’s mouth went dry as he pulled the door closed and took a deep breath to steady himself - to get his bearings and figure out what he needed to do. He recognized he was right near High Castle. This had been the storage room he had watched burn to the ground. It took him a moment to realize that High Castle was gone.” A strange disconnect fell over him and he wondered if, perhaps, he was still asleep and none of this was real. Then he saw the piles of rubble where the Castle had once been, and knew it wasn't a dream. He had lived in that castle for years, worked there, and trained there. The empty patch of sky made his heart hurt. His eyes burned with fresh tears and his throat clenched. He suddenly didn't know if he wanted to take up Madam Cloom's request. He didn't know if he wanted to find a way to get the Garden back for them. Hadn't they been the ones to get it burned to the ground to begin with? Just as he was about to turn around and go back inside, already predicting how he would tell them he didn't want to play their game, the ground shook beneath his feet. His eyes went wide. The Slumbering Forest, he thought, it's awoken. He turned around to see Mawr bounding up to him - never in his life had he been so happy to see that big, goofy lion. Colin opened his arms wide for a hug as the stone lion stopped short of colliding with him. He didn't even mind the rough stone grazing his skin as Mawr leaned in close to nuzzle him. "Mawr, you're alive!" Colin hugged him so tight that Mawr likely would’ve had trouble breathing if he wasn't a Living Statue. "Me?" His body rumbled beneath Colin's grip as he started his deep, earth shaking purrs. Colin couldn't help but smile. The fear and self-doubt melted away. He hadn't gotten his friend killed. He hadn't led him straight into a trap that led to his murder; more tears spilled from his eyes and stained Mawr's stone skin. When he finally pulled away, he could see matching tear streaks under Mawr's eyes beneath his golden spectacles. "I'm so glad you're alive!" Mawr purred even harder. "No, I'm glad you are! You were far closer to dying than me. I'm made of stone, but you're so fragile. I talked with you as long as I could. I tried to tell you not to pull out the knife, but you wouldn't listen to me. I tried to help you." He nuzzled closer and this time Colin had to flinch away to keep from getting his skin rubbed raw. "I don't remember any of that," Colin admitted with a sheepish expression. "I don't know what I was thinking. I should’ve listened to you. You've seen way more battles than I have." “I know, and I didn’t want to lose another friend!” Fresh tears poured down his cheeks, and it took Colin several minutes of soothing, petting, and trying not to get poked in the eye by Mawr's whiskers before the lion finally calmed down. "So, what's the situation like around here?" Colin asked once Mawr seemed more willing to talk. Mawr shook his head, glancing around the empty street as though afraid someone was watching them. "We have to be careful," he said, lowering his voice. "Keriam has taken over the entire Garden and now controls the army. If they found out that Madam..." Colin shook his head. "Please don't say their names." "Oh, sorry!" Mawr glanced down and pawed at the ground. "So much has happened. Talek wants me to join them on the hunt for Shaleigh and Teagan. And I was so scared having to go alone, but now you'll be with me. Maybe it won't be so bad.” Colin considered arguing that point but decided against it. His head was swimming with worry. "I guess we should go find the Magician then." "I mean, I know we should, but I still don't want to." Colin patted his flank. "We're together, remember?" Mawr gave a reluctant nod. "Now where are our two overlords hanging out?" Colin expected to be taken toward the rubble of High Castle. He had even steeled himself for seeing the desolation of his home firsthand, but instead, Mawr turned away from the remains of High Castle and in the direction of the Marketplace. The buildings were hollowed out shells of what they once were and hardly anyone was on the street. Colin felt his stomach drop as he hobbled along on his crutches, taking in the devastation. Mawr kept his pace slow, never once making him feel rushed. "I don't see any Shadow Wolves," he muttered as they passed another ravaged building. "They come in from the forest at night and, now that the gate is gone, they come and go as they please. Sometimes they take any stragglers they find, but mostly they leave people alone." Colin bit his lip at the realization that his leg was going to make him an easy target come nightfall. He looked up to see the sun was touching the horizon and gulped. __
It was as they climbed the hill that led to the library that a beam of sunlight caught Mawr's back just right and exposed what looked like a shadowy spot.
