When I opened my eyes, pain shot through me. Disoriented, I fought against the weight of the sheets and the blankets and the silk, tumbling to the floor with a thud as I gasped for breath. My skin burned from the touch of the cloth, and the air in the room felt thick and oppressive. I tried to tear the silk from my body, hoping to stop the searing agony, but strong arms grabbed me and held me tight.
“No, allera…stop.” It was Raven, but his smooth voice brought no comfort. I fought him — scratching his skin, clawing at the silk, but he held fast. “Dearest, please. The pain is only in your mind. Focus on my voice. The silk cannot harm you.”
He captured one of my hands and pressed it to my neck. I felt abraded skin, tender and raw, but no shackle. The shock of freedom stopped my struggles. I drew in a deep breath, and felt the warmth of his skin against my cheek. Finally, I pulled back and looked at him. Pain was in the knit of his brow, and in his eyes. It was not on my skin.
“That’s better.” He gathered me in his arms and laid me gently in the center of the large bed, tucking the deep blue sheets around my body, which was clad in a long black silk gown. The stench that had clung to me from my prison had been replaced with strawberries and vanilla. A fire burned in the hearth to the left and warmed the air. Candlelight flickered all around us and Raven, sitting next to me, was shirtless. The furrows I’d dug into his chest were red and angry.
I looked at him with questions in my eyes.
“You are in my home. My bed. The spell holding you has been broken.”
My fingers nervously touched my neck as I stared at him. I remembered nothing after I had swallowed the poison, and yet I had been bathed, clothed, and transported to this place. Despite his reassuring presence, I was frightened.
“You can speak now, you know. No harm will come to you here.” Raven reached for my hand, but I shrank back, biting my lip as a shadow of pain flickered over his chiseled features.
I shook my head, my hands pressed to my throat.
“It was a spell. Nothing more. If you try to speak, I will hear you.”
My mouth opened and shut. It had been so long since I had even tried to speak. I wasn’t sure I even remembered how. Raven sat perfectly still, waiting. I took a deep breath, my mouth working as I tried to force a single word past my trembling lips.
“H-how?” I whispered.
He smiled, his face lighting up at my single word.
“How did I break the spell? That is a long story best saved for after you are more rested. But as for how you came to be here, that is simpler. After the shackle released you, I spelled you to sleep — something I will never do again. I did not wish to frighten you when I brought you here. My home is the safest place I know. The devil has been jailed. He will never hurt you again.” He looked down, to where our joined hands would have been if I’d not pulled away, clearly uncomfortable. “I will ask your forgiveness now, for I did not want you to wake up cold and smelling of that devil's filth. I bathed you before bringing you to my bed.”
My cheeks flushed, a feeling I was unprepared for. Embarrassment was a luxury I had never been permitted. Dozens of men had used me — hurt me in the most horrible of ways, never caring for my feelings — and yet Raven felt the need to apologize for a kindness. I shook my head again, the words too overwhelming to utter. My hand trembled as I reached out and laid my fingers on the scratches across his chest. I had my own apologies to convey.
“It is all right. You were frightened. I am not angry.” He laid his fingers over mine and I snatched my hand away in fear.
“Dearest, please. I will never harm you. Please believe me.” He kept his voice soft and low, as he tried to reassure me.
My throat constricted painfully. I had so much I wanted to say, and though no spell prevented it, my voice had been unused for years. Even the single word I had uttered was almost too much. “Want…to,” I whispered.
The room started to spin and I could not sit up any longer. I collapsed back against the pillows, pressing the calloused pads of my fingers to my temples.
“What is it?” Raven asked, leaning towards me.
“Dizzy,” I managed.
“Your body is starved of food and warmth. I have something that will help. I will be right back.” He hurried from the room and I closed my eyes. I succumbed to sleep while he was gone, but the gentle pressure of his weight on the bed dragged me up to awareness again. In his hands a steaming mug smelled sweet and herbal.
“This is a restorative tea mixed with honey and a bit of whiskey. It will help you regain your strength and your voice.”
I sipped it slowly, savoring even the simple flavor as well as the warmth that seeped into my fingers. He watched me, his hands restless on his thighs. I could feel the hollow in my belly lessen as the tea worked its way through my body. I managed most of the mug before I could no longer keep my eyes open. As he eased the drink from my hands, I curled on my side and sank under the warm blankets. Raven said something to me as I drifted off, but the words were lost as I slid into the comfort of sleep.
The comfort did not last long.
The tormentor yanked me from the warmth of my slumber, dragging me from the bed and throwing me back into my prison. Ice filled my belly. His frigid hands were around my throat, and he was yelling. “You shall never leave this place, Slave. Your pathetic warlock cannot save you. No one can!”
I could not breathe. Just as the darkness closed in, Raven’s voice cut through my fear. “Wake up, dearest. Just a dream now, come back. Please.” He rocked me gently, and I caught his masculine scent mixed with the strawberries and vanilla he had used to bathe me. The tormentor’s voice faded as I opened my eyes to find myself held tightly, warm and safe in Raven’s bed.
When I had calmed down and let him pull the blankets around me again, I fumbled for his hand and gripped it tightly. “Do not…leave.”
Raven squeezed my fingers gently. “I am going nowhere.”
Her cool, delicate fingers twined with mine. When her breathing slowed, I tried to remove my hand so I could return to the chaise and sleep, but she stirred and tightened her grip. Her body already knew what her mind did not. I was hers — her mate. I would protect her with my very life if I had to. I had long eschewed my protective magic, using it only when absolutely necessary to protect those I considered family. But though I was a powerful finder, the work left me hollow. For most of my life I had felt that there was some purpose I was not fulfilling. Some piece of the puzzle that was missing. But now…something was different. I felt a burning desire deep inside of me to protect her and for the first time in my life, I felt whole.
Exhaustion had my head bobbing, and when I tried once more to remove my hand and she resisted, I summoned my robe. It took me several moments to maneuver one arm into the sleeve and then shift her grip from one hand to the other so I could finally shrug the other arm into the silk. I stretched out next to her on top of the blankets. Twice she started to thrash restlessly, a few tears escaping down her cheeks, but when I crooned softly to her, she settled.
She would need care for the next few days. Nourishing meals, rest, and most of all, assurances that she was safe. Marcas could handle some of my finder tasks and there were others I could do from home, but sooner or later, I would need to leave her — that is, if she had no family she wanted to return to. Shaking my head, trying to stay awake for a few moments longer, I went to work on the wards that protected my home.
All witches fortified their homes. I had a dozen different defensive wards protecting me from everything from lightning and harsh winter storms to magical assaults from witches and devils alike. If a steam carriage barreled into the front door, it would merely bounce off, shattering against my magic. I occasionally entertained, so my wards did not prevent any from entering unless they expressly wished to do me harm, but the new wards I crafted would ensure that only my human sister, my mate, and I could enter freely. All others would require an invitation — even the Council and my king. The new wards tugged at my magical energy, depleting it severely. Had I not teleported all over creation on little to no sleep, I could have borne the strain easily, but tonight the diminishing of my magic nearly overwhelmed me. If I had not been able to strengthen the wards from the bed, I would have toppled over from exhaustion.
Still, it mattered little. She was safe now. No matter how much help Lennox had had when he’d imprisoned her, she was safe here with me now.
I slept for a few hours, waking just before dawn to find her fingers still gripping mine and my magic replenished. She slept curled on her side, not quite relaxed, still braced for the devil’s blows. I brushed a lock of brown hair from her face. Her sunken cheeks were pale and dark circles braced her hollow eyes.
Summoning a book, I settled against the headboard, holding fast to her hand.
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