“Hold up," Colin said, gasping for breath. He wiped his forehead on his sleeve, trying not to be annoyed at how difficult it was to walk just a few feet. "What is that?" Mawr blinked at him for a moment in confusion before realizing that Colin was pointing to his back. "Oh, that." "Yeah, what happened? Was that when we were stabbed?" The images of that night came back to him unbidden. He remembered the feeling of Mawr falling to his side, of Colin scrambling to keep from getting crushed while unable to remove his leg from Mawr's back. The dagger had broken into Mawr's stone… Colin's leg was bleeding profusely... So much blood… "That's where he pinned us together," Mawr said looking almost embarrassed as Colin blinked. "Captain — er, our friends were able to find a woman who works with clay. She was able to glaze it so that it wouldn't crack further." He laid down so Colin could see it closer. The injury looked like a deep V that dug into the stone just behind his shoulder blade. Colin reached up gingerly to feel it, his fingers touching something smooth and cool, very unlike the roughness of the rest of Mawr. "She filled it with clay to keep the water from pooling in it. So now I have a lovely little patch." Colin smiled at that. "A battle scar." He met Mawr's surprised gaze. "I guess nobody can call you cowardly now." Mawr pawed at the ground anxiously. "I don't know about that. I'm not exactly good at fighting battles, I'm far better at running away from them." Colin laughed, about to disagree, when he saw someone walking down the dirt path from the library. They walked briskly and were dressed completely in crimson. "Is that - Talek?" Colin's heart skipped a beat and a shiver went through him. He couldn't help it, the speed with which the Faerie came toward him made him remember all over again the mad laughter, the chase, and the pain. His leg throbbed with the memory. It was one thing to be told about them losing the war, it was very different to see Talek walking without resistance down an open patch of road with nothing to fear. The Garden was now in the hands of Keriam the Cruel and his mad Faerie servant, and suddenly Colin had new appreciation for the terrified expression Madam Cloom had given him earlier. It was a look of desperation. "Maybe he has somewhere to go," Mawr whispered nervously.
“He's who we're here to see, remember?" Colin whispered back. Talek gave a wicked smile as he approached them. "Ah good, you didn't die after all." Colin shuddered; his gaze drawn toward the violet eye with swirling black tendrils. He spoke before he even realized it, "No sir, still alive, I'm sorry to say." Talek looked him up and down, taking in his grungy outfit and his pathetic crutches - Colin had never felt so vulnerable in his entire life. His heart thundered in his chest, but he remembered his training and kept his gaze empty. If Talek decided to kill him now, there was nothing he could do about it. “Crutches from the Human World! Is that all they could find for you?” Talek smirked. “They work well enough,” Colin said, his mouth going dry.” Poor Mawr was tearing chunks out of the dirt path with his anxious kneading. Talek leveled him with a steady gaze and a wide smile. "Did you really think my master would let you die?" Colin blinked a tad too rapidly, betraying his shock. Did they actually know that Captain Briar and Madam Cloom were alive, and just didn't care? Of course, they did. Here he was hobbling down the street with a pair of Human crafted crutches. He wanted to ask, he wanted to know for certain, but he pushed that question down. "I kind of assumed that was the goal when you turned me into a pincushion." To Colin's surprise Talek’s smile faded slightly as he replied, "No, he didn't want you dead, little stoatling. He has plans for you and your large friend here." "Plans?" He tried his best to act shocked, even though he could tell that Talek was seeing right through his charade. "Oh yes," Talek said, crouching down and laying a hand on Colin's injury. He sucked in a breath, unable to pretend that the move didn't terrify him. "Shh," Talek whispered, closing his eyes and knitting his brows. Colin felt a warmth spread out and encompass his upper leg. It wasn't just warm though, it was soothing, calming. Then he realized that Talek was humming to himself. The song was very different from those that Teagan used to hum, it was faster, arrhythmic, hurried. The soothing warmth that he felt started to feel almost numb. Colin reached out a hand to push at Talek's arm, and the Faerie finally pulled away, blinking. "What did you do?" The numbness dwindled and Colin realized that his leg didn't hurt anymore.” “I healed you... I think, at least." Talek said, cocking his head to the side. "Try using it." Colin sighed. On one hand he wasn't sure if he trusted Talek's version of healing, but on the other he really wanted to be able to not use the crutches again. He put out his injured leg and tentatively put weight on it. There was some tingling as though it had fallen asleep and was taking a bit to wake up. He tried walking next. Mawr came to his side, watching him in case he needed to use his body to brace his fall. Colin took his time, walking slowly, cautiously, ready to feel pain rack up his leg at any moment, but it felt fine. “Is it okay?” Mawr asked in a terrified voice, glancing anxiously between him and Talek. “Yeah, I think so,” he whispered back then nodded, not really wanting to give Talek the satisfaction of the praise. He was the one who gave him the wound to begin with. "Good!" Talek beamed. Colin held up a hand. "That wound was meant to kill. I'm lucky to be alive. So, why didn't you either just let me die, or heal me once you took the Garden if your master had such an interest in me?" Talek gave a wicked smile again that made the violet in his eye catch the fading light. "I thought it would make a certain Captain feel useful for once. She needs some good motivation before she comes limping back to us. Her dear Madam Cloom won't last much longer without a mouth, and my master is happy to turn a blind eye to her until she finally passes. What good is a leader without a voice?" Colin felt the blood drain from his face. Madam Cloom... didn't have a mouth? He thought back to the scarf she had wrapped around her face, the way she insisted that Captain Briar speak for her, and the groaning sounds she had made; but mostly, he remembered the pained expression she had given him as he left. The rolled-up parchment burned within his inside pocket, and it took a force of will to keep him from reading it right there. At the time he thought it was just a list of contacts or something to help him on his mission, but now he understood it would likely be her last words to him. He pushed down the urge. He needed to be cautious. "You both are needed," Talek's words pulled Colin back from his thoughts. The crimson Faerie turned, his white hair gleaming in the dwindling sunlight. He glanced back to them, impatiently. Mawr was sitting now, his front paws were maybe half a foot deep in the dirt from his anxious pawing. "Hey, it's okay," Colin soothed, placing a hand on Mawr's rough shoulder. "We'll be together, remember? We can do this." Mawr leaned against his hand. "I hope so." He should have just left it at that, but he couldn't. He never thought he would be angry on Madam Cloom's behalf, but here he was, and anger made him forget his tongue. "Besides, we don't want Shaleigh to have to deal with these two losers alone." Talek heard and shook his head with a laugh but didn’t turn around. "I miss her," Mawr said, hanging his head low as he walked beside Colin like a scared puppy. "If she was here, she would know what to do." "She will be soon. You two will help us find her. I must find her," Talek muttered with a tinge of fear in his voice. "She stole my Teagan away from me." Colin had thought this was some sick power trip for him, but he could hear the tremor enter Talek's voice. This wasn't some grand master plan, at least not on his end, this was personal. He thought about holding his tongue — that's what Master Teagan would want him to do — but that had always been Colin's weakness. "You really think he's going to want you back after what you did to his Garden?" He could feel the way Mawr shrank away at his words, but Talek continued forward without even turning back to look at him. "He was a prisoner. He was not responsible for his horrid actions here." Colin could barely contain his laughter. Had Talek not seen what his own master had done to this place? Surely, he hadn't missed the burned buildings and severe lack of people. Was he that disconnected from reality? "Then that Human stole him away from me.” He glared over his shoulder. “You two are going to help me get him back." Yes, Colin decided, he really was that disconnected.